Primary History

Anglo-Saxons: Anglo-Saxons at war

  • How Anglo-Saxons fought

    Anglo-Saxon armies were usually small, with only a few hundred men. The soldiers had spears, axes, swords and bows and arrows. They wore helmets on their heads and carried wooden shields. Everyone fought on foot during a battle. It must have been a bit like a giant rugby scrum, with lots of pushing and yelling, and nasty wounds.

    The most feared Anglo-Saxon weapon was a battle axe, but the most precious weapon was a sword. It took hours of work by a smith to craft a sword. He softened iron in a red-hot fire, twisted iron rods together and hammered the sword into shape.

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  • Part-time soldiers

    Most soldiers had farms, and after a battle went home as soon as they could, to look after their animals and crops. To make sure he had enough soldiers, the king ordered local officials called 'ealdormen' to provide so many men each. The more land you had, the more men you had to provide. These local bands of men made up England's part-time army called the fyrd. If the country was invaded, the king could call up every freeman to join his army.

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  • The warrior code

    The king had a small bodyguard of brave warriors who would die to defend him. The 'warrior-code' of the Anglo-Saxons taught that a warrior must fight and die for his leader, if he had to.

    An Anglo-Saxon poem called The Battle of Maldon tells the story of a battle in Essex in 991, between English and invading Vikings. The English leader allowed the Vikings to cross from their camp for a 'fair fight'. The English lost, but the poem still praises their heroism.

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  • Wars with the Vikings

    Viking attacks on Anglo-Saxon England started at the end of the AD700s. The Vikings came by sea in their longships. They attacked monasteries and churches to steal gold and other treasures. By the 800s, great armies of Vikings roamed England. In AD869, they killed King Edmund of East Anglia.

    After King Alfred of Wessex fought the Vikings, he made peace with them. He built ships and walled towns to defend his kingdom against Viking attacks. However, fighting between the English and the Vikings went on into the AD1000s.

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Fun Facts
  • Only a freeman was allowed a spear. A slave found with a spear was beaten with the wooden shaft until it snapped.

  • Saxon spears were over 2m long (taller than most men), and usually made of ash tree wood.

  • The Saxons used long swords, but they also had a short sword or knife called a seax or scramaseax - from which the name 'Saxon' comes.

  • Throwing spears had barbs or hooks to stick into an enemy.

  • A cure for toothache was to boil a holly leaf, and then yawn over it. The 'toothache worms' would fall out!

  • Kings were called 'ring-givers' or 'givers of treasure'.

  • Some axes were shaped like hammers, and were thrown at the enemy. Ouch!

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Jump to: A-D | E-L | M-R | S-Z

A to D

ale
Drink made from barley.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildings that are buried under the ground.
barn
A farm building.
Bayeux Tapestry
An embroidery telling the story of the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Bede
An English monk and historian. He lived from about 673 to 735.
Beowulf
A long poem about a hero, probably made up before AD 800, and written down later.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
capital
The main town or centre of government of a country.
Celts
People in Britain before the Romans invaded in AD43.
Charlemagne
King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
court
The place where a king meets his followers and gives commands.
cremate
To burn a dead body to ashes.

E to L

evidence
Objects and facts that give clues as to what happened long ago.
freeman
A person who was not a slave and owned land.
Hadrian's Wall
Wall marking the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
historian
A person who studies the past.
hearth
A fireplace, usually in the middle of a house, and with no chimney.
influence
The effect of a person or things on another.
invaders
People who attack and try to take over land from other people.
Latin
Language of the Romans.
longship
Viking ship with a sail and oars.
loom
Machine for weaving cloth.
lyre
A small harp played at Anglo-Saxon feasts.

M to R

mail shirt
Armour made from chain mail, worn on the upper body.
monastery
The building where monks live.
monk
A male member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
nun
A female member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
oxen
Strong cattle used to pull carts and ploughs.
pagan
A person who worships many gods.
Picts
People who lived in Scotland at the time of Roman Britain.
Pope
Head of the Roman Catholic Church.
potter
Person who makes pots, jars and bowls from clay.
raider
An enemy who attacks and then goes away.
rank
Status or position in society.
Reconstruct
To rebuild something as it was.
riddle
A puzzle based on playing with words.
Romans
People who ruled an empire 2,000 years ago
runes
The letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

S to Z

Scots
People in Scotland; they called themselves Gaels - 'Scots' was a name the Romans gave them.
settlement
A place where people make their homes.
slave
A person who is not free but is owned and made to work by another.
smith
A worker who makes things from metal, usually iron.
strip fields
Long narrow ploughed fields.
Sutton Hoo
Site in Suffolk, England, of a king's ship-burial.
thane
An Anglo-Saxon nobleman who owned land.
thatch
A roof covered in straw or reeds.
tribe
A group of people who share a common background and culture.
Vikings
People from Scandinavia who were fighters, sea-travellers, traders and farmers.
walled
Having a defensive wall or wooden barrier around it, such as a walled town.
warrior
A person trained to fight in battle.
weaving
Making cloth.
well
A hole dug to supply drinking water to a settlement or house.
Wergild
Money paid to a murdered Anglo-Saxon's family by the murderer.
will
A document setting out how a person wants their possessions shared out after death.