Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to remember the 6 wives of Henry VIII

The following rhythmic refrain has helped me to finally commit the order of Henry’s unfortunate wives to memory:

Divorced, Beheaded, Died;
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

Here is each woman and her fate:

1) Divorced

Katherine of Aragorn: Spanish, Catholic, mother of Mary I, fraudulently divorced after 23 years of marriage.

2) Beheaded

Anne of Boleyn: pro-Reform, mother of Elizabeth I. Anne was sent to the gallows for adultery she almost certainly didn’t commit.

(Henry couldn't get the pope to agree to an annulment of his marriage with Katherine so he could marry Anne, therefore he broke with the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church.) 

3) Died

Jane Seymour: Mother of Edward VI. Supposedly the one queen Henry really loved (or at least the one he wasn’t given time to tire of!). Died shortly after childbirth.*

4) Divorced

Anne of Cleves: A German princess, not to Henry’s taste. Henry claimed they didn't consummate the marriage, and Anne didn’t fight the annulment, so she was treated relatively well and set up at Hever Castle. She outlived him.*

5) Beheaded

Katherine Howard: Accused of adultery and beheaded.*

6) Survived

Katherine Parr: Married to Henry for 4 years. Widowed. In total she married 4 times.

You may also have noticed that there are 3 Katherines, 2 Annes, and 1 Jane. History can be confusing because they tended to play around with a very select number of names!


Here are two other sets of similarly named historical personages that always used to trip me up:

1. Bloody Mary and Mary Queen of Scots

Bloody Mary (1516-1558)

Mary I of England. Called Bloody Mary because she burned Protestants at the sake, seeking to revert England to Catholicism after her father, Henry VIII, had broken from the Catholic Church. She was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

A Catholic, Mary Stuart was queen of Scotland until forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James (who thus became James VI of Scotland, and later James I of England, which is when he commissioned the King James Bible). Many Catholics in England saw her as the rightful heir to the throne, so she was a threat to Elizabeth I, who had her imprisoned for many years, and eventually executed for supposed treason.
2. Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)*

Served as vice regent and vicar general under Henry VIII. Rose to power alongside Anne of Boleyn, but later turned on her and was implicated in her downfall. A so-called reformer, he worked to have the monasteries dissolved. Eventually he too lost favour with the king and was executed for supposed treason and heresy.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (i.e. the interregnum years when England had no monarch, as Parliament had beheaded Charles I, and not yet brought Charles II back for the Restoration of the monarchy). A strong Puritan reformer, though more conservative than the separatists (e.g. Baptists, Quakers).

He famously told his portraitest not to flatter him, but to paint him as he was, warts and all. His son, Richard Cromwell, took over as Lord Protector when Oliver died.

Lastly, did you notice how similar in style many of the above portraits are?

Hans Holbein

All the portraits with an * were painted by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (left, self-portrait).

I read a very interesting novel called Portrait of an Uknown Woman (by Vanora Bennet) that has Holbein as a main character and shows his rise to fame, including his friendship with Sir Thomas More. I was fascinated by the planning and thought that went into each composition: Holbein put religion, astrology, politics, secrets and more into his portraits and scenes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On

Do you recognise this image? It is everywhere nowadays. It is a copy of the original 1939 poster meant for the British public. It was the third in a series of government-issued propaganda posters intended to boost the morale of the people as they headed into war with Germany. The posters depict the crown of King George VI and were to make use of just two colours together with a “special and handsome typeface”.*

The first two posters were as follows:

Poster #1
Poster #2

These two posters were more widely known at the time, because the third and now more famous poster was the only one never actually released for public consumption. While only 400,000 and 800,000 copies were made of the first two posters respectively, and were displayed on railway platforms and in shop windows, 2,500,000 copies were printed and circulated of the third, but were never released. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was being held in reserve for a particularly dire time, such as an invasion, which thankfully never happened.

So the poster was forgotten. It is only in the 21st century that it has become a commonplace sight.

An original copy of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster was rediscovered by the owners of a second-hand bookstore - Barter Books - in the year 2000. The bookstore, in Alnwick, Northumberland, is housed in an old Victorian train station. The shop's owners, Stuart and Mary Manley, found the poster in a box filled with dusty old books they had bought at auction. They liked it and so framed and put it up in the shop by the till.

Barter Books is a large store and from the footage I’ve seen is compellingly full of character and charm. The old station's tea room and waiting rooms are still preserved, bookshelves are where the railway tracks used to be, and there is a model electric train that moves along a track above the bookshelves. I hope to visit one day. 

Customers at Barter Books enjoyed the poster so much that they asked to buy prints of it. A year after the discovery the Manleys began to make and sell copies. That was the start of the commercial and merchandise frenzy that now surrounds knockoffs of the iconic poster.

Certainly a great part of the poster’s appeal is the nostalgic view it offers on Brits and especially Londoners’ stoical attitude towards wartime living. I have often been moved by representations of the better side of stiff-upper-lip restraint, however mythical those portrayals may sometimes be. Such quiet forbearance is appealing in the wake of the overly confessional culture that now dominates the West and the spread of American-style melodrama.

There has been a veritable flurry of parodies of the poster, and these have helped fuel awareness of the original. Some of the funnies that I most enjoy include: 


“Keep Calm and Carry On” is such a humble piece of counsel, but there is great value to it I feel if you think about it. From all accounts many today find that the poster's message resonates with them in light of the global recession. It is an inspiring message out of history from people who showed amazing fortitude in times that were far more difficult than any most of us have ever known. The adaptation of the poster that I like best is the one that follows, and I think many living in Britain during WWII would have felt it meant much the same thing as the original:


* There is a lovely 3-minute clip called “The Story of Keep Calm and Carry On” at

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pitt's picture

In Scotland, the antiquated expression “Pitt’s picture” refers to ‘blind windows’, which were windows blocked up from the inside in an attempt to avoid paying the much-despised window tax that was brought across from England during Pitt the Younger’s prime ministership.

A century before, on the last day of 1695, the British Parliament established a window tax in England and Wales. A tax on windows may seem rather odd at first, but the British have had some unusual taxes in their time, especially in the centuries prior to the establishment of income tax. (Spain and France also had window taxes at one time or another, so we shouldn’t think the English too odd, at least not based on this reason alone!). Many will have heard of the glass tax (est. 1746), but there was also brick tax (1784) and even wallpaper tax (1712). Window tax, however, predated them all, and wasn’t as arbitrary as it now sounds.

In Mediaeval England, windows (like chimneys and sometimes doors) were considered individual items of property, separate from a house. Thus, when one moved homes, windows could be dismantled and transported along with one’s luggage. Windows could also be bequeathed to someone other than the inheritor of a house. This state of affairs clearly caused some dissension, because during Henry VIII’s reign it was ruled that windows were to be seen as part of a house. The idea of the independent value of windows however continued well into the C17th, and it would seem to me that such an ‘awareness’ of windows (which does not exist today) is an important precursor to the then government ever having the idea to tax them specifically.

By 1695 there existed a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings. Along comes the window tax, and now homes with 10 or more windows were taxed an extra 2 shillings, while those with more than 20 windows were to pay an extra 4 shillings. Not a cheap tax, and therefore it was much disputed. Knowing this, one better understands why some residents would go to the seemingly extreme measure of blocking up their windows.

Although it is a contested bit of etymology, I rather hope it is true that the phrase “daylight robbery” originates from this tax: the public felt the government was trying to tax them (overtax them) on the very air and daylight entering into their homes via windows.

The official thinking behind the window tax was that the bigger house, the more prosperous the inhabitants and the more tax they could therefore afford to pay. The window tax came about under “An Act for granting to His Majesty severall Rates or Duties upon Houses for making good the Deficiency of the clipped Money”; then, as now, government looked for a systematic way to gather more income from wealthier citizens. We see the root of income tax in such acts, even though income tax itself was successfully resisted for a while longer by the many who felt it would prove too intrusive into their private matters. Those fighting income tax won battles for a time, but in the end, they lost the war, and no-apologies income tax was eventually instituted in 1799.

The window tax was only repealed as late as 1851.


Photo source: