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Viking art of war

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Vikings are probably the most exaggerated social group in history, starting with the horns and ending up with axes, they have been turned into a product of mass culture, on which money is easily and happily made. So let's de-glamourise this image a little and restore them to their rightful place in history - without enhancement or facelifting. Let us see them as they really were...

The old world feared the Vikings like fire and plague. Indeed, they rained down on the coastal settlements like a bolt from the blue, looting and murdering, but as quickly as they appeared so did they vanish, being aware of their own shortcomings. Their Achilles' heel were large open clashes in which they were simply no match for better-organised opponents.

Historians agree that the Vikings invading England in the ninth and first half of the tenth century formed ill-disciplined looting parties. Among other things, this is evidenced, not least that, in the spoken period the Scandinavians lost all major battles against the Anglo-Saxons: at Acleah (850 or 851), Ashdown (871), Edington (878) and Tettenhall (910). Likewise, the Viking Grand Army ravaging the lands of the Franks between 879-892 - plundered territories along the Seine mercilessly, but in major encounters, Scandinavians failed in clashes with the heavily-armed Frankish cavalry.

They fought with spear, sword and axe, and occasionally used a bow. Covering their bodies with leather jackets (later chainmail), helmets and round shields.

Once Europe had learned how to successfully repel their invasions, the initially small Norman groups of 100 to 200 men began to unite into larger tactical units, sometimes of considerable size. The siege of Paris between 885 and 886 was led by a Viking army of what appears to have been nearly 30000 men.

In the 11th century, both Danish and Norwegian armies resembled traditional armies to a greater extent, although their development and its chronology remain uncertain.

One of the most important problems for understanding the nature and organisation of the Norse army in the 11th century is the definition of the Old Norse word leiðangr (Norse: leidang). It appears in the Norwegian and Danish codes of the 13th century and denotes conscription to the fleet or money paid in exchange for military service, allowing leiðangr to be considered simply as a draft.

However, a more detailed interpretation of the term is subject to debate, with Peter Godfrey Foote and David M. Wilson recognising the term as conscription promulgated by the king, imposing a proportional obligation on the inhabitants to provide men, arms and supplies for a war expedition. In contrast, N. Lund defines the concept much more generally - as a war expedition - and questions the claim that leiðangr as an organised procedure for conscription and organisation of the army existed in Scandinavia before the 12th century. (...)

The core of the Norse army in the 11th century constituted the huskarls (húskalr) - these were warriors paid from the royal treasury to serve whenever and wherever needed, performing at least some of the functions of a permanent military. Their status gave them the right to own land. The Norse huskarls made up the hirð - this Old Norse term in time came to denote an elite guard accompanying the king, not only in times of war.

Besides the huskarls, the Norse army in the 11th century comprised the bóndaherinn - free men who served temporarily, usually during an expedition, once it ended, returning to their day-to-day activities, mostly farming and merchandising (in this respect they resembled the Anglo-Saxon fyrd). Understandably, the bóndaherinn were less experienced and usually less well armed (especially in terms of defensive weaponry) than the huskarls.

A common defensive tactic used by the Norse Vikings was to set up a wall of shields (staronord. skjaldborg). Warriors standing at the front of the formation would line up side by side, holding their shields in such a way that they overlapped. From behind the shields, it was possible to deal blows to the enemy with swords or long spears, these also provided cover for archers. In the event an individual warrior forming the wall of shields was eliminated from the battle, he could easily be replaced by another from deep within the formation, making this formation very resilient and difficult to break. The wall of shields also had the advantage of not being a difficult tactic to learn and could easily be adopted by less experienced combatants. As they were able to form a looser formation by moving, this formation could also be used on rough terrain. (...) Faced with a numerically superior enemy, the wall of shields had to be long enough to avoid flanking, resulting in the need to form a shallower array and increasing the danger of breaking off - presumably this is how St Olaf II lost the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.

However, it is not certain that the shield wall was used by the Vikings from the beginning of their invasions of the British Isles - it is possible that mentions of its use by the invaders at the battles of Edington (878) and Maldon (991) did not refer to the formation as we know it in the 11th century, but was a description of how the Anglo-Saxons perceived the enemy army before the battle. An alternative to the wall of shields was the wedge-shaped formation (staronord. svinfylka). The first row was formed by two armed men, the second by three, the third by five etc. The wedges thus formed would either fight singly or make a wider zigzag-shaped formation. It is possible that this formation originated from the late Roman tradition.

Vikings fought almost exclusively on foot, hardly fielding any cavalry, although during their plundering expeditions they often moved on horseback for greater mobility.

One notable exception is the Battle of Sulcoit (968), where Brian Boru's Irish defeated the Vikings of Limerick. While some of the Norse fought on horseback, it is likely to have been a case not of a mounted contingent, but of a situation where some of the Vikings who were ambushed and attacked by surprise failed to dismount.

We also have survived reference to Danish Vikings fighting on horseback in the battle of Montfaucon (888), lost by the Scandinavians, fought during the invasion of the Frankish state by the Grand Army, but here too it is likely that being suddenly attacked by heavy-armed cavalry, the Vikings were forced to fight on horseback.

It was the right of every free man to bear arms. In those days, kings and the nobles were not the only ones waging wars. People of all classes of society could be called upon to fight in defence of their leader or king, forced to take part in raids or to venture ón private war ast to avenge their kin.

The most feared among enemies and victims were the Viking swords, spears and axes. However, the sword was often used not only as an instrument of war, but also as a token of status - the higher the position of the warrior, the finer the sword. Its handle would be covered with magnificent decoration, but its most important part was the blade. The 70-80 cm double-edged weapons were light, flexible, strong and sharp. Some were imported from France but the handles would be made in Scandinavia and decorated in fond Viking styles. Pieces crafted in Scandinavia were done using a method called knitting. This involved weaving together long strips of iron of slightly different composition into a single core, then welding harder and sharper steel cutting edges to either side of it. After this was done, the blade was polished and a special hammer punched a groove along its entire length. Due to this process, swords became lighter, more flexible yet still strong.

Swords were carried in scabbards made of leather-covered wood, lined with sheep fleece. Lanolin contained in the wool effectively protected the metal from tarnishing and corrosion. The finest of swords were carried in scabbards decorated with bronze or gilded handles at the hilt and end.

In hand-to-hand combat, they used double-edged swords that inflicted terrible wounds and short, one-sided knives for piercing the enemy. Some Vikings carried both sword and knife. One of the most effective stabbing weapons was the spear, equipped with a slender, pointed iron blade about 50 cm long. It was attached to a wooden shaft by means of a sleeve. Some of the spears were quirked and had sharp cutting edges. As for the axe, it seems to be the weapon most associated with the Vikings although it was actually less popular than the sword or spear. Axes were made in a very simple way: a sharp cutting edge was welded to a shaped piece of iron and then set on a wooden shaft and tied tightly. A bow and arrow were also used in battle, but these were more like hunting weapons.

Round shields, reaching from the shoulders to the waist, provided protection from the blows of the enemy. They were made of wood, very often lime wood, and sometimes covered with leather and reinforced with an iron band around the edge. At times, the shield was decorated with metal fittings or brightly painted symbols. A metal bump in the middle of the shield protected the hand of the holder. Further protection was provided by a helmet and armour, worn quite rarely by Vikings. This was probably the privilege of the highest levels of society and only found in their graves. Helmets had a conical shape and a nose guard. They were made in both metal and leather for less wealthy warriors. However, none of them had horns.

Viking archery as far as the making process is involved was quite similar to English one. Bows were made from yew, Presumably not just for flexibility, but also mythical beliefs. For yew was used for incising runes. Indeed, one bow with incised runes was found in Stara Ladoga. The shape of the Viking bow resembled those used by the English. Straight at rest, forming the letter 'D' when strong. The string had a loop at one end only. The other side remain loose and only the archer attached it to the bow nock. Linen was most often used for the bowstring, which was also a staple of Viking clothing. Costlier strings made of silk were also mentioned in several sources, but these were rare due to the price. The three most likely types of bow Vikings may have used are as follows:

1) Bow made of thick wood that was also very short for the period, being about 140 cm long. Most likely such bows were used at the Battle of Hastings.

2) The so-called Scandinavian bow. Probably made of several layers of wood bonded together. It wasn't perfectly straight when strung, with a slight deflex. It was used roughly between the 19th and 13th centuries. In length of aroun180 cm.

3) The English bow, we know the most about. Imported from England during the Viking conquest. These were mainly longbow type measuring between 172 and 188 cm in length. The assumption was that they should exceed the archer's height by 4-5 centimetres.

It is suspected that all three types of bows had a very high draw weight. Roughly 80 to 120 pound. Of course, very few Viking would have been able to fully draw these,

but they still provided an incredible striking power. Vikings learned to drew them form English, pressing the nock of the arrow with two fingers, index and middle and using the third one as a pull aid. This gave a very dynamic and precise release. The arrows for the Viking bows are an uncanny mystery, for we know even less about them than about the bows themselves. It is not known what the shafts were made of as no arrows from that period have survived.

The only mention, albeit unreliable, of what material an arrow shaft might have been fashioned from comes from the Poetic Edda. In Voluspa's augury, verse 33 we read: "It became of mistletoe, seemingly flaccid, a deadly arrow...". Ace Baldur fell to his death upon being struck by such an arrow. The arrow was shot by his blind brother But it was guided by Loki himself. However, we are familiar with arrowheads found in some graves. The most common ones were either leaf-shaped or had three triangular planes.

In addition there is mention of arrowheads with burrs, although these have not been found, but we know of their existence due to the presence of a word in Old Scandinavian to describe them. This is the word 'krókr'". There were also blunt arrowheads for hunting birds and other small prey. The way arrowheads were fixed to the shaft was not standardised either. As evidenced by arrows found with a mandrel or sleeve at the end of the arrowhead. The mandrel was driven into the shaft or inserted into a pre-made slot. The sleeve was fitted onto the shaft. No doubt the arrow used to be fitted with feathers. We don't know anything about them, but from the geography we can suspect that they were not dyed in any colour. However, it is possible that in the east and north-east of Scandinavia use to colour their feathers were black or brown.

Saxo Grammaticus mentions the Norwegians as skilled archers, while we know that bows were hardly used in Iceland. In the early centuries, the bow could be used by the vast majority of warriors. It is only in later centuries that one can speak of the Viking archers as a separate class of warriors. The compulsory weapons law regulated the number of archers. Thus, in Sweden there had to be one archer with three dozen arrows per rowing bench during an expedition. In Norway, only the number of arrows differed mentioning two dozen per bench. It can be assumed that archers travelled on horseback so, due to this and their light armor, also being used as scouts. When discussing Norse military of the 11th century, one cannot overlook the fleet. (...) A common feature of all known Viking ships is the construction of their hulls, which consist of overlapping planks nailed together with iron nails and sealed with tar. Under favourable conditions, the Viking sailors were able to cover 10-15 miles per hour on their vessels.

The Scandinavian sagas provide numerous names referring to ship types, but in many cases, it is difficult to identify those names with specific vessels we know of. There was, however, a clear division between merchant vessels and warships.

Gwyn Jones believes that typical Viking ships deployed during the invasions of England housed crews of 32-35 men. Some were smaller in size and cargo capacity. However, there is no doubt that the Norwegians also built larger vessels - an example is Olaf Tryggvason's ship called the 'Long Snake' (staronord. Ormr inn Langi), equipped with 34 pairs of oarsmen manned by 68 rowers. Large warships (drakkar) were also part of Harald Hardrada fleet, as evidenced by the surviving account of the Battle of Niså. It should be noted, however, that vessels of this type, were not necessarily suitable for sailing long distances in deep waters and were most likely not part of the Danish or Norwegian invasion fleets (some researchers disagree with this view, pointing to traces of keel mending, suggesting that the Oseberg ship was also used for navigation beyond coastal waters). Some ships were decorated - an example is the stylised representations of birds and other animals (including a snake) carved on the Oseberg ship's prow; moreover, ornaments on the ships of Canute the Great's invasion fleet are mentioned in the Encomium Emmae Reginae.

One of the main elements of naval warfare tactics was to form a battle array, often by tying the ships together to avoid breakage. This was the solution used by Harald Hardrada at Niså, but allowed leeway for Haakon Iverson's ships, making the outcome of the clash decisive. Tying units together in formation was still popular in the 12th century - at the battle off the Göta estuary (1158), Haakon II Herdebrei not only tied his ships together, but also fastened the formation to the coastal pilings. In some cases, the units were positioned in such a way that the coast provided flank protection.

According to the Scandinavian sagas, the Viking fleets may even amount to several hundred units, but these figures should be treated with caution - in the better documented period of the Norwegian Wars of Succession (12th century) fleets of no more than 50 units fought each other.

It is possible that the crews of individual ships constituted detachments (also during land battles) - the word drengir, used in runic inscriptions, refers to comrades-in-arms, while félags are the crew members of a particular ship.

  • The above article is in large part an extract from the book Cezary Namirski's book "Fulford-Stamford Bridge 1066" Bellona; 1st edition 2021. ISBN 978-8311160576. In my translation from Polish.

  • The passages on "Sword and Bow" has been corrected, amended, edited ad finally translated by myself from the "" website, History section, article "Vikings, Armament and Tactics" by author user VIDAR

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