By asking children to investigate whether King Alfred really did leave a tray of treats to char, historical and literacy skills can combine to greater effect, says Alf Wilkinson...
“Writing history comes not at the beginning, but at the end of a process of selection and research.” - Jackie Eales, Professor of Early Modern History, Canterbury Christchurch University.
As Jackie Eales’ suggests, there is much, much more to history than reading and writing. Of course you have to be able to read your sources – whether oral, visual or written – but you also have to be able to make sense of them, to ‘hear’ what they are saying, before you can effectively make use of them to write history. Doing history therefore is about listening and speaking, about weighing up evidence, about producing a coherent argument, about selection and rejection, and finally arriving at a conclusion based on evidence. Only then is it time to write.
Let’s take a specific example from the Anglo-Saxons – the story of King Alfred and the cakes. It’s the kind of story that younger pupils regularly hear as part of their history.
With a little careful prompting, children should be able to work out what is going on in this picture. Ask them what they can see, hear, smell, and how long ago they think it took place. Ask them to recreate the conversation between the two people in the picture. If you have an interactive whiteboard this can be done by drawing speech bubbles on the screen, and asking your pupils to suggest what they might be saying to each other. Or you could freezeframe the action in groups. What scenarios do children come up with? In many respects the wilder their guesses the better, because we want to gradually pull them back to historical understanding, rather than imaginative reconstruction. They are ‘reading’ the picture, and ‘writing’ their answers, but not necessarily on paper!
Now read an extract from Our Island Story, written by Henrietta Marshall and published in 1905, which tells the story of King Alfred and the cakes (The extract can be found on the Teach Primarywebsite – teachprimary.com/kingalfred)
What detail does the story add to the picture? By using the picture and the extract, we can build up a more detailed account of what happened to the cakes. Ask your pupils to re-draft the conversation between the two characters in the picture. Is the conversation any different? Is it more detailed? Is it any more accurate? How does Henrietta Marshall know exactly what happened in Denewulf’s cottage in Somerset? Where would she have got her information from?
And do the picture and the story agree on every detail? For example, the story talks of King Alfred’s clothes being old and worn. Do they look old and worn in the picture? Try the ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ test – which parts of the story are fact? Highlight the facts, as far as you know them, or delete the opinions. What are you left with? What have we really discovered about King Alfred?
Can we find any further evidence to corroborate the story? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written by monks in various monasteries around England from around the 1st Century until the 12th Century. It is an annual update of events in the Anglo-Saxon world. Here is part of the entry for 878:
‘A.D. 878. This year about mid-winter, after twelfth-night, the Danish army stole out to Chippenham, and rode over the land of the West-Saxons; where they settled, and drove many of the people over sea; and of the rest the greatest part they rode down, and subdued to their will;—ALL BUT ALFRED THE KING. He, with a little band, uneasily sought the woods and fastnesses of the moors.’
An online version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is found here: omacl.org/Anglo
So it seems that King Alfred was defeated by the Danes, and reduced to hiding out from them with only a few followers in the wilds of Somerset, but does this help us explain the story of the cakes? There is absolutely no mention of burning the cakes in the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle, or in any contemporary sources I have been able to discover. So where does the story come from? It seems to appear first in the 10th or 11th Century, in the Life of St Neot. It is also repeated in the first biography of King Alfred, Life of King Alfred, by Bishop Asser - written in Latin, at the King’s request, in around 893 and first published in English in 1574. Bishop Asser knew and worked for King Alfred. That the story of the cakes is not included in the original Latin version, but was added to the English version in 1574 suggests it may not be true, but a medieval invention. Of course, such an event could have happened, it’s just that we cannot be sure. We cannot even be sure that the peasant’s name was Denewulf!
Are we now in a better position to write a history of King Alfred? What was going on in England at the time? After all, Alfred is said to be the first King of England, the first to unite the country under one ruler. He is also credited with developing the first Royal Navy in an attempt to defeat the Danes who were attacking his country. He is widely regarded as a good and wise king - strong and resolute when needed, but also prepared to listen. He is the only English king called ‘The Great’. Perhaps the story is made up, but it does show him in a good light. He doesn’t pull rank on the peasant’s wife, but humbly apologises for burning the cakes. And of course he was dreaming about how to win back his kingdom and defeat the Danes.
Your pupils should now be in a position to write an interesting account of King Alfred. They have explored differing sources, and found contradictions and uncertainties. They have talked about him, and listened to others talking about him, and will have had to make up their own minds from conflicting accounts. They might need a writing frame to help them sort their ideas. They have been doing history – challenging, questioning, weighing up and rejecting evidence, selecting and organising, and producing an end product. Exactly what that might be will depend on the task you have set them – it could be a news item, a story, a set of pictures, a ‘powerpoint’ presentation, even a page for the school website. It will have helped them develop the skills crucial for success in literacy, but it will also have helped them become better historians.
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