3d History

British Timeline: Saxons and Vikings

410Since the 3rd century Britain had been under attack from sea born raiders across the North Sea. In desperation the Celtic Britons looked across the North Sea and invited Saxon mercenaries to come and fight for them.
Slowly, over the next 20 years, the invaders (Angles and Saxons) began to form small tribal settlements, these settlements gradually expanded into kingdoms across Britain.
430Anglo Saxons start to settle in Britain. Vortigern invites Saxon mercenaries to fight for him against the Picts in the North.
450AD450 is an approximate date for when Saxon mercenaries and raiders began settling permanently in Britain this is known Adventus Saxonum or 'coming of the English'.
500The Celtic Britons under a leader called Ambrosius Aurelanius tried desperately to resist the Anglo Saxon invaders but they were by now under increasing pressure from raiders on all fronts. However, around AD500, the Saxon invasion was halted for almost 50 years when their principal warlord Aelle was decisively beaten by the British at the Battle of Badon Hill (believed to be somewhere in Somerset).
550By the AD550 the Saxons had expanded their settlements into Northumbria, The Angles from East Anglia had moved westwards into the Midlands
615In AD577 Cealwin the King of Wessex mounted a major campaign against the British which enabled him to control what is now Gloucestershire, Somerset and Oxfordshire.
In circa AD615 Aethelfrid finally defeated the Celtic British and the remnants were exiled to the far reaches of the country in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.
Now there were five established Anglo Saxon kingdoms in Britain:-
Northumbria - Angle territory meaning 'land North of the Humber', the territory stretched north as far as the Firth of Forth and west to the Irish Sea
Mercia - Angle kingdom extending across the whole of the Midlands
East Anglia - Angle kingdom stretching across East Anglia
Wessex - 'West kingdom of the Saxons' originated in what is now Hampshire and Wiltshire
Kent - named after the Cantiaci a Celtic tribe who inhabited the area before their expulsion by the Anglo-Saxons
Once the British had been defeated the warrior kings of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms all attempted to become the most powerful. Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex pursued this position over a number of years with the power shifting from one kingdom to another.
793The first Viking attack took place in AD793 when the monastery at Lindisfarne was attacked and plundered.
825King Egbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians in battle at Ellendun (near Swindon) giving him undisputed power and the position of overlord of all the English kings.
865In AD865 the Vikings 'Great Army' landed in East Anglia capturing vast areas and by AD875 the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria had been overrun and only the kingdom of Wessex remained under Anglo Saxon rule.
878Wessex attacked by the Vikings in AD878 and its Saxon King Alfred was forced to flee to the Somerset marshes to avoid defeat.
Alfred managed to re-group his forces and continued the war against the Vikings slowly pushing them northwards.
899Alfred died in AD899 but his sons and grandsons carried on the struggle to defeat the Vikings
954Eric Bloodaxe, the ruler of York (or Jorvik as it was known) was finally defeated in battle in AD954 and by AD955 the Viking leadership had been removed.
955Alfred's grandson Eadred became the ruler over a united England.
955 This unity did not last long though and by the end of the 10th Century renewed Viking and Danish raids were being recorded and extensive Viking settlements became established in what is now northeast England, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk.
King Aethelred, recorded in history as the 'unready', tried to buy off the Danes with vast amounts of silver known as Danegeld. This policy proved to be a waste of silver as the Danish leader Sweyn invaded England forcing Aethelred to flee to Normandy.
On Sweyn's death Aethelred attempted a comeback but the Danes renewed their attack under Cnut (better know to us as Canute). Aethelred died and his son Edmund Ironside, to pacify the Vikings, divided the kingdom between himself and Cnut.
Cnut immediately assassinated Edmund to become sole ruler and to reinforce his claim he married Aethelreds widow, Emma of Normandy.
On Cnut's death the country fell into confusion as the country was divided into a number of Earldoms under the overall control of a weak King, Edward the Confessor.

The period following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain is generally known as the Dark Ages, simply because there is little known about it.

Anglo-Saxon cinerary urn

An Anglo-Saxon cinerary urn used for keeping the ashes of the dead in.

The age is characterised by a continual struggle between warring factions, including invaders from Germany and Scandinavia, finally resulting in a unification of England under one ruler around the end of the first millennium.

For almost 500 years Rome had kept at least three Legions and numerous auxiliary troops in Britain. This was to ensure that the wealth of Britain (tin, copper, iron and wool etc.) were available exclusively to Rome and not the surrounding barbarian tribes.

Immediately after the Legions had departed the ownership of the land (and wealth) was bitterly fought over by the native Celtic-Britons, Picts from the North, Scots from Ireland and increasingly by the Germanic tribes across the North Sea; mostly Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians from Denmark and Northern Europe.

In the north the Britons were being attacked by the Picts and, to prevent this, a warlord called Vortigern or ‘great leader' hired mercenaries from Saxony to defend against the threat. Following his success in stopping these raids he became acknowledged as the most powerful ruler among the kingdoms in Britain. The most famous of these mercenaries were Hengist and Horsa and when Vortigern failed to pay them they rebelled and formed their own kingdoms.

An Anglo-Saxon ship

An Anglo-Saxon boat would have been about 25m long and could carry around 40 people. It was driven by oars and did not have a sail.

The Anglo-Saxons continued to settle in Britain and, as their territory expanded, they became more and more at odds with the native Celtic-Britons culminating in a power struggle that, by AD600, eventually gave the Anglo-Saxons control of the southern, eastern and midland parts of lowland Britain. The Anglo-Saxon language and culture was slowly adopted until the native language and culture of the Celtic-Britons only persisted in Cornwall and Wales. This was the period that gave rise to the legend of King Arthur who was one of the leaders of the Briton resistance against the Anglo-Saxons.

Even though the Anglo-Saxons had been successful in defeating the Britons there was little unity amongst them; the Jutes controlled the Isle of Wight, Kent and parts of Hampshire, the Saxon tribes controlled Sussex, Essex and Wessex and the Angles controlled East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia.

Viking "Twist" ring

Viking silver "Twist" ring

Gradually Northumbria became the major power and, by the beginning of the 7th century, nearly became established as the ruler of the whole of Anglo-Saxon England. But, by the second half of the century, the Mercians gained the upper hand over Northumbria; Essex and East Anglia became subject states by AD670. Wessex and the other kingdoms were also forced to accept Mercian rule and by AD760 Offa, the greatest of the Mercian leaders, felt that he could call himself "King of all England".

After the death of Offa's successor in AD821 the King of Wessex embarked on a series of campaigns that would eventually bring the whole of England under his rule. The Wessex line of succession, broken only by a brief period of Viking rule, would last until the death of Edward the Confessor in AD1066.


  Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons

  Heinemann Explore KS2 History Romans, Anglo-Saxons And Vikings Multi User CDROM

  The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings

  The Vikings  - Magnus Magnusson






The English

An Anglo-Saxon peasant

The Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians that migrated to Britain after the Roman occupation became known as the "English" and during modern times are referred to as "Anglo-Saxons". They mainly came from areas in and around the area of Holstein in modern Denmark.

The Anglo-Saxons had been raiding the coasts of Britain during the Roman occupation and it was because of this activity that the Romans constructed a network of large defensive forts called the Litora Saxonica or Saxon Shore. It wasn't until the Roman occupation ended around 450AD that the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain started in earnest.

There were many possible reasons why these peoples left their homes to risk their lives sailing across rough seas in small boats to a foreign land:

  • they may have been pushed out by other people moving in to their lands
  • the lands may have not been as productive as they once were
  • the population may have increased such that some had to move away
  • armed war-bands may have been attacking their villages making people move to somewhere they thought was safer
  • some people may have looked for trade or work in other lands

We do know that some Saxons were employed by the Britons as mercenaries to fight the Picts and other raiders, and we also know that trade existed between Britain and Europe. So it was probably a mix of all these reasons and maybe others; whatever they were, the "English" came to Britain, they stayed and they prospered.

The Early Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were simple timber constructions with thatched roofs. Saxon life was based around agriculture and there was a preference to settle in small towns away from the old Roman cities, each having a main hall surrounded by huts for the townsfolk to live in.

A Saxon peasant - the Saxon culture was mainly rural

The Saxons were pagans worshiping many gods, not just one like the Christians did. In times of war they would make offerings to the God of War to help them win, they would make offerings to other gods to help with the harvest and to bring them good fortune elsewhere. There were religious festivals at various times of the year to honour their gods and to make offerings to them. The Saxons generally converted to Christianity during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, but there was resistance to this, especially from the middle classes, who resented the Christian influence on the Saxon nobility.

The Anglo-Saxon army was know as the Fyrd, which was comprised of men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger.

The Fyrd was led by the nobles called Thegns who were well armed with swords and spears but the rest of the Fyrd were armed only with  weapons such as farm implements, clubs and slings.

The later Anglo-Saxon army included a class of professional soldiers called Huscarls (Household troops) that were loyal to the King or Earl.

The early religion was pagan based on the worship of a number of gods similar to that of the northern Europeans. Organised Christianity later replaced paganism and led to the establishment of a unified Church based on the Roman model.


The axe was the favorite weapon of the Saxon Huscarls. The blade is made of high carbon steel that created fearsome injuries in battle.

Alfred the Great

Alfred was the King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from AD871 to AD899 and, after defeating the Vikings, he was the first king of Wessex to call himself the King of England. Alfred was born around AD849 and was the fourth son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex. In AD858 Ethelwulf died and the two elder sons briefly succeeded him. In AD866 the third eldest, Ethelred, became King and it was he and Alfred who had to fight the Danish armies invading Wessex.

Despite a brilliant victory at Ashdown in AD871 the war went badly for Wessex and, after receiving mortal wounds at the battle of Merton in AD871, Ethelred died leaving Alfred as successor to the throne. After another Wessex defeat at Wilton peace was made with the Danish invaders and they focused on other parts of England.

The peace lasted until AD876 when the Danes, under a leader called Guthrum, resumed the war. There was an attack on Wareham and Exeter and in January AD878 the Danes suddenly attacked Chippenham where Alfred had been spending Christmas. Alfred and a small party were lucky to escape and made their way to the stronghold at Athelney in the Somerset marshes. From here Alfred rallied his army and surprised Guthrum at Edington, Wiltshire, where he secured a complete victory. The Danes were chased back to their camp where they eventually surrendered and agreed to peace terms known as the Treaty of Wedmore.

In 886 Alfred negotiated a treaty that agreed the partition of England along Watling Street, the old roman road.  To the West was ruled by the Saxons and to the East the Danes ruled what became known as the "Danelaw".

Alfred recognised that economic prosperity was dependent on security and, to defend the kingdom against further attacks, he reorganized the fyrd, established a network of fortified towns and created a strong fleet - this is considered to be creation of the English Navy.

Alfred promoted education and learning and was personally involved in translating Latin works into Anglo-Saxon, including books by Bede. He was also a patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred died during October, AD899, and was buried in Winchester. Alfred is the only King of England to be known as "the Great", because of the successes against the Danes and the social and economic reforms he made.

Saxon Spangenhelm Helmet


When the first Viking raids took place they were more often than not aimed at the trading centres of the Saxon kingdoms. These centres were not well defended and were easy prey for the aggressive raiders. To address this weakness trading was gradually moved to defended centres known as Burhs.

During his reformation of the English defences Alfred embarked on a policy of establishing a systematic network of Burhs across his kingdom described in a record known as the Burghal Hidage. In times of trouble the locals would use them as a place of refuge. The burhs were located such that no place in England was more than 20 miles away from one and many were located on rivers to prevent the Viking raiders rowing up them to attack inland settlements. Old fortifications were used where possible; the old Roman coastal fort at Porchester is a classic example of existing works being converted for use as a Saxon refuge.

The burhs were connected by roads specifically maintained for use by the army. These roads enabled Alfred to quickly gather sufficient forces from several burhs to defeat an invading force and over time the burhs became the communication and administrative centres of the kingdom.


A Viking Helmet (and look - no horns!)

Strictly speaking there were no people that knew themselves as Vikings. Viking was simply a term for an activity that we would describe as raiding. Most of the Vikings, or raiders, would know themselves as Danes, Norwegians or Swedes, referring to the place from which they had originated. The English often referred to them simply as "Northmen". Nor was their exploration, raiding and conquest limited to the British Isles; they established colonies as far away as Greenland, Iceland and on the eastern seaboard of North America. They sailed the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa and the Vikings known as "The Rus" conquered parts of modern Russia and even challenged the might of the Eastern Roman Emperors.

Viking society was violent; there was no unified church, single monarchy or centralised government, which meant that there were few laws other than those that the local warrior chiefs and kings could maintain themselves, more often than not by the use of the sword.

Viking Spear

The spear was the basic Viking weapon rather than the sword. The most common use was for hand to hand fighting but they could be used to throw as well.  The pole would have been about 2m long and made of ash.

The first raid on Britain was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as being in AD789, followed by raids on the monasteries at Lindisfarne in AD793 and Iona in AD795. These early raids would have been by small war-bands led by independent local chieftains or rich adventurers. As the most powerful leaders of the "Northmen" established themselves as overlords in their own regions two things happened:

  • some of the lesser landowners and chieftains moved to other lands, like England, to continue their independent lives;
  • the war-bands became bigger and more organised, until around AD800/900 they could number thousands and be called armies.

The Vikings may have had a reputation for toughness and seamanship, and their longships may have been fast, but when pitched against raw nature in the open sea it often wasn't enough. In certain conditions the longships had a tendency to roll and many ships were lost in the rough North Sea or Atlantic, especially on the route to Greenland. It was a dangerous occupation being a Viking.

Isolated and vunerable in the open sea, a longship makes it's passage from Norway to England on a raid.

In Viking society women were the equal of men and had responsibility for supervising the household thralls (slaves) and servants in their daily tasks. When the men were away, sometimes for months or even years, it was the masters wife that held complete authority over the family and estates. Women had legal rights too, they could divorce their husbands and even claim half the family property. It wasn't unknown for a women to bear arms and be involved in the fighting.

A Viking house

The usual Scandinavian dwelling was a rectangular longhouse made from wood, although other materials such as stone and turf could be used in places where wood was not available. It was rarely more than 5 metres wide but could be anywhere between 16 and 50 metres long and had a pitched roof. There was only one door at one end and, to conserve heat, there were no windows.

A Viking longship

The Scandinavians had been seafarers long before the Viking period. As the Ice age ended and the glaciers retreated, people slowly began to re-colonise the North; criss-crossed with fjords and rivers the ideal method to get from place to place was by boat, and so began the long evolution of that most famous icon of Viking culture, the longship.

The longship was what gave the Vikings the ability to strike fast and be long gone before any response could be made by the local defence force. Long and slim, it could be rowed at about 8 knots and, from around the 8th century on, sailed at about 20 knots. The shallow draft gave the Vikings the opportunity to penetrate deep inland; up rivers where previously the population thought that they were safe from pirate attacks.

A Viking Longship. Having a keel made it much stronger than the earlier Saxon boats and the addition of a sail gave it the speed and endurance that was essential to take the Vikings on their awesome journeys across the northern seas and oceans.


A Viking hersir - warrior of the north

A Viking Shepherd - Viking life wasn't just about fighting

These Northmen were not just raiders and pirates, they were also explorers, farmers, craftsmen, fishermen, blacksmiths, merchants and traders. They established colonies and settled wherever they went, some notable locations being the city of York, the region of Normandy in France, Greenland and Iceland. They were capable of producing exquisite works of jewellery and were just as sophisticated as their Saxon counterparts.

Harold Godwinson

During the reign of Edward the Confessor a family called the Godwins gained a great deal of power. Godwin was the Earl of Wessex, which made him the second most powerful man in England after the king.

Edward had spent a lot of his early life in Normandy and had been heavily influenced by the Latin culture there. When he ascended to the throne in 1043 he brought with him many Norman advisors and clergy, much to the annoyance of the English and Danish nobility.

In 1051 Godwin and his family were exiled when he refused to punish the townsfolk of Dover after they had caused a riot with some of Edward's Norman relatives. The next year Godwin returned with an armed group of followers and forced the king to restore him to his former position. On Godwin's death his second son, Harold, succeeded him as Earl of Wessex and proceeded to acquire even more wealth and power for the family.

Edward died in 1066 without a male heir and Harold Godwinson had himself crowned King of England the next day. Harold was related to many English and Scandinavian royalty including King Ethelred, the elder brother of Alfred the Great, and Harold Bluetooth, a King of Denmark and Norway. Harold, however, was not the only claimant to the English throne. Ten years earlier Harold had been shipwrecked in Normandy, France. He had supposedly sworn an oath to William Duke of Normandy to support him in his claim for the English throne on the death of Edward. Another claimant was Harald Hardrada of Norway, supported by Harold's younger brother Tostig.

The question of who would be King was to be decided on the battlefield.

Harald and Tostig landed with an army in Yorkshire in 1066 and defeated the local Earls at the battle of Fulford near York. King Harold marched to meet the invaders and, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, comprehensively beat the Vikings once and for all.

Harold's celebrations were cut short however as he learnt that Duke William of Normandy had landed in southern England unhappy that Harold had broken his oath.

Harold duely marched south with his tired army to cahllenge William at a place called Senlac Hill near Hastings. The outcome was in favour of William and cost Harold his life. William was crowned king of England beginning a new age in England.

Quiz (For the answers read above)

1.Who defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in AD871?


2.From which area did the Anglo-Saxons mainly originate?


3.Did Viking women have equal rights with men?


4.Who died in 1066 without a heir to the throne?

1.Harold Godwinson
2.Edward the Confessor
3.William the Conqueror

5.Who were the Rus?

1.Vikings that settled in Russia
2.Read headed people from Scotland
3.Saxon mecenaries
4.Romano-British farmers

6.What was the Saxon aarmy called?

4.Saxon Horde

7.Who hired mecenaries from Scaninavia?


8.Who were the English?

3.Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes

9.Who defeated Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066?

2.Alfred the Great
3.William the Conqueror
4.King Cnut

10.What became known as the Danelaw?

1.The laws of the vikings
2.The rules governing the Saxon mercenaries
3.The land north of Watling Street
4.Religious rules made by the Viking invaders