Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>508 Ang.-Sax. hearthweru

Subjecthearthweru 'hearth-guard', gesith 'companion' warrior
Culture: Anglo-Saxon
Setting: England late 5th-early 9thc

Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Harrison/Embleton 1993 p7-8
"A separate warrior elite had already emerged by the time of the Germanic migrations to Britain.  The king or leader of a tribe surrounded himself with loyal followers and companions who would protect him, and be the means by which he imposed his will over the local population.  Selected out from the general masses, these high-status individuals became full-time warriors, able to devote a great part of their time to the skill of arms.  They formed the personal bodyguard of the king and were effectively his household troops.  They were known in Old English as the hearthweru (literally 'hearth-guard').
​    "In the Early and Middle Anglo-Saxon periods, it would seem from the scanty source material available, that these 'household' warriors made up the bulk of the forces fielded by any ambitious king or lord.  In the fragmentary poem of the Fight at Finnsburh which takes place in the 5th-century, one of the 'armies' contains only 60 warriors.  The forces brought across from the Continent by the earliest of the 5th century Anglo-Saxon kings are said to have been carried by tiny numbers of ships typically three to five. These retinues, which can hardly have numbered more than a few hundred men, were the personal warbands of leaders who were to become the founders of the future Anglo-Saxon dynasties."

* Fisher 1973 p131
"The equivalence of the Anglo-Saxon term gesith with the Latin comes (companion) strongly suggests that in all the English kingdoms except perhaps Kent, the basis of nobility had been membership of the retinue of a victorious chief; the king's companions and their descendants were gesithcund (noble), distinguished from other freemen by their high wergild.  But society was not static.  As kingdoms beame larger and kings fewer the rulers of once independent territories, some of whom could lay claim to distinction by birth, were compelled, or deemed it prudent, to accept dependence on one of the greater kings; they became indistinguishable from the nobility of service.  Among the gesithcund class were men who, by virtue of the value the king put on their services, as military subordinates, as his representations in recently subjected territories, or as officers within his kingdom, acquired additional distinction.  It became normal for men of gesithcund status to attach themselves not only to kings but to the greatest of their servants.  Ine's Laws reveal a hierarchy of noble ranks; some nobles are landless, some are dependents of other lords, but others have acquired the rank of king's thegn or earldorman."


* Owen-Crocker 2004 p194
"Only four helmets survive from the Anglo-Saxon period, one of them, the Sutton Hoo example, possibly imported from Sweden.  None bear the horns with birds' head terminals depicted on the 'dancing warriors' plaque on the Sutton Hoo helmet and on a few other objects thought to be associated with the cult of Woden.  Both the Sutton Hoo helmet and the slightly later one from Coppergate, York, derive from Roman parade helmets and fit right over the head, providing face protection and a neckguard, a shape also found (more crudely) in depictions on the Franks Casket and on the Swedish Torslunda die.  The Sutton Hoo helmet is surmounted by a protective crest which terminates in beasts' heads.  A stylised human face which cleverly doubles as a flying dragon decorates the front and protective boars' heads feature on either side of the face, at the ends of the eyebrows.  The Coppergate helmet also has beasts' heads at the eyebrows.  An interlacing design decorates the nose guard and a Christian invocation is inscribed on its crest.  The helmets from Benty Grange and Wollaston, Northamptonshire are of a different shape, being designed to protect the top of the head, like caps, though both also have nose-guards and the Wollaston example has cheekguards.  On both of them there is the free-standing figure of a boar, a pagan symbol, which is also worn on the Torslunda die (on the other kind of helmet).  The Wollaston helmet has so far not revealed any other decoration but the Benty Grange helmet has a silver cross on the nose-piece.  ALthough the Anglo-Saxon helmets fall broadly into two types, each of them is individual and they were clearly precious items.  Interestingly they all carry some religious emblem, either pgan or Christian, or, in the case of Benty Grange, both."

* Nicolle/McBride 1984 p15
"Helmets were rare among the Anglo-Saxons, and some were at least partly of leather.  Visored helmets of the Sutton Hoo type were probably only for a ruler's ceremonial purposes, and such styles stemmed from late-Roman cavalry parade armour.  The semi-visored Vendel type of helmet was worn for war."


* Nicolle/McBride 1984 p16
"Battleaxes were rare, though the iron-hafted axe-hammer from the Sutton Hoo grave is now believed to have been a weapon."

* Hill 2012 p162
"For much of the early Anglo-Saxon era the type of axe most commonly in use from the military point of view seems to have been the francisca, or throwing axe. This sidearm was a distinctive feature of northern European Germanic cultures during the Migration period and its method of deployment was usually that it was thrown at the enemy prior to an infantry onslaught. The blades were heavy and small and triangular in section at the socket. They were almost certainly used one handed."


* Quennell 1959 p129
"The spear was the commonest weapon in the early pagan days; sometimes it had wings on it and the socket was formed by hammering the iron round until the sides met. The shaft of ash, 6 to 7 feet long, had an iron ferrule. Some were thrown as javelins."

* Nicolle/McBride 1984 p15-16
"The spear was the most common weapon, at it also had heraldic significance among the pagan Anglo-Saxons.  The names given to such weapons showed that some were for throwing, and others also for lateral cutting, while certain excavated examples may have been long enough for use as pikes.  An extraordinary variety of spearheads have been found, and these indicate differences between major cultural zones, from the Anglian East Midlands and upper Thames to the Jutish south-east.  A Celtic influence may also be seen in Wessex and the Thames basin, but most spears were clear developments of pre-existing Continental forms.  Interestingly, square-section armour-piercing blades disappeared in the late 7th century, which suggests that armour was becoming less common.  Perhaps mail shirts of late-Roman manufacture were finally wearing out.  Delicate long-necked spears also died out at this time, perhaps indicating that the hard press of more disciplined shield-wall tactics was taking precedence over disorganised individual combat.  Cords fastened to some javelin-shafts were not, of course, to retrieve these weapons, but either spun the javelin as it was thrown or added extra momentum to a throw."


* Quennell 1959 p129
"The early swords were formidable weapons, a yard long, with a wooden scabbard."

* Alexander/Clark/Dociu 2011 p56
"The apex of Teutonic military craft was the long cutting sword.  Averaging about three feet, blades were pattern welded, a sophisticated technique by which twisted rods and strips of iron or steel were hammered together.  Forged from this intricate folding, the polished blades rippled with chevron or herringbone patterns. As one appreciative recipient recorded in the early sixth century, they appear 'to be grained with tiny snakes, and here such varied shadows play that you would believe the shining metal to be interwoven with many colours.'"

* Ashdown 1909 p50-51
"The earliest of those [swords] found in England have no quillons or cross-pieces, but only pommel, grip, and blade.  The latter was long, straight, rounded at the point, and double-edged, 30 inches long and 2 inches wide at the hilt; the grip was of wood and with but little swell.  The total length is generally about three feet. ...  Undoubtedly this sword was fashioned from classical models."

* Nicolle/McBride 1984 p16
"Saxon swords were larger than those of the Celts, and great care was devoted to their manufacture.  Their almost magical role would later be converted into the sword's special significance for a Christian knight.  Many had so-called 'life stones', perhaps a form of religious totem attached to their scabbards.  As with mail, good quality swords had been more common in northern Germany and Scandinavia than in the south.  Their frequent appearance among pagan Anglo-Saxon grave goods indicates that they were also abundant in Britain.  Though swords were buried in many graves it was more normal for such a costly weapon either to be handed down from generation to generation, or to be returned to the leader who first gave it.  A sword might also be given when a youth became a man, particularly by an elder who was no longer able to wield it effectively; or it might be won in battle, or be donated by a foreign ruler.  Swords also inherited the 'luck' of their previous owners, and were closely associated with kinship ties, loyalty to a leader, kingly power and battle-frenzy."

* Hill 2012 p155
"During the sixth century in England when pagan Saxon warriors were still being buried with their symbolic weapon sets, those high-status burials that contained swords produced weapons which in terms of the shape of the blade were either almost parallel sided or slightly tapering to a rounded point.  Sword blades of this early period, like the ones that followed them, were double edged.  This means that both sides of the blade (or edges) were cutting edges from the hilt all the way down to the point.  Swords of the Migration period, because of their blade design, would have been somewhat 'point-heavy'.  This means that the point of balance of the weapon (the 'fulcrum' of the blade) was some considerable way down it, towards the point and away from the hilt.  The lack of tapering of the blade would have made the warrior feel that his blade wanted to drop down under gravity when he held the grip in his hand.  This characteristic, along with the tight one-handed grip construction afforded by the straight parallel upper and lower hilt guards of the early period swords, would have produced a weapon with optimum use in over-arm slashing or hacking, a truly offensive and devastating weapon.  Quite how often the swords of the early English cemeteries were used in such a way is open to debate.  There is an understandable clamour in favour of almost everything deposited in such burial environments being primarily associated with the notion of 'ritual', the implication being that the items found in graves were made for the very purpose of the deposition.  However, it is fair to say that the morphology of these weapons does demonstrably lend the swords the characteristics outlined above."


* Hill 2012 p179-180
"It would appear that the shield diameters during the early Anglo-Saxon period were smaller than that of the later period.  The centrally placed feature on the shield was the boss.  In the early period as in the later period, this was made of iron.  However, the bosses of the early period shields invariably have an aggressive shape to them.  They are 'waisted' conical forms with a central protruding spike terminating in a flat button.  Behind them is a hollow cavity -- a hole in the centre of the shield board across which an iron or wooden grip stretched.  It meant that the holder could wield these flat-boarded round shields and thrust them into the face of his opponent, using them almost as a buckler.  The Franks Casket shows small round shield being used in exactly this way."

* Quennell 1959 p129
"Shields were of wood, sometimes covered with hide, painted or set with semi-precious stones or gilt-bronze mounts, sometimes oval, and at others round. They measured between 1 foot 6 inches and 3 feet in diameter."


* Owen-Corker 2004 p193
"Despite allusions to mailcoats in the heroic poetry of the Anglo-Saxon period, the general absence of archaeological evidence for them, even in graves equipped with fine weapons, suggests that, at least in the earlier centuries of the Anglo-Saxon era, they were a rare luxury, and it was not unusual to fight without protective clothing -- on the Franks Casket some spear-carriers are not equipped with armour.  The only archaeological remains we have of a mailcoat are from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, our richest Anglo-Saxon find.  The Sutton Hoo mailcoat is heavily rusted, but it is evident that it was made of rows of metal rings alternately riveted and soldered together, and that it was probably knee-length. On the Franks Casket, large circles covering the upper bodies of fighting men probably indicate mail coats, though they could conceivably represent something else, like a garment of pelts.  It is noticeable that though both ringed garments and helmets appear on the Casket, they are worn by different figures, rather than together."


* Hill 2012 p158
"The Anglo-Saxons were known by their contemporaries from a very early age for carrying with them a distinctive form of sidearm known as a seax.  In essence, this weapon was a single-edged knife. ... What we can glean from contemporary sources ... is that the connotations are more with the saex as a weapon than a tool." [CONTRA Withers/Capwell 2010 p354]

* Stone 1934 p280
"HAND-SEAX.  A dagger worn by the Anglo-Saxons." [reference omitted]

* Withers/Capwell 2010 p354
"The scaramax or seax (meaning 'knife' in Anglo-Saxon) was a radical departure from typical blade design.  It was more of a large and extended knife, and would have been used in a chopping or hacking fashion.  The seax seems to have been used primarily as a tool [CONTRA Hill 2012 p158] but larger ones may also have been employed as weapons." 

* Alexander/Clark/Dociu 2011 p57
"Generally wielded with one hand, the single-edged seax was more versatile than a full sword, serving as a hunting knife as well as a dagger."

​* Nicolle/McBride 1984 p16
"The large sax dagger was a popular weapon in these early years, though later it would shrink to a short, broad knife."