King Edward the Fourth was gay
King Edward the Fourth was charming,
He'd a voice like silk,
And manners like milk,
And a smile that was most disarming.
As parlor tricks go, this was a pretty dumb one. I could recite the character flaws of Edward IV of England and how he manifested them: "he / Upsided-downed / His brother and drowned / Him dead in a butt of malmsey."
No matter that I didn't know what malmsey was, much less how much of it would be found in a butt. The limerick rhythm was hard to resist, and, besides, I got paid for it.
Huh? Paid to memorize the rhymed antics of a fratricidal king of England?
Yes, because my family was pathologically Anglophilic. My Yankee grandmother, a scion of northern Maine potato country, was nuts for the royal family. She amassed coronation souvenirs (her collection of Edward VIII teacups was actually mildly valuable, thanks to Wallis Simpson). She followed the Royals in the news (we found four separate newspaper accounts of Edward VIII’s abdication in her attic is). And she adopted as something of a holy tome a book of doggerel that chronicled the often-sanitized lives and careers of the post-Invasion monarchs of England.
This book, Kings and Queens, by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon, with illustrations by Rosalind Thornycroft, became something of a catechism for my mother and her siblings.
My mother mastered them all, even Queen Victoria, who was very long, and scaffolded her entire knowledge of European history on these poems. Not for her a wimpy mnemonic like, "Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived." No, she went whole hog:
Bluff King Hal was full of beans;
He married half a dozen queens;
For three called Kate they cried the banns,
And one called Jane, and a couple of Annes.
(The six succeeding stanzas encapsulate the church-recognized love life of Henry VIII and the fates of his wives.)
So when she had her children, she bought the 1952 update, quickly memorized George VI and proceeded to school us in her gospel. We were paid 50 cents for each normal-length poem we memorized and $1 for each long one, but Edward VI and Elizabeth II were deemed too short to earn any credit.
It was easier than shoveling the sidewalk. And I have to admit that some of it came in handy in Western Civ.
My mother offered a little cost-of-living increase to my daughter and her cousin when they reached the age of memorization: $2.50 for a short poem and $5 for a long one. My daughter accordingly became very familiar with William the Conqueror ("the first of our kings, / Not counting Ethelreds, Egberts and things"), Elizabeth I and the never-ending Queen Victoria.
The legacy of this upbringing? When her Western Civ class reached the Magna Carta this fall, and her teacher mentioned King John, she burst out with, "He shamed the throne that he sat on!" Oh, my.
Fortunately for her children, should they ever come along, she won't be required to Scotch-tape together the shreds of that old 1952 edition, because the British Library has reissued the book, so a new generation can enjoy the Farjeons' peculiar brand of patriotism and Thornycroft's compellingly ugly illustrations, complete with bad separations.
The British Library is also bringing out its 1933 companion, Heroes and Heroines, which features such lights as Boadicea, Hereward the Wake, Timour the Tartar and Buffalo Bill. When it was released, Kirkus suggested it would be "better for the American public than Kings and Queens." Kirkus noted, upon the appearance of the revised edition of the latter in 1952, that this English "minor classic" would likely have "limited" appeal here. Kirkus clearly didn't know my grandmother.
Feeling nostalgic for the musty tomes of your youth? I’ll be rounding up some other recent re-releases in upcoming posts.
Vicky Smith is the Children's & Teen Editor of Kirkus. She lives, works and walks her dog in Maine.