07 August 2012

Warriors: Saxon Huscarls

By Lisa J. Yarde

In Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England of the late 10th and 11th centuries, an elite body of household troops, the housecarls or huscarls in Old English, served royalty and the nobility. Huscarls underwent rigorous training and fought with better equipment than English levies, the fyrd.

In 1010, when King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark came to England, huscarls numbered among his retinue. Eight years later, King Canute relied on huscarls as his personal bodyguards and recruited Englishmen to join them. In addition to their duties as warriors, huscarls held administrative positions and received land grants, such as Canute’s warriors Urk, who held land at Portesham in Dorset and Bovi, who served as the king’s witness for the property Urk received. In 1041, under King Harthacanute, two huscarls who attempted to collect an unpopular tax met violent deaths in Worcester. A vengeful Harthacanute sent five earls and his remaining huscarls to punish the city. Huscarls served at will, but they were free to leave their lord’s service on New Year’s Day.

Replica Dane-axe
By the 11th century, the armor of the huscarls comprised a mail shirt, forged of flat, metal links that covered a man from shoulder to thigh or knee. A huscarl would have also worn some form of padding and a tunic beneath the mail shirt. He carried a helmet, spear and shield. In battle, the huscarl wielded the broad axe or Dane-axe, with a shaft so long it required both hands. The blade was broad but thin and sharp. The huscarl would have swung his axe wide, with the ability to crack an enemy combatant’s skull or cleave him in half.

At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, huscarls made their last stand as an English fighting force, serving among the household troops of King Harold Godwinson and his brothers, the earls Leofwine of Kent and Gyrth of East Anglia. The warriors deployed separately from the fyrd, using the standard battle formation of the shield wall. This dense block of shields interlocked and prevented the enemy from thrusting home an attack between the ranks. When the Normans under Duke William charged sections of the shield wall, some huscarls stood ready to absorb the impact of the mounted knights, while their companions with Dane-axes cut down riders and horses. 

Huscarl at Hastings in mail, wielding his Dane-axe
against a Norman knight, Bayeux Tapestry
From the Bayeux Tapestry, it appears the huscarls gripped the topmost area of the shaft in their left hands and swung to the right. Such action meant they had to discard shields, leaving themselves open to attack from bowmen and knights. The bravery of the king’s huscarls at Hastings is legendary. Even after Harold fell to the Normans, they fought on until the last man died.       

The events of 1066 did not destroy the Saxon huscarls. In the period afterward, King William ordered an accounting of all property for purposes of taxation, available today in the Domesday Book. There were 33 land grants recorded as then under the control of huscarls or once held by them. Some of the elite warriors who had survived the battle left England forever, to serve as mercenaries in Scandinavia. Other brought their tactics and the Dane-axe to the Varangian guard, the elite troops of the Byzantine emperors. By the 12th century, the Varangians also bore the title, “the English guard”. 

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by real-life events. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain,where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.