The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Saxons and Vikings

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications


The Bayeux tapestry depicts an English housecarl (left), wielding a Dane axe with two hands

The Saxon king had an elite corps of thegns or huscarls who made up his personal “Hearth Troop.” These thegns were well-equipped professional warriors, a trained elite whose position in society depended upon their being “the King’s men.” Clearly, they couldn’t be everywhere at once, and local defence fell to the Saxon Eorls, who had their own thegns, and could summon the fyrd in emergencies.

The fyrd was made up largely of local ceorls, high-ranking peasants. These would have modest training and good equipment. Contemporary documents state that a fyrdsman should be equipped with spear, sword, shield, helm, byrnie (armour) and a riding horse. Their loyalty would be to their region, their land.

Understanding the hide and fyrd system is key to understanding the Saxon military. Every five hides was required to supply one man for the fyrd, and to maintain the pay and equipment of that man, 20 shillings for a 5-hide unit. For a 60-day period of service, this equated to around 3-4 pence per day – comparable to the pay of a knight post-Conquest. The fyrd was well-equipped, not a rag-bag collection of farmers with agricultural weapons for armour. The fyrdsman is best considered as a soldier who farmed when not with the fyrd.

A hide would typically represent land that could support one family, so five hides would be the equivalent of a small community. They would normally select their representative to be the best soldier from the community.

Thus the format of a Saxon force would be a core of thegns and huscarls, supported by the fyrd. The evidence is that the tactical unit of the fyrd was the shire – emphasising its regional nature. The lesser tactical unit of the shire was the hundred (an area of one hundred “hides”, representing 20 men). Each hundred would be led by its “hundred eolder”.

It depended on two things for its cohesion. I’m afraid over the course of these articles you will hear a lot about cohesion. That’s because it is important. For now, we just need to know that cohesion is what holds an army together.

The huscarls are paid by the king, serve the king, and are loyal to the king. That is their force of cohesion. When the king is present, their morale will be high. When the king falls, less so.

By contrast, the force of cohesion of the fyrd is to the region. While the fyrd is within the region it is drawn from, it has high cohesion. The hundreds of the fyrd are from the same area, and each hundred will be made up of people who know each other well, giving the force very high cohesion.

This is an inevitable consequence of the society the forces are drawn from.

This military structure has consequences for how it is used. The fyrd is not useful in invading other countries. That resulted in Saxon England generally engaging in punitive raids – mainly into Wales or Scotland – rather than invasions. These punitive raids generally consisted of huscarls, and naturally the Saxons developed techniques to maximise effectiveness of these raids. First and foremost among these was the forced march, enabling the punitive raid to reach deep into enemy territory quickly.

The fyrd is called up for defence. This gives substantial bulk to any defence, but providing such defence across different regions is hard.

One can go into much greater detail, and discuss how burghs and the great fyrd fit into everything, but if I were to do that, we’d be here all day. And that’s just for one example. For now, we can leave it as the rather abbreviated description I’ve given here.

Having discussed the Saxons, it’s logical to turn next to the great foes of the Saxon period, the Vikings.


Viking, replica of the Gokstad Viking ship, at the Chicago World Fair

As with the Saxons, the core of the army was the Hearth, the men of the lord who had sworn loyalty to him. These would be professional fighters seeking the best rewards.

In addition, the lord could call on his estates to provide forces. Again, this is similar in structure to the Saxons. Where it differed derived from the nature of the geography of Scandinavia. The land was divided into units (Hafna), each assessed at one mark of gold, and each Hafna was required to supply, man, and equip one ship. Each ship would consist of 40-60 men, loyal to the captain and owner of that ship. Equipment is revealing: the figures varied slightly in different countries and at different times, typically, each member was required to have a spear, a helmet, and a shield. Each ship was required to have one mail shirt and 3 or 4 bows.

The first thing to note is that this is less well-equipped than the Saxon fyrd. Everyone in the fyrd was required to have armour; only around one in 50 Vikings were so required. Everyone in the fyrd was also required to have a riding horse which, to be fair, is impractical in a longship.

The second thing to note is that with armour so rare, and with three times as many bows as armour, then combat against a resisting foe is going to result in carnage. Which leads to the conclusion that under normal circumstances, one of two things will apply. Either more armour will be worn, or the people will avoid combat against a resisting foe.

The answer is both. When going to war, mail shirts were worn in much greater numbers than official figures suggest. When going on a raid (the word viking specifically means raider or pirate: fara i viking literally translates as to go on a raid), armour would typically be eschewed. There is no need for it against those not fighting back, it was unnecessary weight in a ship, thus reducing the amount of loot that could be carried, and if a viking went into the sea while wearing armour, he would almost certainly drown.

Initially, Viking raids against England (and Scotland and Ireland) were precisely that: raids. They were undertaken on a small scale, local groups led by local leaders, and they focused on vulnerable, exposed targets such as coastal monasteries. The characteristic tactic adopted was to moor ships very close to the intended target, round up valuables and slaves, and sail or row off before any effective defence could be mounted.

As time went by, these raids became larger, with more and more ships being involved. They attacked targets further and further inland.

The famous Viking shallow-draught longships were a key element. Not because they were useful in a sea-battle, but because they were extremely fast and light. This enabled not only quick coastal strikes, but also allowing them to travel up rivers and strike inland. The ship was light enough that porterage – the ability of the crew to get out and carry the ship across land – for short distances was possible.

Occasionally great warbands were formed, with several kings or earls jointly leading the enterprise, implying a lack of formal structure, but a more ad hoc arrangement of several separate warbands. At the Battle of Ashdown (871), where King Alfred defeated the Danish army, one of the Danish wings was led by two kings while the other was led by “many jarls”.

The structure of the society, with each hafna supplying a complete ship, leads to the cohesive force of the military being the ship. The bonds within the ship are strong, and are much weaker between the various ships. While theoretically, ships called to serve the king in a larger enterprise should remain loyal, this wasn’t always the case. In 1012, Swein and Cnut launched a major attack against England. Forty-five ships left the Great Fleet and made a bargain with Ethelred to “keep the country against its enemies” in return for food and pay. Later, another forty ships left Swein and Cnut and joined with Ethelred.

The social structure is one based on coastal villages and individual enterprises, with loyalty to central authority very much a secondary consideration. The military structure that results from this is suited to raids. Major collaborations need a very strong leader-figure, and the collaboration falls apart should he die.

Saxon v Viking

A fifteenth-century depiction of vikings ravaging the countryside as it appears on folio 48r of British Library Harley 2278.

I mentioned earlier that the Vikings and Saxons had a long history of conflict. From the late 8th Century with the first Viking raids (the famous raid on Lindisfarne monastery was in 793) until the decimation of the Norse forces at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), for nearly 300 years Viking attacks were endemic.

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine. From the fury of the Norsemen, oh Lord deliver us. A common enough prayer during the period. How effective Divine Intervention was remains unclear, but the Saxons took steps to provide for their own defence. Naturally, the Vikings took measures to overcome these, and the Saxons took measures to overcome these ...

That’s the nature of things. Those stories you read where tactics and technology remain unchanging through decades and centuries of conflict, they’re just stories bearing no relation to actual history. People respond to the situation they face as best they can. We’ll come across this theme again many times in this series of articles.

Against raids, the Saxons built burghs, walled defences around towns and habitations. These weren’t intended to protect against a major assault or a siege, but to force a delay on any raiders. The raiders relied on speed against targets that weren’t able to resist, and the burghs brought time for local defenders to be gathered, who would typically be better armed and armoured.

In turn, the Vikings tended to come in larger numbers, in order to overwhelm these defences swiftly, or strike further inland where the burghs weren’t. In turn, the Saxons added the requirement that members of the fyrd were to have a riding horse, to enable them to travel more quickly. And in response to this ...

This is how things develop. Move is followed by counter-move. It’s a mistake made by many fictions that cover a long period to have technologies and techniques that are unchanging, despite changes in circumstances.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.