But five hundred years?
Tudors, Vikings, Romans - even dinosaurs were offered. They simply had no sense of how different periods of history fitted together, even English history. OK, they were only ten. But I actually wanted to take them back thousands of years to the people of pre-history. I was specifically trying to get them to imagine a time before houses, cars, electricity, books, in order to think what stories such people might have invented to explain the phenomena of the Sun, Moon and Stars, as they sat round their fires at night.
We got there in the end and their ideas were wonderful. What they were doing was inventing their own myths, which was what I had hoped for. But I kept remembering those contemporary Vikings and Tudors. For me, a timeline of history is the framework into which I slot each new piece of research and detail of knowledge. If you don't know that Tudors came after Plantagenets, it's hard to fit in each new fact or date or fascinating story.
But the reaction to that perceived view of the subject has brought about the kind of topic-based teaching that makes it difficult for students to link things up. And in fact, the man or woman on the throne does have an enormous effect on ordinary people. If you are being subjected to a Poll Tax or having to give up the profits from selling the wool from your sheep to finance an expensive war with France, it really does make a difference to your daily life.
And as a novelist I find timelines make an enormous difference to mine. I make one for every novel, just to avoid things like having children in school on Sundays or parents going to work on Bank Holidays. If it's a historical novel it's even more important; there will be two simultaneous timelines - the one of what is known to have happened as events in time and the one I have invented for my fictional characters. The two will entwine and inter-connect and I make much use of the Net to find out what the phases of the moon were in any given month of a specific year in the Middle Ages, for example, and when there were eclipses.
So I've been thinking about how to bring timelines back into fashion and then along comes Peter Ackroyd. He is releasing this month a book called Foundation, which is the first in a six volume series of the History of England (published by Macmillan).
Foundation begins where I wanted my Primary school children to travel back to: tens of thousands of years ago. It finishes with the death of Henry Vll, the first Tudor monarch. That's a lot to cram into 450 or so pages but it does leave roughly one century for each of the remaining volumes.
There are no actual timelines in the book, nor any family trees - indeed there are not even any notes, though there is a chapter by chapter bibliography. Ackroyd is approaching History not as a Historian but as a writer, perhaps the first since Macaulay wrote his History of England in the late nineteenth century . "The first historians after all were poets," Ackroyd reminds us.
First and foremost, his book is wonderfully readable. There are enough dates and monarchs to satisfy traditionalists but chapters about the Hundred Years' War or The Wars of the Roses or intercalated with ones on feudal customs or how other countries viewed the English.
Birth and death rituals, the role of the Parish church and all sorts of domestic details are here. What people wore and ate and drank, their animals, their cooking pots, their weapons. It's like finding small archaeological digs in between all the gorgeous detail of what kings spent their money on: £4,784 on clothes and furs in the case of Edward lV - in 1461!
"He draped himself in cloth of gold and crimson velvet, in tawny silk and green satin. He owned hundreds of pairs of shoes and slippers, hats and bonnets; he wore amethysts and sapphires and rubies in abundance."
(The pedant in me wants a footnote and sources but the reader and writer just says "ooh!")
And then there is the odd statement that resonates long after the book is shut, such as that the invention of the clock marked the demise of the feudal and seasonal world, as did the longbow and the decline of the serf.
Reading about the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, we hear a contemporary chronicler say that the teenage Richard ll, after reneging on the deal he had made with the rebels, who had been rioting and looting in the street, told them, "You seek equality with the lords but you are unworthy to live. Give this message to your fellows: rustics you are and rustics you will always be. You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example to posterity."
That has an awful topicality about it.
I can't wait for the remaining five volumes and Ackroyd is such a workhorse that we might well get one a year. I hope so; it will really help with the timelines.
Update: We have two signed copies of Foundation to give away (UK only, I'm afraid) to the commenters with the best answers to this question:
"What is your favourite period of history between 15,000 BC and 1509 AD (the time covered in Foundation) and why?"
Deadline September 16th