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Off with his…feet?!! February 5, 2013

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The body of King Richard III, one of the most maligned rulers in British history, has finally been found, 527 years after he was slain in the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a battle that ended the War of the Roses and the Plantagenet succession. The victor of Bosworth, Henry VII, spawned the Tudor dynasty that produced his son, the monster Henry VIII, and the great queen Elizabeth I. (Oddly, the victor, Henry Tudor, was a better accountant than a warrior, balancing England’s budget and building its treasury, as well as maintaining peace through the rest of his reign, gains that would all be lost during the reign of his son, Henry VIII.)

The excitement all started in a parking lot in the city of Leicester (in classic British fashion, pronounced “Lester”). Archaeologists at the University of Leicester were attempting to find the site of Greyfriars Priory, where the king had supposedly been interred after his death, and pinpointed the location to the parking lot. They began the dig, and, in September 2012, unearthed both the remains of the priory and a very unique skeleton. The skeleton had suffered trauma to the skull, consistent with death in battle, and had a steel arrow embedded in its spine.

Head trauma plus an arrow in the spine would have killed any warrior; why would this one have been special? For one thing, the spine was a classic case of scoliosis, an S-shaped curvature of the spine, leading to the descriptions of Richard III (most famously by Shakespeare) as a hunchback. Instead, he was probably wracked by pain from his spinal deformity and unable to stand fully upright, but scoliosis would not have caused an actual “hunchback.” And there was also the fact that the skeleton was alone, rather than in a common grave with other warriors killed in a common battle.

The injuries to the skeleton, consistent with descriptions of Richard’s wounds in battle, and the curved spine, along with history’s assertion that he was buried at Greyfriars’ in Leicester, made the archaeologist’s hearts beat faster. But it was a specialty of the University of Leicester, evolutionary genetics, that seems to have proved Richard III’s identity beyond doubt. Taking DNA from the skeleton and comparing it to the DNA from two direct descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, produced a virtually perfect match. The king had been found at last.

Richard III has been portrayed as a deformed, murderous monster, willing to kill his own young nephews to gain access to England’s crown. But this is really due to a propaganda smear on the part of William Shakespeare, whose patron was the great Elizabeth I, the scion of the House of Tudor.

It strikes our friend Ben and Silence Dogood as highly likely that a playwright of that era—who was basically viewed by the nobility as a lackey, a performing monkey, however great his talent, and treated accordingly—however celebrated, would have had a keen awareness of the respect due his patrons and have written his plays accordingly. Doing otherwise could have cost him his livelihood and patronage at least and sent him to the rack for treason at worst.

For a different view of Richard, one espoused by the many members of the various Richard III societies in Britain and America, and one incidentally also espoused by our friend Ben and Silence, one has only to turn to the historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour. There Richard is portrayed as a noble and far-seeing ruler whose vision is ahead of his time.

Ms. Penman makes clear that it is only because he lost at Bosworth Field that he is not recognized as the great king and ruler he actually was, but rather vilified by his enemies as deformed (and thus, in his era, marked by the devil and unfit to rule), in an era in which any deformity or defect was marked as the sign of the devil rather than a sign of genetic flaw or inbreeding amongst the nobility. Science was light years away from Bosworth Field, and anyone who put forth the conclusions of science in Richard’s day, in his defense, would have been marched forth posthate to the stake.

In the wake of the skeleton’s excavation and identification, there has been much controversy as to where it should rest. The University of Leicester, which funded the excavation and has ultimate say, has announced that Richard III’s final resting place will be at the Cathedral Church in Leicester. Factions who oppose this move suggest York, Richard’s seat, or Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, traditional burial sites for British kings.

Wherever he lies, our friend Ben and Silence hope he lies in peace, finally given the reverence he deserves. He lived just 32 years and has been vilified for 527 more. Surely it’s time to give the king his due, especially in light of the horrors his usurper’s son, Henry VIII, perpetrated?

But one issue remains unresolved. Richard’s skeleton is missing its feet. They appear to have been cleanly cut off the bone. That all the other bones are in hearty good form—shockingly so, after 500-plus years—the missing feet are astonishing. Why would anyone want to take Richard’s feet, of all things? We’ve all heard the urban legends about modern corpses being cut down to fit in their coffins. But apparently poor Richard wasn’t even given the dignity of a coffin burial; instead, he was just put in the ground. So what happened to his feet?

If anyone has a theory about this, please let us know. The excellent state of preservation of the rest of the skeleton makes this even more bizarre.

Somehow, that a king should be buried in a parking lot says more about our modern state of society than pretty much anything else we can think of.


Henry VIII: Biggest and baddest? March 10, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Longtime readers may have noticed that our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have something of an obsession for the Tudor era. (See our earlier posts via the search bar at upper right, “The late, irate Henry VIII,” “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn,” “The quiet life,” and “Thomas More, saint and statesman” for more on this.) So last night we settled down to watch a new-to-us National Geographic special, “Icons of Power: Madness of Henry VIII.”

We have no doubt that Henry VIII descended from the Golden Boy of his era into paranoia and madness. We’re indebted to this show for pointing out that his cruelty wasn’t a side effect of his madness, but was inherent, since his first act on becoming king of England at the ripe old age of 17 was to execute two of his father’s most loyal and trusted advisors.

We’re just sorry that the show didn’t do more to point out the causes of Henry’s deterioration and madness: syphilis and diabetes. Syphilis, untreated (or treated with the common “cures” of the day, arsenic and mercury), eventually causes madness and death. And diabetes is now thought to be responsible for the unhealed, ulcerated wounds in Henry’s legs that caused him unceasing agony and doubtless contributed to his foul humors, monstrous behavior, and rumored midlife-on impotence. (Diabetes ran in his family and killed one of his sisters.)

After watching the show, Silence and I were struck by the series title, “Icons of Power.” Silence started the ball rolling by saying that Henry’s daughter, Bloody Mary, came by her title naturally enough, since her maternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, launched the Spanish Inquisition and her father Henry VIII was responsible for butchering 72,000 of his fellow Englishmen, 4% of the population at the time, including pretty much everyone who’d ever been close to him. Ugh.

But then we started thinking about the era that spawned Henry VIII. We had to admit that Henry, and his larger-than life personality, size, and conduct, tended to blot out everyone else before his daughter Elizabeth proved herself the greatest monarch of all time. He may have been the biggest, at 6’2″ and, at his worst, over 350 pounds, but he had plenty of competition for the title of the baddest.

Long before Henry VIII, there was Henry II, wild and rampageous husband of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Richard the Lionheart and his infamous brother John. There was Richard II, of red-hot-poker fame. Then there were the Edwards, I and III. Edward I “Longshanks,” aka “The Hammer of the Scots,” wreaked destruction on the Scots, his own English barons, the Welsh, and the Jews, whom he drove out of England. He butchered the heroes Simon de Montfort and Lewellyn of Wales, setting the precedent for the “I’m the King and you’re not, so shut up and do as I say or else” stance that Henry VIII was later to adopt. Edward III was outraged by his royal mother’s affair with an English nobleman, Roger Mortimer, and at 17 killed Mortimer, exiled his mother, ascended the throne, and began a reign of unparallelled brutality.  

But what of Henry VIII’s era? Was he really the only “Icon of Power” of his age? Hardly. Truly, it was an age of giants. There was Francois I of France, arguably the greatest ruler of the age, who had Leonardo da Vinci designing his war engines. There were Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, parents of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who funded Columbus’s journeys to the New World and (as noted) sponsored the birth of the Spanish Inquisition. There was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon and the most powerful man in the world, who held the Pope, the head of all Christendom, in his pocket. 

Wow. History couldn’t produce another group of such powerful rulers if it tried. Surely an entire series of “Icons of Power” could have been based on the groups of monarchs reigning at the time. Today, when monarchies tend to be symbolic, and the only power resembling that of the monarchs of old resides in the hands of our assortment of less-than-beguiling dictators, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we aren’t better off without the Henrys and the Louis, the Augustuses and Alexanders. Yes, the world might seem a little duller, now that actors are the folks we follow as breathlessly as our forebears followed kings. But at least the Johnny Depps and even Charlie Sheens of the world aren’t running around shouting “Off with their heads!” and then enjoying a boisterous dinner while the axe falls.

Thomas More, saint and statesman. February 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood very much enjoyed watching the HBO series on Henry VIII, “The Tudors,” through Netflix. There were so many superb performances throughout the series: James Frain as Thomas Cromwell, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey.

Not least among them was Jeremy Northam as Sir/St. Thomas More. Northam had to play the difficult and complex role of a man who burned six Protestant heretics under his own supervision, yet acted for the good of their souls, as he truly believed, and went fearlessly to his death defending those same beliefs, along with other Catholic stalwarts and martyrs like St. John Fisher, Bishop and Cardinal, who refused to bend to Henry VIII’s increasing madness coupled with essential weakness.

Can a man who burned innocent men at the stake truly be a saint? Can a man who abandoned his own family to persecution and destitution for his beliefs be considered a good man? This is the paradox of St. Thomas More, a paradox Jeremy Northam handled with sensitivity and grace. You could see More’s faith and his torment, his gentleness, intellect, ambition, and bravery. It’s always hardest to portray a difficult, potentially unlikeable character, and make us love him despite his flaws; we think Mr. Northam deserves great acclaim for his understated but gorgeous interpretation.

Silence and I were discussing this at length last night, because we’d been watching one of our all-time favorite films, “A Man for All Seasons,” for the first time in several years. Like “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons” is about King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and, above all, St. Thomas More. But unlike “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons” presents only the noble side of Thomas More, a man who was ambitious, yes, but ultimately had no issues reconciling his ambition and his conscience.

Here was the saint, with no dark shadows in the form of burning those whose beliefs differed from his. Here was a man who sacrificed his friendships and family on the altar of the Most High, with well considered, compassionate, exalted statements for all occasions. Here was a part that was easier to play.

The cast of “A Man for All Seasons” was simply staggering in terms of sheer talent. Besides Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, there were Dame Wendy Hiller as his wife Alice, Susannah York as his daughter Meg, Sir Corin Redgrave as his son-in-law, Will Roper, Robert Shaw as a spot-on Henry VIII, Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn, Nigel Davenport as a marvelous Duke of Norfolk, a very young John Hurt in a fine performance as the slimy Richard Rich, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, and Leo McKern, eventually to make his mark as Rumpole of the Bailey, as the corrupt and ruthless Cromwell.

How did they do? In our view, their performances were so magnificent that the film is timeless. Having seen Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits from life of St. Thomas More, majestic, intelligent, and sensitive, and of Thomas Cromwell, fat, piggy-eyed, clearly the butcher’s son, we feel that the actors fulfilled their roles to perfection. Everything we have read about Henry VIII at that point in his life was captured by Robert Shaw’s performance—attractive and talented, exuberant, uncertain, longing for love and approval and determined by God to get it and brook no opposition. Shaw’s was the most nuanced and difficult performance in “A Man for All Seasons,” since he had to show a modern audience why people put up with Henry, why they loved him still despite his horrendous behavior and crimes. He pulled it off without a hitch. The golden prince beloved by all was still apparent in his Henry, and the monster who ultimately took his place was still only a shadow.

As for St. Thomas, Paul Scofield’s performance was enticing, compelling, drawing us in and making us weep as he was inexorably drawn to his death for refusing to sanction Henry’s role as Head of the Church in England. We still think “A Man for All Seasons” is one of our top ten movies of all time. But we also think Jeremy Northam had by far the harder task, portraying the torturer as well as the loving family man, the man who burned innocents at the stake, forcing himself to watch and still begging them to recant, as well as the man who was willing to die by the same principles by which he had lived. We have no doubt that Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More would have died on the rack or the stake for his ideals, in the same way his victims did. 

How do we feel about that? As Catholics, we of course applaud those who, like our own families, held to their faith in the face of threat of torture, death, and disinheritance by a king greedy to take the wealth of the monasteries and the property of private citizens into his own coffers. As human beings, we deplore anyone who tortures another for failing to agree with his own interpretation of faith. And we can relate to the terrified Protestants and Jews who faced the same threats and fears.

Who and what is St. Thomas More? We urge you to watch “A Man for All Seasons” and “The Tudors” and decide for yourself.

Meanwhile, a bit of trivia: It may seem obvious why Thomas More was called “A Man for All Seasons,” since he was a great humanist and scholar, one of the precursors to the Renaissance Men of the next generation. But our friend Ben wondered if there was more (pardon the pun) to it than that, if perhaps the title was taken from a line by Henry VIII himself, penned or spoken in happier times. It took me an unconscionable length of time to find out, but eventually I found the origin of the phrase, written by More’s contemporary Robert Whittington in 1520, while Thomas More was still alive and in everyone’s good graces: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow [equal]. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness [humility] and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometimes of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”  This was, indeed, the man both Paul Scofield and Jeremy Northam captured for us on film.

A Tudor Christmas. December 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A reader recently came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with the query “Was the Tudors’ Christmas like ours now?” Now, I’m assuming they meant Tudors as in Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, not Tudors as in Tasha Tudor, American children’s book author and illustrator. (Tasha’s amazing and delightful Christmas celebration and rituals can be enjoyed through the wonderful book Forever Christmas and the video/DVD “Take Joy!”)

But getting back to the British royal line, the short answer to our reader’s query is “not so much.” Why? Well, think of what epitomizes Christmas to us: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, a roasted turkey and all the trimmings, eggnog, stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” Christmas cards, The Night Before Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol. We all know that Christmas movies and TV specials wouldn’t have been a part of a Tudor Christmas. But none of the rest of this would have been, either.

So what would a Tudor Christmas have been like? Let’s take a look:

A season, not a day. For people in the Tudor era, Christmas lasted an entire month, from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’s Day) through Twelfth Night (Epiphany, January 6). The month wasn’t one long holiday, of course, but there was plenty of time for feasts, traditions, churchgoing, and celebrations.

The Yule Log. One key tradition was the Yule Log. Of Viking origin, the Yule Log was adopted by everyone, since it fit in nicely with the winter woodburning and huge fireplaces of the time. (All heating and cooking was done with wood, and fireplaces in the kitchen and great hall were large enough to sit in very comfortably. No wonder Santa came down the chimney in later traditions!) On Christmas Eve, a huge, previously selected log was cut, festooned with ribbons, and brought into the hall. It was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas to usher in the Christ Child and a prosperous New Year, and any scraps that hadn’t completely burned were kept to kindle the following year’s Yule Log to bring good luck . 

The Holly and the Ivy. Christmas trees didn’t become popular until Victorian times, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced them from Germany. But the concept of using evergreen plants—be they pine or fir trees, holly branches, ivy, boxwood, yew, laurel, or mistletoe—to celebrate the winter solstice and the promise of rebirth and new life to come—was the same, and of Druidic origin. “The Holly and the Ivy” was a popular carol that commemorated this tradition, and the Tudors would have sung it. Folk in Tudor times would have decorated their homes with greens on Christmas Eve rather than, as we do, long before, because if you didn’t wait, it was considered bad luck.

Caroling. Yes, caroling—singing Christmas songs and dancing for joy—was as popular in Tudor times as it is today. (Though somehow we forgot the dancing part of the original caroling.) You might even know some popular Tudor carols, like “The Coventry Carol,” “The First Nowell,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” In fact, “What Child Is This?” is based on a popular Tudor tune, “Greensleeves,” which legend attributes to Henry VIII himself, as a love song to Anne Boleyn. The wonderfully-named Wynken de Worde published the first collection of carols in 1521, so Henry and his court would have been familiar with it. Religious plays centered around Christmas were also popular aspects of a Tudor Christmas; they were often called “mystery plays” because they celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation.

Wassail. Another legacy of the Viking occupation of Britain, the Wassail Bowl is still recalled by most of us as a Christmas legacy, even if, like us, you’ve never tasted Wassail punch. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, Wassail was composed of hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples. Its name derives from the Saxon Waes-Hael, “be whole,” “be healthy.” Click the link and you’ll discover how our custom of “toasting” came to be, and it’s a pretty amazing story. Sounds like our own version of Wassail is hot mulled cider, though our friend Ben and I prefer ours with Gosling dark rum, not ale.

Christmas Dinner. Two meat pies dominated Christmas dinner in Tudor times. The “folk” ate mince pie, including dried fruit, spices, and mutton, and shaped like a crib in honor of Baby Jesus. The Court ate Christmas pie–a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon, all packed into a pastry casing called a “coffin” and dressed with jointed hare, small game birds, and wild fowl. Yow!

We Americans know that turkeys are native to our land, so how would they have figured in a Tudor Christmas? Well, the colonists sent turkeys to England in 1523, and King Henry VIII was the first king to include turkey in his Christmas celebrations. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, turkeys quickly gained popularity, and “large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot, a journey which they may have started as early as August.” Talk about some very fit turkeys!

Most Britons of the day feasted on swan, goose, woodcock, venison, wild boar, or peacock. (Elizabeth I insisted that goose be the choice for Christmas dinner, a tradition most of us in the U.S., who’ve never had goose, recall fondly from Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner.) Another popular dish was souse, consisting of pickled pigs’ feet and ears. Christmas pudding was a sausage of meat, oatmeal and spices. And a boar’s head on a platter was ceremoniously presented at the table in wealthy households and—gulp—served.

There was a version of our dreaded fruitcake even back in Tudor times, called Twelfth Night Cake. And the Tudors even ate a variation on our salads, including sprouts, but pressed into the shape of the Tudor coat of arms. 

Gingerbread and sugarplums. Gingerbread men were presented to guests by Queen Elizabeth I, cunningly designed to resemble the fortunate recipient. Less lofty individuals enjoyed gingerbread men and pigs (!) and eaten on Bonfire Night, November 5th. Sugarplums, by contrast, didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s, so they weren’t a Christmas treat on Tudor tables. And by the way, they weren’t made from plums; the word “sugarplum” referred to a plum-shaped sugar candy. 

Presents. Our all-important custom of giving Christmas presents was also a big deal in Tudor times, but not for Christmas; it was a New Year’s custom. If you happened to be a noble or a courtier, not only were you expected to give gifts to your extended family, dependents, and friends; you had to give a gift to your monarch (aka Henry) as well. And if he rejected your gift, God help you. 

Christmas cards. In Tudor times, people didn’t send Christmas cards. But they did send original poems—typically, epigrams—for New Year’s. Since Henry VIII himself was an accomplished poet, his court had to meet a pretty high bar.

Mistletoe. Another sacred plant of the Druids, mistletoe was brought into the home for good luck, protection from witches, and fertility on the winter solstice, December 21. But sorry, all: The kissing ball (usually hung in the entrance hall) and kissing under the mistletoe is an 18th-century custom. Needless to say, Henry VIII didn’t need the excuse of mistletoe to kiss whomever he liked!

There you have it. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other traditionas that characterized a Tudor Christmas, so if you can think of any, please let me know!

          ‘Til next time,


The quiet life. December 12, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been avidly watching the HBO series, “The Tudors,” via Netflix. I guess we’re mildly obsessed. We’ve watched pretty much every movie on the turbulent Tudor era ever made (our friend Ben’s father keeps telling us there’s a marvelous early film starring Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, but so far, we’ve missed that one). Silence even reads all the Tudor-related histories and historical fiction.

Most of our friends miss the point—“Who cares if it’s the eight wives of Henry VI or the six wives of Henry VIII?” as our friend Rob says—but we find the chaos created by an unstable, selfish English king to be unequaled by anything since the days of the Roman Empire. In many ways, Henry VIII inadvertently created the modern world, and it was birthed in a flood of torment and blood. (For more, see our earlier posts “The late, irate Henry VIII” and “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn” by searching our search bar at upper right.) Thank heavens he made at least some amends by giving England Elizabeth I.

But I digress. Silence and I are finally watching the final season of “The Tudors,” and we’ve been particularly struck by the depiction of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and heir to the great dukedom of Norfolk.

The Howards, if you recall, not only gave Henry two of his six wives—the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—but also two of his mistresses and a wife for his oldest acknowledged son, Henry FitzRoy. They were an immensely powerful family, descended from royal blood on both sides, with at least as great a claim to the throne as the parvenue Tudors. Henry’s father, Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was married to the only daughter of King Edward VI, presumably in recognition of this fact.

The portrayal of Henry Howard in “The Tudors” was of a brutal, almost bestial man, a brave but brain-dead warrior who risked and often lost the lives of his men in incredibly ill-conceived and foolhardy maneuvers, and finally was butchered in his turn by an irate Henry for aspiring to the throne.

This struck us as off on several fronts. First, throughout the series, the distinction of rank was emphasized during Henry’s endless executions. Those of low descent could be hanged, drawn and quartered, burned alive, tortured—whatever the king preferred. Those of high descent could only be beheaded. None in the land was of higher descent than the Howards, yet the court slapped the Earl with the full monty. Dramatic license?

Then too, the Earl was quoted going on about the quiet life, and his words were repeated as he was led away to his fate. What quiet life?! (Not that anyone who came to court could expect to lead a quiet life during the Tudor era, but the Earl of Surrey, as depicted by “The Tudors,” would have been the last man in England capable of being quiet, much less leading a quiet life.)

Our friend Ben and Silence were so intrigued that we looked him up on Wikipedia, and found quite a different story. The Earl was actually a highly gifted general, not the blockhead whose judgment-impaired moves we repeatedly saw in the series. He was imprisoned and beheaded, as befit his rank, because of the deranged Henry’s endless paranoia, not because of wrongdoing on his part. (His father, the Duke of Norfolk, would have joined him had Henry VIII not fortuitously died a few days before the execution was to have taken place.)

We also learned that the Earl of Surrey had been the best friend of Henry’s son, Henry Fitzroy, and was his friend’s brother-in-law as well. But the most astonishing thing we learned was that Henry Howard was an accomplished poet, the creator of the sonnet as we know it and of blank verse. Hardly the bestial braggart we’d seen in the series! The lines about the quiet life were taken from one of his poems, and they contain so much good sense that our friend Ben will share the entire poem with you here:

                The Things That Cause a Quiet Life*

My friend, the things that do attain

The happy life, be these I find:

The riches left, not got with pain,

The fruitful ground; the quiet mind;

The equal friend; no grudge, no strife;

No charge of rule nor governance;

Without disease the healthy life;

The household of continuance;

The mean diet, no dainty fare;

True wisdom joined with simpleness;

The night discharged of all care,

Where wine the wit may not impress;

The faithful wife, without debate;

Such sleeps as may beguile the night:

Content thyself with thy estate,

Neither wish death, nor fear his might.

So there you have it: A man who loved good husbandry (“the fruitful ground”), good health (“the mean diet,” i.e., plain wholesome food), moderation, simplicity coupled with profundity, acceptance of one’s lot (“Neither wish death, nor fear his might”), and the quiet life. A fine recipe for happiness, indeed! And written by a man who was executed by that bloody butcher, Henry VIII, at just 29 or 30. Would that Henry had died before the sentence could be carried out! Would that he had died before coming to the throne. But then, we’d have missed all this excitement, wouldn’t we? And the glorious Elizabethan Era would never have been. 

 Give us the wisdom to follow the advice Henry Howard left us in his poem, to be content whatever our circumstances, that we may also find the blissful rest of a “night discharged of all care.” The quiet life for us!

* For some bizarre reason, WordPress, which won’t allow us to close up lines in poetry, also isn’t allowing us to break this poem into the four-line stanzas in which it was written. We apologize!

Which monarchs do you love to hate? June 6, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to respond to a reader’s search phrase that arrived over the virtual transom. The reader wondered who was the most hated monarch. I thought that was a really interesting question and decided to do a bit of surfing myself to see if there was a consensus.

Mind you, the reader asked about monarchs, so easy answers like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Torquemada, and the Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc) don’t count for the purposes of our discussion. Only kings, emperors and other rulers who were considered to reign by divine right (typically by right of birth), as opposed to dictators, qualify for our list. I’m also excluding rulers who were hated because of their incompetence, like poor Louis XVI or Richard II, or because, like William the Conqueror, they came to power over a populace that hated them for simply existing.

For me, the “most hated” category should be reserved for rulers who were genuinely cruel, evil, twisted people. Unfortunately, my knowledge of history is too limited to include many worthy candidates—I’m sure, for example, that there were Chinese, Ancient Egyptian, Maya, and Aztec emperors and kings who should be on the list—so I’m hoping you’ll help me out here by adding your own recommendations.

Here are the rulers who spring to my mind when “most hated” is the category:

Vlad the Impaler: Vlad Tepes came by his nickname, “the Impaler,” honestly. The sadistic Romanian ruler enjoyed torturing people, preferably by impaling them alive on stakes shoved up their bottoms. And we’re talking about thousands of people, not just one or two. Moreover, he didn’t just leave it to his torturers to do their dirty work in secret. His greatest pleasure was enjoying the sight of hundreds of impaled victims screaming, writhing, and rotting in front of his eyes as he forced his court to dine on tables set out before his fields of victims. But he didn’t limit himself to impaling. He also devised a unique solution to the ever-pressing problem of poverty and misfortune: He invited all his country’s poor and destitute to a grand banquet. How generous! Then, he barricaded the doors of the enormous banquet hall and burned them all alive. Some of the monsters on our list practiced brutality as a form of intimidation, but Vlad did it just for pleasure.  

Genghis Khan: The future Khan of Khans, Temudgin, was almost defrauded of his inheritance when his father was poisoned when Temudgin was a young boy. But the kid had greatness in his genes and battled his way to the top, uniting the Mongol tribes into what became known—and feared worldwide—as the Mongol Horde. Unfortunately, his ascent to and retention of power involved brutally murdering anyone who stood in his way, including women and children, sometimes 20,000 at a time. 

Attila the Hun: Attila, who leant his name to Hungary, was another magnificent strategist. But like Genghis Khan, his strategies also involved inspiring terror and compliance through mass murder. Throughout Europe, he was viewed as the most ferocious conqueror who had ever set foot on foreign soil. Perhaps fittingly, he drowned in his own blood on his wedding night.

Caligula: Caligula is renowned for his depravity, insensitivity, and enjoyment of torture, such as murdering his pregnant sister after subjecting her to unspeakable acts and throwing Christians to the lions for the enjoyment of the Roman populace. But frankly, he was only following a long line of horror that began with the very first Roman Emperor, Augustus, who systematically murdered everyone he viewed as a threat, including his own heirs. Under Augustus’s successor, Tiberius, and subsequent Emperors, thousands upon thousands were crucified and subjected to other unspeakable tortures like the “blood eagle.” Tiberius’s most famous victim was, of course, Jesus Christ Himself. Caligula wasn’t even the worst of the line; his successors were so sadistic and depraved they made him look like a teddy bear. It’s amazing to me that Rome didn’t rise up in revolt and toss these perverts from the get-go.

Ivan the Terrible: The first Tsar of All the Russias, like our friend Vlad, earned his moniker. Not only did he kill and torture thousands of political opponents, he restricted the advancement and freedom of expression of all artists in his realm. He butchered 60,000 of the inhabitants of the great city of Novgorod. And he managed to cause the death of his son and heir and the miscarriage of his daughter-in-law by beating them, in his son’s case with a rod. What a guy!

Henry VIII: Henry didn’t limit his insane paranoia and cruelty to his wives, courtiers, and advisors, systematically torturing and executing everyone from the love of his life, Anne Boleyn, to his trusted advisors Cardinal Wolsey (who actually died en route to being executed after handing over everything he owned to Henry), St. Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell. He managed to execute over 72,000 people during his reign, and torture, including the rack and burning at the stake, was one of his favorite ways of doing it. His final wife, Katherine Parr, another blameless woman, was spared only because he died before he could command her death. His daughter, Bloody Mary, was clearly a chip off the old block.

Leopold II of Belgium: Leopold didn’t wreak havoc on his own country. Instead, he inflicted it elsewhere.  In the African Congo, he murdered and tortured the native population in order to reap financial gains from rubber and ivory. Cutting off the hands of children was an especially popular technique during his reign, to force the remainder of the family to slave to produce rubber for him without protest, but numerous other tortures were commonplace. His horrific practices resulted in the death of 3 million Congolese and eventually roused the outrage of the world, since his reign extended into the 20th Century, and his horrors were brought to a halt. Too bad his own hands weren’t cut off!

Khufu: The Pharoah who was responsible for building the Great Pyramid of Giza. Khufu, also known as Cheops, is not known for much beyond his magnificent architectural achievement. But the other thing for which he was noted was his extreme cruelty. It’s now thought that Egyptian citizens rather than slaves built the pyramids, but apparently everyone was subject to Khufu/Cheops’s unpredictable cruelty.

Yongle: This Chinese Emperor built the Forbidden City, the largest palace in the world. Then he slaughtered almost 3,000 helpless women, children and eunuchs, to make sure he wouldn’t be disgraced before foreign dignitaries. But he also slaughtered anyone else who appeared to oppose him, over 10,000 in all. No criticism of the Emperor and his nightmarish ways was allowed.

So, there are my 9 worst monarchs of all time. Can you add a tenth? Native American, European, African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Polar, you name it? Which monarchs do you love to hate?

                     Your friend,

                                     Richard Saunders

Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn. June 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here (again). Someone came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, this morning searching for “scientific proof of Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.” Let’s try to lay that ugly slander to rest once and for all.

From everything I can discover, Anne Boleyn was extremely intelligent, talented, and enchanting, but not likeable. She used people and then discarded or, worse, turned against them. She caused the downfall of a Queen beloved by everyone in England. Because of her insistence on gaining the crown, the Catholic Church in England was overthrown and monasteries and convents were sacked. Because of her insecurities, powerful men were executed or hounded to their deaths, their families left imbittered and impoverished. To add insult to actual injury, tact appeared to be one talent that was unknown to Anne. In the ten-odd years of her rise to and fall from power, she made more enemies than a small nation. To say that she was unpopular is like saying that Limburger cheese has a mild aroma after being left in the sun on a hot day. She had the wit to rise, but not the wisdom to rise well, and the fireworks of her ascent were matched by the meteor shower of her fall.

All of which is simply to say that a lot of people hated Anne, for personal, professional, and ideological reasons. And their hatred didn’t end with her death. Strangely, it seemed to intensify instead, and rumors about her—once she was no longer alive to disprove them, defend herself, or persecute her disparagers—abounded. Two of these claimed that she had deformities, a sixth finger and a third nipple. Both are simple, outright lies.

Here’s why: In Anne’s day, any deformity was viewed as a mark of the Devil. Innocent babes faced a lifetime of ostracism and loathing if they bore “the Devil’s mark.” Had Anne borne any deformity, especially one so obvious as a sixth finger, she would have been shut away for life in her family home, Hever Castle, or exiled to a convent to moulder away in obscurity.

Instead, her family recognized her potential and did everything in their power to show her off, sending her away to the court of France. Her musical prowess was legendary, which should be enough to lay these claims to rest: Nobody in their right mind would play an instrument, which displays one’s hands like few other activities, if by doing so they’d reveal a damning deformity like a sixth finger to the world. You’d have to be a ring or nail-polish model to draw more attention to your hands.

There’s one final proof that Anne could not have been deformed: Henry VIII loved Anne, and he had a horror of illness or deformity of any kind. His fear and dread of illness was so great that he would abandon his wives, relatives, and courtiers and literally flee to another of his residences if there was illness in one of his castles. Similarly, he would flee any city where illness had broken out. There is no way in the world that he would have viewed a potential paramour with anything but the most extreme horror had she not been physically perfect in every way.

So how on earth did such a bizarre rumor get started? Two things: First, at Anne Boleyn’s trial, she was accused of witchcraft, since her enemies could not imagine how she had gained such a hold over Henry through her own enchantments (as opposed to with some help from the Devil), and they wanted to give him an ironclad reason to execute her. (They added adultery and incest for good measure.) And second, Anne had introduced French styles to England on her return from the French court, making them popular and thereby making Queen Katherine’s style of court dress seem hopelessly dowdy and old-fashioned by comparison. One hallmark of French style at the time was sleeves so long they trailed over the fingers of one’s hands. After Anne’s fall, it would have been easy for the malicious, seeking support for the witch theory, to have speculated that there had to be an ulterior motive for her fashion sense, as for everything else that she did in her short life.

Finally, here’s another nail in that particular rumor’s coffin: It wasn’t circulated until after her death. Now, I ask you, how likely is that? Anne had dozens of maids of honor attending her as Queen; privacy for such a public figure was inconceivable, then as now. Suppose Princess Di or Oprah or Paris Hilton or, say, Miley Cyrus or Michelle Obama had a sixth finger. Do you think the celebrity-watchers simply wouldn’t notice? How much more unlikely when you were the chief celebrity, the focus of all eyes, including the extremely unfriendly ones of the Spanish Ambassador, who dutifully reported every negative thing he could find to say about you? And yet, no one did notice, because the sixth finger simply wasn’t there.

Ultimate proof one way or the other will never be forthcoming, because Anne Boleyn was buried anonymously and no one knows where her bones really are. So the dreadful rumors continue to this day. But for me, at least, the evidence is overwhelming. Anne was guilty of truly gross arrogance and unkindness, of hubris in its most extreme sense, of shortsightedness. But she was not guilty of the crimes that condemned her, not any of them: not adultery, not incest, not witchcraft. She had no sixth finger or third nipple. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Anne Boleyn was a ruthless woman who gambled everything on gaining a kingdom and both lost (her head) and won (the throne for her daughter Elizabeth). Her rise to sit beside Henry VIII on the throne of England was, indeed, improbable. But she did it without the Devil’s assistance, and she did it without a sixth finger. And that not only must be, but is, the truth.

            ‘Til next time,


A poem about… deer? June 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshops. Wordless Wednesdays. Even, apparently, Garden Bloggers’ Death Day (pertaining, we hope, to dead plants, not an unfortunate trend among garden bloggers). Our friend Ben’s somewhat feeble wits are boggled by the number of structured theme posts available to the garden blogging community. But one that always catches my eye is Garden Bloggers’ Muse Day, which I deduce is the first of every month and involves posting a garden-related poem. I’m mostly aware of this because Nancy of Soliloquy (http://nancybond.wordpress.com/) is really good about posting a garden poem a month (and moreover, one that relates to that month), but apparently it originated with Carolyn Gail Choi of of Sweet Home and Garden Chicago (http://sweethomeandgardenchicago.blogspot.com/).

Whatever the case, June is a month in which many gardeners are either cursing deer depredations in their gardens, trying to find deer-proof plants for their gardens, or checking out deer fences and other supposedly deer-repelling devices for their gardens. (Our friend Ben suggests getting a dog.) Drivers—at least around here—are cursing car-crashing deer in a manner which puts even the most irate gardener to shame. Hunters are setting out salt blocks and checking out resident populations. And romantic types who don’t garden are oohing and aahing when they see a deer in the woods along the roadside or, gasp, in their own backyards.

Through human history, deer have been perceived in many ways, as a source of sustenance, a worthy opponent, a majestic emblem, a figure of legend, a creature of kings. (Through much of European history, deer could only be hunted by the nobility and posession of a deer by a “commoner” was a hanging offense.) A deer sighting in Arthurian legend was fraught with significance, for deer were seldom what they seemed. But however they were viewed, there was always something otherworldly about them, something usually pertaining to the fairy realm, the time between times when daylight is giving way to dark and magic is at large, when anything can happen. (Appropriate enough, since deer are crepuscular creatures, most active at dusk.) A white deer was always a sign of magic, and despite the claims of the narwhal was probably the origin of the legend of the unicorn. And a black deer signified magic as well.

Our friend Ben has actually seen a black deer—a majestic buck leading a group of does through the woods. And yes, it was magic. I’ve also been fortunate as a driver, having never hit a deer in the road, and as a gardener, since deer have never ventured onto our property. Unfortunately, though, thanks to modern medicine, the association our friend Ben most often draws with deer these days is deer ticks and Lyme disease, which is prevalent in this rural part of Pennsylvania. We’re having our puppy Shiloh vaccinated for Lyme and are also applying Frontline, a topical tick repellant, monthly just in case. Poor deer, to have come to this!

But about that poem. Let’s return to the days when deer still were embued with magic and were the exclusive property of kings. Specifically, to the time of that great rogue Henry VIII, and a poem one of the prominent poets of that age wrote about a deer. Or, at least, it appeared to be about a deer, also known then as a hind. Do you know who wrote it, and who it was about? Our friend Ben will add the answer tomorrow so no one needs to remain in doubt. Right now, however, let me note that the key line, Noli me tangere, means “don’t touch me” or, in modern parlance, “hands off!” And “list” in this case doesn’t mean the alleys where knights jousted or a sheet of paper with the weekly groceries but rather, simply, “wants” or “desires.”

Here’s the famous (and at the time, infamous) poem, a poem that despite its seeming innocence sent its author to the Tower of London and almost cost him his life:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I, may spend his time in vain;

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written her fair neck round about,

‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am, 

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

“Wild for to hold” indeed this particular deer proved. So wild, that all of Europe teetered in the attempt, and the world has never been the same. So wild, that the fawn she produced rose to heights never equalled before or since, unless the sun itself (in the form of Louis XIV, the Sun King) eclipsed her in the end. For us moderns, the poem remains as a haunting prelude to all that was to come.


(Answers, as promised: Thomas Wyatt wrote the poem. His hind was Anne Boleyn, and Caesar was, of course, Henry VIII himself.)

The late, irate Henry VIII. January 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben have been having something of a Tudorfest here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, of late. It all started with the two movies on the life of Elizabeth I, starring one of our favorite actresses, Cate Blanchett. Then there was “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a movie we found rather dull. (Silence points out that the book on which the movie was based, also called The Other Boleyn Girl, was better than the movie. Silence also read Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford—the tale of the perfidious woman whose testimony condemned both Anne Boleyn and her own husband, Anne’s brother George Boleyn, to death—and we understand a movie based on this book is in the works as we write.)

Most recently, we’ve been watching the Lifetime series “The Tudors” (thank you, Netflix), and have worked our way through season two. Though the history is rather shaky, we’ve enjoyed the series itself and the performances in it (especially Jeremy Northam as St. Thomas More, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon) very much.

While we wait for season three of “The Tudors” to make its way onto DVD, we decided to do a little time-travel to renowned depictions of Henry the Eighth from the past. We rented “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” with Keith Michell playing the title role. Unfortunately, we found it unwatchable, and gave up after the first episode. This was no reflection on the actors, but rather on the early BBC’s inability to distinguish between a cheaply produced filmed play and a movie. As Silence pointed out, poor Henry the Eighth wore the exact same suit of clothes through ten years of action! If the King of England could afford just one outfit per decade, clearly his country was in desperate straits.

We’ve had better luck with “Anne of the Thousand Days.” It’s hard to beat Richard Burton as Henry, and the supporting cast is excellent. So far, the movie has been historically accurate (we’ve watched about half), and since it’s a period piece, it doesn’t seem dated, despite having come out in 1969. However, our favorite version remains “A Man for All Seasons,” that magnificent production with a delightful Robert Shaw as Henry, Paul Scofield’s majestic performance as St. Thomas More, a very young John Hurt in a marvelously sleazy performance as Sir Richard Rich, and a great supporting cast.

We invite you to enjoy your own Tudorfest and choose your favorites. (Warning: Most of these productions, especially the modern ones, are anything but family fare, so if you have young kids, wait to put them on ’til everybody else is in bed.) But meanwhile, we’ve asked our fellow blog contributor and resident historian, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, to create a little quiz to test your knowledge of Henry VIII and his six wives. (The answers are at the end, but no cheating, now!) See how you fare:

1. How many wives did Henry VIII order executed?

a. 1

b. 2

c. 3

d. 4

e. 5

2. How many of Henry’s wives and mistresses were related?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 5

e. all of them

3. Which of the following was not claimed of Anne Boleyn?

a. she was a witch

b. she had six fingers on one or both hands

c. she had an incestuous relationship with her brother George

d. she had affairs with over 100 men

e. she was a transvestite

4. Which of these famous people were not contemporaries of Henry VIII?

a. Leonardo da Vinci

b. the great painter Hans Holbein

c. the famous Humanist Erasmus

d. Michaelangelo

e. Beethoven

5. Why did Henry behave so violently towards those who were closest to him?

a. he was desperate for a male heir and would let nothing stand in his way to get one

b. he was an autocratic, indulged monster

c. he was terrified of any threat, including opposition and disease

d. he had syphilis, which eventually drove him insane and made him more and more erratic as time went on

e. he had type II diabetes, which slowly sickened and eventually killed him, creating episodes of instability

6. What was Henry’s greatest achievement?

a. marrying six wives

b. breaking with Rome and creating the Church of England

c. composing the famous ballad “Greensleeves” 

d. executing over 72,000 people during his reign

e. producing Elizabeth I      

Ready for some answers? Here you go:

 1. Henry ordered Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard (wives 2 and 5) executed. Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour (wives 1 and 3) died of natural causes, and Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr (wives 4 and 6) survived Henry. 

2. At least three and possibly four. Anne Boleyn (wife 2) and Katherine Howard (wife 5) were cousins. Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary was an acknowledged mistress of the king before he took up with Anne; their relationship lasted for six years and resulted in two children. It is a not-ungrounded rumor that a much-younger Henry VIII also briefly took Anne and Mary Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth as a mistress, presumably before they were born; this has never been decisively proved or discounted.

3. The correct answer is e. Anne was never accused of being a transvestite, but was wrongly accused of every other of these charges. There is no doubt today of her innocence.

4. Henry was a contemporary of all these famous men except Beethoven, though the only one he actually met was Hans Holbein, who painted him and many famous members of his court.

5. All these answers may be true, though the theory of his having progressive syphilis has now been overshadowed by the view that he had type II diabetes. However, we think that, given his behavior, the answer is “all of the above.”

6. There is now some doubt cast on Henry’s composing “Greensleeves” for Anne Boleyn, as has long been thought, but there is no doubt that he was a prolific composer and quite accomplished musician and poet. All the other items in this list are (sadly, in the case of the executions) true. But in our view, one alone is relevant: the fathering of Elizabeth, England’s greatest monarch. Henry’s contribution to British history in this respect may have been unintentional, and certainly was unacknowledged by him (another useless female heir!), but history has proven its value beyond all dispute.