How to fight in Anglo-saxon England

Viking shield wall (www.ydalir.co.uk)

Most of the Anglo-saxon battles took place on land and contrary to many Hollywood movies (which nonetheless can be very entertaining) they fought mostly on foot, not on horseback. Frankish texts are fairly unanimous on this point saying that horses were primarily the mode of transportation to and from the field of war. However there are engravings and other such pieces of art which do depict men on horseback charging with spears. This suggests that although rare it was not unheard of, especially in the later period.

Before a battle on land the leaders of the two armies often made a rousing speech to their men and also sometimes a speech to the enemy. As a prelude to the battle proper terms of abuse were hurled from both sides, arrow quivers were rattled and the combatants roared wild battle cries to inflame themselves and frighten the enemy. A hailstorm of stones, arrows and javelins was followed by hand to hand combat with swords, spears and axes, accompanied by fierce battle cries. Signals were sounded on wind instruments. The king often fought at the head of his army, surrounded by a bodyguard of his best men. The leader’s position in the melee of battle was marked by the standard; the standard bearer, an exceptionally able man, had to prevent the standard from moving.

Western European sources relate that the Vikings often made use of islands, fortresses, fortified towns and stone churches as secure bases against the Anglo-saxons. Such ready-made defencive structures would then be reinforced by ditches and ramparts. They rarely undertook long sieges, but when they did, they sometimes had siege machines constructed (more notably such a tactic is recorded by Vikings attacking Paris in 885AD. It is conceivable that this might have happened in other places as well).

After the battle was won the Anglo-saxons usually favoured making a peace treaty with the Vikings in order to divert them from attacking again. such a treaty was sworn over weapons or holy relics with the addition of oaths from the leaders and an exchanging of gifts and hostages. After King Alfred’s time many viking leaders and/or their family members were also baptised in the Christian faith as a mark of this peace. In these instances the king or sometimes another high ranking noble would stand as god-parent. It was as much a show of political kinship as spiritual for the Anglo-saxons but for the danes it was merely a formality to go through. Rarely did they truly convert to Christianity, or hold the peace for that matter. The chronicles all lament continuously how after a peace was made the ‘pagans of detested memory’ went back on their promises and attacked again. One particular trick of the Vikings was to hold a shield on high as a mark of their intentions on the battle field for peace. The men they were fighting would notice this and stop fighting, ready to make a treaty only to have the Vikings trick them and continue to cut them down.

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