Henry VIII, David Starkey and the state of history teaching

Prompted by the excellent exhibition, “Henry VIII: Man and Monarch“, at the British Library, which I visited last week, I have been reading David Starkey’s book, “Henry: Virtuous Prince“.  I am not sure whether the book inspired the Channel Four series (which I didn’t watch) or whether this is the book prepared for the TV programme and its viewers.  Certainly, it ends abruptly just after the death of the son Henry had with Catherine of Aragon and the arrival at court of the young Thomas Wolsey in 1511.  We will have to wait until September 2010 for the rest of Henry’s life.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Starkey’s focus on the young Henry – particularly as most of the history I remember being taught concentrated on the later – more tyrannical – Henry and dwelt on his wives and what became of them.

However, I wonder if many of today’s school-children even know that much.

I was reminded how little British history is now taught these days, when – again last week – I watched a group of about thirty ten- and eleven-year-olds being asked where the names came from of Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square.  The former produced various lavatorial answers, but the latter produced nothing.  The kids knew that the “thing in the middle” was Nelson’s Column, but, when asked who Nelson was, the best they could come up with was Nelson Mandela.

Now I accept that history should not just centre on Britain – and certainly not just on its Kings and Queens – nor should it end in 1815 or 1901.  An understanding of world history and of the social factors that underlie historical events is an essential part of being able to interpret what is going on around us today.

However, an essential part of being British ought to be at least some general awareness of the chronology that led to the modern United Kingdom.  Maybe this makes me sound like a reactionary old f*rt – no doubt many would say that that is what I am – but, as we debate the meaning of citizenship, I can’t help feeling that some knowledge of the historical basics should be a prerequisite both for those applying for citizenship and for those whose citizenship is their birthright.


So come along then:  where does Henry VIII rank amongst our greatest Kings?  Certainly, the events of his reign (like the break with Rome) had a profound influence on the country’s future, but did that make him great?  And how would he rank if you included the Queens in the list?  And Cromwell, as Lord Protector?

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