19 November 2009

Huscarls- Methods of fighting battles...

Logan Thompson, in his "Ancient weapons in Britain" suggests that, with King Harold (then as Earl) having seen the Normans in action only two years prior to 1066, he instructed many of his elite warriors at Santlache along the front battle-rank to fight in pairs against Norman cavalry at Hastings- one to 'absorb' the enemy horseman from one side who was charging with his lance, spear or sword, and the other housecarl to strike the exposed horse or Norman rider from the other, left side.

One housecarl would have dealt with the rider's weapon-side whilst the other leapt forward and dealt a huge swipe with his axe at the rider or horse, then kill the fallen & dazed trooper. It is likely that when the housecarls swung their terrifying axes in the figure of eight motion, in order to generate unstoppable momentum (and perhaps to confuse a foe?), they targetted the enemy's right side which, despite holding their own weapon (usually in the right hand), would have been exposed to the axeman's fury.

This also meant, however, that since the huscarl himself could not use a shield together with the oversized axe, that he must remain constantly aggressive, attacking without letup in order to keep his opponent from entering aggressive stance.

One of the more distinctive confirmations of the Huscarls' tactics also comes from the Bayeux tapestry: It clearly shows them holding their axes left-handed rather than right-handed, as intuition might dictate. Using a left-handed grip would mean that they would swing toward an opponent's unguarded side (the right), requiring the average right-handed defender to shift their shield-side toward the attacking huscarl, thus entering a defensive stance and diminishing their attacking speed and ability.

Others would have found room to wield their two-handed axes against the enemy, immediately in front of the wall of shields, with others forming a prickly barbed-shieldwall of spears, with the fyrdsmen throwing various lethal missiles from behind. The huscarls were most likely cross-trained with different weapons (sword, double-handed axe, thrusting/throwing spear or axe), being well-informed about any military advancements in weapons and tactics on the continent. Some perhaps having been mercenaries abroad (Flanders? Byzantine? Even Normandy?).

The preferred technique for dealing with mounted opponents was to cleave the horse's front legs out from under it as it passed or approached. Armed with such a heavy-handed weapon however, it is unlikely that huscarls were very choosy over their targets, and they probably struck at any opportune region. One account of the Battle of Hastings described many horses as being nearly cloven in two by the Huscarls' axes.

HUSCARL ARCHERS? It is not clear whether any archers were included in a body of huscarls, though in the Battle of Maldon poem, there is quotes of Anglo-Saxon"thrown spears and bows". The English nobles present had just been hunting beforehand, and therefore bows may have been used to fight with in the impending battle.

Yet the traditional Germanic way of fighting was to hurl various missiles before armies clashed from some distance apart, but pride may have prevented the elite warriors from using such "lowly" weapons- which didn't involve hand-to-hand fighting.

In England these were aristocratic sporting weapons, used for hunting wild animals, not humans, and archery was a strictly guarded mystique as nobles had long been fanatically jealous over their hunting rights. Therefore if a poor man owned a bow, let alone practised with one, he was seen as a poacher. So few fyrdsmen would be any good at archery in battle, less dare admit it for fear of losing limb or life.