This assembly uses the theme of puns and similar wordplay. It looks at many definitions of the word pun, such as in the form of a corny joke and a way to highlight tragedy, and also explores the idea of the visual pun (the ‘rebus’) with reference to the prisoner Thomas Abel’s carving in the Tower of Londondoc-3569685

Thomas Abel.jpg

It concludes with the tale of Pope Gregory’s punning comment about the slave boys from Britain, as recorded by Bede. Pupils are encouraged to consider ways in which the insights revealed in these puns may be applied to our own times. The theme coincides with the commemoration day of the Venerable Bede and St Augustine of Canterbury (May 26th and 27th). (1)


  • A leader and a reader.
  • A copy or PowerPoint slide of Thomas Abel’s rebus.


Leader: Today let’s begin with a joke which we may or may not think is funny:

Question: Why is it a waste of time to do your homework with a broken pencil?

The answer is?

Reader: Because it is pointless.

Let’s try another. What is the difference between a railway engine and a tree?

Reader: One leaves its shed, but the other sheds its leaves.

Leader: This kind of joke is a ‘pun’. It plays on words which have the same sound but different meanings. Pantomimes are full of puns, and many of them are meant to make the audience groan. But witty puns can made us laugh. A famous play by Oscar Wilde even has a pun in its title. It’s called ‘The Importance of Being…

Reader: …Ernest’

In this play the hero is called ‘Ernest’, and he must also learn to behave ‘earnestly’

So puns can be witty, but they can be sad and serious too. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the hero spends a lot of time swapping wisecracks with his friend Mercutio. But then Mercutio is stabbed in a street fight – and it’s partly Romeo’s fault. Before he dies, Mercutio finds strength for one more – very bitter – pun.

Reader: ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a GRAVE man.’ (2)

Leader: That’s a tragic joke, summing up the sad story of a young life wasted.

Puns are based on words that sound the same but have different meanings, but you can also have picture-puns as well. Try to work this one out…

Someone sends a message. The first word is a picture of an insect that collects honey, the second is an eye with the letter ‘M’ in front of it, and , and the third is a knife with the letters KN crossed out and a W in front. Here’s a clue: the answer is a proposal of marriage:

Reader: ‘BE MY WIFE’.

Leader: A picture-pun like this is known as a ‘rebus’ and they used to be popular in heraldry. People would display them on their coats of arms. Shakespeare’s badge had a spear on it, and, before she married, the late Queen Mother was called Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Her coat of arms includes – wait for it – three bows and several lions. (3)

Picture-puns were meant to be taken seriously. When King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine, a man called Thomas was brave enough to speak up in her defence, and soon found himself a prisoner in the Tower of London. Thomas refused to give in, and before he was executed, he spent time as a prisoner carving his surname on the wall. (4)

The letter in the middle is an ‘A’. So what was Thomas’ surname? Here’s a clue. It’s the name of one of Adam’s sons in the Bible.

Reader: The answer is Thomas Abel. (‘A BELL’)

Thomas Abel is sending a message to the future – and that includes us. ‘Don’t forget me: I’m Thomas Abel. I’m a prisoner and I’m ready to die for what I think is right.’

So puns aren’t just jokes for us to groan at, and several puns are said to have played a big part in the history of England. In the sixth century, fifteen hundred years ago, the land we call Great Britain was divided into small kingdoms. Life was hard. Fighting led to slave trading, and a group of boys from somewhere in the north was taken to Italy and put up for sale in the slave market in Rome. They were ‘Angles’ – we would call them ‘English’ – and they were far from home.

A man named Gregory noticed the fair haired boys and asked who they were. He was told that they came from a wild and distant island called ‘Britain’ and that they were called ‘Angles’. Even though they knew nothing about Christianity and worshipped other gods, Gregory made one of the most famous jokes in English history. (5) Let’s hear what he said about those young slaves, first of all in Latin.

Reader: (LOUD AND CLEAR) ‘Non Angli, sed angeli.’

Leader: Which means:

Reader: Not ‘Angles’ but ‘angels.’

Leader: He said that they were well named, because they had angelic faces. Gregory then asked who was the king of their country. The answer was ‘Aelle’. Gregory then made another pun.

Reader: In that country they shall sing ‘Alleluia’!

Leader: ‘Alleluia’ or ‘Hallelujah’ – comes from the Book of Psalms in the Bible, and it means ‘Praise God’.

In those days many people thought there was nothing wrong with slavery as long as the slaves were barbarians from a different tribe, but Gregory could see that the Angles were God’s children too. Later on, after Gregory had become Pope – the head of the Church – he sent a mission team to the island of Britain. It was headed by the man we know as ‘St Augustine’, who helped to re-establish Christianity and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine’s commemoration day is May 26th. (1) The present Archbishop, Rowan Williams, is number one hundred and four. (6) So the ‘Not Angles but Angels’ joke has run for a very long time indeed.


Leader: Now let’s recap on puns:

Sometimes they make us laugh, and often they make us groan.

Reader: Puns can also make us think. Mercutio’s pun about turning into a ‘grave man’ can force us to feel the tragedy of a young life wasted.

Leader: Thomas Abel’s picture-pun – you can still see it in the Tower of London – reminds us that some are prepared to suffer and even die for what they think is right. .

Reader: Pope Gregory’s joke ‘Not Angles but angels’ reminds us that so-called strangers, whose ways may seem odd or even weird to us, are human beings too.

Leader: Please listen to this prayer and join in if you like:

Reader: Dear Lord,Please give us a happy sense of humour.Teach us to laugh with people and not at them.While we are still young, help us to learn commonsense and keep clear of violence and bullying.And as we grow up, give us wider sympathy and deeper understanding, so that we can learn more about other people and share in their joys and sorrows.



1) In the Anglican Church. The Roman Catholic Church commemorates Augustine on May 27th. See The Oxford Companion to the Year, pp. 222-223)

2) Romeo and Juliet: Act 3, scene 1

3) Shakespeare; Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

4) Thomas Abel

5) Bede: History of the English Church and People, Bk 2

Takes care to mention that the ‘Not Angles but angels’ story is ‘handed down to us by the tradition of our forbears’

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer.