The Anglo-Saxon Fyrd AD 400 - 878
The Old English word "fyrd" is used by many modern writers to describe the Anglo-Saxon army, and indeed this is one of its meanings, although the word "here" is equally valid. In its oldest form the word "fyrd" had meant "a journey or expedition". However, the exact meaning of the word, like the nature of the armies it is used to describe, changed a great deal between the times the first Germanic settlers left their homelands and the time of the battle of Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon period was a violent one. Warfare dominated its history and shaped the nature of its governance. Indeed, war was the natural state in the Germanic homelands and the patchwork of tribal kingdoms that composed pre-Viking England. Chieftains engaged in a seemingly endless struggle against foreign enemies and rival kinsmen for authority, power and tribute. Even after Christianity had supplied them with an ideology of kingship that did not depend on success in battle these petty wars continued until they were ended by the Viking invasions. From AD793 until the last years of William the Conqueror's rule, England was under constant threat, and often attack, from the Northmen.
In order to understand the nature of the armies that fought in these battles, many historians in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century looked to classical authors, particularly the 1st century Roman Author Tacitus. Tacitus, in his book Germania, gives much detail of how the German tribes organised their military forces, and many historians used the fact that the tribes Tacitus was writing about were the forebears of the early Germanic invaders to explain the nature of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. But are the tribal customs of barbarian people really a good basis for the nature of a nation removed by almost 1000 years? More recent research has shown that the nature of the fyrd changed a great deal in the 969 years between the time of Tacitus" writing and the battle of Hastings.
For many years there was much debate amongst scholars as to whether the fyrd consisted of nobleman warriors who fought for the king in return for land and privileges (peasants farmed and aristocrats fought), or whether the fyrd consisted of a general levy of all able bodied men in a ceorl (peasant) based economy. In 1962 C.W. Hollister proposed an ingenious solution: there had been not one but two types of fyrd. There had been a "select fyrd", a force of professional, noble land-owning warriors, and a second levy, the "great fyrd" - the nation in arms. This view, because of its elegant simplicity, soon achieved the status of orthodoxy amongst most historians, and is the view put forward in many of the more general books on the period published today. However, continued research has shown this view to be incorrect. Hollister coined the terms "great fyrd" and "select fyrd" because there was no equivalent terminology in contemporary Old English or Latin. Current research shows that the Anglo-Saxon fyrd was a constantly developing organisation, and its nature changes as you go through the Anglo-Saxon period.
From what little we know of the customs and nature of the early German settlers in this country, we can be fairly sure that much of what Tacitus wrote about the first century Germans still applied to their fourth, fifth and early sixth century descendants. The early tribes were military in nature, consisting mainly of free warrior families and tenant farmers, free and unfree, ruled by a tribal chief or king. These tribes were often grouped together in nations, sometimes under the rule of a "high-king".
Tacitus tells us:
- "They choose their kings for their noble birth, their leaders for their valour. The power even of the kings is not absolute or arbitrary. As for the leaders, it is their example rather than their authority that wins them special admiration - for their energy, their distinction, or their presence in the van of fight.....
- "No business, public or private, is transacted except in arms. But it is the rule that no-one shall take up arms until the tribe has attested that he is likely to make good. When the time comes, one of the chiefs or the father or a kinsman equips the young warrior with shield and spear in the public council. This with the Germans is the equivalent of our toga - the first public distinction of youth. They cease to rank merely as members of the household and are now members of the tribe. Conspicuous ancestry or great services rendered by their fathers can win the rank of chief for boys still in their teens. They are attached to the other chiefs, who are more mature and approved, and no one blushes to be seen thus in the ranks of the companions. This order of companions has even its different grades, as determined by the leader, and there is intense rivalry among the companions for the first place by the chief, amongst the chiefs for the most numerous and enthusiastic companions. Dignity and power alike consist in being continually attended by a corps of chosen youths. This gives you consideration in peace time and security in war. Nor is it only in a man's own nation that he can win fame by the superior number and quality of his companions, but in neighbouring states as well. Chiefs are courted by embassies and complimented by gifts, and they often virtually decide wars by the mere weight of their reputation.
- "On the field of battle it is a disgrace to the chief to be surpassed in valour by his companions, to the companions not to come up to the valour of their chief. As for leaving a battle alive after your chief has fallen, that means lifelong infamy and shame. To defend and protect him, to put down one's own acts of heroism to his credit - that is what they really mean by "allegiance"'. The chiefs fight for victory, the companions for their chief. Many noble youths, if the land of their birth is stagnating in a protracted peace, deliberately seek out other tribes, where some war is afoot. The Germans have no taste for peace; renown is easier won among perils, and you cannot maintain a large body of companions except by violence and war. The companions are prodigal in their demands on the generosity of their chiefs. It is always "give me that war-horse" or "give me that bloody and vicious spear". As for meals with their plentiful, if homely, fare, they count simply as pay. Such open-handedness must have war and plunder to feed it."
We know from other parts of Tacitus" writings that the tribes farmers supported chief and his warriors in return for protection from the depravations of enemy tribes. At need, the chief was able to call out all able bodied freemen in defence of the tribes lands, although usually he relied only on his warrior "companions". These companions were fed and housed by the chief, and would receive payment in war-gear and food (the only use of precious metals by the Germans in Tacitus's time was for trading with the Roman Empire).
How were these companions equipped? Again Tacitus can help us here:
- "Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry - frameae is the native word - have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting. The horseman asks no more than his shield and spear, but the infantry have also javelins to shower, several per man, and they can hurl them to a great distance; for they are either naked or only lightly clad in their cloaks. There is nothing ostentatious in their turn out. Only the shields are picked out with carefully selected colours. Few have body armour; only here and there will you see a helmet of metal or hide. Their horses are not distinguished either for beauty or for speed, nor are they trained in Roman fashion to execute various turns. They ride them straight ahead or with a single swing to the right, keeping the wheeling line so perfect that no one drops behind the rest. On general survey, their strength is seen to lie rather in their infantry, and that is why they combine the two arms in battle. The men who they select from the whole force and station in the van are fleet of foot and fit admirably into cavalry action. The number of these chosen men is exactly fixed. A hundred are drawn from each district, and 'the hundred' is the name they bear at home."
This seems to be a misunderstanding by Tacitus because, although the hundred was a land division, it is unlikely, given the size of armies at the time, that each would send 100 warriors. However, from this description it would seem that the warriors were primarily infantry with a small amount of cavalry support. They would generally be armed only with spear(s) and shield, although a few of the greatest/most well off might possess a sword, helm or, rarely, body armour. Archaeology bears this out, and probably most of the swords, helms and mailshirts originated within the Roman Empire, reaching the Germans either by trade or as spoils of war. The relative commonness and scarcity of the various types of arms and armour is well borne out by finds from sacrificial bogs where votive offerings of the arms and armour of defeated enemies were often made. In these finds shields and spears (and surprisingly often bows and arrows) are by far the most common, with swords, helms and armour all being much rarer. Up until the fourth century most of these swords, helms and mailshirts are of Roman type, although from the fifth century onwards distinctly German type swords become more common.
By the time of the invasion of Britain in the fifth century the Germans had become so heavily dependant on their infantry that one British writer tells us that "they know not the use of cavalry." The armies coming to this country were usually far smaller than their Roman predecessors. Most of the accounts tell of the armies arriving in only two or three ships, and as ships of this time generally carried no more than 50-60 men, most of these armies probably only numbered 100-200 men. Despite the small size of these armies, the Germans were able to carve themselves out many small kingdoms, killing, driving off or enslaving the native population as they went, but it should be remembered that they did not always have things their own way. This was the time of Arthur who, through his use of Roman cavalry tactics against the Germanic infantry, was able to defeat the invaders so heavily, they were unable to advance any further for almost fifty years. However, by the end of the sixth century the Germanic, or as they were then starting to call themselves, Anglo-Saxon invaders had taken over much of lowland Britain and carved out many small Kingdoms of varying strengths and hierarchies much as they had had in Germany.
War was endemic to the kingdoms of sixth, seventh and eighth century Britain. An Anglo-Saxon ruler of this period was above all else a warlord, a dryhten, as the Old-English sources put it. His primary duty was to protect his people against the depredations of their neighbours and to lead them on expeditions ( fyrds) of plunder and conquest. As we hear in Beowulf (who lived at this time) about Scyld (literally 'shield'), the mythical founder of the Danish royal line:
- "Scyld Sceafing often deprived his enemies, many tribes of men, of their mead-benches. He terrified his foes; yet he, as a boy, had been found as a waif; fate made amends for that. He prospered under heaven, won praise and honour, until the men of every neighbouring tribe, across the whale's way, were obliged to obey him and pay him tribute. He was a good king!"
Scyld was a good king because he was lord of a mighty war-band that profited from his leadership. As long as he lived, his people were safe and he enjoyed tribute from the surrounding tribes. This portrait is no mere convention of a heroic genre. Even the early Anglo-Saxon monks, when writing about the Anglo-Saxon kings of this time, show that this was not an heroic ideal, but the way a king ruled.
It is noteworthy that the early sources use the language of personal lordship to express the obligations owed a king. When Wiglaf followed Beowulf into combat against the dragon, he did not speak of his duty to "king and country," but of the responsibility of a retainer to serve and protect his lord. In fact, amongst the early Anglo-Saxons a king was simply the lord of the nobles. Even the term cyning [king] literally only means "of the kin" and denoted a member of the royal line, while the office of king was expressed by the titles hlaford [loaf- or land-lord] and dryhten [war-lord]. The æþeling who was chosen for the office of king was merely the member of the royal line who could command the largest war-band. This fact helps to explain the many "civil wars" which took place in the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and why a king who gained his position by force could so quickly be accepted by his subjects.
A seventh or eighth century king most often came to his throne through violence or through the threat of violence, and kept his crown by warding off domestic and foreign rivals. Peace was simply the aftermath of one war and the prelude to another. In violent times such as these, it was necessary that a king secure (in the words of the Beowulf poet) "beloved companions to stand by him, people to serve him when war comes." But what obliged men in seventh century England to attend a king's army, and what sort of men were they? As the kingdoms developed in England the ceorl (peasant) had come to receive a more important position than in the Germanic homelands, but did he replace the nobleman in forming the bulk of the king's army (a view held by many nineteenth and early twentieth century historians). Careful study of contemporary sources has shown that although the ceorl, as a freeman, had the right to bear arms, he would rarely have joined the king's fyrd. The word fyrd had, by this time, acquired a distinctly martial connotation, and had come to mean "armed expedition or force."
It is clear that the king's companions or, to use the Old English term, Gesiþas were still drawn from aristocratic warrior families, but now the gift-giving seen in earlier times had undergone something of a change. Now, in addition to war-gear, gifts of valuable items (a lord is often referred to as a "giver of rings" in literature) were given too, or most sought after of all, land. In Anglo-Saxon England a gift was not given freely, and a gift was expected in return in the form of service. When a warrior took up service with a lord he was required to "love all that his lord loved, and to hate all that he hated." Neither gift was "complete" - gift and counter-gift sustained one another. For example, although it was customary for a warrior to receive an estate for life (either his own or his lord's), it was not a certainty. If one failed in his duty to the king the royal grant could be forfeited. Thus the king's gift was as open-ended as his retainers counter-gift of service; the former was continually renewed and confirmed by the latter.
To receive land from one's lord was a sign of special favour. A landed estate was a symbolic as well as an economic gift. It differed from other gifts in that its possession signified a new, higher status for the warrior within the king's retinue. Consequently, by the seventh century we see the emergence of different classes of warrior noble - the geoguþ (youth) and duguþ (proven warrior). The former were young, unmarried warriors, often the sons of duguþ, who, having as yet no land of their own, resided with their lord, attending and accompanying him as he progressed through his estates, much as the "companions" of Tacitus" day had done. The well known settlement of West Stow near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk may well have represented an estate of the type which would have been granted to a duguþ. When a gesiþ of this sort had proved himself to his lord's satisfaction, he received from him a suitable endowment of land, perhaps even the land his father had held from the lord. This made him into a duguþþ. He ceased to dwell in his lord's household, although he still attended his councils; rather, he lived upon the donated estate, married, raised a family, and maintained a household of his own. In order to improve his standing the duguþ would often raise military retainers of his own, probably from amongst the more prosperous ceorls on his estates (this is how the name geneat [companion] originated to describe men from the top portion of the cierlisc class) and other geoguþ who had not yet sworn themselves to some other lord. These estates are often referred to a scir (shire) in the early records. This military following was known as the lord's hearþweru or hirþ [household or "hearth" troops].
When a king assembled his army, the duguþ were expected to answer his summons at the head of their retinues, much as they would attend his court in time of peace. The fyrd would thus have been the king's household warriors (gesiþ) augmented by the followings of his landed retainers (duguþ). If a warrior did not answer the king's summons, he could be penalised, as King Ine's laws show:
- 51. If a gesiþcund mon [nobleman] who holds land neglects military service, he shall pay 120 shillings and forfeit his land; [a nobleman] who holds no land shall pay 60 shillings; a cierlisc [peasant] shall pay 30 shillings as penalty for neglecting the fyrd.
This clause does not prove that the early Anglo-Saxon fyrd was made up of peasant warriors, as some historians argue. Rather, it shows that some peasants fought alongside the nobility when the king summoned his army. These ceorls were the peasants in the service of the king, or in the service of one of his duguþ. When an Anglo-Saxon king of the sixth to eighth century chose to war, his retainers would follow him into battle, not out of duty to defend the "nation" or the "folk," but because he was their lord. Similarly, their own men, also obliged by the bond of lordship, fought under them.
The size of these armies was quite small; King Ine defined the size of an army in his law code:
- 13. §1. We use the term "thieves" if the number of men does not exceed seven, "band of marauders" [or "war-band"] for a number between seven and thirty-five. Anything beyond this is an "army" [here]
Although the exact size of armies of this time remain unknown, even the most powerful kings could probably not call upon warriors numbering more than the low hundreds. Certainly in the late eighth century the æþeling (prince) Cyneherd considered his army of eighty-four men sufficiently large to attempt to seize the throne of Wessex.
When Centwine became king of the West Saxons in 676AD, he drove his rival kinsman, Cædwalla, into exile. The exiled nobleman sought refuge in the "desert places of Chiltern and the Weald" and gathered about himself a war-band. In time his following grew so large that he was able to plunder the lands of the South Saxons, and kill their king in the process. After nine years of brigandage, he turned back to Wessex and began to "contend for the kingdom." The king's resources were no match for Cædwalla's, and when they met in battle the West Saxon fyrd was decisively defeated. It seems most likely that Cædwalla's victory was the triumph of one war-band over another, rather than the conquest of a "nation."
Time and again we are told in the sources that a new king had to defend his kingdom with tiny armies. Later in their reigns, these same kings having survived these attacks made "while their kingdoms were still weak," are found leading great armies. After all, victory meant tribute and land, and these in turn meant that a king could attract more warriors into his service.
How were these warriors equipped? Unfortunately, our only written sources for this period are the heroic tales such as Beowulf and the Finnesburh Fragment, etc., but these are remarkably consistent in their descriptions. From the Finnesburh Fragment we hear:
- "…Birds of battle screech, the grey wolf howls, spears rattle, shield answers shaft. …Then many a thegn, laden in gold, buckled on his sword-belt. …The hollow shield called for bold men's hands, helmets burst; …Then Guþere withdrew, a wounded man; he said that his armour was almost useless, his byrnie [mail-shirt] broken, his helmet burst open."
In Beowulf we hear many references to arms and armour such as:
- "Then Hrothgar's thane leaped onto his horse and, brandishing a spear, galloped down to the shore; there, he asked at once: "Warriors! Who are you, in your coats of mail, who have steered your tall ship over the sea-lanes to these shores? .... Never have warriors, carrying their shields, come to this country in a more open manner. Nor were you assured of my leader's approval, my kinsmen's consent. I have never set eyes on a more noble man, a warrior in armour, than one among your band; he's no mere retainer, so ennobled by his weapons." ... The boar crest, brightly gleaming, stood over their helmets: superbly tempered, plated with glowing gold, it guarded the lives of those grim warriors. ... Their byrnies were gleaming, the strong links of shining chain-mail chinked together. When the sea-stained travellers had reached the hall itself in their fearsome armour, they placed their broad shields (worked so skilfully) against Heorot's wall. Then they sat on a bench; the brave men's armour sang. The seafarer's gear stood all together, a grey tipped forest of ash spears; that armed troop was well equipped with weapons. .... in common we all share sword, helmet, byrnie, the trappings of war."
These descriptions are borne out by archaeology. Male burials in the pagan period were often accompanied by war gear. On average around 47% of male burials from the pagan period contain weapons of some sort. This figure has often been used to argue for the idea of a "nation in arms", but has conveniently overlooked the fact that although spears were found in just over 86% of the accompanied burials, shields were found in only 44%. As we have seen earlier, and as the literary evidence bears out, spear and shield made up the basic war-gear of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. It should be borne in mind that, although the spear was used in battle, it was also a tool of the hunt. Many of the interred spears probably represent hunting tools rather than weapons. As we start to look at other types of weapon, we find they are far less common than the spear and shield. Swords are found in only about 12% of accompanied burials, axes in about 2% and seaxes (traditionally, the knife from which the Saxons derive their name.) only about 4%. This makes for an interesting comparison with the Saxons" continental homelands where some 50 - 70% contained seaxes. Armour and helmets, whilst not unknown are decidedly rare and are usually only found in the richest of burials. Certainly in archaeology they seem to be far rarer than in literature, although the few examples we have agree remarkably well with the literary descriptions. This apparent rarity of armour and helmets may have more to do with burial customs than the scarcity of these items at the time. It appears that the pagan Anglo-Saxons believed in some warrior heaven, similar in nature to the Viking Valhalla. The grave goods were what they would need in this afterlife, and in order to fight the warrior needed weapons, but if death was only a "temporary setback", why give them armour that could be far better used by their mortal counterparts?
It would seem likely from these sources that the kings and more important noblemen would possess a coat-of-mail and a crested helmet, a sword, shield and spear(s). Noblemen of middling rank may have possessed a helm, perhaps a sword, and a shield and spear(s). The lowest ranking warriors would have been equipped with just a shield and spear(s), and perhaps a secondary weapon such as an axe or seax.
The advent of Christianity in the seventh century was to bring about a change in the fyrd which would totally change its nature by the middle of the ninth century. As Christianity spread the monasteries needed land on which to build, and as we have already seen land tended to be given only for the lifetime of the king. However, the monasteries needed a more secure arrangement than just the hope that the king's successor would maintain the donation. This was achieved through the introduction of a Roman system known as ius perpetuum, or as the Anglo-Saxons called it bocland [bookland]. Under this system the king gave the land to the Church in eternity, and the grant was recorded in writing [the book] and witnessed by important noblemen and churchmen so that the land could not be taken back in future. Although book-land was foreign in origin, it flourished in England because the notion a man gave so that he might receive was anything but foreign to the pagan English. Book-land must have struck early Christian kings as a reasonable demand on the part of the Church. A Christian king gave a free gift to God in hope of receiving from Him an eternal gift - salvation. Whilst nothing that he could give to the Lord would be sufficient, for no man could be God's equal, just as no retainer could hope to be the equal of his lord, a king could at least respond with an eternal terrestrial gift, a perpetual grant of land and the rights over it. This exchange of gifts confirmed the relationship of lordship that existed between a king and his Lord God in the same way as the relationship between a gesiþ and his lord.
How did book-land impinge upon the early fyrd arrangement? On the simplest level, what was given to the Church could not be used to endow warriors. As time went by more and more land was booked to the church, and many of the kings noblemen became disgruntled. Some of the noblemen offered to build abbeys and become the abbot on their land in return for the book-right, and this was often granted even if the noblemen did not keep his end of the bargain. The holders of these early books, both genuine and spurious, enjoyed their tenures free from all service, including military service. And by giving the land in book-right, the king had removed it permanently from his control.
The kings faced a dilemma. This dilemma was first solved by the Mercian kings of the mid-eighth century, when King Æþelbald decreed that all the churches and monasteries in his realm were to be free from "all public renders, works and charges, reserving only two things: the construction of bridges and the defence of fortifications against enemies."
By the latter part of the eighth century book-right was being granted to secular as well as ecclesiastical men. In order to maintain his fyrd, King Offa of Mercia further refined Æþthelbald's decree by giving land free of all service "except for matters pertaining to expeditions [fyrd], and the construction of bridges and fortifications, which is necessary for the whole people and from which none ought to be excused." By the mid ninth century these "common burdens" (as they were often referred to) were being demanded in all the kingdoms.
In short the idea of military service as a condition of land tenure was a consequence of book-right. Under the traditional land-holding arrangement a stipulation of this sort would have been unnecessary - a holder of loanland from the king was by definition a king's man, and his acceptance of an estate obliged him to respond with fidelity and service to his royal lord. Book-land tenure, a hereditary possession, was quite a different matter, for such a grant permanently removed the land from the king's control without assuring that future generations who owned the property would recognise the king or his successors as their lord. By imposing the "common burdens", the king guaranteed military service from book-land and tied the holders of the book securely to the ruler of the tribe. By this time the terms geoguþ and duguþ were being replaced by dreng (young warrior) and thegn (one who serves). The dreng still attended the king directly, whilst the thegn was usually the holder of book-land. By now, the term scir usually denoted more than just a single estate, and the thegn who held the scir was usually referred to as an ealdorman. Many of the lesser thegns within the scir would have held their land from the ealdorman in addition to those who held land directly from the king.
Original article by Ben Levick 1995.