The Monarchy of Henry VIII
As a historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper is inspired by the general history of the time period in which the novel is set. (Like any historical novel, it does not claim to be wholly accurate factually. For example, historically Prince Edward was only nine when he became King of England, but in the novel he and Tom Canty are fifteen.) During this period in English history, Henry VIII ruled as king from 1509 until 1547. Over the course of his controversial reign, he had six wives. The children (Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward) of these wives are mentioned in or appear in Twain’s novel. The first wife was Catherine of Aragon, whom Henry married in 1509. The couple had one daughter, Mary, who would later become Queen Mary I and reign from 1553 to 1558. Henry wanted a male heir and when Catherine did not produce one, Henry decided to divorce her. The Pope refused to allow the divorce, but Henry proceeded with it anyway in 1533 and passed an act that declared him the head of the English Church. In addition to the matter of the divorce, Henry had long objected to the power the Roman Church held over the English monarchy. The separation of the English Church from Rome is known as the English Reformation.
King Henry married the already-pregnant Anne Boleyn in 1533. Their daughter, Elizabeth, would later enjoy a lengthy reign (from 1588 to 1603) as Queen Elizabeth I. Anne was executed for infidelity to the king in 1536. King Henry’s third wife was Jane Seymour, whom he married the same month that Anne was executed. Jane died shortly after giving birth to Edward in 1537. Edward was Henry’s only male heir; he died in 1553. King Henry had three other wives with whom he had no children. Lady Jane Grey, one of Edward’s companions in the novel, was a cousin of Edward and a descendant of King Henry’s sister Mary. Jane Grey ruled as queen for just over a week, after Edward’s death, but when the popularity of Mary Tudor (daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon) was established, she became queen instead. Jane Grey was executed in 1554 on Queen Mary I’s orders.
Henry VIII’s reign was also noted for the extreme nature of the punishments of various crimes. Some of these are discussed in Twain’s novel. Physical punishments (such as time in the pillory or whipping) along with jail time were often ordered for more minor offences. Executions included hanging, which could be ordered even for stealing, and beheading, often reserved for treasonous offences.
Post–Civil War America
At the time Twain wrote The Prince and the Pauper, the United States was still recovering from the aftermath of the Civil War. In the South, an agricultural society previously dependent on slavery for profit was finding a new way to function. The second half of the nineteenth century was one of increasing reliance on industrial development. Twain, who for a time grew wealthy from his success as a writer, was also an investor in many of the new technologies. Yet, as Larzer Ziff observes in his 2004 biography (titled simply Mark Twain), Twain appeared to possess a ‘‘genius for miscalculation,’’ and was known to lose large sums of money on technological innovations (such as a mechanical typesetter) that were soon improved upon by other, more profitable models. Twain’s immediate literary predecessors were those who had risen to prominence in the first half of the nineteenth century, writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These writers were known for their social commentary and literary style. In contrast, Twain wrote in the vernacular of everyday Americans, in a boisterous and humorous style. Yet Twain had much to say about society and morality as well, and his ability to do this in a less formal way ‘‘revolutionized American literary expression,’’ according to Ziff. Walt Whitman, writing at the same time as Twain, was also part of this relaxed, sometimes bawdy, approach to literature, and he too tackled such weighty philosophical issues as morality, identity, and freedom. This revolutionary, realistic, down-to-earth, lively approach of American writers such as Twain and Whitman was influenced by the significant changes in America at the time, an America whose western frontier was still being populated, and that was fresh from a war that had torn the country in half.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.