Thursday, August 13, 2009

Historical ciphers

I just finished Alison Weir's The Children of Henry VIII. The book discusses the Tudor kids, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward, and their relationships with each other.

Once again, I was struck by just what a complete blank Edward VI, the youngest legitimate child of Henry VIII, is compared to his sisters. Granted, he was a child king who died, apparently quite hideously, from tuberculosis before his 16th birthday (none of that quiet fading away from consumption; the court physicians kept records, and it's clear poor Edward suffered from extrapulmonary TB and experienced a whole host of secondary opportunistic infections -- he literally rotted to death), but it's still odd that so little personality emerges from the archives. Various of his writings survive -- correspondence with his sisters and others, for example -- but there's no personality there.

On the other hand, the little bit that does emerge suggests it might have been a good thing he didn't make it to adulthood. When it came to religion, Weir hints that Edward was as much of a fanatic as his oldest sister but in the other direction (vehemently anti-Catholic where Mary was passionately pro-Rome). He also comes across as having had all of his father's ego but none of his sense of humor or love of life. Religious fervor and humorless -- not a good combination.


  1. but from even a very early age..elizabeth was a true leader..scared for her life most of it..but always smart and canny..knew when to kiss ass, when to lie, when to do what ever it took to keep her head, until it wore the crown..

  2. Weir describes an episode in Elizabeth's life from when she was about 13 and fell hard for a manipulative sleaze who planned to use her to get the throne for himself. At that point she wasn't thinking about the throne for herself (Edward was still apparently healthy); she was just a naive teenager falling for an older man. She was lucky to survive (if her sister had been on the throne by then she'd probably have been executed for conspiracy and treason), and it definitely put her on her guard because it made it clear she could not ever trust anyone if she wanted to go on living. She definitely became an expert at letting other people plot around her while managing to avoid ever being directly involved herself.

  3. Is that disease what is known as scrofula, "The King's Evil"?

    If it was, and the king had The King's Evil" (which they were supposed to be able to cure with a touch) I guess the physician couldn't heal himself.

  4. Sarge, there is a certain irony in the king dying from a systemic TB infection, when scrofula is TB of the lymph nodes, but maybe the King's Touch only works if the king is an adult. I'm sure the Bible thumpers of the time would have had an explanation of some sort to give God an out.

    Based on the descriptions, I'd say poor Edward got hit hard, too, by some of the fungal diseases that tend to move in after TB weakens an immune system. It's a shame Somerset (the Lord Protector) wasn't able to manipulate either of Edward's sisters into a marriage to a puppet; if he had been able to do that, he probably would have put the poor kid out of his misery long before Edward's body finally gave up.

  5. Ah yes... Edward, we hardly knew ye. Not, perhaps, that there was a lot to know, but nobody deserves such a horrible death.

    Given that diseases like his were rampant and pretty much unchecked at that time in medical history, I can't help but wonder if the children of royals may have been especially vulnerable as products of inbreeding. Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were something like fifth cousins - not exactly "ew, ick!" kind of stuff, but enough for Edward to rate a small blip on the consanguinity index (albeit a much smaller one than his sister Mary, or than Henry himself, but still).

    Nan, have you checked out the BBC/CBC/Showtime series The Tudors? Mmm, costumey drama...

    Speaking of Alison Weir, I'm currently inching my way through her Eleanor of Aquitaine. Should last me another few months of bedtime reading.


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