Monday, July 26, 2010

Saxon Longboats: The Mystery Deepens

Having a time period (late 5th – early 6th centuries) on which to hang my story (if I so choose – at this point I’m still framing it in my alternative 12th century), I’m ready to do research. In one of the early drafts of The Deadly Peace, the first book of my trilogy, one of my critique partners challenged the dragon head on the prow of my Saxon longboat.

“All right,” I thought. “I need to be more careful and make sure I don’t get Saxons mixed up with Vikings.”

The trouble is, the Viking period (roughly 800-1200 AD) is rich in resources. The Saxon isn’t. And the two cultures are very close. I wonder how much writers have borrowed from the Vikings to build their Saxon worlds…

Anyway, I’m off to investigate Saxon longboats.

Of course, the most famous of them is the Sutton Hou burial, but it’s a century beyond my period. Scholar Michael E. Jones, in his book The End of Roman Britain (Cornell University Press, 1996) states Britain’s invaders of that period involved a mix of Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Northern European boats of that period ranged from primitive dugouts to the beautiful lines of ships like that in the Sutton Hou burial. It is the latter which probably would have carried the invaders which I, for convenience, call the Saxons.

Jones describes the characteristics of pre-Viking Scandinavian shipping. They were double-ended and constructed of over-lapping planks of wood which were braced within the hull of the ship, a technique known as “clinker-built”. In this they resembled Viking longboats. But Saxon longboats were different from their Viking cousins in a number of ways:

· They were shorter than Viking vessels. The finds closest to my period were 50-75 feet long.
· They had flat-bottomed keel plank, rather than a pointed T-keel. (I got a chuckle over Jones comment on p.75, “Incidentally, it may seem paradoxical to speak of Anglo-Saxon warships called keels, when they lacked a true keel.”)
· They had no decks. People and goods sat in the hull.
· They lacked a mast and sails, a BIG difference from the square-shaped sail we associate with Viking longboats. The first evidence of sails dates from approximately 800 A.D., 300 years after my target dates.
· Rowing was their sole means of propulsion. They had oarlocks, which implies rowing, not paddling. Finds from my period indicated provision for 20-30 rowers.
· The three vessels discovered in Nydam dating from roughly my period were all narrow-hulled (only one survives today). With narrow beam and flat keel, they would have been susceptible to shipwreck in rough seas.

Experiments with copies of these ships show them unable to withstand the rigors of crossing the North Sea. Jones suggests that invaders would have followed the coast of Europe to the narrow point in the English Channel and crossed there. But rowing from Jutland, for example, to a safe crossing point would have taken 3 to 6 months!

Could these ships have transported an invading army?

Well, first, as I mentioned, it would have been a long trip.

Second, we need to consider the capacity of these ships. Jones suggests that most of the ship would have been taken up with the rowers, leaving little room for passengers (women and children) or troops for an invading army. Remember, they need to carry weapons and provisions for the voyage, too. Jones estimates at most they’d be able to take 20-30 more persons. That’s 50-60 people per ship. If all aboard were warriors, possibly sharing the rowing, that’s 50-60 warriors per ship.

A search of the contemporary accounts of these raids shows that, in fact, not many boats were involved:

· (Gildas pre-497, Anglo-Saxon Chronicles ASC 447.) The “curs” Hengst and Horsa arrive in “three keels”. That would be at most 150-180 men. Hardly an invading hoard.
· Both sources then say more followed, but doesn’t name the number. Although the group is credited with winning some battles, it doesn’t take over Britain, but seems to be confined to the southeast.
· (ASC 477) Aelle and his sons come with 3 ships. Another 150-180 men.
· (ASC 495) Cerdic and Cynric with 5 ships. 200-300 men.
· (ASC 501) Port and sons with 2 ships. 100-120 men.
· (ASC 514) Stuf and Withgar (the Western Saxons) with 2 ships. 100-120 men. This is the last of the “invasions” recorded in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

Doing the math, that’s a grand total of 700-900 men. Spread out over 65 years! In fact, most of these “invasions” were 10-20 years apart. While 100-300 men may have been enough to conquer one civitas (the late Roman term for a market district), there are still only 5 groups mentioned. While Britain at that time was heavily populated (I’ll get into that in another blog.)

Curiouser and curiouser, Jones notes that none of the contemporary historic documents from the Continent mention any kind of Anglo-Saxon migration.

On the other hand, their long, thin shape makes these vessels much more suitable for being rowed fast than Viking vessels. Contemporary reports usually stress the speed of Anglo-Saxons raids. Could these ships have been used for coastal raids rather than a mass invasion?

In looking for Gildas’s “curs”, are we barking up the wrong tree?


  1. fascinating, Vicky! Good work on the research!

  2. My father's family were Danish so it's the Vikings for me! There's a wonderful example in Copenhagen. I would be interested to see some sort of picture or diagram of these. I wonder if you saw the landing craft used in the Robin Hood movie with Russel Crowe? They looked like World War II boats with oars!

  3. Just a suggestion, the ships used for burial may not have been real ones, but constructed specifically for the burials. Why waste a good ship, they could not have been easy to build. Hey, if it's an alternate world, why not?

    All those Saxons must have come from someplace: Wessex, Essex, Sussex. Suppose the boats were as you describe, and they never planned to return? A force of 150-300 prime fighting men would be sufficent to conquer and secure a pretty large population, especially once cowed. The men become slaves (carls?) and the women become wives to the conquerers. In a generation or two, they're all Saxons.

    Just an idea.

  4. Hi Maggie,
    Yeah, I've seen beautiful examples of Viking longboats in Stockholm. The issue, I guess, is that the Viking ships were from a period 400-800 years AFTER Arthur's period. The Saxon ships I'm talking about were contemporary. Sort of ancestors of the Viking ships.

    I'm hesitant to post pictures because of copyright issues. But you can find quite a few pictures of the Nydam ships on Wikipedia suggests that the ship may have had their mast removed for when put into the burial mound, but the fact is, the design of this ship would not support sails. To sail, there needs to be a significant keel,or the boat will drift sideways rather than straight ahead. The Nydam boats don't have enough keel.

    Re Russell Crowe's Robin Hood, those landing boats really bothered me. In creating my alternative 12th century, I researched 12th century vessels (Robin Hood is set in the 12th century. The crusade he returns from is in 1187 or so). There is nothing that looked like that.

    Hi Bart! Thanks for checking in. Your hypothesis is basically the scenario we all learn in school. It goes back to the 19th century and makes logical sense.

  5. Fascinating research, Vicky! Well done.

  6. Vicky,

    An illustration in Christopher Snyder's The World of King Arthur, shows Saxons rowing facing forward. (Their oars are in oar locks as you mention, but of course the Vikings and others since have faced rearward.) Do you know whether the Saxons faced front or back?