This is the second part of our series on Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages. In the wake of the Danish conquest of England, the last kings of Anglo-Saxon England had at their service a fearsome band of disciplined warriors: the Huscarls!
Founded by Canute the Great, the Danish ruler of England in the early 11th century, the Huscarls were modeled upon the Jomsvikings; another elite Viking military society of the age. In fact the original Huscarls were built around a nucleus of Jomsvikings who had come to England years earlier under the famous Viking leader, Thorkell the Tall.
Canute established them as a permanent body of professional warriors, originally between 3,000 and 4,000 strong. They attended the king, and were maintained in 3 corps: two stationed around London, the third in the north near York. They were further divided into crews to man the 40 longships maintained from Canute onward, as a royal Navy. Thus the Huscarls formed a nucleus for any English national force, both on land and sea.
The corps was maintained by a special tax, on each “hide” of land. In later days, individual Huscarls were granted land of their own, which they lived upon and oversaw. Feudalism was spreading to England from the continent; and had the Norman Conquest not interrupted their evolution, in time the Huscarls would likely have assumed most aspects of the feudal chivalry found elsewhere; becoming England’s version of the Feudal knight.
Each Huscarl was armed as an elite Viking warrior of the time: mail shirt, conical helmet (without horns!!!!), shield, sword, spear, and axe. Their sword hilts and axe blades were famously gilded with gold; a symbol of their elite status! Like the Jomsvikings, the Huscarls maintained a rigorous code of conduct; and kept strict discipline both in camp and in the field.
In battle, they usually fought around the king or earl’s banner, in the center of the Army. Or, alternatively, formed across the entire front, the hard edge of the battle array; backed-up by the less reliable and poorer armed Fyrd.
Under Canute, the Huscarls were mostly Danes; and served to guarantee Canute’s hold on England. But upon the end of his dynasty, and the return of Edward the Confessor to the throne, many of them enlisted as “household troops” among the various great magnates of England. The largest group served under the Earl of Wessex, maintained by Earl Godwin and his sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, and Leofwyn. In their struggles against Edward and his Normanization of England, the Huscarls played a key role in maintaining the Earl’s position as the shadow government of England.
Godwin died, and Harold Godwinson became the “strongman” behind the English throne. In 1062–63 he led his Huscarls into Wales, against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd. The Huscarls proved a hard foe, and the campaign ended with Gruffydd’s defeat and death in 1063.
When Harold became king of England he had an estimated 3,000 Huscarls to serve in his struggle in the Royal Sweepstakes of 1066!
When Harald Hardrada, King of Norway invaded England in September, landing near York; Harold marched north with his Huscarls to battle that great Viking hero. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, the Norse warriors gave as good as they got, cutting down many of Harold’s Huscarls. No actual casualty count exists, but as many as a quarter of the elite warriors may have been cut down before victory was won.
No sooner had the north been secured than word came that William of Normandy had landed in Kent; and was ravishing the land. Harold forced-marched the weary Huscarls to first London, then (together with the Fyrd of southeastern England) marched south to meet the Normans at Senlac Hill.
At the Battle of Hastings the Huscarls formed the iron core of the Anglo-Saxon army. All day long they battled valiantly against the Norman invaders. Time-and-again they repulsed charging horse or Norman foot-sergeants. But the combination of archery and shock cavalry charge eventually wore down their shieldwall, and Harold was slain late in the day. The surviving Huscarls retreated north into the wood behind Senlac Hill. As darkness closed on the battlefield, they dealt the over-bold Norman pursuers a bloody nose at a ravine called the “Malfosse”; before escaping the field.
After Hastings, the corps was disbanded: William had little need for an Anglo Saxon military caste. So, like many of the Saxon nobility, they left England in large numbers; emigrating to Scandinavia and Russia, where they found service with the various rulers of the land.
A large portion took service with the Byzantine Empire, enlisting in mass in the Varangian Guard. In fact Englishmen soon replaced Scandinavians as the largest ethnic group within that elite Guard; and remained so until the 15th century.
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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.