Shields were arguably the most crucial and universal tool of the Anglo-Saxon battlefield, and their degraded remains - mainly iron fittings - are fairly frequent finds from early Anglo-Saxon graves. While most shields appear. at least in terms of metal fittings, to have been relatively plain, the famous kingly shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1 was enormously elaborate and ostentatious, with fierce and glittering golden animal fittings, a bronze rim, and an elaborately decorated shield boss integrating embossed foils and garnets. Between these extremes its fair to assume the visual impact of shields reflected the status of its owner, but what of the shields from the other famous treasure-filled princely burials? Were they similarly impressive?
Detailed examination of the remains of these lesser-known 'princely' shields reveals a number of surprises....
In the frequently damp environment of early medieval Britain and western Europe sheaths were essential for valuable ferrous blades, including swords, war-seaxes and smaller utility knives. The sophisticated and labour-intensive construction of sword scabbards, formed of animal-hair lined carved wooden plates enclosed in leather or hide (“skin product”) is evidence of the priority given to protecting blades. Well preserved examples of seax sheaths, mainly from productive leatherworking sites of the mid-to-late Anglo-Saxon period, at York and Gloucester (Cameron, 2000) as well as more trace evidence from earlier grave finds, demonstrates the high level of craftsmanship which went into these, usually of a single piece of folded and moulded skin-product, sometimes intricately decorated, as might be expected given that the sheath, and not the blade, was the most visible component of any seax assemblage day to day and therefore an important surface for wealth display. Vastly more common but nevertheless valuable personal possessions and often of sophisticated smithcraft, smaller utility and eating-knives also required tight-fitting sheaths of valuable skin-product, but despite the abundance of such knives in the archaeological record, for a wide range of reasons clues about the sheaths of smaller knives are scarcer than for larger seaxes.
It might be reasonable, and has been the practice among more detail-oriented living historians and reenactors, to assume that sheaths of smaller knives in, for example, the early Anglo-Saxon period, might be miniature analogues of those of larger seaxes, yet fragmentary sheath remains from a handful of well-studied early Anglo-Saxon sites appear surprisingly crude, with amateurish stitching having unattractively contorted the seams in a way that might disgust a modern leatherworker. There is no reason not to think these examples are not well representative, and indeed, many of the later (Viking-Age) knife-sheath remains from York, though often skilfully decorated, bear the tell-tale marks and contortions of this same rudimentary stitch work.
It is always tempting to base the sheaths of our knives on the very fanciest, and neatest archaeological examples to hand, and perhaps neaten them up with some more modern handiwork, but this can lead to a creeping departure from what is truly known of the historic craft culture purportedly represented. In contrast, replicating (to our modern eyes) “unbecoming” examples might provide useful, practical insights into why they were made this way. Such is the case with these apparently crudely stitched knife sheaths – our experiments in replicating them have revealed what might be a cunning Dark Age leatherworker’s “life-hack” which made the tricky shaping of sheaths vastly quicker and more reliable.
There is little doubt that the two-edged sword was the most cherished and doom-laden weapon in the Anglo-Saxon period, always of impressive craftsmanship, laboriously and expensively wrought, often richly decorated, and even sometimes named and personified (Brunning, 2013).
Given the strategic and cultural importance of these weapons, and the six century duration of the period, we might expect to see an ‘adaptive radiation’ of fundamentally different sword types, with different vocabulary preserved in literature, yet the design of Anglo-Saxon swords appears to have been highly conserved - tweaked and improved gradually over time but not splintering off into substantially different types. While it may always be tempting for weaponologists to introduce technical vocabulary and typology, such as the glossing of all swords from the Migration Age until the Crusades with the exotic and anachronistic term “spatha” (which refers more particularly to the related Roman “long” sword), the lack of coexisting diversity of blade types for most of the Anglo-Saxon period renders this unnecessary; it is perfectly sufficient to refer to all such weapons with the word they themselves used, and handed down to us; “sword”.
That being said, a variety of terms do occur in Old English texts to refer to these noble double-edged weapons. While most can be interpreted merely as kennings - figurative circumlocutions or euphemisms used in the place of the word “sword” in poetry to add colour, variation and/or to better fit the metre - one example; the word “mēċe” shows up surprisingly frequently and has its own set of compounds alongside “sword”. Could “mēċe” actually represent a distinct form of blade? Did the Anglo-Saxons use two different types of swords after all?
Few, or perhaps no items of personal warrior gear are more important to our image of an Anglo-Saxon, or Viking warrior than the shield. Our understanding of this most essential piece of war-gear is informed, to some extent by pictorial depictions and written references, but, mainly, by patchy but nonetheless reliable inferences from cemetery archaeology.
Of the studies of Anglo-Saxon shields, arguably the most frequently cited, and informative, is Dickinson and Härke (1992) which, among other issues, seeks to shed light on the murky subject of shield size. Many readers, particularly those from the reenactment community, will be surprised to read that shields could often be as small as 34cm – certainly of no use for building interlocking 'shield-walls' described in later poetry, which we are led to believe was the dominant combat strategy as far back as the period of pagan burials.
Over 20 years on from the publication of this still critically important work, this observation has gradually exerted influence on some modern impressions of warriors from the period, and even beyond, given the limited evidence for late Anglo-Saxon shields, and limited availability of information on 'Viking' ones. It is further, not uncommon to hear, repeated by respected historians, the assertion that most early Anglo-Saxon shields were “little more than bucklers”. To what extent is this statement accurate? Just how small were Anglo-Saxon shields?
(Article originally published in March 2016, Thegns of Mercia blog. Updated March 2021)
Exploring the history, archaeology and cultures of the "Anglo-Saxon Period" (encompassing the Migration and Viking Ages).