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Vikings and Normans – 866 to 1100

The History Of Education In England

An occasional series highlighting the history of our education system from the 6th Century onwards

Vikings and Normans – 866 to 1100


The progression and expansion of education in England was violently interrupted due to the prolonged succession of Viking raids from around 866 onwards. According to historian A.F. Leach:

“A gloomy interval in the history of English education ensued after the death of Offa and the widespread devastation caused by the Viking invasions. When the curtain rises again, the scene has shifted from the North and the Midlands to the South, and centres in the great figure of Alfred.”

Alfred’s prominence in the next stage of education was down to his Wessex kingdom being the only part of England that successfully resisted the Viking invasion. HAL Fisher tells us that Alfred took:

‘delight in the songs and literature of his people’ and showed ‘concern for education’.

He also taught his own children English literature and Latin and it was through him that reconstruction of the English school system began. His influence on the importance of education was continued by his son and grandson Edward the Elder and Athlestan.


It transpires however, that not all Vikings were destructive when it came to education. Canute, a Christian who married his predecessor’s (Ethlered the Unready) widow, was greatly concerned about the education of poor boys. Herman, the 11th Century historian of Bury St. Edmunds wrote:

whenever he went to any famous monastery or borough he sent there at his own expense boys to be taught for the clerical or monastic order, not only those whom he found among freemen but also the cleverer of the poor, and with his own hand in kingly munificence he also in his progress made some free.


Further big changes were to come as a result of the Norman invasion in 1066. Leach asserts that one of the worst effects of the Conquest was:

‘the foisting of the Italian adventurer Lanfranc into the See of Canterbury’

It seems that there was a desire to expel the monks from Canterbury along with the other monastic cathedral schools and reinstate seculars but these attempts were frustrated by the monkish Lanfranc. As a result the school remained under the control of Lanfranc unlike York and St. Paul’s whose schools who were taught and governed by resident Chapter members. The downside to this was Lanfranc’s lack of residency and his lack of interest in schools and schoolboys.

Despite these problems the secular schools flourished under the Normans with French replacing English as the teaching language medium for Latin and Latin being translated into Norman-French rather than English.  Norman-French remained the vernacular of the upper classes in the country, the middle classes in the towns, and the whole cultured and clerkly class until the reign of Edward III in the mid 14th Century.

Even though the secular schools were expanding education was still mainly about vocational training for those intending to become monks or enter the priesthood but there are records of education for younger members of the royal and noble families.


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