Were it not for the “Horrible Histories” series of books and the BBC television series inspired by the books that was broadcast on CBBC, it is hard to imagine that any of the class would know anything about the Tudors. Some joined in the song, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived,” as the actor representing Henry VIII sang about the monarch’s most memorable deeds.
To be honest, I do not believe I knew any more about the Tudors when I was twelve years old. The kings and queens of England chart on the primary school wall would have taught us the succession, but not much more.
The unit we are learning focuses on the subject of historical significance, asking why the Tudors are significant for the present day. Tomorrow the question is why Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries; it leaves few illusions about Henry’s greed for money and power and his complete disregard for those who suffered as a consequence of the removal of the only rudimentary care for the poor and the infirm that existed.
Undoubtedly, the Tudors are significant, (although the Stuarts might have been apt for the current times, learning about the English Civil Wars might have served as a warning about the deep and widening divisions that have been caused by incompetent governance). However, there seems a danger that a unit of learning focusing on distant events may help create a sense that most of history is something unconnected with the lives of those required to learn it. It is especially the case when the religious disputes of Tudor times are discussed. In a post-Christian society, the arguments between Reformers and Roman Catholics seem abstruse if not completely incomprehensible. When one student suggested that Edward VI was not at all significant because he had only reigned for a very short time, I tried to suggest that the emergencevof the Church of England and the publication of the “Book of Common Prayer” were significant developments – there was a look of incomprehension.
Teaching humanities is undoubtedly a much more engaging task than trying to teach dry mathematical formulae or rules of English grammar, but sometimes there seem moments when it could be more fun. Some government official somewhere must have decreed that Year 7 students should learn the concept of historical significance, but the concept might have been easier if they had been allowed to learn history first. “Horrible Histories” seem far more memorable than history that is horrible.