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.
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.
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?