Not as much is known about Anglo-Saxon shields as is known about the swords and spears from the period. This is largely because shields were mainly constructed from wood and leather, materials that don’t often survive being buried underground for hundreds of years.
As a result, the main sources of evidence for Anglo-Saxon shields are the remains of the shield’s metal parts, depictions of shields in carvings and engravings, and written descriptions of shields from the Anglo-Saxon period.
Due to the lack of evidence, historians have formed different opinions about the size of Anglo-Saxon shields, how they were constructed, and how they were used in battle.
How big were Anglo-Saxon shields?
- Most depictions of Anglo-Saxon shields seem to suggest that shields from this period were quite small. The Repton Stone from the 8th century, for example, shows a warrior holding a shield that is only a little larger than his head. The same is true of the shields of the warriors depicted on foil designs in the Staffordshire Hoard. However, some historians have questioned the accuracy of such images, arguing that the artists purposefully made the shields small so that they wouldn’t obscure the artwork’s other details, such as the warriors’ armour and their weapons.
- It is also hard to judge the size of Anglo-Saxon shields by looking at archaeological remains. Shield sizes seem to vary considerably, although most historians agree that the majority of shields found in Anglo-Saxon burials were between 50 cm and 73 cm in diameter, with a few being much smaller, and many much larger.
- Some historians have suggested that the smallest shields wouldn’t have been much use in battle and were, therefore, produced only for the purpose of being buried with a dead warrior.
Anglo-Saxon Shield Facts
- Early Anglo-Saxon shields were circular and made from poplar, alder, or willow wood. These timbers are all very tough and have a close grain-pattern that makes them hard to split.
- Reconstructions have shown that Anglo-Saxon shields were probably made from several planks of wood glued together with animal bone glue. The planks would then have been shaped with axes and chisels into a slightly convex board. The shallow curve increases the shield’s strength.
- The wooden shield would have been covered with stitched leather panels and secured with animal glue. A rawhide rim was probably added to the shield’s edge and stitched to the board with leather thongs looped through pre-drilled holes.
- It is thought that it is the joined sections of leather that give the Anglo-Saxon shields their distinctive swirling pattern.
- The shield rim found in the Sutton Hoo burial site was made from copper alloy. It has been pierced with a series of holes, suggesting that it might have been stitched into place.
- Anglo-Saxon shields had iron bosses in their centres. These were designed to protect that hand holding the shield, and they were riveted in place. Leather padding may have been added to the inside of the boss to cushion the hand.
- The shield grips were made from iron and had handles made from wrapped leather or textiles. Some more complex handles also incorporated wooden elements. They were fixed to the shield with rivets.
- There is little evidence to tell us for certain whether or not Anglo-Saxon shields were decorated with paint.
- The Hurscarls or Housecarls, the mercenary warriors who fought with Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, would mainly have used kite-shaped shields.
Early Anglo-Saxon Shields – T Dickinson and H Harke
Anglo-Saxon Weapons & Warfare – R Underwood
Reconstruction as an Aid to Interpretation: The Anglo-Saxon Shield – R Underwood
The Anglo-Saxon Shield – I P Stephenson