Teaching History
A man dressed as a medieval lord with a group of students

Teaching Medieval History

The Middle Ages (1066–1485) mark the development of England following the Norman Conquest. 

Read advice from our education experts and historians on how to introduce this broad and varied time period. Discover historical information to help ground your understanding and suggested activities to try with your students at home, in the classroom, or on a school trip. 

This guide is intended to help anyone teaching medieval history, but the activities featured will be of particular interest to National Curriculum Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 learners.

Hints and Tips

  • Build on solid foundations – Take time to establish a strong sense of period with your students to give them a good foundation on which to build understanding. This could include the feudal system, the relationship between Church and State, and learning about medieval health and medicine.                                                                              
  • Find the parallel – Many things from today have their origins in the Middle Ages such as parliament, some government departments like the exchequer, the legal system and grammar schools. Use these to stimulate interest and promote a sense of relevance.                                             
  • Explore language – The development of the English language can be an interesting entry point to study, looking at the mix of French, Latin and ‘Middle’ English, not to mention different dialects!

Suggested Activities

History At Home Live! Castles

Watch History At Home Live! with Ben Shires and our expert Jeremy Ashbee to develop your understanding of castles. 

Why were castles built? Who built them? How would you go about attacking a castle? Find out the answers to all these questions and more. 

A group of female students walking through the gatehouse at Portchester Castle

Get To Grips with the Period

Nearly half of all English Heritage sites date from the Middle Ages and their variety reflects the period’s developing character.

The castles first developed by the Normans were added to and continued to dominate the English landscape, reminding people of the authority of the nobility and the monarch. During this period, the Church dominated everyday life. In the 14th century one in every 15 Englishmen was clergy of some kind.

The Middle Ages was also a time of foreign and internal war. Carlisle Castle guarded the land border with Scotland, while Carisbrooke and Dartmouth castles defended England against invasions from the sea. Other medieval castles endured conflicts between monarchs and their barons, like Beeston, while some played a role in the dynastic Wars of the Roses in the 15th century like Warkworth Castle.

Read our Introduction to Medieval England
  • Medieval: Religion

    The Church was a pervasive force in people’s lives, with the power and influence of the Catholic Church – then the only Church in western Europe – reaching its zenith in England in the Middle Ages.

  • Medieval: Architecture

    For more than a century after the Battle of Hastings, all substantial stone buildings in England were built in the Romanesque style, known in the British Isles as Norman. It was superseded from the later 12th century by a new style – the Gothic.

  • Medieval: Warfare

    The Norman Conquest was achieved largely thanks to two instruments of war previously unknown in England: the mounted, armoured knight, and the castle.

Medieval Glossary

  • Medieval Definitions

    abbess
    A woman who is the head of an abbey and has authority over the nuns in her house and its dependencies.

    abbot
    A man who is the head of an abbey and has authority over the monks in his house and its dependencies.

    Angevin kings
    Kings of England who also owned lands in Anjou, in France. The Angevin kings of England were Henry II (r.1154–1189), Richard I (r.1189–1199) and King John (r.1199–1216). 

    baron(s)
    A land-holding nobleman who was granted land by the king for loyal service. Disloyal barons sometimes used their lands to become very wealthy and powerful so they could rebel against the king. 

    Battle of Agincourt
    A major English victory between Henry V (r.1413–22) and Charles VI of France during the Hundred Years War. Henry V won and married the French king’s daughter. 

    Battle of Bosworth
    The last major battle of the Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster, led by Henry Tudor, and the House of York, led by King Richard III. Fought on 22 August 1485, the battle was won by the Lancastrians and Henry Tudor was crowned king, the first Tudor monarch.  

    Benedictine
    Used to describe monks or nuns whose monastic life is governed by the Rule of St Benedict. Their monasteries are described as Benedictine. 

    besiege
    To surround a town or castle with an army in order to capture it or force the people inside to surrender.   

    Black Death
    The huge outbreak of bubonic plague carried by the fleas of black rats, which killed millions of people across Europe and Asia in the mid 14th century.  

    constable
    The governor of a castle.

    court
    The royal household: people who lived with the king and/or queen.

    curtain wall
    A fortified wall around a medieval castle or abbey, often linking towers together.

    drawbridge
    A bridge over a moat that can be lifted at one end.

    Feudalism
    A system dominating Medieval society in which the nobility and gentry held land  in exchange for military service. Peasants were answerable to their local lord. They had to live on their lord's land, providing labour and produce and paying homage to him. This was in return for the lord’s protection. 

    First Barons’ War
    (1215–1217) a civil war between King John and his barons (land-holding noblemen) who were angry that John had broken the limitations on his authority set out in Magna Carta. The barons were supported by the King of France.

    fortification
    Reinforcement built to strengthen a place against attack.

    gatehouse
    The highly defended entranceway to a castle. 

    Gothic
    A style of architecture characterised by the pointed arch. 

    Hundred Years War
    (1337–1453). A series of battles between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of England, and the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, over the succession to the French throne.    

    illuminating manuscripts
    Decorating a manuscript by hand with initials, borders and miniature illustrations which were often brightly coloured, and in some cases, highly ornate.

    Lancastrian
    A follower of the House of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses.

    Magna Carta
    The document agreed to by King John in 1215, placing limits on his power. Most English barons and the Church felt that King John was abusing his power. By accepting Magna Carta he managed to calm the rebellion, but not for long. He didn't stick to the rules set out in Magna Carta, which made people angry and caused the First Barons' War. 

    manor
    An area of land held by a nobleman (e.g. a lord, earl or duke). 

    martyr
    Someone who is killed, and later honoured, because of their religious beliefs.

    merchant
    Someone who buys and sells goods.

    mint
    A place where money is coined (made by stamping metal).  

    monastic order
    A network and organisation of communities of monks who live apart from society, following specific rules that help them live a life devoted to religion.

    noble(s)
    A person who belongs to the aristocracy.

    pilgrim
    A person who journeys to a special or sacred place for religious reasons. 

    rampart
    Steep-sided and high bank, often with a walkway and parapet for defence by foot soldiers or artillery. 

    Romanesque
    The style of architecture common between the 11th and 12th centuries, which includes semi-circular arches, columns, thick walls and small windows to create a sense of awe and intimacy. 

    Second Barons' War
    A civil war between Henry III and his barons.

    siege
    A military tactic in which an army surrounds a place in order to cut off essential supplies (e.g. food and weapons) and force the people inside to surrender. 

    siege engines
    Huge stone-throwing machines made from wood, used during medieval sieges. The trebuchet is one example. 

    siege tower
    A wooden tower on wheels, which could be pushed up to the wall of a castle during a siege to allow the attackers to reach the top of the wall.  

    tenant(s)
    A person who occupies land or property rented from a landlord. 

    Thomas Becket
    (c.1119–1170). Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He disagreed with Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by four of the king’s knights in Canterbury Cathedral  

    Treaty of York
    An agreement between Henry III of England (r.1216–72) and Alexander II of Scotland (r.1214–49), issued at York on 25 September 1237, that marked out the modern Anglo-Scottish border.  

    Wars of the Roses
    A series of battles between two rival houses: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Both groups wanted control of the throne. The two rival dynasties adopted roses as their emblems, and these were worn as badges by their supporters: a red rose for the House of Lancaster, and a white rose for the House of York.

A member of staff pointing out site features to a group of students

Expert Advice

We asked one of our curators for their thoughts on studying the Middle Ages:

The Middle Ages are in some ways extremely familiar, and in others completely alien, even bizarre. Perhaps, most obviously, the physical creations of the Middle Ages still dominate England – we still use parish churches in their thousands, roads and bridges, towns and cities, and we see the majestic remains of medieval castles and monasteries. Many of the institutions at the heart of local and national government are recognisable from the Middle Ages

But it’s a long period, with many changes – a town under Henry II looked and felt very different to one under Richard III. It has fascinating contradictions too: how could the lovely music, poetry, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass of the 14th century share place with some of history's most infamous wars, famines and plagues?

Above all, the source material is both abundant and varied - we still have pictures, physical remains and documents in their hundreds and thousands to consult and analyse. All this adds up to a field of study richer than anything previously seen in England's history.

Jeremy Ashbee, Head Properties Curator

Read More about Teaching History

Video Resources

Discover more about the Middle Ages with our variety of videos.

Uncover what makes a medieval castle and how to take one. Meet a medieval noblewoman to find out about the lives of medieval nobles and start to distinguish different kinds of Benedictine monks using our mini guide. You can also learn more about how strange medieval ideas about medicine really were and which kinds of medieval remedies we still use today. 

  • How to Take a Medieval Castle

  • Life as a Medieval Noblewoman

  • A Mini Guide to Medieval Monks

  • What was Medieval Medicine Like?

Help with home learning

In these challenging times many parents and carers are home schooling their children for the very first time, and often in difficult circumstances.

We have gathered together advice from our team of teachers and education experts on how to approach home learning during the current crisis.

Read our home learning help
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