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BLOG: Warfare in the Anglo-Saxon Period

In my humble opinion, one's imagination is perhaps the most valuable asset a human being possesses. I know, that as a historical fiction writer, my imagination is of inestimable value to me when crafting a story. I might not have lived when my characters did, but when I'm designing a scene, it's my imagination, coupled with research I've completed, that sets the scene. Thus, I'm able to describe my characters, what they wore, how they spoke, the day-to-day arc of their emotions, and how they lived.

I have great admiration for historical fiction authors portraying the Anglo-Saxon period and Dark Ages that came even before that. So very little written information exists for them to depend upon and only in the past fifty to seventy-five years has there been an extra sensitivity toward archaeological finds and details from that time.

M. J. Porter is truly remarkable in doing just this. I welcome M.J. and encourage everyone to read the well-researched and scholarly article/blog on Anglo-Saxon warfare presented below.

Read ON, everybody!!!

All About the Book

From bestselling author, MJ Porter comes the tale of the mighty pagan king, Penda of Mercia.

Britain. AD632.

Penda, a warrior of immense renown, has much to prove if he is to rule the Mercian kingdom of his dead father and prevent the neighbouring king of Northumbria from claiming it. Unexpectedly allying with the British kings, Penda races to battle the alliance of the Northumbrian king, unsure if his brother stands with him or against him as they seek battle glory for themselves, and the right to rule gained through bloody conquest. There will be a victor and a bloody loser, and a king will rise from the ashes of the great and terrible battle of Hædfeld.

Warfare during the Saxon period:

What we know and what we don’t about the battle of Hædfeld

By M.J. Porter

Thanks to some spectacular archaeological finds, we can visualise how a Saxon warrior might have looked. The reconstructions of the Sutton Hoo helm, and that found with the Staffordshire Horde (as well as a few others), present us with elaborate helmets crested with dyed-horse hair in a way very reminiscent of the Roman era. They glitter, and they seem to be festooned in gold and silver work, but whether these were actually worn in battle or not is debatable. Firstly, they would have made the kings or noblemen very noticeable to their enemy. Secondly, they were so valuable it’s impossible to consider the loss of one of them should they fall and their goods be taken by their enemy. Bad enough for their king and leader to die in battle, but to also lose such precious wealth as well seems unlikely. That said, of course, the Sutton Hoo helm was buried, and the fragments of the Staffordshire Hoard helmet were buried and lost.

But there is another reason why these helmets might have existed, and that’s because they were for ceremonial purposes. Kings, before the reign of Athelstan (925-937) are not known to have undergone consecration with a crown but rather with a helmet. After all, they were warrior kings. Perhaps then, these survivals are more akin to that worn by a warrior-king when appearing before his people or for ceremonial reasons.

Items from the Staffordshire hoard which were

declared to be treasure in September 2009.

What then might have been the more usual garb for a warrior of the Saxon era, which at nearly six hundred years is bound to offer some variations? Shield, spear, seax, sword and byrnie. We get a feel for these items and how valuable they were from wills that survive from the later Saxon era, hundreds of years after the events of Pagan Warrior. Ealdormen had horses, both saddled and unsaddled, shields, spears, swords, helmets, byrnies, seax, scabbards and spears. The will of Detail of Staffordshire Hoard Helmet cheek-guard

Æthelmær, an ealdorman in the later tenth century, records that he’s granting his king, ‘four swords and eight horses, four with trappings and four without, and four helmets and four coats of mail and eight spears and eight shields,’[1] as part of his heriot, a contentious term for something that some argue was an eleventh-century development, and others argue, is merely reflecting earlier practice on the death of a man.

There would also have been thegns and king thegns, who had their own weapons, as well as the men of the fyrd, the free-men who could be called upon to perform military service each year, as and when required. It’s often assumed they would have been less well-armed, although this begs the question of whether kings and their warrior nobility were prepared to sacrifice those they relied on to provide them with food to gain more wealth. They might have found themselves with the money to pay for food but without the opportunity to do so.

There are very few representations of warriors, but the surviving strands of the Gododdin, a sixth-century lament to the fallen of Catraeth gives an idea of how these warrior men thought of one another. There is much talk of killing many enemies, drinking mead, and being mourned by those they leave behind.

Battle tactics from the period are impossible to determine fully. Before writing my books which are blood-filled and violent, I read a fascinating account, by a military historian, on how he thought the Battle of Hastings might have been won or lost. The overwhelming sense I came away from the book with was that local features, hillocks, streams, field boundaries even perhaps the path of a sheep track might well be the very thing that won or lost a battle for these opposing sides. The land that kings chose to go to war on was incredibly important.

When trying to reconstruct the battlefield for the battle of Hædfeld, which concludes Pagan Warrior, I encountered a problem that will be familiar to writers of the Saxon era. The place where the battle is believed to have taken place, on the south bank of the River Don (although this has been disputed and work continues to discover whether the other location could be the correct one), has been much changed by later developments. It was drained in the 1600s and therefore, it doesn’t look today as it would have when the battle took place.

I had very little information to work on. The River Don, the River Idle, the River Ouse, the belief that the ground would have been marshy, and that many men fell in the battle. And the words of Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, ‘A great battle being fought in the plain that is called Heathfield.’[1] Much of the rest is my imagination.

[1] Dorothy Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills 1930, reprinted edition. Cambridge University Press. p27

*Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All About M.J. Porter

MJ Porter is the author of many historical novels set predominantly in Seventh to Eleventh-Century England, as well as three twentieth-century mysteries. Being raised in the shadow of a building that was believed to house the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia, meant that the author's writing destiny was set.

Connect with M.J. Porter


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1 Comment

Cathie Dunn
Cathie Dunn
Apr 04, 2023

Thank you very much for hosting MJ Porter today, with such a fascinating guest post. xo

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