Historias y humor: Talking Statues

Yesterday it was Halloween, the scariest day of the year, when thousands of restless ghosts go prowling around at night ready to appear to you. No ghost appeared to me, but I was visited in my sleep by one of these lost souls, who whispered in my ear a detailed account of some bloodcurdling events which took place in the England of the XVIth century, during Henry VIII's reign.
I ignore the identity of my mysterious visitor who, for all I know, might have been the unfortunate monarch himself, wanting to rehabilitate his memory. 
Anyhow, whoever this daunting spirit may have been, the recollection of what it told me is a bit blurred in my mind as I write this the morning after, but with what I do remember from this eerie dream and the historical data I know, I've made up a story, putting the words into the mouth of someone I imagine living  in the future, in a highly sophisticated, advanced world.
Well, here's the story, which I'm pleased to share with you:


The first time I heard about talking statues was in 2030, that is ten years ago, when I was 14. It was my father who told me. He had seen it mentioned on the BBC's website, which he was very fond of and visited regularly.

Basically, it read as follows: a team of university professors of English history at Oxford had created a device to make the statues of the English Royalty in London, Manchester and other big cities talk to you. It was quite simple: all you had to do was, using your mobile phone, scan the plaque of the statue, and then you got a call from the King or Queen in question: "Hello, Victoria here...", and the statues proceeded to give you the main data about their life.

I was thrilled to the bone by the news. I had a passion for History, and always got A's in English History at school. So I begged my father to take me to London to hear the statues speak, and he promised to take me there on my summer holidays.

My father kept his promise and, in July, as I got off the plane at Heathrow, I was full of joyful anticipation, for I knew that soon I would be able to realize my dream.

I couldn't wait, so that the very next day I began my tour of the statues.  I visited  Alfred the Great's one, at Trinity Church Square, Richard I's, outside the Palace of Westminster, Henry VIII's at the entrance to St Bartholomew's Hospital, Elizabeth I's, at St Dunstan-in-the-West, Charles I's, at Charing Cross and Victoria's, at Kensingston Gardens, among others, but I confess I was a bit disappointed, since I learnt nothing that I didn't know already.

I continued with my studies and soon forgot about the talking statues. But the team of researchers from Oxford University went on investigating and now, ten years later, they've come up with something really amazing: they've succeeded in turning the talking statues into a sort of talking robots, giving them the capacity to express their own thoughts and feelings. Now that is absolutely fascinating, a major breakthrough, as the possibilities it opens up are unlimited.

By way of example, I will offer you, in its totality, the interview to Henry VIII' statue, conducted by a prestigious London journalist two days ago:

Journalist: Well, Your Majesty, I'm a reporter from The Times, and I'm here to ask you a few questions about your life and reign. I hope you don't mind, as some of my questions might seem too personal to you.

King Henry VIII: Whether I mind or don't mind is beside the point, since I've been programmed to answer, to the best of my knowledge, any questions I'm asked, no matter how personal they may be.

J: OK, Your Majesty. Well, we'll skip the general data everybody knows about, such as date of birth, duration of reign, date of death, etc., and concentrate on those issues about which you can express an opinion. 

K: All right, I'm ready, fire!

J: Well, Your Majesty, generally speaking, History doesn't hold a favourable opinion of your person or your reign. To start with, you've been accused by some historians of getting rid of anyone who dared oppose you by charging them with treason and having them beheaded, even when some, like Thomas More or Cromwell, had previously rendered useful services to the Crown. What do you have to say to this?

K: It is true that I ordered the execution of many knights of high standing, including Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, but you have to bear in mind that those were turbulent times and the security of the state had to be the king's priority. And I, as King of England, had then powerful enemies: Charles I of Spain, following the annulment of my marriage to his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, and Pope Clement VII, after my rejection of papal authority, being the most formidable, though by no means the only ones.

J: Well, on the face of it, it seems quite obvious that your reason for rejecting papal authority, initiating the English Reformation was the Pope's refusal to declare your marriage to Catherine null and void, but there are historians who argue that you would have finally decreed the separation of the English Church from Rome in any case, because you  never were a true Catholic. Is that so?

K: No, that's completely false. I was a devout and well-informed Catholic, to the extent that my 1521 publication Assertio Septem Sacramentorum ('Defence of the Seven Sacraments') earned me the title of Fidei Defensor ('Defender of the Faith), bestowed upon me by Pope Leo X. And if Pope Clement had not been so dull-witted,
clearly ill-advised by Charles I of Spain, Catherine's nephew, England would have probably remained Catholic to the present day, though I must say that the dissolution of the monasteries would have been inevitable so that taxes once payable to Rome could be trasferred to the Crown, together with the riches the religious orders had amassed.

J: Now, for my readers' benefit, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your wives, who played such an important role in your life. As is well known, you were married six times: first, to Catherine of Aragon, the youngest surviving child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile.  Catherine gave you a daughter, Mary, and remained your legitimate devoted wife for 24 years, but still you had the marriage annulled, why?

H: It is true that she gave me a daughter and, before that, she had given birth to a son - Henry - who unfortunately died seven weeks later, but after 24 years of marriage, it became clear to me that she wouldn't be able to give me a son, and I needed a male heir and so did England. In addition to that, when she married me, Catherine was the widow of my brother Arthur, and though we had a papal dispensation, I was beginning to feel that we were committing incest.

J: Come on, Your Majesty, don't be ridiculous! That's a poor pretext. Catherine and Arthur had indeed been married for 20 weeks, but Arthur died at the age of 15, which makes it practically impossible for their marriage to have been consummated. And besides, remember you had the papal dispensation, which your father, Henry VII, and the Spanish ambassador, had obtained when you were betrothed to Catherine in 1503, that is six years before you married her, and they had made sure that the dispensation would be valid even if Arthur and Catherine's marriage had been consummated. 

H: That is as it may be, yet I felt that in marrying Catherine I had acted contrary to Leviticus 20:21: "He that marrieth his brother's wife, doth an unlawful thing..."

J: But when you married her, she was your brother's widow, not his wife. Isn't it  more true then that you wanted your marriage to Catherine annulled because you had fallen madly in love with Ann Boleyn, an attractive young woman in the Queen's entourage, and you were determined to marry her at all costs? 

H: No, that's wrong. As I've already said, I badly needed a male heir - I even contemplated the possibility of legitimising Henry FitzRoy, the bastard son I'd had by Elizabeth Blount, one of my mistresses - but I finally decided to reject Catherine and marry a woman of child-bearing age.

J: Well, be it as it may, in the end you had your way, and Anne Boleyn became your second wife. She also gave you a daughter, Elizabeth, but she too failed to give you the son you desired, but why did you have her beheaded? 

H: She was accused of adultery, incest, witchcraft and treason. She was tried, found guilty and condemned to death.

J: You know very well that none of those charges was ever proved, but you were in a hurry to get rid of her. Actually, the day after her execution, you became engaged to Jane Seymour, one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, with whom you were having an affair, and whom you married ten days later. But, please tell me, are you really sure, deep in your heart, that Anne was unfaithful to you?

H: I know she flirted with some men at court but, to be honest, I don't know for sure whether she actually cuckolded me or not, and I reckon that will remain a secret for ever.

J: Well, it was Jane Seymour, your third wife, who finally gave birth, in 1537, to a son, Prince Edward, the future Edward VI. You must have been very happy the day he was born?

H: Yes, it was, without a doubt, the happiest day of my life, and the event was celebrated all over the country, but my happiness soon turned to sorrow. It had been a difficult delivery, and Jane died 12 days later from an infection.

J:  Well, in any case, you had at last the male heir you had so long wished for, why then did you have to marry Anne of Cleves, your fourth wife, a German lady who cannot be said to have been a paragon of beauty, her face allegedly being pock-marked and her laugh resembling a horse's neigh?

H: She was not as ugly and disagreeable as you are making her out to be, but it is true that I was misled by a much too flattering portrait Hans Holbein the Younger had painted of her at my request, and indeed when we first met, I found she was quite unattractive. I married her nevertheless in an attempt to ensure my succession. I was worried about Edward. The royal doctors had told me that the Prince's health was poor, and I somehow sensed that he wouldn't outlive me by many years. 

J: Anyway, it seems that you could not overcome the revulsion Anne's hideous looks made you feel, to the extent that it was rumoured you could not even make love to her. Therefore, less than six months after you had married her, you expressed your desire to annul the marriage so that you could wed another. Anne had the good sense to confirm that the marriage had never been consummated, probably saving her life by her admission.

H: Yes, the marriage was dissolved, but we remained good friends. Anne received the title of 'The King's Sister', two houses and a generous allowance.

J: Well, free again, you married for the fifth time, the woman of your choice being now the young and beautiful Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn's cousin and her lady-in-waiting. But the marriage to Catherine didn't last long either, as she was, like her cousin Anne had been, beheaded. But why did you have her beheaded?

H: Well, she was found guilty of adultery, this time without the shadow of a doubt so, much to my regret, the only thing I could do was to order her execution to safeguard my honour.

J: Finally, in 1543,  four years before your death, you married the wealthy widow Catherine Parr, your sixth and last wife. What can you tell me about her?

H: Catherine proved to be a good choice. She looked after me, patiently enduring my frequent changes of mood, brought about by my painful disease and, soon after we were married, she persuaded me to be reconciled with my daughters Mary and Elizabeth who, through An Act of Parliament, were duly put back in the line of succession after Edward, Prince of Wales.

J: And they both became Queens in due time: first Mary, when Edward died when he was only 15, confirming your premonition about him, and then Elizabeth, after Mary died without issue. Concerning Mary, it's been suggested you may have entertained hopes that when she acceded to the throne, she would serve as a mediator between Catholics and Protestants, but she proved to be an intolerant Catholic Queen, and she had hundreds of her subjects put to death for religious reasons, a fact which earned her the sobriquet of 'Bloody Mary', which is how she's known in history. Now that you know what happened, can you state an opinion about your daughter's reign?

H: It's not for me to judge her, but I can tell you that her behaviour does not surprise me in the least. I always knew Mary was a fervent Catholic, like her mother.

J: However, you may be pleased to know that as far as Elizabeth, your daughter by Anne Boleyn, is concerned, it was a completely different story. 'The Good Queen Bess', as she was sometimes affectionately called, or 'the Virgin Queen', because she never wished to get married, reigned wisely for 44 years; in religion, she was a convinced Protestant, but much more moderate than you or Mary had been and, in the military domain, by defeating the all-powerful Spanish Armada, she gave England days of glory, something that you were never able to achieve. Have you got anything to say about her?

H: I'm not surprised either. Elizabeth was educated as a Protestant, and my blood ran through her veins. Regarding her brilliant military success, it shouldn't be forgotten that it was during my reign that a permanent Royal Navy was created.  

J: Now, King Henry, after so many women in your life, your six wives and the great number of mistresses you had besides, can you tell me if there ever was a woman you really loved?

H: Believe it or not, the only woman I ever really loved was Catherine of Aragon, my first wife.

J: You say you loved her, and yet you repudiated her and had your marriage to her annulled.

H: For pure reasons of state. Much as I loved her, the fact remains that she failed to give me a son. I needed a male heir, and so I had to marry someone else, but she always had my respect, and I saw to it that she was treated fairly, even though she had refused to accept my suggestion that she retire to a nunnery, facilitating in this way the annulment process.

J: Well, Your Majesty, the interview is now coming to an end, but before we finish, here's my last question to you: I'm sure my readers would like to know, in view of the agitated life you led, if you have any regrets?

H: No, I have no regrets. I did what had to be done. I played my role in English history and, were I to be born again, I would do exactly the same, with one exception.

J: What exception?

H: I spent too much time and money on festivals, celebrations, banquets, tournaments and the like. Actually, it was in the last tournament I took part in, in 1536, that I had my unfortunate jousting accident. I fell off my horse, and a leg wound I had suffered years earlier re-opened. The doctors treated it, but it could never be healed. The wound festered and became ulcerated, thus preventing me from maintaining the level of physical activity I had previously enjoyed, giving me insufferable pain and making hell of the rest of my days on earth, my unsightly obesity hastening my death at the age of 55. Yes, you can be sure that if I were to be born again, I wouldn't make the same mistake.

J: Well, I thank you, Your Majesty, for the sincerity of your answers.

H: You are welcome.


1.-   Who granted Henry VIII the title of Defender of the Faith?

2.- When did Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon get married?

3.- What was the family relationship between Charles I of Spain and Catherine of Aragon?

4.- Who was Henry FitzRoy's mother?

5.- What made Henry think that Anne of Cleves was prettier than she really was?

6.- How long were Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves married?

7.- When was Henry reconciled with her daughters Mary and Elizabeth?

8.- When did Henry VIII die?

9.- What does Henry say was his only regret?

10.- Do you believe Henry’s answers to the journalist were 100% sincere? If you don’t, where do you think he may have lied? Discuss.

KEY (suggested answers)

1.- Pope Leo X
2.- In 1509
3.- Charles I was Catherine’s nephew/Catherine was Charles I’s aunt.
4.-Elizabeth Blount, one of Henry’s mistresses.
5.- He was misled by the portrait Hans Holbein the Younger had painted of her, which was much too flattering.
6.- Six months.
7.- Near the end of his life, following Catherine’s Parr’s advice to him.
8.- In 1547
9.- That he had held so many festivals, celebrations, banquets and tournaments, which ruined his life and hastened his death.
10.- Students’ own answers.

6 comentarios :

  1. Very interesting interview.

    There is a good TV series about the reign of King Henry VIII called "The Tudors" starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry.

    It´s currently available on Netflix US together with an older one which I will soon make time to see.

    1. I thank you for your opinion and your information. As you can see, the interview is half fiction and half history. Next week, I intend to give ideas to exploit the story in class from a didactic point of view.

  2. A very interesting interview, dear professor. I have enjoyed it a lot. And I have discovered many things about Henry VIII's private life. Even if it is half fiction...