My contribution to the Historical Association’s Teaching the Tudors Continuing Professional Development day in York last month was to provide A History of the Reformation in 5 Ballads. This talk was newly developed, from my Singing the News work and my Tudor Voices talk, to concentrate on what ballads can tell us about the process of Reformation in England. As it was aimed at teachers and their students, I modernised the spelling and, in a few cases, the language, in order to make the songs accessible. I also edited most of the ballads heavily – as the whole songs sometimes take in excess of 20 minutes to sing, that is impractical in most modern situations! The verses that I chose were ones which highlighted interesting issues that might be useful at A level, GCSE or even Key Stage 3.

Once I had explained what a ballad was, and how to use them as evidence, I started with John Pickering’s Exhortation to the People of the North, to talk about the Pilgrimage of Grace. This ballad has four main themes:

  • the north-south divide
  • heresy (Protestantism)
  • evil counsellors around the king
  • unfair taxation
Thomas Cromwell

This song leads quite naturally into A New Ballad of Thomas Cromwell. This was the song that I taught to the teachers so that they could join in with the chorus (with thanks to Maheema Chanrai at head office for taking a bit of film!). The Cromwell ballads are great for discussing what is heresy and treason.

Next, I looked at Protestantism during the period of Mary I, with the devotional Some Men for Sudden Joy Do Weep and a vitriolic anti-Spanish piece which talks (briefly) about the burning of 13 Protestant martys at Stratford Le Bow in July 1556. The short reference in the song helps us to date the song more precisely, as John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records only one burning which included 13 people at the same time.

Finally, I talked about the way that the Reformation really took root under Elizabeth I, and we looked at some anti-Catholic ballads from the period of the Northern Rebellion (1569-70). This meant that I could finish the session with the rousing A Letter to Rome to Declare to the Pope John, Felton his Friend is Hanged in a Rope.

As a session, it seemed to go down very well indeed – there was an excellent response over lunch and on Twitter. I’m looking forward to giving the paper again for a non-teaching audience at the Historical Association Conference in Chester in May, and even more so, to reworking the paper so that, with the help of the Historical Association‘s Seondary Committee, we can put together a proper set of teaching materials including recordings. The karaoke Reformation in classrooms across the country… Wouldn’t that be something?!

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