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Arms & Armour

Weapons


Warfare was a part of everyday life and the tools of war were often the tools for everyday jobs too. The only real exception to this was the sword - the mark of the true warrior.

 

Fig. 1: Typical war-gear for a late Saxon soldier - spears, sword, knife, helm and mailshirt, to which a shield would usually be added. (Click on image for a closer look)

Spear

The main weapon of the period was the spear, not only for the peasant but also for the professional soldiers and even the nobility. It was the traditional weapon of Woden and remained the weapon par excellence among Germanic peoples even during the tenth- and eleventh-century. At the battle of Maldon in 991 the Eorl led his men into battle armed with spear and shield; it was only after he had killed two men with his spears that he drew his sword to engage a third man. There were several types of spear. The first was the light throwing spear or javelin. Manuscripts of the period often show warriors holding a number of spears in the shield hand and another in the weapon hand; presumably most of these were for throwing as the lines closed whilst the last was retained for hand to hand combat. In early Anglo-Saxon times some Germanic warriors used a special type of javelin known as an angon. This was probably based on the Roman pilum, and had an elongated socket, often as long as 75cm (30"), and a barbed head. When this type of spear stuck into a shield it would bend, making it very difficult to remove. With the angon firmly embedded, the shield would become to cumbersome to move, thus rendering it useless.
Fig. 2: A selection of tenth/eleventh century Spears.
The thrusting spear tended to have a fairly broad leaf or lozenge shaped head with a central ridge for strength. The heads were attached to the shaft by a socket. The sockets were usually riveted to the shaft and some have two small lugs near the base of the socket to allow the head to be bound on as well. The length of the spear varied from about 1.5 - 2.7m (5' - 9'), but around 2.1m (7') was the commonest length. The last type of spear is really just a variant of the second type and is called a winged spear. On the side of the socket are two projections which are used to catch and lock an opponent’s spear, or to hook an opponents shield out of the way. The spear was, without doubt, the commonest weapon of ths period and its almost universal use with all ranks and cultures testifies to its effectiveness. The spear was retained for as long as possible and it is probably for this reason the fighting glove was apparently considered a waste of time, if it was considered at all. Some of the spears found in Scandinavian contexts are almost rapier-like in appearance; others tended to be squatter. At any rate, it must be said that even the best mail and padding would not be proof against a strong thrust from such weapons.

 Spears were generally used in an overarm technique, which meant the prime targets were the face (particularly the eyes), the throat and upper chest. One big advantage of this method of using a spear is that there was no need to change the grip in order to throw it.

 

Scramaseax

Almost all warriors, from the highest to the lowest carried a single edged knife known as a scramaseax. Indeed, it seems that wearing a knife may have been a symbol of freemanship. Although primarily an everyday tool, in battle it could be used to finish off a felled opponent, and in the case of some ceorls, a mid to large sized scramaseax could have taken the place of a sword. Its length varied according to its role, and examples found range from 7.5 - 75cm (3'' - 30'') blade length. However the average size for most of the hundreds found is around 15 - 25cm (6''-10"). They are found in two general size ranges. The smaller examples range from about 7.5 - 35cm (3" - 14") in blade length, and this is probably the knife refered to as the hadseax. These small examples were almost certainly just everyday tools: butchery knives, woodworking tools, eating knife, etc.. There are also a few very long examples whose blade lengths are in the 54 - 75cm (22" - 30") range. These larger knives are certainly weapons rather than tools, and were referred to as a langseax. Most blades were broad, heavy and with an angled back sloping in a straight line towards the point and this is the typical Saxon style. The Scandinavian style had a more curving back and the Frankish style a more curving blade. Blades were often inlaid with gold, silver, copper or bronze wire. The grip was of wood, bone or antler and was sometimes carved; the hilt was usually without a pommel or crosspiece. Scramaseaxes were always carried in a sheath of folded leather which was often decorated. It is unlikely that a small scramaseax could kill a heavily padded or mailed man. The langseax usually ended in a deadly needle point, therefore a thrust would have much the same effect as a spear. However a slashing blow to an armoured man would do little or no damage through mail.
Fig. 3: Scramaseaxes. The top three are typically Anglo-Saxon.

Axes

Small hand axes tended to just be wood-axes which were used for combat. The hafts were between 60 - 90cm (2' - 3') long with a blade about 7.5 - 150cm (3'' - 6'') wide. One special type of hand axe, particularly popular in the early Viking period, was the skeggox, or bearded axe, so called because of its elongated lower edge. In early Anglo-Saxon times some warriors used a special type of axe known as a francisca. The francisca was designed for throwing, and had been particularly popular amongst the Franks.

 

Fig. 4: War Axes of the later Viking Age.
The Broadaxe, or Dane-axe, was a two handed axe introduced by the Vikings in the late tenth century but which soon became popular with Saxons as well, and was probably developed from the axes used to slaughter animals. Usually used only by the wealthier warriors it has a broad blade with a cutting edge of about 22 - 45cm (9'' - 18'') and a haft some 1.2 - 1.5m (4' - 5' long).
Fig. 5: A selection of late Viking axeheads. (Click on image for a closer look)

Bows And Arrows

Although bows were widely used by the continental Saxons, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have used the bow mainly for hunting. The bow was more widespread as a weapon amongst the Vikings, but even then was not terribly common. Bows were mainly of yew, elm or ash, ‘D’ shaped in section and tapering from the centre to the tips. They tended to be between 1.65 - 1.9m (66'' - 76'') long. They were sometimes bound every few inches with linen or sinew to help prevent the wood from splitting. Some bows had horn or metal nocks which could be sharp enough to use the bow like a spear in an emergency. Arrows were generally broadheaded although bodkins (armour piercing arrows) were known and became more common in the eleventh century. By the eleventh century arrowheads were normally socketed although many of the earlier ones were tanged. Arrow-shafts were usually of ash, willow, aspen or pine although other timbers were used. Fletchings were of goose or swan feather.

 

Fig. 6: Viking Age arrows. (Click on image for a closer look)

Sword

The most prized weapon, but not the most common one, was the sword. They were very valuable and were handed down from generation to generation, or given as gifts to great warriors or kings. They were considered to have a greater value if they were old or had belonged to a famous warrior in the past. The blades were between 72 - 80cm (29'' - 32'') long and about 5cm (2'') broad with a shallow groove or fuller down the centre of both sides to lighten the blade without losing strength. At the time of the migrations from Germany to England some warriors might still be using swords of the late Roman pattern, the so called spatha.

 In early Anglo-Saxon times the sword was generally almost parallel sided almost to the tip, where it tapered to a point, although tapering blades, similar to late Saxon and Viking swords were also known. These early swords usually had pommels and crossguards made up of layers of organic material such as wood, bone or horn, often embellished with, or even completely covered by, gold and silver. Some examples were even inlaid with garnets, or were decorated with enammel. Some swords also had a ring attached to the upper guard, the purpose of which is unknown, although it may represent some special honour bestowed on the sword’s owner. From the later eighth century the tapered type of blade came to be the most common, and pommels and crossguards tended to be made of solid iron. These iron pomels and guards were often richly decorated with silver inlay, gilding or by encrusting them completely in silver. A few were cast in bronze, or rarely, silver.

 

Fig. 7: Viking Age broadswords.
In general form the shape of the sword remained unchanged from the time of the first Germanic settlers to 1250AD, although many different decorative furnishings were used through the years. The function also remained the same - a slashing weapon. After 1250 with the advent of plate armour, swords with sharp points began to appear. It would seem reasonable to assume that swords were capable of breeching mail although tests carried out do not support this. It is possible that against armour the heavy weight of the blade was used to break bones and crush internal organs.

Sling

Although used primarily for hunting small game the sling could have been used in war. Against an armoured man it would have little effect unless a lucky shot hit his face. Against an unarmoured target at close ranges it could break bones and crack skulls. Ammunition seems to have been rounded stones gathered from river-beds or the sea shore. Lead shot of the type used in the Roman period is unknown in Anglo-Saxon times.

Armour

The main type of body armour in Anglo-Saxon times was mail. (This is what many people call 'chain-mail', but this is in fact incorrect nomenclature. The term chainmail was invented by the Victorians, and before this linked armour was always referred to as mail or maille.) The mail of the period was made by cutting thin strips of iron from a piece of sheet, or drawing iron wire through a draw-plate, and winding this around a cylindrical former. It was then cut off with a chisel to form the links. The links would then be compressed so that the ends overlapped. Half of the links were then welded shut in the forge. The other half had the ends of each link were flattened and then had holes punched in them. As the mailshirt was assembled a punched ring was linked to four of the welded rings, a rivet was put through the holes to close the link. Finally the whole mailshirt was likely to have been ‘oil tempered’ to make it stronger and give a small degree of rust-proofing.
Fig. 8: The stages in making mail.
The early mailshirts seem to have reached to just below the waist and have short sleeves (there is no evidence for sleeveless mailshirts like those known from the Iron Age). These short mailshirts seem to have been referred to as a byrnie and are sometimes shown with a vandyked lower edge. The mailshirt became longer towards the eleventh century until it reached the knees or just below with sleeves to the elbow. These long mailshirts, often with an integral hood, were split to the groin at the front and back to enable riding and could well have taken a year to make. The term hauberk, often used to describe these long mail-coats, is actually derived from the Old English word ‘healsbeorg’ which was in fact a mail hood (what is now called a coif); it was not until later that hood and shirt together were known by this name.
Fig. 9: Diagramatic construction of mail, with a sample of butted mail for comparison. This butted mail is the type used by most modern re-enactors. Compare this with the riveted mail in fig. 10.
Fig. 10: Riveted mail. This example is actually later than the Viking Age, but is a good example of the riveting and linking of the rings. (Click on image for a closer view)
Mail worn on its own would stop the cutting edge of most weapons, but did not stop the crushing effects, so some kind of padding would have been worn under the mail. These padded garments, now known as gambesons, were made by sewing fleeces, raw wool or layers of woollen cloth between two layers of linen or leather. Some gambesons were very thick and would offer very good protection. Gambesons were usually worn under mail (perhaps even attached to it) and would tend to be a similar shape to the mailshirt although it is possible they could have been worn on their own by poorer warriors. A less efficient form of undergarment used by some warriors would have been a leather jerkin.

 

Fig. 11: 9th - 11th century helms. (Click on image for a close look)
Head armour consisted of helmets and/or mail coifs. Helmets were made in a variety of ways and from several materials. Metal helms were of several types all were fairly similar in principle, being made from bands of metal forming a framework which was ‘filled in’ by riveting metal, leather or even horn panels into it. Sometimes a nasal would be included to protect the face, often as an extension of the framework although it could be added seperately. A few of the earlier Anglo-Saxon and Viking helmets had spectacle like eye-guards or visors although these seem to have become obselete by the eighth century in Britain, although their use seems to have continued into the early tenth century in Scandinavia. Some earlier helmets had cheek flaps to protect the side of the head and face. The earlier styles of helmet tended to be domed, but gradually they became more pointed to eventually give a conical helm. The best type of helm was hammered out of a single piece of metal and was therefore stronger than a rivetted one. Some helmets had a ‘curtain’ of mail, called an aventail, hanging from the back of them to protect the back of the head and neck, or in early times, sometimes a solid metal neckguard.
 
Fig. 12: Helms of 9th - 11th century types. Most are conical, although in the left hand image there is an example of a Viking spectacle helm and at centre top of the right hand image is a 'great helm' of eastern European type. This type may have been used by some Vikings who settled in eastern Europe. (Click on images for a closer look)
Many illustrations of warriors show them wearing what appears to be a phrygian cap; on its own this would not offer much protection so it seems possible that a small domed metal helm or skullcap may have been worn beneath it. Thick leather was also probably used to make helmets although no leather helms have survived from the period. It is also possible that basket work helms covered in hide or leather were used but, again, none have survived from our period (although there is an earlier Scandinavian find of a metal ‘basketwork’ skullcap which may have been worn under a soft covering). There is even some evidence for wooden helms. Mail coifs, or ‘healsbeorgs’, were worn from the ninth century and tended to cover the top and back of the head, the cheeks, chin, neck and perhaps some of the shoulders. By the beginning of the tenth century these had become quite common amongst the professional warriors. By the eleventh century the coif was starting to become integrated with the hauberk. Padded arming caps would be worn under the coif and may also have been worn on their own. Simple jackets of thick leather may also have been used, either on their own or in combination with the mail.

 

Fig. 13: Warrior wearing a mail coif. (Click on image for a closer view)
Limb armour was far rarer than body or head armour. It is possible that a few kings and greater nobleman may have worn some form of greaves; a sensible defence as the legs were unguarded by the shield and contemporary accounts often mention men having their legs chopped off. No greaves have been found in Britain and illustrations of them are rare. The first illustration is dated to the late ninth century and shows a Dane and two companions with thin (metal?) plates attached to the front of their hose and reaching from knee to instep. An example at the beginning of the eleventh century covers the foot also. In the eleventh century a few of the wealthier warriors are shown with mail chausses or leggings although these too are quite rare. Also in the eleventh century a few wealthy warriors are shown with tight fitting full length mail sleeves under the sleeves of their hauberks. It is also possible that a few warriors may have worn leather vambraces, or have used leather bindings similar to ‘puttes’ to protect their forearms. At this time lamellar and scale armours were known, and used, in the Middle-east but they do not seem to have reached Western Europe until after the First Crusade.

 

Shields

Shields seem to have been used by all warriors. From the first- to the tenth-century round shields seem to have been universal, being either flat or ‘watchglass’ shaped. They are always shown with a boss and often have wooden or metal bands on the back to strengthen them. All the examples found have been of planked construction although there is some evidence to suggest a plyed construction would make the ‘watchglass’ shape easier to make. Some shields were edged with a rim of thick leather or hide to strengthen them whilst others were actually faced with leather or rawhide.

Traditionally shields were made of linden wood although other timbers may also have been used. Round shields seem to have varied in size from around 45 - 120cm (18'' - 48") in diameter but 75 - 90cm (30'' - 36'') is by far the most common. By the beginning of the eleventh century the bottom edge of the shield was extended to cover the upper leg giving rise the kite shield. There is evidence for both flat and curved kite shields and most had bosses. Kite shields seem to vary between 1.0 - 1.5m (3'6'' - 5') in length with about 1.2m (4') being the commonest. Most shields are shown as being painted a single colour although some have a design painted onto them; the commonest designs are simple crosses or segments. A few have more complicated designs.

Shields were naturally very good a absorbing blows and they were particularly good at trapping spears when they parried them (the Saxons sometimes referred to the shield as a ‘net of spears’). The spears of this period, sharp as they were, would remain stuck in a shield if even a moderate thrust was caught. However, a spear stuck in your shield renders the shield fairly ineffective, so most attacks would have been knocked aside using the edge of the shield.

 

  
Fig. 14: Viking Age Warriors. Left: 8th-10th century Viking Warrior. Middle: 9th - 11th century Viking/Saxon Warrior. Right: 11th century Anglo-Danish Huscarl. (Click on images for a closer look)

Ben Levick August 1991 
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Last updated 7th January 1997
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