Anglo Saxon Ships

1424519679714When I first started writing A Brother’s Oath, I made the erroneous assumption that the Anglo Saxons merely sailed about in Viking ships. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that, like a lot of things concerning the Anglo Saxons, they did it slightly differently to their Scandinavian cousins of later centuries.

The boats of the migration era (which Hengest and Horsa would have used to get to Britain) were markedly different to the more famous Viking longships seen in tons of pop-culture references from Asterix to Conan. The main difference is – and this is a matter of debate amongst historians – that they may or may not have had masts and sails.

This idea astounded me. Did the Anglo Saxons row to Britain? A Viking ship without its colourful striped sail simply isn’t a Viking ship. And therein lies the difference. When you think about it, the Viking age happened for a reason. Scandinavians were travelling to Britain as early as the fifth century and yet the Viking age is generally considered to have begun in the eighth century with a sudden boom in Scandinavian raiding, trading and settling. Could the onset of the Viking age have been directly influenced by a revolution in ship building around the year 700?

Let’s take a look at some of the ships that have been found throughout the ages to get a better idea of the evolution of sea travel in the Anglo Saxon and early Viking periods.

The Nydam Boat

The most famous early Germanic boat is the Nydam boat. Nydam was once a bog in southern Denmark (now it’s a meadow) which has yielded many artefacts over the years like swords, shields and boats that were ritually ‘sacrificed’ centuries ago and preserved by the bog’s high peat content. The 23 meter long oak boat known as the Nydam boat has been dated to around 310 A.D. It has 15 pairs of oars (so 30 rowers) and there is no sign of a mast block, meaning that it was probably powered by oars alone. It has a ‘keel plank’ rather than a fully developed keel as seen in Viking ships. A keel is important to offset the height of a mast and the suggestion is that the Nydam boat was not a ‘seaworthy’ vessel, but designed for going up and down rivers and perhaps hugging the coastlines.

Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo burial

Other than the Nydam boat, no whole vessel has been found from the pre-Viking age, only bits and pieces from which we can build mental pictures. The Gredstedbro ship (also found in southern Denmark) is one of the better known of these and has been dated to about 600 A.D. Like the Nydam boat it appears to have also had a keel plank rather than a proper keel and its design is similar to the imprint of another boat found in the burial mound at Sutton Hoo in England. The wood having long since rotted away, only the impression in the earth can tell us that this East Anglian royal vessel was about 27 meters long, had 20 pairs of oars and a shallow keel plank. Neither the Gredstedbro or the Sutton Hoo ships show any signs of having had masts.

The Oseberg Ship

In fact, that seems to be the story for all pre-Viking ships. They seemed to have been rowing boats with no sails. The first true ‘Viking’ ship is generally considered to be the Oseberg ship found in Norway dating to about 800 A.D. This is the real deal. At just over 20 meters it has 15 pairs of oars, a proper ‘T-shaped’ keel and a mast which would have supported a large square sail.

So, did Anglo Saxon ships have sails or not? The jury is still out. There isn’t enough evidence. While we have yet to find a Germanic sailing ship built earlier than 800 A.D., that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any. Being made of wood makes ships unlikely to survive 1000+ years and it’s remarkable that we have any to study at all. It’s possible that vessels like the Sutton Hoo ship were fitted with masts, only to have them removed before burial. It’s also possible that these examples were just river barges and were preferred for burials and sacrifices as the ocean-going sailing vessels of the day were far too valuable to bury or submerge in a bog.

There is also the logistical element consider. If the Anglo Saxons migrated to Britain in any considerable number (and the jury is out on that one too), ships with sails require less men to crew them, therefore leaving more room for families, livestock and equipment. In short, migrants would have much more use for ships with sails. The technology existed (the Romans had used longships with sails) but a migration-era Germanic sailing ship has yet to be found.

ABrothersOath coverIn A Brother’s Oath, I capitalised on the old saying; ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ and had Hengest and Horsa acquire the Raven, the pride of the Frisian king’s fleet; a large longship with a proper keel and a mast in the style of the Oseberg ship. I presented it as a technological marvel ahead of its time which inspires its new owners to modify their existing ships to carry false keels and masts to make them seaworthy enough to sail to Britain.

Such bending of the facts is the historical fiction writer’s prerogative.


6 thoughts on “Anglo Saxon Ships

  1. Well presented argument.The dna of the English population points to massive demographic replacement 4-5 century.Rowing from Germany with a family and livestock doesnt seem likely.

  2. It’s an interesting hypothesis but the problem is that boats that were ceremonially buried are the ones that are most likely to have survived. It’s possible that they were built specifically for the purpose which means that they may have been built without masts for practical reasons.

    We don’t have enough examples to tell us whether it was a common practice to build a ship specifically for the purpose or use an existing ship. I expect the answer is a bit of both.

    Those that have survived have been by sheer luck of the soil they were buried in containing the correct mineral make up to preserve rather than rot the wood.

    What also needs to be taken into consideration is whether ships were designed for river travel or see. It may have been considered more practical to row down river in areas where the rivers passed through heavily wooded areas whereas sea travel would likely be a combination of sail and oar depending on weather conditions. The major ship using civilisation that the Scandinavians would have had contact with during the 5th century would have been the Romans who, as we know, used sail and oar.

    I think it’s an interesting subject, it’s a shame we have less eye witness accounts so further study is required. I find it unlikely that large ships rowed across the North Sea or English channel filled with large groups of settlers, I just think that we don’t have the archaeological material to answer this question.

    • Yes, I agree with you. Burial ships may well have been built for the occasion in which case masts might be a bit superfluous (not to mention impractical). And there was surely a difference between river vessels and seagoing vessels. I also agree that you wouldn’t fit many settlers on a rowing boat (although how extensive the Anglo Saxon migrations were is still debatable). It’s also hard to believe that the Germanic peoples wouldn’t have made use of sails to some extent during this period as the technology was already in use by the Romans for centuries.

      Yes it’s a shame that we don’t have more examples. Two or three boats really isn’t enough to develop an idea of how these people transported themselves.

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