Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part II

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Anglo Saxon Military Organisation Part II


Many of the warriors of Anglo-Saxon England came to the
battlefield armed and armoured, but how did they come to possess such
equipment? The inclusion of heriots, or ‘war-gear’, in some surviving
Anglo-Saxon wills of the later period provide us with a glimpse into an ancient
custom and an insight into the importance of the bond of lordship throughout
the period. A heriot (‘heregeatu’) was basically a death due liable for payment
from people of thegnly rank or higher. It was in essence the returning to one’s
lord of the military equipment that the warrior had obtained for taking service
with his lord in the first place. The broad notion behind it was that by
returning the arms and armour given to you by your lord on your death, your
lord would be able to attract the service of another warrior to his household.
The poem Beowulf is full of the giving of such arms by a lord to his man. For
the modern historian, the heriots reflect the nature of military service in
terms of numbers of men and equipment that was expected of different ranks of
society. Although only broad conclusions can be drawn, they are useful

The giving of arms was deeply rooted in Germanic custom. In
Anglo-Saxon England it continued over a period of centuries whereby it is
possible to see a trend developing over time. According to surviving
documentation it would seem that in the Danelaw heriots were often paid in hard
cash instead of arms and armour, although the one surviving will of a man
called Ketel, an eleventh-century thegn of Archbishop Stigand, shows that arms
and armour could still be the method of payment even in the Danish areas. For
such a thegn the material in question centres around his horse and his weapons
and armour, enough to equip one man. Generally, the higher up the social
rankings you were, the more arms and armour you were required to provide. There
are sixteen heriots mentioned in the wills stretching from 946 to the period
immediately preceding the Norman Conquest. Some of them include material
additional to the basic weapon and armour set such as one with a handseax, and
one with a javelin. There is also mention of hawks, deerhounds, cups and dishes
in some of them.

In short, as the heriot of Ketel shows (1052–1066), it is
possible to determine that the war gear for one well-armed aristocratic warrior
amounted to one horse with tack, one helmet, one byrnie (mailcoat), one sword,
one spear and one shield. But it had not always been this straightforward. The
earliest surviving heriots of Ealdorman Æthelwold (946–947) and Bishop Theodred
(942–951) would seem to have been based on the rating of an ealdorman at the
time of King Edmund I (939–46). Here, the provision is for four men with
horses, swords, shields and spears. There is no mention in these heriots of
helmets or byrnies or of additional unsaddled horses, spears and shields for retainers
as there is in later heriots. It seems the early requirements were fairly
straightforward and centred round multiples of two. Noticeably absent from all
heriots, of course, is the bow, not a weapon to be associated with Anglo-Saxon

During the reigns of Eadred (946–56) and Edgar (959–975) the
requirement seems to escalate with multiples based now on a factor of three.
For example, the heriot of Ealdorman Ælfheah (968–971) is rated at six horses,
six shields, six spears and six swords. The tendency to increase the heriot of
the highest ranking member of society reflects a royal concern with the defence
of the realm. By the time of Æthelred II (979–1016), there is a further
evolution, which although complex, is possible to interpret. The ealdorman rank
or its equivalent goes up from six of everything to four fully armed and
armoured men and four lesser armed men with the appearance of the helmet and
byrnie for the first time. In fact, all heriots appearing after 1008 contain
helmets and byrnies, probably reflecting Æthelred’s decrees about the increased
production of such armour throughout his kingdom. It is this evolution that is
represented in the law code II Cnut 71 (1020–3), which sets out specifically
the heriots owed by different ranks. Here, we can see the discrepancy between
the expectations of the men of the Danelaw and those of other parts of the

It is clear that an earl’s heriot represented the equipping
of four fully armed men and four attendants to them equipped with just spear
and shield. Each of them rode to battle. It is not clear how the unsaddled
horses were used. They may have been used as pack horses to carry baggage or
may have been ridden without saddles by the four lesser armed retainers.

The king’s thegn of the English list seems to have been
expected to provide one fully armoured man (presumably the king’s thegn
himself) and one lesser armoured man who has a saddled horse, sword, spear and
shield, but no helmet or byrnie, plus two attendants with spear and shield
looking after two unsaddled horses. The lesser thegn is listed as one might
expect. He has to bring to the battle just himself, fully armed and prepared.

The Danelaw evidence is more problematic. There seems to be
a cash payment expectation for a ‘king’s thegn with soke’ and for a lesser
thegn, but quite why the ‘king’s thegn closer to the king’ is rated at two
horses (one saddled), one sword, two spears and two shields with no helmet or
byrnie listed is a mystery. It seems unlikely that the late Anglo-Saxon kings
were not able to impose such a burden on the Danelaw given that Æthelred had
demanded many coats of mail to be made across his kingdom.

Heriots later became less militarised and more associated
with the concept of tenurial succession. The difficulty is in trying to apply
them to the given military situation at the time of their writing. If they
provide nothing else, heriots give us a general idea of the type of equipment
an Anglo-Saxon warrior was expected to possess in order to do his duty. When he
performed that duty, the warrior became part of a well-organised machine and
not, as some have contended, an ad hoc reaction to the latest crisis.

Logistics and

King Harold lost the campaign of 1066. This fact has tended
to deflect our enquiries into the effectiveness of logistics in this era. Often
we assume there was inadequate provision in Harold’s army or that what existed
was somehow archaic. But we do not give sufficient credit to the Old English
military system. Here, we must concern ourselves with the evidence for the
wider apparatus of how forces were supplied and informed on their long
campaigns. That the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms possessed the capability of
large-scale feats of organisation is surely evidenced by the building of Offa’s

King Alfred’s three-way split of fyrd service into garrison
service, army service and land service is our first clue that logistics were to
be a central part of military planning. The forces were rotated so there were
always fresh men to hand, but we are not told how they were provisioned in the
field. Later sources indicate the fyrdsmen were supposed to supply themselves,
but as we have seen they were to bring money with them indicating that there
must have been an arrangement for them to spend it at certain markets or on
certain things. The Frankish Annals of St Bertin record that shield-selling
merchants were present in the baggage train of Charles the Bald at the Battle
of Andernach in 876. It is difficult to dismiss the notion that such
arrangements must have been made in England.

The idea that a campaigning army sent out its own foragers
is supported by some early evidence. It would also appear that such men acted
as scouts for the army too. The Venerable Bede indicates that the men in the
baggage train of early Northumbrian armies were married poor peasants whose job
it was not to fight as such, but to bring provisions to the troops. This is a
specific reference to the thegn Imma, who after the Battle of the Trent in 679
disguised himself as such an individual to escape capture and recognition by
his captor’s kinsmen. He declared that he had come on campaign with others of
his kind to bring provisions to the troops. His enemies in the Mercian army
clearly bought his story. It is likely that Bede’s thegn Imma was among those
responsible for managing the baggage train. It is tempting to see this sort of
arrangement running right through the period as a whole.

Evidence from France suggests that men summoned to the
Carolingian host were to bring with them enough provisions for three months in
carts. Meat and other such provisions, it is argued for the Carolingians, was
brought on the hoof or in carts. Supply dumps were arranged in advance and
other foraging was undertaken while on campaign. Again, the likelihood of
similar arrangements in Anglo-Saxon England is very high, but as always, much
harder to find. Those responsible for overseeing supply dumps of hay for
horses, grain and ale etc. may well have been the royal horse-thegns who were
thought to have performed a role similar to their Frankish counterparts, the
Marshalls (Marescales), whose association with mounted logistics is inherent in
their title.

Despite the extreme likelihood that the level of organisation
in terms of supplying an army in the field was very high, there is evidence
that it could all go horribly wrong during a campaign. The sheer volume of
produce required for supporting an army meant that it might have to engage
wholesale in foraging. After Alfred’s death, during the campaign of Edward the
Elder against the renegade Æthelwold, which is described below (see p. 101),
the king’s Kentish contingent (traditionally in the van of a combined
Anglo-Saxon army) ignored the royal pleas brought to them by no less than seven
messengers to come out from East Anglia after playing their part in a punitive
campaign. It is argued that the Kentish refusal to obey the king was due to the
fact that they had dispersed in order to forage for supplies.

The scouts and foragers in the army, particularly those of
the border areas will have had great knowledge of route ways and track ways in
their area. The route ways and roads of Anglo-Saxon England were both a result
of thousands of years of evolution and, in some cases, brand new innovation.
For example, the Icknield Way, which is generally regarded as the oldest road
in England, running from Knettishall Heath in East Anglia in a diagonal line
across the heart of England to the West Country for 105 miles, probably had its
origin in the Neolithic period some 3 millennia prior to the Anglo-Saxon era.
The Danish Great Heathen Army is even thought to have boldly marched down this
ancient track to attack Wessex in 871.

On the other hand, parts of the surviving Roman road network
were still very much in use with the old roads given English names, such as
Watling Street. That the Roman network was still widespread is undoubted. Its
state of repair may have varied, however, and there is one reference to a Roman
road in the bounds of a Chiseldon charter, dated to 955, which names the road
as ‘brokenstret’. However, the building of a grand fortification scheme in
southern England by Alfred the Great certainly took advantage of the Roman
network. From Exeter you could travel along Roman roads north to Bath,
Cricklade, Malmesbury and Axbridge and east towards Winchester via Bridport and
Wilton and, of course, on to London.

There are, however, fascinating and repeated references to
track ways that appear to be dedicated to military usage. In many charters from
the Anglo-Saxon period the word ‘herepath’ appears in the bounds. In fact,
there are 41 ‘herepaths’, 3 ‘fyrdstreats’ and 4 ‘herestreats’. Today, where
these paths survive, they are often referred to confusingly as ‘people’s
paths’. But in Anglo-Saxon times it is probable that these paths represented a
specific network of minor roads dedicated to the assembling and quick
transportation of forces between towns, fortifications, monastic centres and
estates. Some examples seem to run parallel to Roman roads indicating their
exclusivity, such as the A350 in northern Dorset and the A30 in Wiltshire.
Where a Roman network may not have existed or where it was inadequate for the
new military needs of a region, we find herepaths being used to link outlying
estates to royal vills or monastic centres. Such is the case with the herepaths
mentioned in the boundaries of Corston, Priston and Stanton, which were three
estates belonging to the monastery at Bath.

Another example of a herepath is one that seems to have run
from Wroughton in Wiltshire to the burh of Marlborough, travelling through
Yatesbury and the ancient monument at Avebury. Archaeologists contend that of
the four entrances to the great prehistoric monument at Avebury, the eastern
one is likely to have been either made or substantially altered by the
Anglo-Saxons to accommodate the herepath that ran through it. This herepath is
thought to be early tenth century in date and would have represented an era
when Edward the Elder (900–24) was working to consolidate his hold on Wessex
while actively seeking to expand his kingdom to the north. The Yatesbury Lane
herepath linked the minster church at Avebury to the burh and along its route
around the Marlborough Downs was a small defended enclosure at Yatesbury, the
ditches of which are dated to the Anglo-Saxon period. This represents an effort
on the part of the Anglo-Saxon military planners to make defensible even the
smaller enclosures along the route ways of the kingdom. The Yatesbury Lane
herepath, like many others, also commanded good views of the surrounding
landscape along its route. Many herepaths are associated with ridge ways
probably for this very reason. A picture emerges then of a surprisingly
sophisticated level of military planning by the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.

What a herepath actually looked like is another question.
They do not seem to have been metalled roads in the Roman sense, but the one at
Yatesbury Lane had a ditch on one side only and was about 5m wide, with some
tantalising geophysical evidence for wheel ruts. Elsewhere in the Somerset
Quantocks these track ways are described as 20m or 64ft wide. Quite how often
an English warrior’s boots trod down these pathways and intricate networks is
unknown. Nor is it understood how often herepaths were used for logistical
provision between towns and forts throughout the kingdom. What little evidence
we have once again points to a level of sophistication that perhaps should not
surprise us.

If the herepaths of the kingdom could aid transportation and
supply of troops and goods, then what do we know of any early warning systems?
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons had an
elaborate system of beacons dotted around the countryside. The very word
‘beacon’ is Old English in origin and comes from the word ‘becun’. But it is
suggested that there are other words in Old English that imply a place name of
a similar function to a beacon site. Such words are ‘weardsetl’ and ‘tot’.
Weardsetl, which means ‘watch point’, appears in a number of charters from the
Anglo-Saxon period and tot was another name for a look-out point. The key to
these systems was in their inter-visibility. One fire lit on the Isle of Wight
could by a series of relayed fires get a message to the Thames Valley in a very
short space of time.

The systems seem to have been related to the office of the
coastal watch. This duty seems to have been divided across the ranks of later
Anglo-Saxon society. Æthelweard, our much quoted chronicler, held land granted
by Edward the Martyr (in 977) at St Keverne, Cornwall ‘free from all royal dues
except military service and the fortification of fortresses and maritime
guard’. Here the expected bridge work is replaced by the coastal watch and it
seems Æthelweard’s responsibilities were great indeed. However, an ealdorman
could clearly not watch the sea all by himself, which might be why an
eleventh-century document known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (the
‘Rights and Ranks of the People’) describes some of the duties of a thegn as
arising out of the king’s command to include equipping a guard ship and
guarding the coast. Nor did it stop with the thegn. The same document also
mentions the cottar’s right. The cottar, a peasant freeman, is referred to as
having to perform the duty of keeping a coastal watch.

The mechanics of the coastal watch may have worked by the
cottar keeping watch on the coast under the instruction of the thegn whose duty
it was to organise it. Any sighting of an enemy fleet would cause the cottar to
light the first in a chain of beacons leading inland along sight lines
carefully prepared. The result would be the early warning to the population who
could flee their homesteads and get to the burhs and other fortifications in
plenty of time. A picture emerges, then, of a landscape dominated by signalling
and communications networks no less effective than the beacon systems of the
days of the threat from the Spanish Armada, the very organisation of which
seems to have been largely based upon its Anglo-Saxon predecessor.

The evidence for Anglo-Saxon beacon systems is overwhelming,
even though their study is still in its infancy. For example, evidence of
London’s defence is provided by a tot site at none other than Tothill Street in
Westminster, near to which archaeologists believe was an artificially created
mound set up for the purpose of such communication. There is also evidence that
the herepath system was inextricably linked in with the beacon system, with
roads identified as far away as Beaford in North Devon leading directly into
Oxford Street in London, where a charter records a ‘here-strete’, possibly
identifiable with the Lunden herpathe of a charter of 909. At Nettlecomb Tout
in Dorset a beacon seems to have been placed directly on the course of a
herepath. A further postulated system exists along the line of the old Roman
road Stane Street, running from Chichester to London, where out of fifteen
identified sites six contain the place-name element tot. At the seaward end of
the system would have been the seawatch beacon at Chichester. There are hints
in the sources that these grand civil-defence systems were much vaunted by the
Anglo-Saxons and that their Viking enemies took some pride in out-manoeuvring
the English in such deeply defended landscapes as the campaigns of 1006 may

Logistics seem to have played a part in joint land and sea
operations. Whether ships supplied campaigning forces with victuals alone, or
strategically landed fresh troops or reduced areas of coastline is unknown. One
suspects a mixture of all these. Athelstan’s grand campaign of 934 in Scotland
can only have been sustained with support from the sea. Also, King Edmund I’s
(940–6) extraction of support from Malcolm of Scotland was to include a promise
of support on both land at sea. Other examples include Earl Siward’s Scottish
expedition of 1054 against Macbeth and Earl Harold’s combined operation
alongside his brother Tostig in Wales in 1063. In the analysis below, of the
mounted provision, mercenary provision and naval provision in Anglo-Saxon
England, the administrative and logistical capability of the Anglo-Saxons is a
central theme. Despite the huge expense of maintaining such a system and
despite changes and a subsequent decline in the later tenth century, the king
of England in the early eleventh century had at his disposal a capability the
envy of any ruler of Christendom. Perhaps this explains why, in 1066, so many
people wanted it for themselves.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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