Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part III

By MSW Add a Comment 36 Min Read
Anglo Saxon Cavalry

The Question of

An earl belongs on the
back of a horse. A troop must ride in a company, a foot-soldier stand fast.

Maxims I, 62–3

The question of the existence of an Anglo-Saxon cavalry is
another area of controversy. People have assumed that the Anglo-Saxons fought
only on foot and had very little knowledge of horses, rarely putting them to
any military use. The reasons for this long-standing view are complex and
numerous. Certainly, there are historical sources who say that the Anglo-Saxons
were unable to fight on horseback and that the use of the horse as a tactical
option on the battlefield was unknown to them. This goes back as far as
Procopius in the seventh century. References to the English sending their
horses to the rear while their riders proceeded to fight on foot are known from
the accounts of the Battle of Maldon and the Battle of Hastings. Also, we have
to contend with the twelfth-century historian Henry of Huntingdon’s assertion
that the English did not know how to fight on horseback, and The Carmen’s
acerbic remark that

A race ignorant of
war, the English scorn the solace of horses and trusting in their strength they
stand fast on foot and they count it the highest honour to die in arms that
their native soil may not pass under another yoke.

With propaganda like this, it is easy to see why the
Anglo-Saxons’ reputation for not having a cavalry has stuck for so long. Modern
historians have tended to reinforce the notion of the Anglo-Saxon lack of
cavalry by producing sometimes quite astounding theories. The lack of evidence
for metal stirrups until the arrival of the Vikings, for example, is often put
forwards as a reason the English could not possibly have adopted mounted
tactics, because their riders would somehow be unsteady in the saddle. The fact
that the native English horse was ‘no more than a pony’ is the often peddled
nonsense in support of the English ignorance of cavalry. Thankfully, the tide
is turning on these theoretical points due to recent research. The stirrups
need not be an issue for horsemanship, and in any case the lack of evidence for
metal ones does not preclude the existence of wooden or rope equivalents. In
fact, the Old English word for stirrup was ‘stigrap’, which literally means
‘climbing rope’. Also, studies of horse management in England prior to the
Norman Conquest and the archaeological evidence to support it show the
Anglo-Saxon horse to be the physical equivalent of its Continental cousin. The
problem is this: people have made assumptions about the Anglo-Saxons’ mounted skills
based on not only Norman propaganda, but on the knowledge that the Normans
themselves were consummate cavalrymen. Their ‘destriers’, it is correctly
argued, could charge home on the battlefield and their riders were trained to
use the couched lance style of fighting on the battlefield, a famously
impressive tactic. Their cavalry charges attracted comment from the Byzantine
writer Anna Comnena, who spoke of the Normans being able to ‘break the walls of
Babylon’. It has to be said that there is no evidence that the mounted
Anglo-Saxon ever fought in this way. And so, all of this leaves the reputation
of the Anglo-Saxon horsemen with a lot of ground to make up.

However, when we examine the evidence for the presence of
the mounted Anglo-Saxon, we find that for years we have probably been asking
the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether the Anglo-Saxons had a
‘cavalry’ as such. There has been a refreshing move away from this polarised
argument in recent years with an acknowledgement that the Anglo-Saxons usage of
horses by way of mounted infantry was so widespread as to blur the distinction
between foot and horse. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of there being
mounted troops employed on a very wide scale and the importance of a nobleman’s
ownership of horses is clearly outlined in the heriots of the age. It is rather
a question of ‘how did the Anglo-Saxons employ their horses in a military

As early as the eighth century the Venerable Bede mentions
the importance of the horse in the context of royal gift giving. King Oswine
(644–51) gave a royal horse to St Aiden. From the pagan Saxon period there is a
horse burial at Lakenheath which shows us that the value of the animal has a
great ancestry among the Anglo-Saxons. In a military context, an early
reference to the Anglo-Saxon use of cavalry on the battlefield is captured on
the Aberlemno Stone, which depicts a Pictish and Northumbrian army both
fighting on horseback at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685.

With the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia in 865, the
references to mounted bodies of men, both Danish and English, appears with
great frequency in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The very fact that the Danes
horsed themselves from East Anglia points to the existence of royal or
ecclesiastical stud farms across that kingdom. Such horse management is no
light matter. A charter of the English ‘puppet’ King Ceolwulf (874–c. 80) of
Mercia dating to 875 refers to the freeing of ‘the whole diocese of the Hwicce
from feeding the king’s horses and those who lead them’. Given that a horse can
consume 12lb of grain and up to 13lb of hay each day as well as gallons of
water indicates this was quite some reprieve for the people of that ancient
district. The fact that horses were actively employed in small military units
under the command of senior nobles is evidenced by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
entry for 871, which talks of uncounted individual mounted forays. These
smaller actions were almost certainly the English counter response to the
Viking’s necessity to send out their own small foraging parties.

The terms used to describe mounted forces in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle are two-fold. They are either described as ‘gehorsedan/ra’ (867, 877,
1010 and 1015) or ‘rad(e)-here’ (891). These terms often apply to the Danes and
there is some ambiguity regarding the first term being an English word
indicating a ‘horsed’ body of sorts. However, the second term contains the
familiar element ‘here’. This has more militaristic connotations of a mounted
troop on the offensive. The Danes are sometimes described as being
outmanoeuvred in the landscape by mounted Anglo-Saxons. Such an example is the
young Edward the Elder’s out-riding of the Danes in the Farnham campaign of
893. But it is to the chronicler Æthelweard that we owe a revealing reference
to a sizable force of mounted Anglo-Saxons. Using the Latin term ‘equestri’, he
describes Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wiltshire’s preparation and execution of a
giant mounted force to chase the Danes ultimately to a retreat at Buttington,
where they were surrounded and besieged in 893. Æthelweard, a nobleman himself,
would not have used the term ‘equestri’ if he had not meant to.

If none of this is enough to convince us that there were
separate mounted contingents in the Anglo-Saxon army, then the quote from
Maxims I at the beginning of this section might assist. It refers to the noble
affiliation of the Anglo-Saxon horseman and the need for a mounted body to ride
‘in a company’ (‘getrume’, meaning ‘firm’) and for a foot soldier to hold his
ground. A clear distinction is made between the two types of unit and their
cohesive requirements.

When we come to the end of Alfred’s reign and the reigns of
his son and grandsons, we can see a great deal of evidence for the proper
management of horses in a military context. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for
896 refers to two horse-thegns, whose rank was high enough for them to be
included in a list of important people who had recently lost their lives:

Of these one was
Swithwulf, bishop in Rochester, and Ceolmund, ealdorman in Kent, and
Beorhtwulf, ealdorman in Essex, and Wulfred, ealdorman in Hampshire, and
Ealhheard, bishop at Dorchester, and Eadwulf, the king’s thegn in Sussex, and
Beornwulf, town-reeve in Winchester, and Ecgwulf, the king’s horse-thegn, and
many in addition to them, though I have named the most distinguished . . . The
same year, Wulfric, the king’s horse-thegn passed away; he was also the Welsh

The horse-thegn’s role is unknown, but is likely to have
involved the organisation of horse management and breeding in their areas and
for the provision of horse fodder, particularly over the winter months when
foals and mares would need nutrition to avoid stunted growth. It was probably
similar to the French Marshalls or Constables (literally ‘count of the
stable’). Later, in the eleventh century the office of Staller appears in the
record. Many Stallers are described by the Normans as Constables in 1066.

King Athelstan (924–39) was concerned enough about the
giving away of horses as to decree ‘that no man part with a horse over sea,
unless he wish to give it’ (II Athelstan 18). It is generally thought this
indicates a royal desire to control the practice of open horse trading to
potential enemies outside of the tradition of gift giving in arrangements such
as marriages. Another code of Athelstan’s (II Athelstan, 16) demands that two
mounted men be provided from every plough in a landowner’s possession. Once
again, the importance of mobility is paramount in the king’s mind. Athelstan, by
927, was in the process of building a vast empire and he knew that this could
not be achieved without mobility.

Studs had been under pressure during the period of Viking
depredations in the decades gone by. But since 919 the English kings had
harboured at court some Breton exiles, famous for their horsemanship. Their
influence over the English horse stock in terms of Arabs and/or Barbs is not
properly understood, but into the equine mix in 926 came an offering from
abroad of great magnificence. William of Malmesbury tells us of a gift to
Athelstan from Hugh, the Duke of the Franks, which included horses:

he [Adulf, the leader
of Hugh’s mission] produced gifts [at Abingdon] on a truly munificent scale,
such as might instantly satisfy the desires of a recipient however greedy: the
fragrance of spices that had never before been seen in England; noble jewels
(emeralds especially, from whose green depths reflected sunlight lit up the
eyes of the bystanders with their enchanting radiance); many swift horses with their
trappings, ‘champing at their teeth’as Virgil says . . .

Just how many horses or what breed they were we do not know.
Frankish horses were often obtained from Spanish stock. One wonders, with his
system of horse-thegns and royal studs, whether a breeding programme may have
sprung from the gift somewhere in the fields of southern England. Perhaps it is
significant that a grand campaign in Scotland was undertaken in 934 at about
the time some of these horses or their offspring would have been ready. Perhaps
also the reference to mounted action in The Battle of Brunanburh (937) is no
poetic device, but a statement of fact:

All day long

the West Saxons with
elite ‘cavalry’

pressed in the tracks
of the hateful nation

with mill-sharp blades
severely hacked from behind

those who fled battle.

This reference to ‘elite cavalry’ may seem overstated. The
Old English word used is ‘eoredcystum’, from ‘eoh’, taken by some–but by no means
all–to mean ‘war horse’. But it raises the final and most vexed of all
questions. We have surely established the existence of an independent mounted
arm in the Anglo-Saxon military toolkit. But how was it employed–if at all–on
the battlefield?

The Battle of Brunanburh reference seems to point to the
retaining of a mounted reserve fresh for the chase. It was in the rout where
the most enemy casualties were accrued and here we have a dedicated body of
mounted men prosecuting the rout from horseback using swords. So, English
armies fought on foot, but sometimes prosecuted the rout on horseback?
Unfortunately, there are further references to the mounted Anglo-Saxon in
action and each of them presents its own difficulty of interpretation. For
example, when the visiting Norman Eustace of Boulogne allowed his men to run
amok in Dover in 1051, the English response was swift and, it appears, on
horseback. The chronicler refers to great harm being done ‘on either side with
horse and also with weapons’. Four years later, in 1055, there is a reference
most often quoted in support of the theory that the English could not fight on
horseback. Let us examine it. John of Worcester’s chronicle entry describes the
pre-Conquest Norman Earl Ralph of Hereford’s attempt to get the fyrd to fight
mounted. Here, at the Battle of Hereford, he is said to have ordered the
English to fight on horseback ‘contrary to their custom’ (‘contra morem in
equis pugnare jussit’), but the earl with his French and Norman cavalry fled
the field and Worcester goes on to say ‘seeing which, the English with their
commander also fled’. The enemy of the Hereford force, which comprised the men
of the exiled Anglo-Saxon Earl Ælfgar and the Welsh king Gryffydd, gave chase
and slew 400 of the fleeing English forces. It would be hard to see how this
could have happened if Ælfgar’s own forces were not mounted. There is no real
problem in translation. The phrase ‘contra morem in equis pugnare jussit’ means
the English were ordered to fight contrary to their custom, on horseback. But
what does it imply? Does it mean that being horsed from the outset and being
asked to fight a full cavalry battle in the manner of their Norman commander
was the alien concept, or was it that the English simply had no idea of horseback
warfare? It is surely the most probable interpretation that, at Hereford, the
mounted Englishmen were asked to fight in a way they knew little about, and not
that they knew nothing of horseback fighting. And as for the quality of their
horsemanship, perhaps we should remind ourselves of who broke first that day.

Finally, the account written by Snorri Sturluson in
Heimskringla of repeated English cavalry charges upon the Norwegian lines at
Stamford Bridge (1066) is perhaps not reliable evidence. It was written in the
thirteenth century by a man who admitted in his own prologue that the truth of
his accounts was based only on what wise old men had passed down. There is
confusion over the 1066 campaign in this account and what Snorri has to say
about the cavalry charges at Stamford Bridge smacks much more of Norman tactics
at Hastings.

So, what can we conclude about Anglo-Saxon mounted warfare?
The ownership of horses was a nobleman’s obligation, supported by royal
legislation and systems of management. The English use of a mounted infantry
arm is strongly supported by the evidence, as is the existence of separate
dedicated mounted forces. The ranges over which they campaigned were vast, and
they often overtook their mounted enemies, out-manoeuvring them in the
landscape. There is no evidence at all that the Anglo-Saxon armies fought
cavalry battles in the style of the Normans. On a tactical level, all the
evidence points to the dismounting of riders and the fighting of the battle on
foot in a time-honoured tradition. In fact, the sending of the horses to the
rear prior to the onset of a battle was not even an exclusively Anglo-Saxon
thing. As a way of demonstrating defiance ninth-century Franks and
twelfth-century Normans did it as well. The ‘defying’ aspect was the fact that
once dismounted, the army could not easily run away from the battle.

There is, however, tantalising evidence to support the
theory of a mounted reserve being retained for the chase at a tactical level,
as at Brunanburh. The great change that came with Anglo-Norman warfare of the
twelfth century was the usage of the mounted knight at a tactical level. This
was a time when the first histories of Anglo-Saxon England were being written.
The Anglo-Saxons’ usage of a mounted arm and that of the Anglo-Normans are
incomparable and contemporaries knew it. On the one hand, we have a widespread
mounted infantry philosophy accompanied by limited cavalry activity on the
battlefield, while on the other we have the famous charging Norman milites
riding around in their squadrons of well-trained cavalrymen.

There is one last word on the reason for all the confusion.
If we could transport ourselves back in time and observe King Alfred’s noblemen
riding to chase down the Danish foragers, to Ealdorman Æthelhelm’s march to
Buttington, to Edward the Elder’s overtaking of the Danes at Farnham, to King
Athelstan’s victorious pursuit of the retreating confederates at Brunanburh and
to King Harold’s swift response to crises at either end of his kingdom, we
would not be able to avoid one observation. The Anglo-Saxon army looked like a
cavalry force. They simply got off their horses (for the most part) when it
came to the important matter of sword play. Similarly, the Danes obliged by
behaving in much the same way. With the Normans came a watershed and the
dawning of a new era in mounted warfare in England. By the twelfth century the
age of the brave warrior hero who faced his opponent on foot was all but gone.

Tributes, Gelds and

It is important to distinguish between two forms of payment
raised throughout the age of the Viking invasions by the English kings. On the
one hand there was ‘gafol’, a form of tribute payment to the enemy. On the
other, there was ‘heregeld’. Heregeld was an annual ‘army tax’ first instituted
in 1012 by Æthelred II (979–1016) to pay for the mercenary services of Thorkell
the Tall. It remained in use until it was abolished by Edward the Confessor in
1051. When the idea was re-kindled by the Anglo-Norman monarchy its name
‘Danegeld’ recalled its very first purpose. The tax was based on landownership
and was assessed at a certain number of pence per hide and it was collected at
fixed times each year through the hundreds in the shires.

There are hints that gafol payments predated the heregeld policies
of Æthelred. It could be the case that King Alfred’s (871–99) trouble with his
own archbishop came from a practice of raising tribute money through the church
to pay off the Vikings in the early years of his Danish wars. Gafol was not set
at a fixed amount and could be raised by almost any means in an emergency. It
is sometimes mentioned alongside the word metsunge (indicating ‘feeding’ or
‘provisioning’), which in its own way narrows the gap somewhat between the two
types of taxation, both of which provide a means of support for the foreign
force with differing degrees of reciprocity.

The payment made in 991 to the Danes of 10,000 pounds of
silver was described as gafol by the chronicler and it was said to be the first
payment (of the new age of invasions). Again, in 994 King Æthelred offered the
Danes gafol and metsunge if they would leave off their raiding. This time it
was 16,000 pounds and the Danes took up winter quarters at Southampton and were
fed from the land of Wessex. It seems a heregeld was also paid in this year
totalling 22,000 pounds. Again, in 1002 the king and his councillors agreed to
pay 24,000 pounds in gafol and metsunge. In 1006–7 a colossal gafol of 36,000
pounds was paid. In 1009 to the misery of the men of East Kent a further 3,000
pounds was paid to get the raiders to leave. In 1012, it reached a huge 48,000
pounds. The next year saw a slight variation in terminology. The invading Dane
Swein demanded ‘gyld’ and metsunge to over-winter, while Thorkell demanded the
same for his fleet at Greenwich. After his return from brief exile in Normandy
King Æthelred kept the payments to Thorkell. In 1014 a gyld of 21,000 pounds
was paid to the Greenwich fleet. In 1018, after the wars with Æthelred and his
son had been won and Cnut was king, the heaviest tax of all was levied at
72,000 pounds from across the kingdom and separately a sum of 10,500 pounds
from London. This last was described as a gafol, but the circumstances of
Cnut’s levy are, of course, somewhat different to the earlier ones, given that
he was now the Dane in the ascendancy.

It is clear then that some payments were to bribe the enemy
to stop its raiding, while the others were literally to support or employ them.
So, what use was made of these mercenaries over the years and who were they?
The identity of Thorkell the Tall is clear enough, but it is not always that
easy to distinguish the mercenary. First, we must be careful how we use this
term. Increasingly, towards the end of the period men turned up on the
battlefield who, despite their military obligation to their lord, may have had
a stipendiary penny in their pouch as well. But these are not true mercenaries
as such. Nor, for that matter, are the many groups who fought alongside
Anglo-Saxon leaders as military allies. There is a distinction between the
hired man (‘hyra-man’), who became familiar to the court of Alfred the Great as
his wealth increased, and the fyrdsman, whose loyalties were based on more
traditional lordship bonds and land tenure. Neither of these two categories
could be said to be true mercenaries.

An example of the difficulties in interpretation might be
the household hired men of King Alfred’s court. These men were bound to Alfred
through love of their lord, but were rewarded not just by the old-fashioned
gift and ring-giving mechanisms of yesteryear, but also by hard cash. Their
roles within Alfred’s kingdom were manifold. Some would be messengers,
horse-keepers and administrators as well as warriors. The English economy in
the Viking period was becoming more monetarily based and Alfred was able to
leave 200 pounds in silver coins to these followers on his death. These men
were not mercenaries.

The same may not be said for Alfred’s Frisian sailors, who
featured heavily in his new naval reforms. But even here, the mercenary status
of the sailors is never overly emphasised. There was a propensity to portray
such people as an extension of the hired men philosophy, thus legitimising
their ties to a more historic form of relationship with an Anglo-Saxon king. We
cannot be sure of the status of the Frisians, but one thing is certain: they
fought and died in Alfred’s new fleet.

The tenth century saw increasing amounts of foreigners at
the English court. Notably, there were Bretons who had fled to King Edward the
Elder in 919 after the Vikings had invaded their lands. King Athelstan
harboured the Bretons and stood godfather to one, Alan. Alan was raised in
England before Athelstan masterminded a campaign in Brittany to restore the
Bretons to power. But these were foreigners who fought alongside the forces of
the English king as allies and not as paid mercenaries. King Athelstan’s famous
struggles with the confederacy of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons saw
him enlist the help of the Vikings Egil and Thorolf, if we are to believe
Egil’s Saga. Again, the exact nature of the relationship is not known. There is
likely to have been more at stake than the mere payment of money for service,
since a whole kingdom was up for grabs.

The new wave of Viking attacks which re-commenced around 990
saw an initial response by local leaders, who by now could operate
independently on behalf of the Crown in their local areas. But England was
still a remarkably rich land, more so now than it had ever been before. And it
is in the reign of Æthelred II (979–1016) that the beginnings of a true
‘mercenary’ story can be told.

In 994 after Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard together
ravaged the south coast of England and the gafol of 16,000 pounds was paid to
the force in Southampton, Æthelred came to an agreement with Olaf that if any
other fleet should attack his coastline, Olaf would come to the aid of the
English for as long as the king could provision him. Also, it was agreed that
lands that harboured such hostile forces should be treated as an enemy by both
parties. The arrangement was preceded by the same sponsorship once shown by
Alfred to Guthrum, but more importantly included the heregeld of 22,000 pounds
of silver. Despite the fact that Olaf returned to Norway, it is generally thought
that a mercenary naval force would have remained to assist Æthelred in the
spirit of the agreement. One Danish leader, Pallig, was even given lands in
return for his service. This can be seen as an attempt to legitimise him above
and beyond the mercenary to someone who had a vested interest in loyalty to the
king, but Pallig’s subsequent treachery and return to the bosom of the enemy
proved it to be a worthless policy. Pallig’s disloyalty probably led to the
notorious St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002 whereby the king in desperation
ordered the extermination of Danes who had settled in England.

Æthelred’s employment of Thorkell the Tall raises the
question of the role of the later Anglo-Saxon housecarl. It has been argued
that the institution developed out of the cult of the legendary Jomsvikings and
flourished in England from the time of Cnut to the Battle of Hastings
(1016–66). Mythology surrounds these warriors and the legal guild that is
supposed to have accompanied them. Earl Godwin’s trial, for example, is
supposed to be an example of such Scandinavian legal deliberations. Much ink
has been spilled over the origins of these famous heavily armoured axemen, but
the likelihood is that they were Danish versions of the Alfredian household
retainer. Through the next generation up to the Norman Conquest they became an
Anglo-Danish version of the same thing. A man described as a housecarl in one
document may turn up elsewhere as a thegn or minister of the king. That they
existed as an entity is not doubted: they were present at the translation of
the remains of Ælfhere in 1023, are recorded at the side of Queen Emma in 1035
and some are recorded as dwelling on 15 acres of land in Wallingford. That the
housecarls were financially supported is not in question. The Domesday Book
specifically records some Dorset boroughs taxed for this very purpose. However,
whether the institution simply became another layer of the king’s and various
earls’ household retinues, is another matter. The Danish connotations with the
institution are, however, inescapable: 87 per cent of all housecarls mentioned
in documents bear names of Old Norse origin but it remains the case that their
role did not differ much from that of the English thegnhood into which they
settled, save for the stipend that they seem to have received.

There are one or two references to mercenaries that fall
outside the above explanations. One of these is that of the rebel Earl Ælfgar’s
Irishmen who accompanied him on his campaign in Herefordshire in 1055 and who
almost certainly received payment for their services after waiting impatiently
at Chester. The other is that of the Flemings who served with Earl Tostig after
he presumably enticed them from Flanders with promises of riches in the
campaign of 1066. Neither of these examples of earls buying the service of
fighting men seem to have had any lasting impact on the Anglo-Saxon state in
the way that the settlement of the housecarls did, but they serve as a reminder
that if anyone had the political clout and the money, he could entice people to
fight with him.

We have looked at the tributes and the payments made by
English kings to foreign forces and discussed the background to mercenary
employment in England during our period, but it is necessary to explore further
another related dimension of warfare of the period, the naval aspect. Here, the
mercenary once again plays a part in a very colourful history.

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“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version