New booklets on the Anglo-Saxons

Earlier this year I asked primary teachers what topics they would most want me to tackle next, and despite a wide range of answers, the Anglo-Saxons were clear contenders. So I started researching them. When we talk about the Anglo-Saxon period, we sometime forget that it covers so much – after all, it lasted from the late 5th century all the way to 1066. What then to focus on?

After some deliberation, I decided to split it into three chronological periods: the advent of the Anglo-Saxons into post-Roman Britain, King Alfred’s reign and the beginnings of a unified English nation, and Anglo-Saxon England on the eve of the Norman conquest. Some further thought led me to fashion the following enquiry questions, each to be tackled in a separate booklet:

  • How reliable is Bede’s account of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain?
  • What kind of changes did Alfred the Great bring about?
  • What made Anglo-Saxon England so attractive to its 11th century invaders?

The Adventus Saxonum is a contested narrative. On the one hand we have Bede’s account of a horde of Germanic tribes conquering Britain by “fire and sword” and driving the Britons into exile; on the other hand we have archaeological evidence which points to significant continuities and cast doubt on the population displacement thesis. More recent scholarship, notably Susan Oosthuizen’s “The Emergence of the English“, goes as far as to argue that there may not even have been an Adventus Saxonum, that those Germanic Anglo-Saxons were in fact the self same Britons, adopting German customs and language through greater exposure to German influence and trade.

This controversy, if we want to call it that, presents a wonderful opportunity to introduce Key Stage 2 pupils to the investigative part of a historian’s work. In the past I’ve had to teach “what is history” to year 7s, introducing them to primary and secondary sources, bias, provenance etc, and in isolation it can be quite a dry and boring topic. What if I were to present the advent of the Anglo-Saxons as a great mystery that historians are trying to solve, and try to engage pupils with source work by using Bede’s story as a starting point and then looking at other sources of evidence to evaluate that story? I decided to take this approach in booklet 1 of the Anglo-Saxons series.

I start with a short overview of Roman Britain and the end of Roman rule, explaining why the paucity of written sources leaves us largely in the dark about what was happening in Britain during the mid-5th century period. I then go on to introduce pupils to Bede, who he was and the main thrust of his argument. Finally we look at a range of evidence, including a contemporary written source (Life of St Germanus) and archaeological evidence from excavated cemeteries and Iron Age hillforts, all the while evaluating Bede’s narrative in the light of this additional evidence. Naturally, as this is a school booklet it is not meant to be an exhaustive investigation – however, it should give pupils an introduction to this period of history and hopefully pique their interest in the work of historians and in unearthing mysteries of the past.

As always with Learning For Memory booklets, there’s plenty of retrieval practice built into the lesson sequences to ensure the content sticks.

In the second booklet, I skip to King Alfred’s reign. Following a suggestion made by Christine Counsell, I have focused on the changes (and continuities) of his reign, including military, political and social changes. As with other booklets, I start with an overview of the situation before Alfred became king, picking up the threads from the previous booklet to help pupils connect the dots. The dramatic story of Alfred’s reign is told, the Viking incursions into Wessex, his retreat into the wetlands and his fight back, culminating in victory at the battle of Edington. The booklet then focuses on the changes that Alfred put in place after his victory at Edington, for example his development of the defensive burhs and the law code that he issued. I also highlight continuities – for example some of these burhs were originally built by the Romans and it could be said that Alfred merely added to them. His law code too drew on texts from previous kings and Roman law.

The third booklet skips forward to the late Anglo-Saxon period and looks at the factors that made Anglo-Saxon England so attractive to its 11th century invaders. In essence, England was a victim of its own success, its wealth and relatively sophisticated system of government turning it into a target for invasion. This booklet sets the scene nicely for subsequent studies of the Norman Conquest, giving pupils a broad overview of England on the eve of the conquest.

The Anglo-Saxons series of booklets can be purchased and downloaded here. As with all my booklets, I invite feedback from practitioners who have downloaded and used them in the classroom. Let me know what worked well, and what needs further fine tuning. I can be contacted via my Twitter account @LearningForMemo.