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18 May 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:44am

Forgotten monarchs: Why do school history lessons only teach certain kings and queens?

Or: why we should pay more attention to James VI & I.

By Robyn Vinter

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Pretty much everyone who was educated in the UK will know which murderous, pustule-covered king of England that rhyme refers to. But do you know which monarch first created Great Britain? Or which designed the union flag?

If you had a state school education and didn’t study history beyond age 16, there’s a fair chance you don’t know the answer to those questions. And why should you? These topics are not generally taught in British schools.

You no doubt know who won the Battle of Hastings, that the Great Fire of London began in Pudding Lane, which way round the cavaliers and the roundheads were, and that Queen Victoria didn’t believe in lesbians (which, incidentally, isn’t actually true). But even a cursory look at the long list of unfamiliar monarchs will tell you that there are some significant gaps in your knowledge.

Some people who leave school with no qualifications in history may go on to fill in those gaps themselves – but many manage to live perfectly happy and fulfilled lives without ever giving former royals a second thought.

Gaps in the curriculum

The matter of who gets to decide which monarchs England’s kids should study is a bit of a jumble. It’s partly down to the Department of Education, which sets the National Curriculum – the broad list of compulsory topics local authority schools must adhere to. However, schools are increasingly switching to academy status, so aren’t required to stick to the National Curriculum.

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On paper, this means academy schools could teach their Key Stage 3 students (usually years 7,8 and 9) about Cnut or James VI & I. In practice, though, the potential to introduce new topics is very restricted.

Rebecca Goult is a secondary school history teacher at a top-performing London academy. She says time restraints placed on teachers go a long way to explaining why history is literally forced to repeat itself. “In terms of who decides what is taught, often the decisions are made not just by head of department or history teachers in a department, but also by which resources you’ve already created.”

The pressure to produce good results for their GCSE and A Level students mean that an enormous amount of time and energy goes into the subjects their curriculums include, she points out. “The massive pressures on teachers mean that creating whole new schemes of work, lessons and assessments on new topics is very time-consuming. It sometimes plays second fiddle to more immediately pressing concerns – for example, extra lessons for exam classes and marking GCSE and A-level work.”

Not only do teachers lack the time to create the resources needed to teach a new topic: fitting the key moments of thousands of years of British history into a maximum of two hours a week is ambitious enough as it is.

“We don’t have time to cover more than the big turning points, without which students’ historical knowledge would be massively lacking,” Goult says. “However, it does mean missing out huge chunks of history which are often just briefly referred to, if at all. That arguably impacts [pupils’] overall understanding of the history that they are learning, as they can lack vital reference points.”

So  – how much does it really matter if we miss some major kings and queens?

“Collectively and individually monarchs are incredibly important,” argues Martyn Bennett, author and professor of early modern history at Nottingham Trent University. “Firstly, they’ve shaped the geography of the British Isles — what we know as political boundaries. Secondly, reactions to the actions of monarchs are what have developed our political systems.”

Early rules of England, both well-known and obscure – Cnut, Edward the Confessor, William I, Henry I – all contributed significantly to creating and defining the UK’s various nations. So did many of the often ignored Scottish monarchs, who remained a separate line until 1603.

 “[Kids] may not have heard of Alexander II and Alexander III, who effectively shaped the political geographical structure of Scotland,” Bennett adds. “The one they probably will have heard of is Robert the Bruce [King Robert I of Scotland], who, more than any of the others, ends the series of attempts of English kings to dominate lowland Scotland.

“[But] those are the kings who have defined the boundaries of what we think of as the political nations – and I think most of those won’t have been heard of.”

Acts of union

There’s another monarch who doesn’t always get the prominence he deserves in the school curriculum, but who has been incredibly influential in the shape of the modern UK: James VI of Scotland, who came to the throne in 1567. When he became James I of England, too, in 1603, he was determined to bring the nations together. As Bennett points out: “He really coins the term Great Britain and has himself crowned King of Great Britain.”

James VI &I ordered the creation of the first union flag. It was very similar to the one we still have now, though was not widely used because the idea of a union was not particularly popular at the time. (How times change.) And his ambition was to create a “social, political and legal union of the British Isles”, Bennett notes. His plans were to be discussed after the opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605.

But the Gunpowder Plot delayed the debate. “That gave the English opponents of union time to organise themselves so that, when it eventually came to discussion in Parliament, it was pushed off the agenda.”

While it was the English who technically blocked the union, the Scots weren’t too keen either. “They did approve it, though they very cunningly approved it with the wording that it would come into effect when approved by both Parliaments.” The English one never did.

James VI & I also wanted to introduce to introduce a Civil List much like we have now, giving the monarch a fixed income – though he never managed to bring this off.

“One of the things we’re constantly doing is questioning the nature of the United Kingdom,” Bennett adds. “And yet a lot of the things we take for granted — the union, civil list and union flag, for example – all came about because of ideas mooted during the reign of James VI & I.”

Our lack of knowledge of history, he adds, means that, “We’re reinventing the wheel all the time. If we forget we’ve done all this before we will go back to starting at the very beginning, and that’s a waste of everybody’s time.”

So, it seems, we are probably doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. The good news is that most of us will at least do it in blissful ignorance.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.

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