When did they decide to execute Charles I?
What misconceptions or misunderstandings are KS3 students likely to have about the Civil War? Whether they make this explicit or not they are likely to assume that Charles’s execution was an inevitable outcome of the war if Parliament won and, secondly, that his execution was Parliament’s objective from the beginning of the war - a case of ‘Winners take all, losers get executed’. Tackling this misconception therefore seems an important part of teaching about the Civil War – so that’s what this activity is about. Even though the focus seems to be on 1649 and the end of the Civil War this may be an activity to use very early in coverage of the Civil War because it provides both an overview of the war and can prompt questions which could lead into deeper enquiries into the period.
This activity also relates directly to the broader chronological story of monarchy. If students understand that the trial and execution were very late responses to specific circumstances in the late 1640s then it will become easier for them to understand why the monarchy was restored in 1660 and continued to play a central role in government.
1. Begin with a blank timeline of the war – 1642-1649 - and a picture of the execution of Charles. Ask students to suggest when they think Parliament decided to execute Charles – or when they might have decided. If the answer is ‘dunno’ it shows what a lot there is to discover! This is an important stage – without identifying ideas or the lack of them there’ll be much less impact in the activity.
2. Divide class into small groups and give each group a set of the cards.
3. [Optional] Use the cards to create a timeline of the events of the Civil War, using the first paragraph on each card [blue in colour]. Rather than a straight line timeline create a graph with the horizontal axis labelled chronologically and the vertical axis labelled from ‘War going well for King (top) to ‘war going badly for King (bottom). This simply aims to identify a broad pattern, key battles and the fact that there were two wars, deliberately leaving lots of questions open (e.g. why did Parliament win?) – see Debriefing.
4. Now focus on the second paragraph on each card. Ask each group to concentrate on just two cards rather than all the cards. This speeds up the activity - it’s the overall pattern that’s important, not the year-by-year detail.
Introduce the blank graph – when did they decide to execute Charles? Use the PowerPoint slide or create a living graph on the floor.
Now start with 1642 – ask one of the groups in charge of 1642 to mark their year on the graph. Ask another group given 1642 to confirm or move this position.
Go quickly through year by year, building up the shape of the graph – by the end it should be clear that the decision to execute Charles came very late indeed.
1. Ask ‘what have you learned from this activity?’ - this is important to underline a key point about the war but also for giving students confidence – we have learned this today.
2. Then lead onto ‘What questions do you now want to ask/find the answers to?’ Possibilities could relate to:
- the war e.g. why did Parliament win?
- the execution e.g. why didn’t they decide to execute Charles earlier? Why did they decide to execute him? Who were ‘they’ – the people who took the decision?
- attitudes – why was it so difficult to decide to execute the king?
Any of these and more could then set up an enquiry into the Civil War in more depth with the advantage that students are pursuing their own question/s. Perhaps different groups could even pursue different questions if you’ve got lots of the right resources.
3. One important broader outcome that you could explore is that of ‘unintended consequences’. It should be clear from the graph that the King’s opponents did not intend to execute or depose him when the war began or when the first civil war ended. So why did it happen – and what can this idea of unintended consequences help us to understand about our world today, either on a personal level or in terms of news or national events?
Notes & Variations
1. As noted in the introduction this activity provides a strong base for understanding why the monarchy was restored with so little opposition in 1660. Recalling the pattern (do you remember when we built up the graph of …) should help students link events across time.
2. The material on the cards is too simple for the understandings expected of A level students at the end of their course but this activity could work as a starter outline, even for A level, as it could set up a research activity asking students to write up the cards in more detail, adding material on the events of the war and on the stages of negotiations. The cards as they stand provide an outline structure for use with, for example, Dale Scarboro’s book The Great Rebellion: England 1625-1660.