AGE OF HEROES - 8: WARCRAFT WARES - Weaponry and Protective Metalware for the Warrior

Dawn of the Viking Age

Detail of Gjermundbu helm found in western Norway at Ringerike (O.N: Hringariki), complete with chain neckguard
Detail of Gjermundbu helm found in western Norway at Ringerike (O.N: Hringariki), complete with chain neckguard

Cold steel, linden wood and chain mail...

Danish long-handled bearded axe - ideal for striking downward
Danish long-handled bearded axe - ideal for striking downward
Fighting with axes - one of the combatants has a shield, how long will it last being battered by his opponent, and how long will his arm hold out with its weight? His opponent's long handled axe has the greater reach
Fighting with axes - one of the combatants has a shield, how long will it last being battered by his opponent, and how long will his arm hold out with its weight? His opponent's long handled axe has the greater reach
Archetypal Viking helm with raised spectacle plate and noseguard - note the serpent-headed ridge that would repel a downward thrust with sword or axe
Archetypal Viking helm with raised spectacle plate and noseguard - note the serpent-headed ridge that would repel a downward thrust with sword or axe
Close-up of a spectacle or visor plate, riveted onto the conical helm to protect brows and eyes
Close-up of a spectacle or visor plate, riveted onto the conical helm to protect brows and eyes
Coppergate helm from York, Anglian not Danish. A Northumbrian ealdorman or king was a more likely wearer
Coppergate helm from York, Anglian not Danish. A Northumbrian ealdorman or king was a more likely wearer
Viking swords found at Hurstwic. The pattern-welding is hard to detect with the naked eye after a thousand years,
Viking swords found at Hurstwic. The pattern-welding is hard to detect with the naked eye after a thousand years,
Replica Viking dagger with scabbard, a deadly work of the weaponsmith's art
Replica Viking dagger with scabbard, a deadly work of the weaponsmith's art
Replicated spear-head - this would not be from a cheap throwing spear.but an heirloom, passed down from father to son
Replicated spear-head - this would not be from a cheap throwing spear.but an heirloom, passed down from father to son
Replica Viking sword showing pattern-welding, blade channel and crossguard - three lengths of iron would be worked together, heated, hammered, cooled, heated again... and so on until the blade was refined, the hilt added.
Replica Viking sword showing pattern-welding, blade channel and crossguard - three lengths of iron would be worked together, heated, hammered, cooled, heated again... and so on until the blade was refined, the hilt added.
Selection of axes and heads, the longest - in the middle - is the famed 'Dane-axe' - not much good in the shieldwall as a weapon aside from pulling down the enemies' shield for a spearman to thrust at the holder
Selection of axes and heads, the longest - in the middle - is the famed 'Dane-axe' - not much good in the shieldwall as a weapon aside from pulling down the enemies' shield for a spearman to thrust at the holder
Shield-testing to destruction - a linden shield was hard-wearing, but the shieldwall was the best test
Shield-testing to destruction - a linden shield was hard-wearing, but the shieldwall was the best test
An array of shield-cover designs to show the ownership of the holder or his lord
An array of shield-cover designs to show the ownership of the holder or his lord
Spear-head finds - although corroded, the designs are still plainly exhibited - different heads for different purposes, threaten, thrust, throw,
Spear-head finds - although corroded, the designs are still plainly exhibited - different heads for different purposes, threaten, thrust, throw,

The Gjermundbu helm above...

is the only one archaeologists have ventured to describe as of truly Viking origin.

Outwardly it follows the pattern of having a fixed spectacle plate - remember the one worn by Kirk Douglas in his role as Einar in THE VIKINGS? - although there are notable differences in manufacture. The Gjermundbu helm is shaped by a 'brow band', a skeleton of two metal bars and four formed triangular plates that make the dome. One bar is lined up with the middle of the skull, the other across the bowl from ear-to-ear. Both bars join at the brow band, as is the visor. The four parts of the dome are riveted to the cross-pieces to fill the gaps between the parts.

The pre-Viking Valsgarde and Vendel helms are more complicated, some having a reinforced crest, a 'wala'. Yet others have cheek pieces. true Viking-age helms are more like the Gjermundbu type. A carved elk antler from Sigtuna shows a warrior with a conical helm, appearing to be made up of four sections riveted together. Although it shows no indication of structural members, a row of rivets around the base of the helm means there was originally a brow-band attached. A nose-piece on this part might seem to be a projection of the longitudinal skull-band. However there is no certainty in this.

Viking monumental art such as the Kirklevington, Sockburn and Middleton Cross fragments show men wearing conical helms but these might equally be pointed caps or hoods. A fragment of the Weston Cross shows a bare-headed warrior. Two helms of Central European origin linked with the Viking era are from Olmutz and another unknown source in Bohemia. The domes of these helms are forged from one piece of metal. Whilst no evidence is available that this technique was used by Norse armourers, the dating of the helms and the great variety of gear used by the Norsemen tells us helms of the type may have been in use. Olaf Haraldsson is said to have had a company of five-score picked men at the Battle of Nesjar, armed in coats of mail and non-Norse helms.

There are no intact hauberks or mailshirts from the era; even fragments are seldom seen. Mail was handed down through generations, or 'acquired' until some time after mediaeval times, but this is by no means a valid reason for the scarcity of evidence or finds. Usage amongst the Vikings may have been low-profile. poetry in sagas - taken as of an earlier age than the body of the accompanying narrative - often tells us of byrnies. Mail armour comes in more often in relation to later events, suggesting its use was only more common in later years. One factor leading to Harald Sigurdsson's defeat at Stamford Bridge was that much of their armour and heavier weaponry had been taken back to the ships at Riccall on the lower Ouse after the earls submitted at York.

Verses made up by Harald during the fighting tell us of his regrets at his short-sightedness, his mailcoat 'Emma' having been taken six miles or so southward to the ships. His mailcoat would gave been similar to those worn by Harold Godwinson's huscarls and by William's foot-soldiers. Norman cavalry mailcoats were made with slits to front and back to accommodate their riding posture in the saddle for long periods of time. Harald's mailcoat may have closely resembled a style worn by the Franks of the time.

Little evidence has been found for lamellar armour in Scandinavia, being eastern in origin. A few plates were found at Birka, once one of the foremost trading havens in Central Svear (Swedish) territory. nor is there much evidence of leather or fabric 'armour' - layers of material made into protective padding. Snorri Sturlusson tells us of thirteen body armour shirts made of reindeer hide given as a gift to Olaf Haraldsson. These were believed to be denser than metal mailcoats. What might have been quilted jackets of layered material can be seen on the Gotland tombstones. However, due to the nature of this type of representative art-work, this conclusion could be guesswork.

The Gotland gravestones also show warriors with what seem to be bucklers (small shields like those borne by Highlanders at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie). Taken in ratio to the figures carrying them they would have to be just the size of a dinner plate. Items such as these may have been used but no archaeological finds have borne out this idea. A sculptor showing the usual size of shield would have had to leave greater spaces in his work for life-sized shields and in representations the art-work would have been seen as awkward.

The broadest cross-section of shield-types from the age were found with the Gokstad ship burial. These shields may have been especially made for the event and are therefore not necessarily representative of everyday use. Any of the Gokstad shields when used in combat may have been unwieldy and tiring to carry in close formations. Shield-bosses are found commonly, the fabric of the shield having rotted in the ground. It had been assumed metal rims were common, but not one excavated example had a full metal rim. Natural materials in early excavations were usually rotten; to analyse them would have been near-impossible.

In the early years of the Viking Age shields were the norm. The odd oval-shaped shield in the Oseberg Tapestry has never had an archaeological parallel - kite-shaped shields that began to be used in the 11th Century were known as Holfinn-skjoldr. Anglo-Danish huscarls in King Harold's household used them exclusively, and they were to be seen in use at Stamford Bridge and Caldbec Hill (Hastings). Highly-paid retainers would have been equipped with such new introductions to warfare from Frankia.

Although emblems were often associated with Viking shields, any evidence has been of limited worth. Characters in Njal's Saga are said to have hd shields decorated with dragons and a lion. A study of the Bayeux Tapestry shows such motifs to have been in use for less than a hundred years earlier.

Greenlanders used symbolic shields. Red showed a battle might be imminent, white was used to show peaceful intent. The followers of Olaf Haraldsson carried shields covered with white cloth decorated with felt red and blue crosses by AD1015. The symbol of the cross was to show Olaf's aggressive conversion aims, but also to distinguish them from their pagan foes.

Axe, bow, spear and sword were the chosen weapons found at most grave sites, many of which being grave-goods. Danish burials of the earlier era hold the same weapons as their Svear and West Norse counterparts until the late 10th Century when Denmark adopted Christianity under Harald Gormsson. After the early 11th century Danish graves were no longer furnished with weapons to accompany the fallen warrior into the afterlife.

The most common axe types were the long-hafted Dane axes, with their short downward-angled beard. The use of the axe determined the blade, however. A common wood-hewing tool might also be serviceable as a weapon, as many found. Broad-bladed, two-edged axes would be wielded two-handed, with a second man close by armed with sword or spear to protect the axe-bearer. By the time of the Conquest these were the distinguishing form of weapon of choice carried by Harold's huscarls in response to the more widespread wearing by Norman knights of hauberks. Axes with beards, downward-pointing blades were a mark of Norse weaponry.

The spear was only the third mosr used weapon after the axe or sword, according to Danish grave-finds until the late 10th Century. It may be elsewhere spears were more popular. Spearheads were more economical to make, and could be turned out faster than either swords or axes. There were mainly two types of spear used in warfare, the throwing spear and the jabbing - or thrusting spear. The throwing spear was cheapest to make and buy in great numbers, and could be retrieved after a victory in addition to those of the beaten foe.

Many spears were of Carolingian - Frankish - origin, identified by their broad blades and projecting 'wings', which could be used to hook over the foes' shields and drawn down quickly in order to spear the shield-bearer. Spears with narrower blades might be the throwing kind, aero-dynamic and light. Individuals decorated their spears and their victims' corpses might be seen about the field, where a comrade might say, 'That is Sverri's spear - he has felled their champion again!'

Swords were practically tailored to the owner, or were inherited - as with English thegns and huscarls - and were more commonly long, two-edged with cross-guard and a type of pommel. Blades were likely to be pattern-welded, with a central longitudinal channel to allow the victims' blood to drain away and ease extraction after combat. Points were generally not sharp, as the swords were slashing rather than stabbing tools. when not in use the sword might be kept in a scabbard of thinly-pared wood, adorned with leather, a metal chafe riveted to prevent damage by rubbing. The scabbard could be lined with sheepskin, wool inward to keep the blade clean, wiped when the sword was drawn or sheathed. A remarkable regional variety of sword was about a yard long (just less than a metre), with a single edge like the Saxons' seaxe. It is Norwegian by origin, several having been found with fittings like those of the sword, and pattern-welded to show the user was likely to have been well-born.

Single-edged knives were also found at the Coppergate dig in York, and may have had more general use aside from as a weapon. Sometimes, sooner than wait for a maid at an inn or in the feasting hall a warrior might use a fighting knife or dagger to cut meat (generally boiled), apples or roots (boiled turnips, pale carrots, swedes are known to have been eaten in northern Europe at the time).

Next - 9: Crafting & Mending the Tools of War


A book that although it will only partially sate your thirst for knowledge about the Vikings, 'VIKING WEAPONS and COMBAT TECHNIQUES' will give some useful background knowledge about one aspect of the Vikings that strikes the reader (metaphorically of course). There is so much literature available about the Norsemen, their hunger for land, gold and the good life that you could amass a library on that subject alone.

Pre-Viking age headwear found near Uppsala, Sweden

This is the Valsgarde helm found in a burial near Uppsala in Sweden, closer in style to the later Viking helms
This is the Valsgarde helm found in a burial near Uppsala in Sweden, closer in style to the later Viking helms
The Vendel helm found nearby resembled a Greco-Roman style with broad cheek guards. Common to both are the neck guards, strips of metal that were forerunners of the mail neckguards. They might  deflect a glancing blow, but not one aimed at the neck
The Vendel helm found nearby resembled a Greco-Roman style with broad cheek guards. Common to both are the neck guards, strips of metal that were forerunners of the mail neckguards. They might deflect a glancing blow, but not one aimed at the neck

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Comments 10 comments

dadibobs profile image

dadibobs 4 years ago from Manchester, England

The label interesting does not do your hub justice!

This is an excellent hub, packed full of information and obviously well researched.

Great hub!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Thanks again, Dadibobs. There's another one in the same vein coming up about the making of the weapons and armour as soon as I've checked through my incoming e-mails. Check out CRAFTING & MENDING THE TOOLS OF WAR later on this evening (I'd suggest after 11pm)


snoblet profile image

snoblet 4 years ago from New York

Very interesting hub that answer my question when certain weapons of war where used for what situations.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Welcome snoblet, walk right in, wipe you feet and pull up a floorboard! Things were still pretty simple in the early middle ages. As they went on things got messy, the arsenals grew and the potential for disaster grew with them. Still, the bow and arrow lasted until the early versions of musket came in the 16th Century. Gunpowder did no-one any favours!


Patty Kenyon profile image

Patty Kenyon 4 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

Awesome, Interesting, and Voted UP!!! Wow I am amazed of the amount of work you put into this Hub!! I love reading about history as well as other cultures and I found this Hub extremely interesting!!! I also loved the pictures you used!! Well Done and Very Impressive!!!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Patsy, welcome to the past!The Hub's been written, edited and added to at different times, but by and large I sit down and put together a few a week (Monday-Friday nights, our time), then take a breather over the weekend. I'll be working on one about Middleham Castle after I've done this, it'll be finished later under TRAVEL NORTH - 21.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Sub-note to Patsy Kenyon. The full Hub title is: "TRAVEL NORTH - 21: HOME TO THE MIGHTY..." Check it out in about a couple of hours from now.


Patty Kenyon profile image

Patty Kenyon 4 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

alancaster, I will be sure to read it!!! Thanks for giving me the heads up!! I truly do enjoy reading your Hubs!!


Wenchom 23 months ago

This is such a great resource that you are prodiving and you give it away for free. I love seeing websites that understand the value of prodiving a quality resource for free. It is the old what goes around comes around routine.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 18 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Wenchom, only just got round to seeing this. Better late than never though, eh?

In answer to your statement about 'providing a quality resource for free', I do get paid a small amount each time someone 'drops by' to look. Nevertheless I appreciate the sentiment. It's what writing these pages is about, sharing knowledge.

Enjoy the read.

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