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The Richard Whiting Enquiry

Why did Richard Whiting die a terrible death in 1539?

This enquiry resulted from Michael Riley’s work with the history department atPreston School in Yeovil. The focus was on helping students to write causal explanations, and the particular context was the English Reformation. The enquiry uses a local case study – the murder of the Abbot of Glastonbury – in order to develop a broader understanding of the nature and causes of the English Reformation. The structure of the enquiry – starting with a particular event and leading students into the bigger story – could be adapted for a many different historical events.

To download this enquiry as a Word document [ click here ].


This enquiry uses a particular local case study to develop an understanding of the nature and causes of the Reformation.

Richard Whiting was nominated as Abbot of Glastonbury in 1525. By 1539 Glastonbury Abbey was the only monastery left in Somerset. In September, when the royal commissioners arrived, they found among the Abbey treasures ‘… written book of arguments in behalf of Queen Katherine’. Richard Whiting was interrogated in the Tower of London and on 14 November he was taken to Wells where he was put on trial for treason. The next day he was executed at the top of Glastonbury Tor.

Whiting’s death forms the starting point for this enquiry into the causes of the Reformation. Pupils are challenged to construct an explanation using a set of information cards. They then take their research wider and wider until they have sufficient contextual knowledge to construct a coherent and well-substantiated explanation.

The terrible death of Richard Whiting

Learning Activities and Resources

Pupils enter the classroom to the sound of a Gregorian chant. I begin the enquiry by asking pupils not to say anything, but to put up their hands if they have visited the place they are about to see. I then show pupils picture of Glastonbury Abbey in the eighteenth century. The class discover that they are about to hear a true and terrible story which took place nearly 500 years ago in this peaceful setting. I then tell the dramatic and disturbing story of the death of Richard Whiting: the final Mass, the parade through the streets of Glastonbury and the hanging, drawing and quartering on top of the Tor. It’s important to include lots of details, focussing on the sights, smells and sounds in order to get across the horror of the execution.


Glastonbury is a local town, and pupils’ attention is caught at the outset because pupils are keen to see if they can recognise the place in the picture. Story-telling is such a good way to create curiosity about past events. The story of Richard Whiting’s death was deliberately chosen because it creates an immediate puzzle: Why did such a holy man meet such a violent death?

From narrative to analysis

Learning Activities and Resources

I arrange the class into small groups of three pupils and give each group sets of small cards. Pupils work in groups, using the cards to construct an explanation of the death of Richard Whiting. Some of the cards provide details about Richard Whiting and Glastonbury Abbey; other cards relate to the Thomas Cromwell and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, to Henry VIII and the English Reformation and to Martin Luther and the European Reformation. Some groups sort the cards into these categories while others organise the cards chronologically, linking the smaller story of Glastonbury to national and European events. Groups of pupils feedback on the interesting ways in which they have begun to construct an explanation using the cards.


The card-sorting activity is used to introduce the basic contextual knowledge which pupils will require in order to produce a satisfying causal explanation. It encourages pupils to think creatively about the relationship between different pieces of information. The group-work and feedback are intended to demonstrate that there are very different, but equally valid ways of constructing explanations in history.

The research challenge

Learning Activities and Resources

Pupils stick down their individual sets of cards on A3 sheets leaving space for additional notes on:

  • Richard Whiting and Glastonbury Abbey
  • Thomas Cromwell and the Dissolution
  • Henry VIII and the English Reformation
  • Martin Luther and the European Reformation.

Low-attaining pupils are provided with a note-making format in the form of a ‘ripple diagram’ in which each concentric circle corresponds to one of the four men. The class brainstorm some questions about Cromwell and I then model how pupils can use information from different textbook to supplement the information on the A3 sheet. In the three lessons which follow pupils watch videos extracts and use textbooks and websites to find out more about the four men. They begin to link the different aspects of the Reformation to each other and to the death of Richard Whiting


The note-making structures are intended to provide an appropriate framework for pupils’ research. Achieving an appropriate balance between structure and independence in work like this is tricky. This is a challenging learning activity for mixed ability classes in Year 8 so pupils who need more support are provided with simpler and fewer resources, clear structures for their notes and ‘models’ of effective note-making.

The end product

Learning Activities and Resources

The end product of this enquiry is a piece of extended writing which answers the enquiry question. Pupils are challenged to write a clear explanation which links the particular circumstances of Richard Whiting’s death to the wider religious and political changes. I help pupils to construct their explanations by explicitly modelling the process of writing. Pupils are shown how to produce an overall plan, how to write appropriate paragraph starters and how to support their main points with specific examples. They are helped to construct an introduction that links an account of Whiting’s death to a causal explanation.


The essay provides a motivating end product for pupils. They like the idea that their essays can be very different, yet equally valid. Pupils have an extensive set of notes and have thought a lot about how to organise their explanations. The puzzle of Whiting’s death provides a useful focus for their writing as it allows a narrative start.