Light on the dark ages

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
The Anglo-Saxon era was so important it deserves to be taught more widely, says Gregory Schofield

The teaching of Anglo-Saxon history is one of the most neglected areas of this island nation's continuing story and yet it is arguably the most important. It does not feature in the history curriculum except as an option in key stage 2, where it is not overwhelmingly popular. The Anglo-Saxon age is generally accepted as beginning circa AD410 and ending with the Norman Conquest, a period sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages. With the departure of the Romans, Anglo-Saxon raiders from what is now Holland, Germany and Denmark gradually began to settle. In the process they drove the Ancient Britons out of what was to become Angleland (England), into West Wales (Cornwall), Wales, Strathclyde (South-west Scotland), Ireland and Brittany (hence the name).

The changes they brought were much more fundamental and longer lasting than anything the Romans did. Celtic languages and culture were replaced by a Germanic language and culture; our present county system originated with the need to sub-divide the country for administrative purposes; and despite all the movement and migrations of peoples that has taken place in the centuries since, our predominant racial make-up is still Anglo-Saxon in origin.

The objectives at KS2 are an awareness of chronology, knowledge and understanding of events and people in the past, interpretation of evidence, and change. These are met in the teaching of Anglo-Saxon history. A patch approach works better than a thematic or chronological approach and the period can be broken down into a number of self-contained historical areas, each with possibilities for cross-curricular studies.

It is perhaps best to start with Invasion and Settlement, laying a foundation that would allow you to pursue other topics.

Invasion and settlement

There is a clear link with the Romans, which provides some useful continuity. Map work is the key to understanding what went on and is an opportunity for pupils to start building up folders of work and displays. A map of England with rivers drawn on it (especially from the East coast) is a good starting point; Saxon place names can be added that demonstrate how rivers were the main routes of invasion, and Welsh and Cornish place names to show what happened to the Ancient Britons.

An integral part of this work is a particular study on how to recognise Anglo-Saxon place names. For example, - ing, - ham, - ton, place-name endings. There are two approaches to this, a national one comparing Ancient British (LLan, Aber, Tre, Pen, Caer, etc), Anglo-Saxon (ing, ham, ton, etc) and Danish settlements (thorp, toft, grim, by, etc); or a study of the pupils' local area. This would enable them to identify Anglo-Saxon settlements, and the names would help pupils identify activities going on there at that time and to build up a stylised map for display based on that information. For example, wick = dairy farm, den = forest clearing, leigh or lea = pasture land.

Further options might be to look at the creation of the Heptarchy - the seven great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and how they got their names. Northumbria was the land North of the Humber, Mercia is unknown, East Anglia was the land of the Eastern Angles, Essex of the Eastern Saxons, Kent was named after the local British tribe, the Cantii, Sussex was the area of the Southern Saxons and Wessex belonged to the Western Saxons.

Look at the development of the counties. Some were named after local tax-collecting centres, for example Somerton was Somerset, or Nottingham was Nottinghamshire; Norfolk and Suffolk got their names from Northern Folk and Southern Folk; some smaller kingdoms became counties, for example Middlesex or Kent.

A profitable area of study would be Sutton Hoo, an exciting archaeological discovery of a 6th-century ship burial, together with weapons, royal regalia, household items and jewellery. To add mystery to it, no body was discovered; we think it was King Redwald, but was it? Spoons from Greece! How did they get there? A beautiful golden belt buckle, ornately decorated; a colourful cloak clasp and purse lid; the remains of a great helmet and shield. But where was the boat? All that was left were rusty nails and an outline in the sand. Pupils may draw items of jewellery or the outline of the boat in the sand, with perhaps a map showing where some of these items came from.

Village life

Besides the nature and location of villages, there are also the many and varied activities that went on within them. Why did they settle there? What were the factors? Safety, food supply, water. These would be features in building up a model village. What were the houses like? Models could range from the Thegn's Hall to the lowliest hovel. How did the church feature in the village? Or the mill, the smithy and the bakery - Jeach could be developed as a sub-topic.

Agriculture is crucial to this unit. Pupils must understand the three-field rotation, types of crops grown, strip farming. Animal husbandry is important. Why were there so many pigs and sheep? Charts and diagrams can be produced to show the farming system or ratios of animals. Details on the animals can be obtained from the Domesday Book. The importance of wool production cannot be overemphasised in terms of either spinning, weaving or embroidery. Practical examples or diagrams could be produced, with the Bayeux Tapestry used as an example of embroidery. Pupils can draw the clothes they wore.

The class could produce a calendar of a year in the life of a village, showing agricultural activities, festivals, courts, etc; list the various individuals and their responsibilities, for example thegn, priest, reeve, miller, blacksmith, ceorl.

Conversion to Christianity

Links with the Romans make a starting point, especially looking at how important Christianity was at this time. Focus then on the Anglo-Saxons and their beliefs in Norse mythology and how they drove the Christians out, to take refuge in Wales, Cornwall, Strathclyde and Ireland. There are three main elements in the Christian conversion of England: Celtic Christianity, Roman Christianity and the Synod of Whitby.

By using maps it is possible to trace the routes in the north of England of the early Celtic evangelists, particularly Saints Columba, Aidan, Cuthbert, Cedd and Chadd. Especially rewarding is study of Iona and Lindisfarne, the Lindisfarne Gospels in particular giving opportunity for art work, producing illuminated letters or reproducing everyday scenes of Saxon life in the margins of a page of Gothic script.

With the separation of the Celtic church from Rome, different practices developed, for example pastoral organisation, tonsure, ways of calculating the dates of festivals. Roman Christianity should be dealt with separately as their early evangelism is an entirely different story from the Celtic Christians. A starting point would be the apocryphal story of Pope Gregory in the slave market in Rome seeing Angle slaves, inspiring him to send St Augustine to convert England. The story continues with the arrival in Kent and the conversion of the King of Kent, and from there the expansion of Roman Christianity until it comes into conflict with the Celts and their different practices, and the confusion that resulted. Chart the differences between the two religions; role-play priests from both religions arriving in a village to convert people and the confusion that caused.

The story concludes with King Edwin of Northumbria calling the Synod of Whitby for a debate over which form of Christianity should be adopted for all of England. Stage a debate with the teacher acting as King Edwin, Celts and Romans presenting arguments and other pupils as the jury.

Parallel time charts could show what was happening in each of the two religions from AD410 to AD663. One strand could be the way in which Christian festivals were linked to Anglo-Saxon festivals to give a sense of continuity and make the conversion more attractive. For example, the word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon festival of Eostre (goddess of Spring).

Alfred and the Vikings

"Does Alfred deserve the title Great?" This theme gives the opportunity to move beyond his defeat of the Danes to his many other achievements. Begin with the Danish invasions of Wessex by Guthrum, defeat at Chippenham and Alfred's flight to Athelney, where he proverbially burned the cakes; is the cakes story true? Is it important?

From there, follow the heroic story of his rebuilding an army, defeating the Danes and driving them from Wessex, converting Guthrum to Christianity and establishing the Danelaw. This should establish his determination, leadership qualities and merciful nature.

Maintaining peace and security shows his far-sightedness and organisational ability. The construction of burhs as places of safety in times of trouble, the building of a navy to stop the Danes at sea, the reorganisation of the fyrd (peasant army) so as to always be able to maintain an army in the field. Models of burhs and a map showing their location are useful, as is a chart showing how the fyrd reorganisation worked.

Alfred's cultural and administrative qualities can be established by looking at his rebuilding of Anglo-Saxon society, the re-establishment of the church, encouraging education and the arts, his standard set of laws, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and his inventions. Activities could include producing a School Chronicle based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Crime and punishment

Compare crime and punishment today with what existed in the Anglo-Saxon era. No prison, no police force, no lawyers; so how was law and order maintained in a violent and hard society? The hue and cry is great fun to talk about, and explain the cry of "Out! Out!" and the pursuit of the criminal by the people of the village.

Drama could involve a courtroom scene. Trial by oath, where the accused got supporters to vouch for his innocence, or where the accuser tried to get several more to vouch for his guilt was used in disputes over land. Trial by ordeal; the eating of consecrated cake, trial by cold water, by heat: pupils love the gory details. Debate whether these were reliable ways of establishing innocence or guilt. Examine the weregild or man tax system. Pupils could produce a chart that cross-references fines according to rank and extent of damage. Punishments for other offences might involve being outlawed, fined, dispossessed, slavery, mutilation or death. Which of these still exists? What alternatives did the Anglo-Saxons have?

Gregory Schofield is junior history co-ordinator at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford


Some of the best books are rather old but, if you can get them, give a good introduction and background, with diagrams, illustrations and maps: 'Past into Present 1', Collins Lower School History; 'Evidence - The Saxons', Basil Blackwell; 'History Alive: Introductory Book - the Beginning to 1485', Blond Educational; 'Alfred the Great', Jackdaw; 'The Anglo-Saxons', Methuen Outlines; 'Medieval Britain', Longman. Also try historical atlases and books on place names.

The BBC's 'The Anglo Saxons' video is suitable for key stage 2. pound;29.99. Tel: 01937 541001.

For background information, Cromwell Productions of Stratford-on-Avon produces three: 'Anglo Saxon Chronicles', 'Life in Anglo Saxon Times', 'Beowulf'. pound;29.95. Tel: 01789 292779.

Websites Typing in "Anglo Saxon England" gets a wide selection. Among the best are: Anglo-Saxon England Index www.britannia.comhistoryh50.html; Angelcynn - Anglo-Saxon Living History 400-900 AD All About Romance: Anglo-Saxon, www.likesbooks.comanglosaxon.html Anglo-Saxon Overview, Educational Web Links, www.history.uiuc.edumloveanglosaxonanglo-sa.htm

Visits Most museums have a display of sorts, and most very old churches have Saxon fragments.

West Stow Country Park and Anglo Saxon Village (Suffolk) Danelaw Village - Yorkshire Museum of Farming British Museum for the Sutton Hoo relics. The many well-preserved Anglo-Saxon churches include Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire), Brixworth (Northants), St Oswald's priory (Gloucester), Sompting (West Sussex), Deerhurst (Gloucestershire).

Wareham in Dorset still has its Anglo-Saxon earth walls and a largely preserved church.

Re-enactment societies visit schools. Look at the Angelcynn website above, or Regia Anglorum,

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today