Why were Medieval Kings Deposed?
One of the challenges of KS3 History is to enable students to follow clearly discernible stories across a thousand years of history while investigating the detail of a series of hopefully fascinating topics. One of the great successes has been the creation of many enjoyable, challenging individual enquiries but sometimes the details can obscure the big picture. This activity identifies that big picture in relation to the clashes between medieval monarchs and their would-be advisers, the barons and nobles, by role-playing how clashes came about. The ‘model’ that’s created by the activity is the big picture that can be carried forward through time and used again when uncovering the reasons for the Civil War.
This activity is therefore designed to develop students’ understanding of
- how a monarch was expected to work with his nobles
- why clashes and civil war sometimes broke out when a monarch broke these ‘rules’
- attitudes to monarchs i.e. that nobles were reluctant to attack kings but, in the Middle Ages, executed them because there were no alternatives.
Before moving into the activity it is important to identify what assumptions or preconceptions students have about this topic. As examples – what do they think a medieval king did compared to a ruler today, why did clashes or rebellions happen, were nobles always eager to rebel or did they prefer to work with the king? This prior learning or assumptions can be identified by providing students with a short set of alternative statements to choose from or by asking them to create mind maps in pairs around the words ‘Kings and nobles’ jotting down the key points that they can think that relate to this topic. This then identifies the base of prior learning that will be developed by the activity.
This activity involves the whole class as members of the political class – they’re nobles or knights but don’t have individual names. Choose one student to be the king (again just ‘the king’ not a particular king) and place him or her at the front wearing a crown and sitting on a throne. The rest of the class face the king. Identify the front row as other members of the royal family, the next couple of rows back as the lords and the rows nearest the back as lesser landowners – the knights and gentry. It’s up to you what terminology you use but you need to establish an order of importance and wealth.
The other props you need are rewards – Monopoly money is one possibility or scrolls of paper tied with ribbon representing awards of land or even small boxes wrapped in used Christmas paper – the more memorable the better. See below for their use.
1. Working with the assembled landowners (i.e. the whole class)
a) Ask – who the king should consult about important decisions e.g. going to war. Should he consult all of them or just some? (Bring out the fact that they’ll all pay and they’ll be expected to fight) – therefore all the lords have the right to be consulted but not necessarily the lower level of knights and gentry.
b) Establish who takes the decisions – it’s the king, no matter how many people have been consulted. It’s not done by vote.
c) Now it gets a bit more personal – what would the king’s leading advisers hope to get out of being so close to him and helping him govern the country? This is where you can show off the Monopoly money – answers involve money, land, jobs.
d) What would you miss out on if the king didn’t consult you? Answer – those rewards!
2. Now turn to the King – you need to persuade the King to rule with the help of just some of the advisers. Do this in such a way that everyone can hear but it looks as if you’re having a private conversation with the king.
a) Ask whether he likes everyone equally, whether he thinks some might be cleverer than others – i.e. manoeuvre the king into choosing a small group of the landowners as his advisers. Bring this small group out to the front and sit them around the king – make sure there’s a couple from each of the three ranks in the classroom, including a couple of knights from the back.
b) Ask these advisers what they hope to get by advising the king – answer – those rewards! Give out the money, scrolls, packages or whatever.
c) Ask the rest of the landowners what they feel about this – do they object about being left out? What do they want to change? Do they resent any of the favourites in particular – focus on the knights being consulted while more powerful, wealthy lords are left out by the king. The key answer here is that they want to go back to the old ways i.e. the king consulting everyone, not just a few favourites.
3 a) Ask the landowners - Do they want to get rid of the King – no, just the favourites.
If you get rid of the favourites what will you do with them? (possible answers a mixture of imprisonment, exile and execution – the latter for the knightly favourites!)
b) Simulate the removal of the favourites – move them away from the king and put them in a corner of the room in exile or prison – now move the king so he’s sitting among the rest of the landowners, surrounded by everyone.
c) Ask the King
- how he feels – focus on him not being able to make his own decisions as a king should
- what he wants – revenge! Freedom to choose his own closest advisers
4. The King strikes back! Now the King takes his revenge – move the king back out to the front and get his old advisers out of prison/exile and put them round the king. Ask the king and advisers – how do they want to treat the people who’d put them in prison/exile?
Move some of the larger group of landowners to the corner of the class into exile/prison. Maybe stage an execution or two!
5. Now the crucial stage – ask the larger group of landowners now in prison or out of influence – do they still object to the King being advised by a small group of favourites – answer – Yes!
So what are they going to do about it? They got rid of the favourites before but the king brought them back – can they force the king to do what they want?
Answer – No – even powerful lords can’t force the king because he’s the king and takes the decisions, he’s been chosen by God.
So – they could get rid of the advisers again but not for long – what else could they do? (perhaps add in that the king is still hoping for a little more revenge – perhaps some more executions!)
This brings in the debate about getting rid of the king – this only becomes a possibility at this late stage after the lords have tried every other method to make him consult more widely.
6. Now reverse the situation for the last time – put the favourites back in prison and depose the king – ask will you have a new king? Answer - Yes – what else can you do?
The activity is easier to do than to describe but it brings out a wide range of points about monarchy. It is important to relate the activity and its outcomes to students’ prior learning. The most adventurous way to do this is to ask the general question ‘what have you learned from this activity?’ If students completed mind maps or other ways of recording their assumptions before the activity they can answer this question with reference to those notes. Alternatively set students a set of questions to discuss in pairs or threes, asking them to answer the question and to identify which questions they can now answer better having done the activity.
Possible questions are:
a) was the king expected to consult widely or just a few people?
b) why were lords worried about being left out of power? (mix of idealism and rewards)
c) did the lords try to depose the king immediately if he ruled through favourites (no – they got rid of favourites)
d) why was the king deposed in the end – because the lords had no other way of stopping him taking revenge on them or ruling just as he liked.
e) what happened next when a king was deposed – they crowned another king!
f) what part did parliament play in these events in the Middle Ages? (answer – nothing really important)
1. This activity tries to get across the big picture about the clashes between monarchs and advisers in the Middle Ages – the events of the reigns of John and Henry III follow the early stages of the model but, instead of deposition, the barons try to impose agreements (Magna Carta or the Provisions of Oxford). Later on, much the same sequence of events follows under Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI but now depositions follow, perhaps because the 13th century agreements had been shown not to work. This big picture is important because it’s more likely that pupils will be able to remember at least some of this activity and its ideas and carry them forward into Year 8 and relate them to the events of the 1640s than they can relate the details of 1215 or the 1390s to the 1640s. The above model can be used for the 1640s – except that now Parliament takes the part of the aggrieved, excluded landowners.
2. It can be objected that the details and context are different in the case of each king and that the model oversimplifies events. It’s true that the details differ (e.g. under Henry VI it was probably Queen Margaret and not the king who was the prime mover in events) but I suspect that, for the great majority of pupils, the struggle to understand the details obscures the big story and are frequently forgotten very quickly whereas it’s the big picture of the roles of kings and lords that’s important. Of course, that big story can be quite anaemic and dull – unless you use a role-play that involves pupils.
3. This activity can lead into the events of the 1640s when, for the first time, a king was deposed and not replaced with another king, which raises questions about why Parliament had emerged and why people were prepared to look at alternatives in 1649 when they hadn’t in 1460. There are many similarities between the patterns of the medieval clashes and the 1640s which again can be obscured by differences in names, the type of warfare and the emergence of Parliament.
4. This model could be adapted for A level as the basis for reading and research – use the activity as described and give students a short written description if the activity. Then ask students to go away and read up on their topic e.g. John, Richard II, Henry VI and to fit names and events to the model, to identify similarities or to note differences. Then repeat the activity with students adding in the detail, identifying who’s who and what actually happened.
- Did teaching about a model situation get key points across more effectively than if you’d been dealing with a specific King e.g. John, Charles I?
- Does this activity provide a way of linking from medieval kings to the Civil War, identifying what was similar and what was different?
- Did students enjoy the nature of the activity and what impact did this have on their learning?
- If you identified assumptions and preconceptions beforehand, how useful was this and did pupils understand why you were doing this