Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thinking With Queen Elizabeth and My Mother

We -- the children and I -- are reading The Girlhood of Queen Elizabeth, A Narrative in Contemporary Letters, written in 1909 by Frank A Mumby. This type of thing is why the Disney Princesses never really gained much of a foothold in my home. We've always read about real princesses, from the time that Disney first seeps in to enthrall and to teach them how to be proper little consumers.

What could a Disney princess story possibly have on that of the princess who would become queen Elizabeth? Daughter of Henry VIII, born to the mistress who inspired the king to make the break from the Catholic Church because the pope would not allow him to annul his marriage to the Spanish and very Catholic Catherine of Aragon, nor divorce her. Born to the mistress he would marry, make queen, and then behead. And, Anne wasn't the last of his queens that Henry VIII would execute.

Elizabeth, as one could imagine, had a difficult and lonely childhood. She was not quite 3 when her mother was executed and certainly had little favor with the crown when emotions still ran hot relating to the events leading up to the execution and its aftermath. Betrayal at every turn, nobody to trust, not really. Molested as a child by a family friend, imprisoned for years by her older half-sister Mary, who came to be known as Bloody Mary due to her violent attempt to regain England from Protestant control, returning it to the Catholic Church.

Mary had a rough life, too, being publicly demoted to bastard of the King after the public relations finagling that finally got her mother set aside so that the King could marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother, and it certainly affected her temperament, as well as her mental stability. The Tudors were one seriously dysfunctional family.

And, as one could also imagine, this type of book is ripe with discussion points and teaching moments. We talked about so much. Was it a coincidence that the age that Henry VIII was finally able to set aside Katharine in favor of Anne coincided with her menopause, when all hopes of providing her husband with a legitimate male heir were lost? We discussed the role of women in that era and particular social/class setting, their realm of power, and the potential for her waning fertility, along with her difficult and unsuccessful pregnancies, to have played a role in her being unable to hold on to her position as queen.

We discussed the biology of it, the number of fertile days a woman has a month, how to determine when those days are, and how likely it was that Henry, having other women besides his wife, was visiting his wife sufficiently and at the right times to create the heir that he, the queen, and the country wanted so much.

We spoke of the hierarchical, competitive nature of life at court, and how much survival during that era depended upon that type of success. We talked about the traits that would get a person ahead in that type of setting, and the sorts of people it produced, the kind of people most likely to make it to the top tiers. We talked about life in general during that era, for people outside of court.

In the introduction to the book Mumby wrote a very interesting section about how to assess the accuracy and meaning of the letters included in the book. He wrote of things such as what type of knowledge or information the writer had available, and the writer's perspective or particular interest in events discussed in the letters. He wrote about considering the intent of the letter, citing such things as was the letter written in an effort to deceive, lull suspicion, etc. In other words, he gave a detailed explanation of the need for and methods of critical thinking.

One of the examples he cited was to think about why agents from Spain in England would be interested in scandals related to Anne Boleyn. That will be one of the essay questions on the quiz the girls will have on the introduction. Anyway, we had an excellent conversation on that as we talked about how that approach should be employed when thinking about the validity of any information, not just history, but right now, today.

I talked to them about when my mother taught me to question, telling me that just because a teacher or a textbook or an official said it was true didn't make it so. It was a lesson in school on the Civil War that inspired my mother to discuss writers' perspectives, and the need to consider people's motivations in presenting information in a particular way, and that I should always question, consider multiple viewpoints and information sources, never just accepting and believing. I was 10 years old, and I remember that conversation word for word. It was one of the most important, far-reaching things she ever taught me. I'm so grateful that she thought it was important for her to do so. It shaped my life.

It was a great day for learning in my house today and I hope my girls remember thinking with Queen Elizabeth and their mother the way that I remember thinking with mine. Thanks, Mom... I miss you with all my heart. (It's been 5 years since she passed.)

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