Henry VIII gets a lot of bad press notably for his seven wives and a regrettable habit of chopping off heads. But there were two Henrys: early and late. Early Henry was a humdinger.
He became king at age 17 in 1509, a big (over six feet) handsome lad. He was broadly educated and well-read in English, Latin, and French. He played the lute, organ, and harpsichord, composed music, and sang well. He loved a party, and he was a ferocious sportsman. Henry played excellent tennis, was a skilled wrestler, hunter, and jouster.
His love of jousting may have been his undoing. This was not a battle skill but a royal game: on huge horses, in heavy armor, opponents rode at each other with blunt lances to knock each other out of the saddle. But in 1536 Henry left his face-covering visor up during a joust, catching a lance on his forehead. His majesty went down under his horse. His legs were crushed and he lay unconscious for two hours, apparently a serious concussion.
Henry changed radically. The broken long bones in his legs healed poorly and developed infected ulcers, which had to be drained using red hot probes. Ouch. Walking became difficult and painful, and finally impossible. The smell from his infected legs was awful. He became angry, paranoid, and irrational. No longer active, he ate and ate, bloating from around 210 pounds (95 kg) to 400 pounds (181 kg). This was late Henry: obese, dangerous, and smelly. His altered mental state and his constant pain surely contributed to his marital difficulties and to steady employment for head-choppers.
A mental, physical wreck, Henry VIII died at age 55 in 1547. Court embalmers replaced his innards with sawdust, resin and herbs to preserve the body, but Henry was already rotting from the legs up. The royal corpse was placed in a sealed lead coffin. An enormous regal procession set off from Whitehall Castle to Windsor Castle. The funeral parade halted the first day at the old Syon Abbey. In the middle of the night, the lead coffin exploded!
Or did it? Some historians suggest that it simply broke because Henry was too fat and the roads were bad. Yet contemporary morticians insist that gasses of decomposition can blow open even a modern sealed coffin. The coffin was soldered shut and the parade hustled on to the burial at Windsor, an untidy end for a wonderful and terrible king.
Giving Voice to Children in History
In 1843, thirty-one-year-old Charles Dickens had money problems. His wife was expecting their sixth child, he was in debt, and he supported a slew of needy relatives. He was known for long novels that were published in weekly installments, but because time was of the essence, he decided to write a short story (actually a long story by our standards, but short by his) that he could publish quickly.
The British were enamored with the paranormal, so he decided it would be a ghost story. To increase interest, he included THREE ghosts. And to seal the deal, he added a bonus apparition that appeared at the stroke of midnight, dragging its chains from hell. That would get readers’ attention.
He didn’t intend to simply entertain them. He was Charles Dickens, after all, and his writing was also meant to inspire. His family had once been poor, and his quest, as always, was to help the less fortunate. The tale he crafted happened at Christmas, a holiday that in England included charitable giving—the perfect setting for his message that charity must come from the heart, and that it’s never too late for redemption.
From his fertile imagination he conjured up Ebenezer Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” whose refrain to anything distasteful was “Bah, Humbug!” Scrooge represented the self-serving upper classes, while his poorly paid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his family, including sickly Tiny Tim, represent the deserving poor.
Dickens sent Scrooge on a wild night’s journey, led by the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Scrooge visited his childhood and learned why he’d become such a miserable miser, and he saw a grim future awaiting him if he didn’t change his ways. By sunrise Christmas morning he was a new man: his hard heart had melted and he became a good friend to the poor, beginning with the Cratchit family. He resolved to “honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
To Dickens’ delight, his readers did the same. In example after example, A Christmas Carol inspired the upper classes to be more charitable to the lower classes. And because the book became a bestseller, it eased Dickens’ financial worries.
Dickens’ ghost story remains popular today, reminding us all that it’s never too late to do the right thing, and allowing us to proclaim with Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Every One!”
You can learn more about Charles Dickens and his stories in Andrea Warren’s book Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London and on her website.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Dickens' A Christmas Carol: How a Short Story with a Big Message Helped the Poor." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Dickens-a-christmas-carol.
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