The Late-Saxon Navy

Anglo-Saxon ship


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

The genesis of the English navy is heralded by a well-known passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Then King Alfred ordered that warships be built to meet the Danish ships. They were nearly twice as long as the others; some had sixty oars; some more, and they were both swifter and steadier and had more freeboard than the others. They were built neither after the Frisian design nor after the Danish, but as it seemed to him that they could be most serviceable.

With this act King Alfred provided an essential ingredient to the defence of his island kingdom. The evolution of the English navy runs continuously from his reign onward. It is interesting to note that before the Norman Conquest the dukes of Normandy did not command a navy. The chroniclers agree that the fleet which carried the Conqueror’s army across the English Channel was raised on a volunteer basis. But when William established control over England, he inherited an active maritime force and a complex of rights which permitted him to order new ships to be built and to summon men to duty in the fleet.

The exact nature of the mid-eleventh-century fleet and of the naval obligations which rested upon Englishmen is obscure. The source material is both scattered and thin, and it would be presumptuous, under the circumstances, to suggest that the problem can be fully clarified. I will say little on the subject of naval mercenaries. It will perhaps be sufficient merely to repeat that these mercenaries were of great importance in the late-Saxon fleet. Apart from the mercenaries, naval service was obtained according to two broad principles. First, there was a general territorial obligation to perform sea duty and, at least on certain occasions, to provide ships. This duty was analogous to the select-fyrd obligation. Second, certain coastal towns bore special and precise obligations to provide warships and to man them. These obligations were characteristic of the towns which were later to be associated with the organization of the Cinque Ports, but they also applied to towns outside the Cinque Ports region. Let us turn first to the general territorial obligation.

The intimate connection between the obligation of naval service and that of the select fyrd does not seem to me to have been sufficiently stressed. The Anglo-Saxon dooms make clear that the military obligation of the trimoda necessitas included both land duty and sea duty. In the laws of Ethelred, the trimoda necessitas included, in addition to bridge and fortress work, fyrdunga and scipfyrdunga, and one of Cnut’s laws states that the duties to be performed for the common need include the repair of fortresses and bridges and also scipfyrdunga and fyrdunga. Since we have earlier identified the military obligation of the trimoda necessitas with select-fyrd duty, we are now driven to the conclusion that the ship fyrd was a parallel institution to the select land fyrd. The Berkshire passage, which describes the organization of the select fyrd, opens with the statement, `If the king sent an army anywhere, only one soldier went from five hides, and we are left to conclude that `anywhere’ might very well include the sea. This conclusion is supported by numerous other passages. One of the laws of Cnut discloses the territorial nature of sea duty and its close connection with the select fyrd: `And whoever, with the cognizance of the shire, has performed the services demanded from a landowner both in the scypfyrde and in the landfyrde’ shall hold his land freely during his life. The town of Malmesbury, performing the military service of five hides of land, sent one warrior on royal expeditions `by land or sea’. The same is true of the Devonshire towns. Exeter served as five hides on expeditions by land or sea and Barnstaple, Lidford, and Totnes together performed the same service as did Exeter. Domesday reports that the sokeland of Somerby near Grantham in Lincolnshire helped in the king’s army on land and at sea. On an estate of the church of Worcester, four liberi homines rendered to the bishop, T. R. E., sac and soc, et expeditiones et nauiga, and the same duties were owed by the tenants who held the land at the time of the Domesday Survey. We should recall, in this connection, that Eadric, the chief military officer of the see of Worcester, was not only the commander of the bishop’s troops but also the steersman of the bishop’s ship. The nature of the office of steersman is not entirely clear. He may have been a pilot, but was more probably the ship’s master. Here, then, the select fyrd and the ship fyrd appear to have a common leader. Again, a thegn of Earl Leofric of Mercia, having devastated an estate of the monastery of Worcester, was given the estate by the prior of the monastery on the condition that the thegn should perform the military service of the abbey by land and sea, and that he should recognize the prior’s lordship. In all of these passages the sea duty is clearly territorial and is coupled with the obligation to serve in the select fyrd. This fact should not surprise us. We have already seen that the select fyrd differed from the great fyrd in that it was not necessarily local in its operations. It was subject to service in remote parts of the country and also, it would seem, in foreign lands. It would follow from this that warrior representatives might well be expected to serve on expeditions overseas and on the sea as well.

The close parallel between land and sea duty is reflected also in the chronicles. In 973 eight tributary kings swore fealty to King Edgar, `binding themselves to military service et terra et mari’.Again in 1064, after a successful campaign against Wales, King Edward received an oath from the Welsh that they would be faithful to him and to Earl Harold and would obey their orders by sea and land (mari terraque). Moreover, there are several references to the joint summoning of a ship fyrd and a land fyrd and to the use of the two forces in combined operations.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle discloses that during the reigns of Cnut and his son Harold, ship men were being paid at the annual rate of 8 marks per oar. This amounts to a sum slightly in excess of 3 1/2d. per day, which is significantly close to the daily pay of a warrior in the select fyrd, which, as of 1066, was 4d. per day. The similarity of these wages is particularly striking when allowance is made for the slight increase in the cost of living which probably occurred between 1040 and 1066. It is interesting also that the wages of ordinary seamen during the reign of King John were only 3d. per day, at a time when military wages had risen to a point considerably above their mid-eleventh-century level. Not until the reign of Edward I in the later thirteenth century did sailors’ wages return to 3 1/2d. This fact suggests strongly that the shipman of 1040 and the sailor of the thirteenth century had distinctly different functions and that the oarsman of the Anglo-Saxon ship fyrd was regarded as a much more valuable and important person than his thirteenth century counterpart. I would suggest that the difference lay in the fact that the duties of the thirteenth-century sailor were confined to his ship whereas the eleventh century oarsman was expected to be both sailor and warrior. He was, as it were, the twin of the warrior-representative who fought in the select fyrd on land. The oarsmen whose wages are disclosed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were evidently mercenaries rather than territorial warriors, but as I have shown elsewhere1 the wages of mercenaries and the support payments of territorial warrior-representatives were at least theoretically identical. So the fact that the wages reported in Berkshire Domesday relate to warrior-representatives while the payment of oarsmen described in the Chronicle applies to mercenaries in no way diminishes the importance of their similarity. The oarsmen of the Chronicle doubled as warriors, and as such performed the same dual function which we earlier attributed to the lithsmen and which we can now attribute also to the members of the territorial ship fyrd.

But although the ship fyrd and the select fyrd were obviously parallel institutions, they were by no means identical. Occasionally we encounter statements to the effect that the land obligation and the maritime obligation of the same territory were quite distinct. The burghers of Leicester, for example, owed twelve warriors in the event of a land expedition, but if the army went by sea the burghers instead sent four horses as far as London to carry arms or supplies. Ten burghers went from Warwick on land campaigns, but if the king went by sea the burghers provided either four boatswains or four pounds. These customs are obviously local exceptions. The more normal practice is illustrated by the numerous references to a territorial military obligation which is the same whether the service is in a land fyrd or a ship fyrd. With the exception of these two towns and certain others which I will discuss presently, the recruitment system for the ship fyrd paralleled that of the select land fyrd. Indeed, since the two fyrds were recruited according to precisely the same principles, it would be more correct to say that they shared the same recruitment system. And we are also left with the conclusion that when the two forces were not summoned jointly they were manned by the same people. The Anglo-Saxon warrior-representatives, like the lithsmen and butsecarls, were expected to fight both on land and at sea. And the ship fyrd, like the select fyrd on land, was based upon the recruitment unit of five hides.

Florence of Worcester provides us with a good description of an exceptionally well-built and well-equipped Anglo- Saxon ship of the mid-eleventh century:

Godwin, in order to win the king’s friendship, gave him a ship of excellent workmanship, having a gilded figurehead, equipped with the best armaments, and manned with eighty well-armed select warriors each of whom had a golden bracelet on each arm, a triple coat of mail, a partly gilded helmet on his head, a sword with a gilded hilt on his side, a Danish battle-axe inlaid with gold hanging from his left shoulder, a shield in his left hand the boss and studs of which were also gilt, and in his right hand a lance which in the English language is called ategar.

This ship can by no means be regarded as typical. It is, in fact, only natural that a historian such as Florence of Worcester would dwell upon the exceptional rather than the normal. The more ordinary ship of Anglo-Saxon times must have been manned by warriors who were distinctly inferior to those described by Florence inferior both in ability and in equipment. Moreover, the typical Old English ship seems to have been manned by about sixty warriors rather than eighty. As we have seen, the ships built during Alfred’s reign had sixty oars or more. Archbishop AElfric of Canterbury granted to his lord his best ship together with sixty helmets and sixty coats of mail, and Bishop Alfwold of Crediton bequeathed to his lord a ship with sixty-four oars. Here again we are left to infer that the warriors were also oarsmen.

A very important if somewhat obscure passage occurs in the chronicles under the year 1008. We are told that in this year King Ethelred ordered ships to be built throughout England, one ship being furnished by every 300 or 310 hides. The figure of 310 is given by Florence of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon, and by the C, E, and F manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and is accepted by many historians. The D manuscript, whose version other historians accept, sets the figure at 300 hides to provide a scip and ten hides to provide a scegd, the latter being a light, swift sailing ship similar to those used by the Vikings. Plummer argues that the D manuscript is less reliable than the others and that, moreover, the disproportion between the number of hides required to provide a scip and the number owing a scegd is unbelievably large, the ratio being 30:1. Although the scegd was a light ship it was not necessarily small. The ship of sixty-four oars which Bishop Alfwold bequeathed was termed a scegd, and it is difficult to understand how such a ship as this might be worth only one-thirtieth of another kind of ship. On the other hand, the scegd of the 1008 passage may very well have been small; it is explained in Wülker’s gloss as litel scip. And it seems to me that the D version makes much better sense than those of the other manuscripts, which leave the impression that certain words have been omitted.

However this may be, the 1008 passage discloses a district of 300 or 310 hides which is responsible for producing a ship. The same passage stipulates that every eight hides should provide a helmet and a coat of mail. Here, too, there is some confusion, for Florence of Worcester sets the figure at nine hides. Doubtless the figure of eight hides reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the more trustworthy of the two. The discrepancy is not important, since neither figure appears before or after 1008, and we must assume therefore that the requirement was extraordinary. It seems clear from the context of these passages that the helmet and coat of mail were to be provided in connection with the ship, but I see no reason to infer, as some historians have done, that the eight-hide districts of 1008 were each to send a warrior along with the armour.

But even though the formation of eight-hide districts for the purpose of providing armour may have been a temporary expedient, naval obligations roughly similar to those disclosed by the 1008 passages were a permanent part of the late- Saxon military system. In 992 King Ethelred had collected at London all the ships in the kingdom that were of any value and had them manned by a force which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls a fyrd under the command of two ealdormen and two bishops. It may well be that this expedition was raised according to principles similar to those described in 1008. In 1003 or 1004 Archbishop AElfric bequeathed three ships, one to his lord, one to the people of Kent, and one to Wiltshire. The only evident reason for these grants, particularly the grant to the inland shire of Wilts., was to help the people in fulfilling their ship assessment, and therefore AElfric’s will provides us with strong evidence that a ship tax existed prior to 1008. One of Ethelred’s dooms, issued in the very year 1008, orders that the fitting out of ships be carried out with all possible diligence so that each year they may all be ready for service soon after Easter, and a similar law was published later in the same reign. In both instances, the references to ship duty immediately follow laws relating to the trimoda necessitas. The sequence is logical in view of the fact that both were territorial obligations. The reference to Easter doubtless stems from the fact that it was shortly after Easter that the Danish raids normally began.

Thus, the obligation to provide ships for the navy was a general duty. If the provisions of 1008 are any indication, it was a territorial obligation which was, like the select-fyrd and the ship-fyrd obligations, assessed by hides. It seems a little peculiar that interior districts were obliged to provide ships, but such evidently was the case. In 1008 hide-districts throughout all of England were expected to produce ships, and Archbishop AElfric’s gift of a ship to Wiltshire allows of no other explanation. Indeed, the units of approximately 300 hides which owed ships in 1008 were apparently permanent ship-assessment districts. A twelfth-century copy of what is alleged to be a charter of King Edgar, and which was probably based upon actual custom, stipulates that the triple hundred of Oswaldslaw was to be held by the bishop of Worcester on the condition that it constitute a naucupletionem, or in the English tongue, a scypfylled or scypsocne. It is not entirely clear whether the scypsocne or ship-soke was under the obligation of producing a ship or providing its crew or both. In the former instance the hundred of Oswaldslaw with its 300 hides would be identical to the districts mentioned in connection with the assessment of 1008. If Oswaldslaw was obliged to produce a ship’s company rather than a ship, then we would have here a splendid example of the five-hide recruitment system. For the normal ship was, as we have seen, a vessel of about sixty oars, and a district of 300 hides such as Oswaldslaw Hundred would yield, according to the five-hide rule, exactly sixty armed oarsmen. But probably the Worcester document is an illustration of both the 300-hide district which owed a ship to the navy and the five-hide district which owed one armed oarsman. We should recall in this connection the passage discussed earlier which named Eadric the commander of the bishop of Worcester’s troops and the steersman (i. e. the master) of the bishop’s ship. The bishop’s ship was evidently the ship which was owed by his ship-soke of Oswaldslaw. And Eadric commanded the bishop’s men, whether they were serving on land campaigns or aboard his ship. Accordingly, a ship-soke seems to have been a district of 300 hides or thereabouts which produced and maintained a ship for the royal navy and which also provided the necessary armed oarsmen to man it.

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