04 June, 2010

Early medieval armies: numbers

There are plenty of mentions of battles and skirmishes in surviving early medieval documentary sources, ranging from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to Brittonic poetry such as Y Gododdin. Unfortunately, there are no detailed descriptions, and certainly no equivalent of accounting records or payment rolls that would show how many soldiers were involved. Can we make even an approximate estimate of the likely numbers involved?


Laws of Ine

Old English original:

Ðeofas we hatað oð .vii. men; from .vii. hloð oð .xxxv.; siððan bið here.
--Laws of Ine, available online

Modern English translation:
13. §1. We use the term "thieves" if the number of men does not exceed seven, "band of marauders" [or "war-band"] for a number between seven and thirty-five. Anything beyond this is an "army" [here]
--Regia Anglorum website

Ine was a king of the West Saxons. He succeeded to the throne in 688 when his predecessor Caedwalla abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome, and ruled for 37 years according to Bede (Ecclesiastical History Book V Ch. 7). Ine’s law code thus dates to the period between 688 and 725.

The Fight at Finnsburh

Never have sixty swordmen in a set fight
Borne themselves more bravely
--Translated in Alexander (1991)

The ‘sixty swordmen’ are followers of the Danish king Hnaef, attacked in a hall at night by their enemies. The date is uncertain (if indeed the incident is historical and not legendary). However, one of the participants is the (legendary?) warrior Hengest. If (a big if) he is to be equated with the Hengest who came to Britain at Vortigern’s invitation in the mid-fifth century, the date of the Fight at Finnsburh would be somewhat before Hengest’s removal to Britain.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A.D. 784. This year Cyneheard slew King Cynewulf, and was slain
himself, and eighty-four men with him.
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online

An earlier entry in the Chronicle for the year 755 refers to the same incident (there positioned at the beginning of King Cynewulf’s reign, whereas here it is in its more or less* correct chronological position at the end of his reign). Unlike the Chronicle’s usual laconic entries, the 755 entry reads like a condensed form of a saga. Cyneheard, who was a kinsman of King Cynewulf and had some grievance against him, had killed Cynewulf and made a bid to become King of the West Saxons himself. The 755 entry makes it clear that all Cyneheard’s followers chose to fight and die with him, indicating that 84 men was the size of Cyneheard’s army.

Welsh Triads

Three Faithful War Bands
The War-Band of Cadwallawn, when they were fettered; and the War-Band of Gafran son of Aeddan, at the time of his complete disappearance; and the War-Band of Gwenddolau son of Ceidiaw at Ar(f)derydd, who continued the battle for a fortnight and a month after their lord was slain. The number of each one of the War-Bands was twenty-one hundred men
--Red Book of Hergest, available online

Y Gododdin

Three hundred gold-torqued men
Three hundred spirited horses
That charged with them
The thirty and the three hundred
Alas! They did not return
--Y Gododdin, stanza B1.9, translated by Koch (1997)

Historia Brittonum

The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 56, available online


It seems fairly clear that early medieval armies were not large, numbering a few dozen or a few hundred. All the early English sources give figures of less than 100:

  • 35 or more (Ine’s law code, approximately 688-725)

  • 60 (Fight at Finnsburh, date uncertain, maybe mid-fifth century)

  • 84 (Cyneheard’s army in his attempt to seize the throne of Wessex, approximately 786)

These are broadly consistent with the sort of numbers that might have constituted one or a few ship’s crews of the period. The large Sutton Hoo ship buried in Mound 1 had between 20 and 40 oars – as the tholes had only survived in places along the gunwale the exact number is unknown - and Martin Carver suggests the most likely number is 28, seven pairs each fore and aft of the mast (Carver 1998 p.171). As there would presumably have been people on board who did not row (e.g. the helmsman) the total crew would be more than the number of oarsmen. A ship’s crew is a natural unit for a warband; in Beowulf, the hero and his followers sail in a single ship to Denmark to fight the monster Grendel. Taking Martin Carver’s estimate of 28 rowers for the Sutton Hoo ship and adding on a few non-rowers would come to something resembling the 35-man upper limit for a warband in Ine’s law code. A smaller ship would be consistent with a smaller warband. More than one ship, or a big ship carrying a significant number of extra warriors, would qualify as an army.

If warbands were typically 35 men or fewer, this does not preclude engagements involving larger numbers. Larger armies could have been assembled from multiple warbands, co-operating (to a greater or lesser degree) under a chief leader. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History gives several hints that could be consistent with this type of ‘modular’ organisation. For example, at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, Bede describes Penda’s army as thirty times greater than the army of Oswy and Alchfrid of Northumbria and “...comprised of thirty battle-hardened legions under famous commanders” (Book III Ch. 24). This is consistent with the idea that Oswy and his son Alchfrid between them commanded a single warband, presumably the royal retainers, while Penda had assembled a group of thirty warbands each of similar size. At the Battle of Degsastan in 603 Aethelferth of Bernicia defeated Aidan of Dal Riada, but “...Aethelferth’s brother Theodbald and all his following were killed” (Book I Ch.34). This is consistent with Theodbald leading an independent or semi-independent unit, whose fortune in the battle differed from that of the unit(s) under Aethelferth’s command.

The Brittonic sources suggest somewhat larger numbers, at 300 and 2100, respectively. Both are multiples of 300, which may indicate that they owe as much to poetic convention as to a muster roll. Nevertheless, they presumably give an idea of the sort of numbers that sounded reasonable to the intended audience. Y Gododdin presents elegies to fallen heroes from a variety of kingdoms, which would be consistent with a ‘modular’ alliance made up of multiple independent warbands under joint leadership, as suggested above. The Three Faithful Warbands triad claims that 2100 men comprised a single warband, a far larger number than any of the other sources. However, the Triads survive in a medieval manuscript which may have had numbers mis-copied over the years, or the numbers may have been increased to reflect medieval poets’ ideas about the expected size for an army.

Arthur’s (legendary?) battle at Badon has by far the largest number in any of the sources, at 960 casualties, implying that unless the casualty rate was 100% – surely an impossible feat even for the (legendary?) King Arthur – the number of participants was presumably considerably higher. The number itself may reflect poetic convention, miscopying or plain exaggeration. However, it is roughly three times the number of the doomed company of Y Gododdin, which would be consistent with Badon being regarded (in poetic convention and popular culture at least) as a battle of unusual size and importance. There is no indication of the size of the Arthurian force that inflicted the 960 casualties – assuming that Arthur had an army with him, and was not a superhero who despatched them all single-handed.

The limited documentary evidence available appears consistent with fairly small numbers for armies in the early medieval period, of the order of magnitude of a few dozen or a few hundred, perhaps organised as independent or semi-independent warbands which could be assembled into a larger army under a common leader as occasion demanded.


Alexander M (translator). The earliest English poems. Penguin Classics, 1991, ISBN 978-0-140-44594-7.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum ch. 56, available online
Koch JT. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4
Laws of Ine, available online in Old English
Red Book of Hergest, available online

*’More or less’ because the 755 entry says that Cynewulf reigned 31 winters, which would place the fatal fight in 786 rather than 784.


Constance Brewer said...

Very interesting! Especially the Welsh Triads. Never heard of that.

Glad you're around to do the hard work, Carla. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Those small numbers are interesting. The structure of Germanic warbands must have changed a lot when they entered Britain, because the armies that faced the Romans in Germany have been considerably larger. There have been 15-18,000 Romans in the Varus battle, and the number of Arminius' followers, his own warband as well as his allies, must have been at least the same amount. At the pitched battle of Idistaviso, he even faced 8 legions worth of Romans and managed a stalemate.

We don't know the size of the Alamanni warband(s) that overran the Limes in 236 AD but they must have been big enough to cause a lot of damage, and the Romans mounted a punitive expedition deep into German territory in order to stop those raids. Didn't work out in the long run, the Limes was abandoned in about 260.

Charlemagne's armies were surely larger than your AngloSaxon warbands, but I doubt they reached the numbers Arminius must have fielded. Counting in the hundreds rather than the thousands, I assume, if the non fiction sources are anything to go by. The Somg of Roland has a big, epic clash, of course. :)

Annis said...

I know you're discussing an earlier period, Carla, but I was surprised when I discovered that the initial Viking Great Army which arrived in East Anglia in the autumn of 865 is estimated as only numbering somewhere between five hundred and two thousand Vikings. The fact that this army was described as "vast" seems to indicate the rarity in England at that time of large, organised bands of warriors.

Ian Wright said...

The Anglo Saxon warbands probably were smaller than those of their Continental cousins. In part because the Anglo Saxon immigrants/invaders would initially have had a smaller population base to recruit from, in part because they were limited by their main means of transportation (Ships instead of feet), and in part because with a smaller population to draw from they simply couldn't feed as many warriors.

The period Carla is looking at here ranges from Arthurian (Small outposts of invading Anglo Saxons) to late 'dark ages' (Small Anglo Saxon kingdoms competing with each other and the Celts). Early Medieval Britain had more in common with modern Afghanistan than modern England, including logistical restrictions on the size of warbands.


Rick said...

I love the law of Ine only distinguishing thieves from bandits from armies on the basis of the size of force involved.

Would ships still be a factor in the 7th century, when neighboring kingdoms were fighting each other within Britain? OTOH, ships' companies might remain the organizational unit even when sea operations were no longer typical.

The overall size of armies must have depended on a) the size and resource base of the kingdoms raising them, and b) the type of troops. Household troops, in effect professionals, have to be maintained; farmer militia just need to show up when called.

I would guess that these heroic age armies were mostly expensive 'professionals,' and a small kingdom could only have very few. To raise militia you need enough stability to organize them and have some trust in their loyalty. And you need enough of them for phalanx type formations that maximize their modest skills.

Rick said...

I have sometimes referred even to later medieval England as 'Afghanistan without burqas.'

Carla said...

Constance - all part of the service :-) The Welsh Triads are a bit like the kennings in the Prose Edda - a sort of aide memoire for poets and storytellers.

Gabriele - yes, the contrast with estimates in Roman sources is interesting. Tacitus' estimates of the size of Boudica's army during the Revolt are many tens of thousands. It could be that Roman historians talked up the size of the enemy forces to make Roman victories more impressive and Roman defeats more excusable (wouldn't be the first time, or the last). Maybe the change in numbers reflects a change in social structure, e.g. maybe Arminius etc could field large numbers because multiple disparate groups were prepared to ally together against the Romans, whereas in the post-Empire era it's more a case of many small fragments all fighting each other. It also depends whether the sources are counting 'professional' warriors, armed militia, supply / baggage / hangers-on, which could lead to wildly different numbers.

Annis - the issue of how military organisation differed between the early kingdoms and Alfred's day is an interesting one, with a variety of opinions :-) Small numbers were probably the norm throughout, though, at least as far as 'professional' warriors were concerned. One of the problems Alfred had was that although he could call up considerable numbers of the fyrd (militia), they were part-timers with other important things to do (like growing food), whereas the Vikings were more of a self-selected group of young adventurers with military skills and no other calls on their time. You mention "estimated" - what's the source, if you don't mind my asking?

Ian - the break-up of former Yugoslavia is sometimes used as an analogy for post-Roman Britain, too. It does seem clear that it was a fragmented society with small local or regional rulers, and as such the small numbers mentioned fit. Many of the kingdoms we know anything about were around the size of modern counties. In an economy essentially based on subsistence agriculture, that places logistical restrictions on the numbers available for military activity.

Carla said...

Rick - fortunately also without guns and explosives, at least in the early period :-)

Well, from the point of view of the occupants of land into which a group of armed strangers has just marched, the difference between a band of thieves and an enemy army probably is largely one of size.

Good question. I would think that ships probably were a factor in logistics, on the logic that this was the case in the better-documented later Norse wars, and seventh-century ships were also shallow-draughted and capable of shifting men and supplies long distances by sea and navigable river. It seems logical that seventh-century commanders, not being stupid, would have applied the available technology. Maybe a stronger effect in the coastal kingdoms than in landlocked kingdoms like Mercia, though most of Britain has navigable rivers if your ships only draw a foot or two of water. Shipping was certainly a standard method of transport, and there are major sites like Sutton Hoo and Whitby Abbey that are easy-access by water but a bit of a pain to get to by land. It could be both - partly a cultural memory that a ship's crew is the right size for an organisational unit, partly the practical use of ships for transport and logistics. Also possibly convenience; a group that's big enough to get things done but small enough to be commanded effectively.

I would agree that the numbers in the post probably refer to 'professionals', the members of aristocratic warbands who were maintained by agricultural levies drawn from the lord's land. 'Men who fight', in Alfred's words, maintained by the 'men who work'. (The predecessors of medieval feudal retainers). Hence the limited numbers, because there's only so much surplus can be obtained from a subsistence economy. Trading activities, such as the trading ports at Gippeswyk (Ipswich) and Hamwic (nr Southampton), may well have been a very useful source of additional revenue that could be used to support more warriors than a kingdom might normally support. I wonder whether exploitation of natural resources might have had a similar value (hence the lead-silver mine in Exile that supports a relatively large warband - a small army by Ine's definition - for a local thug).

Gabriele C. said...

Tacitus was exaggerating a bit. ;) But since we have the approximate Roman numbers, we can guess that an enemy would have needed at least the same amount, and preferably more, in order to stand against a Roman army. Boudicca's lot was a rabble, to be honest; she must have made up for it by numbers and I won't wonder if a lot of them were no warriors. Arminus' army was Roman trained to some extent (he was a Roman officer and damn good one, and a number of the men had served in the auxiliary) so an equal amount of soldiers might have been enough for him to stand a chance even in a pitched battle, albeit he tried to avoid those. The manoeuvres at Idistaviso show some pretty good generalship; it's a pity his uncle botched the flank attack and then panicked.

But if you compare the mentions of impenetrable woods and bogs with nary a sttlement in sight with the numbers of big bad Germans attacking the Roman army, they must have crept out from under the tree roots or something. :) There are a number of topoi in those texts, to be reused whenever it seemed appropriate.

Carla said...

Arminius organised an alliance between several tribes at Teutoberg Forest, didn't he? That probably increased his available manpower considerably. Tacitus says somewhere that Boudica's Britons had brought their families along to watch the show (!); I think it's a fair deduction that many of them weren't warriors (modern ideas of 'Celtic' warrior princesses notwithstanding). Boudica's rebellion looks like a spontaneous explosion of fury, a sort of giant street riot, whereas Arminius had evidently planned and implemented a carefully thought-out strategy. Probably not unrelated to the difference in outcome :-)

Gildas says something disparaging (as always) about Picts and Scots emerging like worms from their holes. I do wonder if some of the chroniclers half-believed things like that. It might have seemed a logical explanation when dealing with people who could operate in terrain the Romans found hostile and alien.

Rick said...

You aren't going to make much impression on the Roman Empire unless you show up in large numbers. Otherwise they'll just send the police to arrest you.

Roman style central government seems to have dissolved in Britain when the legions left. Plausibly Vortigern, Ambrosius, and Arthur all tried to assert some general authority, but without the machinery of taxation or the habit of obedience, all they could put together were shaky coalitions. One those were gone, everything becomes a local free for all.

And a sort of granularity is involved. My sense is that 300 skilled warriors can be defeated by 3000 militia, if the militia hold ranks. But 30 skilled warriors will brush aside 300 militia, because 300 men is not enough for a solid formation.

So 'heroic age' conditions prevail until kingdoms emerge that are big enough to support militia formation fighting instead of heroic individual skirmishing.

Gabriele C. said...

Yes, there was a coalition of several tribes at the Teutoburg Forest, and it basically held up in the following years. Germanicus tried to put a wedge into that alliance by taking up one tribe after the other while Caecina kept the Cherusci from coming to their aid, but that took place over 3 summers and I'm not sure if not the Marsi and Chatti had recovered well enough to gather again into something like a fighting force. It was the problem the Romans had in Germania - they could kill a bucnh of them and burn some huts, but then had to go back into the winter quarters while the Germans came out of the woods, rebuilt their huts and eked out a living off what the forests would give them.

Tacitus makes Idistaviso (at the Weser) a mostly Cheruscian affair but I think the other allies were involved to some extent. He says it was a Roman victory and maybe he's right, but when the Romans tried to push further east to the Elbe, Arminius kept harrassing them so badly that they turned back, so he must still have had enough men. There was another battle at the Angrivarian Wall where only Germanicus' personal courage saved the day and allowed the Romans to break through to the forts at the Ems and Lippe, and from there to the winter quarters at the Rhine - by fleet via the North Sea which shows that the Bructeri (who Germanicus had taken on earlier that summer) obviously weren't so thoroughly submitted as Tacitus said or the Romans could have marched through their lands instead, a much shorter way.

Maybe the bit about Germanicus rallying his Pretorian guards, taking his helmet off so that everyone would see the general and charging into the German cavalry is Tacitus getting panegyric again, but I don't think it's impossible, and it definitely shows Arminius in a stronger position than Tacitus would have painted him if he had looked twice at his own writing. *grin*

Carla said...

Rick - if you're directly challenging the Empire, yes, big numbers are a good place to start. If your target is merchant shipping or country villas within easy reach of coast or river, a ship-worth of pirates can do quite a bit of damage. Repeat often enough, and it can become a serious problem even if the individual bands are quite small.

Gabriele - which presumably is why the Romans eventually gave up on the Germans (and the Caledonians) and left them alone. I've read suggestions that some of the English Norman/Plantagenet kings' periodic wars against the Welsh followed a similar sort of pattern; the Welsh wouldn't stay 'beaten'. Until Edward I, and arguably even he might have had more of a problem if brotherly conflicts hadn't done much of his work for him.
The heroic general bit is a recurring literary trope; William the Conqueror is supposed to have done something similar at Hastings. But as you say it doesn't mean it's impossible.

Rick said...

True, I was thinking about the Continent, and the sort of stuff that got into Tacitus and later histories. The background of general looting & pillaging is different in individual scale.

Sea raiding was particularly effective, because keeping ships on sea patrol is really expensive.

A general taking off his helmet to see, speak, and hear clearly strikes me as very natural. Battleship captains of the last century often preferred to fight their ships from the open bridge instead of an armored conning tower where they could only see out through slits.

So that part of the trope, at least, is probably based on a common practice of generals.

Gabriele C. said...

German bands crossing the Rhine was what started the trouble. Those weren't that large but they attacked the civilian settlements in Gaul often enough that Caesar went over to look, decided they were an impossible bunch and that the best idea was to fortify the west side of the Rhine. But then he got involved in that civil war, and it took a few decennies until Augustus had time to deal with the problem and decided Rome needed more than a few forts along the Rhine to stop those Germans, so he tried for a large scale occupation all the way to the Elbe. In the end, his successor Tiberius decided they were an impossible bunch indeed and the only way to protect Gaul was setting up a strong border guard along the Rhine.

Annis said...

Carla, the 500-2000 estimate for the 9th century Great Viking Army is one that I keep coming across, most recently noted at the Engliscan Gesiðas website, though as far as I know the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn't give any actual numbers. Who make this guess in the first place and on what information it was based I'm afraid I don't know :(

Numbers as you commented earlier vary considerably depending on who is taken into account and what statement the chronicler wants to make. Sometimes numbers are cut back to make a last stand sound even more impressive, like that of the Spartans at Thermopylae or the Gododdin at Catraeth, Clearly only the actual warriors are counted here (300 in both cases), though each warrior would have had at least one shield-bearer with him.

Carla said...

Rick - yes, maintaining a sea patrol is a serious business, probably beyond the resources even of the Empire. The chain of watchtowers down the Yorkshire coast and the garrison called "The Anticipators" at Malton was presumably the next best response to the same threat.

I caught a BBC documentary the other day about the Sutton Hoo helmet. Apparently the replica gives the wearer's voice a deep, booming, echoing quality. I wonder if that was part of the design of a full-face helmet, to make the voice resonate in a suitably impressive manner?

Gabriele - which seemed to work for the next few centuries, so that suggests that Tiberius assessed the situation correctly :-) Perhaps that influenced the later decision on what to do about the northern part of Britain.

Annis - if I find a source for the estimate, I'll let you know! I suspect it may be based on something like numbers of ships (if the ASC gives numbers), or by extrapolation from the sizes of armies the Vikings fielded elsewhere at the same sort of time. It sounds of the right order of magnitude.

The heroic last stand against impossible odds makes for a much better story if the odds really were impossible, so it wouldn't be surprising if epic poetry had a tendency to minimise the numbers on the heroic side and maximise the enemy hordes :-) Interesting that 300 should turn up in two contexts separated by several centuries and most of Europe. I wonder if the Y Gododdin poet was consciously echoing classical legend, or if 300 is a number that the human brain instinctively feels is 'about right', or if it is pure coincidence.

Rick said...

Yes, watchtowers and 'Anticipators' would be an affordable second-best to constant sea patrols.

Regarding the Sutton Hoo helmet, once the booming-voice effect was discovered, armorers would surely learn to duplicate it! Even if it didn't make commands easier to hear, it is the aural form of 'fierce face,' impressive to both friend and foe.

I wonder if this has been tested with later medieval helmets that derived from a separate tradition?

Annis said...

Love the bit about the Sutton Hoo helmet. War as theatre :) A war-leader's voice would carry impressively and the echoing quality would also imbue him with an air of god-like mystery.

Yes, I was struck by the coincidence of 300 , too. In religion and mythology 3 as a number has often been regarded as having special qualities, so perhaps that might be a significant factor? Or not, as the case may be--

Carla said...

Yes, once the booming voice effect was discovered (or re-discovered - it might have been encountered independently many times by different armourers), I imagine it would be part of making the leader appear powerful and impressive to both his own side and the enemy. Almost god-like, as Annis says. (Curiously, I gave the war-god Woden a deep booming voice in the scene in Exile, which was written long before I saw the documentary about the Sutton Hoo helmet.)

Rick - I wondered that too. Medieval re-enactors would no doubt be able to tell you. Some of those medieval jousting helms that were almost solid metal apart from the eye slit must surely have echoed like shouting into a bucket - a further question is whether any of the sound managed to escape, or if the wearer just deafened himself :-)

Annis - I thought that too; 3 is a mystical number in all sorts of traditions, presumably because it's the first prime number bigger than 1, and that might have influenced the poetic conventions. Three hundred automatically sounds more romantic than two hundred or four hundred.

Rick said...

Anyone in touch with re-enactors? This is a great example of a characteristic of helmets you would never guess by examining one on a desk - you'd only learn it by putting one on.

On numbers, I was thinking the exact same thing about 300 versus 200 or 400.