Teaching History in the Primary School

Appendix C: Teaching Plan - The Early History of Britain

You can do this as one topic or as several, but it's a good idea to make one general point first. The great majority of the people who lived through the early history of Britain were farmers. They experienced the changes described in this unit as changes of landlord rather than lifestyle, for the crops still had to be sowed and harvested whoever was in charge. Nevertheless there were some times when their life was easier and they were able to keep more of what they produced. These were not always the times we think of as 'advanced'. The serfs tied to a Roman villa estate in the fourth century AD may have been more truly oppressed than the villeins 'owned' by a later Saxon thegn. All we know is that they were good at their job or we should not be here!

Stage 1 - Britain before the Romans

One way of introducing this complex subject is to imagine changes that might have taken place in the childrens' own locality. Roll back the clock twelve thousand years: what do they see? Frozen desert or coniferous forest perhaps, with small groups of skin-clad hunter-gatherers chasing elk and reindeer across a snow-covered landscape. These are the last representatives of the palaeolithic or old stone age way of life. Their homes are in caves which they share with wolves and bears.

Advance the clock four thousand years and it will feel a lot warmer. Now the trees will be oak, ash and beech and we find the people settled near rivers and estuaries where they can fish as well as hunt. They will be using sharp slivers of flint tied to harpoons and to the ends of arrows; these 'microliths' telll us we are in the mesolithic or middle stone age.

Turn the clock forward another three thousand years (circa 5000BC) and we will see that much of the forest has been cleared leaving a landscape very similar to that of the countryside today. Small fields surround clusters of round thatched huts, each with its paddock for livestock and its granaries for drying and storing corn. We are now in the neolithic or new stone age, which merges into the Bronze Age (circa 2000BC) as the people find that metal tools are easier to make and sharpen. Finally advance the clock to the point where BC becomes AD. The landscape will be probably be dominated by a hill fort where most of the people live and their weapons and tools will be made of iron. These are the Britons the Romans will find when they arrive.

Teach through:

  • a series of OHP overlays showing changes to the area since the last ice age
  • a video showing people still living by hunting and gathering
  • a video or class visit focussed on a Bronze Age site like Grimspound.
  • a class collage showing 'Britain before the Romans' models of a village or hut the childrens' own video re-enactment: 'Living in the Iron Age' creative or collaborative writing: 'a day in the life of'

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Stage 2 - The Romans

Before introducing the Romans you will need to tackle the concept 'empire'. Britain once had an empire: what did this mean? Note that many of the soldiers who helped to conquer Britain in AD 43 did not even come from Italy, although their officers probably did. Why were the Romans interested in conquering Britain? A bit of geography will help to answer this question (natural frontiers, imperial prestige etc) and also the importance of roads as a way of holding the empire together.

Roads were one of the distinguishing features of what the Romans themselves would have called 'Romanitas¬Ď or Roman-ness. What were the other distinguishing characteristics of Romanitas? How about a belief in order and discipline; a contempt for slaves and barbarians; a concern with personal hygiene; a liking for oysters. Children can approach the Romans on many levels!

Teach through:

  • a map of the Roman Empire, showing roads, cities and geographical features
  • pictures or film extracts showing what Ancient Rome looked like
  • a video showing the lives of Romans at home (eg the History through Art series)
  • putting 'thoughts' in the head of a Roman soldier
  • a visit to a Roman fort eg Caerleon, Chester or Hadrian's Wall
  • inviting a re-enactment society or group to visit the school
  • writing Roman 'postcards' similar to the Vindolanda tablets
  • a visit to a Roman villa eg Chedworth, Lullingstone, Fishbourne
  • making models of forts, villas or temples
  • learning some simple Latin words
  • writing stories based on the lives of real or imaginary Romans

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Stage 3 - The Saxons

When the Roman army left there was an economic collapse (no money and no security); the elite seem to have abandoned their estates and re-occupied iron age hill-forts. 'King' Arthur may have lived in this 'twilight era'. He was remembered for his victories over the Saxons, roving bands of pirates and mercenaries from Denmark and North Germany who had been given land by rival warlords and were now fighting on their own account.

Contrast the Saxon and Roman 'homelands'. Why might they have given rise to different sets of values and different social organisation? The key text here is Beowulf, the great 6th century epic poem which provides detailed descriptions of the Saxon way of life as well as insights into their fatalistic psychology. Like the gods of Valhalla Beowulf is doomed to lose his last fight but not before he has made a name for himself.

Teach through:

  • a strip cartoon based on Beowulf which can be turned into a play or mime
  • writing alliterative poems based on the style of Beowulf
  • making Saxon jewellery based on the Sutton Hoo examples
  • constructing a model of an Anglo-Saxon village
  • role-playing an Anglo-Saxon 'trial'
  • a contrasting 'man fights monster' fable like Dragon Castle

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Stage 4 - The Vikings

The Vikings seem to be the past of the Anglo-Saxons come back to haunt them. But how much truth is there in the Hollywood legend? This is a good opportunity to show the children the difference between what we think we know and what we really know. The finds and reconstructions from Jorvik show what a Viking town was really like.

Teach through:

  • an evocation of the classic Viking myth
  • a comparison with the Jorvik display
  • a review of other archaeological evidence
  • an open-ended project researched by the children
  • a collaborative 'saga' written by the children themselves

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When teaching children about the early history of Britain we will certainly need to describe the impact of Christianity. First the Romans, then the Saxons and finally the Vikings: all three abandoned their old gods in favour of Jesus Christ. Why? Children should be helped to see how, in the Roman Empire, Christianity appealed to poor and under valued people with its promise of a better future and its inclusiveness. They can also see why Roman emperors might think the special loyalty of their Christian subjects worth having. If you were a Saxon chief conversion to Christianity would bring you the services of a ready-made corps of literate, educated men and the respect of foreign rulers, not to mention a special status vis-a-vis your rivals. These points can be made without 'preaching' or trespassing on the territory of RE. However, children should also understand that the advantages of being the state religion could be outweighed by the compromises it involved. In the Middle Ages the Church became rich and powerful: was this appropriate for the followers of a poor carpenter from Galilee?

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