The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

Personal Equipment and Fighting Techniques Among the Anglo-Saxon Population in Northern Europe During the Early Middle Ages.

by Paolo de Vingo

University of Torino, Italy

Abstract: The Anglo-Saxon military equipment included a sword or axe, a lance and a buckler, whereas most men would wear a dagger hanging from their belt. Despite the poor amount of evidence available, most Anglo-Saxon warriors seemed to wear helmets.


Unlike the other Germanic populations settled on the continent, the Anglo-Saxons split themselves into several kingdoms, each one with its own army. On a few occasions they allied together against the Celtic northern and western populations (Contamine 1986, 80). Gradually the kingdoms were unified. In the late seventh century, King Offa (757-796) of Mercia took the title of rex totius Anglorum patriae and had direct or indirect control over the largest part of England. Afterwards supremacy was held by the Wessex region, led by King Egbert (802-839). At the end of his reign he dominated not only southern England, but also Mercia, East-Anglia and Northumbria (Keynes 1995, 18-19). This leadership was also held under the reign of his nephew Alfred the Great (871-899), despite the Scandinavian invasion that obliged him to sign a treaty in 886; as a result, he had to leave the whole area stretching north-west of a line running from the mouth of the Thames to the mouth of the Dee (Contamine 1986, 81). His successors, Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelsan (924-939), not only maintained the political cohesion of the English people, but they also freed them from the Danish rule. Even the consequent events, namely the episode of Canut the Great and the return of the Anglo-Saxon sovereigns with Edward the Confessor, did not break cohesion, which was reflected in the union of the King's troops.

Under the early reign of Offa, people (folc) were subject to three major obligations: trinoda necessitas, scilicet expeditionem, burhbotam and brugbotam. In other words, depending on the land owned by each person, they would be called either to serve the army or to work for the construction and maintenance of city walls and bridges (Nicolle 1999, 67-68).


Arms and armour [1]

The evidence derives from two types of sources, which are unevenly distributed chronologically and raise contrasting problems of interpretation (Brooks 1999, 45-46). In fact, any study relies on two main sources of information: literary records and archaeology.

The studies carried out in the latest decades in what is generally called "burial archaeology" show that funerary rites practised in late antiquity were substantially the same between pagan and Christian contexts (Underwood 1999, 13). All of them, in fact, are based on common beliefs about death and post-mortem, which are not directly associated to pagan religion and are therefore consistent with the Christian faith. The main of such beliefs claims that the dead body keeps its moral and physical sensitivity, namely it can suffer. Any abuse of the corpse is a source of pain for the dead, who can rest in peace only if properly buried and undisturbed (Picard 1989, 7-8.). Evidence for the habit of burying the dead wearing their own clothes is provided by the examination of archaeological data. Such evidence is unevenly distributed, for it is the result of thorough surveys capable of identifying the traces of perishable materials such as fabrics, and not only the most evident finds, such as clothing fittings and weapons, which are very frequent among grave goods. This burial practice is particularly common among the Anglo-Saxons and is not bound to religious or ethnical qualifications (Picard 1989, 10-11). Of course, this practice reduced the value of heritages, since their owners were deprived of precious and expensive weapons, but it came from the Germanic tradition. According to the latter, the dead, living also after their death, would keep indefeasible rights over a part of inheritance (especially mobile objects) both in their second life and for their burial. Male grave goods would include their whole fighting equipment. Thus, two different beliefs produced the same effect: one said that the dead soul would reach its resting place along with a copy of every funerary offer, whereas the other claimed that the dead had a new life in their grave, surrounded by the items they had used in their life (Contamine 1986, 247-248).

The written sources range in date from the eighth to the eleventh century. The British epic material includes the poem Beowulf and more fragmentary stories about Finn and Waldhere and the Elegy of Deor. Preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a group of later Anglo-Saxon poems of historical content: the Battle of Brunanburgh and the Battle of Maldon (Laing 2000, 100-101). The written sources are very important because they provide significant evidence about fighting techniques. Caution is necessary, however, because their chronology is unreliable and moreover the author's imagination may have produced a written text that does not perfectly match reality. Finally, law-codes and wills provide some brief and factual evidence for tenth and eleventh century military equipment of nobles. Artistic representation of armed warriors are occasionally found in sculpture, more commonly in manuscript illustrations (especially of biblical or Psalter scenes) and most notably in the detailed embroidered representation of the Battle of Hastings in the Bayeux Tapestry [2].

Defensive or protective equipment

War is made not only by men, but also by offensive and defensive equipment. In both quality and quantity, such equipment is the expression of a number of factors, including the technical standard of its manufacturers, the warfare practices of people using it, the actions and reactions of individuals, communities and authorities. In many resspects, the history of warfare leads back to the history of its techniques (Contamine 1986, 247). The spread of weapons is not only related to political and economic conditions, but also to fighting techniques (sometimes neglected). The predominance of swords and axes among the Anglo-Saxons was associated with hand-to-hand combat, for a war consisted of a number of parallel and simultaneous duels, whereas later, when warriors started fighting by groups, the seax would become the leading weapon (Contamine 1986, 251-252).


The Helmet

Recent discoveries show that the late Roman forms of the helmet construction and design remained in use for several centuries after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, particularly in the British Isles and Scandinavia (Nicolle 1999, 85). Only four helmets from the Anglo-Saxon period survive: from the Sutton ship burial, from Coppergate in York, from a rich barrow burial at Benty Grange (Pollington 1996, p. 141-146), and a recently discovered site in Northamptonshire (Brooks 1999, 46). Some of the helmets shown in the Bayeux Tapestry are similar to the helmet from Benty Grange, made of metal segments fitted on the skull and secured by a ring along the lower edge (Tomei 1994, 115). The Sutton-Hoo domed helmet is similar to the late-Roman examples, but it also has an ogival visor in the lower part leaving both orbital archs free. This gear was made of steel and bronze and had a low crest; it was originally covered with a large number of bronze plates, first forged with representations and decorations and later tinned. Such a visor helmet is strictly related to the examples from Vendel and Valsgärde, Sweden, which show different finishing however. In fact, in some of them, the one-piece visor is replaced by the nasal and by two shaped cheek-guards. The latter are placed very much forward and are joined on the chin, without covering the eyes and the area around the mouth, whereas the sloping brim is replaced by a ring of splints hanging from the reinforcement ring at the back of the neck (Boccia 1991, 463-464).


The Byrnie or Mail

The mail shirt, originally made of iron or steel plates or scales sewn on a leather jerkin or padded undergarment, was in use in northern Europe at least since the third century BCE, as proven by some finds from Thorsbjerg and Hjortspring, Denmark. The mail of iron or steel rings sewn on the jerkin or woven into a metallic fabric later spread throughout the continent (Tomei 1994, 113). It was a very fine item, implying a significant degree of skill. Above all, it was necessary to manufacture a very hard iron, with a low carbon content. The ingot would be worked into small bars, which were drawn into thinner pieces, until an iron wire of proper size was obtained. The wire was then wound around a spindle and cut along the generatrix of the latter in order to obtain open links that would be interwoven. The piece was made using a special shaped and hollowed ingot, so that the link was blocked, its ends hammered, overlapped and flattened. Finally, a small, harder steel pin was inserted into the ends of the link and riveted. Each ring was interwoven into the others, making a line. Line by line, the final item was a protection where every line of links had its own direction (to either the right or the left, alternate to either the above or below lines), and each link blocked four other rings into decussate pattern. The work could also be simplified through a line of open rings and a line of closed rings, which were crossed and joined by the first ones (Boccia 1991, 460).

Mail body-armour is even rarer in pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries than are helmets (Pollington 1996, 137-140). Examples have been found at Sutton Hoo and at Benty Grange (Brooks 1999, 46). The mail shirt is first mentioned in Anglo-Saxon laws at the end of the seventh century (Wise 1986, 15). The "byrnie" or shirt of mail, though part of the gear of Beowul's noble companions, plays no role in the account of heroic English defence in the Battle of Maldon and is listed in heriots only from the early eleventh century (Brooks 1999, 46). A manuscript of the eleventh century still shows waist length mail shirts with vandyked lower edges and short sleeves, but a manuscript of fifty years later shows a king's shirt as longer and split at front and rear, presumably to make riding a horse easier (Wise 1986, 16.).

The rings of the mail found at Sutton Hoo, even if badly corroded, present important details that must be examined. The rings are 8 mm in diameter and some were closed with copper rivets, indicating that the mail was probably made of alternate rows of riveted and forged or welded rings. The long shirt with short sleeves consists of about 20,000 riveted iron rings (Underwood 1999, 91). Mail fragments found on the Benty Grange helmet were possibly only the neckguard, and have not survived.

Seventy-nine of the two hundred and one warriors shown in the Bayeux Tapestry wear metal armours covering their head, trunk and legs. Moreover, such armours seem to show the existence of different kinds of mail, consisting of rings, plates and lozenges, but maybe it is just the result of stylised and simplified representations [3]. The mail typology also shows some controversial aspects. Some warriors, in fact, wear armours that, in their lower part, seem to be shaped like real trousers covered with iron rings. Of course, such a shape would make riding particularly difficult. Most likely, it is just a conventional reproduction made by authors who probably did not know every manufacturing detail of a mail. Some armour is also shown laid on horizontal rods, carried on the back by two slaves in the scene describing the transport of war equipment toward the vessels. According to such remarks, it is likely that mail shirt was shaped as a long tunic, with deep splits at front and rear in order to ease movements during both hand-to-hand combat and horse fighting. However, most likely there were also armours looking like trousers, as is shown in an illumination dating back to the early eleventh century and housed in the British Library (Tomei 1994, 113-114).

The Shield

The shield was the real symbol of the warrior, the exemplification of his social status and role (Pollington 1996, 128-137). He received it the first time he was accepted among warriors; therefore, abandoning it was considered as a deeply offensive and disgraceful act. If the warrior died while fighting, he was carried away lying on his shield. During assemblies warriors would approve resolutions by hitting the boss (umbo), namely the metallic part of their shields (Contamine 1986, 250-251). This object, of either round or elliptical shape, was the commonest item of defensive equipment throughout the early Middle Ages. The Bayeux Tapestry shows some round and convex shields in use at Hastings, but the vast majority of the English shields depicted are long and kite-shaped, like those of the Normans (Brooks 1999, 46).

The Anglo-Saxon shield consisted of wooden strips, sometimes covered with one or more layers of leather and decorated with fittings of iron or bronze (Underwood 1999, 77); the diameter ranged from 30 to 76 centimetres, whereas according to the rivets found the thickness varied from 12 to 30 millimetres (Underwood 1999, 78-89). A hole in the centre provided room for hand to clasp an iron grip across the inner face of the hole, and this hole was protected by a metal boss about 15 centimetres wide, usually hammered out of a single piece of iron, though occasionally a flat sheet of metal was merely bent to form a cone. The boss was secured to the wood by four or five rivets with heads up to 50 millimetres wide (Wise 1986, 11).
The reconstruction of the fragments from the Sutton-Hoo shields produced a diameter measuring 91.5 cm.long. This shield, made of lime-wood and covered with leather, was decorated with ornamental metal pieces, including a stylised dragon and a finely worked iron umbo which can be compared to a similar pattern excavated in a Swedish grave-slip (Sandler 2000, 43).

Offensive and combat weapons

The Spear

The spear is the most common weapon found in male burials in pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and it was used both as missile and as thrusting weapon for hand-to hand combat (Pollington 1996, 116-125; Brooks 1999, 46; Underwood 1999, 23). The shaft was made of wood, whereas the iron head was quite short, leaf-shaped and very sharp on both sides. There is a great diversity in the size and shape of spearheads. They have been categorised into four main groups, each with several sub-types (Underwood 1999, 39-43.). Sometimes the lower end of the shaft was capped with an iron ferrule, which usually had the form of a hollow cone that occasionally was decorated with metal inlay to match the spearhead (Underwood 1999, 43-44). At the Battle of Maldon in 991, the eoldorman Byrhtnoth led his men into battle armed with spear and shield, and it was only after he had killed two men with his spear, and had been wounded twice, that he drew his sword to engage a third man (Wise 1986, 10).

The Javelin

An angon was a variety of spear, with a thin, sharp point and light enough to be also thrown. The conical lower ferrule of the head is characterised by a pair of barbs; the shaft, usually made of ash or cypress wood, was fitted into the point ferrule. The angon was a shafted weapon about 2 metres long, designed for sticking or throwing. The point would be either bay leaf-shaped, with both the neck and ferrule very long, or forced into a flattened and ribbed myrthe leaf, or still it was shaped into a triangular or rhomboidal lanceolate leaf. Angon were used for both close combat and horse fighting in a quite similar way: they would be gripped like a javelin, with the arm bent upward or held downward. According to the position, the blow would take a different direction: in the first case, it would be driven downward, in the second case it would penetrate the enemy body upward. The manuscripts telling the Life and Miracles of St.Edmund, dated to 1125-1135, shows representations of mounted soldiers riding full gallop and holding such shafted weapons under their shoulders (Boccia 1991, 492).

Though important as a throwing weapon in hunting and in battle, the primary function of the spear was to keep the enemy at a distance, beyond the reach of sword blows (Brooks 1999, 46). The Byzantine scholar Agathias recorded their use by Frankish warriors at the battle of Casilinum in 554 describing how it was used during fighting:

"..... Angons are spears that are neither very short nor very long, but suitable for throwing, should it be necessary, as well as for engagement at close quarters. The greater part of it is covered all over with iron - and the same with the ferrule - so that very little of the shaft can be seen. At the tip round the head of the spear are curved barbs reaching downwards from the blade itself on both sides like curved hooks. Suppose a Frank throws his angon in an engagement. If the spear strikes a man anywhere the point will penetrate, and neither the wounded man nor anyone else can easily pull it out because the barbs which pierce the flesh hold it in and cause terrible pain, so that even if the enemy is not fatally hit, he still dies as a result. And if it sticks in the shield, it fixes in it at once and is carried around with it, the butt dragging on the ground. The man who has been hit cannot cut it off with his sword because of the iron which covers the shaft. When the Frank sees this he quickly treads on it with his foot, stepping on the ferrule and forcing the shield downwards so that the man's hand is loosened and his head and breast bared. Then, taking him unprotected, he kills him easily either cleaving his head with an axe or piercing his throat with another spear...."[4].

The Throwing Axe or Francisca

Light throwing axes, traditionally identified as franciscae [5], the distinctive weapon of the Franks, are found in several pagan Anglo-Saxon burials (Pollington 1996, 126-128; Brooks 1999, 46-47). Two main forms can be distinguished: one with a convex upper surface and another type had an "S" shaped upper surface (Underwood 1999, 35-37). The Roman author Procopius, writing in the sixth century, recorded that the Franks " the agreed signal and since the first charge, threw all together their axes against the enemies....."( Contamine 1986, 248). Even if employed in hand-to-hand combat, it is to be considered as a throwing weapon that could also be used with success by the Anglo-Saxon people. Some trials showed that, whirling a 1.2 kilogram francisca on itself (the shaft 40 centimetres long, the axe 18 centimetres long), a warrior could hit his enemy being four metres away (single rotation), 8 metres away (double rotation) and 12 metres away (triple rotation). Its weight varied depending on the iron part, which would range from 300 to about 900 grams (Contamine 1986, 248-249). The Roman author Procopius, writing in the sixth century, describes the Franks and their use of the throwing axes:

"........Each man carried a sword and shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men......" (Underwood 1999, 35).


The Axe

The axe was a standard woodman's tool, readily adaptable for warfare, both in its single-handed (chopping) and its double-handed (treefelling) forms (Brooks 1999, 46). For this reason it is not easy to distinguish between axes used as weapons and those used in everyday life (Laing 2000, 128-129). Axes do not seem to have been used very often by the Anglo-Saxons even if a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry shows an axeman (Underwood 1999, 74).

The Sling

It is quite unlikely that the sling was included in the basic fighting equipment of a warrior; however, it is possible that it was used. In fact, simple slings appear on the Bayeux Tapestry [6] and in manuscripts (Underwood 1999, 37-38). The sling was a leather band or strap with an open pocket in the middle for the projectile, and it hurled with considerable force either fired clay balls or stones, which were carried in a wallet (Wise 1986, 14).

The Sword

The sword, employed for hand-to-hand combat, remained the most prestigious weapon throughout the early medieval period (Pollington 1996, 102-107; Nicolle 1999, 80). Swords are rarely found in graves, for their value was considered so great that they were handed down from father to son (Wise 1986, 12): they were not only useful, but also had social connotations (Laing 2000, 121).

An Anglo-Saxon sword had a broad two-edged iron blade typically between 86 and 94 centimetres long and 4.5 and 5.5 centimetres wide (Underwood 1999, 47). The blade was manufactured along with the tang which, covered with guards of wood, or very rarely of bone, formed the grip. Therefore, the hilt and lower part of the blade were on the same axis, making the sword perfectly suited to hit both with the point and by downward blow. The hand was protected by a short hilt, either straight or slightly curved into the grip; the pommel was disk-shaped or lobed.

A large number of English illuminations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries show several types of swords; among these, the famous Morgan Leaf, dated back to 1160-1180, represents the Histories of David and shows swords with hilts curving into the blade and mail shirts (Tomei 1994, 116). The sheath, that matched the shape of the blade, consisted of two assembled pieces of wood. On the lower piece was a head-cap made of iron, bronze, gold and silver in the most decorated examples. The pieces used for hanging the sheath from the belt were of different types (Underwood 1999, 59-60). The blade of two-edged swords was large under the grip and gradually narrowed towards the head; moreover, it was characterised by a large, not deep groove for running blood.

The grave goods from Sutton-Hoo also included a sword. It was found in its own wooden scabbard and since then it has not been possible to split the two items; however, radiographic exams proved that the blade had been finely shaped from hammered iron bars, then interwoven following an ornamental pattern. Both the sword and scabbard are decorated with gilded fittings and inlays of cloisonnés, such as the "cocked hat pommel" on the hilt. The Sutton-Hoo sword has a gilded guard, and two bosses on the scabbard show a petal-shaped motif including a thin cross with equally sized limbs (Sandler 2000, 43).

The Seax

Seax (known by Gregory of Tours [7] as the scramasax) is the Anglo-Saxon word used to indicate a single edged knife, with a slightly curved blade on a flattened tang covered with a coating of bone, wood or leather strips and secured by means of iron or bonze pins (Underwood 1999, 68). The evidence has produced just one type of seax (Pollington 1996, 146-147), whose only difference is in the blade size: the latter would range from 8 to 31 centimetres (headseax), although in some examples the length goes from 54 to 76 centimetres (langseax). Maybe the smallest examples were used basically for housework. Some seaxes have elaborately decorated and inscribed blades, suggesting cerimonial use (Brooks 1999, 47).

Seaxes are classified according to the shape of the blade and six main types have been identified. The most widespread style, with both the back and the cutting edge curving to the point, remained in use from the fifth century at least until the end of the pagan period (Underwood 1999, 68-69). Seaxes were usually carried in a leather or hide sheath, with or without decorations and hanging from the left side of the belt, next to the sword (the latter, however, was hanged by means of secondary suspending straps). It is unlikely that long seaxes could be suspended in this manner. In fact, given their length it is more likely they were kept in a scabbard similar to that of a sword (Underwood 1999, 70-71).

Its use in fighting is not unlikely: maybe it was employed to settle private quarrels that warriors often decided to solve by means of weapons. Quarrels and arguments could also turn into bloody fights; therefore, once law codes were established, it became essential to create other kinds of agreements, where individual revenge was replaced by the interest of the whole community. The culture of Germanic populations, in fact, expressly recognised the right to private vengeance, which would solve the wrong or insult suffered [8]. The technical-morphological analyses of seaxes having an average length of 30 to 50 centimetres, associated to the shape of the tang and the overall weight of the weapon, do not allow a conventional use of the axes, namely with the grip directed toward the potential enemy. On the basis of such remarks, it is likely to think that, when used in hand-to-hand fighting, a special technique was followed for joining the battle. The latter consisted in approaching the enemy holding the blade under the right forearm, in a defensive position, but with the purpose of hitting the enemy with the point from the bottom upwards, following a semicircular movement.

The Bow

Probably no aspect of European military technology so obviously reflected these differing influences, both internal and external, as did archery (Nicolle 1999, 79). The bow is a throwing weapon, more precisely a device for firing projectiles. It consists of a flexible, long structure whose ends are joined and stretched by string acting like a spring. The power needed for the draw is obtained by increasing the distance between the handle and the string, through tensile stress of the two elastic staves. Such stress causes a differentiated effort to the staves themselves. The outer surface, called "back", is facing at the target when shooting the arrow and when it is under stress, the fibres of the material composing the bow tend to stretch. The inner surface, called "belly", is subject to compression and its fibres heap on one another. Once the spring is loosed, original conditions are immediately restored and the whole energy is discharged on the arrow previously positioned on the string.

The Anglo-Saxons used a plain bow, made of a single material, in contrast to Asiatic "composite" bows [9]. The latter were obtained by several types of wood, including laburnum, cornel, hazel, elder, ash, elm and maple. However, among woods supplied by the forests in northern and central Europe, yew was definitely the best, because it combined all the essential qualities needed for a high performance item. The other woods were used as an option, depending on local availability, construction techniques and possible functionality of the weapon (Cenni 1997, 56-63). The main type of bow used by Anglo-Saxon warriors was the longbow (Pollington 1996, 151-152), which was typical of Germanic populations [10]. The bow stave of a longbow is carefully chosen so that the back of the bow is of sapwood and the belly is of heartwood (Underwood 1999, 28). The average length of the Anglo-Saxon bows is around 140-160 centimetres and it was suggested by a bow and arrows found at Chessel Down on the Isle of Wight (Underwood 1999, 26-27). Arrowheads were also found at Chessel Down, some with hazelwood shafts (Laing 2000, 131). An archer's brace is known from Lowbury Hill, Berks (Laing 2000, 131).

Arrows were made of poplar-wood, birch and willow; they had iron points of different shape, size and weight depending on the type and distance of the target. Fired stow balls were added to central-piercing arrowheads in order to set fire to besieged villages. The points were engaged onto the shaft by means of the tang and secured by fastening. A notch was cut on the tang of the shaft (which was 60-70 metres long) in order to secure the bow string, whereas some feathers on both sides helped firing the arrows in the exact direction. The arrows were carried, their heads downward, in quivers made of hide, ranging in length from 74 to 94 centimetres (Underwood 1999, 31). Two metal loops on the outer surface allowed warriors to hang the quiver by means of leather straps. Anglo-Saxon arrowheads can be divided into three main types. Leaf shaped arrowheads usually have a socket for attachment to the shaft. Triangular or square sectioned "bodkins" and barbed arrowheads generally have a simple tang that was either driven into the end of the shaft or bound. The size of arrowheads varies between 5.5 and 15.5 centimetres (Underwood 1999, 29).


The examination of every item of the Anglo-Saxon fighting equipment in the early Medieval period shows the existence of a European military culture, unrelated to a special ethnical group. Such culture was widespread among the Germanic populations, which had a shared war heritage and strictly related to the Roman culture. Despite this aspect, the results changed according to the territories. Immigration and the movement of whole populations into the heart of Europe not only resulted into a territorial occupation, at first of military nature, but also produced a comparison between areas of different culture and influence. Through overlapping populations, some single elements were passed on. Acculturation processes resulting from inter-ethnic relations may be identified and analysed. Of course, all finds from the burial ship of Sutton-Hoo are the best exemplification of any other considerations on this matter. According to this examination it seems that decoration and manufacturing techniques were definitely widespread on the European continent. A number of decorations had been probably executed in the same workshop by craftsmen belonging to the late-Roman cultural tradition, whereas the other items excavated in the grave are considered as the product of eastern Mediterranean workshops, probably arrived into eastern Anglia through the Meronvingian Gaul (Sandler 2000, 43-44).


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Copyright © Paolo de Vingo, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved.