The English Naval Levy


King Alfred’s Saxon Navy.


A visual depiction of a Danish ship clashing with one of Alfred’s new English ships.

Although nineteenth-and early twentieth-century British historians wrote quite a lot about Anglo-Saxon “naval forces,” and even claimed that Alfred was the founder of the Royal Navy, very little has been written since. Finds of English ships from the pre-Norman period have also been rare. It is inconceivable that early English kingdoms such as East Anglia, Kent, and Northumbria did not use ships to move their troops, given that they had long coastlines. Nevertheless, the ninth-century English kingdoms were utterly incapable of interfering with Viking fleets that penetrated far up navigable rivers. The impression is given that no fleets were available to block their entrance or exit from these rivers or estuaries. As N.A.M. Rodger points out, even in the 890s, after Alfred had begun to reorganize his forces and their logistics on land, the Vikings were able to sail up the Thames and the Lea and escape without difficulty. One of the reasons Byrhtnoth accepted battle at Maldon may have been that he saw this as the one chance to defeat them, otherwise they would simply move away and land elsewhere. After his defeat the only method of getting rid of them appears to have been to pay them off.

If the English were unable to raise a fleet when Viking ships reappeared at the time of Maldon, the fleet had been allowed to deteriorate in the mid-tenth century, as Æthelstan certainly utilized one in his campaigns against enemies in northern England and Scotland in 934, and to assist Louis, the exiled Carolingian king of France, in 939. Ann Williams noted the 992 entry of the ASC, which referred to the gathering of “all the ships that were any use.” The fleet was restored by Cnut’s conquest, but as a primarily Scandinavian one, and was revived as an English fleet in Edward the Confessor’s reign. Weather and other circumstances conspired to bring about its disbandment before William set out on his seaborne invasion. In 1069–70 William found himself in the position of Æthelred II before him, unable to prevent the Danes from moving up and down the English coast at will, and, like Æthelred, he paid them off. It was not a situation he wished to find himself in again, and he subsequently made full use of the English fleet, notably in his combined land and sea descent on Scotland in 1073, which compelled Malcolm to submit.

The probable reason for the decline of English fleets during the reigns of Eadred, Eadwig, and Edgar (946–75) was the relative lack of threat from outside England. Fleets were expensive to maintain and less useful for policing the kingdom than land forces. They were useful as symbols of royal prestige, but perhaps less necessary than conspicuous symbols on land. There is also a question as to how organized the fleet logistics of Alfred, Edward and Æthelstan were. There is no reference to a scipfyrd (“ship-force”) in the 896 entry of the ASC, such as those which occur in eleventh-century entries. Nor does the 896 entry suggest fleets as large as the later ones. Alfred’s fleets (if they deserve the name) may have been assembled through the burghal system at the string of coastal burhs on the coast of Wessex and Kent listed in the Burghal Hidage. There are some problems with this: as Ryan Lavelle pointed out, there is no burh listed on the Isle of Wight, which would be an odd omission. He also observed that only two steersmen are listed in Domesday Book as living in urban centers, and one of these, Warwick, is landlocked. This hardly suggests a close link between coastal towns and fleet organization, although it is not wholly inconceivable that a system introduced by Alfred or Edward the Elder was completely overhauled during the late tenth century or Cnut’s period.

Under 1008 the ASC E manuscript reads, “Here the king ordered that they should determinedly build ships all over England: that is, one scægð from three hundred and ten hides.” It goes on to state under 1009 that: “. . .

there were more of them than there had ever been seen in England in the days of any king. And they brought them all together to Sandwich, and should lie there and guard this country against every foreign raiding army.” Unfortunately a dispute between two noblemen, Beorhtric and Wulfnoth, resulted in the latter being accused before the king, after which he went raiding. Beorhtric took eighty ships to intercept him, which were severely damaged and forced to put ashore in a storm, whereupon Wulfnoth burned them all.

The evidence for the raising and equipping of fleets in the late tenth and eleventh centuries is much better. Many wills survive in which heriot (from OE heregeat, “war-gear”) bequeathed to the king was recorded. When he died a noble was obliged to leave a specified set of military equipment to the king, which often included swords, shields, spears, helmets, and horses. In some cases in this later period ships were included. Archbishop Aelfric of Canterbury left two ships, one of which was for the people of Wiltshire, a county without a coast. Other prelates also willed ships to the king. This suggests a levy obligation on all counties. At the same time the bequeathing of ships by magnates may mean that the scipfyrd was similar to the land fyrd, partly assembled from lands held of the king and partly as a quota from the lands of other lords.

There is a significant difference between the wording of the 1008 entries in the ASC D and E manuscripts: E, which is quoted above, says “from three hundred hides and from ten hides a scægð’,” whereas the D manuscript says “from three hundred [hides] a ship and from ten a scægð’.” As we have seen, a scægð could be a large ship, so Ryan Lavelle is almost certainly right in suggesting that the D scribe has transcribed the first hidum wrongly as scipum and that E is right in mentioning a levy of one large ship (or the necessary labor and materials to build one) per 310 hides, a reasonable demand. He calculates that this would give a potential fleet of two hundred ships for the whole of England south of the Tees. It appears that all or most of them were assembled at Sandwich, a port which was to retain its place throughout the Middle Ages, presumably in preparation for the expected Danish attack. This presented a logistical problem, as the fleet could only be maintained offshore in one place for a certain time, perhaps usually for a few weeks. As Harold discovered again in 1066, if the enemy did not appear at the anticipated time, the fleet had to disperse again, running the risk that the enemy would appear off the coast when it was not ready. In 1066 the fleet maintained its station for four months until 8 September, when all provisions had been used up. William crossed to England after this and established a base in Kent. As we have seen, in Æthelred’s case one of his own nobles destroyed half the fleet and Thorkell the Tall subsequently attacked Sandwich and Canterbury. Although there was a weakness in the fleet levy system, just as we have seen with the land army levy, in 1009 the greatest damage was done because of internal feuding between English nobles, a problem that bedeviled the Anglo-Saxon state until its end.

Cnut retained forty of his own ships in 1018. The number fell to sixteen, but Harthacnut brought sixty when he took the throne in 1040, retaining thirty-two in 1041. By 1050 Edward the Confessor had paid the last of these crews off, after which he abolished the heregeld, a tax that had been used to pay hired Scandinavian crews and their ships since 1012–13, when Æthelred had hired Thorkell the Tall’s ships. Nicholas Hooper made the point that the crews of the ships maintained from 1016 to 1051, referred to as lithsmen, were paid, not rewarded with land like the housecarls. These crews were not sailors as in a modern navy, but soldiers who also traveled by ship. A group frequently referred to after the disappearance of the lithsmen is the butsecarls (“boatmen”). There is no way of knowing whether they existed before 1051, but they appear to have close links with the ports of Sussex and Kent, the later Cinque ports, and were probably inhabitants of them owing a special ship service.

It was also in Edward the Confessor’s reign that the ship-levy reappears in the sources, after a long absence since 1009. In Edward’s reign Earl Godwine is twice mentioned as commanding fleets that must have been the levy of Wessex (“the ships of the people of the land”), forty-two of them in 1046, and there is reference to a Mercian section of the fleet at Sandwich in 1049. ASC C and D refer to a fleet of forty snacca (probably small ships) at Sandwich in 1052, perhaps part of the general levy as ASC E mentions that they needed to return to London to get relief crews.

When the levy in this form was established is uncertain. If the levies of Edward and Æthelred before him were organized in the same way, the organization may have originated in the reign of Edgar or early in Æthelred’s reign. The ASC entry of 1008 mentions that uniformly sized districts had the responsibility to build the ships. The later Laws of Henry I (r. 1100–1135) say the same, calling them “ship-sokes.” Since it says the counties were divided into ship-sokes, it is possible that they corresponded to the six groups of three into which the hundreds of Buckinghamshire were divided in the Domesday Book, each group of three being three hundred hides, which provided a ship. However, only a few of these ship-sokes can be traced in the sources. In the Pipe Rolls of the twelfth century there appears no clear relationship between three hundred or three hundred ten hides and ship-sokes, nor did the hundreds necessarily consist of a hundred hides. As in Edward the Confessor’s time, it seems that some towns had made their own arrangements. To complicate matters even further there seems to have been a tax to build ships, referred to (as existing in King Edward’s time) in a writ of William I. This suggests that money was often provided instead of actual ships. The ship-scot that appears in several eleventh-century sources must have been raised either as a contribution to this tax or as a contribution to the building of ships. The scattered eleventh-century evidence referring to ship service almost all comes from a few ecclesiastical lordships, and none of it from the former Northumbria (England north of the Humber). One of the sources, a letter of Bishop Æthelric of Sherborne to (Ealdorman?) Æthelmær, refers to a scir (“share” or possibly “shire”) as the district that provided a ship, and there is no indication that this had anything to do with three hundred hides. This allows the possibility that there was more than one system of levying ships and crews, this perhaps being one used by lords to fulfill their quota of ships.

Although the lack of a fleet that could interfere with Viking fleets in the late tenth century was referred to above, it is important to realize that “interfere” does not mean “intercept at sea” as it did in the modern period. Fleets could be attacked while on shore, or perhaps trapped in rivers and estuaries, but no polity of the Viking Era possessed the methods that could enable its fleet to prevent a foreign fleet from landing on its shores. The fleets assembled in case of invasion at Sandwich or the Isle of Wight may have been demonstrations of power, but they were disbanded after using up their provisions without engaging the enemy. The invasions of Cnut, Harthacnut and William of Normandy were not prevented, nor were the depredations of Viking fleets or renegade English nobles. As Nicholas Hooper noted, English fleets were more effective used in an offensive role.


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