The Making of Kings, The Army & Warfare

The Making of Kings

The Army and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon Times

The Anglo-Saxon period was violent, and warfare dominated its history and shaped its nature. Kings engaged in an almost endless struggle against foreign enemies and rival kinsmen for authority, power and tribute. Even after Christianity gave them a new understanding of kingship, which did not rely on success in battle, regional conflicts continued until the Viking invasions.

The Old English word “fyrd” is used to describe the Anglo-Saxon army. There may have been not one but two types of fyrd. There had been a “select fyrd,” a force of professional, noble land-owning warriors, and a second levy, the “great fyrd”-the nation in arms. The Anglo-Saxon fyrd was constantly developing, and its nature changed through the Anglo-Saxon period.  As the kingdoms developed peasants gained a more important position, but did not replace the noblemen in the king’s army. The peasant, as a freeman, had the right to bear arms, but he would rarely have joined the king’s fyrd.

In the kingdoms of sixth through eighth centuries an Anglo-Saxon ruler was a warlord. His primary duty was to protect his people from their neighbors and to lead them on expeditions (fyrds) of plunder and conquest. A good king was lord of a mighty war-band that profited from his leadership. As long as he lived, his people were safe and he enjoyed tribute from the surrounding tribes. The early Anglo-Saxon monks, when writing about the Anglo-Saxon kings, show that this was not an heroic ideal, but the way a king ruled.

When a warrior followed the king into combat, he did not speak of his duty to “king and country,” but of the responsibility of a retainer to serve and protect his lord. The nobleman who was chosen for the office of king was only the member of the royal line who could command the largest war-band. Therefore many wars took place and a king who gained his position by force was accepted by his subjects.

It is clear that the king’s retinue were from aristocratic warrior families, and the gift-giving, in addition to war-gear, was gifts of valuable items or land. A gift was not given freely, and a gift was expected in return in the form of service. The gift and counter-gift were not complete by themselves . Although  it was customary for a warrior to receive an estate for life (either his own life or his lord’s), it was not a certainty. If a warrior failed in his duty to the king the royal grant could be lost. Thus the king’s gift was as open-ended as his retainer’s counter-gift of service; the one was continually confirmed by the other.

To receive a lord’s gift of land was a sign of special favor. Its possession signified a new, higher status for the warrior within the king’s retinue. By the seventh century there were two classes of warrior noble- the “youth warrior” and the “proven warrior.” The former were young, unmarried warriors, who resided with their lord, attending and accompanying him as he progressed through his estates. When a youth warrior proved himself, he received an endowment of land. He no longer lived in his lord’s household, but attended his councils, married, raised a family, and maintained his estate. In order to improve his standing this proven warrior would often raise military retainers of his own, probably from among the more prosperous peasants on his estate. These estates were set up as shires in the early records of King Egbert’s time. The king’s military following was called the lord’s household troops

When King Egbert assembled his army, the proven warriors were expected to answer his summons at the head of their retinues, much as they would attend his court in time of peace. The fyrd would then have been the king’s household warriors and the followings of his landed retainers. If a warrior did not answer the king’s summons, he could be penalized, with a payment to the king. When an Anglo-Saxon king went to war, his retainers would follow him into battle, not out of duty to defend the “nation,” but because he was their lord. Similarly, their own men, also obliged by the bond of lordship, fought under them. Victory meant tribute and land, and these in turn meant that a king could attract more warriors into his service.

Christianity brought about a change in the fyrd by the middle of the ninth century. The monasteries needed land, and needed a more secure arrangement than just the hope that the king’s successor would maintain the land grant. They got that security by  the introduction of  bookland. Under this system the king gave the land to the Church in eternity, and the grant was recorded in writing and witnessed by important noblemen and churchmen. A Christian king gave a free gift to God in hope of receiving from Him an eternal gift, salvation.

As time went by  more land was booked to the Church, and many noblemen became upset. Some of the noblemen offered to build abbeys and become the abbot on their land in return for the book-right, and this was often granted. The holders of these early books enjoyed their tenures free from all service, including military service. Gradually the terms were changed to be more supportive, requiring these booklands to help “where none ought to be excused.” About King Egbert’s time these common burdens were being demanded in all the kingdoms from all booklands.

The concept of military service as a condition of land tenure was a result of book-right. A holder of land on loan from the king was a king’s man, and his acceptance of an estate obliged him to fidelity and service to his royal lord. Book-land tenure, a hereditary possession, did not assure that future generations who owned the property would recognize the king as their lord. By imposing the “common burdens,” the king guaranteed military service from book-land and tied the holders of the book securely to the ruler.

King Egbert, and the kings of his dynasty, found that their survival depended on reorganization, both administratively and militarily. Egbert’s military establishment seems to have consisted of three general types of fyrd: the national army with the personal leadership of the king, shire forces led by individual ealdormen (landholding noble and local authority), and the war bands of individual thanes (retainers). Therefore the realm’s strength  would consist of the king with his own personal war-band, or fyrd, aided by the fyrds of his ealdormen and thanes.

However, each of these territorial units was an army in itself. An eighth or ninth century ealdorman could wage war on his own initiative and was expected to do so in defense of his estates. Just as the national forces were made up of shire forces, so the shire forces were made up of the followings of individual local thanes. These thanes, in turn could mount raids of their own. None of these forces  was the “nation in arms.” All were war-bands led by chieftains, whose troops were bound to them by personal ties as well as by the common burdens imposed upon their land by the king. Essentially they still remained the chief’s following arrayed for battle. The levy of kings’ men and their retinues into a standing force was sporadic, since they would be disbanded after a crisis had passed. Some king’s thanes and their retainers would remain behind to guard their lands, and those of their neighbors on campaign, against sudden raids. The same men who led the king’s hosts, his thanes, and ealdormen, also did justice. There was a thin line between posse and army. Even the Viking invasions did not stop ordinary crime, in fact there is some evidence to suggest it may have increased.

The basic makeup of the fyrd was composed of nobles and their lesser-born followers. Some peasants fought alongside the nobility when the king summoned his army. These ceorls were the peasants in the service of the king, or in the service of one of his warriors. Ordinary ceorls  would generally be unable to afford the equipment needed for fyrd service. The summoning of the fyrd left ordinary agricultural activities such as harvest unaffected. Clergymen prayed, warriors fought and workmen labored, each a necessary, distinct class.

The fyrdmen were a professional warrior class, drawn from among the wealthiest men in the country, expected to have a well-equipped, professional army, and  would have been equipped with at least helm and sword in addition to their spear, shield and possibly horse.  Spears and shield made up the basic war-gear of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. Armor and helmets, while not unknown were rare. The kings and more important noblemen would possess a coat of mail and a crested helmet, a sword, shield, and spear. Noblemen of middling rank may have possessed a helm, perhaps a sword, and a shield and spear. The lowest ranking warriors would have been equipped with just a shield and spear, and perhaps an axe.

An Anglo-Saxon burial dated to the late sixth century was discovered in which a warrior was excavated with his horse. Burials of warriors with their horses are rare in Britain. The warrior, who was probably quite young and almost six feet tall, had a sword by his left side and a shield on his body, and also a spear beside him. Next to the coffin lay the horse, which had apparently been sacrificed. The horse was buried wearing it’s decorative harness. The bridle was decorated with gilt bronze ornamentation, and the rivets near the body are probably from a saddle, although there were not any stirrups. Stirrups were not used in England until about the time of King Egbert. The girth buckle, bridle straps and snaffle bit are similar to those still used in Britain.

Only a few people in early Anglo-Saxon England had horses and they were considered a kingly gift. The Anglo-Saxon attitude to horses was different from the continental one. In England all evidence suggests that the horse was not butchered and eaten as on the continent, but was buried intact. There were stud farms in Anglo-Saxon England by the tenth century because they are mentioned in wills, but it is likely that the king and rich nobles used them during King Egbert’s reign. The main source of information on the use of horses comes from writings in the eighth century, and there are other mentions of them in later charters and accounts.

details taken from frieze in wall of  a
church in Leicestershire, 8th century

A Phrygian Hat was worn by common soldiers

A king with his witan

Sutton Hoo helmet

Anglo-Saxon helmet

Segment of Battle of Hastings tapestry showing
Anglo-Saxon horseman with kite shield

Saxon Kite shield and banner
with lion rampant and cross fluery
said to be used by King Egbert
Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References