Anglo Saxon Weapons & Armour
By Ben Levick
Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Armour
This was a 'heroic' age: the surviving stories and poems make this clear. The greatest virtue was loyalty to one's lord: the warrior shared the spoils of battle, but he was also willing to die for his lord - indeed it was considered a disgrace to leave the field of battle if one's chief were dead. When the battle was over you chased down any fleeing foe and exacted blood vengeance for your own slain warriors. This spirit is reflected in both the poetry and prose of the Anglo-Saxons, even long after Christianity had become firmly established in England. And war has left its remains in the archaeological record, in the form of innumerable weapons buried in the graves of warriors, and even on occasion, those of ceorls.
The size of an early Anglo-Saxon army was quite small - we often hear of armies arriving in only three to five ships, but these groups, at most only 150 - 250 warriors, were often enough to win entire kingdoms. In many cases a king may have had less than 50 warriors in his retinue. Anglo-Saxon battles were fairly solid affairs fought on foot; it is thought that Ambrosius Aurelianus's success against the Anglo-Saxons may have come from his use of Roman Cavalry tactics against them. (It is strange that the Germanic invaders did not use cavalry themselves, since in the first and second centuries the Romans recruited their cavalry from amongst the Germanic peoples!?) Once the forces had met, the battle consisted of a hail of missile weapons followed by grim hand-to-hand fighting in a restricted area, the opposing sides hacking away at each other until one side was reduced to carrion or broke and fled.
6th Century Dryhten and Gesithas
The principle weapon of the Anglo-Saxons was the spear. Spearheads came in many styles (Swanton classified 21 different forms), but were usually leaf- or 'kite-' shaped and had a socket for attachment to the shaft. It was usually diamond-shaped or lentoid in cross section, while the socket which continued from the narrow neck of the spearhead was split on one side and usually had an iron rivet to attach it to the shaft, which was usually of ash. Spearheads vary considerably in length from a few inches to two feet or more, and the basic forms change very little throughout the whole Anglo-Saxon period. The overall length of the spear was around 6'6" - 8' (2.00 - 2.50m), and the butt of the spear was often capped with a metal ferrule. Spears were used both for hand to hand combat and as javelins. There is a special type of spear occasionally found in an early Anglo-Saxon context (although more common on the continent) - the Angon. This type of spear was closely related to the Roman pilum, but unlike its Roman counterpart, the angon was used for close combat as well as for throwing. Angons normally had a small, barbed head connected to the socket by a long metal shaft. This long metal shaft served the same purpose as the shaft of a pilum when used as a javelin, and when used in close combat would stop the head from being chopped off.
Spears are found in around 86% of the Anglo-Saxon burials that contain weapons.
Swanton's Classification for Early Anglo-Saxon Spearheads
Type A This type of spearhead has a barbed head with a long metal shank connected to a socket. This type of spear is usually equipped with a conical metal ferrule. The heads vary in length from about 1' (30cm) to as much as around 4'10" (1.46m), although on average the are around 18" (45cm) to 2' (60cm). The overall length of these spears seems to have been around 7' (2.10m). This is the type of spear usually called an Angon. This type of spear was always unusual in Britain, and is generally only encountered in south-eastern England (mainly Kent, East Anglia and along the Thames). This type of spear was generally in use from the late fourth to the early seventh century. The late Roman writer Agathias gives us a good description of this weapon and its method of use by the Franks at the Battle of Casilinum in 554:
'Angons are spears that are neither very short nor very long, but suitable for throwing, should it be necessary, as well as for engagement at close quarters. The greater part of it is covered all over with iron - and the same with the ferrule - so that very little of the shaft can be seen. At the tip round the head of the spear are curved barbs reaching downwards from the blade itself on both sides like curved hooks.
Suppose a Frank throws his angon in an engagement. If the spear strikes a man anywhere the point will penetrate, and neither the wounded man nor anyone else can easily pull it out because the barbs which pierce the flesh hold it in and cause terrible pain, so that even if the enemy is not fatally hit, he still dies as a result. And if it sticks in the shield, it fixes in it at once and is carried around with it, the butt dragging on the ground. The man who has been hit cannot cut it off with his sword because of the iron which covers the shaft. When the Frank sees this he quickly treads on it with his foot, stepping on the ferrule and forcing the shield downwards so that the man's hand is loosened and his head and breast bared. Then, taking him unprotected, he kills him easily either cleaving his head with an axe or piercing his throat with another spear.'
Type B1 This type of spearhead has a long, narrow, square or diamond section blade, (obviously intended to defeat metal armour) and a conical socket. These heads vary in length from around 7" (17.5cm) to about 2' (60cm), although the average size is around 12" - 15" (30cm - 38cm). This type of spear has a similar distribution to the type A spearhead both in time and geographical location (although a few isolated finds of B1 type spearheads have been found in southern Northumbria). Like the type A spearheads, B1 type spears were never very common in Britain.
Type B2 This type of spearhead is of a mid-ribbed, leaf-shaped form. These heads are generally 12" - 16" (30cm - 40cm) long, and may well be derived from the Celtic Iron Age 'La Tene' type spearheads. Their geographical distribution is broadly similar to the type B1 spearhead, although they seem to date mainly to the later fourth and fifth century, with only a few dating to the sixth or early seventh century. This type of spear was never particularly common in Britain.
Type C1 These small leaf-shaped spearheads of the simplest kind, measuring between 4" and 8" (10cm - 20cm) long are found in relatively large numbers over virtually the entire area of Anglo-Saxon settlement. These blades are usually lentoid in section. This type remained in use from the pre-migration period to the tenth or eleventh century.
Type C2 By far the commonest leaf shaped blades found in Anglo-Saxon graves, these are more slender overall than those of the previous group, although they retain a lentoid section. They are generally 8" - 14" (20cm - 35cm) long and a short, solid neck or junction piece invariably seperates the blade from the broadly cleft socket. Their temporal and geographical distribution is much the same as the C1 type.
Type C3 The largest of the English leaf-shaped blades, most commonly measuring 12" - 20" (30cm - 50cm) long, they present lengthier, more slender profiles, with the blade now accounting for a large part of the whole, sockets taking up only something like a quarter or a fifth of the total length. This type is less common than the C2 type, and is only rarely found in East Anglia. Type C3 spearheads generally date to the sixth and seventh century.
Type C4 This type of head is a more slender, needle-like version of the C3 type. These generally date to the later sixth and seventh century, and are less common than the C3 type. Their geographical distribution is similar to that of the C3 type, but is almost entirely absent from East Anglia and Northumbria and was rare in Kent.
Type C5 These characteristically Kentish blades resemble nothing more than cut-down versions of the C4 type. The sockets of this type are narrowly slit, rather than decisively cleft as in other type C spearheads. Like the C4 type, this type of head generally dates to the late sixth or seventh century.
Type D1 These are leaf-shaped blades measuring between 6" - 12" (15cm - 30cm) in length, similar to type C1, except that they tend to be rather more slender overall, and the blade piece takes up less of the overall length. As with type C1 heads the blades tend to be lentoid in section and the socket is split up its length. This type was in use throughout the fifth to seventh centuries, but was not as common as the C1-2 types. These are most often found between the Thames and the Humber, with a few found in Kent, but rare in East Anglia.
Type D2 This type of spearhead is fairly unusual, and is really just an extension of the D2 type. This type is slender with the blade separated from the socket by a short length of round-section solid shank. This type of head is generally 10" - 18" (25cm - 45cm) in length, although a few examples reach a length of about 28" (70cm). This type is found mainly in Kent, with a few examples from Wessex and Sussex. They generally date to the late sixth and seventh century.
Type D3 This type of spearhead is similar to the D2 type, but the longer, more slender shank with a short cleft socket. They are generally between 7" and 12" (18cm - 30cm) in length, with a few examples reaching around 22" (55cm) in length. They date to the sixth century, and are found mainly in east Kent, the lower Thames and the Midlands.
Type E1 The simplest and smallest of all the angular forms, these heads generally measure about 5" - 8" (13cm - 19cm) in length, the blade taking up half, or rather more than half, of the overall length. The blades are diamond-section and taper sharply to the tip and are attached to a split socket. This type is fairly common, and has a wide distribution, but is not found in Kent, Sussex or Northumbria. This type of spearhed generally dates to the fifth and early sixth century.
Type E2 This type is generally more slender than E1 types, and are one stage larger, usually between 8" - 14" (20cm - 35cm) in length, with the blade taking up a distinctly larger part of the whole. A short, solid neck seperated the blade from the sockets which are almost invariably cleft. This type is rarer than the E1 type, but has a wider distribution. They are found all over England south of the Humber, and were in use from the fifth to the seventh century.
Type E3 These are the largest of the angular types with long, tapering blades which take up between two-thirds and three-quarters of the entire length. Most are between 14" and 18" (35cm - 45cm) in length, with a few reaching 24" (60cm) in length. This type was quite common and widely disributed. They were in use from the fifth to seventh century.
Type E4 This type is really just a narrow variant of the previous type. Lengths vary between 12" - 20" (30cm - 50cm), with the short, cleft socket taking up only a quarter to a fifth of the overall length. This type is not common, although it is found throughout England (although rare in Northumbria), and dates to the sixth and seventh century.
Type F1 These small, diamond-sectioned, angular spearheads are similar to the E1 type, but with a longer socket and junction piece. Lengths are usually 7" - 10" (17cm - 25cm). This type was in use from the fifth to early sixth centuries. These are most often found between the Thames and the Humber, with a few found in Kent, but rare in East Anglia.
Type F2 These diamond-sectioned, angular spearheads are larger than the previous type, varying in length from 12" - 16" (30cm - 40cm). In this type the blade is separated from the cleft socket by a length of solid shank. This type generally dates from the later sixth and seventh centuries and tend to be concentrated in southern and eastern England.
Type F3 This type is basically an extreme form of the previous type, usally about 12" - 14" in length. Most are very slender, with a small, angular, diamond-sectioned blade placed on a relatively long, thin solid shank and short, cleft socket. This type was quite rare, generally only being found in Kent and the Midlands, and dating to the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
Type G1 These spearheads have short, sword-like diamond-sectioned blades, almost parallel sided, and pointed towards the tip. They range in length from 9" to 12" (22cm - 30cm), of which the cleft sockets account for about one quarter. They are quite rare, dating to the late fifth and sixth centuries, and are found mainly in Kent and Sussex, with a small number in other parts of the country.
Type G2 These are a larger version of the previous type, with the sockets taking up less than a quarter of the total length. These heads are usually around 14" - 20" (35cm -50cm) with some examples reaching around 23½" (58cm). There distribution is similar to the G1 type.
Type H1 One of the most common types of early Anglo-Saxon spearheads, these heads are characterised by a strickening or concave curve above the angle, a diamond section blade and a cleft socket. This type varies in length from about 6" - 10" (16cm - 22cm). This type dates to the fifth and early sixth century, and are found throughout England, although they are rare in Kent and Northumbria.
Type H2 As common as, if not more common than, the H1 type, these are a larger version of the previous type, measuring 8" - 14" (20cm - 35cm) in length, although the blade accounts for a larger proportion of the total length. Date and distribution are much the same as for the H1 type.
Type H3 The commonest of this type of spear, these are the largest of the series H spearheads. Lengths of 14" - 20" (35cm - 50cm) are usual, with some examples reaching as much as 24" (60cm). The blades account for between half and two-thirds of the total length, and are separated from the cleft socket by a length of solid shank. These are widely found throughout England, with heavy concentrations in Kent. Like the other series H spearheads these tend to date to the fifth and sixth centuries.
Type I1 This type of spearhead probably represents an English version of the native La Tene type spearheads used since the Celtic Iron Age. They have leaf shaped blades with lunate fullers on the left hand side of each face of the blade. These heads are around 10" - 14" (25cm - 35cm) in length, with the cleft sockets accounting for one-third to half the total length. This type of head is found almost exclusively in Wessex, and appears to have been used by both the West Saxons and Britons. They generally date to the fifth and sixth centuries.
Type I2 These are a more slender form than the I1 type with longer fullers, filling the larger part of the blade. Like the previous type these are probably a development of earlier Celtic types, but are more commonly found in the Midlands and East Anglia. These heads are around 10" - 14" (25cm - 35cm) in length, with the cleft sockets accounting for one-third to half the total length. They generally date to the fifth and sixth centuries.
Type J These uncommon heads are similar to the type H spearheads, but with the addition of triangular fullers. They vary in length between 6" - 16" (15cm - 40cm), and seem to represent a merging of the Germanic and British types. They generally date to the fifth and sixth centuries, and are found mainly in the Midlands and Wessex.
Type K1 These broad, leaf shaped blades have a stepped section, and continue a tradition found in both Germanic and Celtic spearheads. Conical ferrules are often associated with this type of spear. They vary from 6" - 14" (16cm - 36cm) in length with the socket accounting for one-third to half the total length. These heads date to the fifth and early sixth centuries and are generally found only south of the Thames valley.
Type K2 These are a more slender version of the K1 type, varying between 6" - 12" (15cm - 30cm) in length, with the cleft socket accounting for about half the total length. These heads date to the fifth and early sixth centuries and are generally found only in the Midlands.
Type L These stepped spearheads have a concave angular shape similar to those of series H, varying in length from 8" - 14" (20cm - 35cm). This type of head often has a 'binding-ring' at the junction of the blade and cleft socket. This type is found throughout England south of the Wash, but is rare in Kent and East Anglia. They generally date to the fifth and early sixth centuries.
Another relatively cheap weapon used during the sixth and seventh centuries was the single edged knife - the scramaseax. Scramaseax is a term covering a wide variety knives from small eating knives to large combat weapons. For the sake of simplicity, the term scramaseax shall only be used to describe the weapon in this section. The typical scramaseax of the Migration period, as found on the Continent, is about 8 - 14" (20 - 35 cm) long with an asymmetrical tang. Large scramaseaxes do not appear in England until the latter part of the Pagan period, with the earlier types generally having blades of about 6-10" (15-30cm) in length. The guard is generally insignificant, or even non-existent, but many of the early scramaseaxes had decorative pommels, often boat-shaped or lobed. By the ninth century very long scramaseaxes start to appear, more a single edged sword than a knife. The blades of these scramaseaxes are between 22 - 32" (55 - 80cm) long and very heavy, capable of delivering a horrendous cutting blow. This type of scramaseax is probably the type referred to as a langseax (O.E. 'long-knife) in contemporary sources.
Two basic forms of scramaseax were in use in England. The Germanic type has almost parallel edges, with a sharply angled back. A single narrow fuller sometimes runs down one side, or rarely both sides, of the blade, just below the back. This type is not usually seen any earlier than the seventh century. The Merovingian type has a more curved form, and often has one or more fullers on both sides of the blade. This type first appears in England during the later fifth century, reaches a peak in the sixth century, and is gradually replaced by the Germanic type in the seventh and eighth centuries. Both types have blades of triangular section. Handles were usually of horn or wood.
Scramaseaxes were carried in a leather sheath at the warrior's thigh and the sheath was suspended from the belt by means of a series of small bronze loops. Some scramaseax scabbards appear to have been made of leather covered wooden laths, in a manner similar to sword scabbards. Many scramaseax scabbards have decorative chapes.
Scramseaxes are found in around 5% of the Anglo-Saxon burials that contain weapons.
The weapon par excellence, but not a very common one, was a sword. The swords of the Pagan Saxon period were usually two-edged, broad-bladed, straight-edged swords of the type known as spatha, the type of sword in use in Celtic and Roman times. These blades were usually of diamond or lentoid section and sometimes have one or more fullers (grooves running down the length of the blade to lighten it). During the sixth century the fullered broadsword starts to take over from the spatha. There is little evidence for the hilts of the earliest Anglo-Saxon swords, but what there is shows that the swords in use were similar to those found in the bog deposits of southern Denmark. These early forms had lower and upper guards and grips of wood, bone or horn rather than metal, and no real pommel - merely a large 'washer' over which the tang was riveted. Some continental examples in use from the third to sixth centuries, were coated in silver foil, although so far none of the excavated English examples have been.
In the sixth century there is a new form which seems to have been adopted by all the Germanic peoples - it is found in Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Italy and Hungary. Swords of this type are the first to feature a large metal pommel, rather than an oversized washer. The upper and lower guards seem often to have been made of wood, bone or horn, or often of a sandwich construction of layers of metal riveted to a central layer of organic material. Some do have all metal guards, but where this is the case they usually mimic the sandwich construction, complete with rivets. These swords are often very rich, with gilded (or even solid gold) metal parts. This form of hilt includes the 'ring-sword'. These have an upper guard embellished with a ring and staple. In the earliest examples the ring is free-running through the staple, whilst on later forms it is replaced by a single solid casting of the ring and staple. The significance of these rings is not really known, but since literary sources indicate that both rings and sword-hilts were considered worthy of having oaths sworn upon them, this may have been their function. Some swords show signs of having had such rings removed, and so it is possible that they were personal to a particular owner and were removed if the sword were passed on to someone else. It is also possible that these were the rings given by kings in literature, so they may have been a sign that a particular warrior had been rewarded by his lord.
5th & 6th Century Sword hilts
During the later seventh and eighth centuries the organic parts of of the upper and lower guards were gradually replaced with iron. During the eighth century a new type of pommel appears, usually divided int three, or sometimes five, 'lobes'. These pommels were sometimes of iron.
By the ninth century the guards and pommel were almost exclusively made of iron, often with decorative silver inlay. By now the lower guard was usually curved down towards the blade and the upper guard curved away from the hand.
Swords were precious objects, handed down from father to son, king to retainer, and swords were often thought to have greater virtue because they were old, or had belonged to some famous person of the past.
The best blades were made by pattern welding, a technique where rods of iron and steel are twisted together and welded into a single piece of metal. This is then hammered out to form the core of the blade, to which hard steel cutting edges are welded. This forms a very strong blade, and the pattern welded core gives a marbled pattern, hence the name. A pattern welded sword was an object of great value. The poem Beowulf gives us some good descriptions:
"Then he took off his helmet and his corselet of iron, and gave them to his servant, with his superb, adorned sword ... he impaled the wondrous serpent, pinned it to the rock face with his patterned sword ... the iron blade was adorned with deadly, twig-like patterning, tempered with battle blood. ... the ancient treasure, the razor sharp ornamented sword ... Angrily the warrior hurled Hrunting [the name of the sword] away, the patterned sword with serpent patterns on its hilt; tempered and steel-edged ... an invincible sword wrought by the giants, massive and double edged ... the defender of the Scyldings grasped the ringed hilt, swung the ornamented sword ... the gold adorned sword hilt; the blade itself had melted, the patterned sword had burnt ... finest of blades, with twisted hilt and serpentine patterning ... his sword, gleaming and adorned, sank in up to the hilt"
The sword was carried in a scabbard, which was usually made of two thin laths of leather covered wood. The mouth of the scabbard was sometimes ornamented with a metal band, and it was sometimes bound with a strip of metal and was tipped with a metal chape. The scabbard was usually lined with fleece so that the natural grease of the sheep's wool would keep the blade from rusting. Many of the scabbards that have been excavated have shown signs of having a thin ribbon or tape, usually of linen, wrapped around the upper portion, but it is not clear what its purpose was.
Although swords were sometimes worn on waist belts, they were usually carried slung from the right shoulder on a baldric. The sword was normally worn with the hilt riding quite high, above the hip, with the scabbard hanging at an angle, rather than straight down. In some cases, strap distributors have been found in association with swords, and these were used with a Y-shaped baldric strap to hold the scabbard at an angle.
Swords are found in around 12% of the Anglo-Saxon burials that contain weapons.
9th Century Thegn's War gear
A few warriors used axes, but this was not a particularly common weapon. It is often hard to tell whether an axe found in a grave represents a weapon, or just a wood-cutting axe. Of course it is possible that the same axe might be used for both purposes One special type of axe, not common, but found in sufficient numbers to show it was in use was the francisca, a type of short handled axe with an upward curving blade, probably originating amongst the Franks and designed primarily for throwing.
Axes are found in around 3% of the Anglo-Saxon burials that contain weapons.
Bows and Arrows
Bows and arrows do seem to have been used, but to a lesser extent in England than on the continent. No bows have survived in England, although arrowheads do sometimes remain. However, on the continent many bows have been found in the Saxon homelands, and it is likely that bows in England were of the same type. These bows were wooden longbows, ranging in length from 5' - 6'6" (150 - 200cm) and were usually of Yew. The arrows were usually tipped with iron heads, although many arrowheads of bone have also been found in Denmark.
Bows or arrows are found in around 1% of the Anglo-Saxon burials that contain weapons.
The main defensive item of the Anglo-Saxon warrior was the shield. The Anglo-Saxon shield was of the centre-grip type, and consisted of a round wooden board, often covered with leather or heavy cloth, with an iron boss in the centre. Often the grip was reinforced by an iron strip, which sometimes extended across the back of the shield to reinforce it. A few shields were bound at the rim with bronze, but most would have had a leather rim stitched on. Some of the shields were ornately decorated with ornate metal foils and studs or by painting. Most of the shields shown in early pictorial sources appear to be of the 'buckler' type, but this is possibly just an artistic convention so that details of the figures carrying them are not obscured. Shields known from excavation vary in diameter from 16" - 36" (42 - 92cm), with the usual size being between 24" and 28" (60 and 70cm), but it has been observed that generally, the older and/or wealthier the person buried was, the larger their shield was. It has also been noted that in the earlier part of the period the shields were generally of the smaller type, gradually becoming larger as the period progresses. It is interesting to note that continental examples of this type of shield tend to be larger, being 22 - 44" (57 - 112cm), the commonest size being around 36" (90cm). The shields were surprisingly thin, varying between 3/16 - ½" (5 - 12mm) in thickness, with most being around 5/16" (7mm). Most poetry and prose from the period refers to Linden wood (lime) shields, but this timber only accounts for about 3% of the excavated examples; excavated examples have been found made of alder (37%), willow or poplar (37%), maple (10%), birch (7%), ash (3%) and oak (3%). Continental examples are almost exclusively of oak.
The shield boss was usually conical, with a wide flange, secured to the shield by 5 rivets. They often had a small section of vertical or concave wall, and the boss is often tipped with a button which can sometimes be elaborately decorated with a silver or bronze plaque. Strangely, the hemispherical boss which was so common on the continent seems to have been almost entirely absent in England at this time. It is possible that a few of the poorest warrior's shields did not have a boss as this type are known on the continent, but are extremely rare.
"The boar crest, brightly gleaming, stood over their helmets: superbly tempered, plated with glowing gold, it guarded the lives of those grim warriors. ... Displayed on his pyre, plain to see, were the bloody mail-shirt, the boars on the helmets, iron hard and gold clad. ... Placed on the bench above each retainer, his crested helmet, his linked corselet and sturdy spear-shaft were plainly to be seen. ... when the ornamented sword, forged on the anvil, the razor sharp blade stained with blood, shears through the boar-crested helmets of the enemy. ... we shielded our heads in the fight, when soldiers clashed on foot, slashed at boar-crests. ... and his head was guarded by the gleaming helmet which was to explore the churning waters, stir their very depths; gold decorated it, and it was hung around with chains as the weapon-smith had wrought it long before, wondrously shaped it and beset it with boar-images, so that afterwards no battle-blade could do it damage."
Reconstruction of Valsgarde Helmet
For most warriors the shield was the only protection, but wealthy warriors may also have worn a helmet. Unfortunately, surviving helmets from the fifth- and early sixth-centuries are unknown in Britain (the oldest helmets dating to the seventh century), but there are continental examples, especially from the Frankish kingdom. Those surviving there are of the late Roman type, constructed of four or more segments, and often having cheek-guards and mail aventails. This type of helmet is usually given the name 'spangenhelm'. The possible remains of a helmet of this type are known from Dumfriesshire.
The earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, particularly those who were serving in the shore forts or as foderati may have worn Roman style ridge helmets. Several helmets (or parts of them) of this type are known from Britain, including finds from the Saxon Shore Forts of Burgh Castle, Norfolk and Richborough, Kent. This style of helmet was probably used both by Germanic mercenaries and native British troops, and could well have formed the model for later Anglo-Saxon helmets, such as the Pioneer helmet. Many archaeologists and military historians believe that these helmets may also have formed the models for the Scandinavian style of helmet found at Vendel, Valsgärde and Sutton Hoo.
Left: Late Roman "Cavalry" Ridge Helmet 4-5th Century
Centre: Late Roman "Infantry" Ridge Helmet 4-5th Century
Right: Scandinavian Ridge Helmet (Valsgarde type) 6-7th Century
(Reconstructions by Ivor Lawton)
The Benty Grange helmet (from Sheffield), although dating to the late seventh-century, and the
Pioneer Helmet, dating to the mid seventh century, may also be good examples of the type of helmet worn in the earlier period too, as they fits the description of helmets from much early poetry and prose, most notably by their boar-crests. They are both domed helmets of banded construction, probably originally having had a neckguard and nasal, and surmounted by a boar-crest.
From left to right: The Sutton Hoo Helmet (Reconstruction) 6-7th century
Pioneer Helmet (Reconstruction) Early 7th Century
Benty Grange Helmet Mid to late 7th Century
York Helmet Late 8th Century (Photo copyright York Castle Museum)
Domed helmets with cheek flaps, neck guards and sometimes face-guards and a crest or ridge are known from pictorial sources. This sort of helmet is known in England from the burial at Sutton Hoo, the Pioneer Helmet from Northamptonshire, the York Helmet from Coppergate, and fragments of crests from Rempstone in Nottinghamshire and Icklingham in Suffolk. This type of helmet is probably best known from the finds at Valsgärde and Vendel in Sweden.
Pictorial evidence shows helmets of all the types mentioned here. The evidence suggests that helmets were high status items, and as such were usually decorated to some degree, from the decorative silver rivets and crest of the Benty Grange helmet to the ornate decorations of the Sutton Hoo, Vendel and Valsgärde helmets, although the Pioneer Helmet is surprisingly plain.
During the Viking Invasions of the ninth century simple four-piece conical helmets seem to make their first appearance, gradually replacing the older types. These helmets could include a nasal bar and/or a mail aventail. This style of helmet seems to have been less ornately decorated than earlier styles.
To find out more about Anglo-Saxon helmets check out our Anglo-Saxon helmet page.
The most wealthy warriors may also have worn a mailshirt or byrnie, which at this time was probably not much larger than a modern T-shirt, and certainly nowhere near as large as the later split hauberks. The mail shirt was probably worn over a leather jerkin or padded undergarment to prevent the mail links being forced into the body (the padded undergarment possibly did not make an appearance until the time of the Viking raids of the ninth century, when weapons seem generally to have got larger and heavier). It is possible that some of the less well off warriors may have worn leather helmets and jerkins for protection, although there is no direct evidence for this.
The mail of the period was made by cutting thin strips of iron from a piece of sheet, or drawing iron wire through a draw-plate, and winding this around a cylindrical former. It was then cut off with a chisel to form the links. The links would then be compressed so that the ends overlapped. Half of the links were then welded shut in the forge. The other half had the ends of each link flattened and then had holes punched in them. As the mailshirt was assembled a punched ring was linked to four of the welded rings, a rivet was put through the hole to close the link. Finally the whole mailshirt was likely to have been 'oil tempered' to make it stronger and give a small degree of rust-proofing.
Riveted mail. This example is actually later than the Anglo Saxon period, but is a good example of the riveting and linking of the rings
1. Surprisingly, under all the decorative foils, the construction of this type of helmet is remarkably similar to the Roman examples, although in this case the solid neck and cheek guards have been replaced with mail.