Five hundred years ago, life would have been very different for the 23 little girls clustered Wednesday afternoon in the children’s section of the downtown Carnegie Library.
For one thing, they likely wouldn’t have been able to read any of the books surrounding them. Nor would they go to school to learn how. They’d bathe very rarely, would probably get sick a lot, and would dress in multiple layers to keep warm.
Queen Anne Boleyn, who goes by Arwen McGilvra when she’s not in period costume, gave those facts and other historical information to her audience during the library’s last early release day program of the school year.
The library’s foundation helps plan the free early release programs for kindergarten through fifth grade to encourage library visits, said board member Amy Berry. Facilitators are needed for future programs.
In her Queen Anne persona, McGilvra welcomed Wednesday’s group and taught them how to properly greet royalty: with a curtsy.
“You take the edges of your skirt, you cross your legs and you bow at the knees,” she instructed. “If you don’t have a skirt, just pretend that you do.”
As a little girl, Anne was lucky enough to move to France, where the Renaissance was in full sway and she had the opportunity to learn to read and write.
She loved poetry, so the modern-day Anne recited the opening verses of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” — followed by a brief translation of the Middle English, all but incomprehensible to 21st-century ears.
Chilly England had only wood fires for heating in those days, so Queen Anne’s garb included bloomers, an underskirt, a hoopskirt, an overskirt and a velvet and cotton dress over all of that. (McGilvra’s sister made her the dress, which she said prompted her to create the educational persona that went with it.)
The long, wide sleeves of the dress are a mark of nobility, McGilvra said, because working folks needed short, tight sleeves in order to perform manual labor. She also wore a matching rounded cap, which, she explained, was both for keeping warm and for hiding the fact that many women of the period lost hair to lice and illness as they aged.
McGilvra’s audience learned Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, was known as “the virgin queen,” which some scholars believe led to the naming of the colony (and state) of Virginia in her honor. They learned that King Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne helped kick off what became the Protestant Reformation.
They didn’t learn about Queen Anne’s eventual fate, although some of them knew from previous presentations at Central Elementary School, McGilvra said. “‘Didn’t she get her head cut off?’ Well, yeah. Yeah, she did.”
McGilvra followed her Wednesday presentation with a lesson on making coin purses out of circles of royal purple felt. As she sewed, Miranda Winder, 7, said she might have liked to have been a peasant girl of the 1500s, where, she learned, families slept all together in one room.
“I would have liked it ’cause I could snuggle with my mommy and she couldn’t kick me out. ’Cause that’s what she does. She says I’m too old for that,” Miranda said.
Miranda’s sister Daphne, 3, said she definitely would not have wanted to be a queen.
“I want to be the princess,” she declared.