The Thegn

 

A broad definition of the Anglo-Saxon thegn is any landowning freeman who owed the king or other noble a military debt. Yet this is problematic as well because the role of the thegn changed over the 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule in England.

The early thegn would have been called a “gesith,” meaning “companion,” who was a close follower of their lord. At first they would have been warriors and nothing more, but as the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate England, gesiths were rewarded with large tracts of land to manage. This created the thegn.

The thegn was, first and foremost, a warrior. But their other duties were to manage the land they had been given by their lord, as well as certain other civil duties such as settling disputes among “ceorls,” or “commoners.” The thegn was in charge of farming and harvesting, but most of the actual labor  was usually performed by ceorls. Most important of their civic duties was to raise an army of ceorls should the need arise.

Sometime during the reign of Cnut, they also became known as the “huscarle,” though the term “thegn” was still used by the Anglo-Saxons.

An elite class of thegn, known as the “hearthweru,” meaning “hearth-guard,” directly served the king. The hearthweru generally lived in the King's hall, or very close to it. In times of peace they revelled, trained, feasted, and drank alcoholic beverages like mead. When war came they served as the king's personal bodyguards, and helped the thegns train the ceorls.

 

Two Anglo-Saxon swords. The top sword was found in the River Witham in Lincolnshire and dates back to the 10th Century. The bottom sword was found near Syon Reach.

 

Attire, Weapons, and Armor

 

                              A.            Attire

                                                        i.            Thegns, as well as most of the Anglo-Saxon men, most commonly wore tunics. Made of woolen yarn, the tunic was basically a large shirt clasped with a belt at the waist. When clasped, the tunic hung down around the knees, and to the calf muscles unclasped. The Anglo-Saxons preferred plain, single color tunics.

                                                      ii.            Anglo-Saxons leggings were similar to long trousers that encompassed leg and foot. Long strips of fabric were bound over the calf muscles to confine loose folds in the trousers, as well as provide added insulation. These bindings were called “wininga.”

                                                    iii.            Footwear was probably ankle-high shoes, and possibly higher boots made of leather.

                                                     iv.            Manuscript pictures depict Anglo-Saxon men wearing caps with a forward drooping peak, referred to as a “Phrygian” cap. Some speculate they denoted the wearer was a freeman. What they were made of is not clear, but probably leather or wool.

                                                       v.            Most Anglo-Saxon men may have worn cloaks clasped at the shoulder with a brooch.

                              B.            Armor

                                                        i.            Thegn body armor was not plate-mail, but light ring-mail called a “byrnie.” Each small ring is connected to four other rings and the amount of rings could number in the thousands!

                                                      ii.            Evidence suggests early helmets were elaborate and highly decorative. Some covered the entire head and neck, as well as having a face or nose guard. Others covered most of the head and had nose guards. They could be, and often were, adorned with animal imagery, such as the boar-crested helmets discussed in Beowulf. Later they took on the better known, undecorated conical form with nose guard.

                                                    iii.            Shields were large, circular, and made from linden-wood. The face was covered with cowhide and there was a round, metal shield boss in the center to protect the fist. Early shield bosses were simple plates but later they were made to protrude with a pointed end, making the shield boss an effective close range weapon.

                              C.            Weaponry

                                                        i.            The most common Anglo-Saxon weapon was the spear as they were light, and relatively cheap to produce. Spears varied in length from the longer throwing types, such as javelins, to shorter, close-combat thrusting types. In A.D. 98, Tacitus of Rome wrote that young Germanic men were given a spear and shield to signify their coming of age.

                                                      ii.            Swords and bows were very uncommon. Swords because they were very expensive to make. A warrior who owned a sword would have been considered very high-ranked in the Anglo-Saxon class structure. Most swords were probably given to thegns as a gift from their lord. Why bows were not used is unclear considering most thegns probably knew how to use them for hunting. It may have been considered cowardice to use a bow, or it may be they found archery ineffective for some reason.

                                                    iii.            Most Anglo-Saxon men had a seax of some sort. The seax was basically single-edged knife, though there was a large variation in length. The smallest seaxes were around the size of pocket knives, and probably were used as eating utensils, while the largest could be as long as a sword. Seaxes longer than eight inches were probably used for hunting and combat.

                                                     iv.            Axes were usually the weapon of ceorls since it doubled as a tool. Ceorls were expected to bring their own weapons to the army, and axes were very common pieces of equipment for a ceorl. In spite of this, short-handled axes were very effective against long spears.

Chainmail linked with a one to four ratio, meaning each ring is connected to four others.

 

The Thegn in Battle

 

                              A.            The thegn was a crucial player on the battlefield. Not only did thegns command the ceorls, they also served on the front lines of tactical formations. The better equipped warriors were on the front lines, while those with poorer equipment (usually ceorls) remained in the rear.

                              B.            Some hearthweru remained near the king as his personal bodyguards, while others were placed at strategic positions to inspire courage in the lower ranked warriors.

                              C.            Horses were not used in battle, though most thegns probably had one. It is unclear as to why they were not used, but it again may have had something to do with personal honor since the Anglo-Saxons believed real fighting took place on foot. Alfred attempted to introduce cavalry during the Viking raids of the late 9th century. The Viking ships gave them a hit and run advantage over an on-foot army, so Alfred attempted to breed horses in order to move the army more quickly. Unfortunately, he was not very successful.

                             D.            The thegn was expected to show no fear or cowardice on the battle field due to the Anglo-Saxon belief in fate. If a warrior died in battle then it was their destiny to die in that battle. If they survived it was their destiny that they survived. Any thegn who fled in battle was dubbed, “nithing.” A man who was referred to as “nithing” had no property, no rights, no family, no lord, and no friends.

                              E.            The “baritus,” or battle cry, was a crucial part of Germanic warfare. It was used to inspire courage, as well as intimidate the opposing army. Tacitus described the baritus as, “a harsh, intermittent roar; and they hold their shield in front of their mouths, so the sound is amplified into a deeper crescendo by reverberation.” After the influence of Christianity the war cry took the form of words. At the Battle of Hastings some recorded battle cries were “Olicrosse,” meaning “Holy Cross,” and “Godemite,” meaning “God’s might” or “God Almighty.” The war cry was not raised until the opposing armies actually clashed; a baritus yelled by a warrior before the armies met in combat was supposedly a sign of cowardice.

                               F.            The last stand in Germanic warfare took place after the death of the king or lord in command of an army. Unlike the later, gentlemen warfare, the lord and commanders were the main targets. Killing the lord almost always meant victory as most of his army would flee, including some thegns. However, the hearthweru were expected to stay behind. Living after their lord had been killed was the ultimate shame for a hearthweru. They were expected to avenge their lord, or die in the attempt. This also served the dual purpose of giving the rest of the army the opportunity to escape.

 

Iron spearhead from Great Chesterford, Essex. Dated back to the 6th or 7th Century.

 

The End of the Thegn

 

After William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, some of the Anglo-Saxon thegns were allowed to continue their duties. They were replaced by Normans after their deaths, and in ten years the thegn was a thing of the past.

 

The Coppergate helmet from c. 750 C.E.

 

Source

Harrison, Mark. The Anglo-Saxon Thegn, AD 449-1066. Illustrations by Gerry Embleton. New York: Oprey Publishing, 1993.