Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part II


Many of the warriors of Anglo-Saxon England came to the battlefield armed and armoured, but how did they come to possess such equipment? The inclusion of heriots, or ‘war-gear’, in some surviving Anglo-Saxon wills of the later period provide us with a glimpse into an ancient custom and an insight into the importance of the bond of lordship throughout the period. A heriot (‘heregeatu’) was basically a death due liable for payment from people of thegnly rank or higher. It was in essence the returning to one’s lord of the military equipment that the warrior had obtained for taking service with his lord in the first place. The broad notion behind it was that by returning the arms and armour given to you by your lord on your death, your lord would be able to attract the service of another warrior to his household. The poem Beowulf is full of the giving of such arms by a lord to his man. For the modern historian, the heriots reflect the nature of military service in terms of numbers of men and equipment that was expected of different ranks of society. Although only broad conclusions can be drawn, they are useful nevertheless.

The giving of arms was deeply rooted in Germanic custom. In Anglo-Saxon England it continued over a period of centuries whereby it is possible to see a trend developing over time. According to surviving documentation it would seem that in the Danelaw heriots were often paid in hard cash instead of arms and armour, although the one surviving will of a man called Ketel, an eleventh-century thegn of Archbishop Stigand, shows that arms and armour could still be the method of payment even in the Danish areas. For such a thegn the material in question centres around his horse and his weapons and armour, enough to equip one man. Generally, the higher up the social rankings you were, the more arms and armour you were required to provide. There are sixteen heriots mentioned in the wills stretching from 946 to the period immediately preceding the Norman Conquest. Some of them include material additional to the basic weapon and armour set such as one with a handseax, and one with a javelin. There is also mention of hawks, deerhounds, cups and dishes in some of them.

In short, as the heriot of Ketel shows (1052–1066), it is possible to determine that the war gear for one well-armed aristocratic warrior amounted to one horse with tack, one helmet, one byrnie (mailcoat), one sword, one spear and one shield. But it had not always been this straightforward. The earliest surviving heriots of Ealdorman Æthelwold (946–947) and Bishop Theodred (942–951) would seem to have been based on the rating of an ealdorman at the time of King Edmund I (939–46). Here, the provision is for four men with horses, swords, shields and spears. There is no mention in these heriots of helmets or byrnies or of additional unsaddled horses, spears and shields for retainers as there is in later heriots. It seems the early requirements were fairly straightforward and centred round multiples of two. Noticeably absent from all heriots, of course, is the bow, not a weapon to be associated with Anglo-Saxon nobility.

During the reigns of Eadred (946–56) and Edgar (959–975) the requirement seems to escalate with multiples based now on a factor of three. For example, the heriot of Ealdorman Ælfheah (968–971) is rated at six horses, six shields, six spears and six swords. The tendency to increase the heriot of the highest ranking member of society reflects a royal concern with the defence of the realm. By the time of Æthelred II (979–1016), there is a further evolution, which although complex, is possible to interpret. The ealdorman rank or its equivalent goes up from six of everything to four fully armed and armoured men and four lesser armed men with the appearance of the helmet and byrnie for the first time. In fact, all heriots appearing after 1008 contain helmets and byrnies, probably reflecting Æthelred’s decrees about the increased production of such armour throughout his kingdom. It is this evolution that is represented in the law code II Cnut 71 (1020–3), which sets out specifically the heriots owed by different ranks. Here, we can see the discrepancy between the expectations of the men of the Danelaw and those of other parts of the kingdom.

It is clear that an earl’s heriot represented the equipping of four fully armed men and four attendants to them equipped with just spear and shield. Each of them rode to battle. It is not clear how the unsaddled horses were used. They may have been used as pack horses to carry baggage or may have been ridden without saddles by the four lesser armed retainers.

The king’s thegn of the English list seems to have been expected to provide one fully armoured man (presumably the king’s thegn himself) and one lesser armoured man who has a saddled horse, sword, spear and shield, but no helmet or byrnie, plus two attendants with spear and shield looking after two unsaddled horses. The lesser thegn is listed as one might expect. He has to bring to the battle just himself, fully armed and prepared.

The Danelaw evidence is more problematic. There seems to be a cash payment expectation for a ‘king’s thegn with soke’ and for a lesser thegn, but quite why the ‘king’s thegn closer to the king’ is rated at two horses (one saddled), one sword, two spears and two shields with no helmet or byrnie listed is a mystery. It seems unlikely that the late Anglo-Saxon kings were not able to impose such a burden on the Danelaw given that Æthelred had demanded many coats of mail to be made across his kingdom.

Heriots later became less militarised and more associated with the concept of tenurial succession. The difficulty is in trying to apply them to the given military situation at the time of their writing. If they provide nothing else, heriots give us a general idea of the type of equipment an Anglo-Saxon warrior was expected to possess in order to do his duty. When he performed that duty, the warrior became part of a well-organised machine and not, as some have contended, an ad hoc reaction to the latest crisis.

Logistics and Communication

King Harold lost the campaign of 1066. This fact has tended to deflect our enquiries into the effectiveness of logistics in this era. Often we assume there was inadequate provision in Harold’s army or that what existed was somehow archaic. But we do not give sufficient credit to the Old English military system. Here, we must concern ourselves with the evidence for the wider apparatus of how forces were supplied and informed on their long campaigns. That the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms possessed the capability of large-scale feats of organisation is surely evidenced by the building of Offa’s Dyke.

King Alfred’s three-way split of fyrd service into garrison service, army service and land service is our first clue that logistics were to be a central part of military planning. The forces were rotated so there were always fresh men to hand, but we are not told how they were provisioned in the field. Later sources indicate the fyrdsmen were supposed to supply themselves, but as we have seen they were to bring money with them indicating that there must have been an arrangement for them to spend it at certain markets or on certain things. The Frankish Annals of St Bertin record that shield-selling merchants were present in the baggage train of Charles the Bald at the Battle of Andernach in 876. It is difficult to dismiss the notion that such arrangements must have been made in England.

The idea that a campaigning army sent out its own foragers is supported by some early evidence. It would also appear that such men acted as scouts for the army too. The Venerable Bede indicates that the men in the baggage train of early Northumbrian armies were married poor peasants whose job it was not to fight as such, but to bring provisions to the troops. This is a specific reference to the thegn Imma, who after the Battle of the Trent in 679 disguised himself as such an individual to escape capture and recognition by his captor’s kinsmen. He declared that he had come on campaign with others of his kind to bring provisions to the troops. His enemies in the Mercian army clearly bought his story. It is likely that Bede’s thegn Imma was among those responsible for managing the baggage train. It is tempting to see this sort of arrangement running right through the period as a whole.

Evidence from France suggests that men summoned to the Carolingian host were to bring with them enough provisions for three months in carts. Meat and other such provisions, it is argued for the Carolingians, was brought on the hoof or in carts. Supply dumps were arranged in advance and other foraging was undertaken while on campaign. Again, the likelihood of similar arrangements in Anglo-Saxon England is very high, but as always, much harder to find. Those responsible for overseeing supply dumps of hay for horses, grain and ale etc. may well have been the royal horse-thegns who were thought to have performed a role similar to their Frankish counterparts, the Marshalls (Marescales), whose association with mounted logistics is inherent in their title.

Despite the extreme likelihood that the level of organisation in terms of supplying an army in the field was very high, there is evidence that it could all go horribly wrong during a campaign. The sheer volume of produce required for supporting an army meant that it might have to engage wholesale in foraging. After Alfred’s death, during the campaign of Edward the Elder against the renegade Æthelwold, which is described below (see p. 101), the king’s Kentish contingent (traditionally in the van of a combined Anglo-Saxon army) ignored the royal pleas brought to them by no less than seven messengers to come out from East Anglia after playing their part in a punitive campaign. It is argued that the Kentish refusal to obey the king was due to the fact that they had dispersed in order to forage for supplies.

The scouts and foragers in the army, particularly those of the border areas will have had great knowledge of route ways and track ways in their area. The route ways and roads of Anglo-Saxon England were both a result of thousands of years of evolution and, in some cases, brand new innovation. For example, the Icknield Way, which is generally regarded as the oldest road in England, running from Knettishall Heath in East Anglia in a diagonal line across the heart of England to the West Country for 105 miles, probably had its origin in the Neolithic period some 3 millennia prior to the Anglo-Saxon era. The Danish Great Heathen Army is even thought to have boldly marched down this ancient track to attack Wessex in 871.

On the other hand, parts of the surviving Roman road network were still very much in use with the old roads given English names, such as Watling Street. That the Roman network was still widespread is undoubted. Its state of repair may have varied, however, and there is one reference to a Roman road in the bounds of a Chiseldon charter, dated to 955, which names the road as ‘brokenstret’. However, the building of a grand fortification scheme in southern England by Alfred the Great certainly took advantage of the Roman network. From Exeter you could travel along Roman roads north to Bath, Cricklade, Malmesbury and Axbridge and east towards Winchester via Bridport and Wilton and, of course, on to London.

There are, however, fascinating and repeated references to track ways that appear to be dedicated to military usage. In many charters from the Anglo-Saxon period the word ‘herepath’ appears in the bounds. In fact, there are 41 ‘herepaths’, 3 ‘fyrdstreats’ and 4 ‘herestreats’. Today, where these paths survive, they are often referred to confusingly as ‘people’s paths’. But in Anglo-Saxon times it is probable that these paths represented a specific network of minor roads dedicated to the assembling and quick transportation of forces between towns, fortifications, monastic centres and estates. Some examples seem to run parallel to Roman roads indicating their exclusivity, such as the A350 in northern Dorset and the A30 in Wiltshire. Where a Roman network may not have existed or where it was inadequate for the new military needs of a region, we find herepaths being used to link outlying estates to royal vills or monastic centres. Such is the case with the herepaths mentioned in the boundaries of Corston, Priston and Stanton, which were three estates belonging to the monastery at Bath.

Another example of a herepath is one that seems to have run from Wroughton in Wiltshire to the burh of Marlborough, travelling through Yatesbury and the ancient monument at Avebury. Archaeologists contend that of the four entrances to the great prehistoric monument at Avebury, the eastern one is likely to have been either made or substantially altered by the Anglo-Saxons to accommodate the herepath that ran through it. This herepath is thought to be early tenth century in date and would have represented an era when Edward the Elder (900–24) was working to consolidate his hold on Wessex while actively seeking to expand his kingdom to the north. The Yatesbury Lane herepath linked the minster church at Avebury to the burh and along its route around the Marlborough Downs was a small defended enclosure at Yatesbury, the ditches of which are dated to the Anglo-Saxon period. This represents an effort on the part of the Anglo-Saxon military planners to make defensible even the smaller enclosures along the route ways of the kingdom. The Yatesbury Lane herepath, like many others, also commanded good views of the surrounding landscape along its route. Many herepaths are associated with ridge ways probably for this very reason. A picture emerges then of a surprisingly sophisticated level of military planning by the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.

What a herepath actually looked like is another question. They do not seem to have been metalled roads in the Roman sense, but the one at Yatesbury Lane had a ditch on one side only and was about 5m wide, with some tantalising geophysical evidence for wheel ruts. Elsewhere in the Somerset Quantocks these track ways are described as 20m or 64ft wide. Quite how often an English warrior’s boots trod down these pathways and intricate networks is unknown. Nor is it understood how often herepaths were used for logistical provision between towns and forts throughout the kingdom. What little evidence we have once again points to a level of sophistication that perhaps should not surprise us.

If the herepaths of the kingdom could aid transportation and supply of troops and goods, then what do we know of any early warning systems? There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons had an elaborate system of beacons dotted around the countryside. The very word ‘beacon’ is Old English in origin and comes from the word ‘becun’. But it is suggested that there are other words in Old English that imply a place name of a similar function to a beacon site. Such words are ‘weardsetl’ and ‘tot’. Weardsetl, which means ‘watch point’, appears in a number of charters from the Anglo-Saxon period and tot was another name for a look-out point. The key to these systems was in their inter-visibility. One fire lit on the Isle of Wight could by a series of relayed fires get a message to the Thames Valley in a very short space of time.

The systems seem to have been related to the office of the coastal watch. This duty seems to have been divided across the ranks of later Anglo-Saxon society. Æthelweard, our much quoted chronicler, held land granted by Edward the Martyr (in 977) at St Keverne, Cornwall ‘free from all royal dues except military service and the fortification of fortresses and maritime guard’. Here the expected bridge work is replaced by the coastal watch and it seems Æthelweard’s responsibilities were great indeed. However, an ealdorman could clearly not watch the sea all by himself, which might be why an eleventh-century document known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (the ‘Rights and Ranks of the People’) describes some of the duties of a thegn as arising out of the king’s command to include equipping a guard ship and guarding the coast. Nor did it stop with the thegn. The same document also mentions the cottar’s right. The cottar, a peasant freeman, is referred to as having to perform the duty of keeping a coastal watch.

The mechanics of the coastal watch may have worked by the cottar keeping watch on the coast under the instruction of the thegn whose duty it was to organise it. Any sighting of an enemy fleet would cause the cottar to light the first in a chain of beacons leading inland along sight lines carefully prepared. The result would be the early warning to the population who could flee their homesteads and get to the burhs and other fortifications in plenty of time. A picture emerges, then, of a landscape dominated by signalling and communications networks no less effective than the beacon systems of the days of the threat from the Spanish Armada, the very organisation of which seems to have been largely based upon its Anglo-Saxon predecessor.

The evidence for Anglo-Saxon beacon systems is overwhelming, even though their study is still in its infancy. For example, evidence of London’s defence is provided by a tot site at none other than Tothill Street in Westminster, near to which archaeologists believe was an artificially created mound set up for the purpose of such communication. There is also evidence that the herepath system was inextricably linked in with the beacon system, with roads identified as far away as Beaford in North Devon leading directly into Oxford Street in London, where a charter records a ‘here-strete’, possibly identifiable with the Lunden herpathe of a charter of 909. At Nettlecomb Tout in Dorset a beacon seems to have been placed directly on the course of a herepath. A further postulated system exists along the line of the old Roman road Stane Street, running from Chichester to London, where out of fifteen identified sites six contain the place-name element tot. At the seaward end of the system would have been the seawatch beacon at Chichester. There are hints in the sources that these grand civil-defence systems were much vaunted by the Anglo-Saxons and that their Viking enemies took some pride in out-manoeuvring the English in such deeply defended landscapes as the campaigns of 1006 may demonstrate.

Logistics seem to have played a part in joint land and sea operations. Whether ships supplied campaigning forces with victuals alone, or strategically landed fresh troops or reduced areas of coastline is unknown. One suspects a mixture of all these. Athelstan’s grand campaign of 934 in Scotland can only have been sustained with support from the sea. Also, King Edmund I’s (940–6) extraction of support from Malcolm of Scotland was to include a promise of support on both land at sea. Other examples include Earl Siward’s Scottish expedition of 1054 against Macbeth and Earl Harold’s combined operation alongside his brother Tostig in Wales in 1063. In the analysis below, of the mounted provision, mercenary provision and naval provision in Anglo-Saxon England, the administrative and logistical capability of the Anglo-Saxons is a central theme. Despite the huge expense of maintaining such a system and despite changes and a subsequent decline in the later tenth century, the king of England in the early eleventh century had at his disposal a capability the envy of any ruler of Christendom. Perhaps this explains why, in 1066, so many people wanted it for themselves.

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