Raising an army in Post-Roman Europe – The seventh century Anglo-Saxon England

From the early seventh century the sources available to us are more numerous and more evenly distributed across the west. By this period, the ‘ethnic’ armies descended from the late Roman field armies had evolved into armies raised from classes of landowners. This evolution continued through the seventh century.


The key element in Anglo-Saxon armies would appear to have been aristocratic followings. Such followings could include men raised from the aristocrat’s estates, or the children of clients, as well as men of similar birth. In the later seventh century, Saint Wilfrid, when he reached warrior age, acquired a following of pueri; slightly later, Saint Guthlac, at the same age, gathered about him a band of satellites. Bede describes the – for its day – huge force raised by Penda of Mercia to attack Oswy of Northumbria, in one of the great showdowns of seventh-century English history, as comprising thirty contingents led by aristocratic leaders. Bede uses the classicising term legio but it seems clear that he means the followings of the so-called duces regii. Archaeologically, we can also see a change in the nature of the burial rite. Unlike in Gaul, where it might be suggested that more frequent weapon burial relates to the spread of Frankish identity, in Anglo-Saxon England, although English identity was also spreading, weapons became rarer and concentrated in fewer burials. The status denoted by such symbols, whether or not it bore any relationship to actual military experience, seems to have been that of the leading stratum of society: the controllers of military activity.

In King Ine of Wessex’s law-code, probably dating to about 694, the king legislated about aristocratic (gesiþcund) leaders who intercede with their own lords, with the king or with royal officers, on behalf of members of their household, slave or free. It is in this context of the importance of vertical chains of dependence and clientage that we should understand the following, much-discussed clause which sets out fines (fyrdwite) for failing to perform service in the fyrd (the army): 120 shillings and forfeiture of his estate for a landed gesiþ; 60 shillings for a gesiþ without land, and 30 shillings for a ceorl (roughly, a well-to-do free peasant). All such types could be found in an aristocratic retinue. We appear to be moving down a chain of dependence.

As in Francia, age seems to have played an important role. Anglo-Saxon sources suggest a distinction between the younger warrior, called geoguþ in later poetic sources, and apparently usually rendered into Latin as iuvenis, and the older warrior, called duguþ in Old English and comes in Latin. Hagiographic sources make it clear that fourteen or fifteen was the age at which a young male was expected to embark upon a military career. Young warriors would have dwelt with their lord. As in Francia a key point in the life-cycle appears to have been reached when a male married and settled down. This would seem to be confirmed by a celebrated passage in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Having been knocked unconscious during a major battle on the river Trent in 679, a Northumbrian iuvenis called Imma was captured by the victorious Mercians. Fearing for his life, Imma denied that he was a soldier (miles) and declared that he was a poor, married rustic who had come, with others of his ilk, to bring supplies for the Northumbrian army. The passage has often been discussed, but usually in terms of what it says about the military obligations of peasants (ceorlas in Old English). The fact that Imma said that he was a married peasant has often been overlooked. It would seem that a poor but married and settled peasant would only be called upon to carry supplies to the army; an unmarried rusticus on the other hand might well be serving (as a puer) in the military household of his lord. The distinction in age is likely to relate to the landed/landless distinction noted in Ine’s laws. Loyal service to a lord would
eventually bring its reward in the form of land on which the warrior could settle, thereby enabling him to marry. Thus the geoguþ or iuvenis became a duguþ or comes.

The king did not have to rely entirely upon the followings of his aristocrats, having, of course, his own following. Ine’s laws refer to a class of king’s geneat (loosely ‘member of a household’). Royal followings were almost certainly divided into the young, unmarried household troops and older, married warriors now living on lands granted as a reward for previous service. Such warriors were supposed to turn up with their followings when the king needed them. Ine clearly believed that, as king, he had the right to call up the freemen of his kingdom, and to deprive of their lands those who did not answer his summons. Furthermore, at least by the time of the issuing of his code, there was a category of West Saxon free peasant called the gafolgelda: the rent payer. This category could be the equivalent of the Frankish tributarius. Thus we would appear to have a similar situation to that which existed in Gaul, with some freemen liable to military service, whilst others paid renders for their upkeep. This may also, in practice, lie behind Imma’s claim that, as a married rusticus, he and other such men brought supplies to the army. Perhaps the supplies were the tax – gafol – exacted upon such men. There seems also to be a similarity between the West Saxon fyrdwite and the Frankish haribannus. In Ine’s Laws, fyrdwite is, like the seventh-century haribannus, clearly a fine but by the eleventh century it too could also be used to mean a payment for the upkeep of the army. Earlier Anglo-Saxon kings thought of their realms in terms of numbers of assessment units, notionally based upon the household: hides. These hides could provide warriors or their maintenance, as in Francia probably according to loose networks of patronage and dependence.

The basis upon which land was given to followers, whether or not as outright gift, is unclear. By the time of Ine’s code, it is clear that the king wished to place restrictions upon the tenure of land, and to make clear the obligations which went with landholding, not least claiming the right to rescind land-grants (or indeed to expropriate his aristocrats) if service was not fulfilled. It seems that Frankish aristocrats had similar concerns at the same time. Moreover, Ine’s Laws represent not a passive reflection of Anglo-Saxon social reality which just happened to be written down in 694 but a code issued as an active statement by a king whose father had violently seized the kingdom in 685, who had just terminated a long war with Kent, and who governed a kingdom wherein attempts to seize the kingship, like that made by his own father, were not uncommon. Ine’s code represents an attempt, how successful is unknown, to establish royal prerogatives and control, not least of armed force. Thus fines for non-performance of military service are set out.

It is in this context too that we should see the famous clause 13.1: ‘We call up to seven men thieves; from seven to thirty-five is a band; above that is an army’. Rather than being a descriptive statement of the normal size of seventh-century armies, as is still all too often assumed, this clause needs to be seen in the context of the whole code. Subsequent clauses (14 and 15) penalise men who take part in attacks carried out by bands and armies, with involvement in the raid of an army being the more severely punished. Clauses 12 and 16 say that a thief caught in the act may be killed with impunity, whilst clause 15.2 says that a thief may not clear himself by oath once he has been captured. Thus members of a band are dealt with more leniently than thieves or members of an army, and thieves are punished more harshly than members of an army. The heavy penalty inflicted on thieves, when viewed in the overall context of the code (especially clauses 43 and 43.1), reflects the condemnation of crime which takes place secretly. As noted, in clause 50 Ine legislates about retinues and followings. In clause 13.1, 14 and 15, he is limiting the size of armed followings. In effect, any magnate with a following of three dozen or more men who commits a breach of the peace will be treated as leading an attacking army and severely dealt with. All members of the ‘army’ are to pay with their wergild.

(Source: “Warfare and society in the barbarian West, 450–900”, by Guy Halsall)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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