As part of the museum’s Living History Fortnight volunteers were invited in to an educational afternoon with Albion Historical to hear about and see the weapons and techniques used by Saxon Warriors over 1000 years ago. Hear from Keith about the afternoon below:
The lecture was interesting, informative and entertaining. The presenters covered the design, manufacture and use of various weapons.
Battles in Saxon times were often between small war bands, loyal to an individual thane, in which the fighting would be rather ad hoc skirmishes. When larger bands met, or when the ground was favourable, the men would form a shield wall. Here they would stand with their round shields overlapping and pushing against their opponent’s shields. In this formation the front rank probably used their short swords, there being little room to swing the larger (metre long) one. Others would attempt to pull down the opponent’s shield with an axe whilst men in the rear stabbed with spears or threw javelins.
Most blacksmiths could make an axe or a spear point but it took a sword smith to make a sword; great skill is needed even now, more in Saxon times because of the poor quality and variability of the metal. Two techniques were described and both were developed to compensate for the variable quality of the steel. In one four bars of soft iron were twisted and then welded together with repeated heating and hammering to produce a bar about one metre long. This formed the relatively flexible and strong core of the sword. Next two bars of hard steel were welded to the core to provide the cutting edges. Alternatively, a bar of relatively good steel would be heated, folded and hammered about ten times, producing 1024 layers of steel. In both cases, the hammering removes impurities.
Axes could be weapons or tools; the designs differed. Woodmen’s axes looked much like modern ones. War axes could be for throwing or personal combat. The former were lighter with the blade extended in the direction down the handle. In the latter the head was extended up to a point, these axes were used to hook the opponents shield down; the point could then be used to attack.
Various aspect of martial art were demonstrated, using combinations of shield, sword, axe and spear and we were taught about the safe zone and that there were only two martial arts, spear and the rest was really just one. The warriors could be either the Huscarls or the Fyrd. Huscarls were elite Anglo-Saxon warriors who made up personal bodyguards. The name Huscarl literally means household man. They were professionals who trained hard, were heavily armed and well armoured. The Fyrd were farmers call up by the thanes as needed, their armour and weapons varied.
We were encouraged to try the weapons and I was very surprised to find how well balanced the Saxon sword was. It was great fun to have a bash at one of their shields. Despite the surviving sagas referring to the shield wall as the linden wall, various woods have been found but not much lime.
One presenter was dressed as a Saxon and the other as a Viking. The entomology of Viking is unclear but it has come to mean Scandinavian or Germanic raiders. The original Vikings did not wear mail or other armour; they did not have room to spare in their boats, especially on the way back home loaded with plunder and slaves. Only when they attempted to settle did they bring armour with them. Nor did they wear horned or winged helms; a Victorian fantasy.
It was a fascinating afternoon. Very enthusiastic presenters. I learnt a lot.