Early Medieval Naval Warfare: Maritime Warfare Before Cannons

medieval maritime warfare material culture

Early Medieval Naval Warfare: The Events, Tactics and Material Culture of Dark Age Maritime Activity

Hopefully this paper can help to answer “what was naval warfare like in the Middle Ages before cannons were widely used?”

Welcome to this tour through early medieval naval warfare and Dark Age maritime activity. Our exhibition will begin with a brief yet formal chronological jaunt along some of the many notable accounts of early Germanic piracy and Anglo-Saxon navy activity. Then we’ll explore Dark Age naval strategy and tactics before we conclude with a broad analysis of the material culture of early medieval naval warfare.

medieval naval warfare

The first recorded Germanic pirate activity dates to the 1st century AD, but their naval activity has been recorded as early as the 1st century BC (Haywood 5). In 12 BC, a Roman fleet led by Augustus’ stepson Drusus defeated the Germanic tribe known as the Bucteri in a naval battle on the river Ems (Haywood 5). In 41 AD another tribe known as the Chauci sailed down to attack the roman territory Belgica, but were beaten off (Haywood 10). They tried again in 47 AD under the leadership of a Roman deserter named Gannascus, but again were defeated, this time with Belgica receiving support from the classis Germanica who had a base in Cologne (Haywood 10).

The revolt of the Batavian Civilis in 69-70 AD shows further Late Antiquity Germanic naval power as the rebel tribe known as the Canninefates benefited from a mutiny in the classis Germanica by Batavian oarsmen and gained 24 galleys for their fleet (Haywood 10, 11). With their fleet strengthened, the Canninefates won a glorious victory over a Roman fleet in the North Sea and captured even more ships, including a trireme which was then given to a Bructerian priestess as a gift (Haywood 11). The revolt of the Batavian Civilis shows the first evidence of Germani using sailing ships as opposed to oared ships, as they would even outfit their captured Roman galleys with makeshift sails made out of cloaks before battle (Haywood 11). A final battle would determine the rebels’ fate as they raced to meet a Roman cohort at the mouth of the Rhine. By now the Germani had a mishmash of many ships, many of them small ships with crews of around 40 men (Haywood 11). Although they had larger numbers, they could not defeat the larger and more organized ships of the Romans and the revolt was quashed (Haywood 11). Civilis withdrew and Batavia was laid to waste without further resistance, but Germanic piracy would live on elsewhere.

medieval maritime warfare

In response to Germanic piracy between the years 170 and 200 AD, the Romans strengthened many forts along the Saxon Coast and vulnerable estuaries in Britain and Belgica, which is not surprising as the so-called “Antonian fires” in Essex have been credited to Germanic pirates (Haywood 12, 13). The classis Britannica had their main bases at Dover, Lympne, Boulogne, Reculver and Brancaster, and this suggests that the Germani were masters at seafaring by 200 AD, capable of crossing the North Sea with repetitive success while also eluding Roman patrols (Haywood 13, 14). The Chauci tribe was highly active in the 170s AD, but their land was soon conquered by the Saxons and Germanic piracy began to blend with proto-Frankish and Saxon piracy (Haywood 14).

This has been some chronological exploration, but what kind of boats were these pirates using? Tacitus writes that these early Germanic pirates used levibus navigiss (light or swift boats) and also luntres which are either rowing boats or small sailing ships as the term is used unsparingly (Haywood 15). Pliny the Elder, on the other hand, writes that Germanic praedones used large dug-outs capable of carrying 30 men (Haywood 15). Archeological evidence, speaking differently, has dug up 38-foot-long Germanic ships in Leck and Vaaler Moor dating from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD, and reconstructions of the Vaaler Moor ship posits that it was canoe-like and capable of carrying 20 men (Haywood 15). But another extraordinary find, the Hjortspring boat, tells us that the north Germani, building in the Nordic style, had been capable of constructing sophisticated ships 56 feet long as early as 350 BC (Haywood 16). The 4th-century AD Nydam ship was 70 feet long, however, showing that the north Germani were never finished improving (Haywood 16).

early medieval seafaring warfare tactics

It has been postulated that the Germani had adopted the sail from their Celtic neighbors by the 2nd century AD, as the Irish word seól for sail entered Germanic dialects as segel long before the 1st century AD, proving the Germani had learned of the sail before their sustained contact with the Romans (Haywood 19). However, the north Germani or Suiones (Scandinavians), as Tacitus calls them, had not fully adopted the sail in full usage until the 7th century AD, right before their famous Viking raids in England (Haywood 19). This should not surprise us because even the master seafarers of North America had not started using sails of sewn bark fiber until their first contact with Europeans (Haywood 19).

These have been the practices of early Germanic seafarers, but what were the Anglo-Saxons up to? 9th-century West Saxon chronicles tell us of the naval victories of King Alfred over Viking fleets, showing that King Alfred preferred to sail out and meet the enemy in coastal waters rather than wait for them to land, for in 875 AD and again in 882 AD King Alfred successfully prevented Viking landings in exactly this fashion (Pullen-Appleby 18). In 885 AD, however, after another victory where he captured 16 Viking ships in Danish held East Anglia, King Alfred was defeated by a “great ship force” on his return trip to Kent (Pullen-Appleby 18). When it came to defending rivers like the Thames from the Danes, Alfred preferred a more sustainable method than keeping a fleet fitted and ready at all times. He installed what is called a “double burh” on the river, which is fortifications on either side of the river to prevent Danes from navigating through them or to prevent their escape after a raid (Pullen-Appleby 19). By 896 AD, after the Danish campaigns of 892-895 AD, the native king finally ordered the construction of a large fleet of warships specifically for the purpose of fighting other ships (Pullen-Appleby 19). These ships were, as the chronicler describes, “twice as long … [and] higher than the others,” some with as many as 60 oars or more, purposely designed to be swifter and have a greater freeboard than Danish ships to give them an advantage in boarding (Pullen-Appleby 19). These were termed “royal ships” because members of the king’s own household would serve aboard (Pullen-Appleby 19).

medieval warship

Later in 910, Edward the Elder raised 100 ships, a force much greater than Alfred his father had accomplished (Pullen-Appleby 21). By the 11th century the English due to their vast wealth were for the most part able to simply buy peace from the Danes with payments termed “Danegelds” (Pullen-Appleby 23). In 1012 AD, Æthelred secured peace and alliance with a Scandinavian named Thorkell the Tall with a Danegeld of £48,000 (Pullen-Appleby 23). From now on many Danish ships began to willingly employ themselves into Æthelred’s service, knowing well they would surely be paid well, and even fed and clothed (Pullen-Appleby 23).

This has been our exhibition into chronological events of early medieval naval warfare. Of course, the great bulk of related history has been excluded as we have focused on few sources, but before delving into the material culture of these activities we will take a closer look at the strategy and tactics of early medieval naval warfare. N.A.M. Rodger helps us to understand why there were so few large naval battles in early medieval times compared to ancient times or the early modern period. He compares early medieval warships to horses simply used to transport troops rather than as castles for “controlling the seas” in the modern sense, which was a pointless let alone unthinkable concept in early medieval times (Pullen-Appleby 103). More often than not, sea power of early medieval Europe was used to extend political reach into other lands, whether to quell infighting within a king’s own realm or to send an example to an enemy abroad (Pullen-Appleby 105). The perfect example of this strategy is William the Conqueror himself, as he did not conquer England by controlling the seas but rather by landing troops on English shores. Also, in a time before airplanes, sea vessels were the best means of transporting supplies and maintaining commissariats during long-term campaigns abroad. Even in late medieval times the concept of conquering the seas as done in the Great Wars of the 20th century was a ridiculous idea let alone a waste of time, as shown in the Hundred Years War when most action took place on land and fleets were merely a means of transportation overall.

dark age naval warfare facts and tactics

Now finally we can get into the material culture of the topic. Like any specific thing in any historical period, material culture shifts and changes from decade to decade and region to region. However, it is still possible to get a general understanding of the material culture for something as broad as early medieval naval warfare in Europe. For example, it is easy to presume from archaeological evidence that early medieval ships were constructed purely out of wood even though different types of wood were used for different pieces of the ship. This is not surprising because even most early medieval castles were made out of wood.

Now if we are to get more specific into what material the individual would work with on an early medieval warship the evidence is scant but there are still some things to work with, namely bog-finds found in archaeological digs. The old Germanic practice of sacrificing a portion of the spoils of a victorious battle as a “thanks-offering” to the gods has left us with extant evidence as to what kind of material was deemed precious to Germani (Stenberger 143). The Skedemosse find has revealed 7 golden arm-bands dating from the 4th-5th centuries AD (Stenberger 144). We know that arm-rings of this kind were given to the comitatus of a king under heriot, a precursor to the fief, so we should not expect every sailor on every early medieval warship to have one as they are an emblem of elite status. Other bog-finds across Denmark include swords, spear-heads, chapes and horse trappings (Stenberger 144). Unfortunately for archeologists, it was also customary for Germani to mutilate their “thanks-offerings” before sacrificing them, apparently to discourage thievery (Stenberger 145). However, finite details are left intact and we can see Roman influence in the artistic design of many Germanic objects (Stenberger 146). The Sjörup finds reveal 6th-century “shoulder-straps of heavy cast silver impressively decorated … with stylized plant-ornament and palmette-like designs” (Stenberger 146). Generally speaking, it would not be foolish to say that the majority of early Germanic objects of precious nature were formed into animal shapes, hence horse and dragon heads on the prows of Viking longships and clasps in the shape of birds and fish in seemingly First Nations-like design (Stenberger 147). These animal designs were incorporated into everything from architectural carvings to textiles and memorial standing-stones (Stenberger 148). From this we can infer than this animal-design phenomenon was no different for the mariner, and on an early Germanic ship we might see many horse-shaped brooches, odd jewelry in the form of beasts and zoomorphic designs weaved into textiles.

what was naval warfare before cannons like

Many memorial standing-stones found at sacred high places show carved scenes of early Germanic warships. “At the bottom of these stones there is usually a ship, this time under sail, riding over huge waves. Rows of armed warriors appear above shield-lined bulwarks and their captain stands upright in the stern at his long steering-oar” (Stenberger 149). Now moving to the clothing of Norse Vikings we are told by Ingvild Øye, of Viking Age women, that the “basic outfit was a long tunic with long sleeves fastened at the neck with a brooch” (Netherton and Owen-Crocker 7). Women must be taken into account when discussing the clothing of even the most burly of Viking warriors because women were the weavers who made the clothing for every member of their society (Netherton and Owen-Crocker 9). Roughly speaking, Viking Age woolen textiles were “40 percent tabby” … “30 percent 2/2 twill” and “25 percent broken diamond/lozenge twill. The rest is ‘other weaving’” (Netherton and Owen-Crocker 9). As even with 21st-century textiles, the quality of Germanic clothing varies from dress to dress. Overall, wool was the prominent material for making early medieval textiles, so we should not be surprised if Germani fighting the Romans on the Rhine were wearing “fine worsted cloth of high uniform standard” (Netherton and Owen-Crocker 11). It is impossible to get an exact image of what any crew throughout the Early Middle Ages would have looked like, but further research may give the curious reader a more accurate perception the further they look into not only the writings of chroniclers but also the extant bog-finds. If a sailor serving on a Viking longship was not a wealthy man, jewelry of beads, whalebone and copper were still common, as found in the cairns of the peasantry (Netherton and Owen-Crocker 13). Besides wool, linen was also available in the Viking Age, as well as foreign goods from trade with others (Netherton and Owen-Crocker 15).

Surely it would be spectacular to turn this brief exhibition into a time-travelling quest to see and feel exactly what it was like for the Norse to sail to England or the Germani to meet the Romans on the Rhine, but for the researcher who enjoys hopping from topic to topic we must be content with what is available and let our imagination do the rest.

If you want to keep reading and delve deeper into later medieval naval warfare, check out my post Venice at Sea.

Works Cited & Further Reading

Haywood, John. Dark Age naval power: a reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon seafaring activity. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006.

Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, eds. Medieval clothing and textiles. Vol. 11. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2015.

Pullen-Appleby, John. English Sea Power, C871 to 1100. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2005.

Stenberger, Mårten. Sweden: Ancient Peoples and Places. Thames and Hudson, 1963.

Images from Pinterest.ca and Manuscriptminiatures.com

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