Anglo-Saxon warfare

Anglo-Saxon warfare

The period of Anglo-Saxon warfare spans the 5th Century C.E. to the 11th in England. Its technology and tactics resemble those of other European cultural areas of the Early Middle Ages.

There are extant contemporary descriptions of some Anglo-Saxon battles. Of particular relevance are the poems recounting the battles of Brunanburh, fought in 937 C.E. and Maldon, fought in 991 C.E. In the literature, most of the references to weapons and fighting concern the use of javelins.

The typical battle-development involved both sides forming shield walls to protect against the launching of missiles, and standing slightly out of range of each other. Then, individual warriors would run forward from the ranks to gain velocity for their javelin throws. This made them vulnerable due to their being exposed, having left the protection of the shield wall, and there was a chance of being killed by a counter throw from the other side. The disciplined volley-throwing of javelins, followed by an immediate charge home as practiced by the Romans seems not to have been common, likely due to the non-professional, levied nature of armies of the time. This is epitomized in the following excerpt:

"So then did Aethelgar's child enbolden them all, Godric to battle. Often he sent forth spears, deadly shaft sped away onto the Vikings thus he on this people went out in front of battle, cutting down and smiting, until he too on the battlefield perished."
("Battle of Maldon". 320-4.)

If killed in the 'no man's land', someone from the other side might rush out to retrieve the valuable armour and weapons, such as extra javelins, sword, shield and so on from the corpse. The one best positioned to retrieve the body was often the thrower of the fatal javelin as he had run forward of his shield wall too in order to make his throw. Exposing himself like this, and even more so during his attempt to retrieve the slain's gear, was a great mark of bravery and could result in much valuable personal gain, not only in terms of his professional career as a retainer, but also in material wealth if the equipment were worth a lot.

Due to the very visible and exposed nature of these javelin-throwing duels, we have some detailed descriptions which have survived, such as the following passage. The first part describes thrown javelin duels, and the latter part describes fighting over the corpses' belongings.

"Advanced again to fierce battle, weapons raised up, shields to defense, and towards these warriors they stepped. Resolute they approached Earl to the lowest Yeoman: each of them intent on harm for the enemy. Sent then a sea-warrior a spear of southern make that wounded the warrior lord. He thrust then with his shield such that the spear shaft burst, and that spear-head shattered as it sprang in reply. Enraged became that warrior: with anger he stabbed that proud Viking who had given him that wound. Experienced was that warrior; he threw his spear forward through the warrior's neck, his hand guiding so that he this ravager's life would fatally pierce. Then he with another stab speedily pierced the ravager so that the chainmail coat broke: this man had a breast wound cut through the linked rings; through his heart stuck a deadly spear. The Earl was the better pleased: laughed then this great man of spirit, thanking the Creator for the day's work which the Lord had given him. And so then another warrior a spear from the other side flew out of hand, which deeply struck through the noble Aethelred's retainer. To him by his side stood a young man not fully grown, a youth on the battlefield, who valiantly pulled out of this warrior the bloody spear, Wulfstan's child, Wulfmaer the younger; and so with blinding speed came the shaft in reply. The spear penetrated, for that who on the Earth now lay among his people, the one who had sorely pierced. Went then armed a man to this Earl; he desirous of this warrior's belongings to take off with, booty and rings and an ornamental sword. Then Byrhtnoth drew his sword from its sheath broad and bright of blade, and then struck the man's coat of mail. But too soon he was prevented by a certain sea-scavenger, and then the Earl's arm was wounded. Fall then to the ground with his gold-hilted sword: his grip unable to hold the heavy sword, or wield the weapon."

("Battle of Maldon". 130-58.)

Sometimes individuals or groups fighting over bodies might come to sword blows between the two shield walls. At close quarters, swords and shields were preferred over thrusting spears. Ideally, however, enough damage would be done to the enemy through the launching of missiles, so that any shield-to-shield fighting would be a mopping-up operation rather than an exhausting and risky push back and forth at close quarters.

However, when there were fewer javelins handy to throw or to throw back at the enemy, and no side had yet turned and fled, the battle could come to close order combat with sword and shield. The shield was used as much for offense as the sword was, to unbalance and push the opponent down, making him vulnerable to being stabbed, kicked and cut, and to thereby open a breach in the shield wall exposing those of his mates on either side of him to unprotected death. Hacking through shields was often a sound tactic, so having a strong sword arm and a sturdy sword were of great benefit for the fight. At the initial rushing together of the ranks, jumping forward into the enemy with the shield held in front was a preferred tactic, as was leaping up, resting a foot on the opponent's shield boss, and striking or stabbing the enemy's unprotected back with one's sword.

Understanding how battles were fought also helps us to understand why excelling in certain sports was considered the mark of a valuable retainer or war leader. Sports like running, jumping, throwing spears, and unbalancing people (i.e. wrestling) were all critical skills for combat. Heroes like the legendary Beowulf are described as champions in such athletic events.

Primary Sources

*Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
*The Battle of Maldon
*The Battle of Brunanburh
*Finnsburh fragment


*Hawkes (ed.), "Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England" (1989).
*Stephen Pollington, "The English warrior from earliest times to 1066". Norfolk, England : Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996. 267 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. ISBN
*Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R., "The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature", Oxford: Clarendon (1962).
*Richard Underwood, "Anglo-Saxon weapons and warfare". Stroud, England : Tempus, 1999. 159 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 26 cm. ISBN

ee also

*Viking Age arms and armour
*Gothic and Vandal warfare
*endemic warfare
*Battle of Hastings
*Anglo-Saxon Military

External links


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