The War Band
After a while he said, “You have seen the Danes. What do you think?”
I thought before I answered. “They are very good warriors,” I began, “but they are strange. They do not value the things we value. They do not pledge to each other, and even tho’ Yrling feeds and arms his men they leave whenever they find a richer Lord to serve or a fatter land to take.” Then in fairness I went on, “But the same things that give us joy gladden them too: gold and horses and song and fine things, and good food, and the hope for glory.”
Ceridwen telling of the Vikings in The Circle of Ceridwen
The Anglo-Saxon warrior pledged his life to his war-lord. No shame was greater than out-living one’s lord on the field of battle, and a peaceful ‘straw death’ (death on one’s pallet of straw) an end scorned – at least in song – by all warriors.
In exchange for complete fealty, the war lord fed, clothed, housed, horsed, and richly rewarded his warriors. Booty won by his men was typically offered to the lord, to enrich his war chest and finance the giving of gifts back to his best champions. Hence the frequent references in praise of the ‘ring-giving’ lord – the lord who generously bestows silver and gold arm-rings upon his fighters – or upon his resident scop. Ladies too were ‘ring-givers’, rewarding the skill and prowess of warriors with gifts presented amidst feasting in the timber hall.
Thegns (‘thanes’) were the warrior class in Anglo-Saxon England, and most of the Saxon fighters you meet in The Circle of Ceridwen are thegns. Thegns held land from their lord (who might also be their king) and had a higher wergild than ceorls (‘churls’), common freeborn men. These distinctions were not rigid, however; a ceorl who accumulated five hides of land (a hide being the amount needed to sustain one family) became entitled to the rights of a thegn, and this rank became hereditary after three generations.
Thegns were the forerunner of knights. The Old English cnicht means “household retainer” or “servant”. Anglo-Saxon kings like Ælfred the Great called their closest and most trusted thegns their gesithas – their companions.