Dark Age Warfare


655 Battle of Winwaed: Penda of Mercia was defeated by Oswiu of Northumbria. Although the battle was said to be the most important between the early northern and southern divisions of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, few details are available. Significantly, the battle marked the effective demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Battle was a high-risk strategy. It brought matters to a decision and could save the country from the horrors of rampaging armies. On the other hand, if one lost a battle one risked losing everything, including, of course, one’s life. No quarter was given to high-status prisoners in the Dark Ages. Even kings were summarily knocked on the head. A sensible commander therefore did everything possible to avoid battle unless he was confident of winning. Battles tended to happen when two forces were more or less equally matched, or thought they were, or when the commander had run out of other options. The Dark Ages have plenty of examples of desperate measures taken to avoid battle with a superior force. King Oswy of Northumbria offered to buy off his enemy King Penda in 655. A few years before, his rival King Oswin of Deira had disbanded his army and sent them home rather than face Oswy in battle.

Once battle had become inevitable, Dark Age commanders would choose their ground carefully. When Penda refused to be bought off in 655, Oswy reduced the odds by deploying in a strong position on high ground, forcing Penda’s forces to advance through a flooded river valley. A striking number of Dark Age battles were fought by fords in rivers. Perhaps the river not only secured at least one flank but enabled the army to be supplied by boats. At Brunanburh one flank of Athelstan’s army was secured by a stream and the other by a wood. Finding a short line with secure flanks enabled a smaller army to negate the enemy’s superior numbers and create several lines of defence. Another consideration was to have somewhere to retreat if things went badly. For example, at Dyrham in 577 the British commanders probably fought in front of their hillfort, retreating behind its stout walls as they were pressed back. Not that, in this case, it did them much good.

Dark Age battle tactics are difficult to reconstruct for want of evidence. The only detailed account of a real battle is Maldon, where tactical considerations went no further than standing firm. The commander ‘bade his men make a war-hedge (wihagen) with their shields and hold it fast against the foe’. Like a hedge, the line would be long, straight and thin, and bristling with thorns – a thicket of spears. The more usual name for Maldon’s war-hedge was the shield-wall (bordweall). The line would stand to receive a charge behind overlapping shields with spearpoints projecting. The advancing enemy would see a line of wood and metal, eyes glinting between helmet and shield, and the only flesh on display being the lower legs. Breaking through this human wall would be akin to breaching the walls of a fort, and one source did indeed compare the Battle of Hastings with a siege.

Since everyone, whether Saxon, Briton or Viking, adopted shield-wall tactics in battle, the challenge was how to break through. If the commander had chosen his ground well, it would be impossible to outflank him. Sometimes, perhaps, the opposing shield-walls simply advanced towards one another and fought it out. However there is evidence that Roman tactics were familiar to Dark Age commanders through tracts such as that of Vegetius, written down in the early fifth century. As a means of breaking through, Vegetius recommended the wedge, a tactic particularly favoured by the Vikings who compared it with a charging boar and called it svinfylking or ‘swine-array’. Well-trained troops would mass in front of the shield-wall in wedge formation some ten lines deep. The wedge would then charge forward, keeping formation in order to penetrate the line with great force at a narrow point. Once the wall was broken more men would flood in and the enemy would be outflanked or even attacked from behind.

The correct way to prevent this, according to Vegetius, was to ‘swallow the charge’ by receiving it in a curved formation known as the forceps. It was easier to do this in a dense formation, but of course required training and a cool commander. Both the wedge and its countermeasures depended on firmness under fire and on fighting together as a well-drilled unit. How well drilled, in fact, were Dark Age armies? No drill manuals have come down to us. On the other hand, re-enactment experience suggests that formations can be taught basic proficiency in spear-and-shield warfare very quickly. Mastery of the basic moves – open order, forming ranks, advancing from column to line and turning about (in which the shield is passed over your head) – can be learnt in a day. In terms of basic drill, levied men could be turned into soldiers in a short time. To create a soldier who would stand firm in battle was another matter. There are many instances of a Dark Age army disintegrating under pressure. Morale depended on strong leadership and a sense of comradeship. Other requirements were personal fitness, which was probably high among the yeoman class, and courage. Re-enactments have confirmed another contemporary aspect of fighting – that, as the shield-walls lock together, it helps to shout! As anyone who attends football matches or has marched in large, noisy demonstrations will know, you lose your individuality in a pack, especially when you yell with the rest.

How did Dark Age armies find one another? Although hard evidence is scarce, it seems that armies of the period were highly mobile. King Harold famously marched from London to York in twelve days at some seventeen miles per day. This implies two things: that at least the flying columns of the force were mounted and that the roads and bridges were kept in good repair. From the striking correlation of Dark Age battle sites with Roman roads and major ancient tracks like the Ridgeway, it is evident that Dark Age armies made good use of roads. Perhaps this explains how kings like Oswald and Ecgfrith could campaign far from home without maps or a compass. They simply followed the roads. They also used scouts and presumably enlisted local people as guides, though recorded instances are hard to find from this period.

Shire armies seem to have been mustered at traditional outdoor assemblies or moots, such as Swanborough Tump in Wiltshire during Alfred’s Ashdown campaign or at Egbert’s Stone somewhere on or near the border of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire at the start of Alfred’s victorious campaign of 878. The shire reeves were responsible for ensuring that the men arrived on time and properly equipped. National service lasted for sixty days and, as the levies showed time and again, not a day longer. On more than one occasion, Alfred’s commanders had to let the Danes escape because the shire levies insisted on their rights and went home. This alone might explain why Dark Age commanders often seemed anxious to get the fighting over and done with.

To maintain speed the army marched as light as possible. Heavy war gear was carried in the rear in carts or by packhorses. Towns were expected to supply the army with food and other necessities as it marched. Bede confirms this with his story of the man who escaped death at the Battle of the Trent by pretending to be a civilian ferrying food supplies to the army. We are in the dark about living conditions on the march, but it seems that armies did bring tents with them. In Egiil’s Saga, Athelstan used his city of tents to confuse the enemy about his battle deployment. The saga might be fiction, but it would make no sense to its listeners had not tents been a normal part of army life.

We know little about battle formations in the Dark Ages. Large armies were evidently divided into sub-units, serving under different lords. From the ninth century, the shire levies were led in battle by their respective reeves, as at Ringmere in 1010 when the men of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia fought in separate divisions. Men of the top social class, royalty or ealdormen, fought among their hearth-troops who were expected to defend their lord to the death. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Maldon probably acted in the way expected of Dark Age commanders by putting himself in a prominent position in the centre of the line where his banner would be visible to the rest of his force.

Victory or defeat in a Dark Age battle depended on moral as well as physical strength. The professional Dark Age warrior, hearth trooper or mercenary, married late, if at all. The prime of his manhood was spent in the service of his lord, and he spent his leisure in the company of men, hunting, hawking and drinking. He lived on the cusp between the fiction of the sagas and praise poetry and the hard facts of military life: the former informed him of the way he was expected to behave, the latter of how heroic ideals worked out in practice. He repaid the mead he drank and the gifts he received by absolute loyalty and devoted service. One is bound to wonder: did the Dark Age warrior fear death in battle? It has been suggested that he was a fatalist: what will be, will be, and better to die gloriously than to live dishonourably. To fall in battle was considered an honourable death. Some warriors, especially the Welsh, thought that to die in bed was a disgrace. The trouble is that we do not know these people very well except through the doubtlessly idealized form of poetry. Although they might have been expected to conform to a heroic stereotype, the Battle of Maldon shows us that there were good and bad apples in every barrel. Some did indeed live and die according to their oaths. Others, it is clear, did not.

3 thoughts on “Dark Age Warfare

  1. RARELY or maybe
    1. …a new wave of Saxon invasions on the south coast. Like the warrior remembered as Hengest, Aelle (‘Ella’) crossed the Channel with very modest means – just three ships. His landing place was Cumenesora, identified with the Ower Banks just off Selsey Bill, which was then dry land. Aelle and his three sons, called Cymen, Wlencing and Cissa, were opposed near their beach-head, but, though few in numbers, they slew many ‘Welshmen’ and drove others to flight into the Andredesleag, the well-wooded area now known as the Weald. Evidently Aelle and sons were the spearhead of a new set of ‘South Saxon’ invaders which had chosen the future county of Sussex as their place of abode. Aelle is a historical figure. Bede called him the first of the bretwaldas (broad-rulers), implying that, for a short while at least, Aelle had authority over other Saxon kings.

    The crucial battle was fought ‘near the bank of Mearcredesburna’ in c.485. This name means something like ‘stream of the agreed frontier’, but too little is known of frontiers at this time to be sure which stream it was. It might have been the Cuckmere near the border of what became Hampshire and Sussex. We are not even told who won the battle, which, since the source is the Saxon Chronicle, may mean that Aelle lost it. Six years later, however, in 491, Aelle and Cissa won a decided victory at Andredescester, the Saxon name for the Roman fort of Anderida, now Pevensey Castle. This was one of the forts of the Saxon Shore with high flint walls, parts of which are still standing today. The fort, now several miles from the sea, then overlooked an important harbour and a substantial settlement, whose inhabitants had doubtless taken refuge behind the castle walls. To take such a place Aelle must have commanded substantial forces, including perhaps siege equipment. The storming of Anderida probably cost him dearly. At any rate, Aelle was in no mood to take prisoners, and he ‘slew all the inhabitants; there was not even one Briton left there’.

    With Anderida in flames and its garrison dead or fled, the victorious Aelle became king of Sussex, the first of a line that continued until the eighth century. Archaeological and place-name evidence indicates that the population was homogeneous. The Britons were ‘ethnically cleansed’ and the towns abandoned. The resolutely rural Saxons preferred to live in stockaded villages of wooden huts clustered around a wooden hall. The walls, colonnades, fountains and statues of the towns were left to crumble into ruins.

    2. This Aethelwulf is one of the unsung heroes of old England. He was a leader of the army that had saved Winchester in 860, and he went down in glory fighting the Vikings at Reading only a few days after his success at Englefield. Technically he was a Mercian, and his body was taken for burial amongst his ancestors in Derby. But since the death of the last Mercian king, Mercia had accepted the overlordship of Alfred who had married a Mercian princess in 868. In addition, Aethelwulf’s Berkshire had been drawn for reasons of self-preservation into the ambit of Wessex. The men of the Thames valley, at a time of great peril, may have begun to regard themselves not so much as Mercians nor of Wessex but as English.

    Aethelwulfs bold stroke at Englefield was probably made in the knowledge that the royal brothers Aethelred and Alfred were on their way at the head of ‘a great levy’. Four days after Englefield, and without further ado, Aethelred and Alfred’s army stormed up to the half-built gates of the Viking fortress, ‘hacking and cutting down all the Vikings they found outside’. But the Vikings fought back ‘like wolves’, bursting out of the camp and, after a struggle, beating back the attackers in disorder. Ealdorman Aethelred was among the fallen. The defeat at Reading was a hard lesson for Aethelred and Alfred. It looks as though, taken unawares by Halfdan’s winter offensive, they had hoped to surprise the enemy in turn by the speed and fury of their response. But with ninth-century military technology, which evidently did not include siege engines, armies fortified behind walls with sufficient food and water were virtually impregnable to attack.

    Battles of the Dark Ages by Peter Marren 2006


  2. Wow. Thanks for all that, MSW. And for the reference to Battles of the Dark Ages – I’ll look that one out at my library.

    For purely fictional reasons, I’m imagining the Iceni besieged at Gariannum by the Catuvellauni in about 440CE.



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