Divorced, beheaded, died

It was on this day in 1536 that Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, the third of his six wives. On Friday, a song about Henry’s wives came down the corridor from one of the history classrooms, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived,” as the actor representing Henry VIII sang about the monarch’s most memorable deeds. Were it not for the Horrible Histories series of books and the BBC television series inspired by the books, it is hard to imagine that many of the Year 7 students would know anything about the Tudors.

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 learning focuses on the subject of historical significance, asking why the Tudors are significant for the present day.  Going into the classroom for the following lesson, the questions the class were meant to answer were still on the whiteboard. There was an expectation that the students would analyse the reigns of the Tudor monarchs.

Undoubtedly, the Tudors are significant, however, there seems a danger that the requirement that learning should focus on difficult concepts 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. There is a tendency to assume that Edward VI, the son that Henry wanted who was born to Jane Seymour, was not at all significant because he only reigned for a very short time. To suggest to a Year 7 class that the emergence of the Church of England and the publication of the Book of Common Prayer were significant developments will invite looks of incomprehension from students for whom religion is an alien concept.

Teaching history is undoubtedly a much more engaging task than trying to teach 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 concepts such as that 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.

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