Alexander Stafford – 2022 Speech on Teaching Medieval History in Schools

The speech made by Alexander Stafford, the Conservative MP for Rother Valley, in the House of Commons on 4 July 2022.

I rise to argue that we need to consider the teaching of medieval history in schools. As every historian knows, when starting an essay we have to define the topic, so what is medieval history? At my university, I was in the last cohort to study so-called modern history, which was defined as everything after Diocletian split the Roman empire in 286 AD. In fact, I was in Diocletian’s palace in Croatia only last week, but I take a newer version of medieval history. More traditionally, medieval history is seen as the period following the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 AD to the start of the Renaissance and the age of discovery—a period spanning over 1,000 years. This period was one of the most important and turbulent times of human history, but this period is woefully neglected in our schools.

It is worth reminding ourselves about some of the key events, such as the settling of the barbarian invaders, the reconquest of the west under Justinian, the black death, the rise of Islam, the Viking invasions, the Reconquista of Spain, the east-west schism of 1054, the crusades, the travels of Marco Polo, the medieval warm period—the list is endless. However, our education system barely touches this, and when it does, it is only in the briefest of ways. How many people in England know of the initial defeat of the Viking invaders under Alfred the Great, the conquest of the Danelaw and the reunification of England under his grandson, the first ever King of England, Aethelstan? Where is the focus on the ultimate clash between east and west, the crusades, during which Edgar Aethling, the last Anglo-Saxon king, supported the first crusade, and Richard I led the third crusade successfully, or even the huge Anglo-Saxon component of the Byzantine Varangian guard? Why do we never hear about the triumphs of England in the late middle ages or the Angevin empire, when the kings ruled England, half of France and parts of Ireland and Wales in personal union—an early forerunner of our great United Kingdom of today?

Medieval history is all around us, in every single constituency and in most towns and villages, yet we do not readily recognise this fact. I look at my own constituency of Rother Valley, where we are rightly proud of our mining heritage. However, we rarely hear about our area’s medieval history, though I must say that local groups such as the Aston-cum-Aughton history group do a sterling job of writing it. If any area wants to stake a claim to mining longevity, it must surely be my area of Rother Valley. In Whiston, the mining of white stone was attested to in the Domesday Book, and many of our villages, such as Dinnington and Harthill, stretch back to Domesday and beyond. The owner of Firbeck Hall, Henry Gally Knight, was a Member of this House and a source of inspiration for the novel about the medieval knight Ivanhoe. Interestingly, Maltby in Rother Valley boasts Roche abbey, a medieval monastery that was later suppressed by the tyrant Henry VIII. Laughton-en-le-Morthen is home to Castle hill, the remains of a motte and bailey castle on lands granted by William the Conqueror. Anston also appears in Domesday as Anestan, for North Anston, and Litelanstan, for South Anston, potentially referring to a local feature known as “one stone”. The local limestone was perfect for use in buildings and nearly 1,000 years later it was used to construct the very building in which we are currently debating—the Palace of Westminster. Nearby Lindrick Common is suggested by some as the possible site of the battle of Brunanburh, when King Aethelstan overcame the Danes and became Lord of all Britain.

Elsewhere in Rother Valley, Aston was settled by Saxon invaders in the 5th century, with the village name meaning “the settlement among the ash trees” or “the eastern fortification”. Before the Norman conquest, a man named Lepsi had a manor at Aston. After 1066, William the Conqueror gifted Aston to his son-in-law, William de Warenne. In 1317, the village fell into the possession of the Archbishop of York, who held several leading positions in Government—Lord Privy Seal, Controller of the Royal Household, and Treasurer of the Exchequer. The villages of Ulley, Aughton, Treeton, Brampton-en-le-Morthen, Todwick, and Thurcroft were also all Saxon settlements in Rother Valley. That is just one constituency. There are so many constituencies across England. We all have medieval history in our bones and in our soil—including you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

However, we should not fall into the trap of teaching medieval history purely though the lens of England. We need to look at our wider place in the medieval world and at the wider impacts. I cannot think of a better example of the most important moments than the reign of the East Roman—some say Byzantine—Emperor Justinian the Great from 527 to 565 AD. His long reign exemplifies the beauty and importance of the teaching of medieval history, with which so many parallels can be drawn through the ages. Of peasant Illyrian stock. Justinian rose to become the most powerful and important man on earth—a lesson we can all learn from. He is remembered for building huge edifices and buildings that last and dominate to this day.

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)

I was listening with enormous interest to how medieval history surrounds us all. That got me thinking about architecture, which is one of the great examples of history coming to life. My hon. Friend mentioned the medieval period starting with the reign of Diocletian. Of course we see Diocletian windows in classical entablature. But more recently, we have the gothic and the neo-gothic—an example of which we are lucky enough to be in today. I am interested in his views on where we see the accents of medieval history in modern architecture.

Alexander Stafford

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the beauty of architecture. We can look at some of the finest medieval buildings across this land. Westminster Hall itself was built under William Rufus, which shows the longevity of medieval architecture. How many buildings nowadays could last 1,000 years, as Westminster Hall has done, or 1,500 years, as Hagia Sophia has done, which Justinian himself rose up in praise of God?

But Justinian did not just raise up the Hagia Sophia, and many other buildings across the empire. He also did other great works, such as introduce the institutes of Justinian—the great codification and rationalisation of Roman law that, to this day, influences legal systems across the world. Perhaps above all, Emperor Justinian is rightly celebrated for his tenacious nature in refusing to accept decline, and successfully reconquering large parts of the western Roman empire: north Africa, Italy, Spain—not only was his reconquest vast, but it lasted for hundreds of years. The Byzantine empire, the East Roman empire, did not lose parts of Italy until well into the late 11th century. That shows the longevity of his conquests. Some historians claim that they were ephemeral —they were not; they were long lasting.

Throughout his reign Justinian was supported by his wife Theodora, who is one of the most inspirational female figures in all history, from whom we can all learn. Under his reign, there was the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, which is estimated to have killed about 40% of the population of Constantinople. The reign of Justinian clearly had it all, yet like so many other hugely important moments in medieval history, it is being forgotten and is not taught in our schools. Indeed, I think the lack of teaching about Justinian in our schools is an absolute travesty.

There is clearly an appetite for this history, as we have seen with the recent runaway successes of “The Last Kingdom” on Netflix, and “Game of Thrones”, which some say is inspired by the war of the roses. History bestows on us an understanding of the society, country and world that we live in. It explains why things are as they are today and provides a guide for where we are going. History is also wonderful for inculcating transferable skills, including the ability to reason critically, analyse, cross-reference, absorb and remember large amounts of complex information, and to write coherently.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution and his emphasis on the importance of history. Is he aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who recently entered the Chamber, hosted an event over the road at Westminster School—it was due to be held upstairs under a big painting of Alfred the Great but it had to be moved because of one of the many lockdowns —at which Professor Michael Wood explained the importance of Aethelstan’s assemblies? I for one had no idea that a strong case could be made that the parliamentary system in this country began not with Simon De Montfort in 1265 over the road in the Westminster Chapter House but more than 300 years before that with Athelstan’s assemblies. Of course, Aethelstan was a grandson of Alfred the Great. Are those not things that we should be teaching our children?

Alexander Stafford

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I completely agree. That is exactly what we should be talking about. We should be talking about the witans to which he referred and the coming together of great Anglo-Saxon kings. I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for his work on promoting that. I am glad to see him in his place listening to the debate—I hope that he will contribute.

There is no doubt that the lacuna in our collective knowledge of medieval history is largely due to how it is taught in schools and the national curriculum. For maintained schools, history is a compulsory subject only until the age of 14. Proper teaching of medieval history only really starts from the age of seven, when students are only briefly introduced to Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons, and the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for England. For key stage 3, the Anglo-Saxon period, which is 500 years or so, is completely excluded.

For the optional GCSE in history, it is clear that medieval history is being treated inadequately by exam boards. For example, AQA offers 16 topics in history, but only two directly address the medieval period and three do so tangentially. For Edexcel, of 17 options available, only six touch medieval history and only two directly so. But the problem does not stop there—it gets worse. A-level students are again being deprived of medieval history modules. AQA and Edexcel combined offer 70 history modules, but only seven are exclusively focused on medieval history. Students sitting WJEC papers have it worse as only one module—less than a 20th of the total—is given to medieval history, compared with nine modules on European history.

The options for history at both GCSE and A-level are a lot more complex than they look at first sight. Many of the papers on offer are so-called theme papers—for example, “Migration to Britain over 1,000 years”—which do not meaningfully address events in medieval history. Finally, many options cannot be sat together, yet again restricting genuine choice and the opportunity to study the period.

Exam boards and history departments have always seemed to have a drive to curtail medieval history, and especially the early medieval period. In the late 1990s, both AQA and OCR proposed a new syllabus starting at about 1066, cutting out hundreds of years of English history. Luckily, there was a huge effort by lecturers and teachers to save that history, including by my own former history teacher, Robin Nonhebel, who led the charge in defence of Anglo-Saxon history in schools. I am pleased to say that that was a success and I had the opportunity to study medieval and Anglo-Saxon history at A-level, but most schools do not teach that, and most pupils do not have the opportunity to learn about those key events. That is clearly madness.

The medieval period is pivotal for England, but the focus tends to be rather on the Tudors and Nazis: the so-called Henry and Hitler version of history. Children are taught more about Stalin than about English historical characters. They are even taught more about the civil rights movement in the USA than about the unification of England under Aethelstan.

Mr Bacon

Disgraceful.

Alexander Stafford

Indeed.

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 the Member for Surrey Heath (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 the Member for South Norfolk (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.

Jerome Mayhew

I am lucky enough to have a daughter who has just completed her history A-level. The experience of an A-level student in my family—I hope she passed last week—has been to have studied the origins of the first world war as well as the second world war to death. She has done more German history than history of the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be plenty of space for medieval history if we tweak the curriculum?

Alexander Stafford

I completely agree: there is plenty of space in the curriculum. Earlier, I mentioned that the “Hitler and Henry” version of history is often done to death. Children often study the Nazis and the Soviets at GCSE and then do the same course, just in more depth, at A-level. There is plenty of scope to make room for medieval courses; I have even suggested some papers that could be removed from the syllabus to make even more room for medieval history.

I turn back to the solutions. Thirdly, medieval history must be taught with sufficient depth and breadth, ensuring that an array of events and figures are covered, including pre-1066. Whistlestop drive-by tours of the battle of Hastings alone must be a thing of the past. Fourthly, we must prevent the teaching of medieval history from being stymied by being included as part of a broad, intangible theme such as “Sports from 1000 AD to 1950 AD”. Fifthly, universities must be told to include compulsory medieval history options on their courses, so that we have a strong and steady stream of teachers with specialisms in medieval history imparting their knowledge to the historians of the future.

The schools White Paper of March 2022 said that the Government would not make any changes to the school curriculum for the remainder of this Parliament. However, I urge the Minister to heed my policy asks in the next rewrite of the curriculum. I also call on teachers, schools, universities and exam boards to provide a more comprehensive medieval history offering right away. They do not need Government intervention to make that happen; teachers do not need the Government to tell them to take the courses already on offer.

Medieval history is in our blood; it is our past but also our future. It explains why we are the way we are and why we live the way we live, but it also gives us a guide for what lies ahead. It teaches respect for our heritage, values, and culture, and instils critical reasoning and academic rigour. By teaching medieval history, we are not only preserving the past for future generations, but ensuring that millions more Britons in coming centuries will experience the pleasures of studying such a fascinating and rewarding discipline.