Danelaw Years - 6: The Huscarl, First Danish, Then Anglo-Danish Household Servant Turned Professional Warrior
The role of huscarl entitled holders to many things. It also meant he gave his life for his lord
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?
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
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster