The Formidable Craft of Anglo-Saxon Shields

The Formidable Craft of Anglo-Saxon Shields


Anglo-Saxon shields are an incredible example of the craftsmanship, battle techniques, and cultural significance of the early medieval period in England. While we often focus on the might of a warrior’s sword, we should not overlook the importance of his shield. The shield was crucial defensive equipment that spoke volumes about the individual who bore it. Today, we delve into the intricacies and unique attributes of Anglo-Saxon shields.

Who Were the Anglo-Saxons? 

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes, namely, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who migrated from what is now Denmark and northern Germany to England, beginning in the early 5th century. The term “Anglo-Saxon” is a collective reference to these tribes who collectively played a significant role in shaping the cultural, social, and political landscape of England.

After the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 A.D., the Anglo-Saxons seized the opportunity to fill the power vacuum. Gradually, they established numerous small kingdoms, such as Wessex, Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, which came to be known as the Heptarchy. Over time, these kingdoms evolved into a unified English nation by the end of the 9th century, largely due to the threat of Viking invasions.

The Anglo-Saxon period, spanning from the 5th to the 11th century, was marked by a distinct cultural identity. The society was primarily agricultural, with people organized into various classes based on land ownership and military service. They followed a traditional pagan religion initially but converted to Christianity during the late 6th and early 7th centuries, a transformation primarily attributed to the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury.

Anglo-Saxon contributions to language and literature were profound, with Old English emerging as the language of this era. Notably, the epic poem “Beowulf” comes from this period, encapsulating Anglo-Saxon society’s heroic culture and values.

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon period when the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold II. Despite this end, the influence of the Anglo-Saxons can still be seen in many aspects of the English language, law, and culture today.

Materials and Construction

To comprehend the importance of these shields, it is necessary to start by understanding their basic design. Anglo-Saxon shields were primarily round in shape, usually measuring around 60 to 90 centimeters in diameter. The materials used in their construction largely depended on the availability of resources and the warrior’s social status.

The core of these shields was typically made of planks of linden wood, also known as lime or basswood, chosen for its lightweight and impact-resistant properties. The planks were vertically arranged and held together by hide glue. On the front, they were often covered in a layer of rawhide for additional strength.

The characteristic feature of an Anglo-Saxon shield was the ‘boss’ – a central metal dome that provided protection for the warrior’s hand. This boss was usually made of iron and could be elaborately decorated with bronze or even silver, particularly for high-ranking warriors.

Why Were Anglo-Saxon Shields Round?

The shape of a shield often reflects the practical demands of warfare and the cultural context in which it was developed. Anglo-Saxon shields were predominantly round, a design choice influenced by both functionality and the cultural traditions inherited from their Germanic roots.

The round shape of the Anglo-Saxon shield offered several tactical advantages in combat. The circular design allowed for a consistent distribution of force whenever the shield was struck. Unlike a square or rectangular shield, a round shield doesn’t have weak points in the corners where blows could cause it to break more easily. This distribution of force meant that the shield could absorb and deflect the energy from blows more effectively, thereby increasing its durability and protection.

In hand-to-hand combat, the round shield could be quickly rotated and maneuvered in any direction, giving the warrior greater flexibility to respond to attacks from different angles. This ability was crucial in the chaotic environment of a battlefield, where attacks could come from any direction.

Furthermore, when used in a defensive formation like the “shield-wall”, the round shields could overlap easily, creating a formidable barrier against enemy assaults.

Culturally, the round shield was a symbol associated with ancient Germanic warrior traditions. The symbolism and significance attached to the round shield, such as the representation of the cosmos, could have influenced its continued use among the Anglo-Saxons. The central boss often featured intricate designs and decorations, emphasizing the main point of the circular shape.

Thus, the round design of Anglo-Saxon shields was a blend of practical considerations and cultural symbolism, serving the warrior both in the heat of battle and as a mark of identity.

Decoration and Symbolism

Anglo-Saxon shields were more than just practical tools; they were also cultural artifacts embodying the spiritual beliefs, aesthetic values, and societal hierarchy of the time.

The shields were often intricately decorated with elaborate designs that went beyond mere aesthetic appeal. The decorations on a shield, particularly the boss, could indicate the rank or lineage of the warrior. The more affluent and influential the warrior, the more opulent the decorations. Ornamentation typically included intricate patterns of animal motifs and interlaced designs, evoking a sense of the warrior’s connection to the natural world and spiritual beliefs.

Symbols and runes might also be painted onto the shield’s face, imbuing it with a protective charm or a way to intimidate enemies. Such symbolism was deeply intertwined with the cultural and spiritual practices of the Anglo-Saxons, adding layers of significance to these functional items.

Did Anglo-Saxons Paint Their Shields?

The Anglo-Saxon warriors were indeed known to paint their shields, turning them into not only tools of defense but also objects of personal expression and cultural symbolism. However, the extent of the decoration varied significantly depending on the status and wealth of the individual.

The most common material used for Anglo-Saxon shields was linden wood, or lime wood, which was light, flexible, and durable. The front of these shields was often faced with leather or rawhide for added protection. To help them stand out in battle, warriors would often paint their shields with designs that held personal or spiritual significance. The use of colors was a way to distinguish themselves from their enemies and to demonstrate their affiliation or rank within their own group.

The paint was usually made from natural pigments such as ochre for red and yellow, woad for blue, and charcoal for black. The rawhide covering the shield provided a good surface for the paint to adhere to, creating detailed and vibrant designs.

Unfortunately, few originally painted Anglo-Saxon shields survive today due to the perishable nature of the materials used. Therefore, much of what we know about the use of paint on these shields comes from historical records, poetry, and art from the period. The “Bayeux Tapestry,” for example, depicts numerous warriors with painted shields.

Archaeological evidence, such as fragments of shields found in burial sites like Sutton Hoo, suggests they were indeed painted. These fragments show traces of red paint, indicating that at least some shields were adorned with colors.

Thus, while the Anglo-Saxons painted their shields, this practice’s designs and extent varied significantly. Regardless, the use of painted shields undoubtedly added a layer of cultural richness and individuality to the warriors of this era.

Battle Techniques and Functions

The shield was not merely a defensive item but also used offensively. Trained warriors used their shields strategically to block enemy attacks, batter opponents, or form protective shield walls during large-scale battles.

When in single combat, the warrior would use his shield with his weapon—typically a spear or sword. The shield would be held in the non-dominant hand, protecting the warrior’s torso while providing a platform for offensive maneuvers.

In larger battles, the Anglo-Saxons often used a tactic known as the ‘shield-wall’ or ‘skjaldborg.’ This was a formation where the warriors would stand shoulder to shoulder, holding their shields to overlap, creating an almost impenetrable barrier. The front of the shield wall was virtually invincible against frontal assaults, making it a key tactic in Anglo-Saxon warfare.

Archaeological Discoveries

Several notable archaeological discoveries have given us a glimpse into the world of Anglo-Saxon shields. The Sutton Hoo ship burial is one of the most significant finds, containing an elaborately decorated shield that is considered one of the most important pieces of early medieval art. The boss was ornamented with garnets and intricate designs depicting creatures intertwined in complex patterns, demonstrating the skill of Anglo-Saxon artisans.

Another significant find was at the Staffordshire Hoard site, where archaeologists unearthed an array of military items, including shield fittings. These fittings showcase the importance of shields in Anglo-Saxon society and provide valuable insights into the techniques used to create these critical pieces of warfare.

Anglo-Saxon Shields Vs. Viking Shields

Understanding the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Viking shields provides a fascinating glimpse into these two warrior cultures’ unique battle tactics and societal norms. While there are similarities due to cultural interaction and shared Germanic heritage, each group has distinctive characteristics.

Materials and Construction

Due to their strength and lightness, both Anglo-Saxon and Viking shields were primarily made of wood, often linden. The shields were faced with leather or rawhide for additional durability. In terms of structure, both had an iron boss at the center, designed to protect the warrior’s hand.

The diameters of these shields were comparable, typically ranging from 80 to 90 cm for the Vikings and 60 to 90 cm for the Anglo-Saxons. These dimensions allowed for a balance between protection and maneuverability.

Design and Decoration

While both cultures favored round shields, there were variations in the designs and decorations. Anglo-Saxon shields, especially those of higher-ranking warriors, often had intricate designs and elaborate decoration on the boss, indicating the owner’s wealth and social status.

Viking shields, on the other hand, were typically more useful. While some shields used in ceremonial contexts may have been ornately decorated, most Viking shields found in archaeological contexts are plain, with little to no decoration.

Use in Combat

Both the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings used shields not just defensively but offensively as well. Warriors would use the rim or boss of the shield to strike opponents, adding a level of versatility to their combat techniques.

In large-scale battles, both cultures were known to employ the ‘shield-wall’ tactic, wherein warriors stood shoulder to shoulder with overlapping shields, forming a near-impenetrable barrier.

However, Viking sagas and historical accounts often highlight individual feats of bravery and personal combat, suggesting a culture that valued individual prowess. The Vikings used their shields in aggressive, individual fights, as well as in organized formations.

In contrast, the Anglo-Saxons, particularly in the later period, were known for their disciplined military organization. Their use of shields would have reflected this, emphasizing maintaining the shield wall and protecting their fellow warriors.

In the end, while both Anglo-Saxon and Viking shields shared common roots and had similarities, the nuances in their design, decoration, and usage reflect the distinct cultural identities and battlefield tactics of these two warrior societies. These shields were more than just protective gear; they were an embodiment of the warriors’ identity and a testament to their craftsmanship and tactical ingenuity. Through their shields, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings left an indelible mark on the martial history of the early medieval period.


In the tumultuous world of the Anglo-Saxons, the shield was a warrior’s steadfast companion, defending him from enemy blows and sometimes signaling his status and lineage. More than a mere tool of war, it was a canvas where stories of faith, culture, and identity were woven into intricate designs, expressing the complex interplay of practical necessity and cultural symbolism.

Even though the Anglo-Saxon era has long passed, the shield remains a testament to its time, narrating a story of fierce battles, intricate craftsmanship, and a culture that valued both the practical and the symbolic. Each shield, with its unique designs and marks of wear, encapsulates a piece of the rich tapestry of the Anglo-Saxon world.