Medieval History in Schools

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:41 pm on 4th July 2022.

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Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 9:41 pm, 4th July 2022

I rise to argue that we need to consider the teaching of medieval history in schools. As every historian knows, when starting an essay we have to define the topic, so what is medieval history? At my university, I was in the last cohort to study so-called modern history, which was defined as everything after Diocletian split the Roman empire in 286 AD. In fact, I was in Diocletian’s palace in Croatia only last week, but I take a newer version of medieval history. More traditionally, medieval history is seen as the period following the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 AD to the start of the Renaissance and the age of discovery—a period spanning over 1,000 years. This period was one of the most important and turbulent times of human history, but this period is woefully neglected in our schools.

It is worth reminding ourselves about some of the key events, such as the settling of the barbarian invaders, the reconquest of the west under Justinian, the black death, the rise of Islam, the Viking invasions, the Reconquista of Spain, the east-west schism of 1054, the crusades, the travels of Marco Polo, the medieval warm period—the list is endless. However, our education system barely touches this, and when it does, it is only in the briefest of ways. How many people in England know of the initial defeat of the Viking invaders under Alfred the Great, the conquest of the Danelaw and the reunification of England under his grandson, the first ever King of England, Aethelstan? Where is the focus on the ultimate clash between east and west, the crusades, during which Edgar Aethling, the last Anglo-Saxon king, supported the first crusade, and Richard I led the third crusade successfully, or even the huge Anglo-Saxon component of the Byzantine Varangian guard? Why do we never hear about the triumphs of England in the late middle ages or the Angevin empire, when the kings ruled England, half of France and parts of Ireland and Wales in personal union—an early forerunner of our great United Kingdom of today?

Medieval history is all around us, in every single constituency and in most towns and villages, yet we do not readily recognise this fact. I look at my own constituency of Rother Valley, where we are rightly proud of our mining heritage. However, we rarely hear about our area’s medieval history, though I must say that local groups such as the Aston-cum-Aughton history group do a sterling job of writing it. If any area wants to stake a claim to mining longevity, it must surely be my area of Rother Valley. In Whiston, the mining of white stone was attested to in the Domesday Book, and many of our villages, such as Dinnington and Harthill, stretch back to Domesday and beyond. The owner of Firbeck Hall, Henry Gally Knight, was a Member of this House and a source of inspiration for the novel about the medieval knight Ivanhoe. Interestingly, Maltby in Rother Valley boasts Roche abbey, a medieval monastery that was later suppressed by the tyrant Henry VIII. Laughton-en-le-Morthen is home to Castle hill, the remains of a motte and bailey castle on lands granted by William the Conqueror. Anston also appears in Domesday as Anestan, for North Anston, and Litelanstan, for South Anston, potentially referring to a local feature known as “one stone”. The local limestone was perfect for use in buildings and nearly 1,000 years later it was used to construct the very building in which we are currently debating—the Palace of Westminster. Nearby Lindrick Common is suggested by some as the possible site of the battle of Brunanburh, when King Aethelstan overcame the Danes and became Lord of all Britain.

Elsewhere in Rother Valley, Aston was settled by Saxon invaders in the 5th century, with the village name meaning “the settlement among the ash trees” or “the eastern fortification”. Before the Norman conquest, a man named Lepsi had a manor at Aston. After 1066, William the Conqueror gifted Aston to his son-in-law, William de Warenne. In 1317, the village fell into the possession of the Archbishop of York, who held several leading positions in Government—Lord Privy Seal, Controller of the Royal Household, and Treasurer of the Exchequer. The villages of Ulley, Aughton, Treeton, Brampton-en-le-Morthen, Todwick, and Thurcroft were also all Saxon settlements in Rother Valley. That is just one constituency. There are so many constituencies across England. We all have medieval history in our bones and in our soil—including you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

However, we should not fall into the trap of teaching medieval history purely though the lens of England. We need to look at our wider place in the medieval world and at the wider impacts. I cannot think of a better example of the most important moments than the reign of the East Roman—some say Byzantine—Emperor Justinian the Great from 527 to 565 AD. His long reign exemplifies the beauty and importance of the teaching of medieval history, with which so many parallels can be drawn through the ages. Of peasant Illyrian stock. Justinian rose to become the most powerful and important man on earth—a lesson we can all learn from. He is remembered for building huge edifices and buildings that last and dominate to this day.