Tag: Vikings

Shields – Tribal Symbols and National Emblems

Roman Military Scutum Shield.

A shield is a piece of personal armour held in the hand or mounted on the wrist or forearm. Shields are used to intercept specific attacks, whether from close-ranged weaponry or projectiles such as arrows, by means of active blocks, instead of providing passive protection.

But they are much more than that. They are emblems, banners and insignia. They demonstrate power and signify authority. The shield is significant, it’s a statement of intent. The shield is the standard of an army.

Shields vary greatly in size, ranging from large panels that protect the user’s whole body to small models (such as the buckler) that were intended for hand-to-hand-combat use. Shields also vary a great deal in thickness; whereas some shields were made of relatively deep, absorbent, wooden planking to protect soldiers from the impact of spears and crossbow bolts, others were thinner and lighter and designed mainly for deflecting blade strikes.

Finally, shields vary greatly in shape, ranging in roundness to angularity, proportional length and width, symmetry and edge pattern; different shapes provide more optimal protection for infantry or cavalry, enhance portability, provide secondary uses such as ship protection or as a weapon and so on.

The Wandsworth Shield is a circular bronze Iron Age shield boss or mount decorated in La Tène style that was found in the River Thames at Wandsworth in London sometime before 1849.

In prehistory and during the era of the earliest civilisations, shields were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. In classical antiquity, the Barbarian Invasions and the Middle Ages, they were normally constructed of poplar tree, lime or another split-resistant timber, covered in some instances with a material such as leather or rawhide and often reinforced with a metal boss, rim or banding. They were carried by foot soldiers, knights and cavalry.

Depending on time and place, shields could be round, oval, square, rectangular, triangular, bilabial or scalloped. Sometimes they took on the form of kites or flatirons, or had rounded tops on a rectangular base with perhaps an eye-hole, to look through when used with combat. The shield was held by a central grip or by straps that went over or around the user’s arm.

The oldest form of shield was a protection device designed to block attacks by hand weapons, such as swords, axes and maces, or ranged weapons like sling-stones and arrows. Shields have varied greatly in construction over time and place. Sometimes shields were made of metal, but wood or animal hide construction was much more common; wicker and even turtle shells have been used. Many surviving examples of metal shields are generally felt to be ceremonial rather than practical, for example the Yetholm-type shields of the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age Battersea shield.

Battersea Shield closeup.

Size and weight varied greatly. Lightly armored warriors relying on speed and surprise would generally carry light shields (pelte) that were either small or thin. Heavy troops might be equipped with robust shields that could cover most of the body.

Many had a strap called a guige that allowed them to be slung over the user’s back when not in use or on horseback. During the 14th–13th century BC, the Sards or Shardana, working as mercenaries for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, utilized either large or small round shields against the Hittites. The Mycenaean Greeks used two types of shields: the “figure-of-eight” shield and a rectangular “tower” shield. These shields were made primarily from a wicker frame and then reinforced with leather.

Covering the body from head to foot, the figure-of-eight and tower shield offered most of the warrior’s body a good deal of protection in head-to-head combat. The Ancient Greek hoplites used a round, bowl-shaped wooden shield that was reinforced with bronze and called an aspis. Another name for this type of shield is a hoplon. The hoplon shield inspired the name for hoplite soldiers.

Greek Hoplite with Aspis Shield.

The hoplon was also the longest-lasting and most famous and influential of all of the ancient Greek shields. The Spartans used the aspis to create the Greek phalanx formation. Their shields offered protection not only for themselves but for their comrades to their left. Examples of Germanic wooden shields circa 350 BC – 500 AD survive from weapons sacrifices in Danish bogs.

The heavily armored Roman legionaries carried large shields (scuta) that could provide far more protection, but made swift movement a little more difficult. The scutum originally had an oval shape, but gradually the curved tops and sides were cut to produce the familiar rectangular shape most commonly seen in the early Imperial legions.

Famously, the Romans used their shields to create a tortoise-like formation called a testudo in which entire groups of soldiers would be enclosed in an armoured box to provide protection against missiles. Many ancient shield designs featured incuts of one sort or another. This was done to accommodate the shaft of a spear, thus facilitating tactics requiring the soldiers to stand close together forming a wall of shields.

Advancing in testudo formation.

Typical in the early European Middle Ages were round shields with light, non-splitting wood like linden, fir, alder or poplar, usually reinforced with leather cover on one or both sides and occasionally metal rims, encircling a metal shield boss. These light shields suited a fighting style where each incoming blow is intercepted with the boss in order to deflect it.

The Normans introduced the kite shield around the 10th century, which was rounded at the top and tapered at the bottom. This gave some protection to the user’s legs, without adding too much to the total weight of the shield. The kite shield predominantly features enarmes, leather straps used to grip the shield tight to the arm. Used by foot and mounted troops alike, it gradually came to replace the round shield as the common choice until the end of the 12th century, when more efficient limb armour allowed the shields to grow shorter, and be entirely replaced by the 14th century.

Norman Warrior bearing Kite Shield.

Below is a list of shields from the early Roman era to the middle part of the Middle-Ages. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have no doubt left some prominent examples out. However, the list attempts to convey the rapid change in shield design, which began with the Celtic ‘rectangular’ shield design and ended with the ‘Norman-style’ kite shield that was designed for use by cavalry and yet adopted for infantry use.

Celtic Shields

Celtic shields were usually oval or elongated oval in shape. They could also be round or hexagon shaped. On the front was usually a hollow wood shield boss to protect the hand. The boss was usually elongated to make the shield stronger and was sometimes covered by a metal plate. On the inside of the boss hole was a handle to hold the shield. The shields were made of wood, usually oak or linden (also called lime). Most often they were covered with leather.

Iron Age bronze shield, known as the Battersea Shield in the British Museum.

Battle shields were often individually decorated with various symbols. They were designed to be both light and strong. Celts used their shields defensively but also as an offensive weapon. A favorite tactic of a Celtic warrior was to strike the enemy with his shield. The Celts in Britain used smaller shields in battle while continental Celts used larger shields. Shields sometimes shattered in combat and were an expendable item.

Another style of Celtic shield, A Highland targe from the National Museum of Scotland.

Sparabara

Whilst not specifically a shield, but rather a type of warrior, The Sparabara, meaning “shield bearers” in Old Persian, were the heavy front line infantry of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. They were usually the first to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Although not much is known about them today, it is believed that they were the backbone of the Persian army who formed a shield wall and used their two-metre-long spears to protect more vulnerable troops such as archers from the enemy. The term is also used to refer to the combination of these shield-bearers and the archers that were protected by them.

Sparabara at the Battle of Marathon(12 September, 490 BC).

The Sparabara were armoured with quilted linen and carried large rectangular wicker shields as a form of light manoeuvrable defense. This, however, left them at a severe disadvantage against heavily armoured opponents such as the hoplite, and his two-metre-long spear was not able to give the Sparabara ample range to plausibly engage a trained phalanx. The wicker shields were able to effectively stop arrows but not strong enough to protect the soldier from spears. However, the Sparabara could deal with most other infantry, including trained units from the East.

The sparabara were supposed to be used in conjunction with Persian heavy cavalry and chariots, which would attack from the rear. An example in which the cavalry failed to be engaged is the Battle of Marathon, which had catastrophic results.

Aspis

The Aspis was commonly carried by Greek Hoplites and were used in the early Roman period. The Aspis was a large concave shield (often referred to as a hoplon), measuring between 80–100 centimetres (31–39 in) in diameter and weighing between 6.5–8 kilograms (14–18 lbs). This large shield was made possible partly by its shape, which allowed it to be supported on the shoulder.

Greek Hoplon Shield.

The hoplon shield was put together in three layers with the center layer made of thick wood, the outside layer facing the enemy made of bronze and leather made up the inside of the shield. The revolutionary part of the shield was, in fact, the grip. Known as an Argive grip, it placed the handle at the edge of the shield, and was supported by a leather fastening (for the forearm) at the centre.

These two points of contact eliminated the possibility of the shield swaying to the side after being struck, and as a result soldiers rarely lost their shields. This allowed the hoplite soldier more mobility with the shield, as well as the ability to capitalize on its offensive capabilities and better support the phalanx. The large hoplon shields, designed for pushing ahead, were the most essential equipment for the hoplites.

The Scutum

Perhaps the most recognisable of all the shields, the Scutum represented the might and power of the Roman Empire.

The Scutum.

The Scutum (English: /ˈsktəm/; plural scuta; Classical Latin: [ˈskuːtũː]) was a type of shield used among Italic peoples in the archaic period, and then by the army of ancient Rome starting about the fourth century BC. The Romans adopted it when they switched from the military formation of the hoplite phalanx of the Greeks to the formation with maniples.

In the former, the soldiers carried a round shield, which the Romans called clipeus. In the latter, they used the scutum, which was a larger shield. Originally it was an oblong and convex shield. By the first century BC it had developed into the rectangular, semi-cylindrical shield that is popularly associated with the scutum in modern times. This was not the only shield the Romans used; Roman shields were of varying types depending on the role of the soldier who carried it. Oval, circular and rectangular shields were used throughout Roman history.

In the early days of Ancient Rome (from the late regal period to the first part of the early republican period,) Roman soldiers wore clipeus, which was like the aspides (ἀσπίδες), a small round shield used in the Greek hoplite phalanx. The hoplites were heavy infantrymen who originally wore a bronze shield and helmet.

The phalanx was a compact, rectangular mass military formation. The soldiers lined up in very tight ranks in a formation which was eight lines deep. The phalanx advanced in unison, which encouraged cohesion among the troops. It formed a shield wall and a mass of spears pointing towards the enemy.

Its compactness provided a thrusting force which had a great impact on the enemy and made frontal assaults against it very difficult. However, it also had its drawbacks. It worked only if the soldiers kept the formation tight and had the discipline needed to keep its compactness in the thick of the battle. It was a rigid form of fighting and its maneuverability was limited. The shields being small provided less protection. However, their smaller size afforded more mobility. Their round shape enabled the soldiers to interlock them to hold the line together.

Sometime in the early fourth century BC, the Romans changed their military tactics from the hoplite phalanx to the manipular formation, which was much more flexible. This involved a change in military equipment. The scutum replaced the clipeus. Some ancient writers thought that the Romans had adopted the maniples and the scutum when they fought against the Samnites in the first or second Samnite War (343-341 BC, 327-304 BC). However, Livy did not mention the scutum being a Samnite shield and wrote that the oblong shield and the manipular formation were introduced in the early fourth century BC, before the conflicts between the Romans and the Samnites.

Plutarch mentioned the use of the long shield in a battle which took place in 366 BC. Couissin notes archaeological evidence shows that the scutum was in general use among Italic peoples long before the Samnite Wars and argues that it was not obtained from the Samnites. In some parts of Italy the scutum had been used since pre-historical times.

Polybius gave a description of the early scutum. He wrote that it was oblong and had a convex surface 2 ½ feet wide and four feet long. It thickness at the rim was “a palm’s breadth” (about four inches). It was “made of two planks glued together, the outer surface being then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. 4 Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging which protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general.” Polybius, The Histories, 6.23.2-4

The scutum is light enough to be held in one hand and its large height and width covered the entire wielder, making him very unlikely to get hit by missile fire and in hand-to-hand combat. The metal boss, or umbo, in the centre of the scutum also made it an auxiliary punching weapon as well.

Roman Legionary and Kit.

Its composite construction meant that early versions of the scutum could fail from a heavy cutting or piercing blow which was experienced in the Roman Campaigns against Carthage and Dacia where the Falx and Falcata could easily penetrate and rip through the scutum. The effects of these weapons prompted design changes that made the scutum more resilient such as thicker planks and metal edges.

When compared to the earlier aspis which it replaced, the aspis was heavier and provided less protective coverage than the scutum but was much more durable.

The oval scutum is depicted on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in Rome, the Aemilius Paullus monument at Delphi, and there is an actual example found at Kasr el-Harit in Egypt. Gradually the scutum evolved into the rectangular (or sub-rectangular) type of the early Roman Empire.

Roman Oval Scutum.

By the end of the 3rd century the rectangular scutum seems to have disappeared. Fourth century archaeological finds (especially from the fortress of Dura-Europos) indicate the subsequent use of oval or round shields which were not semi-cylindrical but were either dished (bowl-shaped) or flat. Roman artwork from the end of the 3rd century till the end of Antiquity show soldiers wielding oval or round shields.

The word “scutum” survived the Roman Empire and entered the military vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire. Even in the 11th century, the Byzantines called their armoured soldiers skutatoi (Grk. σκυτατοί).

Clipeus

Roman Clipeus Shield.

The legionary scutum, disappeared during the 3rd century. All troops adopted the auxiliary oval (or sometimes round) shield (clipeus). Shields, from examples found at Dura and Nydam, were of vertical plank construction, the planks glued, and faced inside and out with painted leather. The edges of the shield were bound with stitched rawhide, which shrank as it dried improving structural cohesion. It was also lighter than the edging of copper alloy used in earlier Roman shields.

Clipeus virtutis, Latin for “shield of bravery”, was awarded to Augustus for his “courage, clemency, justice and piety” by the senate and displayed in the Curia Iulia.

The Anglo Saxon Shield

The shield was another extremely common piece of war equipment used by the Anglo-Saxons—nearly 25% of male Anglo-Saxon graves contain shields. In Old English, a shield was called a bord, rand, scyld, or lind (“linden-wood”). Anglo-Saxon shields comprised a circular piece of wood constructed from planks which had been glued together; at the center of the shield, an iron boss was attached.

It was common for shields to be covered in leather, so as to hold the planks together, and they were often decorated with fittings of bronze or iron. Textual descriptions and visual representations indicate that some shields were convex, but archaeological evidence for this has not yet been found.

No painted Anglo-Saxon shields have been discovered; however, painted shields from the same time period have been found in Denmark, and Beowulf describes shields as being “bright” and “yellow.” These pieces of evidence suggest that some Anglo-Saxon shields may have been painted.

Two round, wooden shields from Thorsberg moor; dating to the 3rd century CE, they are similar to the shields used by the Anglo-Saxons.

Old English poetry always states that shields were made of lime (linden-wood), but few actual examples have been found by archaeologists. Evidence indicates that alder, willow, and poplar wood were the most common types; shields of maple, birch, ash, and oak have also been discovered. The diameter of shields greatly varied, ranging from 0.3 to 0.92 m (1 to 3 ft), although most shields were between 0.46 to 0.66 m (1 ft 6 in to 2 ft 2 in) in diameter. Their thickness ranged from 5 mm to 13 mm, but most were between 6 mm and 8 mm in width.

Anglo-Saxon shield bosses have been separated into two main categories, based on the method of manufacturing. The carinated boss was the most common type—the design originated in continental Europe, and such bosses found in England date from the fifth to the mid-seventh century, at least. It is unclear exactly how carinated bosses were manufactured.

The other type is the tall cone boss, which was commonly used from the seventh century onward. These bosses were constructed of an iron sheet (or sheets), and were welded together from the rim to the apex. Iron or bronze rivets were then used to attach the boss to the shield; four or five rivets were most commonly used, although as many as twelve were used in some instances.

Replica painted Anglo Saxon Shield.

Behind the boss, the shield was cut and an iron grip was attached to the opening, so that the shield could be held. Grips were usually 10 to 16 cm (4 to 6 in) in length, the sides of which were either straight or gently curved. Evidence indicates that flanges were sometimes used to enclose a wooden handle.

As for defensive equipment, most Anglo-Saxon warriors only had access to shields. Pollington theorized that the shield was “perhaps the most culturally significant piece of defensive equipment” in Anglo-Saxon England, for the shield-wall would have symbolically represented the separation between the two sides on the battlefield. Smaller shields were lighter and easier to manoeuver, and therefore were best used in minor skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat. In contrast, larger shields were most commonly used in full-scale battles—they would have provided better protection from projectiles and were needed to construct a shield wall.

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall.

Viking Shields

The Viking shield was used for attack and defence. The sagas specifically mention linden wood for shield construction, although finds from graves show mostly other timbers, such as fir, alder and poplar. These timbers are not very dense and are light in the hand. They are also not inclined to split, unlike oak. Also, the fibres of the timber bind around blades preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure is applied. In conjunction with stronger wood, Vikings often reinforced their shields with leather or, occasionally, iron around the rim. Round shields seem to have varied in size from around 45–120 centimetres (18–47 in) in diameter but 75–90 centimetres (30–35 in) is by far the most common.

Viking Shield Colour Variations.

The smaller shield sizes came from the pagan period for the Saxons and the larger sizes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Most shields are shown in illuminations as being painted a single colour although some have a design painted onto them; the most common designs are simple crosses or derivations of sun wheels or segments. The few round shields that survived have much more complicated designs painted on them and sometimes very ornate silver and gold work applied around the boss and the strap anchors.

The Gokstad ship has places for shields to be hung on its railing and the Gokstad shields have holes along the rim for fastening some sort of non-metallic rim protection. These were called shield lists and they protected ship crews from waves and the wind.

Viking Longship showing the arrangement of the shields on the starboard side.

Some Viking shields may have been decorated by simple patterns although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more elaborate decoration and archaeological evidence has supported this. In fact, there is a complete subgenre of Skaldic poetry dedicated to shields, known as “shield poems”, that describe scenes painted on shields. For example, the late-9th-century skaldic poem, Ragnarsdrápa, describes some shields painted with mythological scenes. Viking shields were also heavily used in formations.

The shield wall or skjaldborg was a main formation in which accomplished Viking warriors would create a line of interlocked shields and thrust spears at adversaries. Other notable tactics included the svinfylking “boarsnout”, in which warriors would create a wedge configuration and attempt to burst through the front line of nearby foes.

Viking shield wall with interlocking shields.

The Vikings also used Kite Shields (see below).

Medieval Kite Shields

A kite shield is a large, almond-shaped shield rounded at the top and curving down to a point at the bottom. The term “kite shield” is a reference to the shield’s unique shape, and is derived from its supposed similarity to a flying kite, although “leaf-shaped shield” and “almond shield” have also been used in recent literature. Since the most prominent examples of this shield have appeared on the Bayeux Tapestry, the kite shield has become closely associated with Norman warfare.

Bayeux Tapestry Kite Shield Wall.

The first known illustration of a kite shield appeared in the Gospels of Otto III, indicating it was in use with Western European armies by the late eleventh century. The shield was developed for mounted cavalry, and its dimensions correlate to the approximate space between a horse’s neck and its rider’s thigh.

A narrow bottom protected the rider’s left leg, and the pronounced upper curve, the rider’s shoulder and torso. This was a vast improvement over more common circular shields such as bucklers which afforded poor protection to the horseman’s left flank, especially when he was charging with a lance. Though their great length and unwieldy nature made them cumbersome and inconvenient for foot soldiers, kite shields nevertheless gained popularity, spreading throughout Western Europe during the 1100s.

Aside from Normandy, they also appeared early on in parts of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and it is unclear from which of these three regions the design originated. A common theory is that the kite shield was first inherited by the Normans from their Viking predecessors.

However, no documentation or remains of kite shields from the Viking era have been discovered, and they were not ideally suited to the Vikings’ highly mobile light infantry. Kite shields were depicted primarily on eleventh century illustrations, largely in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, but also in the Caucasus, the Fatimid Caliphate, and among the Kievan Rus’.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking territories in the north of Europe.

For example, an eleventh century silver engraving of Saint George recovered from Bochorma, Georgia, depicts a kite shield, as do other isolated pieces of Georgian art dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kite shields also appear on the Bab al-Nasr in Cairo, which was constructed around 1087. Arab historians usually described them as tariqa or januwiyya.

Kite shields were introduced in large numbers to the Middle East by the First Crusade, when Arab and Byzantine soldiers first observed the type being carried by Norman crusaders; these left such a favourable impression on Byzantium that they had entirely superseded round shields in the Komnenian army by the mid twelfth century.

Around the mid to late twelfth century, traditional kite shields were largely replaced by a variant in which the top was flat, rather than rounded. This change made it easier for a soldier to hold the shield upright without limiting his field of vision. Flat-topped kite shields were later phased out by most Western European armies in favour of much smaller, more compact heater shields. They were still being used by the Byzantines well into the thirteenth century.

The Pelte

The Pelte is a a crescent-shaped wicker shield (Latin: peltarion) carried by a Peltast, a type of light infantry, originating in Thrace and Paeonia, who often served as skirmishers in Hellenic and Hellenistic armies.

In the Medieval period the same term was used for a type of Byzantine infantryman. as their main protection, hence their name. According to Aristotle, the pelte was rimless and covered in goat or sheep skin. Some literary sources imply that the shield could be round, but in art it is usually shown as crescent-shaped. It also appears in Scythian art and may have been a common type in Central Europe.

The shield could be carried with a central strap and a hand grip near the rim or with just a central hand-grip. It may also have had a carrying strap (or baldric) as Thracian peltasts slung their shields on their backs when evading the enemy. Peltasts’ weapons consisted of several javelins (akontia), which may have had throwing straps to allow more force to be applied to a throw.

In time, some armoured foot knights gave up shields entirely in favour of mobility and two-handed weapons. Other knights and common soldiers adopted the buckler, giving rise to the term “swashbuckler”.

Stainless Buckler Shield.

The buckler is a small round shield, typically between 8 and 16 inches (20–40 cm) in diameter. The buckler was one of very few types of shield that were usually made of metal. Small and light, the buckler was easily carried by being hung from a belt; it gave little protection from missiles and was reserved for hand-to-hand combat where it served both for protection and offence. The buckler’s use began in the Middle Ages and continued well into the 16th century.

References

  • Drummond, James (1890). “Notes on Ancient Shields and Highland Targets”. Archaeologica Scotica. 5.
  • Schulze, André(Hrsg.): Mittelalterliche Kampfesweisen. Band 2: Kriegshammer, Schild und Kolben. – Mainz am Rhein. : Zabern, 2007. – ISBN 3-8053-3736-1
  • Snodgrass, A.M. “Arms and Armour of the Greeks.” Cornell University Press, 1967
  • “The Hoplite.” The Classical Review, 61. 2011.
  • Hellwag, Ursula. “Shield(s).” Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Siegbert Uhllig (ed.), vol. 4, 650-651. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

 

 

 

 

Anglo-Saxon military organization

Norman knights on horseback attempt to break the Saxon shield wall, in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Anglo-Saxon military organization is difficult to analyze because there are many conflicting records and opinions as to the precise occurrences and procedures.

Anglo-Saxon England was known for its tumultuous nature and the constant presence of outside threats and dangers made it necessary for a solid military to be constantly in place. However, in spite of this, by the 10th century, the Saxon kingdom of England was, perhaps, the best ordered state in Europe with a highly efficient administration that had a solid currency and could raise taxes to support a military establishment. Even though there is some controversy as to the accurate forms of military organization, some aspects can be deduced from the records that have been preserved.

The period can, however, be split into two: before settlement, AD 400 to AD 600; and the settlement period, when the Saxons had established organized kingdoms, AD 600 to AD 1066.

Military organization in the pre-settlement period (400-600)

he Saxons were organized into warbands led by a chief. The warriors comprising the warband were professional soldiers, though perhaps without the discipline of the Romans. There were three classes of warrior:

The Gedriht were the personal followers of the chief and were sworn to die with him. There would have been few of them in each warband. They would have been well armed and the majority would have worn a helmet and chainmail armour. The main weapon was the Gar, a 2.5 m long spear with an ash shaft (Old English, gar = spear). Many would have carried long slashing swords.

The second group were the Geoguth, or young warriors. They would have formed the bulk of the warband and would have carried a shield, spear, and Seax (a single edged dagger or short sword). Few would have had helmets or defensive armour.

The Duguth, or old warriors, appear later in this period. They would have carried the same equipment as the geoguth and served mainly to provide a stabilising element in battle.

In addition, there would have been skirmishers armed with either a bow or sling.

Saxon warrior with helmet and chainmail armour and armed with a Gar.

Method of fighting and army composition

This appears to have changed during this period. At the beginning, the shield was small, more like a buckler, and suggests that the men fought in open order. Later, the shield was enlarged (up to 1 m across) and the warband fought in close order, which required a reasonable level of training and discipline. This style of fighting had a long history; it was known as a shield wall or phalanx formation.

The use of the horse in battle is very unclear and probably only the gedriht would have had them. However, horses at this period were small and would have had to be battle trained. On balance, the sources indicate that the Saxons fielded a balanced and effective infantry army. It seems likely that horses would have been used either for scouting or transport.

It is not clear how large armies were; the Saxons themselves described anything more than 30 warriors as an army. Interestingly, this would have been about same number as a ship’s crew. The general view is that an army would have been made up of a number of warbands under a senior chief, or Althing, and would have been between 200 and 600 strong.

The shield wall.

Military organization in the settlement period (600-1066)

The organisation underwent considerable changes, becoming essentially more feudal. The Gedriht became a more organised household guard, which provided a core of military specialists (the huscarls). Individual Earls would have had their own household troops. There is also a new class of lord, the Thegn, which was roughly the equivalent of the later Norman Baron: Thegns held land from the king and were responsible for raising the Fyrd in their area and leading them into battle. The richer Thegns would also have had their own household troops.

However, the major innovation is in the organization of the Fyrd. This, in the post Alfred period, is called up in groups either to man the Burhs (each burh had a manpower level calculated according to the length of wall) or to serve in the field army. By this process, a Saxon army could remain in the field all year as there are always enough men at home producing food and goods.

The army was thus significantly larger than in the early period. In addition, by the 11th century, the increasing wealth of England, its increased centralisation, and its growing class of freemen meant that helmets, weapons, and armour could be made in far greater numbers. This meant that, by the 10th century, laws appear to have required a freeman who had the financial means to own a spear, a shield, an axe or sword and a helmet. The laws of the day required Fyrd members to be men of a particular class, freemen, who could afford decent equipment and training.

Weapons and equipment remained broadly the same, although the majority of a warband now had a helmet. The Dane Axe, which required a great deal of training to use effectively, became increasingly popular with the huscarls.

Saxon warrior with battle-axe.

Tactics and Strategies

Anglo-Saxon battle tactics have also spawned much debate. Some historians believe that horses were used, though most argue that the battles took place on foot. Infantry battles are reported in many texts from the period. Anglo-Saxon military organization is difficult to analyze.

The combat strength of the Anglo-Saxon army is another issue that cannot be agreed upon by scholars. Some historians argue that the army was weak and only used infantry as a means of defense and attack, while cavalry were only used for scouting, whereas others believe that the army was more powerful, employing infantry and cavalry. The former argument suggests that the infantry was of a high standard but did not have the capacity to press home an advantage, due to the lack of cavalry. It was also suggested by historians until the 1980s that the Anglo-Saxons did not carry high quality weapons.

Since the 1970s, however, archaeologists and historians have created a more varied view of Anglo-Saxon armies. The early Saxon armies are now thought to have been very formidable indeed, specializing in high-intensity close combat. The large shield was an offensive weapon as well as defensive. In the later period, the Saxons adopted the Danish battle axe, which had a 1.3 m shaft and could decapitate a horse or break up an opposing shield wall.

There was no cavalry in western Europe capable of consistently breaking a well-ordered shieldwall, aside perhaps from the Byzantine Cataphracts. This was due to the relatively small size of horses, and the fact that, even with the advent of the couched lance in the 12th century, well disciplined spearmen still presented a major problem for cavalry. This was demonstrated at Hastings when the Normans, who probably were the best cavalry of the period, tried all day to break the Anglo-Saxon line.

In a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, 1082, the English soldiers, who are all on foot, protect themselves with a shield wall while the Normans assault on horseback.

To judge the effectiveness of any military formation one first needs to determine what was its function. The early Saxon armies were aggressive small raiding units that could be quickly combined in a larger unit to take land and goods. The later army’s function was defensive and was the military expression of an organised state. It not only depended on raising manpower through the fyrd, but on a network of burghs that provided supply bases and mustering points. It was this system that allowed Alfred and his successors to conquer England and for Harold to move his army rapidly against the Danes and defeat them at Stamford Bridge then move elements 250 miles south to Hastings.

There are some battles in which scholars generally agree on which tactics and methods were used. The Battle of Hastings, in 1066, demonstrates some interesting military tactics. At Hastings, the soldiers were organized with the best soldiers in the front line and the less adequate fighters in the following lines. They formed a tightly packed shield wall, with spears projecting from the front rank over the shieldwall. Protecting the areas behind and to the side were a small number of archers, javelin throwers and slingers. The Bayeux Tapestry also shows armoured Saxon warriors using the long handled Danish axe.

Saxon warriors using the Danish Axe.

Either they stood in front of the shield wall or the wall opened to let them through. Though this formation has been criticised, it was highly effective; it provided reasonable cover from missile weapons and was capable of fending off most cavalry. It also needs to be remembered that all the Saxons needed to do in order to achieve victory was to hold their position until sunset, and the Normans would be forced to break off the days fighting. The Normans, deprived of supplies and reinforcements, be penned into a small area and with no way of feeding themselves or their horses, would have been forced to retreat.

It was, in fact, rather effective at repelling the Norman Cavalry and it was only the death of Harold and his brothers, probably towards the end of the battle, that caused the Saxon command system to ultimately fail and the battle to be lost. This strategy was also used in the battle of Sherston in 1016, only with a slight difference – instead of simply holding position, the army advanced on the enemy while maintaining their solid formation (A refinement of this tactic was used in the crusades: as the army neared the enemy line, gaps would open in the ‘shieldwall’ through which the cavalry would charge). Military tactics did develop gradually throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Though there is still much debate as to how efficient the soldiers and the fighting was, it is clear that, as the ages progressed, so too did the power and capability of the army.

References

  • Campbell, James, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald. The Anglo-Saxons. Ithaca: Cornell University P, 1982. 59-201.
  • Fisher, D J. The Anglo-Saxon Age. Aberdeen: Longman Group Limited, 1973. 220-340.
  • Hollister, C. Warren. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1962. 18-152.
  • Levick, Ben. “Saxon Military Organisation.” Regia Anglorum. 31 Mar. 2003. Regia Anglorum Publications. 30 Oct. 2006

12 Historical Inaccuracies in The History Channel’s VIKINGS Series

VIKINGS is an Irish-Canadian television series written and created by Michael Hirst, for the History Channel, and is tremendously successful.

I love the show, but if you have an understanding of Viking, Anglo Saxon and Frankish history, then I would advise that in order to enjoy the series you should suspend disbelief, or at the very least take it with a LARGE pinch of salt. But hey, it’s TV, it’s entertainment, and it’s for fun, right?

The life and times of Viking Ragnar Lodbrok, “a farmer who rose to fame by successful raids into England and eventually became king of Denmark,” has gripped popular imagination and renewed interest in the Vikings.

Indeed, most of the enthusiastic fans of the VIKINGS series were probably not even aware of much of the history of the Vikings before this series were launched March 2013. VIKINGS is now in a fifth season, and with any luck, they will go on to do a sixth. One understands that some artistic licence needs to be made for films, but the series does consist of some minor and some quite major historical inaccuracies. 

1. Where are their helmets?

Inexplicably, none of the Vikings seem to wear any helmets in combat. Considering that most combat fatalities come from head wounds, the helmet was the single most important piece of armour for any veteran warrior. Viking helmets were advanced and effective, presenting a terrifying visage to their enemies. Viking helmets were effective at intimidating their enemies.

Most, when faced with these Viking warriors emerging from the sea, with helmet, shield, chain-mail armour and sword, or axe, and spear, fled without even attempting to oppose them. Presumably, the filmmakers wanted their stars to be easily identified and so have dispensed with helmets entirely. Many of their key actors, such as Rollo, survives despite wearing no armour at all and are presented as fighting wearing only trousers!

2. Looks are everything?

Many of the Vikings are depicted as having shaved their heads, including Ragnar, who apparently has his head covered in tattoos. There is no historical evidence that the Vikings did that. Anyone who has lived in Scandinavia would be aware that it gets incredibly cold in the winter. To deliberately remove the hair from ones’ head when living in often icy conditions and sailing the open seas, would be uncomfortable to say the least.

Ragnar Lodbrok in Vikings series 4, played by Travis Fimmel.

3. Absence of security for settlements.

There are some graphic scenes of massacres of civilians – women and children, depicted in VIKINGS. However, these are not of Saxon civilians killed by Viking invaders, but Viking settlers killed by Saxons. In a bizarre twist, the History Channel portrays the Vikings as settling without any semblance of security, with indefensible villages spread out in the open, without any form of stockade, fortification or protective measures.

Not even towers are erected. That just never happened. Considering that the Vikings were invaders, they took extraordinary measures to erect comprehensive fortified structures, normally in circles, surrounded by a moat and sharpened stakes, with all their dwellings neatly organised around a great hall within the fortification. Archaeologists are still digging up these Viking settlements within the British Isles.

Large Viking settlements were often surrounded by pallisades and the entrances protected by towers. None of this is in evidence in the TV series.

4. Inexplicably, Hirst’s VIKINGS television series depicts the temple to Odin at Uppsala as a wooden stave church in the mountains. The historic temple was actually situated on flat land and the stave churches were a hallmark of Christian architecture from the 11th Century onward.

5. Crucifixion by Christians

Hirst’s VIKINGS program portrays a crucifixion of a prominent character, the Christian monk, Athelstan, who had been abducted from Lindisfarne monastery, as being crucified by the orders of a Christian bishop in Wessex.

There is absolutely no case recorded where Christians used this form of execution to punish apostates. The Emperor Constantine officially outlawed crucifixion in the 4th Century.

Not only would such a mode of execution be abhorrent and blasphemous to any Christian, but there is no example of any Christians anywhere, let alone in Wessex, in the 9th Century, practising it.

6. Anachronistic clothing and fashions.

The wardrobe department has evidently had a lot of fun clothing the actors. However, many of the fashions seem more 20th and 21st Century, particularly the leather trouser designs. Some of the outfits seem to have come from a futuristic Mad Max episode. As for the bizarre and impractical hairstyles, shaven heads and abundance of tattoos, it would appear that great liberties have been taken with actual Viking culture and history.

7. The dates don’t add up.

Appropriately, the VIKING series begins with 793 A.D., with the launch of the Viking age and the notorious raid on the Lindisfarne monastery. However, the same man, Ragnar Lodbrok, who is meant to have been involved in the raid of Lindisfarne, is historically the one who led the siege of Paris in 846 B.C. That would have made him extremely old indeed by that time if he had also been at Lindisfarne in 793.

8. Rollo was not Ragnar’s brother.

The famous Viking Rollo (846 – 932 A.D.) seized Rouen in 876 A.D. and led the Viking fleet that besieged Paris 885-886 A.D. He was baptized as a Christian, married a French princess and it was his great, great, great grandson, William, Duke of Normandy, who invaded England in 1066 and became William I of England. Therefore, Rollo is one of the ancestors of the present-day British Royal family. Chronologically, there is no way he could have been contemporary with Ragnar Lodbrok, let alone his brother.

Rollo, (Clive Standen) as depicted in the History Channels hit TV series ‘Vikings’.

9. What do we know of Ragnar Lodbrok?

The Norse Sagas identify Ragnar Lodbrok as the father of Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba.

He was married three times:  to the shield maiden Lagertha, to the noble woman Dôra, and to Aslaug (all Scandinavian women).

Ragnar was the son of the Swedish king Sigurd Hring and a cousin of the Danish king, Gudfred. He distinguished himself with many raids and conquests, including the first siege of Paris, 846 A.D. He was seized by King Aella of Northumbria and killed by being thrown into a pit of snakes. His sons avenged him by invading England with the Great Heathen Army in 865 A.D.

10. In VIKINGS, the Christian’s are made out to be more treacherous than the heathen. Hirst’s History Channel saga depicts the Christians as more (or on a par with) treacherous, vile and perverted than the heathen. Whilst Christian’s of the period did engage in acts of terror, they were no more or less ‘barbarous’ than their Viking neigbours.

11. The Missionary Ansgar

The Apostle Ansgar was not the failure that Hirst depicts being executed by queen Aslaug when he failed a test. In fact Ansgar (801-865) known as The Apostle to the North, not only lived a long life, but succeeded in winning Vikings to Christ.

Numerous miracles accompanied his ministry and so impressed the Vikings, that they concluded that Christ is greater than Thor. Not that you would know any of this from watching Hirst’s History Channel fiction.

12. Alfred was the illegitimate son of the monk Athelstan. 

Possibly the biggest stretch of the truth in the series, was to suggest that the Princess Osburh had an affair with Athelstan and bore him a child, the future King Alfred the Great.

In the series, the King of Wessex, King Egbert, encouraged this infidelity and then blackmailed Osburh (his son’s wife) into becoming his mistress. The King’s son, Æthelwulf, is then persuaded that this was all the work of Christ and that he should accept it. None of this is in any way true.

Æthelwulf and Osburh were said to be extremely pious Christians, and there is no evidence of infidelity or impropriety on the part of the future Queen, and Alfred of Wessex was very much Æthelwulf’s son.

Æthelwulf and Osburh

Original post by Dr. Peter Hammond

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Peter Hammond is a Missionary in Africa with Frontline Fellowship P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725 Cape Town South Africa, Tel: 021-689-4480 Email:  mission@frontline.org.za Website:  www.frontline.org.za.

For an account of how the Vikings were won to Christ, see “Winning the Vikings for Christ on www.ReformationSA.org. This can also be viewed as a PowerPoint with pictures though our Slideshare link. You can also listen to an audio lecture, “How the Vikings Were Won to Christ, on our SermonAudio.com link.

 

The Viking Timeline

Cnut the Great
789 – Vikings begin their attacks on England.
800 – The Oseberg Viking longship is buried about this time
840 – Viking settlers found the city of Dublin in Ireland.
844 – A Viking raid on Seville is repulsed.
860 – Rus Vikings attack Constantinople (Istanbul).
862 – Novgorod in Russia is founded by the Rus Viking, Ulrich.
866 – Danish Vikings establish a kingdom in York, England.
871 – Alfred the Great becomes king of Wessex; the Danish advance is halted in England.

King Alfred the Great
872 – Harald I gains control of Norway.
879 – Rurik establishes Kiev as the center of the Kievan Rus’ domains.
886 – Alfred divides England with the Danes under the Danelaw pact.
900 – The Vikings raid along the Mediterranean coast.
911 – The Viking chief Rollo is granted land by the Franks and founds Normandy in France.

The Baptism of Rollo
941 – Rus Vikings attack Constantinople (Istanbul).
981 – Viking leader Erik the Red discovers Greenland.

Erik the Red
986 – Viking ships sail in Newfoundland waters.
991 – Æthelred II pays the first Danegeld ransom to stop Danish attacks on England.
995 – Olav I conquers Norway and proclaims it a Christian kingdom.
1000 – Christianity reaches Greenland and Iceland.
1000 – Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, explores the coast of North America.

A statue of Leif Erikson, the Viking thought to have sailed to the Americas 500 years before Columbus, guards the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík, Iceland.
1000 – Olav I dies; Norway is ruled by the Danes.
1002 – Brian Boru defeats the Norse and becomes the king of Ireland.
1010 – Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni attempts to found a settlement in North America.
1013 – The Danes conquer England; Æthelred flees to Normandy.
1015 – Vikings abandon the Vinland settlement on the coast of North America.
1016 – Olav II regains Norway from the Danes.
1016 – The Danes under Knut (Canute) rule England.

A 15th-century stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral, depicting King Cnut
1028 – Knut (Canute), king of England and Denmark, conquers Norway.
1042 – Edward the Confessor rules England with the support of the Danes.
1050 – The city of Oslo is founded in Norway.
1066 – Harold Godwinson king of England defeats Harald Hardrada king of Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
1066 – William duke of Normandy defeats the Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

William I King of England

References

The Normans – The Great Conquerors of the Viking King Rollo

The Normans (Norman: Normaunds; French: Normands; Latin: Normanni) were the people who, in the 10th and 11th centuries, gave their name to Normandy, a region in France.

They were descended from Norse (“Norman” comes from “Norseman”) Vikings (Old English wicingas—”pirates”) from Denmark, Iceland and Norway who, under their leader Rollo, agreed to swear fealty to King Charles III of West Francia. Through generations of mixing with the native Frankish and Gallo-Roman populations, their descendants gradually became assimilated into the Carolingian-based cultures of West Francia. The distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the Normans emerged initially in the first half of the 10th century, and it continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries.

Rollo, (Clive Standen) as depicted in the History Channels hit TV series ‘Vikings’.

The Norman dynasty had a major political, cultural and military impact on medieval Europe and the Near East. The Normans were famed for their martial spirit and eventually for their Catholic piety, becoming exponents of the Catholic orthodoxy into which they assimilated. They adopted the Gallo-Romance language of the Frankish land they settled, their dialect becoming known as Norman, Normaund or Norman French, an important literary language. The Duchy of Normandy, which they formed by treaty with the French crown, was a great fief of medieval France, and under Richard I of Normandy was forged into a cohesive and formidable principality in feudal tenure.

Circa 1190, Richard I of England (1157-1199), also known as Richard I, Duke of Normandy.

The Normans are noted both for their culture, such as their unique Romanesque architecture and musical traditions, and for their significant military accomplishments and innovations. Norman adventurers founded the Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II after conquering southern Italy and Malta from the Saracens and Byzantines, and an expedition on behalf of their duke, William the Conqueror, led to the Norman conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Norman cultural and military influence spread from these new European centres to the Crusader states of the Near East, where their prince Bohemond I founded the Principality of Antioch in the Levant, to Scotland and Wales in Great Britain, to Ireland, and to the coasts of north Africa and the Canary Islands.

Map of Norman Empire circa 1100 CE It shows the additional lands conquered, including Italy and Sicily, England, the Crusade State of Antioch, the coast of North Africa and Malta.

The legacy of the Normans persists today through the regional languages and dialects of France, England, and Sicily, as well as the various cultural, judicial and political arrangements they introduced in their conquered territories.

The English name “Normans” comes from the French words Normans/Normanz, plural of Normant, modern French normand, which is itself borrowed from Old Low Franconian Nortmann “Northman” or directly from Old Norse Norðmaðr, Latinized variously as Nortmannus, Normannus, or Nordmannus (recorded in Medieval Latin, 9th century) to mean “Norseman, Viking”.

The 11th century Benedictine monk and historian, Goffredo Malaterra, characterised the Normans thus:

Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war.

In the course of the 10th century, the initially destructive incursions of Norse war bands into the rivers of France evolved into more permanent encampments that included local women and personal property. The Duchy of Normandy, which began in 911 as a fiefdom, was established by the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte between King Charles III of West Francia and the famed Viking ruler Rollo, and was situated in the former Frankish kingdom of Neustria.

King Rollo’s Viking fleet en-route to the Frankish Kingdom.

The treaty offered Rollo and his men the French lands between the river Epte and the Atlantic coast in exchange for their protection against further Viking incursions. As well as granting to protect the area of Rouen from Viking invasion, Rollo had to swear not to invade further Frankish lands himself, accept baptism and conversion to the Christian faith and swear fealty to King Charles III.

The area corresponded to the northern part of present-day Upper Normandy down to the river Seine, but the Duchy would eventually extend west beyond the Seine. The territory was roughly equivalent to the old province of Rouen, and reproduced the Roman administrative structure of Gallia Lugdunensis II (part of the former Gallia Lugdunensis).

Before Rollo’s arrival, its populations did not differ from Picardy or the Île-de-France, which were considered “Frankish”. Earlier Viking settlers had begun arriving in the 880s, but were divided between colonies in the east (Roumois and Pays de Caux) around the low Seine valley and in the west in the Cotentin Peninsula, and were separated by traditional pagii, where the population remained about the same with almost no foreign settlers. Rollo’s contingents who raided and ultimately settled Normandy and parts of the Atlantic coast included Danes, Norwegians, Norse–Gaels, Orkney Vikings, possibly Swedes, and Anglo-Danes from the English Danelaw under Norse control.

Anglo-Dane Warriors.

The descendants of Rollo’s Vikings and their Frankish wives would replace the Norse religion and Old Norse language with Catholicism (Christianity) and the Gallo-Romance language of the local people, blending their maternal Frankish heritage with Old Norse traditions and customs to synthesize a unique “Norman” culture in the north of France. The Norman language was forged by the adoption of the indigenous langue d’oïl branch of Romance by a Norse-speaking ruling class, and it developed into the regional language that survives today.

The Normans thereafter adopted the growing feudal doctrines of the rest of France, and worked them into a functional hierarchical system in both Normandy and in England. The new Norman rulers were culturally and ethnically distinct from the old French aristocracy, most of whom traced their lineage to Franks of the Carolingian dynasty. Most Norman knights remained poor and land-hungry, and by 1066 Normandy had been exporting fighting horsemen for more than a generation.

Many Normans of Italy, France and England eventually served as avid Crusaders under the Italo-Norman prince Bohemund I and the Anglo-Norman king Richard the Lion-Heart.

Duchy of Normandy between 911 and 1050. In blue the areas of intense Norse settlement.

 

Italy

The early Norman castle at Adrano.

Opportunistic bands of Normans successfully established a foothold in southern Italy. Probably as the result of returning pilgrims’ stories, the Normans entered southern Italy as warriors in 1017 at the latest. In 999, according to Amatus of Montecassino, Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem called in at the port of Salerno when a Saracen attack occurred. The Normans fought so valiantly that Prince Guaimar III begged them to stay, but they refused and instead offered to tell others back home of the Prince’s request. William of Apulia tells that, in 1016, Norman pilgrims to the shrine of the Archangel Michael at Monte Gargano were met by Melus of Bari, a Lombard nobleman and rebel, who persuaded them to return with more warriors to help throw off the Byzantine rule, which they did.

The two most prominent Norman families to arrive in the Mediterranean were descendants of Tancred of Hauteville and the Drengot family. A group of Normans with at least five brothers from the Drengot family fought the Byzantines in Apulia under the command of Melo di Bari.

Between 1016 and 1024, in a fragmented political context, the County of Ariano was founded by another group of Norman knights headed by Gilbert Buatère and hired by Melo di Bari. Defeated at Canne, Melo di Bari escaped to Bamberg, Germany, where he died in 1022. The County, which replaced the pre-existing chamberlainship, was considered to be the first political body established by the Normans in the South of Italy. Then Rainulf Drengot, from the same family, received the county of Aversa from Duke Sergius IV of Naples in 1030.

The Hauteville family achieved princely rank by proclaiming Prince Guaimar IV of Salerno “Duke of Apulia and Calabria”. He promptly awarded their elected leader, William Iron Arm, with the title of count in his capital of Melfi. The Drengot family thereafter attained the principality of Capua, and Emperor Henry III legally ennobled the Hauteville leader, Drogo, as “dux et magister Italiae comesque Normannorum totius Apuliae et Calabriae” (“Duke and Master of Italy and Count of the Normans of all Apulia and Calabria“) in 1047.

From these bases, the Normans eventually captured Sicily and Malta from the Saracens, under the leadership of the famous Robert Guiscard, a Hauteville, and his younger brother Roger the Great Count. Roger’s son, Roger II of Sicily, was crowned king in 1130 (exactly one century after Rainulf was “crowned” count) by Antipope Anacletus II. The Kingdom of Sicily lasted until 1194, when it was transferred to the House of Hohenstaufen through marriage. The Normans left their legacy in many castles, such as William Iron Arm‘s citadel at Squillace, and cathedrals, such as Roger II’s Cappella Palatina at Palermo, which dot the landscape and give a distinct architectural flavor to accompany its unique history.

Institutionally, the Normans combined the administrative machinery of the Byzantines, Arabs, and Lombards with their own conceptions of feudal law and order to forge a unique government. Under this state, there was great religious freedom, and alongside the Norman nobles existed a meritocratic bureaucracy of Jews, Muslims and Christians, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

The Kingdom of Sicily thus became characterized by Norman, Byzantine, Greek, Arab, Lombard and “native” Sicilian populations living in harmony, and its Norman rulers fostered plans of establishing an empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt as well as the crusader states in the Levant.

One of the great geographical treatises of the Middle Ages, the “Tabula Rogeriana“, was written by the Andalusian al-Idrisi for King Roger II of Sicily, and entitled “Kitab Rudjdjar” (“The Book of Roger“).

Byzantium

Soon after the Normans began to enter Italy, they entered the Byzantine Empire and then Armenia, fighting against the Pechenegs, the Bulgars, and especially the Seljuk Turks. Norman mercenaries were first encouraged to come to the south by the Lombards to act against the Byzantines, but they soon fought in Byzantine service in Sicily. They were prominent alongside Varangian and Lombard contingents in the Sicilian campaign of George Maniaces in 1038–40.

Varangian Guards at court. Credit: Osprey Publications.

There is debate whether the Normans in Greek service actually were from Norman Italy, and it now seems likely only a few came from there. It is also unknown how many of the “Franks”, as the Byzantines called them, were Normans and not other Frenchmen.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking and Norman territories in the north and West of Europe.

One of the first Norman mercenaries to serve as a Byzantine general was Hervé in the 1050s. By then, however, there were already Norman mercenaries serving as far away as Trebizond and Georgia. They were based at Malatya and Edessa, under the Byzantine duke of Antioch, Isaac Komnenos. In the 1060s, Robert Crispin led the Normans of Edessa against the Turks. Roussel de Bailleul even tried to carve out an independent state in Asia Minor with support from the local population, but he was stopped by the Byzantine general Alexius Komnenos.

Some Normans joined Turkish forces to aid in the destruction of the Armenian vassal-states of Sassoun and Taron in far eastern Anatolia. Later, many took up service with the Armenian state further south in Cilicia and the Taurus Mountains. A Norman named Oursel led a force of “Franks” into the upper Euphrates valley in northern Syria. From 1073 to 1074, 8,000 of the 20,000 troops of the Armenian general Philaretus Brachamius were Normans—formerly of Oursel—led by Raimbaud. They even lent their ethnicity to the name of their castle: Afranji, meaning “Franks”. The known trade between Amalfi and Antioch and between Bari and Tarsus may be related to the presence of Italo-Normans in those cities while Amalfi and Bari were under Norman rule in Italy.

Norman expansion by 1130.

Several families of Byzantine Greece were of Norman mercenary origin during the period of the Comnenian Restoration, when Byzantine emperors were seeking out western European warriors. The Raoulii were descended from an Italo-Norman named Raoul, the Petraliphae were descended from a Pierre d’Aulps, and that group of Albanian clans known as the Maniakates were descended from Normans who served under George Maniaces in the Sicilian expedition of 1038.

Robert Guiscard, another Norman adventurer previously elevated to the dignity of count of Apulia as the result of his military successes, ultimately drove the Byzantines out of southern Italy. Having obtained the consent of pope Gregory VII and acting as his vassal, Robert continued his campaign conquering the Balkan peninsula as a foothold for western feudal lords and the Catholic Church.

Pope Gregory VII.

After allying himself with Croatia and the Catholic cities of Dalmatia, in 1081 he led an army of 30,000 men in 300 ships landing on the southern shores of Albania, capturing Valona, Kanina, Jericho (Orikumi), and reaching Butrint after numerous pillages. They joined the fleet that had previously conquered Corfu and attacked Dyrrachium from land and sea, devastating everything along the way.

Under these harsh circumstances, the locals accepted the call of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to join forces with the Byzantines against the Normans. The Albanian forces could not take part in the ensuing battle because it had started before their arrival. Immediately before the battle, the Venetian fleet had secured a victory in the coast surrounding the city. Forced to retreat, Alexius ceded the city of Dyrrachium to the Count of the Tent (or Byzantine provincial administrators) mobilizing from Arbanon (i.e., ἐξ Ἀρβάνων ὁρμωμένω Κομισκόρτη; the term Κομισκόρτη is short for κόμης της κόρτης meaning “Count of the Tent”).

The city’s garrison resisted until February 1082, when Dyrrachium was betrayed to the Normans by the Venetian and Amalfitan merchants who had settled there. The Normans were now free to penetrate into the hinterland; they took Ioannina and some minor cities in southwestern Macedonia and Thessaly before appearing at the gates of Thessalonica. Dissension among the high ranks coerced the Normans to retreat to Italy. They lost Dyrrachium, Valona, and Butrint in 1085, after the death of Robert.

A few years after the First Crusade, in 1107, the Normans under the command of Bohemond, Robert’s son, landed in Valona and besieged Dyrrachium using the most sophisticated military equipment of the time, but to no avail. Meanwhile, they occupied Petrela, the citadel of Mili at the banks of the river Deabolis, Gllavenica (Ballsh), Kanina and Jericho. This time, the Albanians sided with the Normans, dissatisfied by the heavy taxes the Byzantines had imposed upon them. With their help, the Normans secured the Arbanon passes and opened their way to Dibra. The lack of supplies, disease and Byzantine resistance forced Bohemond to retreat from his campaign and sign a peace treaty with the Byzantines in the city of Deabolis.

The further decline of Byzantine state-of-affairs paved the road to a third attack in 1185, when a large Norman army invaded Dyrrachium, owing to the betrayal of high Byzantine officials. Some time later, Dyrrachium—one of the most important naval bases of the Adriatic—fell again to Byzantine hands.

England

The Norman Conquest of England 1066.

The Normans were in contact with England from an early date. Not only were their original Viking brethren still ravaging the English coasts, they occupied most of the important ports opposite England across the English Channel. This relationship eventually produced closer ties of blood through the marriage of Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, and King Ethelred II of England. Because of this, Ethelred fled to Normandy in 1013, when he was forced from his kingdom by Sweyn Forkbeard. His stay in Normandy (until 1016) influenced him and his sons by Emma, who stayed in Normandy after Cnut the Great‘s conquest of the isle.

Norman cavalry at the Battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When Edward the Confessor finally returned from his father’s refuge in 1041, at the invitation of his half-brother Harthacnut, he brought with him a Norman-educated mind. He also brought many Norman counsellors and fighters, some of whom established an English cavalry force.

This concept never really took root, but it is a typical example of Edward’s attitude. He appointed Robert of Jumièges archbishop of Canterbury and made Ralph the Timid earl of Hereford. He invited his brother-in-law Eustace II, Count of Boulogne to his court in 1051, an event that resulted in the greatest of early conflicts between Saxon and Norman and ultimately resulted in the exile of Earl Godwin of Wessex.

On 14 October 1066, William the Conqueror gained a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, which led to the conquest of England three years later; this can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry (a linen, embroidered cloth).

Siege of a motte-and-bailey castle from the Bayeux Tapestry.

The invading Normans and their descendants replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England. The nobility of England were part of a single Norman culture and many had lands on both sides of the channel. Early Norman kings of England, as Dukes of Normandy, owed homage to the King of France for their land on the continent. They considered England to be their most important holding (it brought with it the title of King—an important status symbol).

An Anglo-Saxon Warrior in the late Anglo-Saxon era.

Eventually, the Normans merged with the natives, combining languages and traditions, so much so that Marjorie Chibnall says “writers still referred to Normans and English; but the terms no longer meant the same as in the immediate aftermath of 1066.” In the course of the Hundred Years’ War, the Norman aristocracy often identified themselves as English.

A Norman Warrior in the 11th Century.

The Anglo-Norman language became distinct from the Latin language, something that was the subject of some humour by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Anglo-Norman language was eventually absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon language of their subjects (see Old English) and influenced it, helping (along with the Norse language of the earlier Anglo-Norse settlers and the Latin used by the church) in the development of Middle English. It in turn evolved into Modern English.

Ireland

The Normans had a profound effect on Irish culture and history after their invasion at Bannow Bay in 1169. Initially, the Normans maintained a distinct culture and ethnicity.

Yet, with time, they came to be subsumed into Irish culture to the point that it has been said that they became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

Norman keep in Trim, County Meath.

The Normans settled mostly in an area in the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and also built many fine castles and settlements, including Trim Castle and Dublin Castle. Both cultures intermixed, borrowing from each other’s language, culture and outlook. Norman descendants today can be recognised by their surnames.

Names such as French, (De) Roche, Devereux, D’Arcy, Treacy and Lacy are particularly common in the southeast of Ireland, especially in the southern part of County Wexford, where the first Norman settlements were established. Other Norman names, such as Furlong, predominate there. Another common Norman-Irish name was Morell (Murrell), derived from the French Norman name Morel.

Names beginning with Fitz (from the Norman for son) indicate Norman ancestry. These included Fitzgerald, FitzGibbons (Gibbons) dynasty, Fitzmaurice. Families bearing such surnames as Barry (de Barra) and De Búrca (Burke) are also of Norman extraction.

Scotland

One of the claimants of the English throne opposing William the Conqueror, Edgar Atheling, eventually fled to Scotland. King Malcolm III of Scotland married Edgar’s sister Margaret, and came into opposition to William who had already disputed Scotland’s southern borders.

William invaded Scotland in 1072, riding as far as Abernethy where he met up with his fleet of ships. Malcolm submitted, paid homage to William and surrendered his son Duncan as a hostage, beginning a series of arguments as to whether the Scottish Crown owed allegiance to the King of England.

Normans went into Scotland, building castles and founding noble families that would provide some future kings, such as Robert the Bruce, as well as founding a considerable number of the Scottish clans. King David I of Scotland, whose elder brother Alexander I had married Sybilla of Normandy, was instrumental in introducing Normans and Norman culture to Scotland, part of the process some scholars call the “Davidian Revolution”.

A computer genrated image of Robert the Bruce.

Having spent time at the court of Henry I of England (married to David’s sister Maud of Scotland), and needing them to wrestle the kingdom from his half-brother Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair, David had to reward many with lands.

The process was continued under David’s successors, most intensely of all under William the Lion. The Norman-derived feudal system was applied in varying degrees to most of Scotland. Scottish families of the names Bruce, Gray, Ramsay, Fraser, Ogilvie, Montgomery, Sinclair, Pollock, Burnard, Douglas and Gordon to name but a few, and including the later royal House of Stewart, can all be traced back to Norman ancestry.

Wales

Even before the Norman Conquest of England, the Normans had come into contact with Wales. Edward the Confessor had set up the aforementioned Ralph as earl of Hereford and charged him with defending the Marches and warring with the Welsh. In these original ventures, the Normans failed to make any headway into Wales.

Subsequent to the Conquest, however, the Marches came completely under the dominance of William’s most trusted Norman barons, including Bernard de Neufmarché, Roger of Montgomery in Shropshire and Hugh Lupus in Cheshire. These Normans began a long period of slow conquest during which almost all of Wales was at some point subject to Norman interference. Norman words, such as baron (barwn), first entered Welsh at that time.

On Crusade

The legendary religious zeal of the Normans was exercised in religious wars long before the First Crusade carved out a Norman principality in Antioch. They were major foreign participants in the Reconquista in Iberia. In 1018, Roger de Tosny travelled to the Iberian Peninsula to carve out a state for himself from Moorish lands, but failed. In 1064, during the War of Barbastro, William of Montreuil led the papal army and took a huge booty.

First Crusade 1095-1101.

In 1096, Crusaders passing by the siege of Amalfi were joined by Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred with an army of Italo-Normans. Bohemond was the de facto leader of the Crusade during its passage through Asia Minor. After the successful Siege of Antioch in 1097, Bohemond began carving out an independent principality around that city. Tancred was instrumental in the conquest of Jerusalem and he worked for the expansion of the Crusader kingdom in Transjordan and the region of Galilee.

Anglo-Norman conquest of Cyprus

The conquest of Cyprus by the Anglo-Norman forces of the Third Crusade opened a new chapter in the history of the island, which would be under Western European domination for the following 380 years. Although not part of a planned operation, the conquest had much more permanent results than initially expected.

Illuminated manuscript showing king Richard the Lion-hearted authorizing Guy de Lusignan to take Cyprus.

In April 1191, Richard the Lion-hearted left Messina with a large fleet in order to reach Acre. But a storm dispersed the fleet. After some searching, it was discovered that the boat carrying his sister and his fiancée Berengaria was anchored on the south coast of Cyprus, together with the wrecks of several other ships, including the treasure ship. Survivors of the wrecks had been taken prisoner by the island’s despot Isaac Komnenos.

On 1 May 1191, Richard’s fleet arrived in the port of Limassol on Cyprus. He ordered Isaac to release the prisoners and the treasure. Isaac refused, so Richard landed his troops and took Limassol.

Various princes of the Holy Land arrived in Limassol at the same time, in particular Guy de Lusignan. All declared their support for Richard provided that he support Guy against his rival Conrad of Montferrat. The local barons abandoned Isaac, who considered making peace with Richard, joining him on the crusade, and offering his daughter in marriage to the person named by Richard.

Castle of Limassol, near which Richard’s wedding with Berengaria of Navarre is said to have taken place.

 

But Isaac changed his mind and tried to escape. Richard then proceeded to conquer the whole island, his troops being led by Guy de Lusignan. Isaac surrendered and was confined with silver chains, because Richard had promised that he would not place him in irons.

By 1 June, Richard had conquered the whole island. His exploit was well publicized and contributed to his reputation; he also derived significant financial gains from the conquest of the island.

Richard left for Acre on 5 June, with his allies. Before his departure, he named two of his Norman generals, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham, as governors of Cyprus.

While in Limassol, Richard the Lion-Heart married Berengaria of Navarre, first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. The wedding was held on 12 May 1191 at the Chapel of St. George and it was attended by Richard’s sister Joan, whom he had brought from Sicily.

The marriage was celebrated with great pomp and splendor. Among other grand ceremonies was a double coronation: Richard caused himself to be crowned King of Cyprus, and Berengaria Queen of England and Queen of Cyprus as well.

The rapid Anglo-Norman conquest proved more important than it seemed. The island occupied a key strategic position on the maritime lanes to the Holy Land, whose occupation by the Christians could not continue without support from the sea.

Shortly after the conquest, Cyprus was sold to the Knights Templar and it was subsequently acquired, in 1192, by Guy de Lusignan and became a stable feudal kingdom. It was only in 1489 that the Venetians acquired full control of the island, which remained a Christian stronghold until the fall of Famagusta in 1571.

Romanticized image of the Knights Templar.

Canary Islands

Between 1402 and 1405, the expedition led by the Norman noble Jean de Bethencourt and the Poitevine Gadifer de la Salle conquered the Canarian islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Their troops were gathered in Normandy, Gascony and were later reinforced by Castilian colonists.

Bethencourt took the title of King of the Canary Islands, as vassal to Henry III of Castile. In 1418, Jean’s nephew Maciot de Bethencourt sold the rights to the islands to Enrique Pérez de Guzmán, 2nd Count de Niebla.

Norman expeditionary ship depicted in the chronicle Le Canarien (1490).

Norman Culture

Norman Law

The customary law of Normandy was developed between the 10th and 13th centuries and survives today through the legal systems of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Norman customary law was transcribed in two customaries in Latin by two judges for use by them and their colleagues: These are the Très ancien coutumier (Very ancient customary), authored between 1200 and 1245; and the Grand coutumier de Normandie (Great customary of Normandy, originally Summa de legibus Normanniae in curia laïcali), authored between 1235 and 1245.

Architecture

Norman architecture typically stands out as a new stage in the architectural history of the regions they subdued. They spread a unique Romanesque idiom to England, Italy and Ireland, and the encastellation of these regions with keeps in their north French style fundamentally altered the military landscape. Their style was characterised by rounded arches, particularly over windows and doorways, and massive proportions.

A quintessential Norman keep: the White Tower in London.

In England, the period of Norman architecture immediately succeeds that of the Anglo-Saxon and precedes the Early Gothic. In southern Italy, the Normans incorporated elements of Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine building techniques into their own, initiating a unique style known as Norman-Arab architecture within the Kingdom of Sicily.

Visual Arts

In the visual arts, the Normans did not have the rich and distinctive traditions of the cultures they conquered. However, in the early 11th century the dukes began a programme of church reform, encouraging the Cluniac reform of monasteries and patronising intellectual pursuits, especially the proliferation of scriptoria and the reconstitution of a compilation of lost illuminated manuscripts.

The church was utilised by the dukes as a unifying force for their disparate duchy. The chief monasteries taking part in this “renaissance” of Norman art and scholarship were Mont-Saint-Michel, Fécamp, Jumièges, Bec, Saint-Ouen, Saint-Evroul, and Saint-Wandrille. These centres were in contact with the so-called “Winchester school”, which channeled a pure Carolingian artistic tradition to Normandy.

In the final decade of the 11th and first of the 12th century, Normandy experienced a golden age of illustrated manuscripts, but it was brief and the major scriptoria of Normandy ceased to function after the midpoint of the century.

An illuminated manuscript from Saint-Evroul depicting King David on the lyre (or harp) in the middle of the back of the initial ‘B’.

The French Wars of Religion in the 16th century and the French Revolution in the 18th successively destroyed much of what existed in the way of the architectural and artistic remnant of this Norman creativity. The former, with their violence, caused the wanton destruction of many Norman edifices; the latter, with its assault on religion, caused the purposeful destruction of religious objects of any type, and its destabilisation of society resulted in rampant pillaging.

By far the most famous work of Norman art is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not a tapestry but a work of embroidery. It was commissioned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and first Earl of Kent, employing natives from Kent who were learned in the Nordic traditions imported in the previous half century by the Danish Vikings.

In Britain, Norman art primarily survives as stonework or metalwork, such as capitals and baptismal fonts. In southern Italy, however, Norman artwork survives plentifully in forms strongly influenced by its Greek, Lombard, and Arab forebears. Of the royal regalia preserved in Palermo, the crown is Byzantine in style and the coronation cloak is of Arab craftsmanship with Arabic inscriptions.

Many churches preserve sculptured fonts, capitals, and more importantly mosaics, which were common in Norman Italy and drew heavily on the Greek heritage. Lombard Salerno was a centre of ivorywork in the 11th century and this continued under Norman domination.

Finally should be noted the intercourse between French Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land who brought with them French artefacts with which to gift the churches at which they stopped in southern Italy amongst their Norman cousins. For this reason many south Italian churches preserve works from France alongside their native pieces.

A bronze lion sculpture attributed to an Italo-Norman artist. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Norman Rulers

See Also

References

  • Bates, David (2013). The Normans and Empire. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-967441-1.
  • Chibnall, Marjorie (2000). The Normans. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-4965-5.
  • Rowley, Trevor, ed. (2000). The Normans. The History Press.

 

 

The Battle of Buttington

The Battle of Buttington was fought, in 893, between a Viking army and an alliance of Anglo-Saxons and Welsh.

The annals, for 893, reported that a large Viking army had landed in the Lympne Estuary, Kent and a smaller force had landed in the Thames estuary under the command of Danish king Hastein. These were reinforced by ships from the settled Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria, some of this contingent sailed round the coast to besiege a fortified place (known as a burh) and Exeter, both in Devon. The English king Alfred the Great, on hearing of Exeter’s demise led all his mounted men to relieve the city. He left his Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and ealdormen Æthelhelm, Æthelnoth, and others in charge of defending various towns and cities from the rest of the Viking army.

The king’s thegns managed to assemble a great army consisting of both Saxons and Welsh. The combined army laid siege to the Vikings who had built a fortification at Buttington. After several weeks the starving Vikings broke out of their fortification only to be beaten by the combined English and Welsh army with many of the Vikings being put to flight.

The Kingdom of Wessex.

Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century. The raiding continued on and off until the 860s, when instead of raiding the Viking changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Great Heathen Army“. Alfred defeated the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington in 878. A treaty followed whereby Alfred ceded an enlarged East Anglia to the Danes.

After Edington, Alfred reorganised the defences of Wessex, he built a navy and a standing army. He also built a series of fortified towns, known as burhs that ringed Wessex. To maintain the burhs, and the standing army, he set up a taxation system known as the Burghal Hidage. Viking raids still continued but his defences made it difficult for the Vikings to make progress. As the political system in Francia (part of modern day France) was in turmoil the Vikings concentrated their efforts there as the raiding was more profitable.

By late 892 the leadership in Francia had become more stable and the Vikings were finding it difficult to make progress there too, so they again attempted a conquest of England. In 893 two hundred and fifty ships landed an army in the Lympne Estuary in Kent where they built a fortification at Appledore. A smaller force of eighty ships under Hastein, landed in the Thames estuary before entrenching themselves at Milton, also in Kent.

The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred took up a position from which he could observe both of the Viking armies. The Vikings were further reinforced with 240 ships, that were provided by the Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria who had settled there after the wars of the 860s and 870s. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that they did it “contrary to [their] pledges.”

At some point Alfred’s army captured Hastein’s family. The annals report that Alfred was in talks with Hastein, but do not say why. Horspool speculates that it may well be to do with Hastein’s family, however while the talks were going on, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on Hertfordshire’s River Colne, where they were blockaded and were ultimately forced to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein’s army at Shoebury.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed burh on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and when he arrived at Exeter, the Danes took to their ships. The siege of Exeter was lifted but the fate of the unnamed North Devon burh is not recorded.

Meanwhile, the force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by the Western army that consisted of West Saxons, Mercians and some Welsh, it was led by three eldermen namely Æthelred the Lord of the Mercians, Æthelhelm the Ealdorman of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth the Ealdorman of Somerset.

The chronicle says that they “were drawn from every burh east of the Parret; both west and east of Selwood, also north of the Thames and west of the Severn as well as some part of the Welsh people”. Æthelred although a Mercian was married to Alfred’s daughter and thus as his son in law was able to cross the borders of Wessex in pursuit of Vikings. The combined Anglo-Saxon and Welsh army forced the Vikings to the northwest, where they were finally overtaken and besieged at Buttington.

Siege and battle

Battle of Buttington – A map of places named in the Burghal Hidage.

The western English army came up the River Severn, and besieged all sides of the fortification (at Buttington) where the Vikings had taken refuge. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that “after many weeks had passed, some of the heathen [Vikings] died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians [English] were masters of the place of death. In that battle the most noble Ordheah and many of the king’s thegns were killed.”

Depiction of a typical Viking fortified town.

The annals say that the Vikings came up the Severn from the Thames making the most likely candidate for the location of the battle as present-day Buttington, Welshpool in the county of Powys, Wales. Another place that has been suggested is Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, where it flows into the Severn but this is seen as less likely.

The Vikings who had taken to their ships after Alfred’s arrival, at Exeter, sailed along the south coast and attempted to raid Chichester, a burh according to the Burghal Hidage, manned by 1500 men. The chronicle says that the citizens “put many [Vikings] to flight and killed hundreds of them and captured some of their ships”.

According to the Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard writing nearly a hundred years later, “Hastein made a rush with a large force from Benfleet, and ravaged savagely through all the lands of the Mercians, until he and his men reached the borders of the Welsh; the army stationed then in the east of the country gave them support, and the Northumbrian one similarly. The famous Ealdorman Æthelhelm made open preparation with a cavalry force, and gave pursuit together with the western English army under the generalship of Æthelnoth. And King Æthelred of the Mercians was afterwards present with them, being at hand with a large army.”

References

 

 

 

Harald Fairhair’s campaign in Götaland

Harald Fairhair statue, in Haugesund, Norway.

Harald Fairhair’s campaign in Götaland was an attack that took place in the 870s.

Snorri Sturluson writes in Harald Fairhair’s saga that Harald Fairhair disputed the Swedish king Eric Eymundsson‘s hegemony in what is today southern Norway.

Götaland (Swedish: ˈjøːtaland, also Gothia, Gothland, Gothenland or Gautland) is one of three lands of Sweden and comprises ten provinces. Geographically it is located in the south of Sweden, bounded to the north by Svealand, with the deep woods of Tiveden, Tylöskog and Kolmården marking the border.

He attacked and forced Viken to accept his rule and then plundered and burnt in Rånrike. Because of this the Norwegian skald Þorbjörn hornklofi boasted that the Swedes stayed indoors whereas the Norwegians were out on the sea.

Úti vill jól drekka,
ef skal einn ráða,
fylkir framlyndi,
ok Freys leik heyja,
Ungr leiddisk eldvelli
ok inni at sitja,
varma dyngju
eða vöttu dúnsfulla.
The Norseman’s king is on the sea,
Tho’ bitter wintry cold it be.
On the wild waves his Yule keeps he.
When our brisk king can get his way,
He’ll no more by the fireside stay
Than the young sun; he makes us play
The game of the bright sun-god Frey.
But the soft Swede loves well the fire
The well-stuffed couch, the doway glove,
And from the hearth-seat will not move.

The Gauts (Geats) did not accept this and assembled their forces. In the spring, they put stakes in Göta älv to stop Harald’s ships. Harald Fairhair put his ships alongside the stakes and plundered and burnt everything he could reach. The Norwegian skald said of this:

Grennir þröng at gunni
gunnmás fyrir haf sunnan,
sá var gramr, ok gumnum,
geðvörðr, und sik jörðu.
Ok hjálmtamiðr hilmir
hólmreyðar lét ólman
lindihjört fyrir landi
lundprúðr við stik bundinn.
The king who finds a dainty feast,
For battle-bird and prowling beast,
Has won in war the southern land
That lies along the ocean’s strand.
The leader of the helmets, he
Who leads his ships o’er the dark sea,
Harald, whose high-rigged masts appear
Like antlered fronts of the wild deer,
Has laid his ships close alongside
Of the foe’s piles with daring pride.
Longships or dragonships (drakushiffen), Drakkar.

The Geats arrived to the ships with a great army to fight king Harald, but they lost after great losses.

Ríks, þreifsk reiddra öxa
rymr, knáttu spjör glymja,
svartskygð bitu seggi
sverð, þjóðkonungs ferðar,
Þá er, hugfyldra hölda,
hlaut andskoti Gauta,
hár var söngr um svírum,
sigr, flugbeiddra vigra.
Whistles the battle-axe in its swing
O’er head the whizzing javelins sing,
Helmet and shield and hauberk ring;
The air-song of the lance is loud,
The arrows pipe in darkening cloud;
Through helm and mail the foemen feel
The blue edge of our king’s good steel
Who can withstand our gallant king?
The Gautland men their flight must wing.
Viking Short Bearded Battle Axe.

Then the Norwegians travelled far and wide in Götaland, winning most of the battles. In one of the battles, the Geatish commander Hrani the Geat fell. Harald then proclaimed himself the ruler of all land north of Göta älv and north and west of lake Vänern and placed Guttorm Haraldsson to defend the region with a large force.

Viking Warriors shore assault.

References

Tears of Blood – The Last of the Viking Whalers

Pilot Whales Slaughtered.

Norwegians caught whales off the coast of Tromsø as early as the 9th or 10th century. Vikings from Norway also introduced whaling methods for driving small cetaceans, like pilot whales, into fjords in Iceland. The Norse sagas, and other ancient documents, provide few details on Norwegian whaling. The sagas recount some disputes between families over whale carcasses but do not describe any organized whale fishery in Norway.

Spear-drift whaling was practiced in the North Atlantic as early as the 12th century. In open boats, hunters would strike a whale, using a marked spear, with the intent of later locating the beached carcass to claim a rightful share.

The Lofoten Islands in the far north of Norway have always been a world apart, a peninsula-like chain of wild, craggy shards jutting into the Norwegian Sea inside the Arctic Circle. In Norse folklore Lofoten’s long spine of mountains was said to be the haunt of trolls and valkyries (maidens who conducted slain warriors to Valhalla), and its fjords provided dramatic backdrops to some of the grandest of the Viking sagas.

A small wooden boat putters across the glassy expanse of the Vestfjorden, its wake rippling the mirror-perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains. The boat’s skipper, 69-year-old Jan Bjørn Kristiansen, has been sailing these waters for more than 50 years, the past 40 of them in the same weather-beaten vessel, also called Jan Bjørn. The name is fitting, for man and boat have much in common: both are tough, seasoned whalers, quintessentially Norwegian – stubborn, practical, strongly built – and both bear the scars of much hard work at sea.

Over the course of the summer whaling season, Kristiansen will harpoon perhaps 30 or 40 minke whales, butcher their carcasses on deck, and sell the meat dockside to seafood merchants along the coast. Despite there being an international moratorium on commercial whaling, Norwegians such as Kristiansen persist in hunting minke whales – for practical reasons they do so only in Norway’s domestic waters.

Model of a Viking Whaleboat.

In his five decades as a whaler, Kristiansen has weathered many a storm, both at sea and on land. He lived through the dangerous years of the eco-wars, when activists sabotaged and sank a number of Lofoten whaling boats. And he survived a horrific shipboard accident a few years ago when his harpoon cannon backfired, nearly killing him and leaving him with a mangled left hand. He was back hunting whales the following season.

But as he steers towards an old whaling station on this calm midsummer morning, Kristiansen sees not only his own long career drawing to a close, but also an entire way of life. His eponymous boat is one of only 20 that came out to hunt this season – a far cry from the nearly 200 whalers that worked northern Norway’s coastal waters in the late 1950s, when Kristiansen was getting his first taste of whaling as a deckhand.

It isn’t a scarcity of whales that is bringing down the curtain, or even the complicated politics of whaling. It is something far more prosaic and inexorable: Norwegian children, even those who grow up in the seafaring stronghold of Lofoten, simply do not want to become whalers any more. Nor do they want to brave storm-tossed winter seas to net fortunes in cod, as their forebears have done for centuries. Instead, they aspire to safer, salaried jobs in distant cities or with the offshore oil industry, and they have been leaving their island communities in droves.

Present day Norwegian Commercial Whalers.

There is irony in this turn of events. For most of its history, Lofoten exerted a gravitational pull on the young and ambitious. In his 1921 coming-of-age classic The Last of the Vikings, the Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer described the island chain as ‘a land in the Arctic Ocean that all the boys along the coast dreamt of visiting some day, a land where exploits were performed, fortunes were made, and where fishermen sailed in a race with Death.

The Lofoten islands, off the west coast of Norway.

For a few gold-rush months each year, millions of Atlantic cod migrate south from the Barents Sea to spawn among the reefs and shoals of Lofoten. Fishermen have been flocking here to cash in on the bonanza for more than 1,000 years. In addition to straddling one of the world’s richest fisheries, these islands are also blessed with a near-perfect climate for drying fish in the open air to make stockfish. This durable, highly nutritious cod jerky sustained the Vikings on their long voyages and became Norway’s most lucrative export in the Middle Ages.

The immense wealth of the dried-cod trade, and the possibility that jackpot riches might await any man with a boat, courage and a bit of luck, lured fortune seekers by the thousands. Grainy photographs from the 1930s show Lofoten’s harbours jammed with boats. Nowadays factory trawlers from the big seafood companies in the south do the work of many boats, netting and processing a high percentage of the catch. Small family-owned boats that brought their catches to local merchants and kept the Lofoten villages alive have now become endangered species.

The cod are still there, still in the millions, still a lucrative business. But as the older fishermen sell out and retire, seafood companies snap up their quotas for big money. Even the fishermen’s sons who want to carry on the family business may find their paths blocked by the cost of buying a boat and a quota – typically £500,000.

Atlantic Cod.

‘Banks don’t want to lend you that kind of money when you’re my age,’ says 22-year-old Odd Helge Isaksen, who nevertheless is determined to follow tradition and become a fisher­man. A resident of Røst, a close-knit island community at the heart of the Lofoten cod banks, Isaksen is making his way into the business the hard way, in an open boat hauling in cod one by one on handlines, in much the way his Viking forebears did 1,000 years ago. Such dedication is rare. In the past 10 years only Isaksen and one other young man on Røst have decided to pursue fishing as a career.

‘I’m one of the new Vikings,’ he jokes one bitterly cold evening as he motors into the harbour after a long day at sea. Coming in hours after the rest of the fleet returned, his boat is laden to the gunwales with hundreds of pounds of cod. Black Sabbath is blaring on his iPod as he steers his boat with one hand and updates his Facebook account on his mobile phone with the other.

‘My friends from school think it’s kind of funny that I decided to become a fisherman,’ Isaksen says. ‘But they sure are impressed with the money I’m making.’

Compared with Lofoten’s cod industry and its 1,000-year history, commercial whaling was a latecomer. ‘Whaling from boats was unknown in my grandfather’s day,’ recalls Oddvar Berntsen, now 83 and the last surviving resident of his fishing village. ‘The boats were just too small. Occasionally the villagers might kill a whale from shore if it came in close, but this was opportunistic, done for food.’

Norwegian workers butchering a Whale.

When commercial whaling finally arrived in Norway, it did so with a bang – literally. In the 1860s a Norwegian shipping and whaling magnate named Svend Foyn devised the grenade-tipped harpoon. It was a game-changer, thrusting Norway to the fore of the world’s whaling nations.

Norway’s fishermen, however, blamed the new industry for poor catches during the 1870s, since whales were believed to drive schools of fish closer to shore, where fishermen in small boats could catch them. After a series of bitter disputes between fishermen and whalers, Norway became the first nation to ban whaling in its territorial waters, declaring a 10-year moratorium in 1904. From then on, Norway’s commercial whalers sought their quarry in the wider North Atlantic and in the rich waters of the Antarctic.

At about the same time, the Lofoten fishing fleet began shifting from sail to engine. With their newfound mobility, some of the fishermen took up whaling as an additional means of putting food on the table – no small consideration later on during the Great Depression, when both cash and meat were scarce. The banner year for Lofoten’s whalers came in 1958, when 192 boats caught 4,741 minke whales. But change was already in the wind. By 1973, the year when Kristiansen bought his boat, the number of whalers had dropped by nearly half, and numbers have continued falling ever since.

The reasons are more economic and social than ecological. The cost of hunting whales is high, and returns are low. Although fashionable restaurants in Oslo still offer whale steak, many Norwegian grocery shoppers regard the rich red meat as Depression-era food, or as un-ecofriendly, or perhaps worse still, as a novelty cuisine for tourists. And because of a variety of factors – including restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – there is little export market. So although Norway’s government sets an annual quota of 1,286 minke whales, in practice whalers take far fewer (only 533 in 2011).

Even some of Norway’s green groups, staunchly opposed to whaling on principle, are content these days to maintain a death watch for a way of life they expect to disappear within a generation. They can afford to wait it out. With the North Atlantic minke whale population estimated at a healthy 130,000 animals, Norway’s modest annual catch is considered highly sustainable. It is the whalers who are heading for extinction.

The demise of whaling and the consolidation of the cod industry are changing the face of Lofoten, and nowhere is that change more glaring than at Skrova. A generation ago this was a thriving fishing port with no fewer than eight factories working overtime to process cod, herring and other fish. Fishing and whaling were booming then, and Skrova was the place to be. By the early 1980s the tiny community was deemed to have the highest percentage of millionaires in all of Norway.

Wealthy factory owners and fishermen liked to take their ease on a dockside bench, which bemused locals christened the millionærbænken, or millionaires’ bench. The old bench is still there, weathered and worn, but most of the millionaires who sat on it were put out of business long ago by the seafood companies down south and their fleets of factory ships. All but one of Skrova’s fish factories have closed, most recently in 2000. With the loss of jobs, the island’s full-time population has dwindled to about 150.

Only Ellingsen, an old family-run seafood company, remains in business. It is still prosperous, nowadays turning out 12,000 tons a year of its own locally farmed salmon and, for a few weeks each summer, buying whale meat from the handful of whalers who still work these waters.

‘To be honest, whale meat isn’t really commercial for us any more,’ says 42-year-old Ulf Christian Ellingsen, the third generation of his family to run the company. ‘We continue to buy it mainly out of respect for tradition and our old roots. My grandfather started this business in 1947 primarily as a whale-meat buyer. We’d like to keep that going for as long as we can.’

Skrova’s most significant export these days is not salmon or whale but the precious cargo that leaves on the passenger ferry to Svolvær every autumn – a small clutch of schoolchildren who have outgrown the island’s tiny community school and are obliged to pack their bags and leave home to attend the regional high school. For most of them, this introduction into the larger world is the start of a whole new life, one that leads away from Skrova.

The Lofoten Islands.

The five teenagers who depart Skrova this autumn will be followed by two more next year and another three the year after. And with no youngsters entering school at the other end of the line, the island’s already critically small community school will shrink still further.

‘We need to get more young families moving in here,’ says Ellingsen, whose own daughter, Aurora, is among this autumn’s group of teenage émigrés moving to Svolvær to continue their education.

‘I’d like to come back and retire here some day when I’m old,’ says 17-year-old June Kristin Hauvik, whose mother has worked in the Ellingsen fish factory for 35 years. For now, though, June Kristin is following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, both of whom are leading successful urban lives, one a doctor, the other a lawyer, worlds away from the sleepy island where they grew up. On a bright autumn afternoon, June Kristin and the other departing teenagers board the ferry and set off into the future, past the old millionaires’ bench, out beyond the headlands and into the wide open waters, where everything seems possible.

  • This article first appeared in National Geographic Creative

References

  • Official Norwegian minke whaling: Norwegian Government environmental policy site explaining Minke whaling policy (English).
  • Mark Cioc, The Game of Conservation. International Treaties to protect the World’s Migratory Species (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009), Chapter 3 The Antarctic Whale Massacre, 104-147.
  • Kurk Dorsey, “National Sovereignty, the International Whaling Commission, and the Save the Whales Movement,” in Nation-States and the Global Environment. New Approaches to International Environmental History, Erika Marie Bsumek, David Kinkela and Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 43-61.
  • Kurk Dorsey, Whales and Nations. Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).
  • Charlotte Epstein, The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
  • Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Weltnaturschutz: Umweltdiplomatie in Völkerbund und Vereinten Nationen 1920-1950 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2011), Chapter 6 Der Reichtum der Meere, 171-245.
  • Frank Zelko, Make It a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Chapters 7-9, 161-231.

 

 

 

Pets and Livestock in the Viking Age

Norwegian Elkhound.

The Viking Age

Vikings (Old English: wicing—”pirate”, Danish and Bokmål: vikinger; Swedish and Nynorsk: vikingar; Icelandic: víkingar, from Old Norse víkingar), were Norse seafarers, mainly speaking the Old Norse language, who raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of northern, central, eastern and western Europe, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries. The term is also commonly extended in modern English and other vernaculars to the inhabitants of Viking home communities during what has become known as the Viking Age. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion constitutes an important element in the early medieval history of Scandinavia, Estonia, the British Isles, Ireland, France, Kievan Rus’ and Sicily.

Facilitated by advanced sailing and navigational skills, and characterised by the longship, Viking activities at times also extended into the Mediterranean littoral, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Following extended phases of (primarily sea- or river-borne) exploration, expansion and settlement, Viking (Norse) communities and polities were established in diverse areas of north-western Europe, European Russia, the North Atlantic islands and as far as the north-eastern coast of North America. This period of expansion witnessed the wider dissemination of Norse culture, while simultaneously introducing strong foreign cultural influences into Scandinavia itself, with profound developmental implications in both directions.

Popular, modern conceptions of the Vikings—the term frequently applied casually to their modern descendants and the inhabitants of modern Scandinavia—often strongly differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and historical sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages began to emerge in the 18th century; this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival.

Perceived views of the Vikings as alternatively violent, piratical heathens or as intrepid adventurers owe much to conflicting varieties of the modern Viking myth that had taken shape by the early 20th century. Current popular representations of the Vikings are typically based on cultural clichés and stereotypes, complicating modern appreciation of the Viking legacy. These representations are not always accurate – for example, there is no evidence that they wore horned helmets.

Pets Kept by Vikings

Vikings were said to keep pets for several purposes. Apart from the usual cats and dogs, there were several others kinds of animals whose existence was recorded by historians. These animals do not only act as companions but at the same time they were used as farm animals. A large number of animals were present during Vikings age. Some of the animals, owned by the Vikings as pet animals or farm animals were: Cats, Dogs, Hawks, Sheep, Horses, Cattle and Goats.

Cats

There is a great deal of historical and archaeological evidence showing that Vikings kept cats. Historical evidence suggests that not only were cats employed to deal with vermin, they were also valued as pets. Vikings were master mariners and spent a great deal of time at sea in Longships – either exploring, trading or raiding; rats were a constant problem and cats were employed to control their population.

Norwegian Forest Cat.

Cats had a religious significance during Viking period. They were directly associated to Freyja, the Goddess of Love. Viking families used to give a kitten to a new bride so that she could successfully establish a happy household with her husband. It was said that Freya or Frayja, (Goddess of Love and Beauty, also; fertility, war, and wealth) was the daughter of Njord, and the sister of Frey. Her daughter, by her husband, Od, is named Hnoss, who it is said: “Is so beautiful that whatever is valuable and lovely is named treasure after her.”

Norwegian Forest Cat during the winter months.

Norse legend tells of Freya, whose chariot was pulled by two black cats. Some versions of the tale claim they became swift black horses, possessed by the Devil. After serving Freya for 7 years, the cats were rewarded by being turned into witches, disguised as black cats. The cats also played around her ankles as a symbol of her domesticity.

Freya aboard her chariot which was said to be pulled by Norwegian Mountain Cats.

Historians believe that the mythological cats that pulled Freya’s chariot were Norwegian Mountain cats. The Vikings used to call them “Skogkatt” which literally means mountain cats in Norwegian. These species of cats are found in the northernmost regions of Norway and Denmark. The bone structure and strong muscle form distinguished these feral animals from domestic cats.

The Viking people did however keep the Norwegian Forest cat domestically. Evidence suggests that they were kept as pets as well as a means of controlling vermin. Archaeological evidence shows us that these animals were revered by Viking elders. Many Forest cats and Elkhounds were buried with their masters.

Close up portrait of a Norwegian Forest cat.

The Norwegian Forest Cat was valued by the Vikings for it’s strength, intelligence and ability to survive and hunt in the harsh Norwegian winters. Today, the Forest Cat is “The Official Cat of Norway” and is a highly prized pet in Norway, Denmark and across Scandinavia. The Vikings introduced the breed to many countries across Europe and even perhaps North America.

Dogs

The next most common type of pets owned by the Vikings were dogs. Archaeological evidence from grave finds suggests that dogs were kept as pets by Vikings. They would have been used for hunting, companionship, as working animals and even as ‘War’ dogs.

Norwegian Elkhound.

Frigga, the Goddess of Fidelity and Marriage, wife of Odin was said to travel in her chariot pulled by a team of dogs. Thus according to Vikings, the dogs represent a perfect symbol of loyalty and faith towards their owner. Dogs are also part of Norwegian society today. But it was the Vikings who first kept dogs as pets in Norway and Denmark.

According to the Viking artifacts, the historians have found out that the dogs and owners were so attached to each other that they were buried side by side. Pictorial historical evidence shows that the Viking people had a good relationship with their dogs. The most common breed owned by the Vikings was somewhat related to the spitz; these dogs were hybrids of the Arctic Wolf and Southern Domestic dogs. There were several other dog breeds which were found later on by historians stated which illustrates the wide range of dog breeds that was present during the Viking age.

Norwegian Elkhound.

Some of them which were identified by the experts were:

  • Hunting dogs
  • Norwegian Elkhound
  • Karelian Bear Dog

These were some of the dog breeds owned by the Vikings during 8th to 11th century. Each had specialized skills. For example; the Elkhound was used for hunting deer and small animals, the Karelian Bear Dog, as it’s name suggests was bred for hunting bears.

Karelian Bear Dog.

Wild Animals

The Viking people utilised many wild animals. Animals such as hawks, cattle, sheep and many others have been recorded by historians over the years. Vikings attempted to domesticate many wild animals such as bears. For instance, they would send a hunting party to capture a young bear that had been caught in a trap. The bear would be reared and semi-domesticated.

It isn’t entirely clear how the adult bear was used by Viking communities, however it is possible that these creatures may have been kept for entertainment or used as a training tool for the Karelian Bear Dog.  Hawks and Falcons were also used by the Vikings. They were trained and used as hunting tools, much like the Falconers of today. The Vikings considered falcons as the kings of birds.

Accipiter gentilis, Scandinavian Goshawk, Hønsehauk. 56cm.

Cattle and Farm Animals

Certain livestock were typical and unique to the Vikings, including the Icelandic horse, Icelandic cattle, a plethora of sheep breeds, the Danish hen and the Danish goose. The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to extract the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as the black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found.

An Icelandic cow, in a pasture with Icelandic sheep.

Seafood was important, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimps were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important.

The invention and introduction of the mouldboard plough revolutionised agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even poor soils.

The Medieval mouldboard plough.

In Ribe, grains of rye, barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and are believed to have been cultivated locally.

Ribe is a Danish town in south-west Jutland.

Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread.

Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did. Flax was a very important crop for the Vikings: it was used for oil extraction, food consumption and most importantly the production of linen. More than 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be traced as linen. This suggests a much higher actual percentage, as linen is poorly preserved compared to wool for example.

References