The Weapons of War in Anglo-Saxon England

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Anglo-Saxon weaponry

War was a way of life to the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded and settled in Britain. They were fleeing the encroaching Romans, and the Germanic tribes in turn encroached on the remnants of the Empire in Britain. They had to fight to keep their at times tenuous toehold in Britain, and they had to fight against determined resistance leaders like Ambrosius and Arthur.

And when that fighting was done, they turned on each other. Why?

It is one thing to say that warfare is a way of life. It is a very different thing to say that hatred of one’s own people perpetuates warfare. And yet, this is exactly what happened in what we can now call Anglo-Saxon Britain. The invading tribes settled down, got restless, and began fighting among themselves.

How?

The previous article asked the rhetorical question, “Saxons on Horseback? Why not?” It seems, though, that the Germanic tribes were much more comfortable having the ground (and not a horse) underfoot. They preferred to march and fight and dodge and triumph with spear in one hand, shield in the other, and mail and helmet firmly in place.

Archaeological digs bear this out, revealing little evidence of horseback fighting. Spears, swords, axes, and other handheld weapons are plentiful in such burial finds; lances are not.

So when the Germanic invaders invariably turned on each other, they continued their preferred mode of warfare, killing their neighbors and countrymen with the same kinds of spears, swords, and axes they had previously used to kill Britons and Picts.

Ambushes and trickery could be part of a larger campaign, but most battles were fought in the open, between two massed forces. Warfare, after all, was a test of strength and courage. Success in war meant you were a hero. Songs would be sung about you, and you could expect to be rewarded with a place at the king’s table or in his inner circle.

For the most part, fighting in this time in this place was infantry charge against infantry charge, and may the stronger of the two prevail.

Specifically:

The spear could be thrown but also be used to jab at close range or keep a sword-wielding opponent at bay. It could also be jerked out of a dead man and used again more cleanly than could some swords.

The swords varied in length but were generally wielded with one hand, leaving the other hand free to hold a shield. The swords were heavy and were more likely to break than to bend.

Axes were largely one-sided and were used mostly hand-to-hand, since they were on the whole too large to through accurately. Smaller axes were occasionally thrown.

Shields were meant to hold while fighting and could even be used to bash opponents. The shields were made of metal and so could be very useful in repelling an attack by an aerial weapon such as a spear or an axe.

Armor was mail, which was rings linked together in overlapping patterns, so that a weapon-blow against one part of the armor would not result in a tear, leaving the fighter vulnerable to a repeat attack. The mail was metal, but it wasn’t very strong, as some fighters discovered.

Helmets were metal and were made tight to stay on and protect the head from sword blows, axe blows, and strikes from aerial weapons. In addition, many helmets had nose protectors as well.

The Germanic tribes used other weapons and other forms of warfare to their advantage, but the ones discussed above were the main means to the end of conquest, a desire that ran deep in the blood of every Jute, Angle, Saxon.