Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Weapons and Armour

Before I get too far into this series on the Battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on The Traveller’s Path, I thought I should give you all a bit of an understanding of how, exactly, the Anglo-Saxons conducted their wars, and what weapons they would have used. Of course, like with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is not a lot of information about all this, and so historians differ on how exactly warfare was conducted in this era, and by whom. So, as always, keep that in mind as you read!

There was no such thing as a standing army in Anglo-Saxon England. Each king would have his war-band, made up of loyal followers and nobles, along with a regular supply of landowners who looked to the king as their personal lord. It is likely these would serve in the king’s war-band on a rotational basis, for no one could afford to be gone for long stretches of time from their crops and holdings. The main work of everyone in the Early Middle Ages, kings and commoners alike, was providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. So even military service would have to take second place to that. While they took their turn serving the king in this way, it is likely they would do some military training if there were no raids or skirmishes during that time.

Aside from the king’s war-band, a similar arrangement would be the case for every wealthy nobleman. They would all have a war-band, which could be called into service when needed. All of these smaller groups of fighting men could be called to fight for the king if a larger group of fighting men were needed to defend the kingdom. However, communication was difficult, and so it was not exactly easy to coordinate this type of defence, as the lightning-fast Viking raids showed.

These groups of fighting men were called the fyrd. They would consist of a few trained soldiers, supplemented by men from the surrounding area who could be called on for defence of their lands or for fighting in the king’s battles.  They would be expected to provide their own weapons and armour (and possibly food), and they didn’t have a choice in whether they participated or not. If they refused military service, they could be fined, with differing fines for the differing class levels.

The fighting seemed to be mainly on foot; historians disagree whether or not mounted warriors were part of the fyrd. There is mention in one of the accounts of a battle of mounted warriors going to the battle on horseback, but then dismounting and leading their horses away from the battle area. But that’s just one account, so it’s hard to say it was the normal practice. The terrain of that battle might not have been optimal for horses, for example.

It is also unclear exactly what role archers might play. Certainly the bow and arrow were common in hunting, so it’s very likely it was a weapon used in warfare as well. At the very least, archers were part of the initial stage of the fighting as the two combating forces lined up, each behind a shield wall. Arrows and other missiles (aces, javelins, rocks) would be thrown to inflict as much damage as possible before the hand-to-hand combat began.

Surviving helmets from the Anglo-Saxon era are very rare; in fact, only a handful exist. These are all high-status objects which may have only been ceremonial in nature, not actually used during in battle. It’s highly doubtful that the average warrior would have worn an iron helmet, although some might have worn headgear made of boiled leather.

Likewise, mail body-armour is not likely to have been common in this time. There is some mention of it in a couple of literary texts such as Beowulf, and only a couple examples from this era survive, including one found at Sutton Hoo.

The main weapons of the fighting man were the sword, spear, axe, and knife (saex); and for defence they would use the shield. Here’s a little information about all of these:

Sword – the double-edged long sword was a luxury item. Only the wealthiest and highest class man would have one of these weapons. These swords were objects of beauty as well as practical weapons. They were around 90 cm long, or longer,  and often had gold, silver and jewels on the hilts and scabbards. The blades were made using an elaborate “pattern-welding” technique, which consisted of the metalsmith folding alternate layers of molten steel over and over, resulting in a distinct pattern on the blade.  Different types of metal could be used, with iron in the middle to provide flexibility and springiness, with steel edges. These swords were highly desired objects; passed along in wills, valued trophies of war,  and prized possessions of whomever was lucky enough to have one.

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A beautiful gold and garnet hilt and pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, with a replica of how it might look on an actual sword. Add a scabbard with similar bling, and you can see why these weapons were so prized. Image from the Birmingham Museum. 

Spears/Javelins – the spear was by far the most common weapon of the fighting man. They outnumber swords found as grave goods by more than 20:1. Owning a spear and a shield was a sign of free status. The spear tips were iron, and varied in size and form. The long poles were made of ash. Mainly the spear was used to keep the enemy at a distance, enabling the bearer to be out of range of a man with a sword. Of course they were also used as a throwing weapon (javelin), and even as a grappling weapon if the spear had hooks in the tip.

Axes – another common weapon, for axes were common in everyday life, for use at the holdings for chopping wood or other tasks. Axes could be used single-handed or double-handed, and could also be thrown.

Knife – the Saxon saexes was a single-edged dagger, with blades up to around 80 cm. The word saex means knife, and it is also the word that the name “Saxon” derives from, hinting at its popularity. These weapons varied considerably in size and shape.

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The remains of a saex, with a reconstructed replica. The tang in the blade was a typical feature of this weapon. Image from Wikipedia

Shields – round, and made of wood, with a hand hold in the middle and an iron boss on the other to protect the hand. These could be elaborately decorated, depending on the wealth and status of the warrior.

The Anglo-Saxons would fight using the “shield-wall” formation – a line of men, protected by their shields in front, and, when necessary,  on top, to protect them from flying missiles. The two lines would advance, and the first engagement would be precisely that, a volley of airborne missiles such as arrows, javelins, or even rocks. Eventually one side would close the gap, and they would fight shield to shield, seeking advantage. If one side did not prevail, they would retreat to rest and then try again. Eventually one side would break through, and the finale would be the rout and pursuit, where the vanquished would flee and the victors would pursue, cutting down men as they found them. Some of the losing side might make a stand, especially the kings or leaders, and their men were expected to fight with them to the death, if needs be. It was a shameful thing to leave the field of battle alive, if your lord had perished.

During the time when they were fighting shield to shield, the spears would help to keep the enemy at bay. But of course men would inevitably get injured or killed, leaving the wounded or dying man lying where he fell. This is where a brave man could leave the protection of the shield wall to grab the booty of the fallen man’s weapons, especially if a sword was in the offing. But of course this left the man exposed to death or injury himself, so those who attempted it would be lauded for their courage once the battle was over. Often those who threw the javelin would be the ones to grab the booty, as they had to run forward to get velocity for the throw, leaving the shield wall and exposing themselves, in turn, to injury or death. It was a high risk/high reward scenario, that’s for sure.

I don’t know how long the typical battle would last. I would guess that it wouldn’t be all that long, especially once the fighting started in earnest. Hand-to-hand combat, with the added weight of shield, spear, or sword, would get exhausting after too long.

But in this warrior society, it was a necessary part of life. To die in battle was far preferable than dying of disease or old age. And without the battles, what would there be to talk and sing about on the long winter nights in the mead hall?


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Society News: Ceorls

In every society you have the elites and the rest. The percentage of people belonging to those two classes will fluctuate, and those broad categories are almost always broken down into further sub-categories, but in general, that’s how human societies tend to organize themselves.

The Anglo-Saxons were no different. The elites were made up of the Kings, Earldomen, and to a lesser extent, the thegns and the clergy.  These were the powerful people, the ones with wealth and prestige. They owned the most land, and had the political power. The movers and shakers, as it were. It’s impossible to say exactly how many  there were at that time, but suffice to say that they were not the majority. The majority of the people were the lower classes, those who were called the ceorls. We would call these the peasants.

The word ceorl is where we get our English word churl from, but that word has connotations that give us a false picture of this class of people in 7th century England. The ceorls were freemen who owned or rented land, or were the tradesmen who were the silversmiths, weavers, carpenters, etc. They would work the land cooperatively with their neighbours, often sharing the burden of planting and harvest. Which would mean they would live in close proximately to each other in order to accommodate this division of labour, and as well as for protection.

Often there was a lord, such as a thegn, to whom the ceorls would give either rent and/or labour to in exchange for protection. The thegn would also call on these ceorls as a fighting force, or fyrd, when needed.

That is the broad strokes. Looking more closely at the ceorls, you will discover that this class was further broken down into three sub-classes, divided up by how much land the ceorl owned and therefore how wealthy they were.

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Typical clothing of the ceorls. Image from ThoughtCo.com

The highest class amongst the ceorls was the geneatas. These were the peasant aristocracy, who owned the most land, sometimes as much or more as a thegn. They might not have to work the thegn‘s land in exchange for his protection, but they would have to pay some kind of rent or payment for his services. This could be in the form of food or livestock, not just money. They also could be messengers for the thegn, or help build fences around his lord’s land, or even provide entertainment.

Below the geneatas were the kotsetla. They would provide labour on their lord’s land at least one day a week, and up to two or three days per week during harvest. The rest of the time they would work their own land. They could also do other work for the thegn, such as helping during the hunt or coast guarding duties. They could also be called up for  duty in the fyrd. 

The gerburas were the lowest class of ceorl. They owned the least amount of land, or none at all, and in order to survive had to depend on their lord for land they needed to produce the crops and livestock to feed themselves and their families.  In exchange they would work the lord’s land, at least two days a week, and  more during planting and harvest. They would not have much free time to improve their lot, and would have been the ones with the hardest lives in Anglo-Saxon England (excluding the slaves, whom I will write about in a future post).

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Definitely my favourite peasants ever…

It’s important to note that there was opportunity for movement between the classes. If one was born a gerbur, it didn’t mean you would necessarily be one for life, although, as I mentioned, the lower down you were the harder it was to move up.

But in Anglo-Saxons society, hard work and service to your lord, whether that be militarily or otherwise, could be rewarded with gifts of land or booty from the latest military campaign, so it was definitely possible for people to improve their lot in life–if not for them, at least for their children. A hard-working ceorl who fought valiantly at his lord’s side could find himself rewarded generously in land, bumping him up the social scale.

It was even possible for slaves to move up the social ladder,  but that is a tale for the next post in this series! Stay tuned…


Note: this post is part of a series on the class levels that made up Anglo-Saxon society in  7th century Anglo-Saxon England. For other posts in this series, check out the links below:

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust

Society News: The Church

Society News: Weregild


Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage


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Everything Means Something, or, How to Think Like a 7th Century Celtic Christian

I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it?  Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?

It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to my more modern-day mindset. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the worldview of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.

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A Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland. Photo from Wikicommons

At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three, and now maybe back into two), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?

The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.

So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?

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Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I  love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.

This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.

After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!

Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.

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Well, yes, Google is helpful! But I promise I also did research that involved actual books…

Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.

The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.

To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long. My mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.

But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.


Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge