The Social Context of Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England


History & Heritage. Copied from HERE:

The Social Context of Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England

Geongne æþeling sceolan gode gesiðas
byldan to beaduwe and to beahgife

The young prince shall good companions
encourage to battle and to ring-giving.

(Gnomic Verse)

It is impossible to fully understand warfare in isolation from its social context, as war is a social activity. However, the nature of Anglo-Saxon society, and consequently warfare evolved over time, from the many and confused ‘kingdoms’ of the early migrations in the fifth century, through the ‘heptarchy’ of the sixth and seventh centuries, to the establishment of a largely unified English nation in the late eighth and ninth centuries, firstly under the house of Mercia then Wessex. The trend to the centralisation of power reflected the regeneration of the urban centres and the gradual improvement in the road infrastructure.

The Warband

Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesiþas, þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten.

So should a young man do good deeds
give gifts of treasure while under his father’s protection,
so that when he is older ever afterwards he will have
dear companions, then when war comes
the warband will stand by him.

(Beowulf line 20)

Throughout this period the social and military structure was defined by the institution of the ‘warband’. Every ‘lord’, whether king, ætheling or ealdorman would maintain a band of warriors and it was by virtue of the military prowess of this warband that he maintained his position.

The warband would comprise the lord’s immediate kinsmen and the best warriors from the region. In addition a lord who was militarily successful, either in raiding his neighbours or forcing them to yield tribute, would attract warriors from outside the region, which would in turn increase his ability to raid and exact tribute. Bede records how the popularity of Oswine, king of Deira, was such that noble men came from every region to serve him. The social hierarchy of the warband appears to have been based on a combination of birth and ability. While good birth was a great advantage, it would appear that a successful warrior, even from a modest background, might be able to achieve high rank.

The warriors of the warband lived in the lord’s hall. This cohabitation would be important in developing loyalty and an esprit de corps within the warband. In addition to eating at the lord’s table, the warriors were rewarded for their service with gifts, particularly of weapons and armour, and, after long service, with grants of land. These warriors were in no way mercenaries, however; the relationship between lord and his warband was long term and was considered to be honourable for both parties. Personal prestige was considered extremely important. The value of gifts given by the lord therefore lay not only in their monetary worth but also in the prestige they brought. Gift giving was both public and formal, and reflected well on both the lord, who demonstrated his ability to provide gifts and the warrior who earned them.

In return for their lord’s generosity the warriors accepted a number of social obligations. The most important of which was the duty to fight in the warband and, if their lord was killed, to avenge him or die in the attempt. The reciprocal nature of the gift giving and these obligations is summed up in the fragmentary account of the battle of Finnsburh:

Ne gefrægn ic næfre wurþlicor æt wera hilde
sixtig sigebeorna sel gebæran
ne nefre swanas hwitne medo sel forgyldan
ðonne Hnæfe guldan his hægstealdas

Never have I heard of worthier that were at battle
sixty ‘war-bears’ so bore themselves,
never was bright mead so repaid
than that Hnaef gave his nobles

(Finnsburh line 37)

If the lord was killed in battle the obligation was immediate, his warband must stand and fight until they were victorious or, as was more often the case, they were all slain.

þa wearð afeallen þæs folces ealdor,
æþelredes eorl; ealle gesawon
heorðgeneatas þæt hyra heorra læg.
þa ðær wendon forð wlance þegenas,
unearge men efston georne;
hi woldon þa ealle oðer twega,
lif forlætan oððe leofne gewrecan.

Then fell the leader of the folk
Æthlered’s earl; all could see
among the hearth-troop their lord lying dead.
Then went forth the proud thegns
brave men quick and eager;
all would have one of two things
to quit life or to avenge their lord.

(Battle of Maldon line 202)

Although the idea of dying in battle rather than quitting the field if the lord was slain was clearly an ideal that not every warrior would live up to, it should not be dismissed as fantasy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records several incidences where warbands were annihilated with their lord, such as the battle of Daegsanstan in AD 603 where, despite the battle being an overwhelming Northumbrian victory, Theodbald, brother of Æthelferth King of Northumbria, was killed ‘with all those he led of the army’. Analysis of recent military history has shown how defeat can lead to self-destructive or even suicidal impulses. This would be all the more likely following the loss of the dominant patriarchal figure within the tightly knit community of the warband, in which men had lived and fought together for many years.


At times the survivors were more pragmatic. In Beowulf, Hengest comes to terms with the Frisian king Finn following the death of his lord Hnæf at Finnsburh and Hrothgar is said to have come to terms with the Froda king of Heathobards to settle a long running feud in an agreement which includes the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter, Freawaru, to Froda’s son, Ingeld. In neither case was the peace sustained; in the spring following the fighting at Finnsburh, one of Hengest’s men placed his sword Hildeleoma ‘Battle-light’ in his lap, a symbol of the obligation to seek revenge. Hengest broke the truce, killed Finn and all his men and took Hildeburh, Hnæf’s sister and Finn’s widow, back with him to Denmark. The marriage of Freawaru and Ingeld ended in no better circumstances, Ingeld was incited to revive the feud during a visit to his father in law and was cut down along with his warband by the Scyldings. Beowulf himself, as the archetypal warrior, made clear his opposition to such attempts at reconciliation and foretold their futility:

Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge.

It seldom happens
after the fall of a prince that for even a little while
the spear rests, however worthy the bride.

(Beowulf line 2029)

If the lord were murdered rather than killed in battle the obligation was to take revenge by killing either the perpetrator or the instigator of the crime. The obligation was enduring and such feuds could extend over generations.

The obligation to take revenge extended to other members of the warband. Beowulf rebuked the King Hrothgar “Ne sorga, snotor guma; selre bið æghwæm þæt he his freond wrece, þonne he fela murne.”, “Do not be sorrowful, wise man! It is better for anyone that he should avenge his friend, rather than mourn greatly.”

The obligation to avenge a crime should not be viewed as anti-social. Rather it was a stabilising influence when no central authority existed to protect the individual. Without it each individual would have been vulnerable to acts of wanton violence, as there would have been no fear of punishment. However, the obligation frequently led to a fæhð ‘feud’ with a cycle of tit-for-tat killings. As a consequence, following the establishment of regional authority in the late sixth and early seventh century, a new system of weregilds, fixed payments in lieu of revenge, was introduced in an attempt to control this destructive cycle. It was not entirely successful in preventing feuding, however, so that King Edmund (AD 939-46) lamented the prevalence of feuds and laid down procedures for paying a weregild which were designed to prevent further outbreaks of violence by bereaved kinsmen.

The warband’s loyalty to the lord appears to have transcended traditional kinship loyalties. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for AD 755 is extremely revealing. Cynewulf king of Wessex tried to expel a minor noble or ætheling called Cyneard. In response Cyneard and his warband of eighty-four warriors caught the king when he was visiting his mistress and killed him. The few warriors he had with him ran to help, despite being outnumbered. Cyneard offered to spare them but they declined and were all slain except one who was badly wounded. In the morning the remainder of the king’s warband arrived and besieged Cyneard and his men. Cyneard asked them to accept him as king but they replied that they could never follow their lord’s murderer. The besiegers then offered safe passage to any of his men, since many of them were related. They replied that they had made the same offer to the king’s men, and were no more prepared to leave their lord than the king’s men had been. The besiegers therefore stormed the enclosure and killed them. The difficulty of loyalties divided between lord and kin is a common theme in much of the surviving Germanic literature. The fragmentary passages of the poem Hildebrand and Hadubrand describes how Hildebrand, a Goth and the champion of an army of Attila the Hun, was forced to fight his estranged son Hadubrand in a single combat because he would not come to terms.

Economic Structure

Æt .x. hidum to fostre .x. fata hunies, .ccc. hlafa, .xii. ambra Wilisc ealað, .xxx. hluttres, tu eald hriðeru oððe .x. weðeras, .x. gees, .xx. henna, .x. cesas, amber fulne buteran, .v. leaxas, .xx. pundwæga foðres 7 hundteontig æla.

From 10 hides as food, 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers of Welsh ale, 30 of clear ale, 2 full-grown cows or 10 whethers, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, , a full amber of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder and 100 eels.

(Laws of Ine)

To maintain a warband a lord needed a constant supply of commodities to support the warriors and gold and silver to give out as gifts. There were two ways in which these could be obtained. If the warband were strong enough they could raid neighbouring regions and either force them to yield tribute or just carry off valuables. Cattle were a particular target of this activity, because of the relative ease of driving them from one area to another. Since raids would often lead to battles, another type of booty would be the wargear of vanquished opponents. The pillaging of the dead is frequently mentioned in poetry; Ongentheow’s body is stripped of his sword and helmet (Beowulf line 2986) and a Viking warrior attacks Byrhtnoth with the intention of taking his sword, armour and rings (Battle of Maldon line 160). It is not clear how these spoils of war would be divided, but it is likely that the majority would have been distributed among the participants in the raid with a proportion being retained by the lord.

Although raiding and exacting tribute feature highly in literature among the activities of the most successful kings, it cannot have been the major source of wealth as it is only a method of redistribution not of production. The only creators of wealth were the agrarian population, who supported the king through the payment of ‘food rents’. The king would travel around his kingdom on a circuit, with his warband, collecting some of the agricultural surplus from the population. The court would either stay with major landholders or on the king’s own estates at royal ‘vills’. How voluntarily these food rents were given up is open to question. It might be presumed to have depended on the degree of participation the population perceived themselves to have in their government. In regions where the population was tied to the king through kinship and where members of the population served in the warband the food rents might have been yielded quite voluntarily, especially as the king’s visit would have been an opportunity to petition him. However, where the population had no personal ties to the king, the presence or threat of the warband would have been used to exact the levy. In recently conquered areas food rents would have been replaced by tribute, usually livestock on the hoof, which would be brought to the king. This was recognised to be a ignominious state, since the traffic was all one way, with no reciprocal access to the king. But in these regions a king would be unwise to visit except at the head of an army.

Land Tenure

þæs þe he me lond forgeaf,
mines fæder eþel, frea Myrginga.

After which he gave me land, my fathers estate, the lord of the Myrgings.

(Widsið line 95)

After long service higher ranking warriors would be given a grant of land to hold for the king. This is not to say that they would personally farm this land, rather, they would set up their own hall and gather their own warband and take food rents and service from their tenants. If the size of their landholding warranted it they might also have moved around on their own circuit.

In the early period such grants of land were generally made for the life of the recipient only and after his death reverted to the king, although the grant might sometimes be reaffirmed on his heirs. Such tenure was known as lænland orfolcland. This gave the king a constantly renewable resource of land to give as a reward for service. Young men could only earn their land through service to the lord in the warband, not through inheritance.

The king would of course call on his nobles and their warbands to support him in battle. A military expedition or ‘fyrd’ would therefore be composed of several independent warbands. The king’s own warband always remained a significant element of the army, however, for its warriors, by virtue of their personal ties, could be expected to engage the enemy aggressively. The same could not be guaranteed of the members of other warbands, since they would have only indirect loyalty to the king through their personal allegiance to their own leader.

This situation began to change in the eighth century due to the introduction of the concept of ‘bookland’ that was assigned with hereditary rights. Initially bookland was reserved for grants to the church for the foundation of religious institutions but gradually it also came to be granted to secular families and eventually hereditary tenure appears to have become the norm. Bede records how in Northumbria the introduction of bookland had a serious consequence for the social order. Whilst previously some land may have been held with hereditary rights, the widespread granting of land to the church by successive monarchs reduced the amount of royal land to such an extent that there was not enough to provide young warriors with endowments. Many such warriors were therefore seeking service elsewhere, where they would be properly rewarded, leaving the armies of the kingdom weak and unable to defend it.

At first bookland was granted free of all obligations to the king, but, as it became more prevalent this became untenable. In the mid to late eighth century the Mercian kings began to impose what were to become to be known as ‘the three common burdens’: bridge-building, fortification work and service on military expeditions in the ‘fyrd’. The degree of service owed to the king depended on the size of the estate held, which was calculated in terms of ‘hides’. In general each unit of five hides had to provide one man when the fyrd was called on, although local variations existed. However, it need not be assumed that the introduction of ‘common burden’ of fyrd service on bookland in some way indicates that there was a revolutionary change in the composition of the fyrd. The common burden merely re-established the right of kings to expect military service from landholders and quantified the numbers of men expected. The fyrd continued to be made up of the nobility and their personal retinues.

The Structure of Society

Æt twyhyndum were mon sceal sellan to monbote .xxx. scillinga, æt .vi. hyndum .lxxx. scillinga, æt .xii. hyndum .cxx. scillingum.

A two hundred man shall pay a manprice of 30 shillings, a six hundred (man) 80 shillings, a twelve hundred (man) 120 shillings.

(Laws of Ine)

The hierarchy of Anglo-Saxon society was defined in law. The fine for many crimes varied according to the rank of either the perpetrator or the victim. The most important of these were the fines paid for killing a man, the wergild ‘man-price’. The earliest Kentish law codes recognise three main divisions, noble (eorlcundne) with a wergild of 300 Kentish shillings, free men (frigne mann) with a wergild of 100 shillings and three classes of unfree læt valued at 80, 60 and 40 shillings each. Slightly later West Saxon laws show a greater differentiation between the classes of free men, valuing the noble geneat, gesið or þegn at 1200 West Saxon shillings, six times that of the free ceorlsgebures orgafolgeldan ‘taxpayers’ with a wergild of 200 shillings, although a middle class, valued at 600 shillings, also appears occasionally. West Saxon shillings were certainly smaller than Kentish shillings but the exact exchange rate is unknown so it is not clear how these two scales relate. From this time, although the names used for each rank varied, this underlying structure appears to have remained constant for several centuries. Indeed, so common was the identification of each class with its wergild that the value was often used to describe the rank, thus twelfhyndne mon, ‘twelve-hundred shilling man’ and twyhyndne mon, ‘two-hundred shilling man’. The wergild of the indigenous Welsh population was also recognised, but at half the value of the equivalent English rank.

The qualification for the status of a þegn ‘thegn’ is uncertain. A late law code states that a ceorl who owned five ‘hides’ of land acquired a thegn’s wergild but that a ceorl who acquired a mail byrnie, a helmet and a sword but had no land remained a ceorl. However, thegn status also had a hereditary element that did not depend on ownership of land and it is clear that thegns could be landless.

The early law codes do not define the wergild of a king, an æthling ‘prince’ or high ranking nobles such as the ealdormen, but we know from later sources they had a weregild several times that of a thegn. The late Northumbrian Law of Weregelds defines the wergild of an ealdorman as equivalent to that of four thegns and that of the king as that of fifteen thegns.

The unfree classes, generally known as ðeow or esne, had a status somewhere between servants and slaves, they were not free to move but they could own property and had a number of rights in law. Only free men, however, were entitled to bear arms. The law code of Ine, King of Wessex (AD 688-726), includes a list of fines for assisting the escape of another man’s servant by lending him a weapon. Interestingly the fine is higher if the weapon is a spear rather than a sword, perhaps reflecting the common association in Germanic society of the spear with membership of the free ‘warrior’ class. The unfree came from three sources: a man captured in a battle or raid would be kept as a slave if he could not be ransomed by his kinsmen, a man might lose his freedom if he were unable to meet his legal obligations and the children of slaves would remain slaves.

There is considerable debate regarding the degree to which ceorls participated in military activity. The law code of Ine clearly ascribes military obligations on ceorls by defining the penalties if they did not meet them:

Gif gesiðcund mon landagende forsitte fierd, geselle .cxx. scillinga 7 ðolie his landes; unlandagende .lx. scillinga; cierlisc .xxx. scillinga to fierdwite.

If a gesið who holds land does not attend the fyrd he will give up 120 shillings and forfeit his land: (a gesið) without land (will give up) 60 shillings: a ceorl (will give up) 30 shillings as a fyrd-fine.

Victorian scholars saw these obligations as evidence of an egalitarian society, portraying the army as comprised of free husbandmen and representing the ‘nation in arms’. More recently this interpretation has been challenged. It is contended that ceorls, if they participated in military activity at all, supported the army rather than serving in it. Evidence supporting this claim includes Bede’s account of Imma, a Northumbrian thegn, who attempted to avoid capture following a battle by disguising himself as a rusticus who had been bringing provisions for the army. It is not clear, however, whether the Latin rusticus should be equated with a ceorl or with the lowlier ðeow or esne, or whether it was Imma’s claim to be married and therefore clearly not a bachelor member of the warband that was important. The debate is further complicated by the fact that it is not possible to assess the proportion of society at each rank. Even if ceorls did form a significant element in Anglo-Saxon armies this need not indicate a ‘nation in arms’, if the greater proportion of the population were of the ‘unfree’ classes.

Manufacture of weapons

Beowulf maðelode on him byrne scan,
searonet seowed smiþes orþancum

Beowulf spoke his byrnie shone
a cunning net sewn with the smith’s skill

(Beowulf line 405)

While simple items such as spearheads and knives were probably made by any smith, the manufacture of the majority of weapons, and in particular swords, was a specialist occupation. Despite their importance in Anglo-Saxon literature it appears from the law codes that the majority of smiths were not free men. The laws of Æthelbert of Kent allot a king’s ‘favourite smith’ (ambihtsmið) the normal wergild of a free man, that is 100 Kentish shillings, but servants of the crown had higher wergilds than other men so it is likely that most smiths would have been ranked in the læt class. The client status of the smith is also illustrated in the laws of Ine which state that a nobleman who left his estate was allowed to take his smith with him, along with his reeve and his children’s nurse.

Smith’s tools are occasionally found. A unique collection of tools dating from the seventh century, probably from the grave of a smith, was discovered at Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire. These included an anvil, hammers, tongs, a file, snips (shears) and punches.

The most famous smith in Germanic legend was Weland. The tale of Weland is known from later Viking sources, although he was clearly known to the Anglo-Saxons since he is mentioned several times in Anglo-Saxon poetry and depicted in a scene on the ‘Franks’ casket and on a number of carved stone crosses. Weland is captured by the king Niðhad and is lamed by having the sinews in his knee-joints cut to prevent him from escaping. He is then set to work on an island to make precious objects for the king. Niðhad’s two sons, motivated by greed, visit Weland in secret and he beheads them and uses their skulls to make drinking cups that he sends to the king. The king’s daughter, Beadohild, has a ring that Weland had made. One day she breaks it and, afraid to tell her father, she takes it to Weland to have it mended. While he is working, Weland gives her beer to drink that has been drugged so that she falls asleep. While she is sleeping Weland rapes her, leaving her pregnant. He then escapes from the island using a flying-machine he has made; his revenge on Niðhad is complete.

There are numerous other references to Weland; Beowulf is said to own a marvellous mail byrnie made by him. In the poem Waldere the eponymous hero owns a sword named Mimming which he claims was forged by Weland and previously owned by both Widia, Weland’s son (by Beadohild), and by Theodoric king of the Goths. Also. there are a number of places in England and on the continent associated with Weland, such as Wayland’s Smithy, a prehistoric burial chamber in Berkshire.

Another famous smith in Germanic literature was Regin who forged the sword with which Sigurd slew the dragon Fafnir in the saga of the Volsungs. The saga tells how Regin forged two swords which Sigurd, because of his great strength, managed to break; only when he forged a third sword from the shards of the sword Gram that had been given to Sigurd’s father King Sigmund by Odin and broken in the battle in which Sigmund was slain did Regin manage to forge a blade that was suitable for the hero. Sigurd tested the strength of the blade by striking the anvil on which it was forged and split it down to the stock. Then he tested its edge by throwing a lock of wool into a river and plunging the sword into the stream so that the wool was carried onto the blade and cut in two.

In the Viking period the blades of swords were sometimes stamped or inlayed with smith’s marks. The two most famous smiths were Ulfberht and Ingelrii. Given the varied dates of blades bearing the marks of these smiths, they cannot all have been made by the two smiths personally; rather, it appears, either their names became ‘trademarks’ of the workshops in which they worked and continued to be used after their deaths or their names became synonymous with blades of good quality and were copied by smiths in other workshops.

The values of weapons and other equipment were defined in both Frankish and Welsh law codes. The Welsh laws of the tenth century king Hywel Dda listed the prices of a spear, a bow and twelve arrows and a broad axe all at four pence. A ‘long’ shield was twelve pence or twenty-four pence if it was decorated with gold or silver. The value of a basic sword was twelve pence and a ‘white hilted’ sword twenty four pence. The value of a sword with gold or silver on its hilt was not defined but was to be assessed individually according to the quality of the workmanship. These values should be compared to the prices of other goods listed in the law codes, for example livestock; a full grown ox was valued at sixty pence and a horse at one hundred and twenty pence.

The laws of the Ripurian Franks define the value of a sword and shield together at two solidus while a helmet is valued at six solidus and a mail byrnie at twelve solidus. These values can be compared to the normal wergild of a Frank of 200 solidus.

These values can also be compared to the time taken to manufacture modern reproductions. In an experimental forging of a pattern welded sword undertaken by J.W. Anstee of the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, the time taken to manufacture the complete sword, including the scabbard and fittings was 74 hours.