Lesson: A Continuous Story

  • Grades: 4–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Studies

Students will focus on how one artist tells the story of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester. They will observe and discuss visual details such as color and action found in the painting The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, by Edwin Austin Abbey. Students will then write about what they think is happening. They are encouraged to use the actions they observed in the painting to create and write a story. After the students have observed, discussed, and written a story, the teacher will give the background information.


  • Students will use context clues to answer questions and create a story.
  • Students will write in multiple tenses.
  • Students will explain their own ideas and understanding in discussion and in writing.

Vocabulary: penance, duke, tense (past, present, future)


Painting depicting woman surrounded by mob, religious figures, and people in morning
Edwin Austin Abbey, The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, 1900, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, © Public Domain
  1. Have students observe The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester for about five minutes while taking notes that describe what they see. Afterwards, begin a class discussion using some of the following prompts:

    • Describe the setting.
    • Where is this taking place? What do you see that makes you say that?

  2. Now have students discuss the role of the central character (Eleanor) by answering the following questions as a class, following each question with the follow-up “What do you see that makes you say that?”:

    • Why do you think the woman in this painting is the central focus?
    • What do you think she is doing?
    • What is the woman wearing and/or not wearing?
    • Who is she looking at? What do you think their relationship is?

  3. Now have students pick another character or set of characters to focus on (e.g. the man in the purple hood, the men in red, the crowd of people) and have them answer similar questions—what are they wearing, holding, looking, doing, etc.—on their own. Students should share out their answers when they are finished. Discuss the similarities and differences students found in the same characters.

    After the discussion, have students write a story based on their observations—the teacher should decide the length based on students’ skill levels. Tell them they should start with what led up to this moment and then tell how this story ends. This could be an exercise in using different tenses as well (e.g. past tense for the action that occurs before the painting and future tense for what occurs after the painting). They should also give the characters names and roles. (For example: The man in the purple hood is Harold, the husband of Janice. The men in red are officers of the law.)

    Have students share out their stories when they are finished. You can have them read the most exciting parts of their stories to the whole class or do turn and talks with the person sitting next to them. The teacher should then tell the actual story of the painting. Students can discuss how their stories were similar and how they were different.

Extended Lesson

Students draw moments in their stories such as the moment this story began and the moment it ended.

Brief Background

The painting depicts Eleanor, former mistress and now wife of the Duke of Gloucester, performing penance after being convicted of the crime of consulting with sorcerers to help the Duke gain the throne. Her penance is to walk barefoot through the public square wrapped in a sheet. Soldiers keep an angry mob at bay, and her husband, the duke, clad in mourning black with a royal purple interior exposes his face to her.

Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester is featured in William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2, which was the inspiration for this painting. In real life, when Eleanor was around 22 years old she became a lady in waiting for Jacqueline d’Hainault, a divorcee who would marry Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester a year later. When Eleanor was 25, Duke Humphrey took her to be his mistress, and three years later he annulled his marriage to Jacqueline to marry her. Jacqueline was disinherited, and died three years later. When Eleanor was 35, the duke’s older brother died making Humphrey the next heir to the throne of England. At age 41, Eleanor was accused of using an astrologer and witch to seek plans to have her husband assume the throne. She denied everything except buying a potion from the witch to help her become pregnant. Eleanor was found guilty of treasonable necromancy (the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future), and the astrologer and witch were publicly tortured to death. Eleanor, being an aristocrat, was made to serve a public humiliation before being sentenced to life in prison. Considering the ambition of Duke Humphrey, it is possible that Eleanor did nothing wrong and was merely used as an example to other aristocrats who might try to wrest power from the king. Duke Humphrey died a free man, but Eleanor spent the rest of her life in prison until dying at the age of 52.