In that same year also the army of the pagans, which dwelt among the East Angles, disgracefully broke the peace which they had concluded with king Alfred.
Asser’s Annals of the Reign of Alfred the Great (trans. J. A. Giles)
In the death year of Martin, Peter’s heir, key bearer
Came from Eastern Angle-Land the heathens in their war-splendour
Down they came from Lundene, bold in their spear-cunning
Carving into Hamtunscir as ploughmen with a furrow
Rick and cot they burned sparing neither babe nor churchman
Until the news to Oshere came, Osric’s son and hearth-lord
High were the rafters and bright was the log’s demise
As ring-giver Oshere gathered with his sword-thegns
Brighter still his fury at the trespass of the pagans
From The Lay of Oshere of Hamtunscir (trans. Prof. Innis Ertnemhir, Scunthorpe Institute of Dubious Literature)
Another day, another dime, another rhyme, another project. Krognak has once again lured me into yet more painting adventures, leaving my many other projects gathering dust. This time he got me by suggesting wargaming in an era already dear to my heart: early medieval Britain. It is one of the various time periods which I pretend to inhabit from time to time, with the assistance of an expensive collection of wool and metal garments. Krognak, in between frequent and confusing alterations to his username, mentioned that he fancied doing some Viking vs Saxon wargaming. As the chap with the subject knowledge (though Krognak is catching up fast – I’ll lure him into re-enactment yet), I picked the late 9th century, during the reign of Alfred the Great. I also reserved fairly forcefully the home team for my own use – none of this Scandinavian nonsense for me. A little more research gave me the precise time and scenario – in 884 (or maybe 885) the remains of the Great Heathen Army who had been defeated at Ethandun and since been living in East Anglia once more launched attacks into Wessex.
So what does a small Saxon force in 885 (or possibly 884) look like? Victorian scholars generally posited an army of a few well equipped elites leading hosts of ceorls (peasants of varying ranks) stumbling into battle with shit on their faces and pitchforks gripped in trembling fingers. While a powerful and enduring image, this probably reflects more closely the socio-military structure of the 19th century more than the 9th, in which the Empire’s armies were stocked with the urban poor, led by more aristocratic types (in general – I’m aware that it could be more complicated than that).
More recent scholarship takes a different view. The requirements for Fyrd service were that one man be sent per 10 hides – a hide was a variable measurement but seems to have been the amount of land required to support one peasant family. 10 hides was the amount of land required to support a thegn, the lower aristocracy of the day. Given the structure of society, it is more likely that the rich went to war to protect their holdings, leaving their tenants to deal with the maintenance of the land. This is supported by Alfred’s desire that every man in his army should have two horses to be mobile and able to respond to Danish raids. There would be little point in marching a host of untrained peasants across the kingdom to see off raiders, as they would be long gone by the time the rabble finally rolled into town.
My army, therefore, should be largely composed of thegnly troops, with possibly some support from local ceorls who had no option but to fight for their homes. With that in mind, I got to buying. Firstly I got a set of Saxon huscarls from Victrix miniatures – a little late for the C9th, but some careful conversions and part selection should see them right. I then got a selection of frames from Creative Painting on eBay, including Victrix Vikings. Victrix Late Anglo-Danes and a melange of Gripping Beast sprues. I rounded out the army with some models from V&V miniatures to provide heroes and a standard bearer. The models arrived, and so I set to kitbashing. Of the different companies, I must confess that V&V impressed me the most. While I only bought 4 models from them, the quality of the sculpts and the care taken in how they go together is fantastic. Victrix are truly superb plastics, nicely detailed with plenty of options. My only criticisms are the fact that they come in a plastic bag as their most substantial form of packaging, resulting in the abrasion of some of the finer facial details, and the paucity of the instructions. While I do tend to be more likely to make origami with instructions than use them, it’s good to have them there so that you know which arms go together and with which body. Gripping Beast models make a virtue of simplicity, and have far more sturdy spears than Victrix (though I’ve replaced all mine with copper rod, rendering it something of a moot point) but they are definitely showing their age somewhat. For those interested, a size comparison:
The main thrust of my army so far has been in the maille armoured warriors – 8 so far, plus a commander and a banner bearer. Saga seems to be our most likely system at this point, so the thegns will count as hearthguard. Using a combination of Victrix and Gripping Beast parts I have created a nice little shieldwall.
Leading them is Oshere, son of Osric. Osric, as far as can be ascertained, was a real historical figure and Ealdorman of Hampshire and/or Dorset at least between 848 and 860. It is now 884 (perhaps 885), and Osric has gone to his heavenly reward. Because the title wasn’t hereditary, our boy is now merely the shire reeve, and anxious to reclaim his father’s title by making a name for himself. The model I used was a V&V Irish chieftain, with a new sword hand and shield from Victrix.
Accompanying him are his first 4 thegns. All the models here are done quickly, with basecoats followed by an oil wash. A little more time was spent on the skin, because it can’t really be cheated. Other than that the only extra step was a layer of basilicanum grey over the maille to shade and darken it down.
Next will be the banner bearer, the next 4 thegns and a priest from the huscarls command frame. After that it’s on to some lighter troops, who will be included more for their utility in Saga than for any historical reason, though they can be explained away as local men defending their farms. See you next time!
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