England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest takes you through the mists of time to the rugged landscape of the British Isles. Over the course of 24 sweeping lectures, Professor Jennifer Paxton, of The Catholic University of America, surveys the forging of a great nation from a series of warring kingdoms and migrating peoples. From Germanic tribes to Viking invasions to Irish missionaries, she brings to life an underexamined time and place.
England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest
From the waves of migration to the flourishing of arts and literature, delve into the remarkable story of Anglo-Saxon England.
Jennifer Paxton is a Clinical Associate Professor of History at The Catholic University of America. She is also the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and director of the University Honors Program. She was previously a Professorial Lecturer in History at Georgetown University, where she taught for more than a decade. Jennifer received her PhD in History from Harvard University, where she also taught and earned a Certificate of Distinction in Teaching. She is a widely published, award-winning writer and a highly regarded scholar, earning both a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities and a Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship.
Jennifer lectures regularly at the Smithsonian Institution and serves as an expert on Scotland and Ireland for Smithsonian Journeys. Her research focuses on England from the reign of King Alfred to the late 12th century. She is particularly interested in the intersection between the authority of church and state and the representation of the past in historical texts, especially those produced by religious communities. She is completing a book that examines how monastic historians shaped their narratives to project present polemical concerns onto the past. She is also working on a project that examines changing views of abbatial leadership across the Anglo-Norman world in the 11th and 12th centuries.
01: Exploring How England Came to Be
Step back to Anglo-Saxon England to see what makes this period of history so captivating. After a brief survey of the traditional scholarship across the ages, Professor Paxton outlines how we will be forming our picture of the Anglo-Saxons, including written evidence, literary sources, archaeological artifacts, “paleopathology,” and more.
02: The Rise and Fall of Roman Britain
When the Romans arrived in the British Isles, the empire was already on the decline, and it was in the crucible of this decline that England would be forged. Explore the impact of the Romans on Britain, from Hadrian’s Wall to the city of London. Consider the role of Christianity, the state of language, and the collapsing economy during this time.
03: The Germanic Migrations to Britain
Generations of school children have learned about three primary invasions of Germanic people: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. Reflect on the accuracy of this narrative, and then see how varying sources as well as DNA and archaeological evidence paints a much more complex picture of Germanic migrations.
04: The Britons Resist: The Legend of King Arthur
A survey of medieval Britain might make it seem as though the myriad Germanic migrations were all peaceful, but was there any resistance among the locals? Here, the answer can be viewed through the legendary King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Was he a real person? Who was he based on? And what impact did he have on the history of Britain?
05: Everyday Life in 6th-Century Britain
Pause in this fascinating period between the decline of Roman Britain and the rise of a new Anglo-Saxon order. What was everyday life like for average citizens? Meet some of the ethnic groups that made up 6th century Britain, explore their settlements, and examine some of the era’s hardships that can be seen today in the bones of the people who lived through it.
06: The Birth of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
Thus far we have seen that thanks to migration and the fusion of Germanic and native British cultures, a coherent population—the Anglo-Saxons—was emerging. The political vacuum left by Rome was filled by a series of smaller kingdoms across England. In this lecture, tour several of these kingdoms and how they came into being.
07: The Papal Mission to Britain
At the same time that Anglo-Saxon kingdoms took over the political landscape, Christianity was spreading through the population. As you will see, this story of conversion is the story of Christianity coming from Ireland and from continental Europe. Meet Pope Gregory the Great and learn from the Venerable Bede about the spread of Christianity in England.
08: Sutton Hoo and the Early Anglo-Saxons
Archaeology is one of the most important ways to study the past, and here you will delve into one of the most iconic sites in the world. On a small hill in Suffolk, the graves at Sutton Hoo can tell us about the people and economy of the early Anglo-Saxons. Professor Paxton offers a fount of information about Sutton Hoo’s discovery and excavation.
09: Irish Missionaries and Christianization
In a previous lecture, we saw how the Romans successfully converted Southeast England to Christianity, but the Northumbrians relapsed. Here, Professor Paxton picks up the story and shows how Irish missionaries played a decisive role in converting the whole of England, solidifying Christianity across the island. Learn about King Edwin, Penda, and others.
10: Kings of the North: Northumbria’s Ascent
Delve into the Northumbria region in the 7th century. Here, you will start by considering the ebb and flow of Anglo-Saxon hegemony in the north and northwest. Find out about some of Northumbria’s great leaders, the economy around lifestock and herding, and the importance of the city of York.
11: Northumbria’s Century of Renaissance
Continue your study of northern England with an exploration of the so-called Northumbrian Renaissance. Review some of the major literary manuscripts from the period, including early translations of the Gospels into Old English. Then shift your attention to the Venderable Bede, one of English history’s most important scholars.
12: Rise of the Midlands: Mercia’s Hegemony
In this lecture, you will transition from Northumbria to the kingdom of Mercia in the midlands. The Mercian hegemony is important to English history because during an era of political expansion and consolidation, Mercia connected England to the European continent. Dig into the reign of two major kings and their role in Mercia’s success.
13: Anglo-Saxon Law and Warfare
You have seen how a series of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms filled the vacuum left by the Romans. In this lecture, you will dive into the role of law and warfare in forging these kingdoms. Find out how war was waged in this period and explore a few military tactics and weapons. Then turn to the rise of legal codes and charters.
14: Fury of the Northmen: The Vikings Arrive
The Vikings—seafaring raiders, settlers, and traders from Scandinavia—burst onto the British scene in the 8th century with terrifying power, and they posed an existential threat to the newly minted Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Witness this invasion and examine how the Vikings helped shape and define the country we know as England.
15: Alfred the Great: Defender of England
In this lecture, Professor Paxton discusses arguably the most important ruler in the history of Anglo-Saxon England. In addition to saving the island from being overrun by Vikings, Alfred the Great kicked off an intellectual and religious renaissance. Here, you will focus on Alfred as a military leader and defender of England.
16: Alfred the Great: Builder of Institutions
Continue your study of Alfred the Great, who in addition to being a great military leader also tended to the spiritual and intellectual well-being of his people. Review Alfred’s efforts at educating the populace, and then watch as he tries to extend the power of Wessex and position himself as the English Charlemagne.
17: Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Literature
Literature is one of the true glories of Anglo-Saxon culture, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent today than the great poem Beowulf. After giving an overview of Old English poetry, Professor Paxton revels in the adventures of the warrior Beowulf and his story of mayhem and plunder.
18: Together at Last: Wessex Unites England
After the death of Alfred the Great, the major question was whether his successors would be able to build on his legacy. Go back to 10th century England to meet the rulers of this new kingdom, which was beginning to coalesce into a united “England.” Explore the uniformity of law and administration that was emerging.
19: Monastic Reform: A Tale of Three Saints
As you have seen, political change often paralleled religious upheaval. In the middle of the 10th century, while the kings of Wessex were forging a united England, a trio of monks took over leadership of the church and instituted a number of reforms. Meet the bishops and archbishops who led these monastic changes.
20: The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art
England in the 10th century enjoyed both peace and prosperity, which created a golden age of art. From lavishly illustrated manuscripts and precious metal engravings to paintings and lavish textiles, this period saw visual triumphs in every medium. See some of the masterpieces that have survived and learn about the story behind them.
21: Unfinished Business: The Vikings Return
As is the case in all of history, peace and prosperity only last so long. In the 10th century, trouble began in England around who would succeed Edgar the Peaceable. In the wake of this succession crisis, the Vikings returned and struck with great force. Delve into this bloody invasion and gain a sense of an England beseiged.
22: Cnut the Great and the Danish Conquest
After years of strife, 1016 was a momentous year in English history. Witness the events that led to the Danish invasion, and see how these new conquerors successfully ruled for several decades. Find out how King Cnut reshaped the English aristocracy, and then explore the fallout of the succession crisis after his death.
23: 1066 and the Norman Conquest
By the 1060s, England had faced nearly a century of political tumult. A series of succession crises eventually led to William, Duke of Normandy, invading England at Hastings. King Harold rushed to defend the city, but the Battle of Hastings changed the course of English history. Go inside this world-shaping moment.
24: Aftermath: From Anglo-Saxon to English
This course began with the arrival of new settlers who transformed Britain. Here, the course ends with the last gasps of English resistance against Normans in the 11th century. Meet the rebels and witness the battles that led to a new synthesis of Norman and English cultures, resulting in what would become one of the most stable and enduring kingdoms in Europe.