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


Looking through the papers offered by exam boards, I was dumbfounded to find topics such as “Migrants in Britain: Notting Hill 1948 to 1970” and “Changes in entertainment and leisure in Britain, c.500 to the present day”. Those papers show the absurdity of the situation. The study of history should not be reduced to bizarre themes, modern niche events over very narrow timespans, or huge topics covering over 1,500 years of history. We cannot learn something like that.

I praise my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, who during his time as Education Secretary insisted that more medieval A-level courses became available so schools could teach them if they so wished. The problem, however, is that most schools will not teach medieval A-levels because they do not have teachers with the relevant knowledge. The situation is self-perpetuating: as most universities do not have compulsory medieval sections, few history graduates have experienced the delights of medieval history. Therefore, each year, fewer and fewer teachers know any medieval history as older teachers retire and are replaced by younger ones. And the latter, of course, only studied modern history at university.

The teaching of medieval history can therefore be saved in schools only if universities play their part. Prospective graduate history teachers will want to teach material they are familiar with. If the universities they attended did not teach medieval history, or only provided options which few chose to take, they will not choose to teach it. If medieval history is to flourish again in schools, it needs teachers who have the knowledge to develop courses. We must start this at the latest in year 7. When we talk about the teaching of medieval history in schools, it cannot simply begin in 1066 as if England beforehand was in some dark age miasma.

Therefore, the study of medieval history must begin with Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish rule, include key figures and moments such as King Alfred’s salvation of Wessex, Aethelstan and the formation of the Kingdom of England, and Aethelred the Unready and the long build-up to 1066. We must teach about the roots of Parliament, first under Aethelstan’s Witan, as my hon. Friend Mr Bacon said, but also under John, Henry III and the first three Edwards. We must teach the wars of the roses, the black death and the peasants’ revolt, and the important relationships between England and the Celtic nations. We must include the formation of Europe alongside key events such as the crusades, and even international figures such as Justinian, Genghis Khan and the history of the papacy.

Why is this so important? First, studying medieval history is fun. Vikings, the Norman conquest, and the crusades are obvious in this regard, but so is the religious dimension of King Alfred’s leadership, the battle of Brunanburh in 937, which confirmed the rule of England by the house of Wessex, Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor in 800 AD, and the rout of the Byzantines when the fourth crusade turned on their allies.

Secondly, it is often claimed that modern history is more relevant to today’s pupils. Why? Why is the political rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli any more relevant than the rivalry between Aethelred and Cnut for the control of England, or between Henry II and his rebellious sons? Politics 1,000 years ago encompasses the same ambitions and the same successes and failures as today. It could be said that the modern relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds are more moulded by the crusades than the present relations between France, Britain and Germany are by the second world war. Key moments such as the harrying of the north in 1069 began the pattern of inequality that exists between the north and the south to this day, and the red wall’s rejection of the European Union elites is strikingly similar to the north’s refusal to bow to the very same European elites who occupied this country 1,000 years ago.

Thirdly, the study of medieval history can be more testing and interesting than modern history because of the relative paucity of sources. Medieval historians and their students have to read between the lines, because there are far fewer lines. And medieval chroniclers were just as adept at spin doctoring or propaganda as Goebbels in the Nazi Reich.

Fourthly, everyone should know something about the roots of their civilisations. Modern political relationships and civic institutions can only be properly understood by reaching back to study their origins. People should not be allowed to wallow in ignorance about why pilgrimage is important to religion, why Magna Carta helped to frame modern day freedoms, why there are two Houses of Parliament and, most importantly, who the first king of England was—Aethelstan.

Fifthly, I believe that visiting medieval sites such as Hastings, the Bayeux tapestry, Kenilworth, Bodiam castle and the ruins of Glastonbury are often more interesting and bring history more to life than the battlefields of the world wars.

I have argued the merits of medieval history, but what can be done to ensure its future in our educational institutions? First, the curriculum must be changed to make history compulsory at GCSE. Secondly, medieval history must be a requirement throughout history education, from the beginning to the end.