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The Anglo-Saxons at War, 800–1066

The Anglo-Saxons at War, 800–1066

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The Anglo-Saxons at War, 800–1066

391 pagine
6 ore
Jul 19, 2012


The historian and archeologist presents a vivid and comprehensive account of warfare in early Medieval England.

In this compelling new study, Paull Hill reveals what documentary records and the growing body of archaeological evidence can tell us about war and combat in the age of the great Anglo-Saxon kings. The violent centuries before the Norman Conquest come to life in this detailed account of how and why the Anglo-Saxons fought, how their warriors were armed and trained, how their armies were organized, and much more.

The role of combat in Anglo-Saxon society is explored, from the parts played by the king and the noblemen to the means by which the men of the fyrd were summoned to fight in times of danger. Land and naval warfare are both explored in depth. Hill also covers the politics and diplomacy of warfare, the conduct of negotiations, the taking of hostages, the use of treachery, and the controversial subject of the use of cavalry.

The weapons and armor of the Anglo-Saxons are described, including the spears, scramsaxes, axes, bows, swords, helmets, shields and mail that were employed in the close-quarter fighting of the day. Drawing on this wealth of information, Hill presents a vivid recreation of the actual experience of fighting in the campaigns against the Danes; the battles of Ashdown, Maldon and Stamford Bridge; and the sieges at Reading and Rochester.
Jul 19, 2012

Informazioni sull'autore

Paul Hill has built an award-winning record as a leader in the placement industry through his work as president of ADV Advanced Technical Services Inc. (ADV), an international search and placement company. He is recognized as a new breed of Internet job search expert by his loyal followers, dedicated to guiding and educating professionals to be proactive about career management by adopting professional Internet-branding best practices through his work as chief instructor and principal of TransitionToHired, a division of ADV. Follow Hill on Twitter @GetHiredFastTrk. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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The Anglo-Saxons at War, 800–1066 - Paul Hill



This book represents an opportunity to explore some of the theories concerning the ways in which the leaders of England and their armies in later Anglo-Saxon times fought their battles and waged war in general. It has also provided me with an opportunity to bring together material gathered over the years during the course of my own enquiries. The period covered in this book ranges from the rise of the House of Wessex in the decades preceding the arrival of the Danish Great Heathen Army in 865 to the traditional finishing point of 1066. There is, of course, room for discussion on either side of these chosen dates given that nothing–not even the Norman Conquest–can change everything overnight.

Between the eighth and eleventh centuries warfare changed considerably in England as a response to external and internal threats. In particular, there was a great shift in the organisational capabilities of the king during the ninth century, resulting in grand strategic fortification schemes and a very well-organised naval force, which by the middle of the tenth century was allegedly patrolling the whole island of Britain in squadrons. Set against these remarkable advancements and achievements in defence provision must be placed the old traditional mechanism by which a man arrived at the battlefield. The lordship bond, ancient and rooted in the cultures of the Germanic Migration period, the giving and receiving of arms and the fostering of young warriors by high-ranking men–all these things meant that the people who fought the titanic battle against the Normans at Hastings in 1066 had come to the battlefield through a series of obligations which would not have been unrecognisable to their ancestors of five-hundred years past.

It must also be borne in mind that by the time of the second Viking invasions of the 990s much of what had been achieved in terms of military organisation and structure during the years of the reigns of Alfred the Great (871–900), Edward the Elder (900–24), Athelstan (924–39), Edmund I (939–6) and Edred (946–56) had experienced the complications of urban and social development. The reign of King Edgar (959–79) was a period often regarded as a Golden Age in Anglo-Saxon history. Edgar was given the name ‘the peaceable’ not because he was a pacifist, but because the armies and navies of Anglo-Saxon England were so well organised that potential foreign enemies chose to look elsewhere for spoils. The resulting peace in England during the tenth century, however, led to a rise in the independence of regional leaders. Through the influence of political factions competing against each other the Kingdom of the English became a victim of its own extraordinary success. Peace bred instability. By the time of the reign of Æthelred II (979–1016) the grand schemes of previous rulers such as the fortifications, the standing armies and the patrolling navies had changed in their nature. England’s defences were left in the hands of brave, but sometimes unpredictable regional leaders. The period between c. 990 and 1066 was in some ways quite different than what had gone before.

There are some myths to explode and other reputations both good and bad to uphold. The question of how the Anglo-Saxons used their horses throughout this period is an argument that has raged for centuries. The mere existence of a true ‘cavalry’ in pre-Conquest England is still hotly debated. This subject forms a key part of the book. The ways in which leaders fought wars of psychology and bound their agreements with hostages are also examined closely.

Each section of the book covers an individual topic in detail. The subsections can be read independently or the whole work from start to finish. I have approached each topic in a broadly chronological way where the evidence allows for such an approach. For example, where there is enough material to examine the way certain things changed over time, this is brought out in these sections. The complex and sometimes unfathomable matter of army recruitment is such a case. Similarly, changes in the use of weapons and armour are dealt with by the same chronological approach. Where it is not possible to draw such a broad picture from the limited evidence, I have concentrated on what the available material can tell us.

I have tried to set out every method of warfare, every tactic employed, every weapon used and link it to the direct literary, archaeological and pictorial evidence throughout the period. The battles, sieges and campaigns I have chosen have been selected for a reason. Each individual case highlights something either typical or unique about Anglo-Saxon warfare, or serves as a good example of one or more of the mechanisms of warfare outlined in Chapters 1 to 4 of the book. Each example brings to light the Old English approach to such concepts as strategic awareness, naval capabilities, set-piece battles, long-term campaigns in the landscape, wars of attrition and the seldom-approached subject of Anglo-Saxon siege warfare.

The weapons and armour of the Anglo-Saxon world have fascinated me for years. I have set out as much as I can find on each subject area. However, with a book that covers such a wide variety of research over a long chronological period I can in most cases only refer the reader to the labours of many scholars. I urge readers to turn to the bibliography as often as they can. It is upon these sources and interpretations that a great deal of this present volume is inevitably based.

Throughout the book nothing is discussed without some recourse to the evidence in whichever form it takes. Readers will forgive me then, where the evidence is scant, if I very occasionally, after many years of looking into the subject of Anglo-Saxon warfare, make a few guesses to which I feel entitled.


But he shoved with his shield–so that the shaft burst,

And the spear broke, and it sprang away.

Wroth was the chieftain, he pierced with his spear

That proud Viking who gave him that wound.

Yet prudent was the chieftain; he aimed his shaft to go

Through the man’s neck–his hand guided it

So that he reached his sudden enemy’s life.

Then he a second swiftly sent

That the breastplate burst–in the heart was he wounded

Through the ring-harness–and at his heart stood

The poisoned point; the earl was the blither:-

Laughed then that high-heart–made thanks to God

For his day’s work–that his Saviour granted him.

This vivid description belongs to the famous poem The Battle of Maldon, an engagement that took place near the Blackwater Estuary in Essex in 991. Because it contains one of the few portrayals of an Anglo-Saxon army in battle, the poem is referred to many times in this book. But what does it tell us about what it was like to be involved in warfare during the Anglo-Saxon period? The answers are nearly all there provided we know what we are dealing with. It is often assumed that the surviving literary evidence for warfare is of limited value due to its colourful and formulaic language. But to argue this is akin to staring the evidence in the face and ignoring it. Things were spoken or written for a reason. All we have to do is understand the reasons for the works being written in the first place, and their references to weapons and warfare can be taken in context and conclusions can be drawn from them. But of course, it is not always easy to reach this understanding.

Some scholars have sought to look at warfare from the participant’s point of view, most notably John Keegan in his The Face of Battle. This is a useful exercise that gets the reader closer to the true horrors of war, but for periods of history where the literary evidence is not so direct or at best enigmatic, the approach becomes harder. The poem The Battle of Maldon, quoted from above, is a literary device before it is anything else. It was written in a certain style for a certain political purpose. It does, however, mention things that simply must have been true, however dramatic they may appear. The pushing and shoving of a shield wall line was a reality. The snapping and breaking of a spear shaft as a warrior pressed his shield against it was also a reality. So too was the bloody end to a life brought about by a brutal thrust of a weapon into the body’s unprotected parts, the result of a struggle fought at close quarters with a deadly result.

The brutality of Anglo-Saxon warfare has been evidenced by recent archaeology. One can only imagine the scene on the ridgeway in Weymouth on the southern coast of England, played out sometime in the late tenth or early eleventh century (Plate 19). The discovery by archaeologists of fifty-one decapitated Scandinavian male bodies in a huge pit in 2009 shows such brutality in an unambiguous way. Clearly beheaded while still alive, these young men had also been stripped naked and when they were placed in the pit, their heads were neatly stacked to one side. Archaeologists have established their Scandinavian origins through isotope analysis of the males’ teeth, concluding a wide-ranging yet truly Scandinavian origin for each of the men. One of them is thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle. Radiocarbon dates established that this horrific event took place sometime between the years 910 and 1034. Here in a dark pit on the south coast of England is evidence that the Anglo-Saxons were perfectly capable of unequivocal demonstrations of their own power at a time when historians have often put them on the back foot. Were these victims hostages whose leader had defaulted on an agreement with the Anglo-Saxon king or ealdorman? Had they just been one ship’s company of marauding Vikings who had come ashore in Wessex at a time when it was strongly defended? It is too early to say. We may never know the answer. Whoever they were, they met their death at a weapon’s edge in the most dramatic of ways.

Throughout this book there are countless references to the reality of warfare in the Anglo-Saxon period. This is not to say that these grim examples are included at the expense of sensible objective discussion. They are there to provide us with a realistic idea of why things happened the way they did. It is hoped that by the end of this volume the reader will be closer to understanding the answer to the crucial question, what was it really like fighting a war in Anglo-Saxon England?

Introduction–A Survey of the Evidence

We should of course, only draw conclusions from evidence. But the evidence is not always what it appears to be. Let us take, for example, the literary material. There are many works relied upon by modern historians that are at best only near contemporary to the events they are describing. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (for the most part) is but one. It is relied upon heavily in this volume, so it is necessary to explain its nature. It has its own complex history and comprises many manuscripts.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle forms an admirable basic narrative for events in this period, notwithstanding a curious reluctance to expand upon some significant events in the early part of the tenth century, a period of great importance to the military investigators of Anglo-Saxon England. We should bear in mind that generally we get a rather Anglo-centric view of British history from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, despite the fact that its scribes clearly drew upon a number of sources. That the chronicle began on the order of Alfred the Great (871–99) should not be forgotten. History shows that his dynasty would rise from the ashes of Viking devastation to a position of ultimate power in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle represents the earliest attempt in any society in Western Europe to construct a version of events in the vernacular tongue. Without it we would struggle for scraps of information from dubious sources for a huge period of the early history of Britain.

There are some sequences of entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that look like they were compiled at the time of the events taking place, but most are the interpretation of other sources. This is particularly true for the scribe who shows an almost paranoid interest in the progress of the huge Danish army that left England to campaign in France in the 880s. Clearly, he follows a Continental source for this material. For the period with which we are concerned, there is some confusion over dates and many simple entries were placed in the chronicle where we might have expected something more detailed. Manuscript A, the Winchester, or Parker Chronicle, is the oldest of the manuscripts and in the tenth century a number of scribes pick up the entries to 924 with another writing simple entries from the reign of Athelstan (924–39) to Æthelred II (979–1016). Despite the paucity of information for the period, the Parker Chronicle does at least have the famous poems celebrating the English victory at the Battle of Brunanburh (937) and King Edmund’s recapture of the five Danish boroughs (942), along with fine poetry in praise of King Edgar (975).

The two Abingdon manuscripts (B and C) largely use West Saxon sources, although C has an insertion between the years 915–34 known as the Mercian Register which deals with the exploits of the famous Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled the middle kingdom with an extraordinary energy. These brief annals cover the period 902 to 924 and sometimes repeat things mentioned in the main body of the text. The D manuscript (Worcester) is interesting for the characteristics it shares with northern sources. Worcester and York were closely associated ecclesiastical centres in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, being held by the same man (Wulfstan) between 972 and 1016. The long-running Peterborough manuscript (E), which goes up to the twelfth century, has basic material for the period covered in this book and may be an early twelfth-century copy based on a Canterbury original, which replaced one that was lost in the fire at Peterborough in 1116. There is no Mercian Register or poem for the Battle of Brunanburh in this version. Manuscript H is merely a fragment with a twelfth-century entry, but the bilingual epitome of Canterbury (manuscript F) is interesting for the Latin text that accompanies the Old English.

The long history of the surviving manuscript attributed to Alfred’s biographer Asser is worthy of a book in its own right. Suffice it to say that the text has authentic sounding elements to it. The place names of Alfred’s England are given their Welsh names, as we might expect from a cleric from St David’s. But Asser sometimes struggles with his dates and the names of people to whom he must have been close, thus allowing room for historians to question the authenticity of the surviving version of the work. There are, however, some valuable descriptions of Alfred’s army in action at Ashdown (871) and Edington (878) which supplement material from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The chronicler Æthelweard, who wrote at the end of the tenth century about the wars of the previous era, seems to have followed a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Æthelweard’s chronicle has a similar history to the work of Asser in that it comes down to us as a result of good fortune more than anything else. However, despite his tortured Latin syntax and difficult descriptions of battles, he remains a crucial provider of evidence for warfare. His accounts of the wars at the end of Alfred’s reign in the 890s, which involved the young Prince Edward (Alfred’s son and future king from 900–24), are the only detailed accounts for these military encounters. It is important to understand that Æthelweard was apparently at the heart of the political scene at the dawn of the second Viking age when he was putting quill to parchment, and in this respect must rank as one of the most important contributors of the era.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle formed the basis for the work of many more historians who added material of their own. William of Malmesbury, Simeon of Durham, Henry of Huntingdon and John of Worcester provide histories of the kings and events of the era. These were men of the twelfth century, an era of pan-European literary renaissance. William of Malmesbury gives us a detailed account of the reign of King Athelstan (924–39) and provides some revealing information about that king’s use of horses, use of allies and wide-ranging campaigns. Simeon of Durham adds important details gleaned from Northern sources about campaigns and historical traditions in Northumbria, while Henry of Huntington admonishes the English for being ripe for conquest and belittles their ability to use cavalry on the battlefield.

We must also rely upon material that was written in a certain style, such as sagas or poems. With careful interpretation these can be useful. Poetry was the language of political justification in the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds. So, despite the obvious bias in works of great praise and despite the struggle of some poets to find the right words to fit the meter of their art form, these works do at least mention people and places, battles and military formations that help to colour the picture. The poems of The Battle of Brunanburh (937) and that of the The Battle of Maldon (991) are good examples.

There are numerous references made in this book to the epic poem Beowulf which frequently mentions military weapons and equipment as well as providing an image as to how the Anglo-Saxons saw the ideal warrior role model. Similarly, evidence is drawn from poems such as Maxims and from the Exeter Book anthology, for example The Wanderer and The Ruin, all of which help to expand on the picture.

Not all the written material is of English origin, however. Old Norse sagas such as Egil’s Saga and Olaf’s Saga are invaluable, despite being written centuries later. If they do nothing else, they capture the spirit of the time. Likewise, Irish writings are extremely useful in helping us reconcile the dates and activities of Vikings in Ireland who were also active in Britain at around the same time. There is also the written material provided by Norman scribes such as William of Poitiers, whose account of the Battle of Hastings campaign is not only near contemporary and written by a man close to the Conqueror himself, but comes from the quill of someone who knew a great deal about tactical evolutions, strategies and close-quarter fighting both in antiquity and in his own day.

There is also the invaluable Burghal Hidage, the heritage of which is discussed below (pp. 89–92). This document gives an insight into the structure and organisation of a defensive strategy for Alfred the Great’s entire kingdom. Similarly, the wills, or more specifically heriots, of great noblemen of the period that describe the war gear due to be returned to a lord on the death of its custodian provide further written evidence of military equipment not mentioned elsewhere in such numerical detail (see pp. 48–51).

To all of this material, we must add the evidence obtained from archaeology, which can both challenge and support the evidence from the literary sources. Archaeology provides crucial evidence in respect of Anglo-Saxon warfare. We have already noted above the recent dramatic discovery of headless Scandinavians at Weymouth, and there has been a similarly dramatic discovery in Staffordshire of Early Anglo-Saxon gold treasures comprising a helmet cheek piece, gold crosses and sword accoutrements galore. This remarkable find is at the centre of a struggle for custodianship at the time of writing, and historians and archaeologists are developing theories as to what it all actually means. This deposit of riches may represent a collection of war booty taken during the great campaigns at the end of the Dark Ages in England between the warring Saxon kingdoms (a period just outside the scope of this book). Archaeology, then, constantly replenishes the evidential record. For example, in 1982 at the bottom of a well in York an Anglian helmet complete with mail aventail (protective curtain around the neck) and splendid decoration was unearthed (Plate 14). It provided archaeologists with a mine of information about techniques of manufacture so far unknown (see p. 178). Again, in 1997 a magnificent iron helmet from a grave in Northamptonshire was retrieved (now known as the Pioneer Helmet, named after the site’s corporate owners) with boar crest and a surviving cheek piece.

The other evidence that is drawn upon in this book is that of the pictorial depiction. This can be in the form of a relief sculpture, an artist’s illustration on a manuscript text, a tapestry (of which the Bayeux ‘embroidery’ is the most famous example) or a number of other depictions in ivory, on bone, leather or anywhere where there is a visual representation of a warrior or battle scene or other military subject. These visual images are the source of much debate. Caution is the watchword. If we are to take things at face value, then the Norman cavalry that attacked King Harold’s army at Hastings in 1066 comprised horses of varying shades of unlikely colours. Yet, there is much within this spectacularly important piece of visual work that makes perfect pictorial sense so long as it is treated with respectful interpretation.

When it comes to visual representations of things like armoured warriors wielding their weapons, of various ways a warrior could wear his armour, the position of strapping and such like, the question we have to ask ourselves is ‘what was the artist trying to get across to the viewer in this representation?’ We might also consider whether the artist was trying to be accurate or just plain lazy. We will find that the visual evidence left behind by our illustrators is capable of giving significant information.

So, with all this available evidence in whatever form it takes, are we in a position to understand why it was that the Anglo-Saxons went to war in the first place? What was it that compelled an Anglo-Saxon freeman to take to the campaign trail?

Chapter 1

Warfare, Violence and Society

Why Go to War?

Imagine you are a thegn living on a modest estate somewhere in the south of England. It is the middle of the tenth century and there is trouble everywhere. Your lord lives within riding distance and one morning you receive a visit from his messenger. You are told to get ready for war. What is it that would compel you to go?

According to modern anthropological research there were a number of reasons for conflict and aggression in the Anglo-Saxon era. In a widely cited paper that concentrates on this subject in respect of the earlier Anglo-Saxon period (600–850), Guy Halsall has elucidated motives such as personal grievances, insults and justifiable revenge as reasons for aggression during this earlier period. All of these motives are evidenced in the Anglo-Saxons’ texts themselves. It is argued that in the pre-Viking period in England there is a heavy ritualistic taint to the aggression between kingdoms.

One of the mechanisms that drove all this stayed with the Anglo-Saxons right up to 1066. There was a compelling need in Germanic communities for young men to prove themselves as warriors. It was a vital part of their coming of age. Warfare played a central role in the making of a warrior leader and the subsequent impression he made on his followers. The accrual of riches and gifts with which he could attract a larger retinue and spread the power of his kin group was driven by his prowess on and around the battlefield. Old English literature is packed with references to warfare as a way of life in this respect. For example, there is evidence in the Maxims and in The Battle of Brunanburh poems to show the symbolic value of gift giving and ring giving, of the protection of warriors and of daring weapon play in battle. Maxims, for example, has the following passage:

A wound must be wound, a hard man avenged. A bow must have an arrow, and both together must have a man to accompany them. Treasure rewards another; a man must give gold. God may give riches to owners and take them away afterwards. A hall must stand, and grow old.

The Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the role of the king as ring-giver:

Here, King Athelstan, leader of warriors,

ring-giver of men, and also his brother,

the ætheling Edmund, struck life-long glory

in strife round Brunanburh, clove the shield-wall,

hacked the war-lime, with hammers’ leavings . . .

The notions of the giving and receiving of gifts, of vengeance for the death of one’s lord and of the desire to win glory in battle are never far from the surface in Anglo-Saxon literature. It was an ideal, as we shall see, that had practical benefits if a lord was to surround himself with the right men for the job. It is argued that the lordship ties that bound a man to his lord were just as important to an Anglo-Saxon at the time of Hastings (1066) as they were before the dawn of the Viking invasions of the ninth century. It is accepted that by this time there was a sense of archaism to all this–a reference perhaps to an age long gone, but in any ideal there is always some form of reality.

The need to prove oneself, to find a lord to serve was a driving force behind the martial activities of young men, but the Scandinavian invasions of the ninth century made the need for men to protect their estates that much more urgent. So, what became the chief reasons for warfare in the subsequent centuries leading up to the Norman Conquest? Where exactly was the threat? The picture is obscured by the question of interpretation. One man’s boundary dispute is another man’s defence of the realm, so to speak. If we take just the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a bench mark, some broad conclusions can be drawn. Wars in the Viking period (that is, after 865) in England were fought by the Anglo-Saxons as part of a ruler’s protection or expansion of his kingdom or other patrimony. The leader had to fight such actions or risk losing the men he had attracted to his household. It was a cyclic thing that meant that warfare was virtually endemic on a number of levels, the key to it being the need for a king to attract and reward men to his calling and then for him to have to expand his wealth to accrue more gifts and riches with which to reward them. For

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