Danevirke: construction phases

With all the evidence measured, examined and weighed, it is now time to put raiding into the narrative of early medieval warfare, where we now know it belongs. Many saints’ lives, chronicles and histories contain references to ‘battles’, but this is possibly because decisive set-piece actions were of more significance to chroniclers than small-scale forays. Although there are examples of indecisive battles, engaging in a battle was a highly risky strategy, as one side will be defeated and the leader could even be killed; raiding carried less chance of a catastrophic defeat, so was probably more widespread. There are clear references to raids in early medieval sources like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and many ‘battles’ were possibly merely successful raids. As most early medieval armies were relatively small, raiding would be within their capabilities, but mass invasion probably would not. While it is impossible to quantify the amount of raiding, even on a small scale raiding could have a widespread psychological impact (the fear of something can often have as much effect on people as the likelihood of it occurring). The dykes are evidence that some people decided to do something about the periodic raiding

The Military Nature of Dykes

While dykes may be the only solid evidence of early medieval warfare that we have in the landscape prior to the building of burhs in the ninth century, can we really be sure they relate to early medieval raiding? Although some dykes were mere boundary markers (Bwlch yr Afan, Clawdd Seri, Aelfrith’s Dyke and Bica’s Dyke, for example) most early medieval dykes look like countermeasures against raiding. A few of the longer ones may have been multifunctional, in that they countered raids as well as promoting the power of a king while bonding his kingdom together (Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and possibly the two Wansdykes, for example).

Despite good evidence that dykes countered raids, some studies still dismiss the idea, so let us briefly recap the evidence. One of our few eyewitnesses from this period, Gildas, does say that the Britons constructed walls to scare off enemies and protect people. We have seen that some early medieval Welsh poems associate dykes with fighting. It is noticeable, for example, that when the ditches of prehistoric dykes in Norfolk were recut in the early medieval period (Bichamditch, Launditch and the Devil’s Ditch at Garboldisham are possible examples), the inner face of the ditch was near vertical and the outer side flatter. This would accentuate the face of the earthwork and might have drawn people into a killing zone. There is abundant archaeological evidence of both weaponry and bodies that have suffered injuries at the dykes (beheadings at Bokerley Dyke and Bran Ditch, a battle cemetery at Heronbridge, odd weapons from the Devil’s Ditch in Cambridgeshire, skeletons of men ‘slain in battle’ at Bedwyn Dyke and so forth). We cannot dismiss all of these finds as later execution sites or disturbed furnished graves: archaeological evidence clearly suggests that dykes were places associated with violence. If the slots found in the ditches of a least four dykes were ankle-breakers, they suggest that the earthworks were designed to repel and injure those who tried to cross them.

The scale of the banks/ditches is suggestive of military structures, especially as most give good views vital to defenders of a military feature. Most face downhill, which makes them much harder to storm but more difficult to build – on sloping ground the easiest way to construct a simple delimiting mark in the landscape is to throw the soil from the ditch downhill. The dykes often end at features like marshes, ravines, estuaries or rivers, which would hinder any attempt to outflank them; sometimes the ends curve away, so they look longer than they are. We have seen that written sources like law codes, chronicles, charters, poetry and saints’ lives all suggest this was an age of raids and warfare – the poem Y Gododdin, for example, describes a raid that was defeated, with part of the fighting happening at a dyke. There may be no battles recorded at Wansdyke, but there are battles recorded in the vicinity, including two at the barrow that possibly gave its name to the dyke. The written evidence, the physical evidence and the lack of credible alternative explanations confirm that many dykes had a military purpose.

These dykes are deliberately sited to intercept raiders. As well as lying across the path of modern roads, as we have seen there is charter evidence that numerous dykes cut routes in the Anglo-Saxon period. Charters tell us that herepaths, or army paths (routes commonly used by raiders or invaders), were cut by Wansdyke (S 711 and S 735) and Bury’s Bank (S 500). The East Hampshire dykes (especially the Froxfield earthworks) cut access along vegetation-free stony valleys while their flanks are guarded by thickly wooded clay lands. Many of the dykes in Glamorganshire seem to block routes along ridges that give access to the lowlands to the south.

The struggle against violence, in particular small-scale raids often involving cattle rustling, is a clear theme of all early medieval law codes. The collapse of the Roman Empire ended the use of professional armies in much of Europe and the militarization of the civilian population. The spears found in Anglo-Saxon graves may have had a symbolic meaning, but probably also signify a society where the need for personal protection was a daily concern. Farmers may have had good reason to fear the raids of heavily armed warriors. As very small groups of people could have built most early medieval earthworks, perhaps humdrum rural communities or groups of villages constructed dykes to deter or repel raids.

The lack of more explicit direct written evidence for dykes as defences against raiders is perhaps understandable in an age when few sources survive. Early medieval sources tend to laud victories (or heroic defeats), so as dykes were defensive rather than offensive, perhaps early medieval writers would not think farmers protecting their cattle to be worthy of record. If some dykes worked successfully as a deterrent, there may have been no fighting to record or bodies to bury; there are numerous forts and pillboxes across Britain designed to repel invasions that never materialized.

Surely raiders could simply have gone around the dykes? The answer is no, as most would have been incredibly hard to circumvent. The southern end of Giant’s Grave, for example, is at a steep gully while there is a bog to the north, and both ends of the Lower Short Ditch are at steep gullies. Many dykes are in groups; circumnavigating one would just mean an invader faced yet another. No raider could simply go around Dane’s Dyke or the Cornish dykes, as the sea or estuaries were the termini of these earthworks. The Giant’s Hedge, for example, terminates below the lowest fordable point of the estuaries at either end.

The ends of many dykes were probably guarded by woodlands. Although medieval forests were more open than modern woods, as large mammals like deer (more numerous in medieval times) would keep undergrowth clear, navigating through any wood (or marsh) in good order is not easy. To a historian with an Ordnance Survey map it is obvious how to circumnavigate a dyke, but if early medieval invaders approached even a very short dyke where trees, marsh or a rise in the ground obscured the ends, they would not know how to go around it without sending out patrols. Even if a raider could go around a dyke, this would cause delay and possibly involve the splitting up of the invading force to reconnoitre a route. When looking for easy pickings, raiders would probably go elsewhere.

The best example of dykes cutting routeways is probably the Cambridgeshire Dykes, which seem to block access to East Anglia along the Icknield Way. They lie across a narrow band of chalk about 3.1 miles (5km) wide, which runs south-west–north-east, and flanked by what were then fens on the north-west side and what is thought to have been ancient woodland on chalky boulder clay to the south-east. An enemy who successfully circumvented one of the earthworks would then be faced with the problem of getting past the next.

Previous studies have often failed to see the significance of these huge earthworks in the story of early medieval warfare. We now need to look at raiding and warfare in detail, fitting these earthworks into the narrative.


There is evidence that there were large early medieval armies numbering in their thousands, like the mighty Viking army that invaded England in 866. These large armies led to big set-piece battles like Stamford Bridge and Hastings in 1066, but before 850, smaller-scale conflict was probably the norm. Engaging in battle is a highly risky strategy, as one side will be defeated and in extreme cases the leader might be killed or the kingdom could even collapse; It seems counter-intuitive, but most casualties occur in the aftermath of a battle when one side is in flight; a narrow defeat on the battlefield could lead to wholesale massacre and according to an early eleventh-century sermon, one Viking raider could make ten Anglo-Saxons defenders flee. Small-scale raiding that carried less chance of a catastrophic defeat was probably more widespread and more likely to be within the capability of early medieval leaders.

People were not constantly attacking their neighbours in the early medieval period and there were mechanisms in place to prevent uncontrolled violence. Raiding, though, did occur and such low-intensity conflict (or at least the fear of it) was probably widespread enough to be a major stimulant in the construction of most dykes. Perhaps by using evidence from early medieval Britain and elsewhere we can recreate the mechanics of a typical raid, then discuss how a dyke could counter such a threat. The period under study was one that saw fundamental changes (Britain in ad400 was very different from the situation in ad850), but as we cannot accurately date the dykes, the following scenarios are broadly based on evidence appropriate to the probable peak of dyke building in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

The collapse of the Roman Empire brought to an end the use of professional armies in much of Europe and the militarization of the civilian population. While farmers could have attacked their neighbours, they were probably usually too busy producing food to do so. Warriors would be more likely to carry out raids, although there was probably no clear division between the two classes for much of this period. Viking sagas suggest that while some made their living purely from raiding, others supplemented ways of feeding their family (farming, trading or a craft) with a bit of seasonal raiding. The leaders of raiding war bands could have been kings, or, especially in the early stages of the period, merely successful warriors; as well as choosing warriors from among their kin, the most successful leaders would attract warriors from other communities. Those who made their living from war would become well armed with shields, swords, helmets and possibly even chain mail. Although rulers did have a band of loyal warriors, thegns in Anglo-Saxon times, who were handy with a sword, many people who fought in early medieval battles or raids may have made their living from the soil. Warfare became more professional in the later medieval period, but even well-organized kingdoms like late Anglo-Saxon England would call on local farmers to make up the bulk of their army.

How people prepared for a raid is a matter of speculation, but perhaps poetry can give us some clues. A leader would gather warriors, choose a target and attack swiftly before the victims could organize their defences. Before embarking, oaths of loyalty were probably sworn and the night before we can imagine the warriors boasting about how brave they would be, alcohol possibly helping to exaggerate their ardour. In the early morning, weapons would be checked and sharpened while promises were made about how the booty was to be divided. They would mount horses and set off in the direction of their intended target. There are numerous references in Beowulf to of all these activities, for example when Beowulf prepares to meet Grendel’s mother. We do not know if a reconnaissance was made prior to an attack; if a spy was spotted the enemy would be forewarned, so perhaps scouts were not used. The disastrous outcomes of raids like that recorded in Y Gododdin suggest that intelligence was not always obtained.

The quickest and easiest way to travel to war would be on horseback. Without detailed maps of neighbouring kingdoms, raiders would probably use Roman roads and ancient ridgeways to penetrate deep into enemy territory without the fear of getting lost or making unnecessary deviations. It is noticeable that along many Roman roads, villages with names of an Anglo-Saxon derivation are located a few miles away rather than on the road; if you drive along the nearest Roman road to where I live there are no villages on the road for about 20 miles (32km). This suggests that raiders did not stray far from these routes, possibly out of fear of ambush or losing their way. It is perhaps significant that the Anglo-Saxon word rád not only meant ‘to go riding on a horse’, but also ‘to go raiding’ and ‘a road’.

As we have seen, in other cultures the ideal raid would be one that met no resistance, or failing that one which swiftly overcame any defenders. Raiders would try to make the enemy break and run (as we have said, most casualties in battle occurred when one side was in flight), but if this was not quickly achieved the attackers might beat a hasty retreat. If raiders targeted farms, the defenders would be local peasants, or ceorls, armed possibly with spears and shields as well as the improvised weapons normally used as tools, such as axes, knives or hunting bows. If raiders were confronted by armed enemies, an exchange of missiles would probably occur before handheld weapons were used at closer quarters. If the raiders targeted religious sites, their opposition would have been unarmed priests or monks. They might target the ruler of a neighbouring kingdom, hoping to catch him with only a few members of his entourage to defend him.

While the Anglo-Saxons travelled to war on horses, it is uncertain whether they fought on horseback. They did not have purpose-bred warhorses, nor iron horseshoes that could be nailed to the hooves to protect them on stony ground. They may not have had the stirrup, which is essential when using a horse as a fighting platform. The Anglo-Saxons did pursue a fleeing enemy on horseback, often for many hours after a battle, though during a raid a quick getaway was probably more advantageous than chasing after an enemy. After the raid, the attackers would gather up their stolen goods and head back home along the most direct route (probably a ridgeway or a Roman road), then spend the evening feasting, boasting and drinking in their hall. Raids ignited vendettas that triggered revenge attacks and a cycle of counter raiding; when kings emerged, they tried to curb this partly through the use of written law codes.

A raid could have various objectives: to demoralize an enemy; to reduce their ability to fight back; and to obtain booty. If raiders did try to ambush and kill the leader of a neighbouring kingdom (as happened in Wessex in 755 when Cynewulf was murdered), this might explain the large number of kings recorded as being killed in early medieval sources. The stolen goods could be cattle that raiders could herd back to their own community. The burning down of their victims’ farms and food stores would reduce their strength and ability to strike back. The raiders could take slaves (as in the case of Saint Patrick) and high-value goods (such as jewellery); the leader of the raid could use such goods to reward his followers. This largesse would attract warriors to the victor, while the victims might turn on their leaders for failing to protect them. If rape was involved (and Anglo-Saxon sources do suggest it was prevalent in periods of instability), this would further burden the raided area with unwanted young mouths to feed, who might be looked upon with suspicion as their fathers would be enemies. Finds of female brooches made from reused British and Irish metalwork in Viking-age Scandinavia has prompted the suggestion that raiding was also carried out to obtain a bride price, that is, a dowry necessary for a young man to marry. The wealthy and well educated who were less able to fight (such as priests, teachers, lawyers and poets) would flee a community suffering raids, which would further destroy its culture. In numerous kingdoms of early medieval Britain rival factions or branches of royal families fought over control of the realm; perhaps the different groups targeted areas controlled by their rivals to weaken their power.

There are earthworks near Bokerley Dyke in Dorset that confirm that cattle raiding in particular was a real problem in the early medieval period (such raids are a theme of early medieval Irish legends). To the east of Bokerley Dyke (and therefore unprotected by it) are two giant cattle enclosures (soil samples from inside the banks confirm the presence of large amounts of dung). The first, Soldier’s Ring, is a 10.5-hectare polygon enclosure surrounded by double banks built near the end of Roman rule, while the other enclosure (39 hectares in size) is 3.1 miles (5km) further east at Rockbourne and overlays Roman fields. These earthworks reflect the widespread move across Britain from arable to pasture in the late and immediate post-Roman period, when the new cattle ranchers needed enclosures to protect their cattle from raiders. Cattle raids probably became such a problem that the locals decided to build the nearby Bokerley Dyke to try to control it.

Weapons Used in Warfare

As well as the finds from continental bogs already mentioned, like those from Esjbøl-North in Denmark, we have evidence from England of what weapons were used. Until their conversion to Christianity in the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxons often buried their dead with objects that symbolized their status; in half of male graves, this meant a weapon. Although I have noted above that some of these weapons may have been symbolic rather than what the dead person used in life, most look capable of causing damage in battle. We cannot know if the proportions of different types of weapons found in graves are typical of what was carried in life. Though bows and arrows are under-represented in the archaeological record, written evidence like the Battle of Maldon poem suggests they were used in battle. We have no reason to assume that the proportions used in Anglo-Saxon England were significantly different from what was found in continental bogs.

Most Anglo-Saxon furnished burials contained a spear (some lighter ones designed for throwing, while others with longer and heavier blades were undoubtedly handheld weapons), nearly half contained shields, 11 per cent swords, and a few knives or axes that may have been tools as well as weapons. Helmets and chain mail are rare. Anglo-Saxon swords were often pattern-welded, that is, bars of iron were twisted together then hammered flat into a blade, giving a surface which, if carefully polished, looks to me like metallic snakeskin. The later Vikings had better steel, so would use a single piece of metal. The reference to the sword breaking during combat when Beowulf fought the dragon may explain why some were buried with multiple weapons, as it would have been advantageous to have a back-up in such circumstances.

While it is possible that people were more likely to bury objects that were easier to replace, it does seem that a spear and shield formed the weapon combination of most people in this period. For the Picts, Scots and the Britons of Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria and Scotland there are far fewer finds to work on and less surviving literature, but it is likely that they used similar equipment. The Aberlemno stone in Scotland does show Pictish warriors using spears and shields, while the British writer Gildas does make reference to swords and spears being used in battle. If they had fought in a very different style using vastly different weapons from the Anglo-Saxons, early medieval authors like Gildas and Bede, who were keen to stress the differences between the nations, would probably have noted it.

Archaeological evidence of weapon injuries that caused skeletal trauma demonstrates the effects of weapons. The seventh-/eighth-century bodies from Eccles in Kent and Heronbridge in Cheshire suggest that warriors hacked down with blows to the head from a heavy sword. The damage found to skulls at these sites confirms the evidence from furnished burials that helmets were a rarity. As has already been discussed, an Anglo-Saxon sword’s balance point is halfway down the blade; Viking swords were made from better quality steel, were lighter and had a balance point nearer the hilt. The former was designed for hacking at the upper body, the latter for thrust and parry. Perhaps early Anglo-Saxon warriors expected to attack poorly armed victims, while later Vikings often faced foes also armed with a sword. Early Anglo-Saxon warriors do seem to be partial to using the weight of their weapon to hack down their opponent, targeting the head. Raising a defender up on a dyke makes the attacker’s sword far less effective. Spear damage is less easy to detect than heavy blows to the head (especially if bones are not struck), but on display in the gallery in The Collection museum in Lincoln, where the author worked, there is on display a tibia with a spearhead embedded in it that would have caused the victim to bleed to death.


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