Would Ofsted disapprove of this lesson?

I taught a lesson today as part of a project I’m doing with three High Schools funded by the Hamlyn Foundation. The session was one of a long sequence looking at the events of the Norwich riots in 1272.

After having spent my whole career working in primary education I’m still struggling to come to terms with the fragmented nature of the timetable in secondary schools.

The lessons I’m teaching for this project are either 50mins, 1hr 10mins, or 2hrs. Whereas in primary I’m used to having sessions that last for as long as I like – an hour, a morning, even all day.

As a consequence I’ve had to re-think the way I plan individual sessions and how they connect together, as a sequence, over-time.

Which brings us to the session I taught today. Over the previous four weeks we (that is the year 7 students, myself, and their teacher) have been studying the 1272 riots in Norwich, where the people of City attacked the Cathedral after a dispute over taxation.

In the last session we looked at the trial of the rioters, conducted in the presence of Henry III, in which the students wrote the eye-witness testimony of the monks who survived the riots. Today we started to think about the execution of those found guilty, there were 29 in all.

As a starting point I planned a session, which involved the students and I examining a long description of the ritual that surrounded a medieval execution. You’ll see my lesson plan below. In the discussion that followed the session, the student’s teacher and I wondered what Ofsted would have made of it. Would they have criticised the amount of teacher talk? Would they have thought the material inappropriate for the age of the children? Would they have thought them too passive?

We couldn’t really come to a conclusion. What do you think? I can’t imagine a better way of communicating the information in the time we had. I should mention that some of the students struggle with reading.


– The students sit in a circle. They share the text, one between two.

– I read the text to them. Stopping at times to ask questions and clarify some of the language.

– The students follow the text as best they can. I give them opportunities to ask questions.

– At the end of the reading, the students divide into groups working on pictures that might go with the text and be used by their History Team to retell the events of the execution to people visiting their exhibition.

The whole session last 50mins. 40mins are spent with me reading the text and discussion. The last ten minutes in beginning to prepare the pictures.

In the following sessions the students will:

– Write letters from the pov of the prisoners.
– Write a report to the king, from the pov of the executioner, describing how the day will be organised using the information from the extract.
– Write eye-witness accounts.
– Study the lives of medieval people
– And (by extension) medieval culture, history, and society.



This is an excerpt from The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame written by Joel F. Harrington


In the medieval era, public executions were meant to accomplish two goals: first, to shock spectators and, second, to reaffirm divine and temporal authority.

A steady and reliable executioner played the pivotal role in achieving this delicate balance through his ritualized and regulated application of violence on the state’s behalf.

Historian Richard van Dulmen called it “the theater of horror.”

  1. The court condemnation,
  2. The death procession,
  3. The execution

The “good death” was essentially a drama of religious redemption, in which the poor sinner acknowledged and atoned for his or her crimes and in return was granted a swift death and the promise of salvation.

Let us take the example of the prisoner, Hans Vogel, who was executed for burning to death an enemy in a stable.

The preparation behind the scenes was crucially important.

Three days before the day of execution, Vogel was moved to a slightly larger death row cell. Had he been seriously wounded or otherwise ill, a medical consultant would have tended to him and perhaps requested delays in the execution date until Vogel regained the stamina required for the final hour.

While awaiting judgment day, Vogel might receive family members and other visitors in the prison or—if he was literate—seek consolation by reading a book or writing farewell letters.

He might even reconcile with some of his victims and their relatives, as did a murderer who accepted some oranges and gingerbread from his victim’s widow “as a sign that she had forgiven him from the depths of her heart.”

The most frequent visitors to Vogel’s cell during this period would be the prison chaplains. If Vogel couldn’t read, the clerics would have shown him an illustrated Bible and attempted to teach him the Lord’s Prayer. Above all, the chaplains—sometimes joined by the jailer or members of his family—would offer consolation to the poor sinner, singing hymns together and speaking reassuring words, while repeatedly admonishing the stubborn and hardhearted.

Vogel could request what ever he wanted for his last meal, including copious quantities of wine.

Once Vogel was adequately satiated (and inebriated), the executioner’s assistants helped him put on the white linen execution gown and summoned the executioner, Frantz, who from this point on oversaw the execution.

His arrival at the cell was announced by the warden with the customary words, “The executioner is at hand,” whereupon Frantz knocked on the door and entered the parlor in his finest attire.

After asking the prisoner for forgiveness, he then sipped the traditional Saint John’s drink of peace with Vogel, and engaged in a brief conversation to determine whether he was ready to proceed to the waiting judge and jury.

A few poor sinners were at this point actually jubilant and even giddy about their imminent release from the mortal world, whether out of religious conviction, exasperation, or sheer intoxication. Sometimes Frantz decided that a small concession might be enough to ensure compliance, such as allowing one condemned woman to wear her favorite straw hat to the gallows, or a poacher to wear the wreath sent to him in prison by his sister.

Next came the “blood court,” presided over by a judge and jury.

The judge sat on a raised cushion, holding a white rod in his right hand and in his left a short sword. Six jurors in ornately carved chairs flanked him on either side, like him wearing the customary red and black robes of the blood court.

While the executioner and his assistants held the prisoner steady, the scribe read the final confession and its tally of offenses, concluding with “Which being against the laws of England, my Lords have decreed and given sentence that he shall be condemned from life to death by [rope/sword/ fire/water/the wheel].”

Starting with the youngest juror, the judge then polled all 12 of his colleagues for their consent, to which each gave the standard reply, “What is legal and just pleases me.”

Before confirming the sentence, the judge addressed the prisoner directly for the first time, inviting a statement to the court. The submissive poor sinner was not expected to present any sort of defense, but rather to thank the jurors and judge for their just decision and absolve them of any guilt in the violent death they had just endorsed.

Some prisoners would be effusive in their gratitude. A few reckless rogues were so bold as to curse the assembled court. Many more terrified prisoners simply stood speechless.

Turning to Frantz, the judge then gave the servant of the court his commission: “Executioner, I command you in the name of the King, that you carry [the poor sinner] to the place of execution and carry out the aforesaid punishment.”

The second act of the unfolding drama, the procession to the site of execution, brought the assembled crowd of hundreds or thousands of spectators into the mix.

Vogel, his hands still bound in front of him, was expected to walk the mile or so to the gallows. Violent male criminals and those sentenced to torture with hot tongs were bound more firmly and placed in a waiting tumbrel or sled, pulled by a work horse used by local sanitation workers.

Led by two mounted archers and the ornately robed judge, also usually on horse back, Frantz and his assistants worked hard to keep up a steady forward pace while several guards held back the teeming crowd. One or both chaplains walked the entire way one on either side of the condemned, reading from scripture and praying aloud.

Satisfying his superiors’ expectations of a dignified and orderly ceremony put even more pressure on the “theater of horror’s” director. In addition to fending off derisive shouts and thrown objects, the executioner needed to maintain the somber mood of the proceedings.

Outward signs of contrition carried particular significance for Frantz, especially during this third act, at the execution site. He writes with approval when one remorseful murderer wept all the way until he knelt down or when a penitent thief took leave of the world as a Christian.

The greatest terror for any executioner was that his own errors might effectively ruin the carefully managed drama of sin and redemption and endanger his own job or worse.

The large crowd of spectators—always including many loud drunks among its number—put immense performance pressure on the executioner. Long farewell speeches or songs helped build suspense for the crowd, but also tried the patience and nerves of the waiting professional.

Bungled executions appear often in medieval chronicles.

Every execution ended with Frantz turning to the judge or his representative and asking the question that would complete the legal ritual:

“Lord Judge, have I executed well?”

“You have executed as judgment and law have required” came the formulaic response.

“For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.”

Frantz then directed the mopping up of blood and appropriate disposal of the dead man’s body and head—always fully aware of the hundreds of eyes still upon him.

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