Saturday, November 5, 2011

Weapons and Warfare in Saxon Times

by Richard Denning

Early Anglo Saxon Warrior

The Welsh were closer now, so that I could make out their features as they advanced. A rugged, scar-faced old veteran scowled at us in rage, whilst next to him a gangly-limbed youth of no more than fourteen years quivered and shook in fear as he tried to hold a shield that was too heavy for him. All men are just human in the end and their army had its fair share of anger, rage and fear − just the same as ours. Yet the simple truth was that they had more men than we did and they were all coming right at us.
We know a considerable amount about the arms used by the Anglo Saxons because firstly there is much mention of them in the sagas and chronicles such as The Battle of Maldon. Secondly weapons often survive well in archaeological finds being made, at least in part, of metal such as iron and steel. So then what weapons and armour were common at the time?
Hand to Hand Weapons
a) The Spear
Possession of a spear defined a freeman. A slave caught with one could expect a beating at the very least. Cheaper and simpler to make than a sword, they were therefore much more numerous. Commonly made of ash, hazel or oak with iron points and caps (ferules) these would be about 6 to 10 feet in length. A man using a spear would also hold a shield and typically fight in a shield wall with shields overlapping with his neighbours. As such a spear was used one handed.
Reconstructions of fighting techniques suggested by Richard Underwood in his book Anglo Saxon Weapons and Warfare suggest two primary methods of using a spear. You can use it over arm – held up high with the arm extended and the spear pointing downwards. Used this way you could try and attack over the enemy shield against head and neck. Or you could use it underarm with the spear braced along the forearm. This was more defensive and was good for parrying the enemy spear and pushing against his shield to keep him away but was not much use offensively.
b) The Sword
Just as possession of a spear defines a freeman, owning a sword suggests a man had wealth or nobility. This is because swords take much longer to make and are much more expensive. Most Saxons swords are pattern welded. This involved starting with two to five rods of steel or iron which are formed into bars, welded together, twisted and then hammered flat. This process created strength in the final weapon. Then an upper guard, grip and pommel were attached made of wood, metal or bone. A number of swords were found with runes and markings usually identifying an owner.
The balance of these weapons suggests that swords would be used to hack and chop at the foe rather than say a Roman gladius which was shorter and better used for stabbing and thrusting. Given the typical use with a shield this would be at the head, face and neck or right arm or the lower leg – all of which were not so well protected by the shield.  
c) The Seax
This was actually the weapon from which the Saxons derived their name. It was a short one edged blade – really a long knife about the size of a modern large kitchen knife. This was not designed as a primary combat weapon but it seemed likely that every man and most women would carry one as it is a useful tool.  There are images and mentions in sagas suggesting use in hunting such as dispatching a wounded animal. In battle it would be a last ditch weapon to be used in desperation.
d) The Axe
Long shafted and short shafted axes were tools used mainly for felling trees and working timber. Their use in battle was limited because of several draw backs. The shaft being made of wood was vulnerable to enemy swords. A man might seize the shaft and pull it out of an enemy’s hand in the way that you could not with a sword. Finally the cutting edge was much shorter than that of a sword which meant it could not cut as deep or as long. The head of an axe was however heavy and in the hands of a strong man would make a brutal weapon as evidenced by tales of a single Viking axeman at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 holding up an entire army as he stood on the narrow bridge.

An Anglo Saxon archer.
Continuing my discussion of arms  used in Anglo Saxon times I will now look  at missiles. 
a)Javelin. Although spears could be used as a missile weapon, their bulk and weight would make them of limited value and certainly very restricted range. Lighter and shorter, the javelin was much more adapted for this purpose. From the account of the Battle of Maldon in 991 it appears that an exchange of javelins was a prelude to the main melee. Javelins had a range of perhaps 50 feet.  Angons were a sub class of javelin with barbs on the head which would be difficult to pull out of a wound.  One drawback to the javelin is the problem that your enemy could pick it up and throw it back at you. The Romans got round this problem in the construction of their pilums so that the heads would bend and buckle and be no use (but could be repaired after a battle). There is some suggestion in the Grettir’s Saga that the Anglo Saxons tried experiments with loosening the screws that held the head to the shaft but this was not very successful.

 b) The Bow. Finding of bows in the graves of the period is rare. Does this suggest they were not widely used? Probably not. It is more likely that wood and sinews that were used in the construction of bows would not survive well in the soil of England into today. Sometimes grave goods including bows do survive well enough for us to see what type of bows were constructed. Furthermore the sagas record the use of bows and in particular the Bayeux tapestry shows no less than 29 images of archers suggesting bows were is use.  Most men would use bows in hunting and so the  use of the weapon would have been familiar. That said, a man encumbered with armour and shield does not make a good archer and so the bulk of an Anglo Saxon warband would not be bow armed for this practical reason.
The arrow heads that survive show a variety of shapes suggesting the Anglo Saxons attempted to make them for different purposes just as later 100 years wars archers did. Thus we can identify broad lead shaped arrow heads, narrow points good for armour piercing and barbed arrows. Bows at this time period would have  range of about 500 feet.
 c)The Francisca or throwing axe. The 6th century chronicler Gregory of Tours records the use of small, curved headed throwing axes by the Franks (after whom they are named, becoming in time the French). Very limited in range (about 40 feet), these weapons were used at close range to shatter shields and disrupt the shield wall before the final charge.
 d)Sling. There is very little evidence of the use of the sling in warfare although one image in the Bayeux tapestry does show a man hunting with a sling.  It is likely that men would carry a sling and stones for hunting and so it might on occasion be used in battle.
Richard Underwood’s book Anglo Saxon Weapons and Warfare is recommended for those wishing further detail on this subject.
In The Amber Treasure, I have tried to use all these weapons and as accurately as possible recreate the tactics of how they were used.

A huge, red-headed warrior with a battleaxe came screaming towards us, followed by four others, just ahead of their main shield wall. He leapt at our front rank and brought the great blade down upon a warrior from the village. The poor fellow was lucky to die at once, cut almost in two by the blow. This was the wedge tactic at work: the enemy were trying to cut their way into our shield wall, to make a breach and pour through the gap.
A moment later, the armies collided as spears splintered against shields. The force of the blow knocked some men right off their feet and the enemy fell upon these warriors and hewed at them.

Eduard lunged forward with his spear and skewered a man through the neck. He roared in triumph as the victim crashed back through the ranks. My spear, however, smashed against a shield boss and to my alarm the spearhead snapped right off. Now, in the crush of bodies, I struggled to find my sword. Eventually my fingers folded around the hilt and I pulled it free of the baldric and brought it up high.

The world was now filled with the pleas of the dying, the screams of the living, the clatter of shields and the ring of blades as the two bodies of men pushed against each other. To me it seemed that any strategy had been abandoned. Victory and defeat depended simply on who would tire first and who would give way.


  1. Another super post, Richard. Have always wondered why all armies of the pre-gunpowder era didn't use archers more extensively. Being able engage an enemy from long range seems to have so many tactical advantages. You can disrupt their formations, hamper their maneuvers and winnow their numbers before the main forces came into contact. But, as you write, archers needed to be lightly armed and armored and wouldn't be much use in final hand-to-hand melee.

  2. Thank you for sharing your research of weaponry. I can see where this plays a part in your novel. It is chilling to consider that most of these weapons require the person to be fairly close to his enemy to score an injury or a kill.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Thanks for that.
    Tim - another issue with archery is that a man would have to train frequently to get good at it. IN later 100Years war times it was the law to practice EVERY sunday for every male in England. That was how England could devastate the French at Crecy and Agincourt. IN earlier times archery was seen as a means of hunting more than fighting.
    Sophia - yes it would have been a brutal, terrifying experience.

  4. The seax? Didn't know about that one. Thanks for a very interesting and visceral post!

  5. I might write Regency-era romances, but I am also a passionate student of history and have always found the methods and motivations of battle and war terrible but fascinating. I loved your article!

  6. Great post. Lots of interesting information in here.

  7. Thanks to Richard Denning, author of The Amber Treasure for sharing this wonderful brief oversight into the use of ancient weapons.

  8. Thanks for the interesting article - I also write novels set in Anglo-Saxon England and am often looking for detailed material on weaponry. Thanks for doing so much meticulous research!