‘DARK AGES’: WAR

The wars of the Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons are sparsely recorded, but examples of the latter’s weaponry and armour survive. Viking raids and eventually invasion led to a revolution in ‘English’ defensive strategies, as two warlike cultures began to influence each other.

Fighting men brandishing weapons, depicted on Lindisfarne’s 9th-century ‘Domesday stone’

Fighting men brandishing weapons, depicted on Lindisfarne’s 9th-century ‘Domesday stone’

BRITONS V ANGLO-SAXONS

The few records that survive include British heroic poems, like the Gododdin, which commemorates an otherwise unrecorded ill-fated attack on the Northumbrians at Catraeth (probably Catterick, North Yorkshire) in about 600. These poems describe British cavalry war bands assailing Anglo-Saxons fighting on foot.

Whether British warriors used late Roman-style equipment is unclear. Much more is known about Anglo-Saxon weapons, which were buried with their pagan owners.

Their basic weapons were spears and round shields, often of close-grained wood with central iron bosses. Some early burials also include the single-edged ‘seax’ – slashing-knife – which gave the Saxons their tribal name. Later higher-status graves contain longer swords, straight-bladed and two-edged, and sometimes – like the royal sword of the 620s from Sutton Hoo – of outstanding workmanship.

The few surviving Anglo-Saxon helmets, all costly and elaborate examples, are made of iron, sometimes embellished in bronze.

The walls of Pevensey Castle, where inhabitants were massacred by Saxon raiders

Pevensey Castle was home to a domestic settlement in the early 5th century, following the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 491 it was besieged and its population massacred by a Saxon raiding force.

ALLIANCES AND VIKING RAIDS

These helmets date from the 7th and 8th centuries, when rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fought for superiority, in shifting alliances. Thus the pagan Penda of Mercia allied with the Christian Britons of north Wales to overthrow the Christian Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

But when Viking raids developed into full-scale invasions, ill-armed, part-time English militias were no match for Viking warriors equipped with good swords and often mail-shirts and iron helmets. Only by stubborn refusal to admit defeat did King Alfred of Wessex (r.871–99) eventually force the Danish Great Army to leave Wessex for easier plundering grounds.

His victory at Edington, Wiltshire, in 878 proved that the invaders could be beaten. Their success had been partly due to the lack of fortresses in England, and Alfred began to remedy that with the first co-ordinated post-Roman system of civil defence, his fortified burhs.

Fragment of a Saxon sword found at the Jewel Tower, Westminster

This Saxon sword of about 800 was discovered during excavations around the Jewel Tower, Westminster. The elaborate detail on the sword’s hilt and blade suggests that it belonged to a warrior chief.

SAXON BURHS

By about 900 no settlement in Wessex and across much of southern England was more than 20 miles from a burh, the defences of which were manned and maintained by militiamen levied from the villages they protected. Most burhs later became commercial centres.

Their design varied widely, often adapting existing man-made or natural defences. At Exeter, Devon, and Portchester, Hampshire, Roman walls were reused; elsewhere, prehistoric hillforts were repaired. Completely new earthwork ramparts were created at Wallingford, Oxfordshire, and Wareham, Dorset. At Lydford, Devon, among the smallest burhs, a ditch was dug across the neck of a steep-sided promontory.

The strategic use of burhs also played a major part in the conquest of Danish-held lands.

In one of the most decisive campaigns of the period, Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd protected the approaches to Mercia with burhs at Runcorn and Bridgenorth. Meanwhile her brother King Edward the Elder (r.899–924) struck north-eastwards towards the river Humber, guarding strategic waterways with pairs of riverside forts.

Anglo-Saxon spearheads found at Fort Cumberland

These spearheads, dating from about the 9th century, were discovered at Barrow Clump, Wiltshire. Spears were common weapons in Anglo-Saxon warfare; the widespread use of swords and axes was largely introduced by the Vikings, in their repeated raids of England from the 8th century onwards.

ANGLO-SCANDINAVIAN DESIGN

Renewed Norse influence in the 11th century brought English and Scandinavian styles of weapons and equipment closer together. Professional ‘huscarles’, the mail-shirted bodyguards of kings and earls, adopted the Danish battle-axe and the conical helmet also worn by the Normans.

English warriors are shown in the Bayeux Tapestry using this equipment at the Battle of Hastings, forming a traditional defensive ‘shield wall’. The Normans are seen employing a combination of archers and mounted knights. These were, like the castles the Normans built, new instruments of war in England.

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