What was the Anglo-Saxon Army Like? - A Guide for Kids
Updated: Sep 6, 2022
There were many different kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England. Whilst there existed a multitude of differences between each kingdom, there were also many similarities. Whether Wessex, Mercia or Northumberland, chances are they would have built their armies and fought their battles in very similar ways. So, what would an Anglo-Saxon Army have looked like?
There is no Army
Modern nations today all have a professional army. There are soldiers, pilots, engineers, submarine captains and medics who are all paid a wage to do their respective jobs all the time. This wasn't the case in Anglo-Saxon England. In fact, there was no professional army at all. Instead, think of Anglo-Saxon warriors as being enthusiastic volunteers.
If a King needed an army to lead to battle he would call upon the fyrd. The fyrd consisted of free men from the age of 15 - 60 years old, gathered from all across the shire. Each man would be required to bring his own armour and weapons - which often meant that the members of the fyrd would be a rag tag bunch. For every highly experienced and well equipped warrior, noble or lord there would be many more peasants who could afford to bring little more than a pointy wooden stick to battle.
Don't forget the Axes
If you were one of those lucky nobles or one of their housecarls - their experienced retinue of warriors - then it's likely you'd get to wear a chainmail shirt to protect your delicate bits from getting stabbed, sliced or chopped off.
What about helmets? Surely helmets would have been a great idea to avoid any unpleasant head injuries? There's little archaeological evidence to support the use of helmets - for most warriors they would have gone in to battle with nothing to protect their bonce other than a thick and thoroughly unwashed head of hair. Yes, we know the picture above has a man with an impressive moustache wearing a beautiful shiny helmet but let's just put that down to artistic licence.
Shields were made from wood; often Ash, Oak or Maple. These circular shields would be constructed from planks strapped together using an adhesive material and wrapped in leather. In the middle of the shield would be a metal boss - like half a metal snow globe - to further strengthen the joints. Hopefully the shield would be enough to stop arrows, axes and spears - though not always.
As for weapons, the rich could afford swords and axes. Swords in particular were very expensive to have made, most were passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. If you couldn't afford a sword then a seaxe was a good alternative. Seaxes were somewhere between a knife and a sword in length, though they had no pommel - that's the weighted bit at the base of a sword. A seaxe was pretty much like a kitchen knife - so many warriors clutching one would have just borrowed a kitchen utensil to wield in battle.
Despite this, most of the fyrd would have had a spear. Spears were cheap and required relatively little training to use. Plus, their length meant the user could keep as far away from danger as possible whilst still having a decent chance to inflict some damage.
Get in Formation
At this point in history - prior to the changes King Alfred the Great would implement in the 9th Century - no-one would ride a horse into battle. Nor would they ride an elephant, dolphin or spoon - there really was no riding of any sort. Instead every able bodied warrior walked on foot into battle and fought in a shield wall.
Historians and archaeologists are yet to entirely agree on quite how a shield wall worked. Sources from the period felt little reason to mention how a shield wall worked. After all, at the time, everyone knew how a shield wall worked - so why tell people what they already knew, right?
There are some theories however. Some think that an army would start a battle shoulder to shoulder in a shield wall formation - like a fortress made of shields. The opposing armies would then meet and each warrior's shield would be pushing against that of his foe. Everyone would push really hard whilst furiously hacking at any exposed limbs they could see. Eventually one side would retreat, leaving the victor to chase them.
Other theories suggest that rival armies actually just set up shop with a gap between their shield walls and spent their time lobbing sharp pointy things at each other until one side gave up. Some historians, like Rolf Warming, believe shields of the time wouldn't have been durable enough to last long in a shield wall. Instead the warriors would charge at each other in formation and ward off the occasional blow with their shield.
Whatever the reality, one thing is for certain - most warriors were very drunk! Fighting and the possibility of causing or receiving horrible injuries is very scary. Because of this, most warriors would drink a whole lot of beer and wine before battle to strengthen their courage. This might help explain why casualties in battle are estimated to be rather low - around 5% - maybe everyone was too tipsy to aim their spear thrusts properly?
If you are a Primary School teacher then you'll definitely want Imagining History to bring their 'How to Launch a Viking Raid' Interactive workshop to your school.
Have your students got what it takes to launch a successful Viking raid?
In this award-winning workshop, our practitioners will use interactive activities with a drama and performance twist to teach your students everything they need to know to raid the Anglo-Saxon monastery on Lindisfarne. Your students will:
Create a timeline stretching from the first Viking raid to the end of the Viking era.
Construct a Viking Longship using just their bodies.
Interact with replica Viking Weapons, Armour and tools, including a sword, shield, spear, and sunstone.
Use their teamworking skills to test out Viking navigation techniques
Launch a raid on Lindisfarne & outsmart the Monks to steal their treasure.