The medieval kings to remember - and what they tell us about Michael Gove

It's alleged that Michael Gove compiled a list of those English medieval kings that he wanted children to study. But which would have been on it? Simon Usborne picks claimants who might appeal to an opinionated young fogey
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of all the personal jibes flying around in the run up to election day, Nick Clegg's attack on Michael Gove's record on education was among the most detailed – and historic. Speaking on the Lib Dem campaign bus on Tuesday, the embattled party leader recalled the methods used by his coalition colleague – and former education secretary – to inspire his vision of a not-so-modern history curriculum.

"I remember when I thought 'This is just getting absurd' was when someone explained to me that Michael Gove was personally handwriting lists of which medieval kings British schoolchildren should learn, according to his personal recollection of which kings and queens are important," he said.

"I just thought: 'This is something out of The Thick of It,'" Clegg added. (Please, everyone, no more The Thick of It comparisons from today, yes?). "You have the Secretary of State personally instructing the hapless children of this country which medieval kings you want them to learn by rote."

Gove's people dodged Clegg's arrow and shot it back at him yesterday. A "source close to Gove", as he asks to be described, insists in an email that "no such list existed… The truth is Gove frequently fought against Clegg's whims being imposed on schools. Clegg tried to overrule independent experts who recommended that 19th-century novels should be included in English literature exams. Gove successfully resisted this attempt to politicise the curriculum."

Politicising the curriculum, Michael? Surely not something you would ever dream of doing. But is there merit in this alleged fixation on medieval monarchs? And which kings might Gove deem to be most worthy of our children's attention? Big-name historians would not be drawn on the question yesterday. Your Starkeys, your Worsleys, your Gregorys – all unavailable to comment. Given my own woeful knowledge of that period, which goes some way to proving Gove's point, I consult the internet.

Alfred the Great (871-899) could be sure of a top spot on Michael's king list. Not only did the Wessex man, who had a claim to be the first King of England (and is the only officially "Great" monarch – sorry, Liz), beat off the Danes, but he was also big on traditional education. Dismayed by declining standards among young people (men) whose potential he recognised to make England rich and mighty, he set out to offer schooling to them all. Maximum Gove points.

The education secretary, who was shown the school gates by David Cameron in last summer's reshuffle, had already expressed his belief in a patriotic reading of British history, rejecting what he saw as a left-wing, apologist approach to our nation's less than glorious chapters.

While defending his proposed changes to the curriculum for seven- to 14-year-olds in 2013, he said: "In history there is a clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past." Richard the Lionheart? No. He was hardly ever at home. But enter Henry V, arguably the most heroically patriotic of the medievals. Michael Hicks, a professor of history, specialising in the Middle Ages at the University of Winchester, confirms this. "He was a hardy perennial in terms of English patriotism," he says, pointing out his resumption of the Hundred Years' War against the French, and commemoration by Shakespeare (Gove was also massively pro-Shakespeare while he ran education, so extra points there).

456448882-(1).jpg
A 'source close to' Michael Gove claimed that no such list existed (Getty)

What about Scotland? Gove, who was raised in Aberdeen, was firmly in the "No" camp during last year's referendum on independence, but the first truly unionist king came after the end of the medieval period, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Ireland in 1603. Three hundred years earlier, Edward I was not big on Scotland at all (they called him Hammer of the Scots) but showed unionist tendencies – sort of – when he took on Wales. But Professor Hicks suggests he might feature on Gove's list.

Hugo Vickers, the biographer and historian, directs our attention away from Gove. He's no medievalist but suggests: "Clegg needs to be assigned a monarch – one who was pushed into the limelight by the dullness of the other two (Brown and Cameron in those debates) but then achieved nothing at all, got the wrong end of every stick, and presently drifted into the salty wasteland of oblivion." But who? Professor Hicks? "Hmmm. Let me get back to you."

Comments