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British Middle Ages—Saxons and Normans

800 to 1154
House of Wessex to Death of Stephen

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Saxons and Normans

At the end of the eighth century, the Saxons suffered their first attack by the Danes—also known as Vikings—a warlike race of pagans from Denmark and Norway. Shortly thereafter Egbert the Saxon unified the Saxon and Angle kingdoms for the purpose of common defense, and at that time the name of England (or Angle Land) was given to the country. Saxon kings descended from Egbert ruled the Kingdom of Wessex from 802 until shortly before the Norman conquest in 1066. The Danish incursions continued for the next hundred and fifty years until the Danes finally drove the Wessex king into exile. By that time, however, many of the Danes had become Christian and the age of Vikings was coming to a close.

Alfred the Great and the Danish Invasion

saxon
DANES EMBARKING FOR THE INVASION OF ENGLAND
By far the most outstanding Saxon king was Alfred the Great. He reigned from 871 to 899 at a time when the Viking marauders had destroyed many important Saxon towns and monasteries, laid waste to acres of productive farmland and utterly disrupted civilized society. Alfred himself was driven from his throne and compelled to go into hiding, where he could only watch helplessly as his kingdom was ravaged by villainous pagans. However, he recovered from his ill fortune and secretly organized a Saxon army, which, when the time was right, attacked and defeated the Danes. Surprisingly, instead of merely slaughtering his enemies, he made a pact with their leader Guthrum and agreed to a settlement by which the Danes would lay down their arms, convert to Christianity, and help repel further incursions by pagans. This brought several decades of peace to the Saxon kingdom, during which Alfred rebuilt infrastructure, organized a permanent navy, and built schools and churches.

There were several other important Saxon kings. Athelstan, Alfred's grandosn, defeated a united army of Celts and Danes at the battle of Brunanburh. He, like his father and grandfather, was an excellent king. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the eleventh century, a series of ‘boy’ kings greatly weakened the Wessex monarchy. This series of immature rulers finally ended with Aethelred the Unready, who misgoverned his entire reign and was driven from the throne. For a time his son co-ruled with a Danish king, but eventually died, leaving a Dane as king of the Saxons. Fortunately, the Danish king's son, Canute the Great ruled well and again brought peace between the Saxons and Danes. When he died Edward the Confessor, the youngest son of Aethelred, was restored to the throne. He died without issue, bringing the Wessex line to an end, and William the Duke of Normandy, who was of Norse stock, won the throne at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The Norman Conquest

The Norman conquest was one of the most important events in the history of England. The Saxon kings were never as powerful as the Dukes of Normandy, for the Normans had inherited the old Roman habits of centralized government whereas the Saxons kings were merely overlords of their earls and barons. William the Conqueror ruled England firmly but fairly hand, making sure that taxes were collected and justice was done in a uniform manner. He crushed all rebellions and replaced most of the Saxon overlords with Norman nobles. He made many changes in the government, all of which resulted in a relatively strong and independent central government and curtailed the power of the nobles. He was an effective king, but very unpopular with the Saxon population.

The house of Norman only lasted for three generations. After William died, his son William Rufus ruled. When he was killed in a hunting accident, his brother Henry Beauclerc ruled for 35 years, and also died without a male heir. The throne of England was then contested between Henry’s daughter Matilda of Englandand her cousin Stephen, a weak king favored by the mischievous barons. With the throne as good as vacant, the barons were allowed to have their own way, and civil wars plagued the country for almost 20 years. Finally, the Matilda's son, better known as Henry Plantagenet, fought his way to the throne; during his long reign, order and prosperity were restored to the realm.


Characters—Saxons and Normans


CharacterDate Short Biography

Saxons

Egbert the Saxon770–837 United the Saxon and Angle kingdoms in a federation to resist the Danes.
Alfred the Great849–899 Noblest of Saxon kings. Fought the Danes and made peace. Built churches and schools.
Athelstan895–939 Grandson of King Alfred. Fought the Danes and Celts at the Battle of Brunanburh.
Elfrida~ 960 Saxon queen, wife of Edgar, mother of Athelred the Unready. Thought to be involved in her stepson's murder.
Saint Dunstan909–988 Influential archbishop at the court of Edgar of England.
Aethelred the Unready968–1016 Acsended to the Saxon throne at a young age, ruled poorly and was unable to effectively resist the Danes.
Edmund Ironside988–1016 Eldest son of Aethelred the Unready, fought Canute for the throne, but then died.
Godwin1001–1053 Very influential Earl of Wessex during reigns of Canute and Edward the Confessor. Father of Harold.
Hereward the Wake~ 1066 Saxon rebel who led resistance to William the Conqueror for many years.
Harold Godwinson1022–1066 Son of Godwin. Ascended to the Saxon throne when Edward the Confessor died childless.
Tostig Godwinson1026–1066 Brought an army of Vikings to fight his brother, Harold Godwinson, at Stamford Bridge.
Edward the Confessor1004–1066 Last Saxon king of the Wessex line. Raised in Normandy, befriended William the Conqueror.
Saint Margaret of Scotland1045–1093 Wife of Malcolm III of Scotland. Pius and noble Queen. Mother of Maude the Good.
Maude the Good 1080–1118 Scottish wife of Henry I. Grandmother of Henry II. Patron and benefactor to poor of England.

Danes

Guthrumd. 890 Danish king defeated by Alfred the Great. Agreed to become Christian and settle in England.
Canute the Great994–1035 Danish king of Britain who ruled well. Married Emma, the wife of his enemy, Ethelred the Unready.

Normans

Emma of Normandy988–1052 Norman princess, wife first of Aethelred, then of Canute. Mother of Edward the Confessor.
William the Conqueror1028–1087 Claimed the crown of England and won it at the Battle of Hastings. Ruled forcefully but justly.
William Rufus1056–1100 Son of William the Conqueror. A bad and brutal king. Killed in the New Forest.
Saint Anselm1033–1109 Archbishop of Canterbury under William Rufus and Henry I. Feuded with both kings.
Henry I1068–1135 Son of William the conqueror. Competent king who reigned for 35 years. Left throne to Matilda.
Stephen1096–1154 Grandson of William the Conquer. Usurped the throne from Matilda. Was profligate and weak.
Matilda of England1102–1167 Daughter of Henry I. Fought her cousin Stephen for the throne. Her son Henry II won the crown.


Timeline—Saxons and Normans


AD YearEvent
787 First Viking (Danish) attack on Britain.
793 Sack of the monastery at Lindisfarne.
802 Egbert the Saxon reigns over united Anglo and Saxon Kingdoms.
871-899 Reign of Alfred the Great, greatest of the Saxon kings.
878 Wessex Saxons under Alfred defeat Danes at the Battle of Edington.
879 Treaty of Wedmore grants Danelaw to Guthrum if he is baptized and withdraws from Wessex.
823-1016 Danish Invasions of Saxon Britain continue throughout the tenth century.
937 Battle of Brunanburh—Wessex Saxons, lead by , defeat Celts and Danes.
991 Battle of Maldon—Saxons are defeated by the Danes and agree to pay tribute.
1002 Aethelred the Unready orders the death of all Danish citizens.
1013 Aethelred driven into exile in Normandy.
1016 Canute the Great defeats Saxons at the Battle of Ashingdon. Danish king assumes throne.
1016–1035 Reign of Canute the Great.
1042 Edward the Confessor, son of Aethelred, recalled to the throne. Saxon rule is restored.
1065 Consecration of Westminster Chapel.
1066 Norman Conquest of Britain
Sept Battle of Stanford BridgeHarold Godwinson defeats Viking invaders.
Oct Battle of Hastings—Harold is killed and the Normans conquer England.
1086 Completion of Domesday Book.
1087 William Rufus assumes the throne on the death of his father, William the Conqueror.
1093 Saint Anselm appointed Archbishop of Canterbury; resists William Rufus's oppressions.
1095 Preparations for the First Crusade are made by William Rufus and his brother.
1100-1135 Reign of Henry I begins when Rufus is killed in a hunting accident.
1100 Henry I pleases his Saxon subjects by marrying Maude the Good , a Saxon Princess.
1120 The unexpected death of Henry's son William throws succession into question.
1135-1154 Anarchy and civil war between followers of King Stephen and Matilda, daughter of Henry II.
1154 Death of Stephen; crown passes to Henry II, son of Matilda.


Recommended Reading—Saxons and Normans

Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.


Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments *

Cambridge Press - Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary   Alfred the Royal Harper to The Loss of the White Ship (6)
Guerber - The Story of the English    The Danish Pirates to Matilda's Narrow Escapes (19)
Marshall - Our Island Story   King Alfred Learns to Read to The Story of King Stephen (15)

Supplemental Recommendations

Haaren - Famous Men of the Middle Ages   Egbert the Saxon to William the Conqueror (4)
Skae - Stories from English History   English and Norman (1)
Marshall - Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children    entire book
Cowles - Our Little Saxon Cousin of Long Ago    entire book
Steedman - Our Island Saints   Saint Edward the Confessor to Saint Hugh of Lincoln (4)
Harding - The Story of England   King Alfred and the Danes to The Rule of the Normans (3)
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Maldon to Hastings (2)
Tappan - In the Days of Alfred the Great    entire book
Tappan - In the Days of William the Conqueror    entire book
Morris - Historical Tales: English   King Alfred and the Danes to A Contest for the Crown (7)

Also Recommended

Church - Stories from English History   King Alfred to The Red King (13)
Synge - Great Englishmen   Alfred the Great to Harold (2)
Synge - Great Englishwomen   Maude the Good (1)
Tappan - European Hero Stories   Alfred the Great to William the Conqueror (2)
Abbott - Alfred the Great    entire book
Abbott - William the Conqueror    entire book
Marshall - English Literature for Boys and Girls   The Story of Beowulf to Havelok the Dane (7)

* Level I & II study questions are based on Core Reading Assignments.

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, Y: Young Readers, C: College Prep