'Greensleeves' isn't in it

Keith Gregson has written a cycle of songs on Henry VIII's wives

Since I was 16 I have been writing songs, some of them quite successful - in the 1980s I performed one on Sir Harry Secombe's Highway programme. My folk-music-loving friends are fond of my song about the Great North Run and another one I wrote about the curse of oil seed rape. But it is in history classes that I use my songs most; I seem to have enjoyed particular success with a cycle of songs about the six wives of Henry VIII.

Catherine of Aragon (Princess of Spain), Anne Boleyn (Daughter of Darkness) and Jane Seymour (What Might Have Been) were composed in the mid-1970s. Inspiration came hard and the other three - Ann of Cleves (The Flanders Mare), Katherine Howard (You Only Go Out With Me) and Katherine Parr (Now It's Up To You) had to await the early 1990s before they saw the light of day. Each song, as I explain to my pupils, lets me take off my neutral historian's hat and express an opinion.

I seem to feel sorry for Catherine of Aragon:

Catherine, Princess of Spain

You never stood a chance

Married to a boy much younger than you

All you could do was love

You bore six children and five of them died

One became queen but not man enough for him.

Ann Boleyn receives less sensitive treatment:

Woman with eyes as black as coal

You torture my heart - you punish my soul

From the morning to the dead of night

You daughter of darkness


I am a little confused about Jane and the favourable treatment history has afforded her: You were too young for us to know you

Would you have lived

And died a queen

Were you so good

Or are we cheated? ...

The Ann of Cleves episode was almost farcical:

Oh for a maid with long blonde hair

Now you're wed to the Flanders Mare ...

Just one thing

You know its true

You'll hate her

And she'll hate you (bis)

Both Henry and Katherine Howard were childish but, in her defence, she was little more than a child: You don't go out with young men

You only go out with me, young Katherine

Don't go out with young men

You only go out with me - see

You only go out with me

You call me baldy - call me stout - you call me fat man riddled with gout Call me all these - when it's said I will call you one thing - Dead !

The song bout Katherine Parr still puzzles me. It appears to be more about the problems of an ageing Henry or perhaps, as one perceptive pupil observed, "I think this one is about you, sir": I don't want a beautiful lady, I don't want a beautiful girl I want somebody to comfort me - I need somebody to care...

This is the general flavour of the songs, but perhaps it is the way they can be used that may be of greater interest.

Since completing the cycle, I have worked with colleagues in the history department to slot the songs into the Year 8 history curriculum. I perform "live" in my own lessons, but have provided tapes for the other history teachers. This method also appears to work (and has acted as back-up for me when a guitar string went in mid-performance).

The song cycle now forms part of a levelled exercise which looks at interpretations of Henry and his relationships, and follows on neatly from the King John "good kingbad king" exercise in Year 7. At key stages 3 and 4 pupils are required to pick out facts and opinions from the songs. This also follows on from a Year 7 exercise using an excellent modern song about Wat Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt, recorded by the folkrock group, Fairport Convention.

At the higher levels, we encourage pupils to carry out their own research on the wives, watch extracts from the film Six Wives and ask whether it portrays Henry as a good man and a good king (level 45). This paves the way for the highest level (level 56), where pupils are required to show they understand my interpretation and, based on their own knowledge, say whether they agree with it or not. This has led to some lively written work. This year I was accused of being "bang out of order" in my attitude to Katherine Howard and not sensitive enough to the predicament in which the young Catholic found herself. The assertion was backed with solid evidence in a good piece of work.

Songs are wonderful evidence for historical interpretation - many of them as secondary sources. I have also found the pupils very supportive of my singing in the classroom (and it can be used as a threat) so, if you have half a voice, give it a try.

Keith Gregson is head of history at Brierton school, Hartlepool. He is thinking of putting his songs on CD - if you like the idea, contact him at home, tel: 0191 5109 206; E-mail: keith.gregson@talk21.com

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