Debate through a simulation… Matrix Based Simulations.

Today, students participated in the longest siege in English history, the Siege of Kenilworth Castle. The real battle lasted 9 months, but we finished it in under an hour. Representing the attackers were King Henry III, Prince Edward, Henry’s eldest son, and Prince Edmund, Henry’s second son, and 5000 loyal soldiers. The defenders were composed of Henry de Hastings, Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby, and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and 1200 loyal rebels inside the castle.


Matrix Based Simulations:SONY DSC

What are they? How do you make one? Are they as awesome as they sound? All of these are good question that I will try to answer here.

1. What are Matrix Based Simulations

Students drive Matrix simulations by making successful arguments. If successful, what they say becomes written history in the simulation. They can build on previous arguments or make new ones each round. After the students have presented the argument I rate it 0-5, 5 being the best. Then they roll a die. If they score the number said or lower it succeeds and becomes true for our simulation.

Example arguments:

  • Supply – The defenders find out that some of their supplies have been spoiled and eaten by rats
  • Weather  – Heavy rains turn the ground to mud and the water level around the castle rises
  • Fighting Spirit – The attackers lose heart because they’ve been camped outside the castle for six months and want to go home
  • Preparations – We build trebuchets and catapults to bombard the castle walls
  • Destroy or Repair Fortifications – After our bombardment of a section of the north wall collapses
  • Assaults and Sallies – We use our ladders to attack the walls
  • Disease – The garrison is weakened by disease which spreads quickly because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions
  • Anything else the students can dream up with historical research

2. How do you make one?SONY DSC

While the concept is easy and could be applied in any course, great care needs to be given to the simulation topic. Choose a situation that could be pushed in many different directions. This will give the students a chance to explore the content and come up with creative arguments that push everyone to learn more. Students need time to research and create their arguments. Having deep background knowledge will make the simulation stronger. My opinion is to not over teach in a Matrix based simulation. You want the students to have a reason to do the research. Each discovered bit of knowledge helps their side build a case for victory. Think about providing good sources, not good lectures. Positioned right, the Matrix based simulation will motivate and inspire students to produce great work. Give those kids the opportunity to discover their passion in your subject.

3. Are they as awesome as they sound?

Heck YES! The students loved this lesson. The research time before and the class time were both filled with tense moments and passionate students poring over content to build the best arguments. Students loved this lesson and I will continue to build on this style of historical thinking.




We created a map of the castle and the surrounding area on butcher paper. Then using images of soldiers we cut out and created soldiers to represent the armies. One figure represented 50 soldiers in the battle. This was great, because the students could see and understand the scale of the battle.

Students began with research. Each side was given a packet that helped give them a brief understanding of this battle and what was at stake for each side. I instructed kids to research the following

  • Barron’s Wars
  • Siege Tactics
  • Failed and successful sieges in history
  • Medieval weapons


With this knowledge under their belt, they were to form arguments that they would present in class the next day.


The map, pictured to the right, helped give students a visual of the battle. From this they could create their tactics.


Historical Background:

In 1263, English nobles rose in revolt against King Henry III in what became known as the Barons’ Wars. At first the revolt was successful. Prince Edward was captured and imprisoned in Kenilworth castle. From this strong base the rebels continued SONY DSCto cause trouble for the King. The King tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution but the rebels were defiant, and severed the hand of the royal envoy sent to negotiate with them. The King offered the rebels terms of surrender spelled out under the Dictum of Kenilworth. The terms set the costs for the rebels to buy back their lands, which had been seized, and required the men responsible for maiming the King’s envoy to serve seven years in prison. The rebels refused the terms. The king prepared to take the castle by force.

The siege of Kenilworth Castle was the longest in English history. The attackers tried everything to take the castle using a variety of siege weapons, including trebuchets and siege towers. They tried to attack the castle by building rafts and bridges. Finally, after nine months, disease and hunger forced the garrison to surrender. The siege cost a fortune, and ten counties were excused from paying their taxes for two years due to the cost they had incurred in support of the siege. The castle was given to Henry’s younger son, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster.


Battle Report:

I ran this simulation in all of my classes. Each class starting from the beginning of the siege. This battle report is a compilation of events.SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCSONY DSC

The first few months of the siege proceeded quietly as Henry and Edward readied themselves for battle. Henry ordered the construction of bridges to cross the moat. He concentrated on the North moat as it is the narrowest. Rafts were built in secret for an attack across the lake. They constructed a slew of siege weapons: Ballista, trebuchets, and towers to bring down the castle.

Prince Edward openly prepared to attack across the lake while Henry tried to hide his preparations to attack the castle in the north. In the third month the attackers began to bombard the south wall, driving all non-essential personnel across the causeway to safety of the island. Once the towers were constructed in the north, Henry’s plan was revealed. He started to bombard the north tower and wall. Edward led a clandestine mission under the cover of darkness. He led 600 men carrying ladders, boarding rafts, crossed in silence, with no lights to hide their movements. It was a stormy night, which helped conceal their noise when they started to scale the walls. These careful preparations were for naught. The attack was discovered and had to be aborted. This did not stop King Henry from planning another attack across the water.

After months of bombarding the towers in the North, the towers had to be abandoned. With this opening Henry ordered his troops across using the rafts and ladders. They gained a foothold. Once the wall was breached the troops cleared out the inner bailey, while Edward’s men captured the causeway. The siege lost momentum in the 8th month as they were busy trying to move over more siege weapons to fire on the inner bailey. Once in place they quickly took the inner part of the castle with a direct assault using more ladders. The only surviving men was now trapped in the Norman keep.

The two leaders of the attacking forces disagreed how to proceed. Henry called for the heads of all rebels. Edward, opposing this decision, tried to sway his father to change his mind and call for a surrender. Ultimately, the garrison, out of supplies and seemingly hopeless, surrendered to Henry by accepting his harsh terms.

My Reflection:

Today was a success. I proudly posted this lesson idea to #eduwin hashtag. Students worked together for a common goal. They pushed their historical thinking, used researched based arguments, and were having a blast while being challenged. This is SONY DSCanother example of the power of gamification. Given the challenge of the simulation, and the “game” aspects students pushed themselves to learn more on this topic. Each bit of information helped arm them and their side. The wealth of knowledge that was shared during class with this simulation driving the discussion was tremendous. Students learned about medieval society, English civil wars, weapons of the day, customs of the people, siege tactics and the list could go on and on. For me, it was beautiful to see 6th graders strategize and actively use the historical knowledge they had assembled by participating in this activity.

Moving forward, I will continue to learn more ways to integrate this style of simulation into my classroom. Giving students the opportunity to play with content and take pride in their critical thinking is just as addictive to them as it is for me. Again, I need to plug my motto for this year: Bringing play, passion and purpose to my class has been the best professional goal I have ever set. Think about bringing them to your classroom and watch the magic happen.


  1. Michael, this was great. I read through it and got fired up myself. I wish I could have joined the kids. This is a great technique. What a fun way to learn, eh?

  2. Love this quote. “Bringing play, passion and purpose to my class has been the best professional goal I have ever set.” You are making me a better teacher.

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