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/
When eighteen-year-old Victoria was crowned queen of England in 1837, the British wondered and worried who their very young queen would marry. Whoever he was, he would have power and influence, so the queen’s choice was critical.
Victoria had many royal suitors and was getting advice from all directions about which alliance with which suitor would be most advantageous for England. But as the British quickly learned, their new queen had a mind of her own, and she had already picked Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg, an area of what is now Bavaria, Germany.
The British were shocked! Royalty often intermarried, so it wasn’t because Victoria and Albert were first cousins—her mother and his father were sister and brother—but because there was a great deal of anti-German sentiment in England at the time. Victoria didn’t care. He was her “dear Albert” and they were married in 1840 when they were both twenty-one. They loved each other and were determined that theirs would be a happy marriage.
The odds were against this. Neither Albert nor Victoria had grown up in happy families—in fact, both had been exposed to mostly miserable marriages—and Victoria was spoiled, stubborn, and had a quick temper. Fortunately, Albert was a kind man who understood her well and knew how to be patient with her. That patience was put to the test many times as they raised their nine children. Victoria disliked being pregnant and wasn’t fond of babies and toddlers. But Albert provided balance. He doted on their four sons and five daughters and was closely involved in their care and education.
The British public adored the royal family, and they came to love the scholarly Albert. He became a British citizen, was a wise political advisor to Victoria, and was active in public life. When he died from stomach problems in 1861 at age forty-two, the British grieved for him.
Victoria went into deep mourning. Often called “the widow of Windsor,” she wore only black and lived a secluded life at Windsor Castle until her own death at age eighty-one. Today, her name and Albert’s grace London’s great Victoria and Albert Museum, known affectionately as the V&A. London is also home to several major public monuments that were commissioned by Victoria to honor her “dear Albert” and which serve as a reminder that theirs was truly a royal love story.
Marriage of Victoria and Albert Painting by George Hayter It has been said that Queen Victoria started a bridal custom of wearing a white wedding gown. Prior to that time royal brides wore elaborate dresses made especially for the occasion from gold or silver fabric sometimes embroidered with silken threads and embellished with semi-precious stones to show their wealthy status. Ordinary brides of the working class wore their “best dress” usually made in a dark and durable material.
Prince Albert and Queen Victoria with five of their children. The Prince Consort (26 August 1819 – 14 December 1861), lived long enough to see only one of his children married and two of his grandchildren born , while Queen Victoria (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) lived long enough to see not only all her grandchildren, but many of her 87 great-grandchildren as well.
Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens were acquaintances and she was a huge fan of his books. You can read more about the Victorian age in Andrea Warren's book Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London. For more information, visit 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. "Victoria and Albert: The Royals Who Married for Love."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Jan. 2018,
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.