Despite the assertions of nineteenth-century scholars that the early Anglo-Saxons were an egalitarian people in which every man was a warrior, it seems that military service in the seventh century was normally restricted to the noble class. The main distinction was institutionalised in several sets of surviving laws through the concept of the ‘wergild’ or ‘man price’. By the late seventh century it was becoming common practice to regulate the old system of blood feuds by imposing fines on those who wrongly killed their fellows, instead of leaving the onus on the victims’ families to avenge them. The laws of Ine of Wessex, who ruled from 688 to 726, are one of the earliest surviving statements of this principle. They divide society into two broad classes: the thegns or gesiths, whose wergild was set at 1,200 shillings, and the ‘ceorls’ or commoners, whose lives were worth only one-sixth as much. Foreigners, usually but not necessarily identified with the British, had a wergild half that of the equivalent Saxons.
In this context the story of Imma, as related by Bede, is especially illuminating. Imma was a Northumbrian thegn who was knocked unconscious at the Battle of the River Trent in 679, and on recovering found that his comrades had fled. He tried to escape, presumably discarding his weapons and armour in the process, but was captured by the Mercians. When they took him to their leader for interrogation he decided to conceal the fact that he was a warrior, afraid that he might be held for ransom or killed to avenge Mercian losses. Imma therefore pretended to be what Bede calls a ‘rusticus’, a peasant or ceorl, explaining his presence on the battlefield by saying that he had been transporting food for the supply train. However, his captors soon realised from his clothing, speech and general appearance that he was of noble birth, and he was persuaded to reveal the truth in exchange for a promise not to harm him. Imma was told that in that case that he deserved to die in revenge for the deaths of the Mercian leader’s brothers and other relatives in the battle, but instead he was sold to a Frisian slave trader in London, and eventually ransomed by the intervention of King Hlothere of Kent.
Bede tells this tale as part of a typical miracle story, alleging that Imma’s brother, who was a priest, had believed him to be dead and had said numerous masses for his soul. As a side effect Imma was released from earthly chains rather than spiritual ones, and whenever his captors tried to put him in fetters they miraculously fell off. The rest of the account, however, seems fairly plausible, and it tells us a great deal about the experience of warfare in the seventh century.
The presence on a battlefield of a man who was not a member of the professional warrior class clearly required explanation, so we can assume that if ordinary ceorls did fight, they were in a minority. Class differences were marked enough to doom Imma’s deception to failure, and furthermore, although the two sides spoke a common language, his enemies could easily tell that he was not a Mercian. Perhaps the Northumbrian accent was noticeably different, or perhaps the armies were small enough for the leaders to know their own men by sight. It is unlikely that any sort of military uniform or field sign was involved, because Imma would hardly have attempted to claim non-combatant status if he had been wearing one. We also discover from this affair that even in wars between Christian kingdoms it was accepted practice to kill prisoners to expiate a blood feud, or to sell them into slavery. In addition there is evidence of a kind of international brotherhood among the nobility, despite the Mercians’ unchivalrous behaviour towards their victim: Hlothere’s involvement came about because Imma had once been in the service of his aunt, the Northumbrian queen Etheldreda.
A conclusion which is increasingly finding favour is that most seventh- and eighth-century armies consisted entirely of professional or semi-professional warriors, the thegns belonging either directly to the king or to one of his noble vassals. Where Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives specific dates for the campaigns and battles which they mention it is clear that they usually occurred between August and November – in other words, during the period between the gathering of the grain harvest and the onset of winter weather. This need not mean, however, that the men who fought these wars were not available earlier because they were personally involved in the harvesting. The need to collect supplies of bread to accompany the army, and the hope of seizing the enemy’s grain without the labour of harvesting it oneself, would be sufficient to account for this timing.
Ine imposed fines for avoiding military service, depending on the rank of the offender. A gesith paid 120 shillings and forfeited his land if he held any; if he had no land he was fined half that amount. A ceorl had to pay thirty shillings. However, the code does not specifically state that all ceorls had to serve, or in what capacity. A man who could afford to pay thirty shillings would in any case have belonged to the wealthiest stratum of his class, and was probably obliged to fight as an exceptional condition of a particular grant of land. Armies would therefore have been predominantly aristocratic, with a much higher proportion of men carrying expensive swords and wearing armour than the occurrence of these items in the population as a whole would suggest. They might also have been all mounted on horseback and so highly mobile, although Imma’s story shows that peasants would accompany large expeditions to transport supplies, presumably in carts, which must have slowed the army down. Small raiding parties would probably have been expected to live off the land.
What do we mean, though, by ‘large’ and ‘small’ in this context? How big were the armies which fought the Mercian Wars? Writers on this subject usually quote from Ine’s laws, which defined any armed force of over thirty-five men as a ‘here’ or raiding army. This does not of course mean that this was a typical size for armies, merely that it was considered too big to be dismissed as a mere band of robbers, and so perhaps required the attention of the king rather than being left to local leaders to deal with. It does suggest that the ‘thousands’ of casualties in the battle accounts of Henry of Huntingdon and others are wild exaggerations, but another of Henry’s observations may receive unexpected support. He was aware of the paradox that many of the Anglo-Saxon battles which he describes lasted a whole day and involved heavy losses on both sides without leading to a decisive result, whereas the conflicts of his own day were usually over in a much shorter time. His explanation was that the warriors of an earlier age had been stronger, and possessed more stamina and courage, than their feeble descendants of the twelfth century, who were liable to run as soon as the fight turned against them. This sounds like a typical eulogy for the ‘good old days’ when ‘men were men’, but might have a basis in fact. Henry was writing at the time of the ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign, when England had been relatively peaceful for two generations, and its military caste may indeed have lacked the professionalism of the veterans who had fought in the relentless wars of Penda, Aethelbald and Offa. Perhaps in their time men such as Imma would have been instantly distinguishable from the peasantry not only by their equipment but by their stature and muscular development, the product of a high-protein diet and constant training. A similar situation exists even today in places such as parts of rural India, where the local subsistence farmers can be readily told apart from those who make their living in other – sometimes less legitimate – ways.
The professional gesiths of early Anglo-Saxon times may even have constituted a hereditary military class which operated across the borders of the developing kingdoms, as we have seen in the case of Imma. Bede also mentions that many young men from other kingdoms served in the retinue of King Oswine of Deira (reigned 644 – 51). On the other hand men of this caste seem often to have embarked on private freebooting expeditions at the expense of neighbouring kingdoms, especially perhaps the Britons. According to his biographer, an East Anglian monk named Felix, Saint Guthlac, who was born among the Middle Angles in the late seventh century, decided to follow the example of ‘valiant heroes of old’, and gathered a following of similar warlike youths whom he led on raids in search of wealth and glory. From another passage in the same source we learn that Guthlac had once lived among the Britons and spoke their language, so some of his military career had presumably been spent in Wales. After nine years as a war leader he renounced warfare and became a monk. Guthlac is only known to us because his later reputation for sanctity attracted the attention of the chroniclers, but many of his contemporaries no doubt used the experience and military knowledge which they had gained to enter the service of a king or nobleman as one of his hearth companions. For this reason their youthful escapades were tolerated for the skills and experience which they imparted to the future warriors, despite the risk of them provoking hostilities with neighbouring kingdoms.
At some point during the eighth century military obligations began to be placed on a more formal basis with the appearance of ‘bookland’. This was land granted by the king in return for certain specific obligations set out in a ‘book’ or charter. It is of course likely that these obligations were based on those required in previous centuries, but which had not been written down. Professor Brooks, in a detailed survey of military obligations in the charters, concluded that this development began in Mercia during the reign of Aethelbald and spread gradually to neighbouring kingdoms under Mercian influence, reaching Kent during Offa’s occupation in the 790s. What became the three ‘common burdens’ – service in the army, work on fortifications and work on building and maintaining bridges – are first specified in King Aethelbald’s charter of 749 (Brooks). This monarch incurred the wrath of the church by attempting to impose military obligations on religious houses as well as secular landlords, but even Offa was insistent that there were no exemptions from these three forms of service. In fact it has been suggested that it was Offa who permanently extended his predecessor’s labour dues to include military service. No doubt local lords discharged their obligations by compelling their own tenants to turn out for labouring or supply-train duties, but there is still little evidence that the mass of the people actually fought in the armies.
Still influential in Anglo-Saxon studies is Warren Hollister’s theory that in the eleventh century the army was divided into two main elements, the ‘great fyrd’, or mass levy, and the ‘select fyrd’, an elite force consisting of one man selected from every five hides. This has often been extended by other writers to apply to the whole Anglo-Saxon period, but even for the period with which Hollister was concerned there are few references to this system in contemporary documents. In the era of the Mercian kings the term ‘fyrd’ was used, as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to describe a defensive force or levy, as opposed to a ‘here’ or raiding army. The Vikings were a ‘here’, but then so were the forces of Offa, Alfred and other English kings when operating beyond their own frontiers. It is reasonable to expect that the composition of a ‘fyrd’ would differ in some way from that of a ‘here’, but battle accounts shed little light on this. If defensive armies routinely included large numbers of locally recruited peasants their fighting power must have been minimal, because enemy ‘raids’ frequently defeated them. The situation seems to have changed at the end of the ninth century during the reign of Alfred, who introduced a system of rotating service, whereby half the army was in the field at any one time, the remainder working on the land or garrisoning fortifications (Abels). This was an emergency measure introduced to combat the Viking invasions, and must have required a more extensive call-up in order to keep the field forces up to a reasonable strength. It also implies that men whose usual occupation was agriculture were now being expected to fight for the first time.
The armies of the early Anglo-Saxon period, then, were relatively small in size and simple in structure, but commanding them must nevertheless have been more than a matter of swinging a sword in the front rank. Unfortunately we have little data on the details of command and control. Leaders were obviously expected to set an example: at Maldon the army fell into confusion when a coward stole the earl’s horse to make his escape, and some men concluded that their commander had deserted them. Before the same battle Byrhtnoth is portrayed as riding along the ranks, exhorting the warriors to keep in formation and reminding the more nervous or inexperienced among them how to hold their shields firmly.
It is likely that a leader would be accompanied by some sort of standard to mark his position, and perhaps help in conveying simple orders such as a general advance or retreat. Bede says that Edwin of Northumbria had a royal standard of a type ‘known to the Romans as a “tufa”, and to the English as a “tuf”’, and although he mentions this as proof of Edwin’s exceptional status, Roman-inspired insignia may have been fairly common. The dragon-shaped ‘windsock’ standards shown on the Bayeux tapestry are very similar to the late Roman ‘draco’, which suggests that they had been in use since a very early date. King Cuthred of Wessex is said by Henry of Huntingdon to have had a standard bearing a golden dragon at the Battle of Beorhford in 752, and the ‘dragon’ associated with Alfred the Great was probably very similar, if it was not actually the same one. Henry’s account also refers to a Mercian standard bearer, but unfortunately we have no specific descriptions of Mercian flags, although ‘emblazoned standards shining with gold’ are mentioned at the same battle. Representations on coins as well as the Bayeux tapestry suggest that flags at this date were triangular, and supported by a crosspiece at the top of the shaft as well as being attached to the shaft itself. Others may have been of the type known to the Romans as a ‘vexillum’, which was rectangular and attached only to a crosspiece along the top. Alternatively Christian kings could make use of tall processional crosses to motivate their men, especially in battles against pagan opponents, as suggested by Bede’s accounts of the seventh-century Northumbrians at Denisesburn and Maserfelth.