History KS2: The Murderess

A historic trial, dramatised from the Old Bailey archives, exploring the case of Catherine Hays, on trial for murdering her husband in 1726.

A severed head is found floating in the Thames. It is the husband of Catherine Hays.

Witness accounts, and Hays’ own testimony, reveal that she persuaded and helped others to kill him, but they also reveal how he abused her.

The court shows no mercy and Catherine Hays is sentenced to be burnt at the stake.

The case is played out in the court room with dramatic flashbacks to illustrate the crime. The court reporter sets the scene and offers insight and context.

Contains scenes some viewers may find disturbing. Teacher review recommended before viewing.

This film is from the series Tales from the Old Bailey.

Teacher Notes

This sensational court case should immediately hook the interest of pupils.

  • They could consider why murder by a woman was so shocking at the time and the extent to which it might still be so in the present day.

  • Pupils could consider how modern forensics might have added to the evidence presented in the case and decide whether the prosecution actually had enough evidence to convict Catherine Hays. They could debate the relative fairness or otherwise of the trial procedure.

  • Pupils could be asked to suggest a possible defence for Catherine Hays and to write and perform speeches summarising their thinking.

  • Details of the sentence could be deliberately withheld so that pupils can be asked to guess what it might be. Once it is known, references can be made to the kinds of past crimes usually associated with the sentence, for example heresy and witchcraft.

  • Pupils could also consider why the term 'petty treason' may no longer be used in law but the term 'treason' itself still is.

  • This film could become an object of study in itself as historical interpretation. Pupils could consider the likely accuracy of the film, what can be inferred from it and what further information might be researched about this case or the period. For example, they could consider how much of the original source material, on which the film is based, may have been included and how much might have been edited out or altered and why. (The language may have been simplified for a school audience.)

Curriculum Notes

These clips are relevant for teaching history at Key Stage 2 and Second level, particularly when studying the Georgians.

More Tales from the Old Bailey

The Blackguard Boys
The Grave Robber
The Suffragettes
The Thief Taker General