Topic 1:Military Changes (Part A)

What was the Anglo-Saxon system like prior to the Danish invasion?

The fyrd

At the time of the Danish invasion the main format of the Anglo-Saxon military system was the fyrd.  For the purpose of this investigation into the changes to this system caused by the Danish settlement it is assumed that readers are familiar with the fyrd system. Those not can find the essential background information via the appropriate links below.

Disadvantages

The weaknesses of such a system are easy to see, especially when compared to the more professional Danish army. The lower quality of arms, armour and training[1] of these troops when met with the Danish army is an obvious drawback. Additionally the fragmented nature of the fyrd, with the armies of each shire being reluctant to leave their own shire unless absolutely necessary, as well as the need to disband the army each harvest would surely have proved a great difficulty for any commander.

Advantages

Whilst not without its drawbacks, the fyrd system was not completely useless. There were indeed several attributes which proved very useful during the guerrilla war fought by Alfred from Athelney.

Whereas the Danish armies took a considerable length of time to reinforce, the West Saxon fyrds could be reinforced much quicker, due to the fact that as the Danish forces advanced deeper into Wessex from their bases in Mercia or Eastern Wessex they found themselves constantly being met by fresh reserves of shire-fyrds who had not yet been called to combat. This constant threat of danger must have posed a serious obstacle for the Danish commanders and warranted a carefully planned advance to avoid this danger.

Another characteristic of the fyrd which proved beneficial to Alfred was its ability to create a military force seemingly out of thin air (albeit taking a period of a few months), due to most of the combatants being essentially civilians. It cannot be stressed enough the benefit of being able to create a military force at any given point within a shire without the knowledge of the enemy.

How the Danish invasion and settlement changed the fyrd

What events called for the change?

In order to understand how the Danish invasion and settlement of England affected the military organisation of Anglo-Saxon armies it is first necessary to examine what key events pointed out the weaknesses of the West Saxon army, thereby calling for a radical reorganisation from Alfred.

Danish mobility

One of the Danish strengths which would have become apparent very early was their mobility, both on land and sea. Their knowledge of the waterways of Wessex (particularly the Thames) combined with their extensive use of their navy to transport troops to key settlements along the river would have proved very troublesome for the army of Alfred, particularly when one considers the amount of time it would have taken to gather a sizeable force under the fyrd system.

Additionally, the Danish armies often made use of horses for added mobility. This was obviously a major factor in the Danish campaign against all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as prior to their attack on Northumbria the Danes “fixed their winter-quarters in East-Anglia, where they were soon horsed”[2].

These two highly mobile characteristics of the Danish armies would undoubtedly have been a major influence in Alfred reorganisation of the West Saxon army, as well as being a major influence in his planned defensive measures described in a later article.

Battles between the Danes and West-Saxons

It is difficult to establish whether the weaknesses in combat effectiveness of the West-Saxons would have been overly apparent to Alfred in the battles leading up to his reforms, largely due to the Danish habit of withdrawing without suffering overwhelming casualties. Whilst these battles may have influenced Alfred’s military reforms, an in-depth analysis of each battle is not necessary to this investigation; merely recognising that these battles would have illustrated to Alfred, first hand, the strengths and weaknesses of the Wessex forces is adequate.

The West-Saxon’s failure in siege warfare

Although Alfred would already have been aware of the need for his troops to return home at harvest, the instances where this compromised a siege, thereby resulting in the Danes remaining unscathed to continue to ravage Wessex would certainly have been an eye-opener to him. Instances where this occurred in Nottingham in 868[3], and possibly at Exeter in 877 where Alfred is described as pursuing the Danes “as far as Exeter, but he could not overtake them before their arrival at their fortress”. Alfred’s reluctance to lay siege to the Danes in this instance, regardless of the fact that he now had them surrounded suggests that this disadvantageous aspect of the fyrd was not a serious problem at this time.

What changes actually happened

Reform of the fyrd

Having noticed the weaknesses of the fyrd Alfred quickly ordered the reorganisation of the army so that “half its men were at home, half on service, apart from men who guarded the boroughs”.[4]– aided morale, fatigue and the economy of the kingdom. This action satisfied the vital needs of the English army which had been shown in previous conflicts. These changes allowed him to respond quickly to threats because it negated the lengthy amount of time needed to assemble his army under the old system , with the economic benefits allowing Wessex to remain in combat for many years and not suffer from a lack of food from failed harvests. This provided a much more coherent (and slightly more professional) fighting force with which to counter any future invasions.

Increased mobility

To counter the Danes’ mobility Alfred not only constructed defences to deny the Danes access to desirable land (the formation of the navy can also be considered to fall under this purpose), but also created a mounted contingent of the fyrd, allowing fast response to threats. Evidence of this change is found in many entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This mobility was later to be a decisive factor during the second Danish invasion in 893 AD.

Navy

Whilst the creation of the English navy was essentially a military change caused by the Danish invasion and settlement, I consider it to be a change closer linked to the defence measures set up by Alfred since it focused more on denying the Dances access to English held towns and lands, in which sense it served the same purpose as the fortified burghs.

For this reason it shall be covered more in detail in the next blog, with its mention here only being a reference to it being a change caused by the Danish invasion.

Useful Sources for information on the fyrd system

The Anglo-Saxons at Wat 800-1066 (Paul Hill)


[1] Alfred Warrior King, John Peddie, p66

[2] Entry for the year 866 AD in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

[3] Asser’s Life of King Alfred, Penguin Books, p77

[4] Entry for the year 894 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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