Hlafdige Arastorm aka Tchipakkan ©2008
A Brief History
The first Anglo-Saxons arrived in England with the Roman legions as Germanic legionaries. “Anglo-Saxon” is a convenient phrase to describe the group of Germanic settlers who settled in England (although the Romano-Celts who had been there when they arrived would have said invaded) in the 5th century CE. After the Legions left, Germanic mercenaries had been intentionally brought to Britannia. Tradition has it that they were hired as mercenaries against the Picts and Scots by Vortingern, in and carved out their own kingdoms (resisted by the Celts and whoever the hero was who inspired tales of King Arthur).
The Angles came from the Danish peninsula (Angeln), Jutes from Jutland, the Saxons from Northern Germany and the area later to become the Netherlands, as did the Frisians. First they carved out many small kingdoms, each ruled by a king and his war-band, but by the end of the sixth century there were only about seven, with a High King over the various other kingdoms in Northumbria. Mercia became dominant in the mid-7th century, and Wessex in the 8th.
In the 9th century the Vikings started attacking England, nearly conquering all of it, although King Alfred stopped them, and negotiated that they could keep the Danelaw, the North and Central three quarters of England. His descendents gradually reconquered it and re-unified England as an Anglo-Danish state. The first half of the 11th century England was even ruled by a Dane: Cnut, and while the throne briefly returned to the Saxon family line, William the Conqueror’s invasion ended it in 1066.
Some terms one needs to know
Most of the Royal lines of the Anglo-Saxons traced their descent back to Woden, and all in those family lines were called Æthlings. Kings were chosen by the council of elders, or Witan, from among the Æthelings. The Witan was made up of the Æthelings and Ealdormen. The Ealdormen were the successors of the minor kings before the consolidation.
England was divided into administrative units called “hundreds” (or in the Danelaw wapentakes) which consisted of the amount of land that could support 100 households (a hide could support a one household). The Ealdorman was lord of these hundred families- and led their 100 fighters to battle. (Other divisions such as shires, counties, and parishes were also being developed at the same time- and they didn’t always have the same boundaries- it got confusing.) In the 11th century Eoldormen started being known as Earls (like the Danish Jarls), and the hird (household troops) started to include paid (mercenary) warriors called housecarls, as well as thanes.
The warriors who served a king were called thanes– which means servants of the King (but implies fighting service). Any great lord maintained a band of fighters around him; they were part of his household, he fed them and their households, and maintaining them with gifts. These men had a personal loyalty to their lord. His closest companions gisith were called the hearth troop or hearthweru. Eoldormen as well as kings kept such a band, (even an occasional wealthy Thane might have his own thanes). The King’s was differentiated as The King’s Thanes, the hird.
Beyond the hird, there was the standing army of full time fighters called the Select Fyrd, which consisted of trained and equipped warriors. In the 6th century, a war band could include up to 39 men, but it was illegal to raise 40 or more as it constituted an army. The average war band would have been 10 to 20. (This changed with time of course, by the 11th century an Earl would have a hearthweru of 300. The king had around 3000.)
This is the shield wall of the Colchester Historical Enactment Society.
The Great Fyrd consisted of all able-bodied free men. These were the Ceorls (further divided into the geneatas, the kotstla, and the geburs). Non-free men were called theows– which is generally translated as “slave” (but was a legal condition, not necessarily permanent- although a theow who earned his freedom would generally become a gebur– which was the lowest rank of free man. Gradually these distinctions blurred until, at the time of the Norman conquest, the invaders did not recognize the difference between the various Saxon distinctions. But only free men (Ceorls) had the right and duty to fight in the fyrd.
The Select Fyrd provided a constant trained and mobile force. While fighting was done on foot, each thane had a horse, which they used to get to the fight (wherever the Scots or Vikings were landing). In the 11th century the Select Fyrd consisted of about three thousand thanes, split between London and Yorkshire. Besides the members of the kings household, and foreign fighters paid by the king, some were provided by the towns.
A thane would have held at least five hides (although he might not own them, they might be a gift on loan from the king); it was the excess he got from this land that allowed him to pay for arms, armor and horses; but all freemen were expected contribute to the Select Fyrd as well. The ceorls of a town as could provide a promising local with arms, armor and horse to fulfill their obligation to the standing army, alternately, they could pay 20 shillings to hire someone instead. A thane was expected to serve in the Select Fyrd one month in three.
The men of the Great Fyrd were only required to protect their home area, and have whatever weapons they could provide for themselves. They were not asked to fight more than a half day’s march from their homes, nor stay in the field for more than 15 days (without pay). In the 9th century, during the Viking crisis, Alfred divided the Great Fyrd in two so that half could go home and tend to business while the other stayed in the field supporting the standing army. These men were not trained warriors, and probably were armed with little but spears or slings, bows, or clubs as well as a basic mass of spears. However, even without horses, the survivors of Stamford bridge made the 17 day march to Hastings, and kept up with the horsemen. The ceorls of England were strong and stouthearted.
In later periods, when the navy became more important, there was a special tax or shipsokes where each 300 hide district had to provide 60 marines (fighting seaman) called a lithsman, and some ports (the Cinquports) had to provide ships.
The spear was the weapon of the Anglo-Saxon fighting man. Many pictures show them carrying three spears- two in their shield hand (which are presumed to be throwing spears), while the thrusting spear was for closer combat. The spearhead was usually leaf-shaped, and held to the shaft by rivets through and open socket, and secured with leather lashing. Occasionally there were barbed argons which were thrust into an enemy’s shield where they stuck, and the argon could drag the shield down. Spear shafts varied from 5 to 9 feet long, spearheads from about 7 to 12 inches. Some were pattern welded.
The Seax is the signature weapon of the Saxons, just about everyone had one. They ranged from as small as 3 inch blades for finishing a downed opponent, to the two handed longseax (30 inches). The average was about 6 inches and was used for close work for those (the vast majority) that had no sword. A seax was single edged, and it was straight side, not the one that angled to the point, that was sharpened. There was little if any guard or pommel. The sheath was generally folded leather- riveted together on the cutting side of the blade.
The sword was a prestige weapon. It appears in less than 10% of men’s graves, although this may be because swords were passed on from father to son, or king to retainer and back. Only thanes and ealdormen would have swords. In 958 C.E. a pattern welded sword was equal in value to 15 male slaves. Pattern welding added strength and flexibility to the blade. Some blades were imported and hilts and scabbards were put on in England.
The sword might be worn on belt or baldric- usually on the left. In the early periods they were much like Roman spatha, averaging about 30 inches long, with little cross guard on the hilt. In the 8th century the swords developed a wide groove down the center which made them stronger and lighter (averaging about a pound and a half), and the hilt lengthened and turned down. Pommels were typically shaped like brazil nuts or tea cozies.
Some swords had small rings attached to the pommel. Early guesses were that they were heathen “oath rings”. However as some swords show the place where such rings had been, but had been removed, and king’s swords never had them, they probably represented some honor awarded the bearer. There were also occasionally white stones attached to sword hilts- these are presumed to magickally heal the cuts made by their sword.
Scabbards were made of thin wood, lined with fleece and covered with leather- with metal fittings. The cross guards, hilts, pommels and scabbards were often highly decorated- nielio, or set with jewels or precious metals.
In the rare absence of a seax, a dagger would be worn. During the time of Cnut (and when other Northmen were hired) some huscarls used two handed battle axes. Occasional Frankish throwing axes (francescas) are found. Finally, the Bayeux Tapestry shows some of the Great Fyrd using war clubs.
Helms, like swords, were rare (although they were probably more common among the select fyrd). Helmet styles varied with time. The migration period was the time of the Vendals in Scandinavia and that style helm has been found in England- along with other trade goods.
The Bentey Grange Helm (on the cover) is the only specifically Anglo-Saxon helm to have been discovered in England. It consisted of an iron framework to which plates of horn would have been riveted. Most fighters would have had no more than the (possibly leather) Phrygian caps seen in manuscripts.
Manuscripts pose a problem for reenactors. There were many artistic conventions which may have been widely drawn- yet not reflected what was being worn. Most of the manuscripts depicted historical and biblical scenes, and these conventions were used to adapt the armor the artists may (or may not) have seen on their contemporaries. Scale mail and crested helmets (pg. 5 and right) were attempts to convey ancient armor styles. There is some question about whether the “Phrygian cap” so commonly seen in the manuscripts (as a symbol of a free man), was actually worn. They are shown both soft and stiff- which could indicate a both soft wool or felt caps and hardened leather cap that would provide some head protection, or it may just be how they were drawn. This is why we love when archeologist’s actually find original pieces.
The characteristics of the early Scandinavian helmets (which were apparently imported to England) were the wala or ridge along the top, going down to the nasal, which was often expanded into an eye framing face plate. Curtains of mail below the edge of the helm to protect the neck, or plates to do the same, and many had decorative stamped plates with mythological themes held on by thin metal bands.
Most fighters had no body armor. The thanes and other trained fighting men had mail, but this was only the Select Fyrd. Most men fought in what they wore every day, a leather jacket might provide some protection.
A mail shirt was incredibly expensive and could take months to make- first drawing out the wire, forming rings, knitting them together and riveting or hammer welding. Some mail (like the Sutton Hoo byrnie) alternated rows riveted with not, which would make it somewhat stronger, and still take less time to produce. Written descriptions describe that they needed to be repaired mail after every battle, suggesting that some may have been butted link. Manuscripts show them as short as shirts, and dagged at the bottom (although these may represent fur vests). Scale has not been found yet. (The image on page 5, for example, is supposed to be an ancient Greek- which might explain the helm crest.)
Shields were round up to the Norman invasion, ranging from a foot to 30 inches across. There was a hole in the center covered by a convex iron boss (sometimes rounded, usually pointed), covering the handgrip. There may have been a strap for the arm, but illustrations in manuscripts show them being used to punch and otherwise held out from the body, so if there was such a strap, it was not universally used.
The bosses varied in level of decoration and shape over the years, but were most often pointed- thus providing another weapon. Depending upon construction, the boss could continued to be used to block even if the wood had all been cut off. These shields were not intended to stop a sword or axe blow, but to deflect a spear thrust- thus requiring more agility and less mass.
The shields were made of wood, usually linden, and covered with one or two layers of cowhide (using sheepskin was prohibited by law). They were sometimes painted red, and the edges could be metal bound, (although generally not with iron). There were sometimes decorative metal panels riveted on as well.
Most of the shields would have been flat- but a few seem to have been made by layering very thin strips together crosswise (like plywood), and not only would this have made them stronger, it would allow them to have been curved outward.
Shields were often described as being splintered during the battle (perhaps this is why a thane was expected to have two for each helm, and mail shirt). The Saxons in the Scildburh on the Bayeux Tapestry are shown with the long shields of the Normans. If this is not an artistic mistake, it could be easily explained by their having picked up other shields when their own were broken.
Distance weapons consisted of bows and slings. The bows were like long bows, but are pictured drawn to the chest not the ear. Arrows had 4 fletching and leaf shaped heads- like small spearheads. These are mentioned as weapons against which they needed to defend, but rarely mentioned as being used by Saxons (except in Beowulf). They may have been used by the levy.
Horses were ridden to battles, but fighting was on foot. The horses were probably kept close, because the Kings would use them to go from group to group before a battle, before dismounting to fight with his own thanes; and after a battle the horses were used to pursue the enemies when they retreated (and presumably to carry loot back home). Kings and other leaders also may have used their horses to quickly get from one area of a large battle to another- or to be more visible. Spurs have been found in Yorvik (York), so they were used. Every thane was expected to have a horse (possibly two).
Cloaks are thought to have been taken off during battle for ease of movement. Perhaps they were left with the horses. The basic garments would have been linen shirts, with wool tunics over them- the edges often ornamented with tablet weaving (as were the cloaks). The textile remains on the continent show variegation and plaids, but the English seem to have preferred solid colors. Legs were covered with trews- which were loose or tight depending upon the period, and they wore winingas or leg wraps on the lower legs (sometimes garters), with low shoes. Anglo-Saxon men wore very little jewelry. It was generally restricted to cloak clasps, buckles on belts (baldrics, purses, garters, etc.; belts were usually narrow); these might be highly decorated, but almost no jewelry as such was worn.
Fighting was a very personal commitment for the Anglo-Saxons. In the Great Fyrd, the levies from each area fought as separate groups, and each band of housecarls or personal band fought around its lord. Kings and ealdormen led their hearthweru personally. The Fyrd was known to have refused to fight if the king wouldn’t lead them. A leader was called ordfuma which means point leader. If their lord fell, it was considered dishonorable to leave the battlefield alive (if not in victory). If captured, thanes could expect to be ransomed (or killed), whereas ceorls would be taken alive (to be sold off as slaves). It was also considered dishonorable to claim to be a ceorl to save your life.
The most common tactic of the Saxon army was the shield wall or scildburh: the warriors stood close enough that their shields covered all, protecting them from most arrows and thrown spears. IF possible they would form up on high ground to place the shield burg, but obviously the leaders could shift their men during battle if conditions changed. At Hastings, the Earls Gyrth and Leofwyn had their own hearthwaru, but their bodies were found near their brother, King Harold’s, so as the exceptionally long battle went on, the chances are good that they combined their groups when they got smaller.
Did women ever join in the fighting? Certainly it was not common. But recent archeology has changed it’s automatic view that weapons denote male graves, and jewelry female. There have been found women’s graves with weapons, and there are a few stories of women who, if they did not excel at the personal martial arts, were able leaders of armies.
We need to drop the image of the warriors in heavy armor with swords, and begin to appreciate the skill that kept men wearing nothing but tunics, and with only a spear and maybe a light shield alive- by standing shoulder to shoulder with their neighbors, and using these light weapons with deadly speed.
aka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor 2008
feel free to contact me with comments, questions and corrections Tchipakkan@tds.net
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