One of my daughters, a medieval history scholar and expert on European royalty, recently acquired a Henry VIII mug with images of his six wives surrounding him. Appropriately, when the Queens get into hot water (e.g., tea or coffee), their heads disappear.
What she hadn’t anticipated was how fascinated her five-year-old daughter would be with the mug.
“Why do the queens disappear?” was the first question, quickly followed by, “Why did he have so many queens?”
As my daughter searched for a way to explain the pressures and consequences of primogeniture in 16th century England, she somewhat clumsily crafted an age-appropriate story to go with the old rhyme:
King Henry the Eighth had six wives he wedded:
One died, one survived, two divorced, and two beheaded.
Over the next three days, my granddaughter insisted on five more retellings, demanding additional details each time. Ultimately it became a call-and-response story.
“Once upon a time, over five hundred years ago–”
That’s WAY before Laura Ingalls was a little girl.
“Way before, yes. Before King Henry was a King he was a Prince, and he married a Spanish Princess. Her name was—”
Katherine. She was the first Katherine. There were lots of Katherines. Why were there so many Katherines?
“Princess Katherine of Aragon married Prince Henry of England and after a few years they became the King and Queen of England and all was well except for one thing: Henry and Katherine only had a daughter and he wanted a son.”
“Well, a long, long, long time ago, lots of people didn’t think that a girl would be able to be strong enough to protect the country.”
That’s silly. I am very strong.
“Remember how I told you about Dr. Martin Luther King and how there have been times in history when some people haven’t had the same opportunities as other people? Black people, Jews, Irish immigrants, and girls. Lots of people didn’t think that girls should even go to school!”
Yes, yes, Mom, I know that about Dr. Martin and the Jews. Tell me the story of the SIX QUEENS. [blogger’s note– “Dr. Martin and the Jews” is a direct quote.]
“Well, Queen Katherine and King Henry had a daughter, Princess Mary.”
And she became bloody. [Face scrunches, knowing she mixed it up.] No! They CALLED her bloody.
“They didn’t call her “Bloody” when she was only a princess. That came later.”
Yeah, later, when she was queen. Nobody liked her very much.
“No, they didn’t. But when she was just a little girl, King Henry was very upset that she didn’t have any brothers, so he decided he needed a different queen who might be able to have boy babies, so he divorced Queen Katherine.”
She didn’t like that very much.
“No, she didn’t. And a lot of people were angry about it. But the King had fallen in love with a girl named Anne Boleyn, and Anne promised the King that if they had children together that those children would be boys. Of course, no woman can promise that, and that promise got her in trouble with the King a few years later after she was Queen and she had a baby—”
ELIZABETH! But not the Elizabeth who is the queen now. She’s the second Elizabeth — and she’s old now. But not dead!
“That’s right, she’s the second Elizabeth, and she’s still very much alive. I can show you a picture of her. But the first Elizabeth was a great queen who lots of people loved and she was queen for a very long time — almost 45 years! But King Henry didn’t know how great she’d be when she was just a little baby. He was mad that Queen Anne hadn’t had a prince like she promised. So he decided he needed a new queen, but since he had just divorced Queen Katherine he couldn’t divorce another queen — even though he was king, the court wouldn’t let him do it twice in a row! So he made up stories about the queen so she would get in trouble.”
That wasn’t very nice.
“No, it wasn’t very nice. And when all the stories were told, Queen Anne got in a LOT of trouble. Even though she really didn’t do anything except have a daughter instead of a son. But a lot of people became very angry at her for being a Bad Queen and she went to prison. And a long time ago when kings and queens went to prison — which didn’t happen very often — but when it did, sometimes they had their heads cut off, which is really not nice at all! After that, King Henry married Jane Seymour.”
“Yes, she died, but not before having a baby boy, Prince Edward.”
Why did she die?
[Here is inserted an age-appropriate aside about infections and mortality a long time ago and how doctors are much smarter these days.]
“After Queen Jane died King Henry was very sad, but a king needs a queen so the King’s friends looked all around for a princess to become queen, and they all decided that Princess Anne of Cleves would be the right princess to become queen, but King Henry didn’t like her very much but he hadn’t divorced a queen in a while so he divorced Anne. And that was queen number four. Then the king fell in love with a silly young girl who wasn’t very smart. Her name was Katherine.”
“And Katherine lied to the king. Many times. [Age-appropriate euphemism for adultery.] And over 400 years ago lying to a king was a terrible crime called treason, and so Katherine also lost her head.
How do you lose your head?
[Realizing how utterly literal kids this age are, daughter corrects herself and explains that hapless Katherine Howard had her head chopped off because she got in a lot of trouble, but that kings don’t go around chopping people’s heads off anymore. Granddaughter nods approvingly.]
“By this time the king was old and very fat, and could only walk with a cane when he could walk at all. So he married a nice lady who took care of him and his children. Her name was—”
What did he die from?
[Daughter suspects granddaughter is worried someone cut off his head. But since most historians believe Edward VI died of tuberculosis, she says…]
“From a coughing sickness.”
“He coughed up blood a lot. And that’s never good.”
[Granddaughter purses her lips at this, clearly considering the gruesomeness of bloody coughing.]
“Then Princess Mary became queen, but she wasn’t very nice. She didn’t like people who didn’t think the way she did. And for five years she was a terrible queen, so bad that people called her Bloody Mary. But she didn’t have any children, so the next queen was her sister.”
ELIZABETH! I love her.
[The story ends here, and if my daughter is fortunate, bedtime arrives simultaneously.]
My daughter is an unapologetic monarchist. That her daughter is fascinated with these stories tickles her endlessly. And at the end of this month, she will show her daughter photos and online videos of the royal wedding where she can see the newest Princess Catherine and the second Queen Elizabeth, and no one losing her head.