Norman and Saxon

(notes by Peter Keating)

Publication History

First published in A History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was inserted in chapter III, “The Norman Kings, 1066-1154” with the present title and a descriptive note in the right-hand margin of the book which reads: ‘Views of a Norman baron about his property in 1100.’ Harbord, ORG, Verse 1, 1969, No. 976 (f), gives ‘The Norman Baron’ as an alternative title for the poem. It was reprinted in I.V., 1919 when the subtitle was inserted; in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and in the Burwash Edition, vol., 27. For the Sussex, single quotation marks replaced the double quotation marks throughout the poem.

There is a musical rendition here by Michael Longcor.


‘Norman and Saxon’ is a dramatic monologue presented in ballad form in which a dying Norman baron advises his son how to rule the Saxon people he is about to inherit. It is very often said – automatically and as though unchallengeably axiomatic – that Kipling’s dramatic monologues inevitably followed the example of his great mentor Robert Browning. In fact, Kipling’s dramatic monologues are rarely Browningesque. They have their own distinctive qualities, as here in “Norman and Saxon”.

Kipling’s sole purpose is to employ a simple dramatic situation to express his own point of view, while Browning usually went to quite extreme lengths to hide his personal views and to focus on the characters themselves. It is also relatively unusual to find in Kipling’s poetry – though not in his short stories – the complex individual psychology that would distinguish most similar monologues by Browning.

Kipling’s baron has no individuality at all. He is simply a representative ‘baron.’ Nor does the son have any individuality. He is simply ‘a son.’ The advice offered by the baron – the wisdom to be delivered – consists entirely of statements about the nature of the Saxon people. They come from a conqueror about the conquered and they are assumed to be true.

The only thing we know about the baron that may set him apart from anyone else in a similar situation, is that he is sympathetic enough to try to understand what the Saxons are like, and intelligent enough to advise his son to act accordingly. There is every reason to believe that the views expressed are Kipling’s, and that he wants the reader to accept the views as genuine insights into the Saxon, or early English, character.

The ideas advanced in this poem – primarily, the different kinds of possible relationships between a conquering nation and a conquered people – are fundamental to Kipling’s life and work. He wrote about them – in stories, novels, poems and non-fictional prose – throughout the whole of his life. Here it is the Normans and Saxons, but elsewhere in Kipling’s work, it is the British in India, the Romans in Britain, and (on both a personal and a creative level ) Kipling himself as an English boy brought up in India, and as an Anglo-Indian settling in England.

‘Norman and Saxon’ explores the moment when one member of the conquering race is beginning to understand that while the Saxons may be less civilised, less powerful, and perhaps less sensitive than the Normans, they do, nevertheless, possess distinctive and useful qualities of their own which will not be suppressed. Eventually differences between Norman and Saxon will disappear and be replaced by a distinctive ‘ English’ race. This is barely hinted at in ‘Norman and Saxon,’ though the Saxon qualities which are half-admired by the Norman baron are there to point the way forward.

Some closely related texts, among a very large number of possibilities, are: the poems “The Roman Centurion’s Song” and “The Anvil” (in A School History); and the story “Young Men at the Manor” together with its closing poem “Sir Richard’s Song” in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906).

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2005 All rights reserved