The Saxon Fyrd
To protect Anglo-Saxon territories in Britain from foreign troops
The Anglo-Saxon army was known as the Fyrd. The Fyrd was made up of all fit free men between the ages of 15 and 60 and was divided into two distinct classes of troops:
- the levy or select Fyrd, who were called to arms in times of trouble
- the professional household troops, sometimes known as the greater Fyrd, which included the personal bodyguards and companions (the gesiths) of the high ranking Earls and Kings.
A large proportion of the select Fyrd would have been ceorls (peasants); of limited use in battle, being armed mainly with farm implements and with little or no protective clothing. Some would have been of noble birth and would have been equipped almost as well as the professional warriors.
The Huscarls were the elite of the Anglo-Saxon warriors. They were originally the professional soldiers who made up the personal bodyguards of the Norse Kings but the idea was adopted by the English Kings and Earls. The name Huscarl or Huscarle literally means household man hence the occasional reference as Housecarl. They were heavily armed and well protected. In battle they used a steel axe on a long shaft that could reach out over the shield wall to inflict severe injuries to the opposing warriors and horses. As well as being warriors some Huscarls performed administrative and legal functions similar to a modern magistrate. They were important and trusted servants of their masters.
The Fyrd was essentially a defensive measure, being called up to deal with an invading enemy force. If a lord wanted to take the offensive he would have normally used his household troops numbering no more than a few hundred or so warriors. Occasionally the personal warbands of several lords could be combined to make an army of a few thousand, but this would have been rare.
This early type of helmet,
similar to the one found
at Sutton Hoo,would
have been worn by a
person of distinction.
As the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms became established and the population settled down it became more effective to call up a select group of nobles rather than the whole eligible male population. In practice one man was recruited for every five hides of land (1 hide was roughly equal to 30 or 40 acres), the remaining population of that area would have provided the recruit's equipment and expenses. That way the economy could continue uninterrupted and could provide the army with high quality arms and supplies during a troubled period. A class of nobles called the Thegns provided the main element of this select Fyrd. Some of the Thegns were professional full time warriors serving in the warbands of the various Anglo-Saxon lords. Most Thegns, however, would have been free men holding land on behalf of their lord and required to provide military service for brief periods.
The reigns of Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut around the start of the 11th century saw the introduction of a new class of warrior called the Huscarles, effectively the bodyguard of the Danish high kings. The custom was continued on by the succeeding Anglo-Saxon kings when the Huscarles, to all intents and purposes, replaced the gesiths of the greater Fyrd.
The Huscarles were disbanded by William the Conqueror. The Fyrd continued to be used and eventually became the local Militia responsible for the defence of the shire in which they were called up.