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....
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)
Did Anglo-Saxons use solid gold coins? What on earth is a "mancus"? And why did King Offa of Mercia put his name on a fake Islamic coin?
One of the most curious coins in the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is a small (20mm diameter) gold coin found in Rome in the 19th century, weighing 4.3g, and which carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side. In all other respects it is clearly a copy of a dinar minted by the Abbasid caliph.
It is also clear that the Mercian die-cutter did not recognise the patterns on the coin he was copying to be a form of writing, much less understand it, perhaps thinking it was merely decorative, as the coin bears the inscription “ There is no God but Allah alone without equal, and Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah ” albeit with a number of mistakes. It also features the date of issue of the coin being copied -ah 157 or 773-4 CE - in the very middle of Offa’s reign, suggesting the parent coin itself was surprisingly new when it was plagiarised.
This coin is often speculatively connected to the a ‘Peter’s Pence’ levy of 365 gold coins which Offa collected and paid annually to the Pope, from 796 CE (Williams, 2008). This levy was known as the ‘Rome-scot’ - the latter part deriving from the Old English name for a different coin (the small thick early Anglo-Saxon silver ‘sceat’). It’s tempting to imagine the bewilderment of the pontiff receiving 365 such coins from a Christian king each bearing ‘the shahada’ (the Islamic Declaration of Faith), but in fact, the dinar on which they were based would have been very familiar in Rome, where all manner of high-value solid gold coins collided....
Exploring the history, archaeology and cultures of the "Anglo-Saxon Period" (encompassing the Migration and Viking Ages).