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Battle of Hastings 1066AD - Saxon Shield Wall - did it really exist?

Definition of the term
From Wikipedia

A shield wall (scieldweall or bordweall in Old English, skjaldborg in Old Norse) is a military formation that was common in ancient and medieval warfare. There were many slight variations of this formation, but the common factor was soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder and holding their shields so that they would abut or overlap. Each soldier thus benefited from the protection of the shields of his neighbors and his own.

The Saxon shieldwall is a term created in the 19th century to describe a way of fighting that the Saxons used in the Battles of Malvern, Hastings and others.

Now an awkward question

Was the Shield Wall an actual fighting formation or style, or is it the just the misinterpretation of Saxon poems and documents by early scholars?

Lets look at the evidence.

Table of Contents

Roman Testudo(Tortoise)
The concept of the Saxon Shield wall appears to have been derived by early historians from the historic evidence for a fighting formation of the Roman army.

The Roman Testudo which translates to Tortoise was a Roman fighting formation used in Battles where the enemy had a large number of archers, slingers or other flying weapons, and or when beseiging enemy forts where the defenders were on higher ground than the Roman troops.

Some Constraints to this formation

To make the formation effective, all the shields must be a standard size so they can fit together without leaving gaps.

A high level of training is required for the relevent troops to know whether their shield is in front, to the side or top.

Any gaps in the wall leave the unit open to damage from weapons from above breaking into the troops inside and causing men to be killed which in turn quickly opens up the formation to further damage, unless the troops are trained to close the gaps.

Fighting with the Testudo

In this formation swords would have been used to stab the opposing troops in front of the shield wall, with perhaps a second rank using the Roman Pila(spear) to pass between the front rank and stab the enemy.

This formation would have been very cumbersome and slow moving and would require a lot of skill and training to manouvre.

At the Battle of Carrhae the Roman testudo were defeated by the use of Horse Archers to hold the testudo and then Heavy Cavalry to break into the formation.

To get into this formation you need to first signal everyone to form it, then wait for at least a few dozen men to get the message and then follow the instructions, with others then getting into position behind.

Once a gap appears in a testudo then the formation disintegrates very quickly.

Documentary Evidence
The background to the Shield wall appears to have come from the translation of numerous Saxon and Viking Poems which describe the Saxons or Vikings using a 'Wall of Shields', but this could just mean a line of troops with shields.

The only references to a 'Shield Wall' from Saxon or Norman sources are listed below:

Some lines from 'The Battle of Maldon' translated by Douglas B. Killings
The Original line:
scyldburh tōbrocen: ābrēoðe his angin,
This is translated as:
the wall of shields breaking asunder. Shame on that action,
Scyldburh actually means 'shield fort/defense'

The Original line:
hē bræc þone bordweall, and wið þā beornas feaht,
This is translated as:
He broke through that wall of shields and among the warriors fought,
bordweall is actually 'board/plank wall or wall of boards/planks'

The defensive term used by the Saxons is different between the two lines, implying that this is not a real term but a poetic phrase to describe a line of troops behind shields.

A line from 'Anglo Saxon Chronicles for AD937'

The Original line:
ymbe Brunnanburh. Bordweal clufan,
This is translated as:
around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
bordweal is actually 'board/plank wall or wall of boards/planks'

So this is similar to one of those from the 'Battle of Maldon'

There are relatively few other references to a 'shield wall' unless you look to Viking Sagas that reference 'skjaldborg' meaning shield fort or defense, but again this could just refer to a line of close order infantry protected by shields.

It’s a widespread misunderstanding that the Vikings stood shield by shield and created a close formation in battle with their round shields, says archaeologist Rolf Warming, director of the Society for Combat Archaeology.

Adorned in armour and helmet, Rolf Warming undertook an archaeological experiment with an authentic reconstruction of a Viking Age round shield. By letting a combat assistant attack him with a sharp replica of a Viking sword in simulated combat scenarios, Warming was able to test the effectiveness of different shield uses in terms of shield construction and durability.

The results were not in favour of the shield wall.

It showed that there must have been many more disadvantages than advantages since shield-wall conditions do not allow the defender to deflect incoming attacks, says Warming.

His shield sustained more damage in the passive wall stance when compared to a strategy of using the shield actively to fend off the opponent’s sword. Click here for full article

From the lack of documentary evidence for this formation, the experimental archaelogy and the lack of shield size standards for the troops, it would seem that a specific Shield Wall formation was very unlikely.

This would mean that the Saxon defences would have just been a line of close order troops standing behind their shields.

If this is true then this begs two additional questions:
  • How did the lightly protected Saxon lines hold out against the spear throwing Breton cavalry who had defeated Charles the Bald and his well armed mercenaries at the battles of Ballon AD845 and Jengland 851AD
  • How did the Saxon lines continue to defend for most of the day against Williams archers firing at their "shield wall" without loosing a great number of men. - Please refer to our Malfosse page for an alternate explanation

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Author Simon M - Last updated - 2024-03-13 13:16:05
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