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Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation

A lone Saxon keeps watch near the estuary mouth.
*Saxon Guard

The military organisation of the Anglo-Saxons is a notoriously difficult and obscure subject. It is impossible to give firm dates or precise details of developments, mainly because the Saxons did not need to define their military organisation for themselves; it was part of the life of every able bodied man. In the beginning there were simply war bands, small bodies of semi-professional or solely professional warriors led by their chosen chiefs. Loyalty to a chief was the greatest virtue, and warriors sought out a leader who would further their military career. If a chief or king died in battle his men would according to lore die avenging him, although a few might survive after being struck down and left for dead. It was considered dishonourable to leave the battlefield on which your lord had been slain, and it was not unknown for those few who did survive to be executed by their lord's successor for their disloyalty and lack of zeal.

From the beginning of the 9th century the English kingdoms were under attack by other bands of professional warriors - the Vikings. We know from accounts of battles before Alfred's reign (879 - 899) that some form of levy existed to deal with these raids, but we have no details of it's particular organisation. We do know that the king had an 'elite' corps of ­egns or thegns, who made up the king's personal 'Hearth Troop' or hir­. These ­egns had to become 'professional' warriors, not because they were a trained elite, but because their position depended on it. It is obvious that the king and his hearth troop could not be everywhere at once, so the onus for local defence must have fallen on the eorls. It was their job to summon the fyrd in emergencies, and this they, or their ­egns could have done reasonably quickly in the areas affected by the raids.

The personal followers of the leaders, the thegns and numbers of hired mercenaries (often other Scandinavians) formed the spearhead of any force. From the early 9th century this was supported by what was later called the fyrd (literally meaning 'journey', and it came to have the special meaning of 'armed expedition or force'). The fyrd was raised by selective recruitment, rather than a general levy, usually drawing one man for every five hides of land. Most of the fyrd would therefore have been thegns, although there are records of 'free men' serving in the fyrd at Hastings. However, the actual obligation was upon each ­egn to provide a man, usually himself, for fyrd service. Since a ­egn would usually have five hides we have the figure of one man from five hides, but the obligation was upon the man, not the land. Since the obligation was on the man, and not the land, some ­egns could own less than the usual five hides (perhaps because a father had split his estate between several sons) . Those poor ­egns who had only a hide or two were still obliged to provide a fyrdman - fyrd service is almost never left out of charters for land-grants.

By the tenth century there are charters which provide alternative obligations demonstrating an emerging flexibility to suit the changing aspects of military service and the threat posed. One such charter requires five men from thirty hides, in another one, one man for thirty hides. Because of these the fyrd could contain members of the upper peasantry, the Ceorls. In these cases the men involved combined to dispatch one of their number (usually the same man) whenever the fyrd was summoned. Several contemporary texts bear this out:

A Saxon Thegn riding as he should be to war
*Mounted Saxon Thegn

'In Covenham Alsi and Chetel and Turuer had 3.5 carucates of land to the geld .... Chetel and Turuer were brothers and after their father's death they divided the land, in such a wise (ways) however that when Chetel was doing the king's service he should have his brother Turuer's aid.'

The representative would ensure that he was well equipped, and ambition and experience would soon create worthy warriors. Indeed the usual armament for a fyrdsman laid out in contemporary documents was a spear, shield, helm, byrnie and a palfrey (riding horse). Often a sword was included in the list. Although a horse is mentioned it was only to allow the fyrd to be specifically mobile. In battle the warriors would dismount and fight on foot.

If the men summoned for the fyrd did not turn up there were severe penalties:

'When the king goes against an enemy, should anyone summoned by his edict remain, if he is a man so free that he has his soke and sake, and can go with his land to whomever he pleases [i.e. king's ­egns and eoldermen], he is in the king's mercy for all of his land. But if the free man of some other lord has stayed away from the host and his lord has led another in his place, he will pay 40s. to his lord who received the summons. But if nobody at all has gone in his place, he himself shall pay his lord 40s., but his lord shall pay the entire amount to the king.'

Another document gives us an idea of the fyrdsman's 'pay' as well as the penalty for failure to serve:

'If the king sent an army anywhere, only one soldier went from five hides, and for his provision or pay, four shillings were given him from each hide for his two months of service. The money, however, was not sent to the king but given to the soldiers. If anyone summoned to serve in an expedition failed to do so, he forfeited all his lands to the king. If anyone for the sake of remaining behind promised to send another in his place, and nevertheless, he who should have been sent remained behind, his lord was freed of obligation by the payment of 50 shillings.'

The towns were also assessed in hides, and the inhabitants were required to send representatives. In some instances the towns could commute their service by paying the crown a sum necessary to hire a replacement. Anglo-Saxon England was still developing a cash economy and most workers were paid in kind, the markets where wages could be spent did not properly exist. For example, Ely Abbey acquitted its lands of 'fyrdinge' through the payment of 10,000 eels a year to the king. Other scattered references in The Doomsday Book to lands that 'aided the king's expeditions' imply that pre-Conquest lesser landowners made similar arrangements with the crown.

Another Saxon getting very tired of this sentry duty
*Saxon Sentry

A fyrdsman served because his land grant said he had to, and failure to serve led to a fine. The money paid would have gone to the king or eorl to provide food for mercenaries, not wages. The king's obligation to provide food only began after the men had served their full term. Each hide was charged four shillings (in kind) towards the maintenance of the selected representative, twenty shillings for a five hide unit, and as sixty to ninety days was the customary period of service, this meant a wage of three to four pence per day. This is roughly comparable to the wages of a knight post-Conquest, demonstrating that the Fyrd was indeed a select body of men and not a rag-bag collection of farmers with agricultural implements for weapons.

The reason for the payment going direct to the warrior seems to have been a safety measure. If the money went straight to the king he could call out the fyrd, collect the money and then disband the fyrd, lining his own coffers as William Rufus did after the Conquest.

There were also laws laid down to govern a fyrdsman's rights and behaviour in the field:


'77. Concerning the man who deserts his lord. And the man who, through cowardice, deserts his lord or his comrades on a military expedition, either by sea or by land, shall lose all that he possesses and his own life, and the lord shall take back the property and the land which he had given him. And if he has bokland it shall pass into the king's hand.

'78. Concerning the man who falls before his lord. And the heriot of the man who falls before his lord during a campaign, whether within the country or abroad, shall be remitted, and the heirs shall succeed to his land and his property and make a very just division of the same.'

In later years there was also an alternative obligation to supply a warrior seaman for the fleet. For this reason the five hide units were combined in some regions into districts of 300 (or 310) hides, which were called ship sokes. These were required to produce sixty sokesmen (warrior seamen), and also pay for the construction and maintenance of a warship which the men manned. Some ports, particularly those that later became the Cinque Ports, were also required to supply smaller ships to augment the fleet. An example of this has been found in Denmark where taxes of just this nature reflected their own need to protect their coasts and ports. In Roskilde fjord, a barrier of four burned and scuttled vessels in an old shipping lane were excavated in the mid 1960's. One of the wrecks turned out to be a mid sized warship, made it seems, from the hull of an older ship with ash additions to transform it into a warship, probably for the port of Roskilde. An exact replica has been made and put through it's paces. However, it seems that the ship was not all that it could be. Not by comparison to other replica ships that have been built recently. It rows well but sails rather poorly, making it unsuitable for patrolling the coast except in the finest weather and against the most inept opponents. It would seem that on request of the King, a ship had to be made to fulfil the obligations of the townsmen. The townsmen had the bright idea of rejuvenating an older ship to save on costs, by adding ash upper strakes etc; creating a 'new' warship. Upon inspection, possibly aided by the fact that the Kings representatives who were possibly a little ignorant of the finer points of warship design, the ship was passed fit for the job. It would be interesting to find out how old she was prior to becoming part of an underwater barricade, disguising the evidence for about 1000 years.

*Viking landing party
It's them pesky prowling Vikings again, come here to steal our women.

In peace time the ­egns (possibly the entire fyrd) had to serve one month in three in rotation so there was always a sizeable force on hand. They were not only warriors but also acted as a police force to catch criminals, (in which their mounted mobility helped) and deal with the widespread problem of sporadic banditry. In the Welsh and Scottish Marches special conditions existed and the levies might have to serve for fifteen days and accompany expeditions beyond their shire boundaries on forays into Wales and Scotland where their knowledge of the border areas was invaluable. In the military requirements for the Welsh marches we are told:

'Anyone who does not go when ordered by the sheriff to go with him into Wales is fined the same [2s. or 1 ox to the king]. But if the sheriff does not go, none of them goes. When the army advances on the enemy, these men by custom form the vanguard and on their return the rearguard.'

In the Welsh marches the recruitment rate often exceeded the one man from five hides ratio and in some cases 'they do not pay tax nor other customary dues, except that they march in the king's army if they have been ordered.'

By the beginning of the 11th century all the ­egns usually held estates of five hides or more, and so by this date they probably constituted the bulk of the fyrd.

At the beginning of the century there is the first mention of the elite body of warriors known as Huscarles. It is thought that these were introduced after Svein Forkbeard's conquest of England in 1014, and probably raised by Cnut in 1033, although it is highly possible they had existed at the time of Swein's conquest. Completely professional soldiers, they had their own rules of conduct, living at the king's court and receiving his pay, as opposed to gifts or kind. They formed a small but efficient and highly organised standing army, both well disciplined and heavily armed. Cnut, we are told, required his Huscarles to possess 'splendid armour' and a double-edged sword with a gold-inlaid hilt, as a condition of acceptance into his military entourage. Although a primarily a footsoldier, a huscarl would also have owned a horse to carry him to battle and in pursuit of the defeated enemy, and a variety of weapons, including a mail-shirt, helmet, shield, javelin, and, of course, the 'massive and bloodthirsty two-handed axe' that characterised him. Despite being paid in coin their obligation to serve in arms arose from the lordship bond rather than the cash inducement. The rewards were incidental to the service they rendered. As the poet of wrote some centuries earlier:

'I repaid in war the treasures that he [the king] paid me - with my bright sword... There was no need for him to buy with treasure a worse warrior.'

Huscarls served their royal lords in peace as well as war. They appear in the sources as tax collectors, witnesses to royal charters, recipients of land grants and donors of land. They may be best characterised as a group of ministers and attendants upon the king who specialised in, but were not limited to war. Thus we find the same man described as a 'cynges huskarl' in one charter and a 'minister regis' in another. Even before this time there is evidence of the king and greater nobles employing 'milites stipendiis' or mercenary warriors.

A fine figure of an Anglo-Saxon Huscarl
*Anglo-danish Huscarl

The huscarls were retained by Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinsson, and during the reign of the former they appeared to have been recruited by the great eorls as well. Tostig's English and Danish retainers are referred to as huscarls by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but the word may have become a general term describing all landless soldiers as opposed to ­egns who were warriors and land owners under the king.

There are other references to mercenaries in the pay of the king or eorls who were clearly not huscarls. The lithsmen and butsecarles were skilled seamen who also fought on land, more like Marines today, and often seem to have sided with the highest bidder. Not that sea battles were anything like we tend to think of them today. Enemy ships were chased to ground, or the shore in these cases to engage the troops, or the boats were very rarely tied together as a raft and drifted into each other as a platform to fight a 'land' battle on. These and other paid warriors provided the late Saxon kings with a highly trained nucleus supported by the eorls and their war bands, and the ­egns of the fyrd.

By the mid 11th century the royal huscarls probably numbered about 3,000. Eorl Tostig lost two hundred of his own huscarls during the Northumbrian revolt in 1065 - as some of his huscarls survived and escaped a figure of around 250 - 300 huscarls seems reasonable for a powerful eorl.

A national land-fyrd would have consisted of the following components: the forces of the eolderdoms, shires, hundreds (private and royal), private sokes and various companies of stipendary troops, and personal retainers brought by the king and his great magnates. Similarly, a scip-fyrd would have included royal warships manned by the king's butescarles and lithsmen, perhaps the private ships of his eorls, vessels supplied and manned by the ship-sokes, and by 1066, the ships owed in lieu of other royal renders by the boroughs that were to become known as the Cinque Ports.

The evidence for the shire as a tactical unit is overwhelming. Below the shire level, however, matters become less clear. Much is vague about the lesser tactical units of the fyrd, but it seems certain that just as the shires were subdivided into hundreds for judicial and administrative purposes, so the shire levies of the fyrd consisted of hundred contingents. Using the five hide rule this would give basic units of 20 men. Interestingly enough, in Alfred's day, 36 men and over constituted an Army, with less than that a warband, so maybe these figures are a little low. Although with the variance in size of a hundred, and the variance in the number of hides required to produce a warrior, a unit of 15 - 25 men would seem reasonable. Each unit would usually be led by its 'hundred eolder'.

The old idea of the general levy or 'nation in arms' is now considered to be quite incorrect. Although many of the fyrd owned land, they were primarily warriors who farmed when not serving, rather than farmers who fought. Indeed, texts of the time refer to three distinct types of freemen: labourers, soldiers and beadsmen or clergy. As Ălfric wrote:

'The throne stands on these three supports: laoratores (labourers),bellatores (soldiers), oratores (clergy). Labourers are they who provide us with sustenance, the ploughmen and husbandmen devoted to that alone. Clergy are they who intercede for us to God... devoted to that alone for the benefit of us all. Soldiers are they who guard our boroughs and also our land, fighting with weapons against the oncoming army; as St. Paul, the teacher of nations, said in his teaching: The cniht beareth not the sword without cause. He is God's minister to their profit.'

As a climax to his Colloquy, Ălfric has a character called the 'wise councillor' to resolve a heated debate over the relative importance of the various secular professions by declaring:

'Whoever you are, whether priest or monk, or peasant or warrior, exercise yourself in this, and be what you are; because it is a great disgrace and shame for a man not to want to be what he is, and what he has to be.'

This would mean that whilst the 'labourers' would take up weapons such as hunting spears, bows, wood-axes and knives if their own area were threatened, they were certainly not a 'general levy of all able bodied men' and would have provided guards for the fyrd's provisions and logistical support for the fyrd proper.

A Huscarl doing the Kings duty by keeping an eye on his tax collector
*Huscarl acting as bodyguard

Certainly there are records of towns defending themselves successfully from attack by the whole population manning the walls with more men than they owed for fyrd service. It would of course, be more surprising in these cases if they did not take up arms.

Often the Bayeux Tapestry is quoted as a source for 'peasant levies' using the group of unarmoured men on the hill, or the fleeing Saxons at the end of the battle to support the theory. If studied closely these men on the hill are equipped with sword, broad-axe and kite shield, certainly not the weapons of a peasant levy. These figures may represent poorer warriors who could not afford armour in addition to their weapons, perhaps lighter skirmishing troops, or maybe those who shed their armour to allow a faster flight and make themselves less conspicuous.

The deeper the subject is studied, the more convincing the argument is that not only was there not a 'general levy' in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but that such a levy never existed except in the imaginations of a few Victorian 'scholars'.

As Richard Abels puts it in his book 'Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England' :

'The evidence suggests that those who held bookland T.R.E. ['Tempore Regis Edwardi' - 'in the time of King Edward'] were expected to 'defend' their property in person in the royal host. A ­egn who held a great estate, upon which the fyrdfaereld lay so heavily that more than a single warrior was required to discharge the duty, would have been obliged to lead one or more other warriors to the fyrd. How the landowner might obtain the necessary fyrdmen was not the concern of the king, so long as these soldiers were sufficiently competent. In some instances bookholders exchanged a lifetime, or multi-lifetime, interest in a parcel of land for their tenant's armed service. In others they fulfilled their obligation to the king by maintaining fighting men within their own households. Whatever course a magnate chose, he would ordinarily guarantee the loyalty of his warrior-representatives by binding them to himself through commendation. Lordship and land tenure thus provided the twin pillars upon which the military organisation of late Anglo-Saxon England rested. In a very real sense, the royal host never ceased being the king's following arrayed for war. In this lies one of the keys to the turbulent politics of the late tenth and of the eleventh century.'

At Hastings the Saxon army, with its elite force weakened through achieving victory at Stamford Bridge, and short of the quota of men from the fyrd, successfully withstood the Norman army in a battle which lasted considerably longer than was normal for the period from dawn until dusk. At its full strength it could probably have held its own against any army in western Christendom. Its value was certainly not underestimated by its conquerors, who not only adopted the broad-axe, but also perpetuated the fyrd system.


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