The War Kit

All free Saxon peoples, men and women, had the right to carry the dagger-like seax at their side. Only slaves went completely unarmed, and it is tellingly significant that the manumission ceremony usually involved the ritualised giving of a seax to the freed person. This knife, which gave the Saxons their name, was undoubtedly employed in myriad domestic and agricultural uses throughout the day, for scraping, cutting, punching, and sawing.

Ordinary men going to battle added a spear, so typically made of strong ash wood that spears in Anglo-Saxon poetry are sometimes referred to simply as aesc. Spear-heads were forged of iron and a few have been found that had been pattern welded for extra strength. The spear, weapon of Woden, is the most common Anglo-Saxon arm after the seax, and its skilful use was necessary in both battle and hunting. Some spears, undoubtedly belonging to noblemen, had spear-heads ornamented with silver, copper, or bronze.

The common farmer headed to war would also carry a round wooden shield with an iron or bronze boss. Bow and arrows made up the rest of the offensive equipment. (Recall that in desperate times anything becomes a weapon – the Bayeux Tapestry has depictions of Saxons hurling clubs, and chroniclers of that battle tell of stones tied to sticks being hurled.) As far as protective gear, our farmer had little or nothing beyond his wool tunic and cap. The head was protected at most with a leather cap strapped over with iron bands.

Professional warriors were much more fully equipped, with the best armaments they could commission or capture. By ‘professional warrior’ I refer not to mercenaries (though they too existed in Anglo-Saxon society) but the class of men known as thegns. The thegn ( “thane”) was a freeborn warrior-retainer of a lord; thegns were housed, horsed, fed and armed in exchange for complete fidelity to their sworn lord. Thegns truly lived and died by their iron, and the acquisition and maintenance of fine weaponry was requisite for survival. Therefore their armoury was far more complete. Projectile weapons included bow and arrows, thrusting and throwing spears, and throwing axes. The supreme weapon of the thegn was his sword.

Swords were named, passed reverently from father to son, and engraved with good luck runes and geometric symbols, the meaning of the latter now lost to us. Good swords were phenomenally dear – one given as a gift by King Edmund was valued at 120 oxen. The value did not rest solely in the blade, of course; sword hilts were often embellished with silver or gold wire, and the hilt of the Sutton Hoo sword is set with garnets. The sword rested sometimes in a sheath hung from a belt at the warrior’s left hip, but many men preferred a shoulder strap, as remains of these too have been found, and the sword itself referred to as a “shoulder companion”. Sword sheaths were made from thin pieces of fitted wood, covered in leather and mounted with various metals base or precious. The sheath could be richly ornamented and quite valuable in its own right. Sometimes the sword sheath was lined with fleece, the oily wool-wax serving to keep the blade from rusting.

Swords were straight, with double-edged blades and rather blunt points – a weapon used for hacking, not piercing. Sword and shield were used together in precise interplay – a sword thrust delivered, the shield parrying the return blow, another sword thrust delivered. Byrnies, or mail shirts made of riveted, interlocking iron rings (called ring-shirts in The Circle of Ceridwen) were, due to their extreme expense, reserved for a small minority of wealthy thegns and war-lords. The weight of these ring-shirts was oppressive; records tell of thegns stripping off their mail so they could run faster to join a battle in danger of being lost. Only small fragments of Anglo-Saxon mail remain to us, but depictions of warriors wearing ring-shirts survive carved into walrus and bone caskets, and on bronze decorative helmet plates. There is some evidence that certain warriors wore hardened leather and even pieces of whalebone as an adjunct to the ring-shirt.

A conical iron helmet, generally sporting a nasal guard and oftentimes enriched with silver or gold or symbolic animal crests (the 7th century helmet found at Benty Grange is topped by a charging boar, as is the newly discovered Pioneer helmet) completed the prosperous warrior’s war-kit.

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