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Teaching Primary History: Anglo-Saxons & Vikings for Key Stage 2

>>>Latest addition March 2015 KQ7 Anglo-Saxons and KQ5 Vikings

MEDIUM-TERM PLANNERS on Anglo-Saxon Britain and Vikings available to subscribers in Planning Section 

The following Key Stage 2 history lessons have all been judged to be outstanding according to OFSTED criteria. There is a wide variety of teaching and learning activities as well as a rich array of teaching resources including PowerPoint® presentations. New lessons will be regularly added to meet the demands of the changing primary curriculum.

Outstanding KS2 Lessons/Smart Tasks

Anglo Saxons and Vikings

  • Push or Pull?  What were the real reasons why the Saxons invaded? Key Question 1 part a  A fun thinking skills activity in which pupils infer from visual clues before moving on to analyse a range of influence cards and evaluate a video before coming up with their own explanation.

  • How do we know where the Saxons settled? Key Question 1 part b Literally bells and whistles: testing a simple hypothesis about where the early Anglo-Saxons lived and how we know.

  • What does the mystery of the empty Saxon grave tell us about Saxon Britain? Key Question 2 Pupils are put in the role of detectives to investigate the Sutton Hoo bodiless ship burial.  Having looked at the clues they then use their deductive power to work out which of 4 suspects is most likely to have been the owner.

  • How did people’s lives change when Christianity came to Britain and how can we be sure? Key Question 3  A series of smart tasks, rather than a full outstanding lesson. The first part of this two part session looks at how it happened, the second at how we know. The early part asks pupils to grasp the narrative of events within a timeline from Roman times to the start of the 8th century which they consolidate by sequencing events. In the second part, pupils work collaboratively to interrogate a range of sources to see which ones historians use to substantiate the statements they make. Great ideas for differentiation ensure that there is just the right amount of challenge and support for individuals to make good progress with their learning.

  • Key Question 4 uses materials from Vikings Key Question 3 see below

  • Just how great was Alfred? Can we beat the BBC website? Key Question 5a This lesson is 2014-ready and matches the new curriculum requirements.  In this outstanding lesson, pupils are asked to critique and then improve the BBC children’s website entry for Alfred. But first they need to see how history has commemorated Alfred and then carry out some research for themselves. This lesson offers plenty of opportunities to develop two key concepts: interpretations and significance. Pupils learn that historians have to be careful when using sources: some deliberately exaggerate and have been written for a particular purpose.

  • Just how effective was Anglo-Saxon justice: what should we do with Edgar?   Key Question 6  Pupils work in groups to create a series of short dramatic enactments, illustrating ways of keeping law and order / punishments in Saxon times. They are then told the real-life case of Edgar for them to decide how he should be punished. By way of stretch and challenge, pupils are asked to think of the different principles that underlay the punishments: revenge, loyalty etc. They conclude by designing an illustrated double-page spread for a school textbook and deciding which methods of keeping law and order were most effective.

  • Just how dark were the Dark Ages, really? Key Question 7 Pupils design a two-sided paper plate on which they record the arguments used in the debate about the 'Darkness' of Saxon Britain. On one side they show the enlightened side of Saxon society. On the other, covered in black paper to represent the Dark side they record reasons why the Saxons might be perceived in this way. Initially pupils generate their own ideas, drawing on their growing knowledge from the previous six enquiries, then they are shown a set of visual clues before completing a spectrum activity using pre-prepared ideas. When creating their final product, pupils show their own judgement by recording their ideas in captions/textboxes, the size of which reflects the significance of the argument.


  • What image do we have of the Vikings? Key Question 1 (UPDATED October 2014) This two part session gives the topic on the Vikings a really active start. Following an introduction to the Vikings in time and place, including a competitive Time Team task, pupils investigate stereotypical images of Vikings as a start to the overall enquiry. The main fun part of the lesson is the reconstruction relay. Pupils are placed in role as Saxon spies who have to find out what makes the Vikings' boats so special. After the fast and furious finding out there is a quieter thinking of questions section, followed by a hot seating activity.

  • Why have the Vikings gained such a bad reputation? Key Question 2  (October 2014)  Having explored the nature of the stereotypical Viking image in the first session, it is now time to examine the origins of the image. Pupils compare two very contrasting accounts written by different people, at the same time, and then try to work out why they differed. By the end of the session they grasp that we always need to be sure of the provenance of any account before reaching judgments about its accuracy.

  • How did the Vikings try to take over the country and how close did they get? Key Question 3  This task encapsulates the struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings in an engaging way that really makes pupils think about the dynamics of the conflict - rather than 'one damn event and treaty after another'. By using a technique called living (or fortunes) graph, pupils have to work collaboratively to create and then analyse a visual representation of the struggle. By making the shape themselves they are far more likely to understand and remember it.

  • How have recent excavations changed our view of the Vikings? Key Question 4  (October 2014) Using the Mantle of the Expert approach, pupils help a confused museum curator to write high quality captions for 11 images that MIGHT show the Vikings in a more positive light. It is crucial that they get it right. Important Scandinavian visitors are coming to see the exhibition tomorrow! Imaginatively differentiated, the lesson uses a combination of Gallery and Prove it! activities to provide excellent preparatory grounding.

  • What can we learn about Viking settlement from a study of place-name endings? Key Question 5 (March 2015)  An active session in which pupils apply their knowledge of Viking place name endings to look for settlement patterns, using maps of Lincolnshire and the York area, before going on to critique a 45 second film on the subject and then outlining what else could be said in an additional 45 seconds.

  • Raiders or settlers: how should we remember the Vikings? Key Question 6 Fun concluding lesson in which pupils produce a balanced, illustrated Zig-Zag book to please a Scandinavian publisher. Pupils create their own graphic organiser, having first processed information cards giving then opportunities to classify existing knowledge and add new ideas from recent research.


Teaching the new 2014 curriculum

My strong advice is to teach this as one longer unit combining Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, as there is so much overlap.  Teaching them separately would lead to unwelcome repetition.

As you will have noticed the new curriculum pays far greater attention to the Saxons and Vikings.  The statutory elements are:

1. Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots (covers the period before King Alfred)
This could include: Roman withdrawal from Britain in c. AD 410 and the fall of the western Roman Empire, Scots invasions from Ireland to north Britain (now Scotland), Anglo-Saxon invasions, settlements and kingdoms: place names and village life, Anglo-Saxon art and culture, Christian conversion – Canterbury, Iona and Lindisfarne.

2. Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor
This could include:- Viking raids and invasion - resistance by Alfred the Great and Athelstan, first king of England – further Viking invasions and Danegeld - Anglo-Saxon laws and justice - Edward the Confessor and his death in 1066.

There are several points that need to been borne in mind when considering your planning. Firstly, both Saxons and Vikings as depth studies are now compulsory in a way they were not in the 2000 curriculum.  So there will be work to do.  Even schools who have taught the Saxons before will not have done so in this detail.  Few will have taught about the Scots.

The most important point to consider is not the content alone but how it provides a context for developing key historical skills. Many of the outstanding lessons featured do just that.  Evidence-based enquiry work centres on the cremation urn evidence for Saxons settlement in which pupils test historical hypotheses. The problem-solving Sutton Hoo ship burial detective work lesson really helps pupils to think like historians.  Interpretations are well provided for with Has history been fair to the Vikings?  Work on causes is dealt with in the push v pull activity on the Saxons.

Background reading for Anglo Saxon key questions

KQ1 Who were the Saxons and how did they arrive?

The terms Saxons and Anglo-Saxons were often used as a shorthand for all the tribes and groups from north-west Europe and Scandinavia, including Jutes, Angles, and Frisian (among others the pupils don’t really need to know). They did, of course, find a deserted island after the Roman legions had left in the 5th century. However they arrived, it was not sudden. There had indeed already been contact and attacks prior to the departure of the Romans and Picts.

I lived for nearly 20 years a few miles away from Portchester castle, a so-called fort of the Saxon shore.

Why they came is the focus of the first lesson which will leave pupils with an understanding of the natural disasters such as flooding as well as man-made motives.

KQ2 Where did they settle?

Pupils discover through archaeological evidence that pupils settled along rivers. Many established themselves as farmers, by-and-large avoiding the Roman settlements, at least in the early days.

KQ3 How did people's lives change when Christianity came to Britain and how do we know?

Christianity was a key feature of Saxon society, especially late Saxon.  We know this from the monastic writers such as Gildas and Bede so we have divided the question between the effects of the coming of Christianity and the evidence we have for the changes.

Initially, of course, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans.  As we know, their gods were commemorated in the days of the week such as Tuesday named after Tiw and Wednesday named after Woden. 

The story of the conversion to Christianity is complex but needs to be told.  Essentially it began with Pope Gregory’s mission to Kent in 597. He used St Augustine to convert the rulers first and then the mass of the population would hopefully follow.  It did not always run according to plan of course.  Some rulers still clung onto their pagan beliefs as pupils will have found out in Key question 3 with Raedwald.  Some rulers reverted back to paganism.  It is usually thought that King Penda of Mercia was the last pagan ruler. 

The Scottish church at the time was founded by Columba in 563.  Iona, about which the story in the lesson was written, was the centre of Irish monasticism and had been for a few hundred years. 

Pupils also need to learn about Lindisfarne, created by monks in 635 as a centre for learning.  It was here that the Book of Kells was written.  Pupils need to know that there were two strands to Christianity at this time and this caused tension.  One was Celtic Christianity, the other was Roman.  This is probably too complex to go into in detail.  Suffice to say that the Roman form won out at a meeting to sort out the problems, known as the Synod of Whitby which met in 663.  Conversion to Christianity was neither continuous nor easy, so pupils need activities which stress this point. 

How do we know?

Pupils need to be aware that much of our knowledge of the early Christianity comes in written rather than built form.  The principal source is the Venerable Bede.  As he spent his life at Jarrow, in the centre of religious changes he was uniquely well-placed to write his excellent History of the English People and the coming of Christianity in 731.  Later Christianity can be seen in the form of stone churches which outlived the more abundant wooden ones.  It may be that there are nearby Saxon churches.

KQ4 How were the Saxons able to see off the Viking threat?

Pupils will find it hard to grasp that England was not a united entity. Instead, there were many tribal groups organised into seven kingdoms, often referred to as the Heptarchy but kids don’t need to use this word - sorry, Gove. The magnificent 7 were: Northumbria, Mercia (M for middle of England - helps pupils remember), East Anglia, Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent. It is more important that the pupils know the Big 4: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex as these will feature most prominently in the story of the struggle against the Vikings, the focus for KQ4. Wessex then triumphed by the 10th Century.

Teaching Britain's settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots

Although the first part of this requirement poses few problems, the second is highly contentious.  It may well be that the Gaels on the Scottish west coast were actually part of the same group as those in Northern Ireland.  Where is the evidence of a Scottish invasion?  Anyway the whole idea is, as one historian recently put it, 'way, way too complex for Y3 and 4'.  so my advice is, don't agonise on this point.  Mention and move on.

Resourcing your Anglo-Saxon and Viking topics

A great place to start looking for material ion the Anglo-Saxons is the 24 hour museum site for children called showme. You will be helped to explore an Anglo-Saxon village and 3D artefacts as well as seeing video clips of a recent archaeological dig.

The same site can also be a a great starting point for checking out which museums offer pupils the opportunity to get involved in some problem-solving activities using Viking finds.

In the News October 2011: Vikings, raiders or traders? The latest evidence

The discovery of the first fully intact Viking burial site in the UK (October 20th 2011) - on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Scotland provides a great opportunity for de-bunking some well known Viking myths. The 16ft-long grave containing the remains of a “high-status Viking” who was buried with an axe, a sword and a spear might suggest the typical Viking warrior image. About 200 rivets - the remains of the boat he was laid in - were also found.  Previously, boat burials in such a condition have been excavated at sites on Orkney.  Until now mainland excavations were only partially successful and had been carried out before more careful and accurate methods were introduced.

Other finds in the 5m-long (16ft) grave in Ardnamurchan included a knife, what could be the tip of a bronze drinking horn, a whetstone from Norway, a ring pin from Ireland and Viking pottery. These finds question the stereotypical image about the Viking helmeted warriors pillaging the land at will.

5 good reasons for thinking the Vikings were more traders than raiders.

  • Viking warriors were homemakers who couldn’t wait to ship their wives over to settle the lands they had conquered.
  • More than a thousand years after the first Viking longships landed on British shores, a study has shown the blood of the Norse warriors still flows through the veins of swathes of the population.
  • The Viking genetic marker - M17 - is also present in the Western Isles in large numbers. Clan names are a visible relic; MacIvors were originally the sons of Ivar, MacSween, the sons of Swein.
  • The Viking world stretched from Newfoundland to the Middle East and beyond. Objects moved over thousands of miles across a great network. Not all of the objects survive (silk, spices, etc) but others tell of great adventures. There have even been finds of coins and jewellery from as far away as Baghdad, Samarkand and Tashkent - many in areas now argued to be rural and far from modern trade routes.
  • While they undoubtedly struck fear into the natives on their arrival, the Vikings settled in Scotland for around 300 years. They were farmers who kept a variety of animals, including sheep, cattle, and pigs, and grew crops such as barley and oats. They also collected plants for medicinal purposes.


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Challenging a stereotypical view of the Vikings

Realising where the evidence comes from and then evaluating it.

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