Active Learning on

Making Magna Carta Personal

This activity was originally designed for Y7 but with GCSE changes it could be used for the Edexcel British Depth unit on Richard and John – and could be an introduction at A level although deeper knowledge would need to be built on its framework. This discussion and activity description is a composite of a plenary session I led at the SHP Conference in London in 2015 and a short article published in Teaching History, also in 2015.

I designed this activity to try to overcome one core problem with teaching about Magna Carta – it doesn’t seem to make anyone’s heart skip with excitement!  Magna Carta may be an important part of the long-term story of royal power but at KS3 still often gets just a brief mention in a lesson sequence built around a question on John’s reputation. The trouble is that ‘was John really a villain?’ is a non-question. The overwhelming academic verdict is that John was a disaster as king. He was violent, untrustworthy, a complete failure. Why waste time on such a non-question when curriculum time at KS3 is at a premium?

The problem I’ve tried to tackle is how to help students care about Magna Carta and how to help you look forward to teaching about it. The answer, of course, lies with people. History works best when it engages both brain and heart. Find a way to make students care and they will engage their brains. Heart before brain – I am not sure the other way round works for many students.

The individual people in this activity are the barons – that anonymous group who rarely rise in textbooks above the level of cardboard cut-out characters intent on rebellion. The purpose is to get students to become the barons, ready to ‘think from the inside’ about the situations they, as barons, face. Historians might quibble – we actually know little about individuals’ motives but there is enough to make this work without becoming fictional.

The outline below is divided into three parts – these may be individual lessons but that obviously depends on how long your lessons are. The description must also be seen as a set of suggestions, not a ‘this will work in any circumstances’ edict. Like any activity on this site you have to adapt it to each individual class you teach.

I haven’t started by identifying an enquiry question for KS3 – be patient. It appears at the end, along with the objectives of this activity. Lesson Objectives (while important to have in your mind and to bring out at some stage of the lesson) are a sure-fire way of killing enthusiasm if introduced too soon.

Resources - Download below

1. Information sheets:

1. What matters to you as barons?
2. Character cards for 13 individual barons
3. The story of William de Briouze
4. King John’s actions

2. A PowerPoint sequence to support the activities

Download Resources

The activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

For a full description of this activity in WORD [ click here ]

For the information sheets [ click here ]

For the PowerPoint [ click here ]

The Activity

The activity is in three parts:

1. What made the barons angry?

2. Did the barons get what they wanted?

3. What can Magna Carta tell us about the Middle Ages?

And is fully explained in the WORD file (downloaded above).


The more uninviting the topic the more you have to follow two rules:

1. focus on the people

2. get students ‘thinking from the inside’ of situations – so they appreciate the complexity.

These 2 rules are about helping students to care about the history, the people and the events they were part of. Find a way to make students care and they’ll engage their brains.
Which brings us to the importance of memorability. If we want to re-use what we’ve covered before – and we should – it has to be memorable or it can’t be recalled and re-used. One of key phrases in history teaching is
Do you remember when we did …

Much of memory relates to emotional response – enjoyment, involvement, intellectual engagement – nobody learned anything when they’re bored. Hopefully this activity on Magna Carta will be less boring than most!

And finally – and especially if you are new to teaching – please remember that the description above is a framework, not a script to be followed verbatim. No activity on a website can be used without you first thinking the details through and then adapting and tailoring the activity to each class.

Other Resources

This activity links to a wider discussion in my article in Teaching History, 159, June 2015.

See also Rachel Foster’s scheme of work and activities Why was Magna Carta not forgotten? on the HA website.

For GCSE Edexcel see:

Dale Banham, The Reigns of King Richard I and King John 1189-1216, published by Hodder Education, spring 2016 here …


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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The Activity


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