Anglo-Saxon Warfare Group

Jeff Bond --Warfare

Darryl Barfuss--Tactics

Masson Emerson --Weaponry




Anglo-Saxon warcraft:

What were they thinking?

By Jeff Bond


War was a way of life for many Anglo-Saxons. Given the stress that almost constant war can cause, it would only be natural for cultural coping mechanisms to evolve.


Before Battle


The English and other Northern European cultures commonly used boasting to control their fear when anticipating a battle. Beowulf for example boasts of his prowess in monster slaying to Hrothgar the night before confronting Grendel. By doing so Beowulf not only reassures Hrothgar but may have also dispelled his own fear. The account of the Battle of Maldon recounts the battle of words that preceded the battle of spears. The armies involved were lined up one the opposite sides of an estuary out of bowshot from each other, but not out of earshot; they taunted each other until the tide went out and they could cross. The vikings suggested that the English should buy peace with gold since the viking force was vastly superior. The English commander Bryhtnoth retorted that they did not fear the vikings. In this case, however, boasting became the English warriors' downfall. They had a tactical advantage since they held the ford across the estuary, but the vikings demanded that the English fight them on equal terms, and Bryhtnoth consented, boasting of their superiority, and let them cross before continuing the battle. It proved to be his last.


During Battle


To the Anglo-Saxons, a sword or a cuirass was more than just a useful lump of metal; they endowed their battle gear with totemic strength by fretting them with symbols and giving them names. With the right tokens a warrior could gain a serious and very real edge over his opponents. The power here, however, was probably not magical but psychological.

Anglo-Saxon helmets often featured decorations resembling boars made of gold and bronze. The golden boar was an especially potent symbol of divine power, for the boar was an animal dear to the sun god Frey, and gold answered to his magic. Such decorations adorned not only ceremonial arms, but practical war tools as well. Even without a legitimate blessing over these implements, those who wielded them and believed in their power would benefit from a type of placebo effect that could surpress fears and inspire the warrior to greater frenzy.


The feared berserker warriors of the pagan north demonstrate this principle taken to the extreme. Berserkers belonged to an elite order holy to Odin. In battle they wore only the skins of bears, boars, and wolves smeared with a potent mixture of psychotropic herbs, believing that this would endow them with the power of the beast whose hide they wore; the word berserker itself comes from two Old Norse words that mean "bear shirt." They would charge into battle heedless of personal welfare, bolstered by the idea that a berserker is guaranteed a place in Valhalla. Naturally this practice was denounced by the Christian church (although they later adopted some of the same ideas during the crusades, stripped of animistic doctrines of course), but the early Anglo-Saxons may have continued these berserker practices during the lost centuries.

Despite the widespread rationalism of our modern era, we continue that same practice even today. Fighter pilots during world war two would sometimes paint eyes and a mouth filled with fangs on the noses of their aircraft. Sports teams often use fierce animals, warriors, or fearsome mythical creatures as mascots.


The same idea may have inspired the custom of naming weapons and armor. Knowing the lineage of a sword or coat of mail would at least reassure its wielder of its reliability.


After Battle

When the battle was over it would be necessary for the surviving warriors to cool down in order to return to civilian society. This cool down period was also a time of preparation for battles in the unknown future. In Anglo-Saxon culture the mead hall became the keystone for the reinitiation of their warrior class. Alcohol played its role, of course, smoothing over misunderstandings and drowning evil memories in intoxication, but there was more to it than just getting drunk.


In a fatalistic society dying in battle was a predetermined event and therefore could not be counted a failure on the part of the warrior; it wasn't how one departed this life, it was how one departed that made the difference. Those who died fighting were celebrated in poetry and held up as examples to those who had not yet met their own fates. Poetry could also punish those who ran from battle by branding them as penultimate cowards; if they survived the battle that means


they could not have been killed and therefore ran from nothing. Moreover, trying to preserve one's own life at any cost would have been seen as futile and possibly blasphemous since the decision lay in the hands of God, not the individual.

The poem relating the Battle of Maldon demonstrates several interesting examples of Anglo-Saxon spin. The account of Brytnoth's death, for example, momentarily takes Brytnoth's point of view and declares that he died in a happy and blessed state because he died fighting to the very end. Brytnoth's psychological state at the moment of his death would have been impossible to observe, but the remainder of the poem features testimonials from Brytnoth's warriors supporting that assumption.

Due payment for a day's work also smoothed over bad experiences--any day with a nice paycheck seems lighter, yes? In the Old English culture, however, the payment exchanged from a lord to his thanes became a symbolic exchange of loyalty as well. Lords are often described by kennings like "Ring-Giver" or "Ring-Lord." This emphasis on rings suggests something more than economic exchange, and may represent a covenant or a contract between lord and thane. To illustrate the point, consider how the modern cultures which descend from Anglo-Saxon culture exchange rings during wedding ceremonies. And modern professional athletes still win championship rings as symbols of their accomplishments.


Battle of Maldon original text:






Anglo-Saxon Battle Tactics

By Darryl Barfuss

For tactics, you have nothing more elaborate than two opposed, extended lines, each in a single formation: the larger force overlaps the flanks of the smaller: the better fighters cut their way into the weaker formation: and as the Vikings possessed a decided edge in prowess, that means that the English line was cut to pieces by penetration until it broke: and the thegns, now far outnumbered, were surrounded and overpowered. Even if each thegn took his man down with him in death, the victory would handily go to the far larger force. There is nothing scientific about warfare in this period.

Combat Style

In the shieldwall, most attacks are made over the head, crashing down onto the head, neck and shoulders. With spears used with two hands a chest or waist-level thrust across the lines, targeting a warrior involved in another fight would have been very effective although it exposes the spearman to a similar attack from the opposition’s side.

Once the shieldwall breaks down, individual fights are likely to have been settled by wounding blows, leaving the opponent disabled but not dead. Many corpses are found with major leg injuries, suggesting that there were incapacitated and then left to bleed to death while the battle continued.

With running melees across a battlefield, those targets which are easy to hit are the most tempting - legs and arms are the most obvious. Against a warrior in a mail shirt, the lower arms, face and neck are the obvious target areas. Although the lower leg is uncovered, any attempt to reach this low would dangerously expose the warrior to a counter attack, and so is unlikely to be successful.

Battlefield Tactics

Huscarls - The "household troops" of an earl or king, these were the most experienced and best equipped warriors. It is normal for them to be placed in the front rank in battles, as shock troops and to bolster the morale of the other warriors. They are also seen as separate units, operating as a rapid reaction force on the flanks or to reinforce areas which appear weak. The task of defending the standard and the leader of the army fell to the Huscarls.

Leadership - contrary to later tactics, it was expected that a Viking Age leader would lead from the front. Having achieved his position partly by his skill at warfare, it was expected that the leader would stand in the middle of the front rank, leading the charge and the boar snout. All would depend on his personal fortunes - if he fell, it is likely that his army would withdraw or rout, although his huscarls were expected to stand over him and die with their leader. It seems to have been normal for the leaders of Viking Age armies to attempt to seek each other out on the battlefield, attempting to ensure a quick victory by cutting of the head of the army. Although not normally successful, in several cases the huscarls of one army have breached the shieldwall and slain the opposing leader, presumably as part of an advance led by their earl or king.

The Shieldwall -Once battle was joined, each side would form a line of warriors, perhaps several deep, formed into the "shield wall". Each warrior overlaps his shield on both sides, presenting a wall which is strong enough to stop a rushing opponent from penetrating. From behind this wall the warriors would absorb the initial charge, and then loosen slightly to fight individual battles and small melees. With many spears in the lines, the opponent opposite and those up to four down the line were within reach, making combat frantic and deadly. To step out of the line was to die. Retreat of even a few feet could lead to loss of initiative, and would eventually result in a wholesale withdrawal or even rout. With men standing so close and in several ranks, movement was limited, and even highly trained warriors would find it difficult to maneuver quickly on the battlefield. As a result, outflanking moves were common, and unless stopped quickly could prove overwhelming. Once encircled, defeat followed quickly.

The Bordweal (Shield Wall)

The Boar Snout - The "Boar's Snout", or "Swine Array" (svinfylka) was held to be a trick given to the Vikings by the wily God of War, Odin. The sheer weight and momentum of the charge could drive the wedge through an opposing shield wall, turning the battle and spreading panic through the enemy. Although this is probably based on a Roman formation, it is noticable that it is not documented as a Saxon tactic, appearing unique to the Vikings at the time. Since formations of this type require considerable practice and training to achieve effectively, it is more likely to have been employed by the permanent troops of the hearthtroop rather than by the levies called up on an irregular basis.

Svynfylking (also Svinfylka): “Swine Array”

The Svynfylking is the counterpart to the shieldwall, designed to break through enemy lines. The [Thegns] in a Swine Array are positioned to form a wedge, with the best fighters taking the places on the “cutting edge.” The Thegn commanding the troops is in the middle of the array, next to the battle standard and surrounded by his shield bearers or “skoldbord.” The Swine Array is able to break through lines of troops, both formed in a shieldwall and in other formations. As a more difficult formation than the shieldwall, the Svynfylking is usually made up of Thegns.

The Viking Wihada (War Hedge)

The Beadscur (Battle Shower)

Tactical Advantage of Ships

The Vikings had advantages compared to other countries' warriors, and therfore they won many battles which is one important factor in the viking colonization of the world. One of the main advantages of the vikings was their ships. They would sail their boats, not by the shore as most countries did, but sail out to sea and sail in swiftly so that the enemy would not be ready for an attack. They would sail right up onto the land (they did not need harbors or docks) quickly attack and get what they wanted and sail away before a counter-offensive could be launched against them. Another advantage of the ships was that they could carry things in the middle. They could carry horses in their ships on account of the flat bottom, and they could also carry things from their raids.

The quick attacks made it posible to conquer other armees
and their land.

The boats were also able to sail in extremely shallow water (about 1m deep). This means that they could sail up rivers and shallow waters and attack cities next to rivers. They attacked as soon as they hit the land jumping from their boats and taking everything that they found valuable and making a quick retreat. This kind of attack were called srandhugg, These attacks made the vikings more prosperous, which also made the viking society develop and able to present better "tools" for battle, which made their advantages compared to other countries to grow stronger. Thus, the vikings advantages used to plunder and to conquest land made the advantages for them to grow stronger and stronger, and they could colonize more and more land.


Battle of Maldon

Much has been written about the battle tactics of Byrhtnoth. In particular, his decision to allow the Vikings to cross the causeway onto the mainland has been exhaustively discussed both from the literary point of view as to the exact meaning of the poet's words in relation to that decision and also whether it could be be justified on military grounds. The words the poet uses to comment on Byrhtnoth's decision have been variously interpreted as meaning 'overconfidence', 'arrogance', 'excessive pride' and 'courageous'. Commentators have generally preferred the critical interpretation. The poet, like the historian, had the benefit of hindsight. Byrhtnoth clearly made the wrong decision for the wrong reason because he lost. However, a good case can be made for Byrhtnoth. Although it appears that the Vikings could have been prevented from landing by continued defence of the causeway, Byrhtnoth would, one assumes have been well aware that they would have sailed away to devastate other regions.

A decisive defeat of the enemy was only possible there and then if the Vikings could be brought to battle. Such a victory might have altered the course of the war by reversing the series of defeats suffered by the Saxons. Ultimately, Byrhtnoth's action can only be sensibly judged on the basis of military calculation as to whether or not his forces were likely to defeat the Vikings. Byrhtnoth was a seasoned soldier and presumably not likely to lose his military head in an unnecessary gesture of heroism.

As with most controversies where speculation rather than information predominates, no definite conclusion is ever likely to be reached.



The Anglo-Saxon Playground


The complexity of battle tactics for the Anglo-Saxons lies somewhere between Red Rover and American Football.  For instance, the primary defensive maneuver is known as the shield-wall.  The shield-wall is a line of warriors, possibly with interlocked arms, each covering the left-half of themselves and the right-half of the thane to their left with their shields.  If the children at recess had shields, or NFL defensive lines, then all three formations would look quite similar.


Shield-wall (Bordweal):


           X   X   X   X    X    X  X  X  X  X   X

i ¯  i ¯  i ¯ i ¯  i ¯ i ¯ i ¯  i ¯ i ¯ i ¯ i ¯


                       _ ! _ ! _ ! _ ! _ ! _ ! _ ! _ !  _ ! _ ! _ !

 O  O  O   O   O O  O   O   O  O  O


Ultimately, the battle was determined by who could break or envelope the opponents shield wall first.  Numbers were a primary factor in every battle.  In order for the Vikings to defeat the shield-wall, they developed a tactic called the “boar’s snout”, “boar’s head”, or “swine array.”  The boar’s snout is a triangular or wedge shaped formation built to puncture the shield-wall.  Once the shield-wall was divided, the task of circling and defeating the opponent was much simpler.  The boar’s snout was a complex maneuver that required trained combatants and was often headed by the commander.  At other times the strongest fighter is put at the tip, while the commander is protected in the middle.


Boar’s Snout (Svynfylking or Svinfylka):



           X   X   X   X    X    X  X  X  X  X   X

i ¯  i ¯  i ¯ i ¯  i ¯ i ¯ i ¯  i ¯ i ¯ i ¯ i ¯

                                          _ !


                                                   _ ! _ !

                                                    O   O

_ ! _ ! _ !

 O   O  O

                _ ! _ !  _ ! _ ! _ !

                 O  O   O   O  O




Anglo-Saxon Weaponry

There is really very little to write about the weaponry of the Anglo-Saxons as far as research that is original on my part. Most of the information I found was from a recreation group, Regia Anglorum, starting with their page on the spear: Good information on scramseaxes, was found on Their page on axes was most informative. As was their page on missile weapons most enlightening. And what would good Anglo-Saxons be without their swords Now an Anglo-Saxon is going to need something to protect himself from all of those nasty things so the first consideration is armor Another important part of the armor was the helmet And not secondary but equally important to the armor was the shield


Other sources of information came from Hawkes, Sonia Chadwick editor. Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England. Exeter: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1989. And it is from there that I retrieved the images found on the website. Page 31 is an example of the all-to-important spearhead. Page 32 has images of sword grips (hilts) and scabard mounts and chapes. On 33 we see images of shield bosses, decorated spearshafts, and axeheads. 64 top is the most important for understanding what are the components of the sword. Different example of sword grips and hilts are found on pages 64b, 65, and 67. The most intriguing weapon of the time, however, is the scramseax as seen on pages 73,75,77, and 79. This single-edged weapon is referred to in the above site on the scramseax. But most intriguing of all of the technology of the Anglo-Saxons was a technology shared with the vikings: that of pattern-welded swords. Many good examples of these blades can be seen at which has an even better image of the layout of a sword. Perhaps the most notable thing about the pattern-welded swords is the fact that they could hold an edge as well and as sharp as the samurai sword. The way the blade was constructed was by taking small shards of metal and heating them up and pounding them together. This was equal to folding the blade and made it a viable sharp sword.