Shield Walls of our Heathen Ancestors

Updated: Nov 1, 2018

One of my favorite passages in my favorite historical writing (the Heliand written in the year 830 AD/CE or so) is the following: (translation mine)

Yes, my Saxon Ancestors did know the shield wall. However, they called it a “borduual” in Old Saxon. In Old Norse, the term is “scildweall” (pronounced ‘shield-wall’) and in Old English in England it was “bordweall.” In the current TV shows Vikings, and The Last Kingdom, we see some VERY historically inaccurate shield walls. First, let me state it is my opinion Vikings is VERY INACCURATE as a TV show in about as many ways as I can think of, even though it is entertaining. The Last Kingdom (my favorite show) is very accurate, and true to history, with the exception of the clothing, armor, some of the buildings, and well; some of their shield walls.


Lindybeige, has the following to say about the shield walls in the TV Show “The Last Kingdom”:

“It’s portrayed as a three or four-layered solid mass of wood that completely encases the men at the front, when in reality it would have been rank after rank of men overlapping their shields across one another. Also, the Saxons appear to be unfamiliar with the shield wall at the beginning of the series, when in fact it had been a standard Saxon battle tactic for centuries, and remained so until the Norman Conquest.”

Here are some pictures of The Last Kingdom, one historically accurate, one while impressive looking, not at all accurate in terms of historical accuracy:


In the battles in Angle-Land (England) against the Danes, most of the Anglish army would have consisted of middle class freemen who were very inexperienced. The shield wall formation suited the inexperienced Anglish fyrd (army) as it did not require much training and/or skill. Shield walls were essentially a shoving match with spears and other weapons. The first portion of the shield wall would have been made up of Huscarls (Norse) and Thegns (Thanes- Anglish and Norse). These ranked men wore armor and carried heavier weapons such as swords and axes. But the vast majority of men in the shield wall were armed with spears which were used by the second ranks of men, who aimed for unprotected legs and faces. There were also those who used archery and other throwing weapons which occurred in the first stages of the battles.


The ‘pro’ of the shield wall was that untrained men could perform well. The cons were that once the shield wall was breached, it tended to fall apart quickly as it was hard to re-establish another wall causing panic to set in. Also, shield walls would not stand up to cavalry, which lead to the disappearance of the shield wall after the Norman conquest of England.


The shield wall tactic was used at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where the relatively well armed Anglish army fought the Norse army of King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway. The Norsemen were not wearing much armor, having been caught by surprise. They had left their mail behind on the long-boats and were wearing only their helmets. Both sides lost 5,000 or so men.

Lastly, shield walls in these TV shows are portrayed as very immobile, where they could slowly "ease" backwards. Being stuck in one spot in a battle would almost certainly lead to death, unless it was a high fortified ground.

While The Last Kingdom is hands down my favorite TV show, I do find this YouTube hilarious. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCJUDdEirco

This is me in a shield wall, red and black shield, second from the left with the seax or sahs.

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