General Overview of
Warfare In Anglo-Saxon England

Roop Mundi

copyright 2000

War and invasions plagued the time of the Anglo-Saxons, from roughly the 5th century AD up until the Viking Invasions of the 9th century. Anglo-Saxon armies were referred to as fyrds-which roughly translates to Modern English as " journey or expedition".

Despite the fact that Christianity brought with it the ideology of kinship not based on victory in the battlefield, wars and violence perpetually erupted until the Viking Invasion.

Little is known about the logistics and the minute details of these wars and their soldiers. For example, there is extensive debate on whether the fyrd was comprised of noblemen warriors who fought for the rights to land privileges, or if the s oldiers were simply all of the able bodied men of the peasant class. In 1962, C.W. Hollister suggested that there were two armies; a select army made of the nobles and a great army, comprised of peasants. This theory, along with many others, is not tot ally accepted due to lack of information and the knowledge that Anglo-Saxon armies were constantly changing, developing and re-organizing their structure. There is knowledge, however, that in the 9th century battling against the Vikings, King Alfred had an "elite force" of soldiers that was comprised of noblemen.

We do know, however, that the average size of these fyrds were relatively small to today’s standards. For example, an average infantry had roughly 100 soldiers and a small cavalry. In the 5th century, many Anglo-Saxons fyrds came ashore in a small fleet of only 2 to 3 ships. These ships each carried roughly 50-60 men. Despite these small numbers, these settlers were able to defeat inhabitants and set up their own small kingdoms that eventually flourished.

We also know that early on, these fyrds were made up of simple war bands. Each war band had a chief and he was usually determined by his previous victories in battle or his position in the community. A great deal of respect and authority was g iven to the chief. It was not uncommon for soldiers to remain on the battlefield if their chief was killed. If a soldier, whose chief has been killed, is later found, then he was almost always executed. Loyalty was of paramount importance.

The manner in which fyrds were raised changed drastically in the 7th century. With the spread of Christianity, the King allowed for land grants to churches and monasteries. These lands were previously given to noblemen as rewards for their valour on the battleground. Now that the lands were being given to churches less nobles began to fight. The King decided that the churches could keep their land if they agreed to build bridges and forts. This also, in turn, helped to improve the situa tion in war and in society of peasants because now they were taking higher positions in battle.

As far as weaponry was concerned, there wasn’t much. Every soldier was equipped with at least a spear and a shield. The higher one was on the social ladder, the more weapons he received. For instance, kings were given a coat of mail, a helmet, a swo rd, a shield and a spear. A nobleman was given a helmet, a sword (sometimes), a shield and a spear. The peasant fighters were given a shield and a spear, and sometimes an axe. All of the their arms, except for the sword, were derived from everyday tool s. The sword, on the other hand, was considered a mark of a true warrior. Swords were often times quite valuable. They were handed down from generation to generation. The number of battles it had gone through measured the value of a sword. The spear was the most heavily used weapon and it was used until the 11th century, but bow and arrows became more prevalent thereafter.

The Anglo-Saxon period was a dreadfully violent period. The Anglo-Saxons locked themselves in perpetual battle. Fighting over land rights, the Crown, equality for the peasant class created bloodshed like no other to date. And these issues caused sev ere civil wars. The civil wars were eventually quelled, but that was courtesy of the Vikings, who did not discriminate unleashed a vicious attack on all the people of Anglo-Saxon England.

For further reading

Bibliography

Battle of Maldon

Campbell, J (ed). The Anglo-Saxons. London, Phaidon Press; 1982.

Chadwick-Hawkes, S. (ed.) Weapons & Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, Oxford University Press; 1989.

Cooper, Janet, ed. The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact. London and Rio Grande, 1993. Contains; Campbell, James. "England, c. 991." 1-17.

Golding, B. Conquest & Colonisation - The Normans in Britain 1066-1100. New York, The Macmillan Press; 1994.

Hollister, C. W. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions. Oxford, Oxford & Clarendon Press, 1982.

Hunter-Blair, P. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; 1977.

Regia Society. 24 July 1998. <www.regia.com>.

Scragg, Donald G., ed. The Battle of Maldon, AD 991. Oxford, Oxford University Press; 1991.

Whitlock, Douglas, Barlow & Lemmon. The Norman Conquest. London, Eyre & Spottiswood; 1966.