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Age of Arthur, Early Medieval Wargaming, Historical Wargaming

The Age of Arthur. Post-Roman Britain for the Historical Wargamer, Part 5: The “Saxons” and the Lowlands.

(This originally appeared in Wargames Illustrated 146 (Nov. 1999), pp.41-44)

We left the story of Arthur’s Britain with the end of the Roman state.  This had produced a collapse in the structure of society and economy and something of a political vacuum.  The army seems to have withdrawn to the lowlands in the late fourth century and its former units may have formed the nucleus of warbands of local chiefs, competing with each other.  All in all, though, there was no independently powerful stratum of society which could just take over the running the ex-provinces.  It’s possible that the former town councils functioned as local authorities for a while, but competition within these bodies would have been intense, with no one group being able clearly to dominate proceedings.  As often happens in this sort of situation, powers from outside were drawn in.  One group may well have been the warlords of the highland zones, who, I suggested last time, might have been given authority over the upland regions in the late fourth century, as the regulars withdrew.  The power of these warlords will have been less drastically affected by the withdrawal of the Roman state, and they would be in a good position to move in and take over in the politically unstable lowland civitates (city districts).  We’ll look more at these ‘British highlanders’ next time.

The Inviting of the English

The other group drawn into the political vacuum in the lowlands was, of course, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ from northern Germany.  As was mentioned in Parts 1 and 2, broadly reliable traditions record a formal invitation made to Germanic leaders, later remembered as being called Hengest and Horsa.  The invitation is said by Gildas to have been made by the superbus tyrannus with his ‘council’.  The ‘proud tyrant’ is usually thought to have been Vortigern, but it is possible to re-read the structure of Gildas’ narrative to understand the reference as being to Magnus Maximus (as I pointed out in part 2, Gildas’ historical section falls into two parallel parts which, rather than running sequentially, may have taken place simultaneously), which would date the settlement of these Anglo-Saxon ‘federates’ to the late fourth century.  A ‘treaty’ with the northern Germans makes more sense in the context of a still-functioning empire than in that of political anarchy and civil war.

One problem with this is that archaeology places the appearance of immigrant culture from northern Germany no earlier than the second quarter of the fifth century.  It used to be thought that certain types of pottery (so-called ‘Romano-Saxon ware’) and metalwork revealed the presence of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries in fourth-century Roman Britain.[i]  This is now known not to be the case.  The pottery is clearly Romano-British, and I mentioned last time that the supposedly ‘Germanic federate’ metalwork and weaponry belongs simply to the late Roman army and, in some cases, the civil service (the Roman bureaucracy used military titles and badges of rank).  Nevertheless, the fifth-century date of the archaeological evidence, to which we’ll return, is not a complete obstacle to an earlier, fourth-century date for the arrival of ‘Hengest and Horsa’ (or whatever they were called).  One might expect the use of clearly non-Roman, northern Germanic material and culture to become common only once a significant political and social identity could be constructed around being ‘English’, ‘Saxon’, ‘Jutish’ or whatever.  German leaders within the functioning Roman empire tended to Romanise quickly and do not leave any distinctively non-Roman material behind.  Thus I would expect ‘Anglo-Saxon’ material only to become archaeologically visible after the ‘Saxon revolt’.

Gildas says that the ‘Saxons’ fought well, against the Picts and other enemies of Britain, until their supplies and pay were not forthcoming, when they rebelled.  If (if) Maximus (or possibly Constantine III) had originally installed the Saxons as part of the reforms which involved a withdrawal to the lowlands and the granting of autonomy to the highland chiefs, it is easy to see the break-down of regular pay and supply as taking place in the period of chaos after about 411.  The appearance of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ archaeology soon after would then fit quite well.  Obviously, this is only my own reading of very problematic data which can be understood in several other ways.

The Anglo-Saxon Migration

What was happening on the other side of the North Sea?  Barbarian politics, especially further into ‘Free Germany’ were closely bound up with the Roman Empire.  The Romans paid large sums in ‘gifts’ to their friends across the frontier, to maintain an equilibrium, stop any particular tribal confederacy or king becoming too powerful, and so on.  In turn, the Germanic leaders based a great deal of their local power upon the wealth so obtained, with which they could reward their followers in turn.  When the Western Empire went into crisis after 388, as mentioned last time, and became embroiled in civil wars and internal squabbles, this regulated ‘foreign policy’ system ended.  Just as it did in the provinces, like Britain, this produced chaos in barbaricum.  Leaders may have been driven to seek wealth by raiding; others may simply have followed the retreating empire and its patronage.  Either way, warbands from northern Germany and Scandinavia (perhaps Franks too) were drawn across the North Sea to seek their fortune in Britain.  Some brought their families and dependants with them.  I see the ‘Anglo-Saxon migration’, therefore, as dependent upon the break-up of the western Roman empire.

It used to be though that, following doom-and-gloom contemporaries like Gildas and later writers like Bede, who only knew that in their own day everyone in the lowlands was ‘English’ (whether ‘Angle’, Saxon or Jute[ii]), that the lowlands were swamped by a huge migration of people, who drove out, enslaved or killed the British occupants.  Modern historians have long since abandoned this view, but the archaeology of the lowlands does show new types of artefact, clearly derived from northern Germany, and the introduction of the north German cremation burial rite.  Inhumations with grave-goods (including, importantly for us, weaponry) appear and these have been understood to be those of Anglo-Saxon migrants.  At the same time, the old villas are replaced by new types of settlement with timber-built halls surrounded by ‘sunken huts’ (a tent-like thatched structure set over a cellar dug into the ground) for storage and workshop activities.  These too are thought to be the settlements of immigrant ‘Anglo-Saxons’. 

As I mentioned in part 1, this evidence is now the subject of much (often sterile and facile) debate, about how much of this material culture really is of directly Germanic origin, about how many of these artefacts and buildings need necessarily have been occupied or used by immigrants as opposed to indigenous ‘Britons’ (after all, not everyone who drives a BMW is German!), what may have become of the native Britons and their culture, and so on.  This is not the place for a detailed discussion, but the general view is now that, however numerous they were, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ cannot have formed the majority of the population, and that many ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in the archaeologically-revealed settlements and cemeteries must have been of Romano-British descent.

Once again, I will only give my interpretation – there are many others[iii] – but as this will have some direct implications for wargame reconstructions, it does not seem entirely off-the-point to include it.  Put briefly, my own view is that in the political chaos of the earlier fifth century, there were several options open to a lowland Romano-British aristocrat who wished to hang on to his local power: he could try to set himself up on his own; he could throw in his lot with what was left of the Roman army; he could join his fortunes to those of the highland warlords who, I think, were expanding their power into the lowlands; or he could take sides with the ‘Saxons’ (as we’ll see, this can provide the scenario for interesting wargames).  As stated last time, given the limited social and economic power of the late Roman British ‘squirearchy’, the first option would not get you very far for very long.  The second option might be better but command of these residual Roman forces was probably open to competition, and the ‘sub-Romans’ would rapidly be squeezed between the other two factions: the ‘British’ and the ‘Saxons’.  These apparently provided the most effective military backing for those who threw in their lot with them, and politics eventually (certainly by the sixth century) became a play-off between ‘British’ and ‘Saxon’ factions (the sort of confrontation which formed the basis of later stories of Vortigern versus Hengest, and so on).  Romano-British identity was squeezed out, because there was no political or social mileage in it.

In this context, with the weakness of Roman culture and the political choices to be made between ‘British’ or ‘Saxon’, it is not surprising that people began to use objects, customs and so on which were derived ultimately from north Germany, and, by the seventh century at least, spoke a language called English, especially as the ‘Saxon’ factions gradually came to have the upper hand.  People ‘became Saxon’.  Of the people who, by Bede’s day, called themselves Englisc, an unknown number (certainly a minority) were genetically directly descended from immigrants from northern Germany, but most were the descendants of the old Roman Britons; to contemporaries it did not matter.  Ethnic identities were malleable in this period, when new ‘peoples’ were forming.  This means that it is a mistake to try to unravel from the archaeology of cemeteries and settlements the ‘immigrants’ from the ‘natives’.  An ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture, and an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ identity had been formed and all those who used or subscribed to it were Anglo-Saxons, regardless of their geographical or genetic origins.

Archaeology and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Warriors (figure 1)

Once again, perhaps surprisingly, this ‘social history’ has important implications for the wargamer.  If the idea that the ‘Britons’ and the ‘Saxons’ were genetically, ‘racially’, culturally distinct and hermetically-sealed wholes has, rightly, been discarded, it has nevertheless left a considerable legacy on subconscious assumptions about early medieval Britain.  For one thing, it is usually assumed that the British aristocracy fought mounted, whereas the ‘Germanic’ Anglo-Saxons had some cultural block which prevented them from doing so; thus the Anglo-Saxons always fought on foot.  Once we realise that there was no rigid racial or cultural barrier between ‘Saxons’ and ‘Britons’, that insular ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture was something of a hybrid, that ‘Englishness’ was as much a political badge as anything, and that most ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were descended from ‘Roman Britons’, then this assumption begins to look a bit ludicrous.  The ‘Anglo-Saxons’, in Britain at least, could draw upon the same traditions of mounted fighting as the ‘Britons’.  In fact, academic opinion is coming round to the idea that the Anglo-Saxons could and did fight mounted in any case.  We’ll come back to this, but for now the important implication is that lowland ‘Anglo-Saxon’ armies should probably include mounted warriors just as much as their ‘British’ enemies.  The problem, as we’ll see, is more to do with assuming a modern distinction between ‘cavalry’ and ‘infantry’; the early medieval warrior could fight on horseback or on foot as the occasion demanded.

More significantly for the purposes of this article, it means that the old problem of the ‘invisibility’ of the Britons is, partly at least, side-stepped.  The rite of burial with grave-goods is not to be viewed as simply ‘Germanic’; it is a general post-Roman northern provincial phenomenon which draws most heavily on Roman traditions.  If we note this and the points made above, then the weaponry found in the hundreds of cemeteries across lowland Britain can validly be used to look at the appearance of ‘lowland British’ as well as ‘Saxon’ warriors.

So, what do we know about the equipment of lowland warriors between 400 and 600?[iv]  The first point to make is that warriors were primarily spearmen.  Spears make up the largest number of weapon finds[v] and come in a variety of forms.  There are lozenge-shaped and leaf-shaped heads, heads with an angular profile and others with ‘corrugated’ heads (which allows the blade to be lightened without weakening it).  Some are rather small, perhaps being javelin-heads, whereas others can be long and broad bladed.  Other spearheads have small heads but long, slender metal shanks, and are descendants of the Roman pilum.  These were probably used as specialized ‘heavy throwing weapons’.  Some resemble Frankish angones and are similarly likely to have been the weapons of wealthier or more specialist warriors.  Nevertheless, we should always remember that many other heavier types of spear could be thrown with similar effect.  Interestingly, the chronology of the development of spears suggests that the smaller heads and other specialized throwing spears (like the ‘angones’ and the corrugated blades) are generally earlier, belonging to the fifth and sixth centuries.  As we move into the late sixth and seventh centuries, spearheads become longer and broader.  This would suggest a change from fighting styles which emphasized fluidity, movement and missiles (perhaps partly at least descended from late Roman tactics) towards closer fighting tactics involving stout thrusting spears.  Much of the other archaeological evidence points the same way.  Warriors in the fifth and sixth-century lowlands probably carried several spears, for throwing and thrusting.

The axe was not much employed as a weapon in ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ until the Viking period.  As mentioned last time, the single-handed axe was used as a side-arm by the late Roman army in Britain, but it does not appear to have lasted very long into the post-Roman period.  Härke[vi] lists twenty-five finds of axes.  Interestingly, they are almost entirely from what were to become the ‘Saxon’ areas of England (Essex and England south of the Thames).  Rather than, as is usually assumed, being Frankish imports (though this is very possible), these axes, as in Gaul, may be an inheritance from the late Roman army in the south.  As we shall see next time, other evidence might support this.  The axes, fifteen of which are of the francisca, throwing-axe type and ten of which are one-handed battle-axes, date from the fifth and sixth centuries, with the franciscae seeming to be earlier.  Again, throwing weapons belonging to more mobile, open fighting styles belong to the fifth and earlier sixth centuries.

From the late sixth century, the most common side-arm in Anglo-Saxon England was the seax or scramasax, a single edged dagger, which replaced the axe and may have been introduced from Merovingian Gaul.[vii]  More wargames figures ought to be depicted with seaxes rather than swords.  As in Gaul,[viii] the seax developed from short, narrow-bladed versions in the sixth century through broad-bladed versions in the seventh to longer broad-bladed seaxes in the seventh and eighth centuries.

Swords were, of course, used by early Anglo-Saxon warriors,[ix] although they are found more rarely in graves than in Merovingian Francia.  This does not necessarily mean that Anglo-Saxon warriors used swords more rarely in life than Frankish warriors.  The Anglo-Saxon weapon-burial custom differed in several respects from that in Gaul, and the reasons revolve around ritual and society rather than military reality.  On the whole (with a few notable exceptions) weapon-burials are less lavish in England.  The general form of the sword remains pretty constant: a long, two-edged slashing weapon with a straight guard (the downward-curving Anglo-Saxon guard was introduced in the ninth century).  The developments concern the form and decoration of the hilt, pommel and chape – elements usually too small to be featured on wargames figures.

It is often thought that the Anglo-Saxons made little or no use of archery.  Certainly, by the time written descriptions become common in the ‘late Saxon’ period, the archer does not seem to have featured prominently, but this does not necessarily apply to the period which concerns us here.  It is a mistake still too often made to assume that we can take evidence from one end of the ‘Anglo-Saxon period’ and apply it to the other.[x]  The dynamic change and diversity in this period utterly invalidates this approach.  Härke, in his study of early Anglo-Saxon weapon burials,[xi] maps thirty-seven finds of arrows or traces of bows in lowland Britain, although such finds formed only a tiny fraction of his sample of scientifically excavated graves.  It is difficult to do very much with this information, though, for the interesting reason that, amongst Härke’s scientific sample, arrows were only found in child graves!  They may thus have been included as ‘token weapons’.  Another interesting point, related to this, which differs from the continental situation and might, this time, have some bearing on battlefield realities, is that bow remains and arrows are not, on the whole, found in well-furnished weapon burials.  Given the symbolic value of such items as weapons, though, all this ought nevertheless to imply that archery played some role on the immediately post-Roman British battlefield.  Perhaps we should take this in conjunction with the point made above about more mobile, missile-based warfare in the fifth and sixth centuries; perhaps we could make the rather risky but not implausible extrapolation that archery was practised by adolescents and younger men who had not yet acquired full warrior status.

Shields[xii] form an important component of the finds of early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military equipment.  These, by contrast with swords, are much more common in England than in Gaul, once again reflecting differences in ritual rather than battlefield actuality.  Recently studied in depth by Dickinson and Härke, Anglo-Saxon shields show an interesting pattern of development.  In the fifth century, they develop from the sharply conical bosses of the late Roman army, to develop extended spikes projecting from the end of the cone.  At the same time, the boss develops a more pronounced ‘shoulder’ and at the end of the century, the ‘spike’ has its end flattened into a disc, resembling a sort of ‘golf-tee’.  This form, with the ‘terminal disc’ is usual in the sixth century.  In the seventh century, bosses lose the disc, become more rounded and eventually evolve into the long ‘sugar-loaf’ boss of the middle Saxon period.  This evidence can be read in conjunction with the other data to suggest a change in fighting styles.  The spikes and, especially, the terminal discs are best understood as designed to ‘fence’ with, catching and deflecting the enemy’s blades.  In connection with this, the early shields are small, some perhaps only 34-42 cm in diameter.  Clearly, the fifth/sixth-century shield was a buckler intended to be moved about.  On the other hand, seventh-century shields become larger (70-92 cm in diameter); together with the big ‘sugar-loaf’ bosses this would, again, suggest closer fighting styles – perhaps a greater reliance on the ‘shield-wall’.

Little or no early Anglo-Saxon armour has come down to us.  There are only three extant early Anglo-Saxon helmets: Sutton Hoo, Benty Grange, and a recently discovered example from Wellingborough.[xiii]  Mail body armour is, as far as I am aware, known only from the famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo.  No examples of the Spangenhelm style of helmet[xiv] have been found in early Anglo-Saxon lowland Britain.  Instead, the Benty Grange and (I think) Wellingborough helmets are of a type with a boar crest and a frame of iron reinforcing bars (the ‘bowl of the helmet being perhaps bone or leather); a boar figurine from Guilden Morden suggests another example of this type of helmet, which may have been typical in England (it is illustrated in an eighth-century manuscript).  The Sutton Hoo helmet is not of this type, being more closely related to Swedish examples, ultimately descended from late Roman two-part bowl ‘ridge helmets’ (although it should be stressed that the Sutton Hoo helmet is NOT itself a late Roman helmet); but this helmet really needs no introduction.

The paucity of finds of armour from lowland Britain should not be taken to imply an actual rarity of helmets and body armour.  Such finds are rarer still in the heartlands of the Merovingian kingdoms, yet relatively abundant on its fringes, in the Rhineland and in Alamannia (with several examples of lamellar and mail body armour, bronze lamellar armour for a horse’s forehead, a couple of dozen helmets, and so on).  Do we assume that the Alamans, Frisians and Rhineland Franks were better equipped than the warriors of the royal Merovingian household?  Furthermore, if helmets were so rare that they were hardly ever buried (as we are often had to believe), why are almost all of the examples which are known to us, top-of-the-range, often richly decorated examples?  Again, we have to remember that putting material in a burial was part of an active, social ritual, not a passive reflection of everyday or battlefield reality.  The rite in England was not as extreme as in, say, Alamannia (where graves are much more lavishly furnished all round, and often include the burial of whole horses), and thus the deposition of armour was less necessary.  I think that some form of protection (helmets and metallic body armour) is likely to have been very common amongst the more hardened and experienced warriors; further down the scale, helmets at least were probably used (perhaps of leather or of only partly metal construction) and leather or hide body armour.  Only very poor, rarely employed ‘levy’ spearmen will not have been able to attempt to acquire some form of protection beyond a shield.

Those damned Saxon war-dogs

In Cornwell’s ‘Warlord’ trilogy the Saxons make use of large mastiffs to try to break up the enemy shield-wall.  We now see such war-dogs appearing in ‘early Saxon’ ranges of wargames figures.  Come on!  This is a work of fiction!  It’s a nice idea but there is no evidence of any kind for these beasts.  One can’t blame Cornwell; he is writing a novel, and the inclusion of these animals – interesting and not impossible – adds extra colour to the narrative.  These war-dogs are theoretically possible, but so are many things, and can you imagine a (theoretically possible) breech-loading rifle-armed British army unit invented for a ‘Sharpe-style’ Napoloeonic novel being accepted in a historical Napoleonic wargame??

Next time: The ‘Britons’ and the Highlands


[i]           You will find this theory in its grandest manifestation in J.N.L. Myres, The English Settlements (Oxford, 1986).

[ii]           The Old English word for themselves was Englisc (pronounced ‘English’); ‘Angle’ is a modern version of the Latinized form of this, Anglii.

[iii]          E.g.: C.J. Arnold, The Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms  (London, 1988); S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester, 1989); K.R. Dark, From Civitas to Kingdom.  British Political Continuity, 300-800 (London, 1994); N. Higham, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons (London, 1992); N. Higham, The English Conquest. Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994); M.E. Jones, The End of Roman Britain (Ithaca, 1996); D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings. (London, 1991); B.A.E. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1990).  For my views, see ‘Movers and Shakers: The Barbarians and the Fall of Rome.’ Early Medieval Europe 8.1 (1999), pp.131-45.

[iv]          If you can get hold of it, and can read German, probably the best recent general treatment of the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon military equipment is H. Härke, Angelsächsische Waffengräber des 5. bis 7. Jahrhunderts (Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters, Beiheft 6) (Köln, 1992).  There is an English summary of Härke’s findings on pp.226-7.

[v]           See M. Swanton, The Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements (London, Royal Archaeological Institute, 1973), which has a useful catalogue of weapon burials on pp.146-213.

[vi]          As note 4, p.107

[vii]         See D. Gale, ‘The Seax’, in S. Chadwick Hawkes (ed.) Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 1989), pp.71-83.

[viii]          See G. Halsall, ‘The Merovingian Franks, Part 3’, Wargames Illustrated 62, pp.29-34.

[ix]          See H.R. Ellis-Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Its Archaeology and Literature (Oxford, 1962); P. Bone, ‘The development of Anglo-Saxon swords from the fifth to the eleventh century’, in S. Chadwick Hawkes (ed.) Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 1989), pp.63-70.

[x]           See, for example the use of the eleventh-century Old English poem Maldon as evidence for warfare in the fourth to sixth centuries, not only in England but in Europe, by S. MacDowall, Germanic Warrior 236-568 AD (Osprey Warrior Series 17). Sadly this book is a catalogue of factual errors, and should be avoided; see my critique in Slingshot 192 (July, 1997), pp.31-4.  To be fair, I was equally, if not more, guilty of the same flawed approach in some of my early work.

[xi]          As note 4, p.108.

[xii]         See the excellent detailed treatment by T.M. Dickinson & H. Härke, Early Anglo-Saxon Shields (Archaeologia 110) (London, 1992). 

[xiii]         The York Coppergate helmet is later than the period that concerns us.

[xiv]         Which I illustrated in ‘The Merovingian Franks, Part 3’ (above, n.8).



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