AGE OF HEROES - 6: THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR - Heroism in Battle, and a Belief in Man's Wyrd*
The Romans were not the last to test their 'muscle' on the Britons
A Struggle for Supremacy
From their origins across the North Sea between the Jutland peninsula and the Rhine delta, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons expanded, their influence and kingdoms grew. They might have been foederati before the Romans left Britain early in the 5th Century and knew how weak the Romano-Celts were on the ground. With stronger weaponry and protective gear the incomers soon spread west along river valleys, fanning out to guard their advance.
The Jutes were first to put down roots in the South-east, naming their territory after the Celts already in occupation: Centland after the tribe the Romans called the Cantii. They also took the island the Romans called Vectis and renamed it Iuta after their own tribe. The West Saxons overran the island, renaming it Wiht (modern day Wight). In the East, the Midlands and the North Aengle took the territory from the North Sea west to the East Midlands and the Thames, calling the land East Aengla, themselves the East Aengle. To the west and north of them were the Miercan/Myrcan Aengle who had originally been the Middil Aengle. Their territory expanded westward as far as Hereford, Shropshire and Cheshire, north to the line of the Mersey-Humber. North of them were the Deiran Aengle, bounded by the Ribble Valley in the north-west and the Tees on the North Sea coast. Their northern neighbours were the Beornican Aengle whose original northern boundary was the Tweed, west as far as modern day Cumbria, (part of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde). Beornica at its height covered territory as far as the River Forth and encompassed Dinas Eidin, renaming it Edinburh. Pictish territory beyond the Tay could not be held but was subject to raids by Beornica under King Aethelfrith. From time to time Beornica and Deira united to become Northanhymbra. (Northumbria). Mierca and Northanhymbra would go to war more than once, using East Aengla as an ally, Beornica and Deira would also war against one another. It was this weakness that made them a first target for the Danes in the 9th Century...
The struggle for supremacy in England whittled down the number of kingdoms from a dozen to one
Non-combatants were never involved in warring between kings, war-band leaders or chieftains in their bid for power. A warrior gained nothing from humiliating or killing those who could not defend themselves. That ethic has been followed by British combatants, down to the modern-day soldier.
See into the world of early Mediaeval kings and warriors, what drove them and what repelled them.
The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic
In pre-Conquest England...
...the income to support a fighting man 'in the field' generally came from a holding of five hides of land.
As an example, a hide could keep a ceorl's family for a year, the standing of the ceorl being the lowest free man who worked the land. In the first half of the 11th Century a warrior whose supporting income from five hides may be a thegn, or a huscarl in the service of a lord or earl. Below the thegn men were also called on to perform military service in defence of the realm called fyrdfaereld, like the modern territorial army, for limited periods only. In the south and west, the Saxon territories weapons for these men were drawn in times of war from the Hundred. In the north and the Danelaw a Weapontake - or Wapentake, derived from the Danish Vapnatak - supplied the wherewithal to fight an invader. The greater Fyrd was the body made up of commoners - freemen and ceorls - whereas the Select Fyrd recruited those of higher status, thegns and huscarls upward to earls and abbots.
There are few references to these distinctions and it is thought the same men would be called on to fight who owned their own weapons and the lower orders would only be called on in times of pressing need. Nevertheless in the midlands and the north weapons training was undertaken on a more regular and broader basis than in the south and south-west.
There is evidence in the Berkshire Domesday that where five men owned land valued at one hide, four paid five shillings each for the upkeep of the fifth in times of war. It is not unthinkable that this system might have been adopted - with variants - throughout the kingdom before 1066. In contrast with this idea there is an example from the customs of Chester where the man was to serve as long as his rations lasted. To the outrage of his lord he showed at the muster with a side of bacon, ate it and left within the same day.
There are no accounts dating back to the time, of the lot of the ordinary man, and a few on those of higher standing. Reference to thegns killed on Caldbec Hill above Hastings (and their land being awarded to invaders) can be read in Domesday. to gain an insight into the mind-set of a fighting man we might look at the poem about the Battle of Maldon. Written in the 1020's, some time after Knut took the throne the poem follows the story of Byrhtnoth and his fyrd who met a Norse raiding party led by Olaf Tryggvason, soon to be king. Men believed their leader had fled the field whereas he had been speared and lay dying. The poem is set around the warrior's point of view, as to why they chose death to flight. The tale is told from all levels withing the fyrd, two of the men sharing their outlook with us. One of these, a young noble from a well-known family is Aelfwin:
'Remember the words we uttered many a time over the mead,
when on the benches, heroes in the hall; we made our boast about hard strife.
Now may it be proved which of us is bold - worthy of our word! I
I will make known my blood-line to all, how I was born in Mercia of great race.
Ealdhelm was my grandfather called, a wise ealdorman, happy in the world's goods.
Thegns shall have no cause to reproach me among my folk,
that I was ready to forsake this action and seek by home,
now that my lord lies, cut down in battle. This is no common grief to me,
he was both my kinsman and my lord!'
The second, Brihtwold is an elderly retainer who speaks with the depth of feeling about the outlook of an underling:
'Minds must be harder, hearts bolder, courage the greater as our strength ebbs.
Here lies our leader, hacked down, the good man in the dirt.
Ever he must mourn who thinks to go home from this 'battle-play'.
I am an old man. I shall not leave, but I mean to die beside my lord,
by the man so near to me'.
Norse literature bristled with hero figures both in short poems and in the longer lays and sagas, written down long afterward. Harald Sigurdsson was both poet and hero of many sagas, a whole cycle being dedicated to him and his adventures. Acknowledgement of a man's bravery might run from a few lines such as seen on a Swedish rune-stone set up after a savage battle in Sweden for Asbjorn (Asbeorn in English): 'He did not flee at Uppsala but fought as long as he had weaponry'. Killed at the Battle of Fyris, he had taken part in a great victory for the 10th Century Swedish king Eirik 'the Victorious' over an invading Viking army.
In Harald's Saga a battle is recorded against the Danish king Svein Estrithsson (Astridsson):
'Eager-hearted, Harald urged his men to battle;
No hope of peace he offered to Norway's sturdy seaman.
Norway's famous war-king charged them to die nobly
And not think of yielding; his men then seized their weapons...
The two great war leaders, shieldless, shunning armour,
Called for thust and parry; armies were locked in battle.
Stones and arrows flew, sword-blades dyed crimson;
All around doomed warriors fell before the onslaught'.
There is a myth based on later accounts by skalds and chroniclers that Viking kings had warriors amongst their retinue known as berserkers - men who wore no body armour, inflamed by zeal - and great quantities of ale and mead. Certainly the early Danish king Hrolf 'Kraki' (Tree Trunk, on account of his solid stature) is thought to have had berserkers around him who made life hard for those who tried to come near their king. This does not lessen the great name the Norsemen had for fierceness in battle. Certainly the Christian Anglian and Saxon armies would have been taken aback by the ferocity of the heathen Danes' attack in the later 9th Century. They themselves would once have taken the Britons by storm when they landed in the 5th Century. They, the Norsemen, would however have entered the fray as any others, well-armed and armoured.
As Harald Sigurdsson sang in his own death lay at Stamford Bridge on 25th September, 1066,
'We never kneel in battle before the weapon-storm,
Or crouch behind our shields, so the noble lady told me.
She told me once to carry my head always high in battle,
Where swords* seek to shatter the skulls of downed warriors...'
As it turned out it was an arrow through his wind-pipe that took Harald to his grave.
*Wyrd in the Anglian, Jutish and Saxon pagan world is known today as fate. The word 'wyrd' is another version of the Norse name 'Urd', one of the three Norns who sat at the well of Yggrasil, the World ash Tree and spun the fates of men. (the other two were 'Skuld' - 'what shall be' - and 'Verdandi' - 'what is now'. You could not escape your 'wyrd', no matter how good you were or however hard you tried. It is pretty much the same as 'Kismet', the Arabic understanding of fate, and may have stemmed from the same near-eastern source. In Norse mythology some aspects stem from sources held in common with Hinduism. The cradle of western mankind is the near east, from where the migrations began that populated northern and western Europe, and ousted the Neanderthal people from the lands that had been freed from the Ice Age. This is the time of Cro-Magnon man, modern man - and with him farming and the end of the hunter-gatherer culture such as that of Neanderthal man.
Next - 7: Make Ready for the Fight
'Anglo-Saxon Thegn', one of the Osprey 'Warrior' series of specialist paperbacks. Well illustrated and researched with diagrams, black & white photographic images of weaponry, protective clothing and 'off-duty' regalia. For those not yet conversant with the subject matter, a map shows the origins of the migrant warriors and their kinfolk to Britain. Money well spent for the researcher...
Anglo Saxon Thegn
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