Dark Age weaponry is the subject of several books currently in print. The subject has benefited from the popularity of re-enactments, which suggest how the age might have drilled and deployed its armies even when the contemporary record is silent. Facsimile weapons have shed light not only on how Dark Age weapons were used but also on how they were made. Round shields, for example, are four times more effective at resisting missiles when bent into a concave shape. Plain wooden shields, on the other hand, are useless, splintering on the first impact. It is reasonable to suppose that no one used wooden shields without some more effective form of strengthening.
The fighting men of late Saxon times were better equipped than is sometimes implied. A law of Aethelred the Unready states that a ceorl was not the equal to a thegn, even when he possessed a helmet, mail shirt and a sword, unless he was also the owner of a minimum of five hides of land. In other words, even humble ceorls ruling over no more than a peasant’s patch sometimes had resource to the most expensive items of military hardwear.
As for the thegn, the Saxon landowning class roughly equivalent to an eighteenth-century squire, another law specified a kind of death duty (heriot) on his land. In its original form this consisted of a gift to the king consisting of four horses, two of them with saddles, four shields, four spears, a helmet and a coat of mail. This seems to have been equivalent to a thegn’s personal retinue of a second mounted man and a couple of foot soldiers. By implication, a thegn went to battle on a horse, attended by a small retinue. His ‘death duty’ to the king must have helped the latter to build up a sizeable armoury and ensure that his followers were well armed.
The shield was the universal weapon of Dark Age armies. You would not have lasted very long in a Dark Age battle without one, and probably every warrior bore one. Indeed, as even the best shields shattered after prolonged combat, they probably went into battle with a spare. According to Tacitus, writing in the first century AD, to lose your shield was considered a great disgrace. Before the kite shield came into vogue in the age of armoured knights near the end of our period, most shields were round and measured between two and three feet in diameter. They were made of wooden boards glued together with an unlikely-sounding but apparently effective rubbery mixture of cheese, vinegar and quicklime. Traditionally shields were made of limewood, but in practice any light, springy wood, such as pine, was used, on which rawhide was then stretched.
Combat shields probably bulged outwards in a lens-like shape. Experiments show that this makes them much stronger and more resistant to blows. In addition some shields were reinforced with leather or iron, fixed around the rim with short nails. Most also bore a conical metal boss attached to the middle with rivets. This protected the hand and enabled the shield to be used to parry a blow or even as an offensive weapon to smash into your opponent using the weight of your body. An opponent whose weapon had become stuck in your shield could be disarmed by a sudden twist and then forced to the ground by the weight of the shield and its projecting boss. Shields were slung around the neck by a strap and held in front of the body using a grip. The strap might have been adjustable, allowing a warrior to fight with a two-handed weapon while covering his body.
Probably most shields were brightly painted and, with the banners, formed part of the colour and spectacle of a Dark Age battlefield. Viking art often shows a cartwheel pattern of colours radiating from the centre of a shield. Those found with the Gokstad ship-burial were painted yellow and black alternatively. The shields of the Christian king Olaf’s army were painted with crosses in various colours on a white background. Very likely, such colours helped identify units, or in this case a whole army, in battle. Fragments associated with shields show that some were also studded with metal objects in the shape of birds, beasts or fish. Were these good luck charms, or did they have some function of group identity?
The spear was the universal Dark Age weapon. Since slaves were forbidden arms, bearing a spear was the mark of a free man. Nearly everyone, from kings to commoners, carried a spear in battle, ‘grasped in fist, lifted in hand’. In line facing the enemy you bore your shield in one hand, usually the left, and your spear with the other. The spearman had two basic choices. You could hold the weapon overarm, using it to jab at your opponent’s face, and also retaining the option to hurl it. Or you could hold it underarm and, supported by the forearm, give it greater thrust-power and a longer reach. Some warriors grasped their spear with both hands for still greater force, leaving the shield to hang from its strap. Some Dark Age spears had cutting blades which must have required two hands to wield in the manner of a pole-axe.
Dark Age spears measured anything between five and nine feet long (the much longer pikes belong to a later age). The smaller, lighter ones were used for hurling as missiles. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a scene which might have been typical of an earlier age in which stacks of spears are kept in readiness for hurling. Although it isn’t always possible to distinguish throwing spears from close combat weapons, the former was sometimes custom-made with a thin iron neck which bent on impact to prevent it being thrown back. Throwing spears were also often barbed for the same reason, and also, of course, to increase the injury caused. A barrage of light spears hurled from perhaps twenty to forty paces (but, in expert hands, for up to twenty paces more) would have been unpleasant to endure.
Longer spears were retained for defence. The shafts were normally made of ashwood, which grows straight and withstands hard knocks without shattering. The butt end was sometimes protected with a sleeve of iron, capable of being used as a club. There were several types of blades. The commonest were angular, with a diamond cross-section, or leaf-shaped. The former had the best chance of penetrating mail. Some spears had sharp wings which could hamstring the enemy with a sideways blow, or be used to hook down shields by the rim.
Spears were the weapon of a freeman, but a sword was the mark of high status. A pattern-welded Dark Age sword was worth at least as much as a Ferrari; in modern terms, perhaps a quarter of a million pounds. Swords had names; Hrinting (perhaps meaning ‘roarer’) was the fictional Beowulf’s sword, Quernbiter the sword of the real Olaf Tryggvasson, leader of the Danes at Maldon. They were heirlooms. Athelstan, son of Aethelred the Unready, considered his silver-hiked sword a kingly gift. Swords were craft-made weapons, produced by the slow art of pattern-welding in which strips of metal were repeatedly heated and hammered together. Without such work, the blades would soon break in combat. Towards the end of the period, the improving quality of iron ore meant that swords could be made more cheaply, and hence more people could afford to own one. But as late as the tenth century, nearly half of the swords found by archaeologists were produced by the old pattern-welded method. Possibly swords were more often seen in the south than the north. Some 22 per cent of Dark Age graves in Kent contained swords, compared with only 3 per cent of Anglian graves in northern England.
Dark Age swords were about a yard long, including the metal ‘tang’, with a double-edged blade about two inches wide. Consequently, though they were well-balanced, they were quite heavy. Dark Age warriors did not have ‘sword fights’. A Viking saga reminded its listeners that the expert swordsman did not ‘strike fast and furiously’ but took his time to pick his strokes carefully, so that they ‘were few but terrible’. The sword was a bludgeon used to hack at the parts of a warrior not covered by his shield, notably his head or forward leg. An overarm blow crashing down on an opponent’s head would have been fatal. Other blows could disable your opponent and expose him to the kind of wounds sometimes found on Dark Age skeletons – repeated cuts on the bones of the head, arms and legs. Viking sagas are full of images of arms and legs being severed with a single blow – which, surprisingly, the victim often survived. Swords also had a heavy pommel, shaped like a tea-cosy, which not only acted as a counterweight to the blade but at close quarters could be used to deliver a disabling blow to the head or chin. Versatility was an asset to any weapon in sweaty, close-order fighting.
Swords were carried in wooden, leather-covered scabbards lined with oily fur or wool to keep the blade free of rust. The scabbard was often richly decorated and was another mark of high status. It was suspended either from the belt with the help of a couple of supporting straps, or from a shoulder harness or baldric.
Mail is perishable and rarely survives, even in burials. It was also expensive, and, like the sword, was the mark of the wealthy professional warrior. The scraps of mail surviving in the Sutton Hoo burial suggest that seventh-century mail consisted of a short-sleeved shirt that reached down to the hips. By the eleventh century, the mail shirt had become a coat covering the body down to the knees, or, in Harald Hardrada’s case, the calves. Mail was made up of thousands of metal rings about a third of an inch in diameter and ‘woven’ in alternate rows of riveted and welded rings. A hip-length mail shirt or byrnie weighed about 25 pounds (11 kg) – no mean weight, especially considering that most of it had to be borne on the shoulders. It was fine so long as the fighting was static but mail was awkward to wear on the march, especially when going uphill. One reason why the Vikings lost the Battle of Stamford Bridge was that on a hot day they had decided to leave their armour behind with the ships. Similarly King Magnus of Norway threw away his ring-shirt during a battle in 1043. It could be more trouble than it was worth.
Mail gave the wearer a good degree of protection against cutting and glancing blows. It was less effective against arrows and spear thrusts. Some warriors probably wore a leather shirt under their mail. Kings and other wealthy men wore elaborate belt buckles and shoulder clasps. Nineteenth-century engravings of Saxon warriors often show them wearing fish-scale armour. This might have been cheaper and easier to make than mail, but not a single example has been found in this country. The most convincing example is on a stone carving of a Frankish warrior. Much cheaper than mail was leather. Padded leather ‘jacks’ were a surprisingly effective form of body protection, whose quilted lining absorbed glancing blows. Deer hide worn by Vikings was said to be quite as strong as mail, and infinitely lighter and more flexible.
The better class of Dark Age warrior also wore protective head gear. At the top end, this consisted of an elaborate helmet. Early helmets were made of metal bands riveted together with nasal guards, neck-guard and hinged cheekpieces similar to the helmets of the late Roman Empire. The Sutton Hoo helmet also has a face-mask, complete with metal eyebrows and a moustache. Some helmets bore crests. The seventh-century Benty Grange helmet gives an idea of what the great kings of Northumbria might have worn in battle, which in this case probably bore a plume of horsehair – somewhat like the knights of Rohan in the film of The Lord of the Rings. By the eleventh century, helmet design seems to have become simplified and more standardized. Canute and Harold Godwinson wore the familiar conical helmet with its nasal guard, apparently without any decoration or symbols of rank.
Spear and shield were the main weapons of Dark Age warfare. Other weapons were perhaps a matter of personal choice. Most people carried a knife for domestic use, and it would have made a familiar and useful weapon for close-quarter fighting. A longer single-edged combat knife could be almost as long as a sword when it was known as a seax. A rare piece of statuary from eighth-century Mercia shows a mailed horseman carrying a seax suspended horizontally from his belt. A seax attached to a pole would become a primitive pole-axe.
Combat axes became important in the eleventh century, and the long-shafted Danish axe was the housecarl’s weapon of choice. Axe action is vividly shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, and was particularly suited to defence against a mounted charge. For most of our period axes may have been used for throwing rather than swinging. Light axes were thrown in such a way that the blade struck the target with great force. Even when they missed their target, men would naturally duck if an axe came whizzing their way. Hence throwing-axes were used to disrupt the enemy line in the last vital seconds before the lines collided.
Every hunting man of the Dark Ages was familiar with the bow. The bow of choice was the longbow, up to six feet long and made of a single piece of yew, ash or elm. Yet bows and arrows are surprisingly rare finds in this period. The Bayeux Tapestry shows only a single, forlorn English archer. On the other hand, ‘bows were busy’ at the Battle of Maldon. The bodkin arrow seems to have evolved specifically as a war-arrow designed for piercing mail. Archers were certainly used for a long-distance missile shower before throwing-spears, axes and possibly slings came into play. However they do not seem to have been deployed in a mass, as the Norman archers were at Hastings. Perhaps the bow was seen as a rather low-status form of soldiery, compared with spears, swords and axes, and so there were never enough of them.