Category: Famous Anglo-Saxons

Famous Anglo-Saxons

In this part of the website, we provide more information about some better-known Anglo-Saxons. There are lords and ladies, bishops and abbesses, poets and scholars. You can see the list of names in the menu on the right, or use the search option to look for individuals.

We will be writing new pieces regularly so do come back to see who has been added.

King Harold’s Army

Harold’s Army

The king always had with him his personal bodyguard – chosen men with no other function but to protect their lord with their lives. In return, they expected to be housed, fed, paid, and given a share of any plunder. If they survived long enough, they might be rewarded with a gift of land to retire on. They travelled on horseback, but fought on foot, grouped around their king and their standard. They used the fearsome two-handed axe, like the ‘huscarles’ of the Danish king Cnut two generations previously. They wore long mail shirts and iron helmets for protection, and carried wooden shields.


In time of war, the king called on his ‘Ealdormen’ who were regional leaders acting in his name. They would then call out their own personal bodyguards and all the ‘thanes’ of their shires – those local lords who had pledged to fight when called in return for their land. Thanes usually provided their own weapons and armour, travelled on horseback, but fought on foot. These were probably the men of the ‘fyrd’ – they had farms and estates to run and did not expect to fight for very long periods and in most years not at all. The basic weapons were shield and spear, with either a small axe, or a long knife for hand-to-hand fighting.  Richer thanes may have owned a sword. These were the warriors who wanted to return home in the late summer of 1066 to bring in the harvest.


Thanes may have called on some of their ‘churls’ as cooks, wagon-drivers, scouts, smiths or servants:  ‘churls’ were farmers who had no traditional duty to fight. They may, however, have volunteered if they were ambitious, or may have been caught up in the battle (the Bayeux Tapestry shows some Englishmen fighting with clubs and spades, and other unarmoured spearmen fighting on a hill).
Except for the king’s huscarles, therefore, the army was a rather loose and temporary affair. The men fought through duty to their lord, rather than through any sense of patriotism.


The English tradition was to fight on foot in a ‘shield-wall’ where each man interlocked his shield to his comrade’s to left and right. As long as the shield-wall held, defeat was impossible. Individuals, however, might well step out in front to perform acts of individual bravery. There seems to have been little attention paid on either side to the vulnerable ‘flanks’ of the army (the ends of the battle-line).
The best-armoured warriors no doubt stood in the front rank. There’s some debate about whether the huscarles were thinly spread all along the front line to provide a hard ‘crust’ to the army, or grouped in depth around the king and his standard – which seems more probable.
Just one English archer is shown in Bayeux Tapestry. They may have been regarded merely as skirmishers, and had no part in any coherent battle-plan. Perhaps they were the young sons of thanes, getting a first taste of war. The other English answer to Norman archery was to lock shields or throw stones.
Leaders fought on foot and seemed not to be interested in ‘directing’ a battle according to any real plan: battle-tactics seem to have involved a straight clash of arms with the best side winning. Where they wished to influence the outcome, it tended to be either by catching the enemy by surprise, or by encouraging treachery on the other side. There’s some debate about whether or not the English fought on horseback when circumstances were favourable.


At Hastings, the English warriors fought on foot against an enemy on horseback. They probably soon came to regret their apparent lack of archers, for the Norman bowmen were a constant irritation who could easily out-run the heavy English infantry if threatened. What they may never have realized during the battle, however, was Duke William’s main advantage: his control of battle tactics. William organized his army into sections which advanced or fell back at his direction, and he constantly rode up and down the battlefield to see that his orders were being carried out. Harold seems simply to have stood and slugged it out.


Battles in this period were very rare events. The role of an army was generally to ‘lay waste’ the enemy’s lands and plunder its wealth. It was essential, therefore, that warriors were mounted, for speed and mobility.  The three battles of the Hastings campaign, especially coming, as they did in quick succession, were very unusual indeed.  Hastings itself was an exceptionally long battle– the huge physical and emotional stress of a stand-up hand-to-hand fight meant that engagements could rarely last more than an hour or so before one side gave way, or both sides collapsed from exhaustion. 


We know less about the Battle of Hastings than is sometimes claimed: there are hints in the sources that Harold’s army was taken by surprise before it was ready, and that some of Harold’s men deserted before the battle even began. We don’t know exactly when Harold’s two brothers were killed, what eventually led to the break-up of Harold’s shield wall, or how Harold himself died. There’s disagreement about how many times the Norman cavalry charged up the hill to attack Harold’s men, or whether their retreats to lure the English from their position were planned or not.
The only thing that does seem certain, however, is that although Harold and the last Anglo-Saxon army fought hard and long on 14 October 1066, it was ultimately overcome by William’s ruthless and efficient fighting machine.

William’s Problems after 1066

1066 – After the Battle

With Harold fallen, and the survivors of the English fyrd having melted away into the night, Harold’s huscarles held their ground and fought on grimly until they were cut down and killed.  After the slaughter, William and his army must have been exhausted, and no doubt slept in their armour on the battlefield.

When they had rested, the army marched on London. After some resistance at first, the city surrendered. William probably received some reinforcements from Normandy, and on Christmas Day 1066, had himself crowned king of England. Now, he had to decide what to do next.

Role play

With a partner, imagine you’re William, and decide how to deal with each problem.  Some possible solutions to each problem are given, but you may think of others!

My army is quite big, and it’s expensive to keep going…
*Tell them all to go home: the war’s over.
* Keep some of them – I must have an army!
*Keep them all –the war’s not over yet
*Sell the horses and armour
*Make the English pay for my army

My knights are expecting big rewards for having risked their lives for me…
* Say ‘thanks’ and tell them to go home
* Give them English land

My mercenaries need to be paid… 
* Make the English pay, then send them home
* Tell them I haven’t got any money

I’m in a foreign city: I don’t feel safe …
*Just go home to Normandy
* Build a palace in the countryside
* Build a castle in the heart of the city
* Pretend I’m not scared

I can’t speak their language…
* Make them learn French
* Learn English
* Hire interpreters
* Who cares about their stupid language?

William’s Army

Duke William’s land was ruled by powerful lords, who owed him their loyalty. Whenever he needed them, he expected them also to supply varying numbers of mounted warriors – his knights.
These men were trained from an early age to ride and fight together in groups of five or ten, known as ‘conroys’. The rest of the community paid for their upkeep. They learned to carry out complex manoeuvres on horseback, to follow their leader’s orders, and keep concentrated around their conroy’s standard – the ‘gonfanon’.
William’s knights wore mail shirts often reaching as far as the knees, split front and back to allow them to sit astride their horses. They wore iron helmets with noseguards, and carried long kite-shaped shields. They were armed with swords, throwing javelins, and a heavier lance or spear. They used stirrups to keep them steady on horseback while they fought.
They might charge straight at the enemy in the hope that he would turn and run, or rely on the shock of impact to burst through the enemy line. Alternatively, they might approach close enough to throw javelins, or stab at the enemy with their long lances, and then retire out of harm’s way before their opponent, on foot, could strike back.
Normandy was a young land, carved out by a Viking adventurer just a few generations previously from the Gallic tribes who owned it before. William’s Norman lords were only just beginning to accept the idea that their land was really his, and they could keep it only if they served him personally in time of war and supplied him with a band of knights as well.


It seems generally accepted that the mounted knights made up only the elite of William’s army, and that the main part of it consisted of armoured foot-soldiers, armed with spear and shield, like their English counterparts. The Bayeux Tapestry, however, shows no Norman warriors fighting on foot. We really don’t know what proportion of William’s army at Hastings was mounted or on foot.


Both sides used archers, often to open the battle, or to wear down the enemy during pauses between close-quarter fighting. The bows of the time had a range of around a hundred yards or so, and archers carried twenty or more arrows in a ‘quiver’, or arrow-case. Once they ran out of arrows, they would either have to pick up arrows shot at them by the other side, or wait for fresh supplies to be brought up. Archers were not armoured (there’s one exception in the Bayeux Tapestry), and were not expected to fight close up. The Tapestry emphasises the numbers of archers on the Norman side, and the shields of English warriors are shown riddled with arrows. Some accounts mention the use of crossbows, and slingers may also have been present, though neither is shown in the Tapestry.


Mercenaries were warriors who fought for anyone who was prepared to pay them. William wanted the biggest army possible for his invasion, but he didn’t have the money to pay large numbers of mercenaries. And yet they seem to have made up a substantial part of his army.
At Hastings, there were Breton, French and Flemish contingents alongside William’s Normans. William was not powerful enough to force foreign armies to fight for him, and for their part, none of them particularly wanted to see William’s power grow any further. Yet possibly more than half of William’s army consisted of Bretons, French and Flemish warriors.
Foreigners and mercenaries came because William promised them land in return for their service. William was hungry for new land, and so was his army. As it turned out, they were all richly rewarded.


Norman armies, like others in the early medieval period, occupied their enemies’ land, lived off  it, and sometimes devastated it.  This clearly showed the weakness of their opponents. If a strong enemy army approached, they would probably withdraw. Battles were risky and costly affairs, and were rare events. William also followed the Norman tradition of building wooden castles as ‘power-bases’. He used both these strategies in the days following the invasion.
Unusually, however, in 1066, he was prepared to risk everything in a pitched battle, after doing everything to ensure the odds were in his favour. Just as the English had surprised the Vikings at Stamford Bridge by rapid marches, so it seems that William may have surprised Harold, at the last moment, in the act of assembling his army.

William’s main advantage was his control of his army. The different parts could be ordered into action or withdrawn at his command. His mounted knights could attack, withdraw or re-group at will, while Harold’s army seemed fixed in its position. William himself, on horseback, was able to direct the battle, move to threatened points, lead attacks in person or rally troops as he chose.
His cavalry weren’t able to punch their way through the English shield-wall, and he probably didn’t expect them to. They simply wore the shield-wall down with constant harrying attacks. Whenever parts of the English line were tempted to follow the Norman cavalry as they withdrew, they were immediately surrounded and cut down. These ‘feigned retreats’ were possibly the decisive element in William’s victory.
The Tapestry seems also to emphasize the importance of archery, especially as the English at Hastings seem not to have had an answer to it, and because, possibly, Harold was finally killed by an arrow in the face.
Finally, William’s success in winning the support of the Pope, and having a Papal Banner to display to all his troops must have been both heartening to his own army, and demoralizing to his enemies.

Meet the Contenders in 1066

Here the contenders for the English throne in 1066 tell you about themselves.

Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex
Harold Godwinson
Harold Godwinson

My dad was a bit of a tough nut, but he was really good at politics! He always wanted us kids to become part of the royal family, and he managed to get my sister Edith married to Edward, the King of all England. I think if Edward could get rid of us Godwins, he would, but he’s just too scared of us! Dad wanted me to be king when Edward dies, and Edward kind of agreed, I think. Anyway, after all Dad’s hard work, I’m not going to just let these Normans walk in and claim the throne. I’m a bit worried about this oath thing, but I don’t like to talk about it. If it comes to a fight with William, I can handle myself pretty well (I sorted out the Welsh in ’63!). I’m also rich, I have a lot of powerful friends, and I’m English. As for my brother Tostig, he’s finished: he led a rebellion in ’64, and I helped crush it. He got thrown out of England: serves him right.

Harald Hardrada of Norway

An Englishman called Tostig has arrived in my court. He says his brother Harold wants to be next king of England when old Edward dies. But apparently Harold’s going to have a fight on his hands with William of Normandy. Now Tostig has had a big row with Harold, and hates him. He says that if I invade England from the north, it’ll be more than Harold can deal with – and he says he’ll fight with me against his own brother! I’ve spent all my life fighting, and they say I’m the toughest fighter in Europe. It’s all very tempting…

William, Duke of Normandy

My grand-dad’s sister was Emma, who was queen of England. In fact, she was queen of England twice! She was Æthelred’s wife, and then she married Cnut, the Viking king of England. Edward the old king is going to die soon, and Emma was his mum! Edward and Emma spent years at our court when they were young, and they both kind of told me I could be king of England myself one day. Trouble is, those Godwins have got themselves in with old Edward, and Harold seems to think the throne is going to him. If he does, he’ll have to fight me for it: England’s a prize worth fighting for!
But here’s the best bit: Harold got himself shipwrecked and captured on our coast a while back, and I got him out of trouble. We got to be good friends, sort of, but I made him promise under oath that he would let me be king of England when the time came. If he goes back on that, I can complain to the Pope himself!

William Duke of Normandy
William Duke of Normandy
Edgar Atheling

‘Ætheling’ just means ‘prince’. Old King Edward was my dad’s uncle. They got on really well together. We were invited to court and lived there for a bit. Old Edward was really fond of me and my brothers when we were babies, and he once said he wanted me to be king when he died. I’m not sure my claim to the throne is really that strong, though. I’m only fourteen, and I’m not rich and powerful like the Godwins or William of Normandy.