Anglo-Saxons fought on foot... and horseback

November 26, 1999

History has recorded them as doughty warriors who eschewed horses and ultimately fell victim to a Norman cavalry charge. Yet new research suggests that the Anglo-Saxons did not always fight on foot and may have been just as keen to ride into battle, writes Steve Farrar.

Kerry Cathers, a PhD student at Reading University, has collated archaeological discoveries and Dark Age artwork with overlooked historic texts to draw her conclusions.

"When you gather all the evidence together, it's very difficult to argue that horse-backed warfare in Anglo-Saxon England was an impossibility - we can no longer say horses were not present on the battlefield," she said.

Many historians, however, have concluded that the Anglo-Saxons did not use horses in battle. Explanations to account for this have included suggestions that they did not know how to ride or that they only had tiny ponies.

Ms Cathers said: "It seems farcical that everyone else in Europe was using horses, including the British and Welsh, but for some reason the Anglo-Saxons didn't."

Her evidence included: a handful of references to horses in contemporary chronicles and poems; repeated references to horses in the Domesday Book, the Norman inventory of the wealth of the kingdom they had recently conquered, including 62 specifically about warhorses; the discovery two years ago of the remains of an early Saxon warrior who had been buried with his horse; and carvings of soldiers on horseback on Anglo-Saxon church crosses.

Ms Cathers also noted that the Mercian king Penda had fought alongside British princes who were known to have fought from the saddle, while routed armies are recorded as being cut down by mounted pursuers.

Nevertheless, Ms Cathers said it was not known how the Anglo-Saxons would have used horses in battle and it is certain they did not possess organised cavalry units.

"Being on horseback presents certain advantages in certain situations but it does not guarantee a win - the nobility and their household retainers would have been willing to fight on foot or on horseback, depending on the situation."

At Hastings, King Harold's Anglo-Saxon army did not deploy cavalry but this was a tactical decision, Ms Cathers said.

The troops withstood four Norman cavalry charges before they finally broke and this may well have been due to the deaths of commanders rather than the superiority of the invaders' mounted troops.

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Reader's comments (1)

The English lost because King Harald had to force march the army north to defend the country against the Vikings., and then south again to defend against the Normans. Both invaders prompted a necessity of action by their depredations of local innocent civilian populations. So the army was like an American football team in the fourth period when the battle happened. Perhaps King Harald would have been more prudent to wait a little bit longer to allow a battle with the Normans, to allow his troops to rest, reinforcements to arrive, and for guerrilla warfare to work against the Normans. That's the command decision that was made!

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