Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
During the Renaissance, French kings and queens built many palaces, in an area known as the Loire Valley. The royal family would travel from palace to palace to get away from Paris, the way you might head to a lake house. The Loire Valley is not very close to Paris. It’s about 110 miles from Paris to the palace of Chambord, for instance. I wondered how long it took sixteenth century travelers to make this journey—and why there were so many palaces.
First, the distance. Under the best of conditions (good roads, decent weather, level ground), humans can walk four miles per hour over long distances. Horses can’t do much better–maybe five mph—but a lot less if they’re pulling something or if roads are in awful condition. A horse can canter at 20 mph, but it can only do that for six to eight miles at a time, after which it will slow down and walk, or stop completely. So it would have taken a long time to get from place to place. Under the best conditions, a journey from Paris to Chambord would have taken three weeks.
But in fact, it took a lot longer than that. Because in the sixteenth century, the royal court didn’t just hop on a horse and head to their country home. They took everything and everyone with them, loading all the stuff onto the backs of horses and mules.
When Catherine de Medici was queen of France, she traveled with her ladies and gentlemen, foreign ambassadors, pet bears, servants, retainers, attendants, apothecaries, astrologists, tutors, musicians, cooking pots, food, clothing, portable triumphal arches, wall hangings, and furniture.
And the reason there were so many palaces is simply that the court in Renaissance times –thousands of people–had to move around from estate to estate so as to find new hunting grounds. Once they’d exhausted the food supply in the area, they moved on to the next estate. Also, the sanitation was dreadful. After thousands of people had taken up residence in and around a great estate for a few weeks, filth piled up, and with it, stench and disease.
The royal procession could be miles long. When Catherine de Medici’s court packed up and left for a new palace, the beginning of the royal caravan sometimes entered a town before those traveling at the back of it had left the last one.
Sara Albee's recent book is Why'd They Wear That?, published by National Geographic in 2015. 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. "Renaissance Road Trips." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/renaissance-road-trips.
nonfiction is the new black
Accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip, the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth embarked on a tour of the then-British colony of Kenya in early February, 1952. Her father, King George VI, had been too ill with lung cancer to join them.
The royal couple stayed at Treetops, a three-room hotel built into the top of a large tree overlooking a water hole and salt lick. Just getting there could be dangerous. Angry elephants could unexpectedly charge arriving guests as they walked the considerable distance from the parking lot. Then guests endured a twisting 30-foot climb up a rickety ladder. At night leopards often prowled in the trees just outside the rooms.
The place was so perilous for guests that the hotel actually hired an experienced hunter named Jim Corbett. He had made a reputation for hunting men-eating tigers in India. Corbett remained on high alert through the night of the royal visit, his high-powered hunting rifle at the ready. Nothing happened.
Something very important happened in London, however. At some point during the night, the king died. Under the communication systems operating at the time, there was no way of contacting Treetops to inform Princess Elizabeth of her father’s death.
Unaware of what had happened, Elizabeth rose at dawn, added more photos to go along with those she had taken the previous day, then had a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. She and Philip drove to Sagana Lodge, a wedding gift to her from the Kenyan people. Officials there had received word of the king’s death and notified Philip. He took Elizabeth for a walk in the garden in mid-afternoon and broke the news to her. She was now the queen, and in fact had become Elizabeth II while she was still asleep at Treetops the night before.
She immediately made arrangements to return home and boarded an airplane that evening. When the plane was airborne, she excused herself and went to the restroom. Returning several minutes later she said nothing, but it was apparent to everyone on the flight that she had been crying.
Elizabeth has been queen ever since. If she is still reigning on September 15, 2015, she would surpass Queen Victoria and become the longest-reigning British monarch in history.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Princess Who Went up a Tree and Came down a Queen." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 24 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-princess-who-went-up-a-tree-and-came-down-a-queen.
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,
Nonfiction is the new black
During much of the sixteenth century, England was wracked by violence between Catholics and Protestants. Hundreds of Protestants were executed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–1558), earning her the nickname of “Bloody Mary.” Her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) returned the favor by persecuting and killing Catholics. She was followed by James I, whose Catholic mother had been executed. James’s wife had recently converted to Catholicism.
English Catholics therefore hoped he would be more tolerant than Elizabeth. While the number of executions dropped off, James ordered Catholic priests to leave England and said that Protestantism was the one true faith. Despairing Catholics decided on a desperate measure. They would assassinate James and install his nine-old-daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic monarch.
The plotters secreted three dozen barrels of gunpowder in the basement beneath the House of Lords a few days before the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, planned to ignite a fuse when King James entered the chamber and then scurry to safety. With most members of Parliament and other high officials dead in the explosion, the resulting chaos would make it easier for the schemers to seize control of the government.
However, some of the conspirators realized that this plan would kill a lot of innocent people, including Catholics. So in late October, one of them sent an anonymous warning letter to a Catholic Member of Parliament. He passed along the message to the king’s guardians. Shortly after midnight on November 5, a search party discovered Fawkes and the concealed gunpowder. He was tortured for several days to reveal the names of the other conspirators and then executed. His body was hacked into several pieces. The grisly chunks were displayed in several parts of England as a warning to would-be traitors.
In celebration of the king’s salvation, many people lit bonfires on the night of the discovery. That began a tradition that continues to this day in what is known as Bonfire Night. Tonight in nations of the British Empire, revelers, many wearing Guy Fawkes apparel, are shooting off fireworks and building huge bonfires to burn effigies of the man regarded as England’s most notorious traitor.
Happy Guy Fawkes Day!
Jim Whiting has written more than a hundred books on many subjects. His is a very interesting person. Check out his website on Amazon.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Let's Blow Up the King!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lets-blow-up-the-king.