Spears were the most common Anglo-Saxon weapons. They were the main weapon of Anglo-Saxon warriors (sometimes called Aesc-berend – spear-bearers), and numerous examples have been excavated by archaeologists from Anglo-Saxon burials and graves.
Facts About Anglo-Saxon Spears
- Anglo-Saxon spears were much cheaper, easier, and less time-consuming to produce than swords. As a result, spears were the most popular weapons among Anglo-Saxon warriors and freemen alike.
- The spear shafts would have been made from ash, hazel, willow or alder, and the spearheads were made from iron.
- Although more than thirty different types of Anglo-Saxon spearheads have been identified in England, they broadly fall into two categories – thrusting spears (the most common type of spear) and javelins (spears designed to be thrown).
The Spere (Thrusting Spear)
- Although there are lots of variations, thrusting spears commonly had heads shaped like flat narrow leaves.
- They were designed to keep the enemy at bay, far out of sword reach. They were often used in combination with a shield, and a group of Anglo-Saxon warriors armed in this way could combine to form a shield wall, pointing their spears at the enemy.
- Modern experiments have revealed that a spear is a significantly less effective weapon without a shield. In hand-to-hand combat, it is hard for an un-shielded warrior to defeat an opponent wielding a sword. Because of this, it is believed that soldiers would enter battle with a backup weapon. In addition to their spears, most would carry a seax (a single-edged knife) or an axe to fend off attackers who had managed to evade the spear point and get in closer. The wealthiest warriors would carry an Anglo-Saxon sword for this purpose.
- Anglo-Saxon spearheads ranged from about 15 cm to 35 cm in length, and the spear shafts were between 1.5 metres to 2.8 metres, but most were around the 2 metre mark.
- Purpose-made throwing spears were commonly used by Anglo-Saxon warriors in battle.
- Lighter and more aerodynamic than the thrusting spears, these javellins would have had been long and slender with barbs close to the spear point. They were possibly modelled on the pilium, the javelin used by Roman soldiers.
- One of the main aims of the Anglo-Saxon throwing spear was to disable the enemy shields. Once a shield had been stuck, the angon (throwing spear) is difficult to remove because of its barbs and hangs down with its end on the ground, forcing the shield down. The soldier holding the shield must lower it to attempt to break the spear’s shaft. As soon as this happens, they are vulnerable and unprotected against another attack.
- Simple throwing spears were probably used by the Anglo-Saxons for hunting.
More Anglo-Saxon Spear Facts
- Some iron spearheads were decorated with copper or silver ring inlays. Others were coloured during the forging process. Two East Anglian spearheads, for example, are thought to have been heated to 300°C, causing their surfaces to oxidize to bright blue colour.
- Very occasionally, rune-like marks were cut, scratched or inlaid into the spearheads. These might have been maker’s marks.
- Anglo-Saxon spearheads were forged with softer edges than seen on Anglo-Saxon knives. Historians believe this was done on purpose. Hardness was sacrificed for toughness and durability, reducing the chances of a spearhead breaking or shattering after repeated impacts.
- Although more than three-quarters of all Anglo-Saxon spear shafts were made from either ash or hazel, some examples have been found made from maple, beech, birch and holly wood.
- About 10% of all Anglo-Saxon spears had iron or copper alloy caps (ferrules) on their bottom ends.
- The spearheads were usually riveted or nailed to the shaft, and in some examples, the join was then bound with leather or cloth.
- About one in six of the spearheads recovered from the River Thames show signs of wear and marks of battle. This suggests that battle-tested spears were valued, and careful efforts were made to repair them so that a reliable weapon could be used again.
- There is evidence to suggest that many Anglo-Saxon spearheads were made from iron scraps salvaged from ruined Roman buildings and abandoned settlements.
What next? Learn more about some of the other Anglo-Saxon weapons, or check out our Anglo-Saxon resources page.
The Spear in Early Anglo-Saxon England: A Social-Technological History – Andrew J Welton
The Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlement – M J Swanton
Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare – Richard Underwood