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Title: Fyrd  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Assize of Arms of 1181, Leidang, Arimannia, Trinoda necessitas, Germanic warfare
Collection: Germanic Warfare, Warfare of the Middle Ages
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The fyrd, in early Alfred the Great, who set up 33 fortified towns (or burhs) in his kingdom of Wessex. The amount of taxation required to maintain each town was laid down in a document known as the Burghal Hidage. Each lord had his individual holding of land assessed in hides. Based on his land holding, he had to contribute men and arms to maintain and defend the burhs. Non-compliance with this requirement could lead to severe penalties.

Ultimately the fyrd consisted of a nucleus of experienced soldiers that would be supplemented by ordinary villagers and farmers from the shires who would accompany their lords.


  • Origins and definition 1
  • Organisation 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Origins and definition

The Germanic tribes who invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries relied upon the unarmoured infantry supplied by their tribal levy, or fyrd[1] and it was upon this system that the military power of the several kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England depended.[1] In Anglo Saxon documents military service might be expressed as fyrd-faru, fyrd-foereld, fyrd-socne, or simply fyrd. The fyrd was a local militia in the Anglo-Saxon shire, in which all freemen had to serve, those who refused military service were subject to fines or loss of their land.[2] According to the laws of Ine:

If a nobleman who holds land neglects military service, he shall pay 120 shillings and forfeit his land; a nobleman who holds no land shall pay 60 shillings; a commoner shall pay a fine of 30 shillings for neglecting military service.[3]

It was the responsibility of the shire fyrd to deal with local raids. The king could call up the national militia to defend the kingdom, however in the case of hit and run raids, particularly by Vikings, problems with communication and raising supplies meant that the national militia could not be mustered quickly enough so was rarely summoned.[4]

Historians are divided about the people who were part of the fyrd. Was it the body of peasants as distinct from the housecarls.[6][7]

The Old English term that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle uses for the Danish Army is "here"; Ine of Wessex in his law code, issued in about 694, provides a definition of "here" as "an invading army or raiding party containing more than thirty-five men", yet the terms "here" and "fyrd" are used interchangeably in later sources in respect of the English militia.[1][8]

Tenants in Anglo-Saxon England had a threefold obligation based on their landholding; the so-called ‘common burdens' of military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. Even when a landholder was granted exemptions from other royal services, these three duties were reserved. An example of this is in a charter of 858 where Æthelberht of Kent made an exchange of land with his thegn Wulflaf , it stipulates that Wulflaf's land should be free of all royal services and secular burdens except military service, the building of bridges, and fortress work.[2][9][10]

According to Cnut's laws:

If anybody neglects the repair of fortresses or bridges or military service, he shall pay 120s. as compensation to the king in districts under the English law, and the amount fixed by existing regulations in the Danelaw...[2]


England had suffered raids by the Vikings from the late 8th century onwards, initially mainly on monasteries.[11] The first monastery to be raided was in 793 at burhs.[16][17]

Each element of the system was meant to remedy defects in the West Saxon military establishment exposed by Viking raids and invasions. If under the existing system he could not assemble forces quickly enough to intercept mobile Viking raiders, the obvious answer was to have a standing field force. If this entailed transforming the West Saxon fyrd from a sporadic levy of king's men and their retinues into a mounted standing army, so be it. If his kingdom lacked strongpoints to impede the progress of an enemy army, he would build them. If the enemy struck from the sea, he would counter them with his own naval power. To maintain the burhs, and the standing army, he set up a system of taxation and conscription that is recorded in a document, now known as the Burghal Hidage; thirty three fortified towns are listed along with their taxable value (known as hides)). Characteristically, all of Alfred's innovations were firmly rooted in traditional West Saxon practice, drawing as they did upon the three ‘common burdens' that all holders of bookland and royal loanland owed the Crown. Where Alfred revealed his genius was in designing the field force and burhs to be parts of a coherent military system.[18][19]

The fyrd was used heavily by King Harold in 1066, for example in resisting invasion by Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy.[20]

Henry I of England, the Anglo-Norman king who promised at his coronation to restore the laws of Edward the Confessor and who married a Scottish princess with West Saxon royal forbears, called up the fyrd to supplement his feudal levies, as an army of all England, as Orderic Vitalis reports, to counter the abortive invasions of his brother Robert Curthose, both in the summer of 1101 and in autumn 1102.[21]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Preston et al. History of Warfare. p. 70
  2. ^ a b c Hollister. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions. pp. 59-60
  3. ^ Attenborough. laws of the earliest English kings. pp. 52-53
  4. ^ Cannon. The Oxford Companion to British History. p. 398
  5. ^ Hollister.Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions. p. 3
  6. ^ Powicke. Military Obligation. Ch. 1
  7. ^ Lavelle. Alfred's Wars. p. xvi - The names select~ and general~ are attributed to the historian C. Warren Hollister. See American Historical Review 73 (1968). pp. 713-714.
  8. ^ Attenborough. The laws of the earliest English kings. pp. 40-41 - We use the term thieves if the number of men does not exceed seven. A band of marauders for a number between seven and thirty five. Anything beyond that is a raid'.
  9. ^ "Electronic Sawyer Charter S.328". Kings College London. Retrieved 29 April 2013.  Wulflaf's land should be free of all royal services and secular burdens except military service, the building of bridges, and fortress work - absque expeditione sola pontium structura et arcium munitionbus....
  10. ^ Lavelle. Alfred's Wars. pp. 70-71
  11. ^ Sawyer. The Oxford Illustrated History of Vikings. pp. 2-3
  12. ^ ASC 793 - English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 1 May 2013
  13. ^ ASC 865 - English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 1 May 2013
  14. ^ Smyth. The Medieval Life of Alfred. pp. 26–27
  15. ^ Attenborough. The laws of the earliest English kings: Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. pp. 96-101
  16. ^ Sawyer. Illustrated History of Viking. p. 57
  17. ^ Starkey. Monarchy. p.63
  18. ^ Abels, R., Alfred the Great: War, Culture and Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (New York, 1998). p. 196
  19. ^ Horspool. Why Alfred Burnt the Cakes. p.102
  20. ^ J. W. Fortescue (1899) A History of the British Army, volume I
  21. ^ C. Warren Hollister, Henry I, 2001:159; cf. Hollister, Military Organization of Norman England, 1965:102-26.


  • Attenborough, F.L. Tr., ed. (1922). The laws of the earliest English kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Cannon, John (1997). The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  • Hollister, C. Warren (1962). Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Lavelle, Ryan (2010). Alfred's Wars Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydel Press.  
  • Powicke, Michael (1962). Military Obligation in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Preston, Richard A; Wise, Sydney F; Werner, Herman O (1956). Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. New York: Frederick A. Praeger. 
  • Sawyer, Peter (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (3rd ed.). Oxford: OUP.  
  • Smyth, Alfred P. (2002). The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Paulgrave Houndmills.  
  • Starkey, David (2004). The Monarchy of England Volume I. London: Chatto & Windus.  

External links

  • The Anglo-Saxon Fyrd c.400 - 878A.D.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Fyrd c.878 - 1066A.D.
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