#2 This week, in history…how I tried to reveal more clearly the puzzle at the heart of a Year 8 enquiry question

‘So today, Year 8, we’re going to st…,’ I paused and let the final rustling of paper die down.

I continued to wait. Just a few seconds longer than was perhaps necessary. Enjoying that moment at the beginning of a new enquiry when there’s a feeling of freshness, of calm. No one’s confused. Or anxious they can’t remember much. Everything and anything seems possible. 

I let the silence and stillness linger. Take hold. Imagining the anticipation build.

 And then, in a softer voice this time, encouraging the pupils – metaphorically, at least – to lean in, I started again.

“Today, Year 8, we’re going to start our new enquiry. That means starting a new story. This story begins around the same time that Jahangir was nearing the end of his reign over the Mughal Empire. But our story today took place on the other side of the world to Jahangir and his empire. Actually, only a few miles away from where we’re all sat now.

“Follow the text as I tell the story, and try to imagine the scenes as they’re described.”

I took my place at the centre of the classroom and made one final scan to check all eyes were on the page.

It is a bright, cold day in early 1626. A procession is setting off from the banks of the River Thames. All of the most powerful people in England are present, dressed in their finery.

Towards the front, walking two-by-two through the streets of London…”

Why I started starting at the start

Sorry, I’ve got ahead of myself. I’ve forgotten my Rosenshine. Let’s recap.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on a Year 8 enquiry I taught last term about the causes of the English Civil War(s).  In my previous blogpost, I tried to explore why the approach I’d always taken to introduce the enquiry – using an image of the execution of Charles I – didn’t seem to be working. For me. 

It was not a post about whether the execution is, or is not, the right way to introduce such an enquiry. But a post about whether it was working for me, and my pupils, and in my curriculum.

It wasn’t.

Pupils didn’t seem to see any puzzle. Any question worth trying to answer. They had both insufficient knowledge (why was a civil war so surprising? surely it just had to happen?) and too much knowledge (they already knew how the story ended).  

And there was a further problem. Opening with the execution seemed to set the whole trajectory for the rest of the enquiry. It almost wrote itself – and not in a helpful way. As soon as pupils knew the king’s own subjects took up arms against him, that was it: we were compelled to spend lesson after lesson explaining how the country gradually moved closer to civil war. 

Charles I’s execution would be followed by going back to the very start of his reign and setting out the problems he inherited in 1625. Next, the clashes with his first few Parliaments and the beginning of personal rule. Growing resentment about Ship Money and Arminian reforms. War with Scotland.

If pupils didn’t already think the civil war was inevitable, they certainly did now!

I needed to find a way of changing the trajectory. Changing the impetus of the enquiry. A way of showing pupils where, and what, the puzzle at the heart of the enquiry question was. 

Diane Purkiss, in her brilliant The English Civil War: a People’s History, suggested a possible way forward. In a wonderful passage – full of the rich, evocative story-telling so essential to building strong, lasting knowledge of the past – Purkiss imagines a scene in 1639.1 Just three years before the outbreak of war. Well, two scenes. Charles I and Cromwell. On (separate) morning hunts. 

And, as she creates these mental images, Purkiss shows – not tells, but shows – the sense of normality that still existed.2

Wait. 1639? England? A sense of normality?!

I still remember that feeling of things shifting around in my head as I read, and re-read, the passage. It changed everything. In my previous teaching, there had certainly been no sense of normality in 1639. No leisurely morning hunts. Quite the opposite! Things were looking pretty bad for Charles I by that point, at least in my classroom. Starting with the execution had sent me down a constant path of rising tension – and a path where pupils already knew the destination. From 1625 onwards, I simply walked towards the civil war, towards the execution, taking my pupils with me.

But this was all wrong. As Purkiss explained: ‘the group of people who were to play great roles in the enormous events to come were in 1639 leading lives that seemed to them normal. There were political struggles, there was murmuring and discontent, but these disputes were well within the realm of normality. True, there had been a war with Scotland, and matters there were still not settled. But there had been such wars before. There was nothing to suggest that the nation was about the be violently torn in pieces by the most costly armed conflict in its history’.3

There it was. There was my puzzle. This was what I needed to reveal to my pupils.

But how? I toyed with starting in 1639. Using Purkiss’ beautiful hunting scenes. “And you’ll never guess what, Year 8 – three years later, there was a civil war!” But I couldn’t see how to make it work. If starting at the end hadn’t worked, I wasn’t sure starting in the middle would be any better.

It was Leanda de Lisle who provided me with the last piece of the jigsaw. In her fantastic biography of Charles I – White King: The Tragedy of Charles I – de Lisle describes James I’s funeral. During the service, Charles received his father’s heraldic arms ‘in a ritual enactment of the succession and an advertisement of the stable transfer of power’.4

Here was my way in. Start at the beginning. A stable, successful transfer of power. A new king accepted by all.

Then, drop the bombshell.

But I couldn’t just tell pupils this. “Our new topic is so interesting, Year 8. In 1625, Charles I succeeded to the throne peacefully. Everyone accepted him as king. But 17 years later, there was a civil war! We’re going to explore why…” I could already see the boredom and confusion. The pupil raising their hand to ask to go to the toilet.

As Catherine McCrory has said so brilliantly, ‘coming to understand what can and cannot be told directly is one of the most challenging aspects of history teacher knowledge’.5 I often get it wrong. But this time I was sure – this was something I couldn’t just tell pupils directly. The idea of a ‘stable transfer of power’ wouldn’t mean anything to pupils. I needed to show them.

So Year 8 were going to Charles I’s coronation.

I gathered all the information and descriptions I could find about the event, and spent a joyous few hours shaping into a set-piece I could read with pupils. Dwelling on those moments that showed the Divine Right of Kings and the importance of royal custom in action. Finding ways to sneak in reference to previous events that would help to build a sense of Charles’ early popularity. Including details the significance of which would only become apparent to pupils as they delved deeper into the narrative of Charles I’s reign. 

It was too long (as usual). I’d got a bit side-tracked by the part of the coronation oath where Charles swore he would defend the rights of bishops. But it was time to give it a try.

So there I was. Standing in front of my Year 8 class. Ready to take them into Westminster Abbey – the scene, they knew, of William’s coronation over 500 years earlier – to watch Charles Stuart be crowned king.

We read. We imagined. We discussed – how did people in England respond to their new king? where did his power come from? how did the coronation help to establish his authority? We built images in our mind and tried to verbalise what they told us about Stuart England. About early seventeenth-century kingship. About the unassailable power of the monarch. Pupils built knowledge about the stable transfer of power – knowledge that now had meaning for them because of the rich and vibrant journey they had taken to it.

Before I knew it, the lesson was over.

But there was one more thing to do. One more thing I couldn’t do until now.

Because only now, at the very end of the lesson, were pupils primed and ready for the enquiry question. Only now, having been inside the Abbey during Charles I’s coronation, did pupils have sufficient knowledge to see the puzzle at the heart of the question. Only now, having heard the roars of approval as he was presented as king, would it be impossible for pupils to see anything inevitable about the civil war that broke out less than two decades later.

“Oh, Year 8, before we finish, one more thing. Sixteen years later, Charles I was at war. But not with France. Not with Spain. Actually, not with any other country at all. Charles was at war with his own people. A civil war. His own subjects took up arms against him. We need to explain why. How on earth could this happen? Why did his subjects rebel against him? And why did the king feel he had no choice but to raise his standard and declare war against them? So our enquiry question is: Why did Charles I raise his standard in August 1642?

“Make sure you come back on Thursday to find out.”

N.B. The full text I used in the lesson can be accessed here.


Christine Counsell delivered a session on the power of story-telling in history teaching at the 2021 HA Conference. Counsell has also distinguished between ‘hinterland’ and ‘core’ knowledge, and the power of story to convey the former (Counsell, “Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) Curriculum as narrative”. the dignity of the thing (blog). April 2018. https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/07/senior-curriculum-leadership-1-the-indirect-manifestation-of-knowledge-a-curriculum-as-narrative/. Michael Hill includes the use of narrative as a key strategy in world building in the classroom (“Curating the imagined past: world building in the history curriculum”, Teaching History 180 (2020): 10-20). I have also been inspired by narrative texts written by Paula Worth and shared on her blog e.g. https://lobworth.com/2020/05/14/what-do-the-stories-of-the-often-forgotten-armies-reveal-about-the-western-front/ and https://lobworth.com/2020/06/06/the-history-of-medieval-mali-some-ideas/.

Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: a People’s History (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), 7-8.

Purkiss, English Civil War, 7 (my emphasis).

Leanda de Lisle, White King: the Tragedy of Charles I (London: Vintage, 2019), 29.

Catherine McCrory, ‘IOE Mentoring’ (2017) – https://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Play/7366 (my emphasis).


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