The Dane Axe

The favourite weapon of the housecarls of King Harold’s army was the Dane axe. This set them apart from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, who had generally preferred a spear and sword weapon set. Housecarls also made use of the teardrop shaped ‘Norman’ shield much more than the traditional round Anglo-Saxon shield. As the king’s personal retinue and in common with all Anglo-Saxon warriors, housecarls fought on foot, although as high-status warriors they rode to battle, forming up as the front rank of the shield wall and the personal bodyguard of king and earls.

The Dane axe was a formidable weapon. The haft, usually between three and four feet long (although display weapons had longer hafts), was held in both hands. The axe head was relatively light and forged with a reinforced, carbon-steel cutting edge. Although it was not heavy, when swung with the axe at full extension it would build up a terrifying cutting momentum.

Wielding the Dane axe required both hands. To do so the housecarl had to step out from the line of the shieldwall. This was what produced the shift to ‘Norman’ shields. With its pointed end, the shield could be jammed in the earth in front of the housecarl, providing some protection against arrows. With both arms free, the housecarl could build momentum by swinging the Dane axe in circles. With so much stored energy, an enemy coming within cutting distance ran the risk of being cut in two. The Bayeaux Tapestry shows a housecarl cutting the head of a Norman knight’s horse in half: in the battle itself, that housecarl could probably have cut  right through the knight riding the horse as well.

Chickenshed on Britain’s Got Talent

All three of my sons have been members of Chickenshed Theatre. The youngest, Isaac, was one of the members of the Chickenshed group that appeared on Britain’s Got Talent on 22 April, receiving the golden buzzer from Alesha Dixon. Isaac is the boy with curly hair and we couldn’t be prouder of him and all the rest of the troop!

Book review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

An enjoyable, fast-paced four pronged biographical telling of the first half of the 16th century. The titular princes included two emperors, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Suleiman, the Ottoman Sultan, as well as two kings, Francis I, King of France, and Henry VIII of England. The four men were all born within ten years of each other and their rivalries defined the new world that was breaking through the old certainties during the half century in which they held sway.

It makes for a good way to pull disparate historical threads together and their personalities are each big enough to fill books on their own (even poor Charles with his Hapsburg chin was more interesting than his detractors claim). However, in the areas in which I am knowledgeable, I did spot a couple of errors (Ibrahim did not become Suleiman’s caliph until after the siege of Rhodes in 1522 and the Italian military engineer who masterminded the Knights Hospitaller’s defences during the siege was Gabriele Tadino not Tadini), so it suggests that other details might be inaccurate too. Nevertheless, the book is a good introduction to possibly the most crucial fifty years in the last millennium.

Book review: The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

Reading novels set in the 40k universe, you usually know what you are going to get: bolters, lasguns, big guys in armour shooting and getting shot by aliens, all limned in characteristic grimdark. It’s a winning formula. But sometimes it’s good to read something a little outside the usual tramlines, and Alec Worley’s The Wraithbone Phoenix delivers a story outside those tramlines that might just be the most purely enjoyable Warhammer 40k novel I have ever read.

That’s not to say it’s lacking in bolters, action, intrigue and a suitably grimdark setting (the hive city, Varangantua – thought: was the city inspired by Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel? 40k is full of veiled, and not so veiled, references to this world settings). Indeed, in its outline, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a classic 40k quest story, with different kill teams converging on the same prize and, well, killing each other. But what sets it so marvellously apart are its protagonists, the ratling (essentially, the 40k version of Hobbits) Baggit, and the ogryn (yep, a 40k ogre) Clodde. The odd couple is a trope of storytelling precisely because it works so well and Worley employs it like a master, setting and contrasting the personalities and physiques of Baggit and Clodde in juxtaposition to the horrible world that they are attempting to navigate their way through. I loved both characters but must proclaim a particular weakness for Clodde. Ogryns are usually big and stupid, like their folkloric predecessors, but Clodde, having been hit on the head, has become an ogryn philosopher – although no one, including himself, has noticed! It’s a marvellous touch, and helps set Clodde and Baggit in contrast to the violence and nihilism all around them in Varagantua and the wider 40k universe.

So, despite the body count, the double crosses, the general grimness of the dystopian setting, The Wraithbone Phoenix achieves the almost miraculous feat of being a genuinely joyous 40k novel. For fans of the universe, take this as a warning or an invitation, depending on your inclinations, and dive in or withdraw and find something more nihilistic instead.

Arms and the Housecarl

Two Housecarls taking part in the Battle of Hastings re-enactment.

Arms and the man – the weapons and armour that made the housecarl the most feared footsoldier of late Anglo-Saxon England.


According to the Bayeaux Tapestry, the Norman-style helmet was common to both armies at the Battle of Hastings. Only elite warriors wore metal helmets. The noseguard provided a degree of facial protection without compromising vision.

Mail coif

Mail was expensive. A mail coif protected the head, neck and shoulders; together with a helmet and the hauberk it provided great protection to the housecarl’s upper body.

Mail hauberk

Mail was one of the best gifts a housecarl might receive from his lord. If a mail-clad warrior fell in battle, there would be a great struggle to strip the armour from the body. Mail provided effective protection against slashes or thrusts from swords or spears, although clubs could cause trauma without penetrating the armour.


Housecarls wore a padded, quilted jacket under the mail. This cushioned against blows from blunt weapons such as maces and warhammers, as well as providing a further layer of protection against edged weapons. Poorer warriors relied on just this padded jacket for defence.


Although archaeological exhumations have shown that leg wounds were fairly common among warriors of this era, greaves were very rare. Some warriors may have used leather ‘puttees’ to protect their calves.


Thick, leather gloves were worn, but there is no record of more heavy-duty protection for the hands.


Some warriors may have used leather vambraces to protect their forearms.


The typical Anglo-Saxon shield was round, with a central boss, and made of lime, alder or poplar – light woods which are resistant to splitting. By the eleventh century, the teardrop shaped shield had also become widespread. It provided greater whole body protection and, because it could more easily be jammed into the ground, it allowed housecarls to stand behind it while using the two-handed Dane axe.


The ubiquitous weapon of the era. Indeed, the mark of a free man was being allowed to carry a spear – slaves could not. Spears were the ideal weapon in the shield wall, as they kept the enemy at distance while allowing the warrior to thrust at exposed areas. Some spears had small projections, or wings, which were used to hook and pull an enemy’s shield out of position. Spears were usually used over arm, aiming at the enemy’s face.


At the start of a battle there was an exchange of javelins, with the men at the rear of the shieldwall launching missiles at the enemy. A well-thrown javelin could penetrate a shield. Even if it did not, a spear embedded into a shield would drag the shield downward by its weight, exposing the man holding it to further attack.


The very name, Saxon, derives from ‘seax’, the all-purpose knife worn at the waist by Anglo-Saxons. It was a single-edged weapon, worn horizontally in a scabbard on the waist, with the edge pointing upwards. Generally too small to cause much damage in combat, it could have been used to finish off a prone enemy.


The most high-status of weapons but one that was probably not so effective in a shieldwall – it would only really come into play when a shieldwall broke and the battle turned into a general melée or a rout.

Dane axe

The two-handed axe was popularised in England by Cnut and his men, so much so that in the fifty years between the Danish and Norman conquests, it became the preferred weapon of the English housecarls.

The Rule of the Templars

St Benedict giving his Rule to his monks

The Rule under which a monk lived regimented his life, dividing it into a constant round of prayer and work. All very well for monks living in a monastery, but how were the military monks of the Knights Templar going to organise their lives? The life of a soldier on campaign is anything but regular, even if he is also a monk.

To reconcile the different requirements of the soldier and the monk, the rule of the Templars allowed them to say the Pater Noster (Our Father) in place of the regular monastic services if these had to be missed as a result of being in the field. Thus, if the Knight did not attend matins, he had to say 13 Our Fathers, nine if he missed vespers, and seven for the other monastic offices.

The other advantage of this change in the normal Benedictine Rule was that it allowed men to join the Templars who did not know Latin. All they had to do was learn the Pater Noster off by heart, rather than having to recite all the psalms in Latin, as required of ordinary monks.

Furthermore, the Templars’ Rule also allowed knights to join the order for a fixed period of years, as well as for a lifetime. This opened the Order to pilgrim knights visiting the Holy Land who wanted to put their arms to use while there but whose responsibilities required them to return home eventually. With manpower always an issue, these short-term knights were an important source of fighting men for the Templars.

The Templars’ Rule enjoined humility upon the brother knights. Many of the secular knights of the time were psychopathic peacocks, men capable of extreme violence who also flaunted the richest and most elaborate clothing they could afford. Fur, jewellery or rich clothing was forbidden the Templars as was the decoration of their horse’s harness with gold and silver. The Templars were to wear simple white, their horses to be harnessed in plain leather. As for their appearance, they were to have their hair and beards trimmed regularly. The Order was to be ordered outside as well as within.

The Journey of a Super Pilgrim

The conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 reoped the Holy Land to Christian pilgrims. Hearing the news of the success of the First Crusade, people started setting out for Jerusalem from all over Europe. One of the first was an Englishman, Sæwulf. On his return, he wrote an account of his travels and adventures. Pilgrimage was hugely popular during the Middle Ages and, as the Canterbury Tales attest, there were many motivations apart from piety for making such long and difficult journeys. However, Sæwulf was a serious pilgrim, who ‘though conscious of my unworthiness, went to offer up my prayers at the Holy Sepulchre’.

Having reached Italy, Sæwulf embarked upon a ship for the Holy Land from Monopoli, near Bari in the heel of Itlay on 13 July 1102 – only for the ship to be wrecked the same day. Not one to be put off, Sæwulf found another ship and tried again. It took thirteen weeks to sail from Italy to the port of Jaffa, with many storms and ports of call along the way.

With the Holy Land waiting, Sæwulf and his companions decided not to wait overnight on their ship of passage and hired a boat to take them ashore. Their fervour saved them. A storm blew up over night, wrecking the ships anchored in the harbour. A thousand pilgrims drowned without ever setting foot in the Holy Land.

In his account, Sæwulf recorded the dangers of the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem, telling of the pilgrims killed by the bandits who haunted the Judean hills. Their corpses marked the trail from the port to the holy city. Having survived the journey to Jerusalem, Sæwulf visited the holy sites of the city before travelling through the rest of Palestine, recording the devastation he found, with many of the churches and monasteries having been destroyed by the Saracens. Once he had ‘visited and paid our devotion at all the holy places in the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding country’, Sæwulf returned to Jaffa, embarking for his return journey on 17 May 1108. He had been in Palestine for nearly six years.

The First Templar: Hugues de Payens

Nine men lay prostrate on the floor of the holiest place in Christendom on Christmas Day, 1119.

The place was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it had been twenty years since the knights of the First Crusade had taken the city in blood and war.

The leader of the men was named Hugues de Payens. Among the other eight were Godfrey of Saint-Omer, Geoffrey Bissot, Payen of Montdidier, André of Montbard and Archambaud of Saint-Aignan. Their prostration was the climax of the vows these men were taking, vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

These were the standard monastic vows of the Church, and there would have been little to set their vow taking apart from those professed by thousands of other monks if not for the name by which they proposed to call their confraternity: ‘The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ’. For these nine men were swearing their lives to Christ and their swords to the protection of their fellow Christians in the Holy Land, the newly conquered realm of Outremer.

But, at the time, barely anyone noticed. There was no chronicler writing down an account of what happened. We don’t even have a complete list of the names of all nine men. Indeed, there might have been as many as thirty men lying on the floor of the holiest church in Christendom that Christmas Day – the sources, which were all written considerably later, disagree. This is hardly surprising. The 12th century was a time of extraordinary monastic renewal, with new orders springing up all over Europe. Of these, some lasted a few years, some a few decades, some continue to the present. But it was hardly unusual that a group of men should be making vows before God, and only the people present in the church at the time would have paid it any heed – then as speedily forgotten all about it when they emerged, blinking, into the cold clear light of a winter’s day in Jerusalem.

Hugues, the leader of these ‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ’ was born, probably in Payens, somewhere around 1070. Almost nothing is known of Hugues’ early life. However, he was clearly a member of the knightly caste, for his name appears, appended as a signatory, to a number of charters (documents recording the transfer of land or privileges) pertaining to the estates and properties around Payens. Payens, now known as Payns, lies on the River Seine, downstream from Troyes and 80 miles south west of Paris.

Hugues de Payens was probably one of the retainers of another Hugues, the Count of Champagne (has there ever been a more splendid title), who ruled his principality from his seat at Troyes. Hugues of Champagne was both pious and unhappily married: a situation calculated to make a man take up the cross. Which is exactly what Hugues of Champagne did, twice, first in 1104, spending four years in Outremer, and then again in 1114. While we don’t know if Hugues de Payens accompanied his overlord Hugues on his first journey to the Holy Land, it seems highly likely that he went with him on the second trip.

But when the Count of Champagne returned to France and his loveless marriage, Hugues de Payens remained in Outremer. With his companion, Godfrey of Saint-Omer, Hugues came up with the idea of founding a fraternity of knights that would follow the religious Rule (essentially, a monastic manual, regulating the lives of monks) of Augustine of Hippo while seeking to protect the stream of Christian pilgrims coming to the Holy Land in the wake of its liberation from its Muslim conquerors.

It is not hard to see why Hugues and his companions thought that this was necessary. Although the First Crusade had succeeded, against all odds, in capturing Jerusalem in 1099, and founding the kingdoms of Outremer, the Holy Land was by no means secured. In response to the success of the Crusade, hundreds if not thousands of Christian pilgrims started to make their way to the Holy Land, but the journey there, whether overland or by ship, was perilous, and never more perilous than when they actually arrived in Palestine. The most usual pilgrim route was to take ship to Caesarea or Jaffa on the coast before trekking to Jerusalem.

But the tracks through the Judaean Hills were rife with Saracen marauders and brigands. Pilgrims who went unarmed, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Christ, were all too likely to be killed or taken as slaves. Indeed, events earlier in 1119 may well have served to convince Hugues of the necessity for this military monastic order.

On Easter Saturday, 1119, which in that year took place on 29 March, pilgrims had gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the solemn vigil that accompanied Christ’s journey into Hell following his Crucifixion, in order to free the souls of those held there. Pilgrims still gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday and, like those waiting on 29 March 1119, they are waiting for the miracle of the Holy Fire. This is when an unlit lamp placed upon the rock where Christ’s body was laid bursts spontaneously into flame: the patriarch of Jerusalem then emerges from the tomb, bearing a taper lit from the new fire, and lights the candles of the pilgrims waiting in the dark, in the church. There are, of course, both sceptical denunciations and pious defences, but its importance in history is its continuation.

On 29 March 1119, only twenty years after the recapture of Jerusalem, the assembled pilgrims in the church, having witnessed the event and seeing the new flame burning, burst from the church, intent on seeking a new baptism in the River Jordan. The river lies 20 miles east of the city, so it required a real outpouring of religious fervour to think to make it that far. But none of them made it. Many hundreds were killed by Muslim raiders; those few who survived were taken as slaves.

The Crusade had been launched in part because of the increasing dangers of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when it had been under Muslim rule. Now, even though Jerusalem was in Christian hands, it must have seemed that pilgrimage was no safer than it had been before. Outremer trembled on the brink of perpetual war, its rulers always hampered by a chronic lack of manpower. Most of the men who had conquered in 1099 had returned home: Godfrey of Bouillon, the man entrusted with safeguarding the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was left with 300 knights and a thousand foot soldiers. Twenty years later, under the new king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, the manpower situation remained desperate. Many hundreds of trained knights had come as pilgrims to the Holy Land in the two decades since the capture of Jerusalem, but once their pilgrimage was completed, there was no obvious avenue by which they could use their skills in the way that would best serve the kingdom: through their martial training.

Hugues of Payens, though, did not return home once his pilgrimage was done. In company with other knights, he took to hanging around at the place that was the obvious centre of their world: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There Hugues met other knights, who had looked round at the perilous situation in Outremer, and were similarly looking for a way to make a difference. Given the primacy always placed upon Hugues in the later accounts, we must assume that it was he who first came up with the idea of a military confraternity to protect pilgrims and the holy places. The need for such an order was all too obvious. So, with his eight companions, Hugues received permission from Gerard, the prior of the Holy Sepulchre, that they might make their vows in the most sacred church in Christendom. The order of The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ had begun.

The Trial of the Templars

One of the key events in European history that helped to conflate the ideas of sorcery and heresy was the trial and condemnation of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the Knights Templar.

King Philip the Fair of France, having determined to destroy the Knights Templar to obtain their resources and negate his huge debts to them, needed a pretext. The Knights had a reputation for secrecy that had allowed rumours as to their practices to flourish. At dawn on Friday, 13 October 1307, Philip’s agents arrested the master of the order and its highest officers, and put them to torture. The warrant for their arrest began with the telling phrase: “Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans le Royaume” [“God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the kingdom”].

Under unimaginable duress, they confessed to heretical acts, blasphemy and sorcery. Although there was little basis in these accusations, they provided sufficient pretext, when combined with the pressure Philip placed on the trial judges, to ensure the condemnation and execution of Jacques de Molay, the order’s Grand Master, and the suppression of the Templars. As well as connecting sorcery and heresy in the European mind, it also prefigured another key aspect of later witchcraft trials: that the prosecuting authority was not the church but the secular authorities.

All the Stars of Heaven’s Field

Photo: European Southern Observatory

At the edge of the world, on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, I went out hoping to see the stars, and then stood there for an hour with my jaw hanging open. I was looking at the numberless stars of heaven’s field. I’ve not seen anything like this for years. We were somewhere where the only artificial lights were our own, with only the faintest of horizon glows from the the direction of Glasgow, and the stars, the stars came out! Even where I could see no distinct points of light, there was an impression, a graininess to the darkness, that suggested impossible expanses of stars and galaxies receding into forever.

We have lost so much by the light caps we’ve placed over our our cities, sealing ourselves away from any direct sense of the cold splendour and depths of the universe. And it’s effect may be deeper than we realise.

Ennui, the sense of the pointlessness and meaninglessness of life, is perhaps the characteristic emotion of the modern age. Medieval man might have starved, or been prey to wandering warbands, yet he never questioned the point of existence. The sheer struggle to survive added a dignity to his everyday bearing, but above all he lived in a world where the creator and sustainer of the Universe, and its despoiler, were in a life-long struggle for his soul. He mattered, and what’s more, even if the king or the bishop ignored him, God and the devil didn’t.

That belief has leached away, and I do wonder how much this flattening out has been caused by the dulling of our night-time skies. When you stand beneath a black dome, splattered with stars beyond number and suggesting even in its darkest reaches depths beyond depths beyond depths, there is both a fearful fall into insignificance and a breathtaking plunge into awe. Even if the world has become flat, still the stars shine.

But now we live in a flat world, and the stars have gone out. No wonder we’re bored.