So what did the Anglo-saxons and Vikings fight with? That all depended on what you could afford. If you were a poor ceorl, you fought with whatever you could find: hoes, rakes, sling shots, knives, axes. If you were a little richer you could afford to buy yourself protective body armour, shields and swords.
The finest and most costly of weapons, these could vary in length, were typically double edged and sometimes pattern welded. Pattern welding was when several strands of metal were welded together, a process which left beautiful curled patterns along the blade (Bernard Cornwall fans will know that Uhtred from the Saxon series has a pattern welded sword made for him at Bebbanburgh). This style of making blades seems to have gone out of fashion in the later Anglo-saxon period. The amount of expense that went into the production of these weapons meant that they were highly valued. Men often handed down such items as heirlooms to their children or if they wanted to impress they could give it as a gift to their king or lord.
The seax was a single edged weapon which could be used by both Anglo-saxons and Vikings in close-quarter fighting. In fact the Seax is what the Saxons derived their name from. These weapons were basically like a very long knife reaching various lengths over 180mm long and like the swords they could also be pattern welded. It’s brother the broad seaxe was popular in the 8th century and was between 40-60mm long. Another version of the seax was the long seax which is common after the early 8th century and was between 650-800mm long.
The pommels or handles and grips for swords, as well as the various seaxes and hunting knives used, could be made out of carved wood, bone, horn, metal or leather. These materials could be inlaid with jewels, gold, silver etc with the more ornate reflecting the owners prestige and status in society. Viking swords and knives could also have runes and spells inscribed in the handles and there are even instances where this occurs on the actual blade.
Swords and knives were carried in holders called scabbards. These were often made from two pieces of wood lined on the inside with wool or other soft material and could be covered in leather.
By the latter viking age axes were often a cheaper alternative to the combination of sword and spear preferred by the rich.
Spears were known to have been used during Anglo-saxon warfare as well. The metal tips from spears and javelins are one of the most common items found in pre-christian gravesites (occur in up to 84% of such burials). Long tips up to 0.5m long were fixed onto wooden shafts or poles that are known to have been 7 feet long and made from the Ash tree. Spears were used to thrust and jab at an enemy from a distance (useful in a shield wall) or thrown into the ranks of the oncoming enemy. The tips were sometimes pattern welded and there are a range of shapes and styles that they came in. Some were barbed and narrow like a bulled or a harpoon, others resembled blades or were more leaf shaped like an arrow head. There have been found instances of patterns and engravings on shome spear tips, however it is thought that this was not very common as spears could break easily in the heat of battle and the tips lost in the mire or in an emeny’s body.
Bows and arrows
Spears could also be used in hunting, as were bows and arrows. Wooden bows are rarely found in archaeological deposits because of preservation but hazelwood arrow shafts have been found in a few instances. It is possible that bows and arrows were used in warfare as well, though not to the same extent as in the later Anglo-saxon period or the post Norman period when the long-bow was developed and became the king of medieval weaponry.
Weapons could do a lot of damage to one’s enemy but unless you had protection of some sort you were as vulnerable to your enemy’s weapons as they were of yours. Large shields were constructed of wooden circles or disks that protected your body from chin to knee. These were often reinforced by a layer of tough leather or left plain. A metal bar or leather strap was fixed to the inside for the warrior to lift and manoeuvre the shield and on the corresponding side an iron boss or cap (technically called an umbo) was fixed. This protected the warrior’s hand in battle. Shields were often decorated with emblems and colours representing your lord’s house, your own standard, or even that of your country. Ferocious animals and mythical beasts were also favoured, especially by the Vikings and would have aided in unsettling your enemy. Other designs were merely shapes and bright colours and all shields could include religious prayers, spells or names which could be invoked as protection. When the Gokstad viking ship was unearthed by archaeologists they noticed many of the surviving shields were painted yellow and black. Red was another popular colour in the sagas and poems of Scandinavia and Anglo-saxon England.
A lot of what we know about the types of helmets used come from either the bayeaux tapestry (the beginning of the Norman period) or from a few burials. Helmets were made from iron and other lightweight but strong metals and ranged from a dome cap with eye and nose guard attachments, to the more simple conical headware with simple nose guard of the norman period. Other additions such as neck and cheek flaps could be added as well, and like the weapons the helmets couls often be decorated and inscribed with words and motifs. In general the more elaborate and better made helmets were used by the aristocracy and the simpler more economic varieties for the poorer thanes and ceorls.
Body armour was a bit of a luxury at this time. The vast majority of the ceorls showed up in what clothes they had. If they were especially ingenious they made themselves padded vests from layered fabric. Most of the thanes and richer ceorls could afford vests of padded leather but even these were not entirely invulnerable to sword or seax. The best armour was chainmail, the Rolls Royce of the day. These suits of chainmail were for the wealthy and were a favourite amongst the Vikings but they were not the same as the Norman style which everyone recognises today. For the Anglo-saxons chainmail was little more than a t-shirt of metal links. Sometimes it could be made to cover the upper arms or the neck and head but it was rarely the full body suit of the later Norman times.