Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer says children ‘miss out on so much’ in history lessons

‘History is now a niche subject’: Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer says children ‘miss out on so much’ and teachers should teach more than just ‘Hitler and Henry VIII’

  • The Earl said he wants to broaden history teaching beyond ‘Hitler and Henry VIII’
  • Important topics are missed such as Henry I and the sinking of the White Ship
  • The 58-year-old said he was the last generation that learned history widely
  • The younger brother of Princess Diana is also the author of Our Island Story

Earl Spencer has criticized ‘niche’ history taught in schools, claiming children ‘miss out on so much’.

The historian and younger brother of Princess Diana said he would like to broaden the way the subject was taught because pupils learn only about ‘Hitler and Henry VIII’.

‘This is one of my bugbears, how history is taught,’ he said at the Henley Literary Festival.

‘I’m 58 and I’m probably the last generation who was brought up on a very wide arena of British history just as standard fare because history was compulsory when I was at school.

Earl Spencer has criticized ‘niche’ history taught in schools, claiming children ‘miss out on so much’ (pictured at the unveiling of a statue of his sister Diana in 2021)

‘Now it’s a niche subject and history teachers quite rightly have to attract people to their subject, so what they’re going to do is give you Hitler and Henry VIII and I’m afraid things like Henry I just drop off the chart.

‘I don’t know if I would dare change [the curriculum] but I do think history is such an important subject, not in itself necessarily but for perspective and context.

‘So I would broaden the way this is taught because I think you miss out on so much if you don’t have it.

‘But I realize I would be up against a lot of resistance.’

The peer was speaking to promote his latest book, The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream.

He described the sinking of the vessel as ‘the greatest maritime disaster in British history’, adding: ‘There’s not been a shipwreck that has changed a dynasty and I think that’s where it wins gold.’

The White Ship sank in the Channel in 1120, killing William Adelin, Henry I’s son and the heir to the throne.

The historian and younger brother of Princess Diana said he would like to broaden the way the subject was taught because pupils learn only about 'Hitler and Henry VIII' (pictured at his book launch in 2018)

The historian and younger brother of Princess Diana said he would like to broaden the way the subject was taught because pupils learn only about ‘Hitler and Henry VIII’ (pictured at his book launch in 2018)

It prompted a succession crisis and a period of civil war between 1138 and 1153 known as The Anarchy.

Earl Spencer said it was extraordinary that so few people knew about the story yet in 1956 Winston Churchill felt it was too well known to put in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

He added: ‘My first history book was incredibly non-PC, it was called Our Island Story and it was a Victorian look back at how wonderful Britain has always been, and the Henry I chapter is basically about the White Ship because it was such a hackneyed subject up until the Seventies.’

He also lamented the lack of understanding of the history behind road names. ‘Out of all my education, the thing I’m most excited by is being able to see bits of history still alive,’ he said.

‘If you put Blenheim Road up now they’d think what the hell are you on about.’

A survey by academics at Oxford and Reading universities last year found that a small number of schools said they had ‘reduced the attention given to certain topics – specifically medieval British or Tudor history – in order to accommodate new ones or a new kind of emphasis’ .

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