Subject: húskarl noble warrior
Culture: Viking Norse/Scandinavian
Setting: northern Europe late 10-13thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Somerville/McDonald 2013 p2-3
"The small-scale, unorganized, predatory raiding parties of the late eighth and early ninth centuries gave way to larger, better-organized armies by the middle of the ninth-century; the fact that it is only from the middle of the ninth century that we known something about the names of individual leaders of armies and fleets is itself significant. Settlement also began to occur by the middle of the ninth century, first in the British Isles, later on the Continent. The period from 981 to 1016 in England saw highly organized royal expeditions intent upon exacting tribute and achieving political conquest. Within Scandinavia a plurality of local and regional chieftaincies and kingdoms coalesced into the unitary kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Outside Scandinavia, strong political entities ruled by Scandinavian dynasties took shape. Intensified commercial and diplomatic relations with Britain and Euro[e brought contact with Christianity, and this was the age when the cross went north into Scandinavia.
* Bennett 1998 p153
"housecarl (or huscarl) member of the hired household troops used by the Danish kings of England in the 11th century as a form of bodyguard and standing army. The housecarls were introduced by King Cnut the Great in 1016.
"They were initially paid for by the heregeld (army tax), although they also received grants of land, in return for which they would fight when summoned."
* Nurmann/Schulze/Verhülsdonk 1997 p16-18
"The later years saw the invention of the notorious so-called 'Danish axe' -- long or broad axe -- specfically a battle weapon, perhaps developed in response to the more widespread use of ringmail armour. On a 120cm-180cm (4ft-6ft) haft was mounted a large, heavy blade with a crescent-shaped edge about 22cm-45cm (9ins-18ins) long. Swung by a strong man, it could easily bring down a rider or smash shields. It also allowed thrusts with the axehead and, like the winged spearhead, it could be hooked behind a shield and pulled to break an opposing 'shield wall'."
* Royal Armouires Museum > War
"'Danish' axes By the 10th century the bearded axe had been developed into the broad 'Danish' axe favoured by the better-armed infantry (huscarls) of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and other north European nations."
* Yorkshire Museum > Medieval York: Capital of the North
.... "Double-edged swords were used by the wealthiest men but most fought with great iron axes. The largest were heavy weapons, held in both hands to administer deadly blows" ....
* McNab 2012 p15
"From the 10th to the 14th century, the Dane ax was perhaps the most devastating edged weapon around. One of several Viking battleax types, the two-handed weapon had a long haft (up to 5 feet on ceremonial versions) and a curved cutting edge of 12 to 18 inches. When swung with force -- either straight down or at a 45-degree angle -- the ax could shatter a helmet, split mail links, or remove a head or limbs. Outside Scandinavia, the Dane ax was adopted by Saxons in Scotland, England, and Ireland and by Normans in France. It faded from use with the development of longer swords, poleaxes, and halberds that made the ax-carrying fighter vulnerable."
* Withers 2010 p27 = Withers/Capwell 2010 p275
"When wielded with appropriate force, the Danish long-handled or 'bearded' battle-axe was a devastating weapon. Its design was based on domestic Viking wood-splitting axes found throughout Scandinavia during the Viking period and evolved for use in battle. The battle-axe had a much larger head of either crescent or convex shape, which favoured downward blows, with a long wooden haft measuring 1-2m (3.2-6.5ft) in length. Sometimes blades were forged with an especially hardened double-edge. They could also be forged quite thinly to give the user a lighter, more easily handled weapon."
* Withers/Capwell 2010 p354
"This war axe is based on the traditional wood-splitting axe, and its very long handle would have given its owner the potential to create considerable momentum, especially when swinging the axe over his head. The weapon would have been brought down with devastating force."
* Konstam 2002 p120
"Two-handed axes were popular among the Danes, and these broad-bladed weapons could cleave through thick armor, shields, or helmets in battle."
* Ashby/Leonard 2018 p246
"Axes featuring an openwork head with a cross in the centre are a peculiar feature of the Late Viking Age. The influence of Christianity was really starting to be felt across Scandinavia by this time, and it is not unlikely that these weapons were wielded by Christian warriors. They may have been used in battle -- and their lightweight structure may even have aided this -- but a more symbolic or ritual role should not be excluded. The combination of Christian and military iconography may seem unusual, but it is worth remembering that conversion was not always achieved by peaceful means, and that both the axe and the cross ultimately acted as sources of power and influence"
* Griffith 1995 p176
"Almost as much as the warship, the battleaxe became something of an inseparable hallmark of Viking identity. It was a weapon that seems to have been almost as common as the sword and, like the sword, was often given elaborate decoration and a personal name to individualise it -- for example 'Hel' ('Death') for St Olaf's and then Magnus the Good's axe, or 'Ogress of War', which epically cleaved Thrain on the ice before he could put on his helmet. In common with the sword, or perhaps even more so, the battleaxe was custom-built for heavy, deliberate blows designed to split shield, helm, limb or torso. It was a highly uncompromising weapon which maybe epitomises the whole essence of Viking combat.
"[...] In essence there were three main types:
"- The first, and by far the most common, was the single-handed and relatively light axe, which underwent many varied configurations but which was always valued as much as the sword as a close-quarter shock weapon in the fighting line. Indeed, in The Olaf Sagas it seems to have been proved that axes could beat swords in a stand-up fight. Note that these weapons were in many respects indistinguishable from agricultural axes, and must have helped the Viking raiders to cut firewood -- or break through an enemy's front door -- as often as they helped slaughter their opponents.
"- Secondly there is a distant possibility that the Vikings had throwing axes, which could be lighter but still were often indistinguishable from the ordinary hacking axe in everything but the method of utilisation.
"- Thirdly and finally there was the two-handed, long-handled smiting axe from the 'time of the Huscarles' or of the King's Thegns, ie the 900s in Scandinavia or the 1000s in England. This was a highly specialised weapon which may have had little utility in a shield wall, since it took up so much space to wield and completely exposed its user's belly to stabs. If normal axes and swords were cumbersome, then the double-handed axe was doubly so. Its victims, however, would certainly be killed outright if it managed to reach them." [references omitted]
* Nurmann/Schulze/Verhülsdonk 1997 p18
"The sword was the most expensive weapon a warrior might carry, and hilts and crossguards were often highly decorated with patterned copper or silver and niello inlays to show off the rank and wealth of the owner. The sword was not merely a practical tool, but in this warrior culture was sometimes believed to have mystic properties -- individual swords were named, and skilled smiths were believed to have access to magic powers....
"The Viking sword had a double-edged blade about 72cm-82cm (28ins-32ins) long and perhaps 5cm (2ins) wide. The hilt added another 7.5cm-10cm (3ins-4ins), giving an overall length of just under one meter, which seems to have increased towards the end of the Viking era. A short crossguard protected the hand; and at the end of the hilt a heavy pommel acted as a balancing counterweight for the blade, without which the sword -- weighing up to 2kg (4.5lbs) -- would have been difficult to control."
* Oakeshott 1960 p132-133
"The Vikings used a great variety of sword-hilt types, though their blades varied very little. ... Two basic factors are common to all of them -- the continuing use of the combined upper guard and pommel, and the extreme development of the latter. The most characteristic Viking pommel is made up of three lobes, upon which basic form there are an infinity of variations."
* Withers/Capwell 2010 p355
"The large, rounded iron pommel of this sword acted as the perfect counterweight to its long and wide blade. At this late stage of Viking sword development [c.900-1150], the blade has now become tapered towards the end and is in contrast to earlier Viking swords that had blades of equal width and more rounded points."
* Konstam 2002 p121
* Cummins 2012 p115
"[K]ite shields ... probably first came into use in the late tenth century and replaced the circular shield as used by the Vikings. The tapered kite shield gave some protection to the legs without adding too much weight. ... [T]he kite shield was accepted in the Norse lands in the 12th century."
* Line 2014 p36
"In the late tenth century the 'kite'-shaped shield appeared. In the Viking Era it was normally a reverse teardrop shape, which tapered to a distinct or rounded point at its foot. It was possibly a development of the round shield designed to guard one flank of a rider when in combat, perhaps inspired by Byzantine teardrop shields. It became popular with foot soldiers as well in the eleventh century, probably because it provided protection for the forelegs in mêlée. The kite shield was made of the same materials as the round shield and was either flat in section or curved round its longitudinal axis. At this date most kite shields had a boss, but this was probably decorative as the shield was not gripped by a central handle. Manuscripts show them as strapped in a variety of ways designed to distribute the weight along the arm."
* Hjardar/Vike 2016 p186-187
"Contemporary pictures such as the Bayeux Tapestry show that throughout the 11th century, drop-shaped shields were replacing round shields as weapons of war. The tops of the drop-shaped shields were round, but the lower halves narrowed more or less to a point, called the base of the shield. Centrally mounted handles and shield-bosses disappear, to be replaced by strap-handles, though smaller bosses survive as decorative features. A shield dated to about 1100 was found in 1975 in the town burials in Trondheim. This is made of two crossing layers of thin planks, a simple cross-veneer. The shield from Trondheim is about a metre long and half a metre wide. It narrows downwards rather like a drop-shaped shield, and although strictly speaking this must be referred to as an oval shield, it does show that the new type of shield was introduced to Scandinavia."