How not to misfire.. exploring the learning process with Henry VIII

Having written about lessons that mis-fire, I was asked to suggest what people should do instead. That’s a mighty big task because, what you might do depends on what exactly you want students to know and, in any specific example, there are countless possibilities.   However, given that a lot of my mis-fire examples are about gathering and processing declarative knowledge of various kinds, I am going to attempt to explore what might work in a particular knowledge context:  The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Why this?  I’ve chosen a topic that I am not an expert in because, in thinking about how to teach about it, I wanted to explore what it would take for me to learn it myself.  It also happens to be the subject of one of the worst mis-fire lessons I’ve ever seen, many years ago.  In that lesson, students did a lot of moving around, treasure-hunt style, writing down factoids from ‘easy speak’ cards about each wife; the poverty of ambition was evidenced by the final task: share one fact you’ve learned about one of the wives. Some students couldn’t even do that without their notes after a whole hour.

I’ve known about Henry VIII’s Six Wives since I was at primary school.  I’ve heard my mum sharing the ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded,  Survived’ mantra a few times and that has stuck with me.  However I’ve never really studied this part of history or committed the effort and time needed to properly learn who the wives were, the circumstances of each marriage beginning and ending and the implications for English history.  On a recent family trip to Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds, we saw where Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife, is entombed and were looking at various paintings of Henry and family.  It struck me that, even though I’ve seen similar artefacts (“sources”) on visits to Hampton Court and the Tower of London,  I still didn’t really understand them. Who was who? What was the significance of all the religious references?  How did Elizabeth I, Edward and Mary all fit.  I used to teach at King Edward VI Grammar School, founded in 1551 but I didn’t really know how Edward fitted into the Henry/Elizabeth story.  Despite my exposure to all this history, I had still failed to form a coherent schema that I could recall and use.

By fluke, I found a short booklet by Angela Royston at home  – which gave me the idea to study ‘the Wives’ properly to see what it takes.  I’m now brimful with ‘Wives’ knowledge!

On first reading of the book, the challenge of reading as a non-expert was evident.  There are lots of layers of detail and I found it difficult to take in all in one go.   I found I needed to chunk it up, focusing on one wife at a time, checking back and forth continually to cross-reference dates and sequences of events .  Which details matter?  You can learn that Jane Seymour was the fifth child of Sir John Seymour but is that worth remembering?   So, the first step was to decide which knowledge I needed:

  • Names: Obvious but actually useful because of the potential confusion:  Three Catherines, two Annes, one Jane: Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine, Catherine. Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Howard, Catherine Parr with Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves after the first Catherine.
  • Dates:  Dates provide the framework, the schema for the story to hang from.  The short length of the marriages is striking.
  • Where they came from: this seems important if we want to explore political issues
  • How and why the marriages ended:   this is a core part of the story but we need a bit more than  ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded,  Survived’
  • Specific Details about each wife that give them an identity beyond their name and manner of death.  They are individuals with a life history and a character. It helps to understand and remember the story if the characters have an identity beyond names and dates. The booklet provides some characterisations that help to do this.

Once I had decided the key elements to focus on I re-read the book and tried to consciously assimilate all of those facts, engaging in some mental rehearsal.  Then I made some timeline diagrams from memory:

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 07.09.50

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 07.09.35

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 07.09.07

This is a generative process:  without looking at my notes, I was exploring my newly formed schema to check its accuracy and, in so-doing, I was strengthening my memory of facts and connections.  Crucially, after my first draft, I had the book to check against, to make sure I was getting it right.  I had some gaps and errors but I could evaluate my knowledge as part of the retrieval process and correct it, ensuring future recall is more complete and accurate.

There are lots of organising schema at hand here:

  • The big picture time line: When did Henry VIII live?
  • Where did Henry live in relation to Elizabeth and the 15th – 17thCentury?
  • The order of the wives and how long each one was his wife.
  • The Church-State relationship with wider political issues around England, Germany and Spain.

So, the factual recall has also helped me to explore deeper themes and details of sub-plots in the overall narrative.  I’ve had to explore my understanding of some key concepts:

  • Monarchy: Kings; heirs; succession; the court.
  • Marriage and Divorce; annulment
  • Church and State.
  • Catholic Church:  The Pope; Rome; Spain
  • Protestant Church:  Origins. Geography.

After the timelines, I assembled the table of information below from memory as far as possible, collating the information I had sought out from the book. It’s clearly a subset of the information but it captures the main things I feel I need to remember to have a handle on the events and narratives.

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 07.14.42I now have a reasonably secure schema to test myself on and from time to time in recent days I have been undertaking some mental elaborative-interrogative questioning. Who was who? In which order? How did they die? Why did this happen? Where did the heirs Mary, Elizabeth and Edward fit into the story: Who were their mothers? When did they reign? It’s depressing how quickly details slip and need to be bolstered – but the key schema are now pretty secure.

Finally, I can turn to my self-set source analysis question… Now I have some knowledge, I can look at this painting and talk about who is who and why they are portrayed the way they are:

Mary (Catholic, bringing war), Edward (son and heir), Elizabeth (bringing ‘peace and plenty’). Painted by a protestant; a representation of their perspective. 

Implications for Teaching and Learning:

My observations about my learning process with implications for teaching are as follows:

I valued the illustrated text.  It was readable and contained more information than I needed.  However this richness gave the information context.  The summary table I produced makes sense because I know about what lies beyond it; I know there’s more to know.

I don’t think I could have assembled the basic information as effectively by being told it all, making notes, because I needed to go back and forth in my own way to make connections myself.

At the same time, a teacher’s explanation would have been useful to help me select the important knowledge.  Basically I have guessed; I’m sure I’ve made novice errors.  There are still lots of things I don’t feel sure of and a teacher’s expert exposition of the narrative supported by the text would have helped to build confidence in some knowledge and make the assimilation quicker and more robust. I’ve wasted a lot of time feeling my way.

Having made the timelines and table, I’ve needed multiple rounds of generative recall to make sure I’ve learned it.  Making the table was the beginning not the end.  I’m 53 with a tendency to have sieve-like memory for names but I don’t think students can be assumed to be that much better.  I’ve used a lot of  self-quizzing and elaborative interrogation; I’ve made mental lists; I’ve rehearsed explanations. Significantly I have had the resources and knowledge of the learning tools needed to check my own knowledge.  I have not been relying on scrappy notes in an exercise book.

For sure, as I’ve felt more secure in some facts, I’ve been more ready to go further into the wider reaches of the narrative.  I get who Anne Boleyn is; I understand why Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and had Catherine Howard beheaded.  I’m never going to confuse Catherine Howard and Parr again; I know them as different people now; I don’t need to remember that the Catherines came in alphabetical order.  I get how Edward, then Mary, then Elizabeth come to the throne and how Mary’s upbringing as a Catholic, loyal to her mother Catherine, wanted to return England to Catholicism whilst Edward and Elizabeth were aligned to Protestantism.  It makes sense now.

Now I know more, I’ve got a ton of questions.  I’m more curious than ever. I want to know more about Thomas Cromwell, about the transition to the Church of England, about what was going on in Spain, about ‘childbed fever’ and what this actually was.  I also now have questions about the bias in the original text. When the author describes Catherine of Aragon as ‘pious’ and Catherine Howard as ‘flirtatious’, I wonder what the basis for that is – and I’m getting into a different arena of historical analysis, evaluating sources for bias and veracity,  because my knowledge base will allow me to.

A set of lessons and study tasks that allowed me to reach this point might have included:

  • Reading the text in class, guided by teacher input and explanatory guidance and probing questioning to check for understanding all couched within a good question about the importance of the wives in the history of Tudor England and beyond.
  • A timeline task, preferably on a pre-made grid of some kind.  (To be honest, when making the timelines above, it was a massive distraction faffing about with the text box and table formatting).  This would be done by writing down a rough version based on what I know then checking back to fill in gaps and then doing it again better, more neatly.
  • A paired Q and A task.  With a partner it would have been good to do some peer-assessed elaborative interrogative questioning.  Person A, armed with the book, would ask questions to Person B:  Who was….? Why did….? What was the reason for……?  They would be consolidating their own knowledge whilst asking the questions, using the book to verify the answers. Then they’d swap.  Then write it all down. Then check back against the table of key facts.
  • A week or so later, a pre-planned task to repeat the table or timeline or to write an explanatory paragraph about each wife, without notes, would have made me learn it, rehearse it.
  • Then a set of source evaluation questions, using the knowledge secured to explore various paintings or letters from the time.
  • Perhaps the requirement to present an essay outline to the class explaining the key narrative prior to actually writing the essay.

I don’t think these things would have been effective or time-efficient:  role-play, experts and envoys, treasure-hunts, straight lecture, reading and re-reading only, making a snakes and ladders game with the wives as the pieces, turning the wives into Little Miss characters, making a poster or cartoon storyboard focusing on drawing the people or cutting out images from a worksheet, writing an empathetic account imagining being Anne Boleyn writing to Henry.

However, I do think some students could easily teach themselves this material in the way I have and that, in some circumstances, that could be harnessed to push further and deeper at a greater rate than exclusive teacher-led teaching can achieve, provided that the resources are good and readily available and the study skills are secure.

Apologies to History teachers if I’ve committed some disciplinary atrocities here.. but let me know your thoughts!

Thanks to Angela Royston for your excellent booklet in the Pitkin Biographical Series.


  1. I recollect from my school years that History was a vehicle for teaching, in a crowded room with a textbook, a set of facts which then could be reconstrued, in an exam, to answer a particular question. (Biology was simply 50% of this process with a bit of dexterity thrown in.) Math was similar but involved translation into code that could be used more flexibly, say to help understand why Napoleon lost at Waterloo. But more crucially it was easier to collaborate on; maybe that was the logician bias in the particular cohort.

    What’s new now is the ability to collaborate at scale and to see the facts laid out in “plain text” and, to make it clear, I am reflecting on modern computer technology. In my career I was taken by how simple it was to assault massive problems with collaborative learning via a “modern language”. The problem (opportunity ?) with Henry et al is that the humans get in the way of comprehension. We may see that technology is moving towards such mystery with the advent of Quantum Computing. But over the past few decades we have been lucky that a clear knowledge base has enabled computers for all. This is an example that illustrates: “I do think some students could easily teach themselves this material”


  2. Ahhh, this is brilliant. I’m a passionate fan of Tudor history and my South American partner is aiming to become a UK citizen so we can be together. Learning the most famous bits of English history will help him assimilate and I’ve been looking forward to playing teacher (in the cleanest possible sense), but I have no experience of teaching so I’ve been wondering how to approach the task in a way that will be both effective and enjoyable for my partner. Page bookmarked with many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, since Henry’s marriages to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves were all annulled as invalid (and therefore technically never took place – unlike divorce which recognises a marriage) he actually only had 3 wives! -Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr . Annulled, annulled, died; annulled, beheaded, survived.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hello

        There are lots of things about the period which can be used to make it even more interesting (with modern parallels etc):

        * Anne was tried on 15 May 1536 and executed on 19th. The marriage was annulled on 16th – probably in order to bastardise Elizabeth and eliminate her from the succession (like Mary before her). Anne probably agreed in the hope of a last minute reprieve, or to have her sentence of burning commuted to beheading – which it was. * The break with Rome, and getting rid of excessive foreign interference and the drain on England’s finances , plus a long and complicated legal disentangling process (Acts of Submission of the Clergy, Appeals, Supremacy etc) – seems rather like Brexit * The love triangle when Catherine of Aragon was still recognised but Anne also almost treated as Queen (Greenwich c 1527-31) – seems like three people in this marriage? * Did Anne hold Henry off for 6 years? … or did he, Clinton-like ‘not have sex with that woman’ * Anne’s sister Mary was well known for her affairs. Mary is often considered as the older demure one (cf Jane and Elizabeth Bennet) – but the younger vivacious Anne almost certainly did not have a sexual relationship with Henry until married, as confirmed by Henry’s letters, of which 17 survive (secret marriage 14 Nov 1532, low key marriage 25 Jan 1533; Elizabeth born 7 Sept 1533) * Did it all go wrong because Anne, as well as being talented and educated, stood up to the domineering men in her life – like a sort of proto-feminist? * When a man marries his mistress it creates a vacancy (married Jane Seymour 10 days after Anne was executed) * In spite of Anne’s miscarriage in Jan 1536, there is evidence that Anne and Henry were still getting on OK up to Easter and even 25 April 1536 (letter by Henry). What suddenly turned him against Anne 26-30 April? Perhaps, that fateful weekend, Cromwell whispered (Iago-like) in the blustering and military, but rather simple and unbalanced Othello’s, (er Henry’s 😊), ear that Anne had cuckolded him and he had the evidence to prove it (Smeaton, gossip re Norris etc)? At the May day jousting tournament, Anne threw her handkerchief (Desdemona-like) to one of her alleged lovers. * Would Anne really have had affairs with 5 men (8 were originally accused, 3 released) so as not to know who the father of her child would be? (sounds a bit like Mama Mia!) – or might she have desperately tried to get pregnant if Henry could no longer perform? But what halfwit would have done that knowing how closely she was watched?! * And, of course, what if Arthur had lived? What if Catherine and Henry’s son (b. 1511 lived 2 months), and her other 5 still birth/miscarriages, had survived to adulthood (she had 7 pregnancies – and Anne had 3)? What if Elizabeth had been a boy? What if Anne had married an earlier suitor? Etc etc – might England not have joined the reformation and broken with Rome?



  4. I think there’s plenty we history can teachers can learn, alone, from the diagrams you have used of ‘broad picture’ and sixteenth century and this will stimulate some excellent discussions with my history colleagues in school around scale-switching.
    I have really enjoyed the simple way you have put the issue of developing schema, in a concrete way. A great blog I wish I’d read before having to work out many of these conclusions for myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve not really thought of it in that way. I’ve certainly seen lessons introducing all wives at once and I tried to learn them all – but clearly you’d need more than one lesson to really learn about them all properly


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