The Tudors - A Century of Change

8. Teaching the Tudors

Colourful, dramatic and full of forceful personalities, the Tudor period is a favourite with most children. Their prior knowledge is also likely to be high. And yet it's a period full of pitfalls, where attempts at historical explanations soon run into a maze of difficult concepts and unfamiliar thought patterns. Have you ever tried explaining the conflict between Catholic and Protestant to children without a religious background, other than the fact that the former liked their churches fancy and the latter liked them plain? Unless they're familiar with the questions that religion is designed to answer the different answers won't make sense.

The important idea to get across to children is that men and women in Tudor times felt that their society was fragile. For a start, it rested on the vagaries of the weather. Poor harvests in the middle years of the century resulted in high bread prices, adding to the difficulties caused by inflation. Secondly it rested on the concept of duty. Most people had to work, from dawn until dusk in many cases: there had to be a strong moral code to combat idleness, especially amongst the young. Today we rely on common sense and the police to keep people in line and we tolerate a wide variety of opinion believing that our society is strong enough to hold together without the uniformity of belief the Tudors would have thought essential. They would have seen our tolerance as foolish and dangerous: what would happen to a body if the limbs argued with the head?

On its own this metaphor explains much. Religion mattered. It supported the authority of kings and it kept men obedient. Heretics and rebels were described as cancerous growths that needed to be cut out 'both for example and (to avoid) infection of other'. The cruelty of the age, so much part of its attraction to some children, is largely the by-product of fear; it is hardly surprising to find the most executions occurring at just those times when the monarchy was at its weakest.

This is not however, where a visit to 'Tudor-land' should start, any more than we would expect a visitor to modern Britain to begin with a tour of the prisons. First we need to know what society is and what needs are met by living together. This should already have been done in relation to the ancient societies normally encountered in Key Stage Two, the Greeks and probably the Ancient Egyptians. Children should expect to find that a mainly agricultural society will be divided into lords and peasants, that it will more than likely be a monarchy and that religion will play a big role in the lives of the people. There isn't a world of difference between the Egyptian concept of maat and the Tudor concept of duty.

Instead let us go for a walk through the streets of Tudor London. What do we see? What don't we see? Perhaps we can create that street through a collage in which every child or group of children takes a dwelling. How will we know what the houses looked like? How are we going to find out who lived there? There are surviving Tudor buildings and whole streets in some towns and there are documents like the assize records which give us some authentic names and occupations. Now let's ask the people the same questions we'd ask them today. How do spend your day? What do you most like doing? What do you least like doing and why? The aim is to get us 'inside' Tudor England as soon as possible and away from the objective historian's view that children find so difficult.

The creative possibilities inherent in the inside view are obvious but so too are its pitfalls - anachronism, superficality and plain silliness. To avoid them it's essential to have rich resource bank that can both feed the childrens' imagination and discipline it. What could Tudor children not have thought? Hopefully differences in values and beliefs can be brought out as well as differences in costume, transport and housing, but these are also history and children will need to work at their own level.

With the reality of Tudor England established we can look, as ordinary men and women would have done, at the doings of the mighty. Reminders of the King's power would be all around, from the great fortress of the Tower to the rambling complex of buildings up the river called Whitehall, where Henry VIII spent much of his time when in London. For the poor their only glimpse of the King was when he was travelled from one palace to another, most often by barge. From time to time our hypothetical Tudors might have crowded on to a rickety stand to watch the beheading of some 'naughty' duke. More frequently they would have gone to Tyburn, outside the city limits, to see the hanging of an ordinary thief. Doubtless they discussed the behaviour of the condemned and the reasons for their condemnation but it's unlikely that they heard more than gossip about the really important, whose executions took place within the Tower anyway.

Finally it may be interesting to ask the children how news of what was happening at court would reach the outside world. There were no newspapers or television but are these reliable sources anyway? How would the Sun have reported the execution of Anne Boleyn or the defeat of the Spanish Armada? Turn your pupils into reporters and see if they can get at the truth...