The Holy Box and the Altar Table – Recreating Religious Change

Religious changes in the sixteenth century – now there’s a topic to induce panic in a trainee teacher. This activity might well help out trainees and many more experienced colleagues – provided you possess the acquisitive instincts of most History teachers who never knowingly throw away anything that might be useful. In fact, a group of trainees might work on developing the Holy Box together to share the fun and responsibility of collecting all the items.

One attraction of this activity, devised by Maggie Wilson, is that it’s kinaesthetic and highly visual, requiring students to create an altar table with its pre-Reformation accoutrements, then change it and change it again to follow the pattern of religious change. It’s the ideal way to develop understanding, not just in terms of describing the changes but in developing understanding of the impact of those changes on parishioners. The fact that it’s so visual is central to understanding reactions in the 16thC when so many parishioners must have depended on what they saw for their relationship with their religion.

Another major strength is the flexibility of the Box – both in how it is used and with whom. This will help everyone from Y7 to A2 and beyond – and I suspect the physicality and visual nature means it could be used at KS2.

As Maggie says

‘The first lesson plan was as outlined below, but I have found the Holy Box can be used as a starter, a main teaching point, a recap, a revision tool, or a plenary, in varying degrees of sophistication depending on the previous learning/ability/age of the students. It can be used in a formal lesson, as part of a role play and as a game. And it really seems to help students to develop some understanding of religious ideas and change and to retain their learning about a topic that is usually difficult and often alien.’


A WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

Also, some additional resources have been provided by Jennifer Slack (see below) and they can be downloaded:

• Role cards, click here

• Letters to Priests, click here

Now I’ll let Maggie describe what’s in the box and how the activity works:



The point of the exercise is to use visual and kinaesthetic means to establish that people in the 16th century did not have choices about their style of worship – there was only one local parish church. It was Christian but what kind of Christian was determined by the government of the time and the local bishop and/or minister.

After completing this activity students will have developed their understanding of

• how the church changed over the 16th century

• how the monarch dictated religious changes

• the views of ordinary parishioners who may not all have agreed with the changes

Setting Up

The Holy BoxCreating the Holy Box – the box is wooden and taller than, but otherwise the approximate dimensions of, a shoe box and it is clearly labelled ‘Holy Box’ – which stimulates several interesting questions before it’s even opened.

Inside I have collected together various items as listed – but I’m still looking and improvising …

• 2 ‘brass’ candlesticks and white candles

• 4 postcard size paintings of the Madonna and Child, Saints etc

• a ‘stained glass window’ [out of a child’s painting book]

• a ‘Biblicus’, this is sadly a fake but my students are convinced by the elaborate cover I have made for an old encyclopaedia. [I am still searching for a genuine Latin bible!]

• A Book of Common Prayer

• A Crucifix [only about 10cms high, but my students are used to using their imaginations]

• A plain wooden cross that I made with some scraps of wood and a few nails

• An ‘altar cloth’ - small tablecloth size of white, patterned linen

• A statue of the Virgin Mary – quite small and made of plastic

• A ‘silver’ plate and chalice, courtesy of the local junk shop

You will also need pictures of the monarchs and perhaps a timeline to help relate the religious developments to changes on the throne.

The Activity

1. Set up the ‘altar’ as for 1500 – ask for student input [select appropriate items/choose picture of relevant monarch etc]

2. One student (or two/three as a ‘communal priest’) to volunteer as the priest.

3. As teacher your role is to talk through changes and dates – use ‘government officials/soldiers’ to remove and replace artefacts. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a quick overview, doing all the changes in one session or you take each stage of change slowly and carefully – what’s the context of the class, ability, age and needs?

At each stage use Q & A for class – seeking suggestions, not necessarily knowledge but this depends on the context of who you’re teaching.

• What has changed?

• How would you describe the church now?

• What was important at that time?

• Who decided?

• How would the local parish find out what changes had to be made?

• What would happen if the parish didn’t conform?

4. ‘Hot seat’ the priest and parishioners (or group representing the priest) – How do you feel about the changes?


1. Test learning by asking for volunteers, singly or in pairs, to set up the altar for different dates.

[The value of this kind of repetition, either aided by a little commentary by you, is reflected in several of Ian Luff’s activities on this site e.g. Battle of Hastings, Breakthrough in the West.]

2. Divide the class into 4 groups:

a) small number of Roman Catholics;

b) large group – Christian but not too concerned about which form as long as they go to heaven;

c) group of Anglicans, supporting Elizabethan settlement;

d) small group of Puritans wanting further reform.

Use Q & A to discuss how each group would have felt in 1600 and whether they had any other options than to accept the royal decisions. Each group could also create a living graph charting their moments of joy and gloom across the period since 1530.

3. Record by drawing a timeline with key dates and illustrations of appropriate artefacts.

4. And make sure you know who’s got the Box – I have found that since I collected together the contents of the ‘Holy Box’ it has become the most well-used and valuable teaching aid I have – and not just by me and the history department, also by RE and English .... who knows where next!

Feedback from a Teacher

The following helpful feedback email came in from Jennifer Slack who teaches in Haverhill. This is exactly the kind of development that I hope Thinkinghistory encourages – a teacher taking an idea and building on it successfully. The use of music is well worth trying in other contexts – it’s the most atmospheric thing you can do with all ages, from primary to university.

"I've recently completed a lesson using the Holy Box and the Altar task and I created some additional resources which may be of use to others. Following on from Maggie Wilson's suggestion of having various members of the class as various types of Christians, I compiled some role cards to help them understand what was important to their character. The role cards also include soldiers and a priest. I also made some 'letters' which could be delivered to the priest outlining the religious changes each monarch would be making, the idea being that the priest could read this to the class before taking the props away. I was using this activity as a way of looking at the consequences of the Break with Rome on ordinary people, so we hadn't covered Mary, Edward or Elizabeth yet, so I thought the above mentioned resources would aid my pupils. They are not groundbreaking but I have attached them to this email in case you feel they may be of use to others. In addition, each time the monarch changed I would play a different composition by Thomas Tallis and discuss what it could tell us, ie. were the lyrics in Latin etc. I just thought this added another dimension and also provided some cross-curricular links!"

Jen’s additional resources – a set of role cards and a sequence of letters identifying the changes to be made in the local church – have been added to this activity.


1. What differences has this activity made to the nature of students’ knowledge and understandings compared to covering this topic in previous years?

2. What will you do better next time? (your explanation? involvement of pupils? nature of debriefing?)

3. How useful is this activity at A level – how might you use it to develop more depth of understanding or more creatively e.g. could you give you’re a level class this description and ask them to teach you about religious changes?

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Setting Up

The Activity


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