Those familiar with Anglo-Saxon history or literature will know the term, ’hearth companions’ or ‘hearth group’. Although its meaning changed over the period, at core, it is wonderfully redolent of Germanic warrior culture. A group of chosen warriors fiercely loyal to their lord (king, prince or noble), often unto death. They were mutually supportive in war and peace, courageous, giving and receiving gifts, sharing companionship around a common fire, feasting, drinking, telling time-honoured tales of great warriors and feats of arms.

Too good to be true? Most of these evocative images come from heroic poetry. Such poems were never intended to be a straightforward reflection of reality but were loaded, complex texts – politically, ideologically, culturally, socially, morally and psychologically.

This article looks at what we may learn of the relationship between a leader and his hearth group and how it was perceived, from heroic poetry. Does this form of expression provide insights into the importance of maintaining arms, trust and esprit de corps in a violent, uncertain world? Does it commemorate valour in recited words, rather than through stone monuments? Or part of ruling class culture – an image extolling the virtues of blind loyalty to those in charge? A noble bunch of fellows or a smokescreen for indulgence, bullying and womanising?

Beautiful Pattern-welded Blade
Pattern-welded Blade

Four core elements underlie the depiction of the hearth group – the king or leader, the warrior, the gift and the hearth.

The King

A king had semi-divine status in pagan Germanic society. Many king lists of the kingdoms include the pagan god, Woden, as a root ancestor. Unfortunately, this will never be verified by a DNA test! A king’s linkage with the spiritual world survived the gradual conversion to Christianity with the Church anointing the monarch as divinely chosen to rule by right. To reinforce this, a king who was martyred was destined to be made a saint – the nearest thing in the Church to a person being deified.

The Church was happy to reinforce the loyalty of the community to their kings and nobles as, in a highly stratified society, this facilitated the conversion of the people, once their lord converted. The monarch remained a tribe’s or kingdom’s link to the Divinity and was pivotal in drawing together physical and spiritual forces initially to form, then to protect, the kingdom. In turn, the monarch had to be protected.

Violence was endemic in Anglo-Saxon times – between kingdoms and tribes and kin groups. A king was expected to lead his forces in battle personally. He was the personification of the kingdom. He needed followers he could trust with his life and whom he could trust to carry out his commands. The leader had to build loyalty so that, even in dire circumstances, his companions would fight for him, even unto death.

The leaders we see in poetry were often glorified for their personal heroism, rather than sensible, military decision-making. However, many kings were strategically thoughtful and farsighted, as well as brave and inspiring. How else could they have eventually led armies to defeat the Vikings and unite the kingdoms to form England? Kings like Alfred the Great and his son and grandson, Edward the Elder and Athelstan, who were great leaders, in war and peace.

The Great King Athelstan
The great King Athelstan presenting a Book to St Cuthbert

The Warrior

A warrior’s main role was to protect his lord – king or noble – the leader’s family and lands. Loyalty to one’s lord is portrayed as outweighing loyalty to kin. In this, we might see the importance of kingdom-building in extending the web of loyalties beyond family.

A warrior without a lord was depicted in poetry as a sad being, especially if a leader died in battle but his closest companions survived. If one’s leader was killed then the done thing for a companion worthy of his name was to fight on and avenge his death or die in the attempt. There was no talk of living to fight another day. Not that this standard was met all of the time, even in heroic poetry, but to leave the field without avenging a dead lord, or dying in the attempt, was simply cowardice. I suppose that this was an incentive to fight hard to protect one’s leader. While there were practical considerations – a lordless warrior lost the benefits of a lord’s patronage and the fellowship of men – the dominant theme is again personal heroism or the lack of it.

Anglo-Saxon poetry includes references contrasting how a companion should and should not behave. The Battle of Maldon, written to commemorate the battle fought in 991 AD between a Danish raiding force and the men of Essex under their ealdorman, Byrhtnoth, who was killed in the battle, includes the following memorable words:

Byrhtwold held forth, heaved up his shield – he was an aged companion – he shook his ash spear. Most courageously he enjoined the warriors:

‘Resolution must be the tougher, hearts the keener, courage must be the more as our strength grows less. Here lies our lord, the good man in the dirt, all hacked down. He who now thinks of getting out of this fighting will have cause to regret it forever. I am grown old in life. I will not go away, but I mean to lie at the side of my lord, by the man so dear to me.’ (Bradley, S.A.J., 1982, p 527).

However, in the same struggle:

Godric took flight from the battle and deserted the good man who had often given him many a horse. (Bradley ibid., p 524).

Plaque commemorating Battle of Maldon
Plaque commemorating the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD (photo by Glyn Baker)

At a time when a person’s lineage told others of the quality and bravery of their stock, a lesson from this text is that the courageous will live on, as their glorious feats are recounted in the halls of their people, while those who failed the standards of warriors shame themselves and their descendants.

Continuing with the Battle of Maldon, the incomplete surviving text of the poem contrasts with the terse reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 991:

A 991. This year was Ipswich ravaged: and after that, very shortly, was Byrhtnoth the ealdorman slain at Maldon.

The poem has been loaded with additional meanings that are consistent with the heroic ethos. Scholars have generally interpreted the poem as depicting a moral victory of the bond between companions and their lord, despite being a military defeat. Byrhtnoth’s death and the death of many of his men is precipitated by his own actions in letting the Danes cross a causeway to fight. Whether caused through pride, arrogance, misplaced heroism or miscalculation, the loss is only redeemed by the values and loyalty of some of Byrhtnoth’s hearth companions.

The heroic warrior ‘props’ in Anglo-Saxon poetry have received significant archaeological corroboration, especially from royal and warrior burials. Most spectacularly, the Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia, initially excavated on the eve of WWII, brought to mind the ship burial of Scyld Scefing from the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem – Beowulf (Newton, S., 1994, pp 135-142). Warrior helmets have also been discovered, including the evocative helmet and face mask from Sutton Hoo, as well as from Benty Grange (Derbyshire) and Coppergate (York). Wonderful ‘pattern-welded’ swords – clearly treasured warrior possessions – have also been found.

Sutton Hoo Helmet
Depiction of a king’s helmet. Thought to be for King Raedwald of the East Angles. Sutton Hoo (photo by author)

The historical context of the bond between king and hearth companion obviously changed. Although the image was undoubtedly gilded by heroic poetry, the inescapable fact is that the quality of Anglo-Saxon forces and leadership under the Kings of Wessex had become sufficiently formidable to fight off invaders and form England over the period from about 870 to 940 AD. They must have been doing something right.

However, moving on to the reign of Aethelred the Unready (966-1016 AD), the image and reality were appearing a bit threadbare. This was a period of renewed Danish raids, vast payments of Danegeld and national humiliation. It is the context of the Battle of Maldon. The poem appeals to timeless values of courage and loyalty that were sorely missing in the monarch.

The Anglo-Saxons almost pulled it off in the end and 1066 was a close run thing. The result may have been different if King Harold had not needed to march to Stamford Bridge near York for one battle then return south to fight Duke William.

The Gift

The concept of a gift is fascinating anthropologically. In his famous book of 1925, The Gift (2002), Marcel Mauss argued that in many early societies, the gift functioned to generate reciprocal obligations and thus both to bind together social groups and reinforce hierarchies. Accordingly, a ‘gift’ is often a misnomer. It is not given always without expectation of benefit but, on the contrary, to create obligations. If a person chose to refuse a gift, they were refusing the relationship it embodied. Gift-giving had a ritual and spiritual dimension, as well as material. The acts of giving and receiving were often accompanied by ritualised speeches, generating a sense of magical, spiritual behaviour (Pollington, S., 2002, pp 43-45). Thus, an Anglo-Saxon lord would give gifts to his companions in return for their past and future loyalty and acts of service and bravery. Indeed, the metaphor, ‘ring-giver’, refers to a lord.

Anglo-Saxon poetic references to gift-giving between a lord and his companions reflect this relationship, as in Beowulf:

Then the protecting lord of earls, the king renowned in warfare, commanded a gold-decorated blade, a legacy from Hrethel, to be fetched in – at the time there was no finer treasure among the Geats in the category of the sword. This he laid in Beowulf’s lap, and granted him seven thousand hides of land, a hall and a prince’s throne. (Bradley, S.A.J., 1982, p 469).

The Hearth 

The hearth conjures up images of warmth; feasting; comfort; light surrounded by darkness, the unknown and demons. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, it stands as a metaphor for all of these delights, domestic and communal, and reinforces the theme of companionship. It’s a wonderful metaphor for human solace in the face of the dark unknown. As one of King Edwin of Northumbria’s chief men says when discussing whether to accept Christianity:

…it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter’s storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. (Bede, 1968, p 127).

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Suffolk (photo by author)

When most buildings were wooden, the hearth was one of the few structures made of stone; giving it a greater permanence. We can imagine that until the wide availability of electricity, the hearth remained the focus of life after sundown for most of humanity for countless generations. It is a time-honoured, deeply evocative image.

High Status Bromances?

So, what are we to make of the image of the Anglo-Saxon leader and his hearth group? Undoubtedly, heroic poetry glorified the aristocracy and their way of life, which was indulgent. There is minimal mention of the common man and woman. But the images are not simply fictitious high status bromances that mask the merciless brutality of Anglo-Saxon militarism.

Anglo-Saxon kings with semi-divine status and other noble leaders did surround themselves with trusted warriors, mainly from the aristocracy but also others selected for their martial qualities. It made good sense. The chosen warriors would have trained and spent much time together. They were fortunate to be able to eat and drink a lot but physically weak warriors were not going to last the distance in a battle – the common soldier certainly didn’t have much of a chance. They shared common values and an esprit de corps developed. This was essential in developing a viable force to defend the kingdoms. What started as a household guard developed over the Anglo-Saxon period into a highly trained force that was very effective.

The relationship between a leader and his hearth group in Anglo-Saxon society was sustained by shared dangers, complex rituals, companionship and the inspiration of heroic poetry. The feats and qualities of great heroes were recited and extolled in these poems, where one’s own courage could also be commemorated.

Heroic poetry was undoubtedly rose-tinted, elevated and aspirational but it celebrated a relationship that was central to the defence of the kingdom.

(Check out also my debut novel, Under Lynden Church, set in the Kingdom of the East Angles during the Viking Invasions

Bradley, S. A. J., (ed.) Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Dent, London, 1982.

Mauss, M., The Gift, Routledge Classics, London & New York, 2002.

Newton, S., The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1994.

Pollington, S., The English Warrior from Earliest Times till 1066, Anglo-Saxon Books, Frithgarth, 2002.

Sherley-Price, L., (translator) Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968.

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