(This article was published on my previous website, but as that's no longer running and the content seems appropriate to this blog, I'm presenting it once again. I've corrected a confused sentence where I'd missed an 's' out of a battle's name, which according to one commentator invalidated the whole article. Nice one! This was originally written for a US military history magazine back in the early 2000s but was never published.)
The most popular image of warfare in the British Dark Ages involved agile mounted Britons fighting foot sore Anglo-Saxons. Yet how realistic is this picture of the Anglo-Saxons not using cavalry?
The Anglo-Saxons are famed for fighting the Vikings and losing the Battle of Hastings to William of Normandy. Yet they first arrived in the British Isles as mercenary troops fighting for the Roman authorities, beginning seven centuries of rising Anglo-Saxon power in Britain (ended by William’s victory at Hastings in 1066). Others came independently of Roman persuasion, firstly as sea-borne raiders and then as settlers. By the time the Roman authorities withdrew their armies in the early fifth century AD, the various Germanic tribes who would become known as the Anglo-Saxons were starting to feel at home in the British lowlands, living side by side with the native Britons (the three ‘traditional’ groups – the Saxons, Angles and Jutes – were in reality only three of many tribes who arrived).
Legend has it that the British High King Vortigern invited three ships of Saxons to fight the Picts and Irish on his behalf in the mid-fifth century; whether Vortigern really existed, and whether or not he personally invited approximately 100 Saxon warriors to fight for him does not really matter, as we can be certain other real warlords did, following the precedent set by their Roman forebears. In time, Anglo-Saxon warlords began to carve out their own kingdoms, taking land from the Britons and from each other. By the late seventh century AD, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms such as Wessex, Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia dominated lowland Britain.
The classic example given of a warband in Britain between AD450 and AD700 – and that most frequently written about – is that of Arthur. Clearly, most commentators announce, the mythological Arthur is remembered as a knight as both he and his men fought as cavalrymen, charging their opponents on horseback. In all likelihood, based on poetic sources, they actually threw javelins instead of charging with couched lances. The modern representation of Arthur presents problems within itself, but it seems very likely that the Britons did fight from horseback, either frequently or just on occasion. If Arthur could do this, why can we not reason that his Anglo-Saxon opponents would have done the same?
The few sources available today that mention battle tactics do actually show why we think of the Anglo-Saxons purely as foot warriors in battle. The situations involved (such as the defence of a hall as depicted on the Frank’s Casket) dictate that the warriors would have been on foot. Indeed, the school of thought declaring that Anglo-Saxons always fought on foot appears to have taken rise from the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry and other accounts of Hastings. This, of course, equates to the evidence of one sole battle, fought in the mid-eleventh century, where the Anglo-Saxons were indisputably fighting a battle from a defensive position (a hill) against an army with cavalry perceived to be superior amongst their peers in north-western Europe. There would have been no advantage in the Anglo-Saxons fighting from horseback at Hastings.
Another event often quoted as evidence of the Anglo-Saxons as having fought exclusively on foot comes from a battle in Herefordshire in 1055, where the fyrd fled before contact was made with the Welsh enemy as they had been ordered to fight on horseback – against their custom. This document refers, however, to the mustered part-timers who formed the fyrd, not the professional warriors of a king; it seems rare throughout the early medieval period (or indeed in earlier or later times – the training was simply not there) for any part-time force to have fought in any style more sophisticated than a shieldwall or ill-organized mob. Most accounts of battles contain absolutely no information on how the warriors fought or the overall tactics within the battle; sometimes we cannot even be sure which army was the aggressor, or even where the battle was fought.
Another well-known argument against the familiarity of Anglo-Saxon warriors with horses is the story of the high-ranking Angle who, when visiting Rome, was ridiculed for his inability to ride a horse – apparently this was common among his people. This evidence seems less likely given the spate of horse burials discovered in Anglo-Saxon graves towards the end of the twentieth century. Judging the ability of a nation on the action of one individual, and hearsay about his fellow kin, is dubious – I do not swim well, but it would be unfair to judge all Britons by my standards (although, given our usual performances … make up your own mind!).
Others concede that the Anglo-Saxons would have used horses, but for strategic movement only. This idea of mounted infantry is reasonable, and probably did occur – especially given some of the proposed distances that early medieval armies travelled to give battle. However, as you will read later in this article, the case for the Anglo-Saxon professional warriors having the capability to fight from horseback – as well as travelling to the battlefield on horseback – is stronger than many commentators would have you believe. It is time that the case for the use of horses in battle, not just for strategic movement, by the professional warriors in an Anglo-Saxon warband is heard.
The famous sixth and seventh century Anglo-Saxon burials at Sutton Hoo have revealed horse cremations left as grave goods in Mounds 3 and 4, a horse harness in Mound 17, a horse inhumation associated to Burial 10. Warrior burials at Lakenheath in Suffolk, excavated in 1997 and 1999, were also accompanied by horses. An earlier discovery at Mildenhall, near Lakenheath in Suffolk, of an inhumation burial accompanied by a sword placed between two horses. These burials show that the horse was considered a prestige possession in Anglo-Saxon warrior society at that time – and given the usual military goods accompanying such burial, it is more than possible that the accompanying horses were part of this ethic too.
The seventh century Sutton Hoo helmet has a decorative plate showing a bareheaded cavalryman riding down a footman. The horseman carries a spear and small shield, and does not use stirrups. Also, a helmet plate from Mound 1 at Vendel shows a helmeted, eagle-crested warrior riding a horse armed with a spear and shield. These two contemporary pieces of artwork suggest that the Anglo-Saxons and their Swedish kinsmen were familiar with fighting mounted.
Carvings also lend support to the existence of a cavalry arm in Anglo-Saxon armies. The seldom-referenced Repton cross – believed to depict the Mercian king Aethelbald (d757) – shows a moustached warrior, equipped with a sword, shield and perhaps scale or chainmail armour. The better known, but often misunderstood, Aberlemno churchyard stone almost certainly depicts Anglo-Saxon cavalrymen too. Thought to be a commemoration of the Pictish victory over the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dunnichen (685), representation of helmeted and shielded horsemen should be considered to depict the Northumbrian king and, by association, his personal warband. A broad interpretation of the battle scenes shows the rout of the Northumbrians by lighter-armed Pictish cavalrymen after a failed attack on an unmounted Pictish shieldwall. This outcome reversed an earlier battle where the Northumbrian cavalry overcame Pictish opposition, where it was recorded that the Northumbrians filled two rivers with the corpses of Pictish dead.
Aside from the pictorial and burial evidence, we should not forget that the language of the Anglo-Saxons included the following words:
Ridda – rider
Ridehere – mounted raiding force
Ridwiga – one who fights on horseback
Eored – mounted troop
Should we believe that these quite specific descriptions were relevant only to the enemies of the Anglo-Saxons, or to their own troops too? Beowulf, though fictional, makes mention of mounted warriors, which would have struck a hollow chord with Dark Ages listeners if their contemporary warriors couldn’t do so themselves. Later Anglo-Saxon law (c1023) stipulated that the heriot of an earl including eight horses (four with saddles) alongside military equipment such as four helmets, four mail coats, four swords, eight spears and eight shields – enough to equip four armoured cavalrymen and four lesser cavalrymen. These horses may possibly have been for transport only, but there is no surviving suggestion that the horsemen would have dismounted to fight. Indeed, if Snorri Sturluson’s account is to be believed, the Anglo-Saxons successfully mounted a cavalry charge at the Battle of Stamford Bridge shortly before Hastings in 1066; Florence of Worcester also considered the Anglo-Saxons to fight from horseback in Scotland and Wales in the 1050s and 1060s.
Two names linked to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, whether real of legendary, are the Germanic warlords Hengist and Horsa. Hengist translates as ‘stallion’ and Horsa translates as ‘horse’. Is it just coincidence that these two influential warlords carried equine names? Probably, yet we cannot be sure.
Several of the famous, ancient (yet undated) chalk figures that adorn southern British hills depict horses, and the possibility of these chalk horses as a symbol of Anglo-Saxon battle victory has been suggested in the past; sadly, modern investigation suggests that these sculptures are not from the Dark Ages, with the possible exception of the Red Horse of Tysoe. Yet the idea that the horse was a symbol of Anglo-Saxon military prowess to many antiquarians – coupled with the names of Hengist and Horsa – suggest that our perceptions of the role of the horse in Anglo-Saxon society could benefit from reassessment.
It should not be presumed that the professional warriors of early Anglo-Saxon armies were any more naïve than their contemporaries. To assume that they were not prepared to use the horse as a fighting platform is, if you excuse the term, a blinkered view. A professional warrior should be considered a professional warrior regardless of ethnicity, and as such, should be credited with having had the ability to choose the best way to fight his or her own battle. The strategies and grand tactics may not have been sophisticated, yet we have no reason to believe that our fifth, sixth and seventh century professionals were significantly less able than their British, Merovingian, or Gothic counterparts.
So, if the Anglo-Saxons did make use of the horse as a fighting platform, when did mustered footmen generally replace personal cavalry retinues as the main construct of an army? The sensible date to see this occurrence is at the formation of the early English kingdoms, when these new kingdoms were able to unite many men under one battle standard. Any enemy wishing to oppose such an army would have to follow suit to contend the battlefield, and combine its own warband with that of confederates. Before this date most fighting would almost certainly have been left to the professionals – sometimes on horseback?
For further reading, Daniel Mersey recommends the following books: his own Legendary Warriors; Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain; Martin Carver’s Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?; and Richard Underwood’s Anglo-Saxon Weapons & Warfare.
Article © 2003 Daniel Mersey
Originally published at: www.freewebs.com/merseybooks