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.


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