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Danelaw Years - 6: The Huscarl, First Danish, Then Anglo-Danish Household Servant Turned Professional Warrior

Updated on May 27, 2019

The role of huscarl entitled holders to many things. It also meant he gave his life for his lord

English huscarl with kite shield and thrusting spear
English huscarl with kite shield and thrusting spear | Source
An English huscarl on Caldbec Hill, axe at the ready to deal the death blow to any unwary Norman or one of William's allies. Harold's huscarls fought on after they knew he was dead. It was what was awaited of them, after all
An English huscarl on Caldbec Hill, axe at the ready to deal the death blow to any unwary Norman or one of William's allies. Harold's huscarls fought on after they knew he was dead. It was what was awaited of them, after all
English huscarls and fyrdmen fight the lone giant on the narrow bridge at Stamford Bridge near York, September 25th, 1066 - losses were heavy until one took a boat under the plank bridge and thrust upward with his spear.
English huscarls and fyrdmen fight the lone giant on the narrow bridge at Stamford Bridge near York, September 25th, 1066 - losses were heavy until one took a boat under the plank bridge and thrust upward with his spear. | Source

Just who were the 'huscarls'? You might be forgiven for being confused if you take the term at face value.

To be exact a huscarl is 'a man of the house', which is in fact what huscarls (or better: huscarlar) were. In Old Norse the word 'hus' meant house, 'carl' or 'karl' was a man. Simple, then, isn't it? 'Man of the house'. In very early days the huscarl was a servant, up to around the time of Svein 'Forkbeard' and his son Knut Sveinsson.

In later East Norse (the Danes and Svear/Swedes') society terminology began to change. In Old English the term was understood as nearer a later mediaeval notion of 'Household warrior', ('household' in itself being Old Danish, ['hus hold', or bounds of the noble's house and its land]), the well-trained warrior who followed particular nobles and their households. By the later 11th Century Norse use of the term was much like that of the English. Here we take a look at the Old English understanding of 'Huscarl'.

We know by now that huscarls were brought into English society by Knut Sveinsson in the second decade of the 11th Century. There was an elite military entity in the days of Aethelred 'Unraed' very much like that Knut introduced. The mid-level of this force was the 'thegn', officers if you like, similar to 'major' or 'captain' in the modern British Army and Marine Corps. It is likely Knut was made aware of this force during the early years of his reign from late AD1016. It is also possible that knowledge had filtered north-westward across the Continent from Byzantium, where stories of the Varangian Guard inspired the establishment of private armies.

Knut is said to have 'streamlined' his armed forces in AD1018. He put about that 'only those who bore a double-edged sword with gold-inlaid hilt' would be allowed access to this elite body of men. Wealthy warriors of means made haste to have swords made by their swordsmiths of the quality specified. The weaponsmiths and swordsmiths of England would have been heard hammering their steel blades - English quality steel blades were renowned across Europe, where once 'Frankish' meant assured quality - hardening edges, twisting tongues of iron into the kind of pattern-welded weapons the Vikings themselves would be honoured to own!

The young Knut would have gained nothing by dividing society, he knew well. He let Englishmen (Saxons from south and south-west, Anglians and Anglo-Danes from the midlands and north) into this new Danish elite, to blend or ease the two parts of society together. This way he had the best fighting men in the kingdom... In Northwestern Europe, for that matter. Writers once thought the huscarls were organised in a similar manner to the Jomsvikings, who had their own hierarchy and fortress at Jumne on the Baltic coast. More recent research taught that the Jomsvikings, although there were parallels in their organisations, were not of the same quality and purpose. The Jomsvikings' aims ran in other directions, to self-perpetuation and -enrichment, whereas a huscarl served the king ultimately, whether in the household of an earl, a bishop or the king himself. Huscarls were also answerable to the king, along with thegns, for the training of the 'fyrd', the mediaeval equivalent of the Territorial Army. The fyrd trained regularly with the huscarls to knit the two entities together for the defence of the realm.

Many of the huscarls 'lived in' with the earls or king until around the time of King Eadward. Around the early mid-11th Century some of them had been given land, to be held - like the thegns - either from him or from the church. Five hides were ample for the upkeep of a huscarl, although some had more - perhaps inherited.

The huscarls' 'contracts' to the king were renewed on New Years' Day, any man being free if he so wished to leave the king's household. Discipline was dealt with - this is similar to the Jomsvikings - by a 'court' of peers. Their powers extended to trying earls, even. Earl Harold's elder brother Svein was made 'nithing' by such a court for his kidnapping of the abbess of Leominster and her 'defiling' by him (she subsequently gave birth to a son, Hakon who was brought up at King Eadward's court), as well as the killing of his Danish kinsman Earl Beorn. He was not tried by the Witan, as an English nobleman would hitherto have been. This leads to the idea that as a member of this 'warriors guild' he was given a 'drum-head' trial, not a civil one.

Precise knowledge of the huscarls' laws are not as open-and-shut as once thought, since the sources for this information have been demonstrated to be suspect. Existing evidence is strong enough, however, to be certain the huscarls had their own 'guild laws' by which they would be judged if found wanting. They were tied by loyalty to one another, to the earls, Church and to the king in the same manner of the 'thegns of Grantaceaster (Grantchester/Cambridge) in the early 11th Century or the 'peace guild of London' at the time of Aethelstan.

Royal huscarls are thought to have numbered three thousand - a great number of men to pay in those days. A special tax of one silver mark per ten hides was levied to pay the huscarls. Further to their pay in coin (deemed to have been monthly) they were housed and fed initially from the king's coffers. Whether the king armed them as well is not known for certain. Gifts of weapons and equipment would have been made periodically to maintain their loyalty, in the manner of Scandinavian kings being 'ring-givers' in the early days of the Vikings. They would have had to have means of their own, as a king might easily dismiss them from his service for 'conduct unbecoming', to pay for their own armament and at least one horse to take him to fight (although in common with most other warriors of the northern world they fought on foot in time-honoured fashion). A huscarl's equipment amounted to mail-shirt (later mail-coat similar to the Normans' hauberk), one or more helmets, shields, spears and 'Dane-axe', the very effective long-shafted, two-handled fighting axe.

The value of huscarls to their lords or kings was borne out by the killing in AD1041 by the people of Worcester of two of Hathaknut's huscarls whilst collecting a hated tax. Harthaknut ordered the ravaging of the whole shire by a large force led by five earls and almost all his own huscarls. They were to give the shire a lesson in obedience. This shows also that huscarls were not limited to fighting. They might accompany the king's tax collectors, witness royal charters, or they might give land to the Church. Likewise they might be seen from documents to have received land, 'land-holdings'. At times they could be identified as 'cynges huscarl' or 'minister regis'. Should he have been on a purely military mission he might be described in a document as 'milites regis'. Nevertheless their duty to armed service came from the lordship bond rather than payment in coin. In this way they were unlike their contemporaries, lithsmen and butsecarls who served at a different level of defence. 'Butsecarls' were the early version of marine soldier, and lithsmen served on the ship levy.

Huscarls formed the 'mailed fist' of an attack up to the time of the consolidation of William's reign, the 'Conquest'; it did not end on Caldbec Hill with the death of King Harold and his brothers. Not until early 1072 was William's rule anywhere near accepted by rebels, and many of the king's or his northern earls' huscarls would have fought on under different leaders. There were many who survived to leave these shores, as I indicated in my Hub-page on the Varangian Guard, and fought alongside their Scandinavian cousins in the east against the common enemy, the Normans led by Robert 'Guiscard' ('Foxy') de Hauteville, his sons and nephews. The Varangian Guard after this surge of manpower from England became known as the 'English Guard', and gained a widespread reputation for their fierceness in battle. Englishmen still served the emperor well into the 12th Century, when Henry II was king of England, still fighting with their long-handled axes and two-handed swords.

On the 'Board of Battle' which piece would be the huscarl?

Knut was a noted chess player. We have an image of him by the sea, ordering the waves back , comical. In reality he was a formidable opponent, and it was he who introduced the huscarl to his new kingdom of England before he became king of Denmark
Knut was a noted chess player. We have an image of him by the sea, ordering the waves back , comical. In reality he was a formidable opponent, and it was he who introduced the huscarl to his new kingdom of England before he became king of Denmark | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Follow the development of the housecarl (originally huscarl) courtesy of Laurence Brown, from origins in Danish royal households to England from the time of Knut/Knud Sveinsson to King Harold (himself half-Danish through his mother Gytha Thorkelsdatter). Many survivors left England after William's siege of Ely that ended in 1071, and went east to Constantinople to join the emperor's Varangian Guard. Known for their loyalty, professionalism and fierceness in battle, they were highly regarded.

At the Jorvik Viking Festival, February 2017

The huscarl - this fine fellow's task was to protect the 'Jarl', (below)
The huscarl - this fine fellow's task was to protect the 'Jarl', (below) | Source
Not only kings but also jarls (the forerunners of the English earls) retained huscarls at their own expense.
Not only kings but also jarls (the forerunners of the English earls) retained huscarls at their own expense. | Source

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

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

      You pop up everywhere, don't you Nell? There are five 'Danelaw' Hub-pages besides this one that take you through from the earlier incursions before Aelfred was made king of Wessex, by way of Aethelred's time to when Knut/Knud was made king of Aengla-Land first in AD1016 and king of the Danes a few years later after his older brother Harald died. After Knut's death his son Harold 'Harefoot' became regent for his half-brother Harthaknut, and then claimed the throne for himself before H/k could come. His English subjects preferred him to an absentee Danish monarch... Begin at Danelaw - 1, with the capture and killing of Ragnar 'Lothbrok' ('Leather Breeks') by Aella the king of Bernicia and Northumbria. Guthrum figures in the establishment of the Danelaw and Kingdom of Jorvik. He was the self-styled king of East Anglia and came to an agreement with Aelfred to 'share' the five kingdoms along the line of Watling Street (the Roman road that ran from Rochester via London to Chester. All land east of the road and north of the Thames was 'the Danelaw', with its centres at Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham - then 'Snotingaham' - and Stamford. Be my guest...

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi alan, fascinating hub, I had never heard of the word huscarl before, but it does make sense that hus is house, and carl is man. I didn't realise that they came over and joined forces with the English, I am so behind where the Danes were concerned, it's a part of history that I seemed to have missed even though I love history, you are a fount of knowledge! lol! great stuff, and especially for kids learning about it, cheers nell

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