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skel

(An Anglo-Saxon male warrior burial, as displayed at Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum1)


Before I got distracted with that Christmas thing, I planned on writing a follow up to my post on Anglo-Saxon armour; this time with an emphasis on weaponry. My discussion of armour last time raised a key issue – it is very rare. Weapons, on the other hand, are far more abundant, and offer a more tangible source of evidence.

In the Roman period, soldiers were well-trained professionals (i.e. it was their job to kill folk). In the early Anglo-Saxon period, though, we are looking at small warbands of ‘barbarians’ rallied around a leader. This does not mean that they were not fearsome warriors, but it does mean that they would only fight on an ad hoc basis. The concepts of soldier and civilian don’t really apply here – everyone would fight when they needed to. Swearing fealty to a powerful individual or king would grant you protection, but it would always be your responsibility to look after hearth and home. So instead of armies and war we are talking more about raiding and survival.

Anglo-Saxon society was hierarchical and certain classes of individual can be deduced from the archaeological and historical evidence. At the apex were the chieftains, lords and kings. These elites would have the finest weapons and armour, wielding jewel-encrusted swords and donning the fancy helmets that we have previously discussed. Swords were sharp on both sides and were created from iron and steel using a process called pattern-welding. They were not mere weapons, though, as their decoration served to augment the wielder. The sword was a badge of status, and their relative rarity in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries attests their elite nature. In this sense, they were not only important and devastating weapons but symbols of power and rank. The fact that they are occasionally found accompanying the burials of children not old enough to wield them demonstrates their status-giving role.

sword(The sword from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. It dates to around AD 625 and is exquisitely decorated with gold and garnets2)

Beneath the elites were the more numerous ‘free’ men. These individuals were the ordinary people of Anglo-Saxon England, and their fighting kit largely consisted of spears and shields. Spearheads are found frequently in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, and many graves, generally male, contained them. They came in different shapes and sizes; some were narrow and designed to pierce whilst others were broader, perhaps intended for hunting or bleeding out a foe. Others still were smaller and would have been used as javelins. Shield bosses are a little rarer, but are likewise abundant when compared to the relative rarity of swords. Although the shield board very rarely survives due to the nature of organic decay, it is clear from the examples we have that Anglo-Saxon shields would be quite large and round. Axes would have also been used, although they are quite rare in cemeteries, and are difficult to date. The discovery of arrowheads in some graves also reveals the importance of archery in Dark Age warfare, and it is true that later historical sources talk of the ‘shield wall’ formation to defend against such projectiles. Long knives, known as seaxes after the Saxons who wielded them, were also used but appear to come into use a little later, during the seventh-century.

spearheads(A selection of spearheads found at Hardown Hill, Dorset3)

Beneath the common man were the unfree members of society. Slavery is difficult to identity archaeologically, but it is a known phenomenon from the historical sources. Whether they would be expected to fight is not known, but it is not unreasonable to speculate that they would have done so at times of need.

So unlike armour, we are much more confident about the weaponry used in early Anglo-Saxon England. With only a limited number of historical sources, though, the nature of warfare and the tactics employed can be difficult to piece together. What is clear, though, is that weapons were abundant in early Anglo-Saxon graves, and would have been widely used. In this sense, they can be seen as the foundation of a society based around power and warfare.


1 The burial was found near Salisbury in 1964 and was accompanied by two spears, a shield, a knife in a scabbard, a bone comb and a copper-alloy bowl. Picture credit: Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum [http://www.salisburymuseum.org.uk/collections/romans-saxons/saxon-warrior]

2 Picture credit: The British Museum [http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/s/sword_from_sutton_hoo.aspx]

3 Scale, 1:3. Redrawn after Evison, V. 1968. ‘The Anglo-Saxon Finds from Hardown Hill’. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, vol.90, p.235.

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