Option 1

Academic Programmes at Oxford


Dr Katharine Sykes



In the eleventh century, England was conquered not once but twice: first, by Cnut in 1016 and again, more famously, by William the Conqueror in 1066. Ireland, Scotland and Wales, however, remained independent.

Yet by 1300 the inhabitants of England – a mixture of English, Danes and Normans who by now referred to themselves as the English – had conquered Wales, established a strong political and institutional base in Ireland, and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296.


In this course, we will study key documents - from Domesday Book to Magna Carta – alongside archaeological and visual evidence, to explore the similarities and differences between the four regions of the British Isles – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – and the ways in which they grew together, and grew apart across three centuries.




Week 1 Conquest and colonisation: 1016 to 1296


Politically, this period is defined by a series of conquests: those of Cnut in 1016 and William in 1066, to Edward I's campaigns in Scotland and Wales at the end of the thirteenth century. During this period, the boundaries of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales waxed and waned; more importantly, the ways in which people defined themselves changed. Cnut was a Danish King, and his conqeust saw the development of an Anglo-Scandinavian elite in England, alongside the Anglo-Saxon population. Within fifty years, the Norman Conquest led to the creation of a new Anglo-Norman elite, which spoke French rather than English, and who often held lands on both sides of the English channel. From the 1150s, England formed a small part of the enormous Angevin Empire, which stretched from the Scottish borders to the south of France. Shortly after 1204, Normandy was lost to the French King, and the Anglo-Normans began, increasingly, to define themselves as English. By 1300, English people and English institutions were found across all parts of the British Isles.


Week 2 Economy and society


Analysis of this period tends to focus on political changes we explored in week one - the processes of conquest and colonisation, the succession crises, the feuds within the elite - and sees changes to society and the economy as the result of political changes. But this isn't a one way process - not least, because armies needed to be fed, watered (and in some instances, paid); kings needed money to maintain themselves and reward their followers. Much of our evidence for the success and failure of late Anglo-Saxon government comes from records and discussion of taxation; these sources also tell us about the structures of Anglo-Saxon society, at least in theory, We know less about the ways in which Irish, Welsh and Scottish society and economics functioned at the beginning of this period, but we do have some insights; by the end of our period, we know much more about all of these countries, which followed some similar patterns to England (which themselves were part of broader European trends) but which also developed distinctive patterns of their own.


Week 3 Laws and institutions


This period saw important changes in the relationship between kings and the law, resulting in the promulgation of Magna Carta. Kings had long promised to uphold the law, but there were few mechanisms to bring errant kings to account. In this tutorial, we will explore the constitutional narrative that lies behind Magna Carta; we will also look at whether anything really changed after 1215. We will also examine another key development in this period, namely the introduction of English institutions and laws into Ireland and Wales, and the different processes at work in Scotland.


Week 4 Languages and literatures


In terms of the institutional church, this period saw struggles between kings and archbishops relating to jurisdiction and homage; it also saw the extension of English control into Wales under the auspices of the archbishop of Canterbury, and attempts by the archbishop of York to extend his rights and claims over the dioceses of Scotland, which paralleled attempts to extend political and military control. But it also saw important reform movements in Ireland which were inspired by continental rather than Anglo-Norman trends. These changes to church structures were complemented by a massive expansion in monastic life, with a proliferation of new orders offering a variety of lifestyles and vocations. Finally, it also saw important changes to religious practices amongst the laity, as parish churches became an increasingly important focal point for devotional life, and liturgical texts and images were adapted to suit the needs of lay patrons, in the forms of books of hours and other texts.


Week 5 Religion and spirituality


In this final week we will focus on vernacular texts, to explore what they tell us about language and identity in an age of conquest and colonisation. Throughout our period there were strong links - as there are today - between the language a person spoke, and the culture and society with which they are identified. There was also a clear hierarchy of languages, although this hierarchy was not fixed: at the beginning of our period, Old English enjoyed a high status in England, as both a written and spoken language, but other languages such as Danish were also widely spoken amongst the elite, suggesting that they too possessed a certain utility or cachet. Danish would soon be replaced by French; English would remain a spoken language but would decline as a written language in the twelfth century, only to be revived in the thirteenth. Irish was replaced by Latin as a written language in areas of Anglo-Norman administration. The other vernaculars - Welsh, Scots (the language of lowland Scotland) Gaelic and Norse (the languages of the islands and highlands) - are more difficult to track, as the last three were predominantly spoken rather than written languages.


Preliminary Reading



Bartlett, Robert, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (Oxford, 2000)

Frame, Robin, The Political Development of the British Isles 1100-1400 (Oxford, 1990)


© Dr Ken Addison,St.Peter's College, University of Oxford: for 2017



Courses & Options

A range of available Academic Courses and Options are available, see below, and follow the links for further information.

Intending participants select the Course of their choice and are then asked to elect to study one of its particular Options in order of preference. Most students are likely to secure their first-choice Option.

The Medieval Studies Course also has an Interdisciplinary Seminar studied by all participants, irrespective of their Option choice.


English literature

Option 1: Rediscovering Shakespeare

Option 2: Jane Austen in Text and Context

Option 3: The Inklings In Oxford (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis et al.)

Option 4: Introduction to Topics in the English Language

Environmental studies

Option 1: Climate Change: Global Risk & Management

Option 2: Environmental Change & British Landscape Development 11,500 BP -1700 AD


Residential Field Programme: The Development of British Landscapes (required for Environmentalists, Medievalists; optional for others)

Medieval studies

Option 1: Conquest and Colonisation : England and her neighbours: 1016-1296

Option 2: Death, Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Literature

Option 3: Medieval Margins: Identity and Otherness


Interdisciplinary Seminar: The Arthurian Tradition (required study taken by all Medievalists)