Put up the bunting! Using timelines to help pupils deconstruct interpretations of the Tudors

This is the third in a new series of blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post includes a practical resource or activity. Today I show how my reading of Leandra de Lisle’s bestselling book Tudor: The Family Story, and my reflection of the work of Carroll and Fordham in Teaching History, helped me to reshape an enquiry on the Tudors, centring it on the second-order concept of interpretations. 


Planning a scheme of work on the Tudors is like planning for a new kitchen: it is a black hole, hoovering up lesson time and leaving little budget for topics such as the long eighteenth century or ‘the Age of Revolutions’. Taking the Grand Tour, from the Winter King through to the wives, the regents, the burnings, the recusants and the armadas, can easily take over the whole of Year 8. The Tudors are fascinating and popular and dramatic, but they sucker themselves onto curriculum planning like an octopus. They wrap their Tudor-tentacles around lessons until you realise that it’s nearly the summer holidays and you haven’t even blown up Darnley.

Our original Tudor enquiry focused on religious change and continuity. This was the era of the Reformation, and the story of the formation of the Anglican church is crucial for pupils to understand other aspects and events in the early-modern and modern periods. Focusing on religion also allowed us to keep the story of the Tudors manageable.

Yet to read only religion into the history of the Tudors is obviously too narrow. To write the narrative of the Tudors in purely religious terms (the break with Rome, the dissolutions, the new Prayer Book, the burnings, the ‘middle way’ and so-forth) is obviously to create a particular interpretation of the past. One could quite happily write a Tudor naval history that moved from the Mary Rose to Benjamin Gonson to the defeat of the Armada.

Exploring different interpretations of the Tudors

Seeing the emphasis placed on the Reformation in the Tudor period as an interpretation – as a particular narrative of the Tudor period among many, rather than the narrative of the Tudor period – became even clearer to me after reading the brilliant book Tudor: The Family Story by Leandra de Lisle. What we might call the ‘Tudors-means-Reformation’ interpretation has been so paramount that it often cuts off the start of the Tudor period. De Lisle began her narrative of Tudor history with Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry VII and second husband of Catherine of Valois. Yet other histories, focused squarely on religious change, have done away with poor Owen:

‘Written by the children of the Reformation, the Reformation has become where the story of the ‘real’ Tudors begins; but the Tudors were the children of an earlier period, and their preoccupations and myths were rooted in that past.’

This sentence became a springboard that helped me to reshape our study of the Tudors. In this sentence, Leandra de Lisle crystallised two interpretations – the ‘Tudors means Reformation’ interpretation, and her own. In her celebration of the Tudors, de Lisle often focused on their successful avoidance of civil war and in their ability to put down rebellion, as summed up by these extracts from her book:

‘It was the promise of peace, and the healing of old wounds, that was the raison d’etre of the Tudor dynasty….symbolised in the striking image of the union rose, a visual representation of national reconciliation and redemption…’

‘To understand the Tudors we must remember their context, which was shaped by their fifteenth-century past, not the post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment era which informs our views….ensuring peace and harmony was a vital duty of kingship….the Tudors always looked back for examples and warnings ’

De Lisle chose to put the Tudors firmly in the context of the long shadow of the Wars of the Roses; she was interested in what went before the Tudors rather than just on what came after. She therefore fished for evidence of Tudor success in other waters.

By viewing the English Reformation through the long perspective of three hundred years of Protestant success, many Victorian historians saw the Reformation in idealistic terms. Historians such as Froude, author of History of England (1893), appeared to be reading history forwards – from the break with Rome and the establishment of the Anglican Church and on to the Gunpowder Plot, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the overthrow of greedy Catholic James II. In the ‘Tudors means Reformation’ interpretation any Protestants in the later Stuart period appeared to be building on earlier Tudor success.

De Lisle, meanwhile, preferred to read her history backwards as much as forwards. By keeping the previous violence of the Wars of the Roses constantly in her view she celebrates Tudors in a different way; she puts up a different kind of bunting. The Tudors in her narrative are ‘healers of old wounds’, rather than just ‘breakers of old corruptions’.

Creating an enquiry focused on the second-order concept of interpretations

My reading of historical scholarship led me to create a new enquiry question centred around these interpretations, which I hoped would enable pupils to consider how Froude and de Lisle approached Tudor history from different directions:

‘Why do historians celebrate the Tudors in different ways?’

Having finished their study of the Tudors, I introduced my pupils to an abridged extract of Froude’s chapter on the death of Henry VIII:

Froude Extract

After discussing words and phrases that were particularly difficult to understand, we hunted for message and mood. It was important that pupils understood what the interpretation was saying before looking at why it was constructed. As a class we agreed that Froude was celebrating the success of Henry VIII in breaking with Rome, in laying the foundations of a new religion for his successors, and in using Parliament in a new way. I asked the class to summarise how Froude celebrated Henry VIII by writing down Froude’s evidence on three bunting ‘triangles’, so that pupils had (what I hoped would be) an accessible image that encapsulated the Froude-interpretation of Henry VIII:


I then wanted pupils to look at how Froude came up with this interpretation. I presented them with a timeline, with which we first recapped the events they knew about (yellow and green) and then I gave them a short overview of events to come (pink). This was an excellent opportunity to zoom out and do some ‘parachuting’, helping pupils to orient the Tudors in time and give them an overview of what they would be learning about in later lessons. It was also an opportunity to show pupils how Froude ‘fished’ for his evidence. Together, we connected the Reformation that took place under the Tudors with later anti-Catholic actions by ‘hanging bunting’ between the events:


Pupils now had an image of how Froude ‘celebrated’ Henry VIII, with bunting connecting some of Froude’s evidence base, in which he looked forwards in time – at what happened after the Tudors. This was a vital part of the enquiry. I wanted pupils to look at the decisions that Froude and de Lisle made in creating their arguments, rather than just google the historian. As Fordham notes, history teachers are no longer content to pigeonhole historians into simple stereotypes:

Chapman found ‘that many students think too much about who historians are and not enough about the decisions that historians make.’ At A-level, teachers have for some years now explored ways in which they can move pupils away from pigeon-holing historians (traditionalist, revisionist, American, Russian, and so on) and towards examining the process by which arguments are constructed.

This is why my use of timelines was so important; it gave me the opportunity to show pupils some of the processes by which de Lisle and Froude formed their arguments. It was only after I taught the enquiry that I realised exactly how helpful these sorts of timelines are. In writing up my enquiry for this blog post, I read Carroll’s work on ‘event space’.  Carroll discovered, in deconstructing Froude’s interpretations of Mary I with Year 8, that:

‘My pupils…starved of even a skeletal overview of the intervening period [between the Tudors and the nineteenth century], had failed to appreciate why some Victorian Protestants in the mid-nineteenth century continued fundamentally to associate Catholicism with anti-Englishness, authoritarianism and violence, and therefore still feared its re-emergence, centuries after Mary’s death.’

This is why timelines matter. It helped to give Year 8 the ‘skeletal overview’ they needed so that they could understand Froude’s interpretation – or at least begin to. As Carroll pointed out: ‘while historical interpretations are presentist, they are also cumulative…Froude’s interpretation of Mary in the nineteenth century might have been very different, had William of Orange’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ been unsuccessful in the seventeenth.’

After connecting events on our timeline, we then discussed the particular (which built on the intervening) context in which Froude’s interpretation was created. To illustrate this, we surrounded Henry VIII with stick figures and speech bubbles who explained why they were putting up their bunting at that time:


Deconstructing interpretations is all about subsequence, in spending time on the period doing the interpreting to ensure the ‘double vision’ required of interpretations work. Bringing out the context of the anti-Catholic polemicist Froude was therefore vital.

We then went through the same process with Leandra de Lisle, during which we discussed how de Lisle looked backwards in time – at what happened before the Tudors.





After discussing Leandra de Lisle’s context, I wanted pupils to connect the two interpretations by showing them that de Lisle’s argument is partly a criticism of the Victorian one. Skinner, in his study of the history of ideas, states that an author:

‘Must have meant the work as an attack on, or a defence of, as a criticism of, or as a contribution to, some particular attitude or line of argument.’

[This quote comes from Fordham’s article].

By the end of our work on Froude and de Lisle, I hoped that I had enabled my pupils to understand why and how these two historians celebrate the Tudors in different ways – because of their context, because of how they looked forwards or backwards in time, and because de Lisle was partly reacting against ‘Froudian’ emphasis on religious change.


There is nothing particularly novel in this scheme of work, and I certainly hoped to avoid any kind of innovation: my interpretations work still needs a lot of fine-tuning. What really helped here, however, was the use of timelines. It helped my pupils to grasp how Froude’s interpretation (and then Leandra’s, in reaction to Froude) cumulated over time.  As Carroll noted:

To obviate ‘event space’ and move toward panorama, students require a secure, continuous chronological framework which includes how historical interpretations have aggregated over time.

The work is hard, though. It sometimes feels like working overtime, doing the research of the time period, the period doing the interpreting, and considering the event-space in between.

Yet the work must be done. It’s time to double up. The ‘interpretations glasses’ must be donned. Let’s not leave our pupils blind to the refraction of the past.

Download my resources: Interpretations of the Tudors


Carroll, J. E. (2017) ‘From ‘double vision’ to panorama: using history of memory to bridge ‘event space’ when exploring interpretations of Nazi popularity with Year 13′, in Teaching History, 168: Re-examining History Edition, pp.24-36.

De Lisle, L. (2014) Tudor: The Family Story, Vintage: London.

Fordham, M. (2014) ‘But why then?’ Chronological context and historical interpretations’ in Teaching History, 156, Chronology edition, pp 32-39.


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