Subject: huscarle 'housecarl' warrior
Setting: Danish, Norman wars, England 11thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Harrison/Embleton 1993 p10
"In the final 50 years of Anglo-Saxon England a new and powerful military institution was introduced -- the huscarles. The huscarles were of Scandinavian origin, the term meaning 'household-men' -- warriors making up the household troops of a ruler. In all probability, the huscarles were similar to the hearthweru of the Anglo-Saxon courts: both had their ultimate origin in the bodyguard units of Germanic kings and their roles were virtually identical. ... Cnut had ruled England since 1014, and his huscarles, as trusted men, naturally took over the positions earlier held by Anglo-Saxons in the royal household. In later years, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons were recruited into the huscarles without distinction of race -- the Old Norse and Old English languages being close enough for the operation of mixed units. "Huscarles performed much the same duties as the king's thegns. They could be allocated administrative tasks by the king, and cold even be landholders much like provincial thegns. Huscarles were also found in the households of great lords such as the brothers of Harold Godwinson -- Leofwyn and Gyrth. These would have served in the royal army when required and can be seen making their last stand alongside Leofwyn and Gryth in the Bayeux Tapestry. The Domesday Book records the huscarles as landholders after they ceased to be a military force."
* Bradbury 2021 p60-61
"The main composition of the fyrd or army consisted of the household warriors and landed retainers of the king and of the great men who owed him allegiance. They might be seen as 'royal war bands' rather than national armies in a modern sense. The royal force, or indeed a local force acting for the king, could call upon shire levies too. Local shire levies seem to have been prepared to act in an emergency, for example, against invasion. Men from Somerset and Devon turned out against Harold Godwinson when he returned to England against the Confessor in 1052. But even shire levies consisted largely of the middling to higher social ranks, armed men mostly with some experience of war. This is not to say that no men of lower rank participated. Ceorls, not the lowest of the low, did join the fyrd, as we see at Maldon, and the poem called the Carmen speaks of peasants at Hastings. But it is not likely that large numbers of untrained troops were used. The whole process of assembling an army was geared towards ensuring the reverse: bringing together selected men, chosen because they would be useful in war.
"Housecarls were military retainers, probably introduced by the Danish Cnut, and they were to be found in the household of an earl or ealdorman as well as that of the king. Such men appear to have been paid wages, and may in a sense be seen as mercenaries or stipendiaries, as probably were the Danes employed in the royal fleet in 1015. But housecarls were sometimes granted lands and a place to live. They were not so much mercenaries or some sort of standing army as they were household men.
"Military households are a common feature of the medieval world, both before and after Cnut. The meaning of 'housecarls' after all is household servants, and this is essentially what they were. There were 15 acres of Wallingford where housecarls dwelled, presumably employed as a garrison there, and Domesday Book records various other examples. ... [T]he English system ... provided well-trained men quite capable of fighting any force of the day."
* Royal Armouries Museum > War Gallery
"Cavalry warfare never really caught on in northern Europe. As the Roman Empire fell, Germanic armies took over, pushed west by migrating tribes from Asia. Mainly infantry, Germanic armies fought in dense, organised formations. By the 10th century the Saxons' usual formation was the 'shield wall', lines of spearmen carrying large shields, supported by some light infantry and limited quantities of cavalry, who dismounted for battle."
* Carey/Allfree/Cairns 2006 p69
"The core of Godwinson's rapid deployment force was the huscarles, made up of Danish volunteers, Saxon household troops and professionally trained and equipped relations of the king and earls. Protected like their Viking forebears in ring-reinforced leather lerkins or mail, these soldiers wore conical helms and carried large 3 foot round shields or kite shields."
* Harrison/Embleton 1993 p57-58 (reconstructing a Saxon huscarle of Earle Ralph the Timid, c. 1055)
"The equipment of the huscarles reflected contemporary Scandinavian fashion. The Lex Catrensis of the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticius says that helmets, mail shirts and gold-plated swords were the required basic equipment of a huscarle. [...]
"The helmet is a one-piece forging similar to that from the treasury of Olomouc (Olmütz) Cathedral in the Czech Republic. The long mail shirt and coif are of native manufacture. The skirt is divided to facilitate riding. Leather binding protects the edges of the garment from wear and reduces chafing."
* Carey/Allfree/Cairns 2006 p69
"As secondary weapons, the huscarles used short spears and javelins, thrust overarm or thrown."
* Hill 2012 p162
"There are precious few literary references to the axe in a military context in Anglo-Saxon hands until the second Viking age, when it suddenly becomes a widely acknowledged weapon of war developed from those used by the Scandinavians themselves, or in most cases directly wielded by the Scandinavians. This latter type of axe is known as the Dane-Axe, or Broad-Axe. Wielded in two hands, its shape, design and usage was very different than the francisca of the old days. It was more of a primary weapon than a sidearm. Thin sectioned blades with cutting edges up to at least 18in long were hafted onto what are presumed to be ash shafts. In fact, some of the blades were so thin in the centre that they have clearly corroded right through at this point. These weapons were the domain of the Viking houscarl, or later period Anglo-Saxon king's thegns and other noblemen."
* Boeheim 1890 p367
"In dem oft erwähnten Teppich von Bayeux erscheint sie in einer so vollständigen Deutlichkeit als Waffe des englishen Fußvolkes, daß wir selbst die Kampfweise daraus zu entnehmen im stande sind."
* Withers 2010 p25 = Withers/Capwell 2010 p273
"Anglo-Saxon warriors inherited the two-handed 'bearded' battle-axe from earlier generations of Danish Viking invaders who had employed it with great effect to board enemy ships. The Anglo-Saxons soon became extremely proficient at using the battle-axe. With its 1.2m (3.9ft) haft and large honed axehead of around 30cm (11.8in), it had the capacity to shatter shields and inflict grievous wounds. Swung from side to side, it could cut down a mounted soldier and his horse in a single blow.
"These long axes were wielded by the huscarls (King Harold's personal bodyguards) and described as cleaving 'both man and horse in two'. One of the drawbacks of using the two-handed axe is that while raised above the head it momentarily left the user dangerously exposed at the front to sword or lance thrusts. Despite this, the sight of a mass of axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warriors approaching the enemy's ranks normally had the desired psychological effect, with many contemporary accounts noting that the opposition simply fled from the battlefield."
* Harrison/Embleton 1993 p58
"The broad-bladed axe with a haft about 4 feet in length became virtually the trademark of the huscarle."
* Carey/Allfree/Cairns 2006 p69
"The huscarles' primary offensive arm was the large Viking broad axe, with its characteristic 5 foot haft, swung with both hands in an overarm motion from the left side in order to hit the opponent on the unshielded side."
* Harrison/Embleton 1993 p58 (reconstructing a Saxon huscarle of Earle Ralph the Timid, c. 1055)
"Shields, as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, could be either circular or kite-shaped."
* Hill 2012 p182
"Here [in the Bayeux Tapestry], there are noticeable differences in shield design between the English and the Norman. For example, many, but by no means all, of the English still have the more traditional style rounded convex shields so common in depictions from manuscripts in the early eleventh century. However, there is an impressive array of interlocked kite-shaped shields in the main English shield wall, each with a variant of spiral designs or simply plain in colour. There is visual evidence here for studs of some sort which seem to hold the rear side strapping into place."
* Owen-Crocker 2004 p254
"Men engaged in manual labour, or other activities in which the skirt would be an encumbrance, are often shown in what could be a loin-cloth, but what seems to me to be the ordinary tunic tucked up into the girdle at each side. The material falls into a V-shape at the front and at the back either makes a similar V or clings round the buttocks. The thighs are exposed at the sides. Men dressed in this way usually have bare legs and feet. Some observers may think that breeches are being represented here but I do not. The shape made by the tunic skirt is certainly similar to the appearance of the loose breeches which were worn in the later Middle Ages, but the bodice of the garment and the cloak which is often worn over it are exactly the same as those of men with normal skirted tunics. Perhaps the later breeches evolved from an ad hoc arrangement in which the skirts were tucked out of the way."