An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Britain di Antonella Gagliostro (, Claudio Gurgone (, Santina Santoro (, Tassinari (

The Anglo –Saxons in battle

The Anglo –Saxons in battle:


The military strategy of Anglo-Saxon tribes was based on surprise attack, a suitable tactic for semi-nomadic raiders, but their lifestyle changed, however slowly, after they settled down permanently in the recently conquered Britannia.


The Anglo-Saxons reigned over a big part of South-Western England from the VI to the XI century and it is reasonable to suppose that their strategies and weaponry changed a bit in four centuries.

We can reasonably guess that they should have learnt to fight as defenders of their new domains as well as attackers and raiders.


Structure of Anglo Saxon Army:


Like the vast majority of western Germanic tribes the core of Anglo Saxon army was infantry and each king led his warriors to the battlefield and had to give proof of his courage.

Besides his warriors, kings were followed in battle by other nobles and lords, who were his allies and often his relatives. Each lord had his own small army of warriors.

Warriors were wealthy men who could afford to buy all the expensive weapons and equipment and had enough spare time for training. They were not ‘enlisted’ in the king’s army, but were bound to their lord by an oath.

Besides these semi-professional and well trained warriors Anglo-Saxon armies had also a militia called ‘fyrd’, made up of enlisted peasants and sometimes groups of mercenaries.


Under the influence of the custom of the Danes, a new kind of professional warrior appeared in Anglo-Saxon England: the housecarls (also called Þingalið in Old English).

The Anglicised word housecarl comes from the Old Norse word huskarl, that meant ‘house man’ i.e. an armed man in service of a certain family (or house). They were a sort of royal guard in service of kings and lords and were the only professional soldiers in the kingdom, there were about 2000 of them in the whole England and they also had some administrative duties, in fact, in  peace time they acted as king’s representatives.

English housecarls were fed and housed at the king’s expense and the money for sustaining this permanent army was raised with a special tax.

A distinctive feature of housecarls was the use in battle of the long ‘bearded axe’ or skeggox, which was very effective but required a lot of training.


Anglo-Saxon battle strategies:


In battle the warriors faced the enemies in close ranks, protecting themselves with their shields from throwing weapons, such as javelins, arrows and throwing axes.

Immediately after both sides had thrown all they could on the enemy ranks the armies charged each other. In this phase of the battle the main weapon was the long thrusting spear, if the spear broke down or was lost soldiers started close quarter combat using axes, swords or ‘seaxs’.

Anglo-Saxons did not use bows as battle weapons and this made them vulnerable against armies with well trained archers such as the Vikings or their descendants, the Normans.


A more detailed analysis of Anglo Saxon weapons may help us to understand better their behaviour in battle.


Thrusting spear: The spear has been the commonest weapon used in all through several agesand this may be considered a proof of its effectiveness.

Anglo-Saxon spears were made of ash wood with a leaf or lozenge-shaped iron point.

The average length was about 2 metres but their length varied from 1.5 to 2.7 metres.

The advantage of the spear was that it was cheap to made and even a poorly trained soldier could become dangerous in battle.

Thrusting spears were not used for throwing and warriors retained them as long as they could during the fight. A strong thrust from a spear could pierce the ‘coat of mail’ armours used in those times.

Strokes, however, were aimed at the enemies head and neck and soldier tried to avoid the opponent’s shield in which the spear point could remain stuck causing the loss of the weapon.


Javelin, or throwing  spear: These weapons were, as their name suggests, thrown towards the enemy. Warriors carried three or four of them in battle, using one hand to launch them and holding the others in the other hand, protected by the shield, that was tied to the arm by leather slings or ropes. Probably the soldiers carried, in the hand protected by the shield, one or two more javelins and the thrusting spear.

Recent reconstructions and experiments have shown that a javelin was effective at a distance of about 30 to 40 paces and travelled trough the air at a relatively slow speed.

One single javelin could easily be avoided, in fact they were thrown all together by the warriors before the charge.

A javelin weighed about one kilogramme and during its flight acquired enough inertial strength to penetrate a wooden shield and wound the owner.


Bearded Axe (also known as Broad Axe, Danish Axe or Skeggox) : A heavy axe with a long handle that was used with both hands. It was the favourite weapon of the “Þingaliðs” the Anglo-Saxon royal guard.

It was an effective attack weapon, but heavy and cumbersome if used to stop the enemy’s  blows.

A warrior required constant training to become proficient in the use of the axe and that is the reason why only professional or semi-professional soldiers used it.

When the Þingaliðs fought with the long axe they hung their shield on their back with a leather belt.


Franzisca: A small but heavy throwing axe, it owes its name to the fact of being popular among the Germanic tribe of the Franks. It was used in early Anglo-Saxon times.


Sword: The sword is the most famous of all ancient weapons, but it wasn’t the most common one in early medieval times. It had a strong value, both material and symbolic; swords often had golden decorations on the hilt and were inherited from father to son.

Swords were also given as very valuable gifts given from kings to their warriors or  to other kings.


Anglo-Saxon swords were only slashing weapons, sharp pointed ones appeared only from the second half of the XIII century, when plate armours became of widespread use and sharp pointed swords become necessary to pierce metal plates.

These early medieval swords were not meant to stop the opponent’s blade, because this would have seriously damaged the sharp edge, Anglo-Saxon warriors aimed their blows at the enemy’s flesh.

Often the sword was used to give the final strike to an opponent previously wounded with the spear.


Seax: A single-edged knife spread, with different names and sizes, among almost all Germanic tribes, it was used both as a tool and as a weapon.


Helmets: Anglo Saxons helmets, as well as Danish and Viking ones, had a conical shape, in order to protect the wearer’s head from direct blows by deflecting them.

The most expensive ones, used by kings and nobles, were entirely made of steel and iron while cheaper ones had an iron ‘skeleton’ to which panels of animal horn, hard leather or even wood were fixed.

The face, cheeks and the neck of the wearer were protected by additional elements made of iron plate or coat of mail.


Shields: For the biggest part of their existence as an independent political entity, Anglo-Saxons used round shields. In the early period they were rather small, with a diameter of about 45 centimetres, as suitable for raiders who had to rush fast towards the enemy. After the colonization of Britannia shields grew bigger [L1] [L2] [L3] [L4] [L5].




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