Anglo-Saxon Warriors: From Thegns to Fyrd

The Anglo-Saxons warriors bridged the gap between the ‘barbaric’ warfare of Germanic tribes and the structured order of medieval armies forging the English nation.

Jan 5, 2022By Luisa Hagele, BA Archaeology, MA Int’l Heritage & Museum Cultures
anglo saxon warriors seax sword helmet sutton hoo

 

The nature of warfare and the military organization of the Anglo-Saxons is a notoriously contested subject. Conflicting records and opinions have made it difficult to determine the precise circumstances and procedures of Anglo-Saxon warriors. Furthermore, the changing nature of Anglo-Saxon society in England, spanning the 5th to 11th centuries, means that Anglo-Saxon warfare adapted and evolved with the times.

 

Something we can be certain of is that this tumultuous period witnessed constant internal and external threats. Various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms initially fought one another for greater control and power in England. This factor, plus the later onslaught of Viking raids starting in the 8th century, would have made the development of warrior classes essential for the Anglo-Saxons.

 

Anglo-Saxon Warriors and the Invasion of England

sutton hoo sword
An Anglo-Saxon sword uncovered from Sutton Hoo, via the British Museum, London

 

Even before the Roman legions departed, Anglo-Saxon warriors were already present in Britain. As part of the Late Roman Empire’s military doctrine, Germanic mercenaries were often employed as auxiliary units within areas of Roman occupation. Furthermore, before the Romans left, independent Anglo-Saxons were also already raiding Britain and other Roman territories. This meant that Anglo-Saxon warriors likely came up against one another in Britain at some point during these initial, smaller invasions.

 

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A bird-shaped Anglo-Saxon shield mount, early 7th century, via The British Museum, London

 

Once the Roman legions had completely left the British Isles around 400 CE, the Germanic Angle, Saxon, Frisian, and Jute tribes began invading in increasing numbers. They were initially met with little resistance, but this changed around 500 CE, when the Romano-British began fiercely fighting back. Nevertheless, the various groups of Anglo-Saxons formed several kingdoms and settled in different parts of the country.

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york anglo saxon helmet
An Anglo-Saxon warriors’ helmet found in York, via Yorkshire Museum, Yorkshire.

 

Constantly at war with one another and outside forces, particularly the Danish Vikings, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms underwent numerous changes. This contributed greatly to the changing nature of Anglo-Saxon warriors and warfare, which differed considerably from that of Continental Europe at the time.

 

Anglo-Saxon Warriors in the Pre-Settlement Period (400-600 CE)

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A richly decorated sword pommel cap from the Staffordshire Hoard, via Birmingham Museums, Birmingham

 

During the initial Germanic migrations to Britain, the tribal lords likely selected followers from the general population to join them in their warbands. Like most marauding groups, warriors were chosen for the purpose of protecting the lord, as well as for their ability to intimidate and coerce. Although the warriors comprising the warband lacked the discipline of the Romans, they were professional soldiers nonetheless.

 

Upon being chosen, these warriors gained the high status of Hearthweru, and had access to the best equipment and weaponry in the Anglo-Saxon military circle. Although these earlier Anglo-Saxon armies of the 5th to 6th centuries were relatively small, the Hearthweru warriors seem to have made up the bulk of them.

 

Throughout the pre-settlement period, Anglo-Saxon warriors seem to have been further categorized within the Hearthweru. The personal followers of the tribal lord were likely the elite group and sworn to die by his side. These warriors probably comprised the minority of any Anglo-Saxon military group, yet were likely equipped with the best weapons and armor, including prestigious long swords. Elite armor and weaponry from the Staffordshire Hoard probably belonged to these types of Anglo-Saxon warriors.

 

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A hilt collar from a seax used by the Anglo-Saxons, via Birmingham Museums, Birmingham

 

Another group most likely consisted of younger soldiers who formed the bulk of the warrior band. It’s unlikely that they were as well-armed as the elite members of the Hearthweru, but were advantageous on the battlefield in terms of their numbers.

 

Anglo-Saxon Warriors in the Settlement Period (600-1066 CE)

staffordshire hoard sword hilt collar
An Anglo-Saxon sword hilt collar from the Staffordshire Hoard, via Birmingham Museums, Birmingham

 

Once the Anglo-Saxons were established and settled in Britain, a new group of raiders began to attack the English kingdoms. From the beginning of the 9th century, consistent invasions by the Vikings led to the development of the Thegns. This group of Anglo-Saxon warriors was composed of local, high-status individuals who became professional soldiers because their positions of privilege were dependent upon it.

 

The Anglo-Saxon kings relied upon the Thegns to provide local defense against the raids that they and their Hearthweru couldn’t intercept themselves. Thegns were joined by the personal followers of particular leaders, as well as hired mercenaries, to form the frontline. By summoning these groups in emergencies, the Thegns could quickly act to defend the areas affected by raids.

 

The work of the Thegns was later supported by a group known as the Fyrd, who could be called upon by the former. Also developed at some point in the early 9th century, the Fyrd was raised by selective recruitment of peasants and mercenaries. They were called upon to man the Burhs or serve in the field army, with failure to do so leading to a fine. The implementation of the Fyrd evolved from an older Germanic custom that entailed the conscription of all able-bodied men during times of large-scale conflict.

 

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Shoulder clasps used to decorate the armor of Anglo-Saxon warriors, via The British Museum, London

 

The Fyrd system ensured that enough men were able to sustain agricultural activities at home, while a large, trained army could still be raised at times of war or invasion. On the battlefield, the Fyrd were the most numerous class of Anglo-Saxon warriors. Their equipment was probably more rudimentary, but they provided an advantage in terms of numbers.

 

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The defeat of the Anglo-Saxon king Harold depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, via the Bayeux Museum, Bayeux

 

The beginning of the 11th century saw the introduction of the Huscarle warriors during the reign of the Danish king Cnut, or his father, Svein Forkbeard. The Huscarles were initially Scandinavian in origin, but ‘English’ Anglo-Saxons were probably included within these earlier ranks as well. Similar to the earlier Hearthweru warriors, the Huscarles were professional, highly-trained soldiers who served to protect a particular lord and his household. They were well-organized, disciplined, and heavily armed, receiving pay from the lord or king and living at his court. In peacetime, they continued to serve their lord by fulfilling administrative duties, such as collecting taxes and acting as witnesses to royal charters. The Huscarles as an organized military unit appears to have continued after the Danes left England.

 

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Fittings from an Anglo-Saxon shield found at Sutton Hoo, via The British Museum, London

 

Some literary references are made to paid mercenaries known as Lithsmen and Butsecarles. Hired by an Anglo-Saxon lord or king, they likely fought purely for money and simply sided with the highest bidder. It’s possible that they were also skilled seamen and fought on land once they had chased the enemy to the ground.

 

Anglo-Saxon Warfare and Battle Tactics

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A sword used by Anglo-Saxon warriors in the late 10th century, via The British Museum, London

 

The changing function of the Anglo-Saxon armies over time is reflected in the shifts in their battle and warfare tactics. During the early invasions on Britain, Anglo-Saxon warriors were part of small raiding units focused on taking land and goods. These small, aggressive units could quickly combine into larger units so as to achieve those ends. The function of later Anglo-Saxon armies was defensive, acting as a military expression of an organized state. As such, they relied not only on manpower but also a network of Burhs to provide mustering points and supply bases. That being said, it isn’t entirely clear at this point how large these armies actually were.

 

The Bayeaux Tapestry gives us some of the best evidence of battlefield tactics likely employed by Anglo-Saxon warriors. Wielding long-handled Danish axes, armored Anglo-Saxons are depicted forming a tightly-packed shield wall at the Battle of Hastings. Spears are projected from the front rank over the shield wall, while warriors either stand in front of it or make their way through intermittent openings.

 

anglo saxon warriors bayeux tapestry shield wall
Anglo-Saxon warriors depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, via the Bayeux Museum, Bayeux

 

A wall of shields appears to have been a notoriously successful battle tactic favored by the Anglo-Saxons. However, archaeological evidence points to the likelihood that Anglo-Saxon warriors only began to utilize it at some point during the pre-settlement period. Earlier shields found by archaeologists tend to be quite small, suggesting that earlier warriors fought in open order. Later shields are larger, suggesting that the warband fought in close order, such as within a shield-wall formation.

 

While other Germanic tribes are believed to have fought on horseback, including the Franks and the Goths, it remains unclear whether Anglo-Saxon warriors did the same. Some historians suggest that horses were used, but most literary sources indicate that infantry battles were far more the norm.

 

Anglo-Saxon Weaponry

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Anglo-Saxon spearheads found at Sutton Hoo, via the British Museum, London

 

Much of what we know regarding the weapons favored by Anglo-Saxon warriors is based on archaeological finds, depictions on the Bayeux Tapestry, and extant contemporary descriptions. Some of the most helpful literature includes poems narrating the Battle of Maldon in 991 CE, and the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 CE. Spears, javelins, and swords are mentioned most often, but occasional references to other types of weaponry are also made.

 

From the relative safety of a shield wall, Anglo-Saxon warriors could inflict the most damage by throwing small javelins at the enemy, such as those found within the archaeological record. Close-quarter fighting likely ensued afterward almost as a clean-up operation, for which purpose swords, shields, and sometimes thrusting spears seem to have been preferred. Richly decorated swords uncovered from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard suggest that, like most European medieval cultures, swords were regarded by the Anglo-Saxons as the apex weapon of honor and prestige. Most likely, the elite members of the Hearthweru and the Huscarles would have been equipped with swords.

 

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A late Anglo-Saxon seax, via the British Museum, London

 

For close-quarter combat, the Danish battle-ax also appears to have been adopted during later periods, such as those depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. Anglo-Saxon warriors likely adopted this weaponry after encountering their effectiveness during numerous Viking invasions. Large shields also seem to have been used as an offensive weapon, as well as a defensive one. A weapon most commonly associated with the Anglo-Saxons, however, is the seax. A single-edged long blade resembling a cross between a sword and a knife, Anglo-Saxon warriors substituted swords with longer seaxes and even used shorter ones as cutlery. In battle, it was probably used by the Fyrd, who made up the bulk of the army.

 

anglo saxon warriors sutton hoo helmet
An Anglo-Saxon warriors’ helmet from Sutton Hoo, via the British Museum, London

 

Alongside the adoption of the Danish ax, used primarily by the Huscarles, helmets only appear to have been adopted by Anglo-Saxon warriors during the post-settlement period. Despite the fame garnered by the phenomenal warrior’s helmet found at Sutton Hoo, very few Anglo-Saxon helmets have actually been found. This could suggest that such helmets may have been reserved for elite members of Anglo-Saxon society, such as the Huscarles, and likely were not the norm for ordinary soldiers.

 

Daily Life for Anglo-Saxon Warriors

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A page from the original manuscript of Beowulf, via the British Library, London

 

Off the battlefield, the lifestyle of Anglo-Saxon warriors was also heavily influenced by their military status. Referred to in the legend of Beowulf, participation in athletic pursuits such as running, jumping, and throwing spears was encouraged. Excelling in these sports may have been considered an indication of a true and valuable warrior.

 

For high-ranking warriors, the heart of social activity revolved around the long hall. Known as a heall, recreational activities likely took place around the central fireplace within the large open space of this structure. It was at the center of a lord’s estate and was often the main residence for himself and some members of his Hearthweru, or Huscarles.

 

The loyalty of an Anglo-Saxon warrior to his lord remained of utmost importance in all areas of life. Any incidences of desertion or lack of devotion were punished through the declaration of ‘Nithing’. Receiving this punishment essentially designated the subject as a non-entity, an outcast condemned to live outside the perceived boundaries of Anglo-Saxon society and law. Given the prestige and status that Anglo-Saxon warriors may have otherwise enjoyed, this certainly does seem like a rather severe punishment.



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By Luisa HageleBA Archaeology, MA Int’l Heritage & Museum CulturesLuisa is a writer and archaeologist who has worked for museums in the UK and Switzerland. She holds an MA in International Heritage Management from the University of Birmingham, a PGCert in Museum Cultures from Birkbeck University, and a BA in Archaeology from University College London.