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15 Royally Amazing Facts About Queen Elizabeth I

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Queen Elizabeth I took the crown of England on January 15, 1559. To honor the 456th anniversary of her coronation, here are 15 things you might not know about Good Queen Bess.

1. She very nearly wasn’t queen at all.

Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne required a great deal of good luck… or bad luck, depending on whose perspective you take. Following the death of her father, King Henry VIII, Elizabeth was third in line for the throne after her younger half-brother Edward and her older half-sister Mary. A 10-year-old Edward took the throne in 1547, ruling for only six years before dying of a fever.

Just before his passing, Edward named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, his successor (bumping Elizabeth down yet another spot). However, Jane’s stint on the throne was a brief 13 days—Mary succeeded in having Jane deposed and took over the crown herself for five years. Influenza took the childless Mary’s life in 1558, allowing Elizabeth to at last become the Queen of England, Wales, and Ireland.

2. Before she was queen, she was a political prisoner.

In 1554, Elizabeth was tried and imprisoned on suspicion of abetting Wyatt’s Rebellion, an uprising against Queen Mary I that many believed to be motivated by the quest for Protestant liberation.

3. She was a clotheshorse.

Even though she’s remembered for her high fashions, it’s surprising to know just how expansive Elizabeth’s wardrobe was. According to one estimate, she may have owned as many as 2,000 pairs of gloves!

4. She was a firm believer in astrology.

The Queen kept a personal advisor named John Dee—a renowned mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and professed alchemist—in her regular company. Elizabeth relied on Dee’s counsel in the scheduling of important events and, as one rumor suggests, in the removal of a troublesome “death curse.”

5. There was a “cult” surrounding her.

Upon Elizabeth’s claim of the throne, her team of advisors encouraged a trend of flattering depictions among her portrait artists. As time went on, depictions of Queen Elizabeth I in both visual and written media began to incorporate likenesses of classic goddesses—she was compared to Venus, Astraea, and the Greek deity Diana, all in an effort to espouse connotations of divinity and purity. This trend of work is known as the Cult of Elizabeth, or the Cult of the Virgin Queen.

6. She pioneered legislation to help feed the poor.

When it wasn’t spreading propaganda, Elizabeth’s administration was actually doing some good. The Queen oversaw the nation’s first attempts at poverty relief: a gradual accumulation of rulings like mandatory taxation towards this end, which culminated with the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law.

7. She could speak many languages.

In addition to her native English, Queen Elizabeth I was known to be fluent in French, Italian, and Latin, going so far as to translate collections of lengthy texts into these languages. The Queen is also believed to have spoken Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Flemish, Greek, and the now nearly defunct tongue of Cornish.

8. A few rumors still tie her to Shakespeare.

Clearly the intellectual type, Elizabeth made it her mission while in power to patronize the theatrical arts. Her devotion to stage led to an assortment of musings regarding her relationship to William Shakespeare. Some scholars surmise that the Queen had a personal kinship with the playwright, who alludes to her (quite amorously) in the second act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

That very time I saw, but thou couldst not
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm'd: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.

9. She was at the center of a romantic scandal…

If the tabloids had existed in the 16th century, they would have had a field day with Queen Elizabeth I. She turned down proposals from the likes of King Philip II of Spain, King Eric XIV of Sweden, Archduke Charles of Austria, and French brothers Henry III and Francis, Dukes of Anjou. Throughout her life, Elizabeth’s one true love remained her childhood friend Robert Dudley, whose marriage to Amy Robsart kept the two from achieving Elizabeth’s long desired union.

Even after the sudden death of Robsart in 1560 Elizabeth resisted marrying her lifelong friend. Eighteen years later, he’d go on to find a second wife, Lettice Knollys, whom Elizabeth was said to treat with merciless scorn.

10. Her scandals weren’t limited to proposals.

In addition to these many spotlighted proposals, Queen Elizabeth I found (and continues to find) herself the subject of plentiful rumors about secret love affairs, mainly to high-profile men: Aristocrat and writer Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton rank as her most noteworthy would-be loves.

11. She was the only English queen who never married.

Despite the many men who vied for her hand, Elizabeth never took a husband. She is the only English queen to bear this distinction, although eight kings before her also remained lifelong bachelors (Æthelstan, Eadred, Edward the Martyr, Harthacnut, Edgar the Ætheling, William II, Edward V, and Elizabeth’s brother Edward VI).

12. She can claim many “lasts.”

In addition to being the last monarch to reign unmarried, she was also the last to rule over England before its union with Scotland. Elizabeth died in 1603, the same year that the Treaty of Union (or the Union of England and Scotland Act) would take effect, under the watch of her successor, James I. Finally, Elizabeth was the final of five kings and queens to rule under the Tudor dynasty.

13. She held one impressive record.

Aged 69 at the time of her death, Elizabeth I was, at the time, the oldest monarch in English history (breaking the nearly 300-year record set by 68-year-old Edward I). Elizabeth held this honor until 1754 (151 years), when King George II hit a ripe old 70 while still ruling over what had become Great Britain.

14. Her looks were quite deceiving.

Following a bout with smallpox in the early 1560s, Elizabeth I suffered facial scarring and hair loss… but nobody would have known it. She kept up appearances with an ample supply of gallant wigs and the application of white makeup over her face, which was in keeping with the style of the era.

15. She cursed like a sailor.

Elizabeth was infamous for her proclivity for colorful language, a characteristic she is said to have inherited from her father, King Henry VIII.

You may not be a king or queen, but any time you need GEICO's customer service, they'll give you the royal treatment.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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