Get Your Head on Straight: How History Can Give You Perspective

Get Your Head on Straight: How History Can Give You Perspective

I rode an emotional roller-coaster this past weekend. The energy in the air felt divisive and almost toxic. I had to shut off all news and avoid peeking at what was going on in Ottawa because the erosion of my rights and freedoms felt like a personal attack. What makes it so much worse are comments from some jackass about how glad they are that people were being arrested. How dare anyone speak out about government overreach! My blood pressure is rising even as I type this.

I need to straighten out my head. I need some serious perspective.

Highly Recommended: History

Nothing makes me feel better about my own small life and reduces my problems down to size than seeing how messed up the Kings and Queens of England were. In fact, life was tough for everyone even just a few hundred years ago.

Think you’ve made mistakes in your life? At least the world won’t know about them in several hundred years! With royals, everything is preserved so you can see the entire arc of their life. First one terrible decision, then another mistake, after a disaster of fate until things just get worse! Letters sent to each other, petitions to children, nannies, relatives, lovers, their thoughts and ideas from journals all detail what they went through. These, plus the historical documents, paintings, even doctor’s observations on illnesses, bring their follies, prejudices, and feelings to life so that you get a sense of their suffering.

I guarantee you it’s worse than anything you can come up with in the 21st century.

Bloody Mary burning another Protestant

Got Syphilis?

Even royals were born with scoliosis, got diseases like rickets, or an STD like gonorrhea or syphilis. In the 1700s, it’s estimated 1 in 5 people had syphilis. It causes a slow and horrifying death with genital sores, foul abscesses and ulcers over the rest of the body, including your face. Sometimes your nose fell off. Not kidding. What’s worse is that everyone knew exactly what you had and how you got it. Finally your brain was slowly poisoned so that you got dementia or went insane. Some people think King Henry VIII had syphilis and that’s why he became so unreasonable and violent. I think he sustained a couple brain injuries from jousting accidents – in one he was knocked unconscious for over two hours.

Even a King was lucky to live long enough to get syphilis, though.

Leeches Will Not Save You

Many children died at birth or only lived for a few years. Royal children were given every attention yet still became seriously ill, were bled regularly with leeches, but often died anyway. Royal relatives were persecuted, even as children, locked in towers and never heard from again (way to go, Richard III). Some had their heads cut off on spurious and often trumped-up charges. You could go from being a pampered King’s daughter and heir to the throne one minute to a bastard and outcast the next if your Father declares his marriage to your Mother null and void (Bloody Mary, anyone?). The reason Kings and Queens are never seen smiling in portraits is because many of their teeth were missing or blackened stumps. Imagine living with a constant toothache.

Queen Elizabeth I had a sweet tooth…

King George III

After over 200 years, Queen Elizabeth II has allowed all the papers of King George III to be released. He was a prolific writer and documented nearly everything. Of course, he went mad a few times which really makes him interesting. It is now believed that he suffered from mania with bipolar disorder. They’d just put him in a strait jacket and throw him in a room for a month or two until he improved.

He was a parent of his times and he and his wife left the raising of their 15 children to others. He devoted much of his life to learning science, astronomy, and how to supply an army in a distant land (another disappointment- the Americans defeated him). By all accounts he was an intelligent and cultured man. Reading between the lines, you can understand how much the King suffered emotionally.

Embarrassment & Sorrow

His worst bouts of mania happened after severe disappointment or shock over something his children did. George’s son and heir, indulged by the paid staff around him, shunted off, all but ignored by his parents, and then let loose on the world, did not always act well. In fact, he caused all kinds of trouble for his family for years. He gambled, he chased women, he drank like a fish. His debts were so bad, George had to ask parliament for help. He lost his mind for a while after this but made a recovery.

Then George’s favourite child, Amelia, the youngest, fell prey to an old equerry. At 18 she believed herself to be violently in love. This was in all likelihood a very innocent infatuation as she had been practically locked up with her Mother for years to keep her and her sisters “safe.” Amelia was already ill with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her. When she died she left everything to the equerry, which was a bit of a scandal. George III went completely mad for good after her death. He was locked up in a remote room in Windsor castle and rarely ever seen after that, even by his own family.

King George III in old age, blind & isolated

The Job of Monarch

He did not give much thought to the “art” of parenting, except maybe to write a manifesto for the Prince. He had his duty to his country and wasn’t that enough? Obviously, being a monarch isn’t very compatible with being a parent. His son took over as regent when George went mad the second time. George IV was considered selfish and irresponsible (among other things) and was a terrible husband. His only daughter died in childbirth.

His next brother in line took over but he didn’t fare much better. Although he had 10 illegitimate children from his mistress, these kids weren’t eligible to be monarchs. He then left their Mother after over 20 years to marry legitimately. She was banished from their lives and died impoverished and alone in Paris. Their oldest son committed suicide.

Finally, the only person left standing that could inherit the crown was a niece, Victoria. When she became a Mother herself, she carried on the royal tradition of distance and disdain. She detested her own eldest son and was quite nasty to him, blaming him for his Father’s death. The poor guy didn’t have a chance – who could live up to her unrelenting moral standards? Ug. Victorians!

Queen Victoria, Albert, & a few kids

You Are Probably a Better Parent Than Queen Victoria

It is possible that in devoting a good part of my life to my children, I have been a better parent than most royals of old. Chances are, so are you. Imagine that! Your achievements are greater and your contribution to the world far more important than the mighty Queen Victoria! I am proud of the work and time I put in, although I know I can’t really take any credit for how the kids turned out. I did all that I was capable of. It may not have been enough but I rest easy knowing I did my best. This is a fine thing to think about on this newly created “family day” holiday.

The Trade-offs

However, I know jack shit about astronomy. Worse yet, my decisions have left me in a very vulnerable financial position.

I am paying the price for my single-minded Mothering years. I had no back-up plan. Like a King’s cast off mistress forced to go back onstage to pay her way in the world, I worry I will die impoverished and alone in Paris. OK, that would make a terrifically romantic end and I might just do it so it can become part of our family lore. The PM better let me leave the country so I can fulfill my destiny, the jerk!

No “Safety Net”  

I am struck by how horrible the ends of peoples lives were in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly women’s. If you fell out of favour – with your King or your spouse – you were doomed. They literally threw you out the door to fend for yourself while they went on with lavish dinner parties and balls. Society women would then scorn you for how far you’d “fallen” and talk about what a disgrace you’d become.

In a Jane Austen novel, it was put very politely, “How she lived then, I know not. She was lost to all good society.”

Even royals fell on hard times as houses and properties often reverted to the eldest son if a husband died. If you became poor, this would also result in the loss of your position in society. You might find yourself in a small, seedy apartment when you were used to having a grand house with several servants. Suddenly you would need to rely on the charity of any “good” relations you had left.

A Spinster with her cats

Spinsters & Old Maids

Only wealthy women could remain unmarried and be respected in society. For women without a fortune it was a terrible fate as women could not even earn their own money. A brother or uncle might look after you but it would be a drain on their finances as well as their patience.

The object of the card game “Old Maid” is to get rid of the Old Maid card as quickly as possible. The person who ends up with the Old Maid loses the game. In a kettle of popcorn, the unpopped kernels are called “Old Maids.” Nobody likes them.

You Are in Good Company, However

Jane Austen was a spinster herself. The horror of remaining so is a prominent theme for many characters in her writing. It must have been a very bitter existence for someone like Jane who was sensible enough to feel keenly the barbs and petty injustices of her position. She relied on relatives for her every expense. Many of her observations are wry and knife-sharp, and her books are full of silly and stupid characters. By luck of their birth, they get to live an easy life and often lord over their poorer cousins. These people are contrasted with intelligent women who find themselves suddenly impoverished by the death of a Father. Or sometimes just no hope of marriage as they have no family fortune that would entice a potential suitor.

Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse

Emma is the Exception

Jane Austen was forced to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, George III’s son, even though she loathed him. Apparently he was a fan of her earlier novels and one doesn’t say “no” to the future King. Emma is the silly, rich character in this novel but gets to redeem herself before it is too late. George IV does go up slightly in my estimation for his taste in literature. Unlike Emma, he wasn’t able to redeem himself and he died horribly.

Of course, Jane’s name wasn’t actually listed in her published books as writing was not a suitable profession for a lady. The only thing a lady was allowed to do was to marry and become a Mother. That was it.

Happy Endings

Unlike in Jane’s real life and the lives of most Royals, her novels end well. It is important for me to have hope, which is why I enjoy reading them.

When I reflect on all the real lives of people – royal and otherwise – who have come before me, it makes me feel incredibly lucky. This is one of the very few times in history where it is possible for a woman to live independently. Think about that. It means we are free to earn a living, support ourselves, make our own decisions, and live life the way we want to.

Before this past two years, my contributions to society were welcome, whether it was in the workforce, volunteering, or attending concerts and events. No wonder all the restrictions, mandates, and rules are chafing me! Having been free, the cage is no longer tolerable.

History gives me the perspective to see that my own “suffering” is in all likelihood going to be short-lived. Kings are toppled if they arrogantly try to make others do as they say. It never ends well (Charles I in 1649).

When I read about the hubris, the blunders, and terrible decisions made by royal people, it makes my own idiotic mistakes look like child’s play.

Really, if you haven’t had anyone beheaded lately, you’re doing just fine.

Oh, Henry VIII!


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