The Question of Cavalry
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 context?’
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 reeve.
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 Mercenaries
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.