Setting the Stage: The Weapons of Hastings

Dane_AxeThe primary weapon of the Anglo-Saxon Housecarls (the martial elite of King Harold’s forces) was the Danish Battle Axe.  A sharp and wide blade was mounted on a long handle and swung with both hands.  The blade was reasonably light and forged very thin, making it superb for cutting. Axes could weigh as much as four pounds and be up to four feet long.  The weight of the axe head and the length on the handle meant great momentum and power for the blade on impact.  Properly used, the axe could cleave through a shield to its bearer, break a sword, or make short work of light armor.  The very characteristics that made the axe powerful though, made it harder to maneuver than some other weapons: once a swing was in progress, it was difficult to change directions, and if one missed with the axe, it was hard to bring the head back in another swing immediately.

Most every man on both sides would have also been armed with a sword, a ubiquitous close-quarters weapon of the time.  Around the 10th century, the use of properly quenched hardened and tempered steel started to become much more common than in previous periods, and sword quality increased accordingly.  Swords were still two-edged and relatively short affairs unlike the broadswords to follow.  It was also about the time of William’s invasion that sword began to appear with substantial quillons on either side of the grip.  Also known as a crossguard, this was a bar of metal at right angles to the blade, placed between the blade and the hilt. The crossguard stops the wielder from punching shields while swinging the weapon, thereby protecting the user’s hand. It also prevents other blades from sliding down onto the hand of the weapon wielder during combat.

On the Norman side, William’s archers fielded the longbow.  A longbow is usually about the height of the user, and is a substantial bow made from a single piece of wood.  The best archers had trained from a young age to pull the heavy combat bow, and some had a draw of as much as 200 pounds.  With skill and strength, the best archers could hit targets as much as 800 feet away with enough momentum to penetrate flesh and even some light armor.  Archers were highly regarded for their skill and were prized members of the fighting force, being able to loose as many as six or seven arrows a minute on target.  It took years to become a good archer.

crossbowConversely, it took only minutes to be able to use a crossbow.  The crossbow put the archer’s art in the hands of the laymen.  Suddenly, archery forces could be supplemented with scores of unskilled soldiers who needed to know only how to aim and pull the trigger.  The crossbow was a bow mounted on a shoulder stock that allowed the user to load it with a lever, keep it drawn until needed, and then fire it with just a pull on a trigger which then loosed the small arrow or “bolt”.  The draw of the crossbow was even heavier than the long bow, and a decent marksman could hit targets even farther away.  The crossbow’s disadvantage was the amount of time it took to draw, cock, an load – almost a minute for a practiced crossbowman, but in that amount of time a longbow archer could have easily shot half a dozen arrows.

Though the crossbow had been around since the 5th century BC in Asia, its introduction into Europe was slow, and its rise to popularity would not be until nearly 1000 years later.  In fact, Hastings would be the first western battle to make significant use of the crossbow, and William’s skill at combined arms tactics would take full advantage of its characteristics.  Whereas archers fired the arrows in high arcs to reach distant targets, crossbows could cover the same distance in a much flatter trajectory.  Thus William came upon the idea to have his archers fire first, and when the English raised their shield wall to defend from arrows overhead, he would have his crossbowman loose a volley under the shields.

See how swords, axes, and other weapons such as staffs and daggers are used in close-quarter combat by attending the Human Combat Chess Match at the Sarasota Medieval Fair this weekend and next!

Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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