Why do we study the Tudors?

I hate our current scheme of work on the Tudors. In 9 lessons we do a whistle stop tour of all the Tudor monarchs looking at how religion changed.It’s broad sweep history at it’s worse and as a result just regurgitates primary school knowledge without our students developing any deeper sense of the period.

Rant over. About my own work.

So I’ve decided I want to completely rewrite the scheme of work. But this raised a question in our department – Why do we bother teaching the Tudors? Michael Maddison, the HMI for History has highlighted the importance of staff and students knowing WHY they teach or learn any topic. And he’s right. And again I ask – Why do we teach the Tudors then?

I suggested to the team we ditch the broad sweep and focus just on Henry as this is the period of most significant change and it’s the real bit where you can see an early modern era emerge. In my humble opinion. But isn’t this just a bit Whiggish of me to say that? Is that such a bad thing though?

This suggestion was met with outrage from my colleagues who stated rightly that the kids “loved the blood and guts of the latter monarchs” – but is this enough of a reason to teach anything? Chris Culpin, I think rightly, has stated before that “Stuff is not enough“.

Another colleague bemoaned the removal of key female characters (again) in our scheme of works. She was also right.

So again I ask why do we teach the Tudors?

Confused more than ever. I hit  Twitter and email to pick the brains of a few folk who are far more intelligent than me.

John D Clare
I think part of the problem is that we go all teleological.  We teach the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution just for the fun of the period and the students love it.  When we get to the Early Modern Age and the 20th century, we suddenly become all ‘meaningful’ and presentist, and feel we need to go into the political and religious intricacies and precedents.
There have been ages when people were very interested and informed about politics and religion (including, significantly, the 1960s, 70s and 80s when many teachers grew up) … but the present age is not one of them, as I find out every time I go round canvassing.
I think another element of it may be political in another sense.  The Tudors and Stuarts were a time of monarchy and flamboyant wealth.  To enjoy them, I suspect, you have to be a bit royalist, and to enjoy going round stately homes.  Personally, it all leaves me absolutely cold – when I see a stately home (particularly in County Durham) all I can think of is the thousands of poor people whose oppression created the wealth that funded the building and the lifestyle.

The ‘heroes’ we used to celebrate, like Drake, we now consider pirates, racists and slave-traders.  The Tudors themselves, moreover, were a particularly nasty set of monarchs.  So one ends up teaching an entire unit about what complete rotters they were.  There *are* popular uprisings – the Pilgrimage of Grace for example – but then you run into the fact that the ‘oppressed’ at this time were the Catholics, who were trying to bring in a regime which was even *worse* than the Tudors, so it is hard to get excited on their behalf.  And, it always ends up being about how the nasty Tudors won. Perhaps that’s the title for your module – ‘Did the Tudors have *any* redeeming features?’

We *have* to study them – if only because they fill our historical drama schedules – but for the life of me I hate them with a vengeance.


Ian Dawson
Yes, they were odious in the extreme but that could be a hook. I know it’s Whiggish but we have to select rigorously at KS3 and so we have to balance what has been significant in the long-run with what was important to people at the time. First we choose what’s important for KS3 to learn about then we find ways to make it interesting. No topic is uninteresting – it’s the teaching that’s makes it uninteresting. Therefore doing things that kids easily find interesting e.g. Liz’s portraits is lazy and worth an extra seven years in purgatory.I think the problem is not thinking enough about course structure. Reign by reign causes all kinds of problems. What’s needed is a mix of approaches to start to solve problems.

A more significant overview question is about whether The Tudor Century was medieval or modern – maybe given a tweak to be more populist as what was so special about The Tudor Century? This brings in, yes, our themes – kings still extremely powerful – evidence in religious reform, Dissolution and Liz’s portrait control but starting to have to answer to Parliament, society little changed as still vulnerable to harvest failure, disease and greater poverty because of rising unemployment but greater state involvement through poor Law, but a third big issue is which way pupils face in the classroom. Before late 16thC they were all facing to right (Europe) but by 1600 some on the other side of room have turned to face left (America) – and if you get the kids who are Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow to stand up you can project what will happen to them.  Add in beliefs and ideas, printing and you’ve got both a depth study on the Tudors which isn’t reign to reign.

But overall I wonder if the best question is something like ‘What was so important about the Tudor century?’ because it opens up significant for whom? You have to answer it in terms of what was so important at the time (lots of social stuff, dissolution) and what was happening that was important later (parliament, America). Then couple that with a separate activity on monarchs to do the headlines and show that monarchs were still very powerful – and odious. And something else if time – that’s a sliver of history – locality? A year? A site – though not a palace!




So after all that am I any wiser? I’m not sure.

I strongly believe the Tudors should be taught to KS3. I don’t think we should ever pick anything just because it’s fun or it’s engaging. So I guess I’ve come full circle and accepted my Whiggish belief in history that it reveals the slow progression toward a more liberal and democratic future and that’s why I teach the Tudors.

Now the bigger question is what the blooming hell am I going to plan to get the kids to realise this!  Do I follow Ian’s advice and do a broad sweep scheme looking at themes, or do I do a depth scheme looking at one monarch? If Henry was met with consternation by my colleagues, would Elizabeth do the same? Back to the drawing board.

p.s. please do continue this debate below if you think I’ve missed anything!