How do we choose the focus for our films?

Nature and purpose of the enquiry

This enquiry is intended to help students to review a particular theme or period identifying the kinds of criteria that it would be appropriate to use in selecting particular historical events for different purposes and to make judgments in line with those criteria. It is intended to promote thinking both about the criteria that are used to judge historical significance and about the facts that as our criteria or our vantage points change, so these changes will affect the decisions that we make. Historical significance is not a fixed property of any particular event (or text or image or object) – it is a construction that depends on the relationship between that the event and the questions that we (historians) are asking and the purposes that we are seeking to achieve.   The idea is to focus on the process of selection – how choices are made by historians (in this case when it is only possible to present a limited number of resources) – and to help students to understand that such choices are also shaped not only by the intended audience but also by the methodological approaches that the historians have adopted.

Films related to this enquiry

The focus of this enquiry is not any one particular film – it is essentially the whole collection of films – and/or the collections of texts that the Stuart Successions project has chosen to present on the website and to analyse within its published anthology.

Contexts for teaching this enquiry

While this enquiry could be taught at the end of an A-level unit, such as the AQA unit on ‘Stuart Britain and the Crisis of Monarchy, 1603–1702’ it might be equally helpful to apply the ideas behind it to consideration of another period of time. Thus it might be used with students studying the OCR British Period Study on ‘The Making of Georgian Britain 1689–c1760. In this case, students would have a knowledge of the later Stuart period to draw on in considering the choices made by the project up to end of the reign of Queen Anne, and could then be asked to make a similar series of choices relating to the accession of the first three Hanoverian monarchs. It might also be used with GCSE students studying the thematic units ‘Power, democracy and monarchy’ (OCR) or ‘Britain, power and the people’ (AQA) over 1000 years. What 20 events (texts, images or objects) could be used to encapsulate the most significant developments in relation to these themes across this whole period?

It might, however, be equally well applied to a theme other than monarchy within the Stuart period. The AQA GCSE unit on Restoration England includes two themes other than ‘Crown, Parliament, plots and court life’ – the themes of ‘Life in Restoration England’ and ‘Land, trade and war’. What five texts, images or objects would they choose to sum up the dominant features of this period? What would be their top three?

Students at Key Stage 3 could also review the periods that they have studied across any given year or across the key stage as a whole. (Here you might simply show the ‘Films’ page of the Stuarts Online site [hyperlink] to illustrate the idea of a group of historians – and a media production team – having to reach a joint decision about the 20 topics on which they would make their short films.)


The main resource for this enquiry is the collection of films as they are displayed on the ‘Films’ page of the Stuarts Online site.

With an A-level group you might also choose to look at the contents list of the Annotated Anthology of Succession Literature edited by Andrew McRae and John West, for publication in 2017.

Suggested structure and sequence of activities

The way in which you introduce the activity will vary considerably depending on the age of the class and on the extent to which it is helpful/possible for them to engage specifically with the criteria and methodological constraints that shaped the Stuart Successions project and with the particular choices that they made.

The three issues that you need to help students to think about are:

  1. The central theme of the collection that they are putting together.
  2. Any constraints that are imposed on the collection in terms of the types of materials to include or the extent of their research in seeking to locate them.
  3. Their intended audience

1. In the case of the Stuart Successions Project, the focus was obviously on the Stuart monarchs and on the printed material produced in relation to their accession to the throne.

While this might seem to be a clear definition, the project then had to decide whether and how to include the ‘accession’ of Oliver Cromwell and of his son, Richard – who were not Stuarts or, technically, ever kings. Students might be able to infer the projects’ self-imposed constraints and its decisions about the Cromwell’s from the contents list of the anthology. Or you might prefer simply to share these constraints and decisions with them. (The Cromwells were included, with a focus on their assumption of the role of Lord Protector.) Again, with A-level students it is worth asking why they think the project took these decisions and what their influence would have been.  This alerts students to the sheer cost of research – it is simply not possible to look at all printed literature across the period! It also highlights the collaboration between historians and literary specialists, studying the poems, ballads and plays of the period.  It should also alert them to the fact that even from a political perspective there are important ideas that may not be as well represented – those from the more radical groups in the army and beyond, who may have been arguing for the people’s power rather than directly commenting on the monarchs.

Given the theme for the students own collection, what restrictions might they need to impose

2. The Stuart Successions Project obviously had the funds to search a wide range of archives. They deliberately chose to bring English and History together and to look at popular print culture (including not just newsbooks but also ballad sheets). This obviously helped to focus their attention on what news was reported and how more ‘ordinary’ people would have heard about the Kings and Lord Protectors.

What source collections can your students use? Just those reproduced in their textbooks or those available to them online? How will they search for them? What expertise do they have and how will that influence their selection?

3. The Stuarts Online site was funded by an ‘impact’ grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council that was deliberately intended to make the research into the Stuart Succession literature available to the wider public and not just to other historians – although it was important that other historians should benefit from the database of all the relevant sources that they had put together. School students were seen as an important part of their Stuarts Online audience, but the site was intended to appeal to interested young people and adults and not just to their teachers.

You might explore how the Stuarts Online site has tried to meet this brief, without it being too expensive – for example by using films, but keeping the production techniques quite simple (using static rather than moving images) and by making the films quite short.

The team were also conscious of the need to appeal to a wide audience. In some ways they chose to break the restrictions imposed by their research methods to include a wider range of sources in the films – tapestries and plates, for example (See ‘Embroideries and the Stuart Period’ and ‘Delftware: Popularising the Monarchy’) – but these did illustrate people’s reactions to the new monarchs. Within the sources that they selected they also chose to focus quite deliberately on how key womenin the succession story were presented – not just the one monarch (Mary, who ruled jointly with William III – see ‘Delftware: Popularising the Monarchy’) but also some of the Queen Consorts (Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena: see ‘The Arrival of Catherine of Braganza’ and The Warming Pan Scandal’) – and also on how women, such as the poet Aphra Benn, contributed to the succession literature included in their database.

How will your students take account of their particular audience? In what way might the nature of their audience influence the choices that they make?


Exactly how you run the activity would depend on the age of the students and the time that you want to devote to it. You might ask students to select from quite a restricted range of materials or you might chose to set a deliberate challenge – to find relevant materials that are not in their textbooks! You might focus simply on the process of identifying appropriate criteria – as a way of determining the most important themes/issues – or students might go on to use those criteria to make and justify their choices to you and/or to one another.

Ways in which the suggested structure could be adapted or developed further

Once you have explored the process of selection, you might go further and ask the students to make their own films – a process explored in the lesson plan ‘How can I best explain this to you?’