Twain wrote The Prince and the Pauper halfway through his writing of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A clear break from the American backwoods, The Prince and the Pauper is set in England and uses a dialect more similar to Shakespeare than to Huck Finn. Despite the difference in style, however, Twain’s voice is still evident in the book’s political commentary. The novel tells the story of the historical King Edward VI who switches lives with a young pauper for a few weeks. As Edward experiences the difficulties of life as a commoner, he recognizes the injustices of English law and later works to right them as king. The story is an exciting tale of mistaken identity and a wonderful introduction to sixteenth century English history.
Though The Prince and the Pauper is a work of fiction, it relies on real historical details about the English monarchy for its setting and characters. King Henry VIII, Prince Edward (later King Edward VI), and most of the other nobles were real historical figures. Twain’s details about the royal family were meticulously researched, but additional background may be required to enhance student understanding. Edward’s father, Henry VIII, is perhaps most notorious for his six wives. Henry sought a son to secure a male heir to the Tudor dynasty, and when his first two wives gave birth only to daughters, he went to great lengths to marry again. Making himself head of the Church of England and changing the national religion, Henry divorced his first wife and executed his second. Although his third wife, Jane Seymour, bore him Edward, she died a few days after delivery. Prince Edward, the only son, was duly cherished by the king. Historians describe Edward as intelligent and pious. Unfortunately, his reign was brief. He became king in 1547 at the age of nine and died of tuberculosis at 15. While king, he was too young to truly rule and was largely directed by the Lord Protector the Earl of Hertford, later executed and replaced by the Earl of Warwick.
Twain takes certain liberties with English history, but bases his characters’ actions and personalities on rough historical accounts. Although modern historians portray Hertford in a critical light, in Twain’s time, he was praised as a champion of the common people. He and young Edward were thus viewed as more tender-hearted and fair-minded than their ruling relations. In a letter to a friend, Twain wrote that his goal in The Prince and the Pauper was “to afford a realizing sense of the exceeding severity of the laws of that day by inflicting some of their penalties upon the King himself and allowing him a chance to see the rest of them applied to others—all of which is to account for a certain mildness which distinguished Edward VI’s reign from those that preceded and followed it.” For more information on Edward VI or the history of the Tudors, visit the links below.