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 No longer active, he ate and ate, bloating from around 210 pounds (95 kg) to 400 pounds (181 kg).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.
The Explainer General
The real Dracula didn’t drink blood or sleep in a coffin. He was not a count but an honorable, well-educated warlord. And much, much scarier than the movie Dracula.
As a Knight of the Dragon Society his father, Vlad II, was called Dracul (“dragon”) . When Vlad III was born in 1431, he was called “little dragon,” Dracula. He was always loyal to his family, friends and to his people, but he was betrayed over and over, beginning with his father. Dracul gave Vlad and his brother Radu to the Turks as hostages—then attacked the Turks!
Wallachia (now part of Romania) was harried in the south by Turkish Moslems. In the north, Hungarian warlords schemed to take over. When the Turks killed his father, Dracula escaped to defend his country and his people.
His methods were rough. He punished offenses large and small by impaling. A long sharpened stake was pushed into the offender’s bottom, then raised upright. Death might come in an hour or in two days. He raised a forest of stakes with impaled offenders in a valley near his capital, Tirgoviste.
Messengers came from the Turks to demand tribute money. Dracula asked why they didn’t take off their turbans as a sign of respect. They said they never took off their turbans. Dracula made certain they didn’t. He had the turbans nailed onto the messengers’ skulls.
An enormous Turkish army attacked from the south. Dracula retreated wisely, seizing and impaling hundreds of the invaders’ stragglers. He made a fierce night attack on the sultan’s camp, killing thousands of Turks before he was beaten back. But when the Turks approached Tirgoviste they rode through a valley lined with 20,000 impaled corpses. The most recent victims were Turkish soldiers. The Turks were so scared that they turned back to home.
Dracula ruled for only seven years. His brother, Radu the Handsome had converted to Islam and swept into Wallachia with the Turks. Another betrayal. Dracula was defeated.
Was Dracula a fiend or a warrior sternly protecting his people from the invading Turks? We just don’t know. We can’t believe the grisly tales his enemies told about him. Best historical guess: Wallachians both loved and feared him. You can see that in an historic tale. Vlad Dracula placed a fabulous goblet at a fountain in Tirgoviste. Any citizen could drink from the golden vessel. It was never stolen. They were too afraid.
Jan Adkin's DK Biography: Thomas Edison tells the story of the famous inventor, from his childhood as an "addled" student, to his reign as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," where he developed the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and many other inventions still in use today. For more information on the book, click here.
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.
In 1888, Vincent moved to Arles in the south of France. He planned to establish an artists’ commune where his friends could live together to create a new direction in painting. Vincent persuaded the artist Paul Gauguin, who was desperate for money, to move to Arles to help him. Vincent also was lonely.
For two months Gauguin lived in the Yellow House Vincent had lovingly filled with paintings hoping to impress his friend. Gauguin bossed Vincent around and criticized his artwork. Eventually, when Gauguin sold a few paintings, he threatened to abandon Vincent.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, after a quarrel at dinner, Gauguin stalked off into the streets. Vincent followed him. What happened next is unclear, but Vincent returned to the Yellow House alone and cut off his earlobe (not the whole ear) with a razor. Vincent couldn’t remember the details of this terrible night. But when he was discharged from the hospital a few weeks later, he went right back to work.
There have been many theories about Vincent’s condition. The theory most generally accepted is that he suffered from epilepsy, a disease that could have caused his seizures and hallucinations and for which there was no medication. In Vincent’s case, another reason for his “attacks” might have been his habit of drinking absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular in 19th century France. It contains a strong nerve poison, now illegal in most countries.
Today many popular performers advertise how dangerous and extreme their lives are by writing shocking lyrics and acted outrageously on stage. They are mimicking the lives of artists such as Van Gogh. But he was not advertising or pretending. He just wanted to be useful—to make art that would last. His glorious paintings are the result of his discipline and dedication, despite the turmoil of his life.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. This is the house at 2 Place Lamartine, Arles, France, where, on May 1, 1888, Vincent van Gogh rented four rooms and where Paul Gauguin lived for nine weeks from late October, 1888. The left wing housed a grocery (French: Comestibles, inscribed on the signboard over the marque). Van Gogh indicated that the restaurant, where he used to have his meals, was in the building painted pink close to the left edge of the painting.
If you are interested in finding out more about Vincent Van Gogh, Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have written an award-winning book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Greenberg, Jan. "Vincent Van Gogh and the Case of the Missing Ear." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/vincent-van-gogh-and-the-case-of-the-missing-ear.
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
A common punishment for those accused of a crime in seventeenth century Europe was to be sent to the galleys. That meant spending the rest of your life at an oar in the dark, stinking hold of a ship.
Wind and oars were the only known propellant of the age. Paid employment at the oar had been tried and dismissed. The only reliable way to produce the necessary speed and endurance to chase down (or escape from) enemy ships or Barbary pirates was to use the whip on your oarsmen, something that didn’t go over well with paid employees. But as condemned criminals were plentiful in that era, it wasn’t difficult to find oarsmen.
When in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes—a law passed by his grandfather Henry IV that had ensured the freedom of Protestant worship in France—many French Protestants (known as Huguenots) who tried to flee the country were sent to the galleys.
What was life like as a galley slave? We know something about it from letters and memoirs of Huguenot convicts.
After a long and often grueling march to the ports, the convicts would be sorted into groups of five—these would become the people with whom one would eat, sleep, and work, often until one died of old age or overwork or both. Each group of five men manned an eighteen-foot oar–and there might be fifty oars on a ship. The convicts remained chained to their places. With each stroke, they had to rise together and push the oar forward, and then dip it in the water and pull backward, dropping into a sitting position. During battle, rowers might be required to maintain full speed for twenty-four hours straight, and be fed biscuits soaked in wine without pausing in their exertions. Those who died—or lost consciousness—were thrown overboard.
Horrific, yes. But there were at least some brief respites from the wretched existence, periods of time when the wind’s sails propelled the ship and the rowers could rest. And when the ship overwintered in port, the life of a gallérien became almost tolerable. They had room to lie down and sleep. Many gallériens learned to knit, and others were already skilled wig makers, tailors, and musicians—and were allowed to employ their trades in rotating weeks ashore.
In his memoirs, a Huguenot named Jean Marteilhe wrote about his capture in 1701 as a boy of 17, and his experiences as a galley slave having been chained together with other deserters, thieves, smugglers, Turks and Calvinists for 6 years from 1707 to 1713. His account is entitled Memoirs of a Galley Slave of the Sun King.
Sara Albee's book Why'd They Wear That? is published by National Geographic. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Row, Row, Row Your Boats." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/