Saturday, 5 September 2015

Using Castles to Cover the Curriculum

Hello and welcome back! I don't know where the last six weeks disappeared to - we wait in eager anticipation for the summer break to arrive and when it does it just seems to zoom by! I can't believe that we're now back at school, well and truly back into the swing of things. Oh well, here's counting down to half term in eight weeks....

Although I didn't get away anywhere during the holidays, I did manage to spend lots of time enjoying my beautiful Wales. Wales has so much to offer, from great cities, shopping, eating out, theatre and music, to the most glorious countryside ranging from sparkling white sandy beaches, dunes, craggy cliffs and coves, to rolling green hills, patchwork quilt countryside and towering, dramatic mountains. One of the seven Celtic nations of the world, Wales can boast its own language (we are a bilingual nation) and a rich history of proud Celtic traditions and culture.

The earliest inhabitants of Wales were Celts from continental Europe, who migrated in several waves.  The Romans occupied most of Wales, where they built roads and forts, mined gold and conducted commerce, but their interest in it was limited, because of the difficult geography and shortage of flat agricultural land. They established several forts, including Caerleon (Isca), Chester (Deva) and Caernarfon (Segontium) and one major town in Wales - Caerwent (Venta Silurum). The Silures were the major tribe of south-east Wales. Their military leader, Caratacus (Caradoc), had joined them from another, defeated, tribe. Under his leadership, they defied the Romans for a period after the Claudian invasion, but eventually Caratacus was captured and taken to Rome, where his dignified bearing made such an impression on the people that his life was spared.

When Rome withdrew its rule from Britain in AD 410, Wales was left self-governing. One of the reasons for the Roman withdrawal was the pressure put upon the empire's military resources by the incursion of barbarian tribes from the east. These tribes, including the Angles and Saxons, were unable to make inroads into Wales, but they gradually occupied the whole of England, leaving Wales cut off from her Celtic relations in Scotland. Wales was divided into a number of separate territories, and for a single man to rule the whole country at this period was rare, the first to do so being Rhodri Mawr, during the 9th century AD. Rhodri's grandson, Hywel Dda, succeeded in drawing up a standard legal system and brought peace to the country, but, on his death, his territories were once again divided.  A major difficulty in achieving national unity was the inheritance system practised in Wales. All sons received an equal share of their father's property (including illegitimate sons). Liberal as this policy was, it resulted in frequent internecine violence and the division of small territories into still smaller ones, so that, by the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Wales was again fragmented. The princes of Gwynedd, in the north, were increasingly dominant. Owain Gwynedd, who died in 1170, had a strong hold on his principality, but, following his death, his sons squabbled and murdered one another. Out of the ensuing power struggle eventually arose the greatest of all Welsh leaders, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn Fawr or Llywelyn the Great, but internal strife again broke out after his death, culminating in the rise to power of his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Llywelyn the Last.  He gained the antagonism of King Edward I of England, who determined to complete the conquest of Wales. After Llywelyn's death in battle in 1282, only token resistance was offered by the surviving princes. King Edward's ring of impressive stone castles assisted the domination of Wales, and he crowned his achievement by giving the title Prince of Wales to his son and heir in 1301.   In 1400, a Welsh nobleman, Owain Glyndwr, revolted against King Henry IV of England, inflicted several military defeats, and succeeded in evading capture, but he did not have the strength to survive as a leader. Subsequently, a Welshman, Henry Tudor, gained the throne as King Henry VII of England.

The evidence of this is easily spotted in Wales. You do not have to look hard to find ruins of Norman castles and Roman forts. Caerleon, the home of around 6000 Roman soldiers, has a well preserved bath house, barracks and amphitheatre. Caerwent has shops, villas, a basilica, a forum and even a Roman temple. Some of the best castles in the world can be found in Wales, including Raglan, Harlech, Caerphilly, Chepstow, Caernarfon and Conwy - a World Heritage Site. In addition, the ruins of Tintern Abbey and Valle Crucis stand in painful witness to Henry VIII's ruthless pillaging of the monasteries.

I love history, and consider myself truly blessed to live in a country where I can reach out and touch the evidence. Over the summer I walked the ruins of mighty stone castles, piecing them back together stone by stone in my mind until I had conjured up a picture of what they would have been in their glory days. I trod the footings of Roman barracks, knowing that Roman feet had left their footprints almost 200 years ago. I wandered around the remains of magnificent monasteries, saddened by the mindless dereliction inflicted by Henry VIII. It was truly awe inspiring.

So how can we bring history to life for children who have little concept of time, who live in an age where technology moves so fast that it becomes outdated within weeks, where new inventions and discoveries are happening every day? Our children cannot imagine a life before mobile phones, the internet and ipods: they have never seen a vinyl record and can't imagine why anyone would need to feed coins into a slot to make a phone call! Sometimes timelines just don't hit the mark.

It saddens me when I hear people say that they don't like history. History is what has made us who we are, for better or worse, and if we don't have an appreciation of where we came from and what made us, then it's difficult to know why we act in a particular way and hold certain beliefs. Bring history alive! Breathe life into old tales! Field trips are great and don't need to cost the earth. Dress up as Romans, eat meals, teach lessons, play games as they did. Children love to see, touch and explore things for themselves, so give them every opportunity to do so. If you haven't got the luxury of having the real thing on your doorstep, be creative!

Cadw, the Welsh Government's Historic Environment Service, has produced an education programme to help school groups to tackle subjects including literacy, numeracy, geography, science, technology, engineering and mathematics while on their historical visits. Click on the image to take you to a full list of resources.

Castell Coch

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