Gilbert: Commit to memory

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(HOST) Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council and commentator Peter Gilbert is thinking about English kings and queens today, nearly a thousand years of them – and specifically, one of them who fell right in the middle.

(GILBERT) Years ago, an English friend and I drove a British Army Land Rover from the Arctic Ocean in very northern Canada south, back to civilization.  It was a long and beautiful drive, and to pass the time, he taught me a little poem that tells you all the kings and queens of England in order, from William the Conqueror in 1066 to the reigning Queen of England today, Elizabeth II.

The poem I memorized is a wonderful mnemonic device, and it goes like this:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,

[That would be William the First, who was William the Conqueror; then William the Second, Henry the First, and then King Steven. Got it?  So let’s start again:]

Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,
One, Two, Three Neds, Richard Two,
Henry Four, Five, Six, then who?
Edward Four, Five, Dick the Bad,
Harrys twain, and Ned the Lad,
Mary, Bess, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
William and Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges, William, and Victoria,
Edward Seven and Georgie Five,
Edward, George, and Bess Alive.

Who knows how we‘ll finish the poem when or if Charles, the current Prince of Wales, becomes King Charles the Third, or his older son becomes King William the Fifth?

Of course, there’s a lot of English history embedded in that brief list of names, beginning with William the Conqueror, that Norman invader of England, who defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a story illustrated by the magnificent Bayeau Tapestry..  There’s "Dick the Bad": that’s Richard III, whom Shakespeare made out to be a villain.  Even the great – and late in life, hugely overweight Henry VIII – even he gets only a slight reference in the poem as one of the "Harrys twain."  His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, the long-reigning monarch of the glorious English Renaissance, including Shakespeare’s day, and the Virgin Queen, in whose honor the Commonwealth of Virginia was named – even she, here, is simply, "Bess."  And King George III – the long-reigning king that the American colonies revolted against in 1776 – he’s just one of "four Georges" in a row shortly before Queen Victoria.

All this comes to mind because exactly five hundred years ago today, Henry VIII was crowned king.  Without him, we wouldn’t have the inspiring movie A Man for All Seasons, which tells the story of Thomas More, who feeling that integrity was worth dying for, stood up to Henry VIII when the King wanted to get a divorce and remarry.  We wouldn’t have the Church of England, and we wouldn’t have that other mnemonic device about the fate of his six wives: "divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived."

Now if I could only remember how to spell "mnemonic." Hmmm. Does it start with an "m" or an "n"?

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