By Kay Smith and Ruth R Brown
Few weapons were so feared or as evocative as the axe used by the Vikings in their feuds and in battle, as well as on their raids throughout Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries and beyond. With its long shaft, wielded in both hands, its iron head and sharp edge, it was formidable indeed – cleaving heads and bodies at a single blow. But what was it really like?
Outside the ancient borough of Pickering on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors is the Anglo-Saxon church of St Andrews. Inside, the visitor will find reminders of the time the Vikings occupied this part of England, some 30 miles from the Jorvik Viking Centre in York: two stone crosses depicting ninth-century Norse warriors, seated on a grand chair or throne, surrounded by their arms: sword, spear, or halberd, shield, seax, and, by their left side, that most feared of weapons, the Viking battle axe.
Axes are mentioned frequently in contemporary literature, particularly in the Icelandic sagas, and are depicted in Viking arts. They were often highly prized and given names such as ‘Witch of the Helmet’, ‘Wolf of the Wound’, ‘Fiend of the Shield’ or ‘Woundbiter’, while the Norwegian king Eric Haraldsson is better known by his nickname, the evocative Eric Bloodaxe.
In his history of the Scandinavian kings, Heimskringla, the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson includes a poem describing how King Magnús throws off his mail coat, takes up Hel, the personal battle-axe of his father St Óláfr, and sets about his enemies. The passage reflects how a revered weapon can take on its own name and personality, cherished enough to pass from father to son:
With broad axe, unwearied,
went forth the ruler
sword-clash happened round the Hǫrðar’s
head—and threw off his mailcoat,
when the shaft-land was shared out the shaping guardian of Heaven
Hel clove pallid craniums—
the king’s two hands encircled…
And of course many axes have survived, often recovered from archaeological contexts, displaying a range of shapes and sizes.
Types of axes
Despite the ubiquity and iconic status of battle-axes, surprisingly there has been little modern work on them. However, Jan Petersen laid the foundation for researching Viking weapons in 1919 in his book on the Norwegian Viking sword. He identified some ten different types and labelled them A through M. Within his classification, however, two main types of axe can be identified. The first, the skeggǫx or bearded axe, has an asymmetrical head, the lower edge extending downwards like a beard. There are a number of variants depending on the size and shape of the beard, noted by Petersen as types B, C, D and E. In some cases, as in Petersen’s type C, the beard is very extreme and the blade length many times the width of the rest of the head. Bearded axes date from as early as the 8th century and were probably developed from the agricultural or wood-working axe.
The second type, the breiðǫx or broad axe, Petersen’s types L and M, is roughly triangular in form, narrow near the haft and flaring out at both the top and bottom to form a broad cutting edge some 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) long. This is the classic ‘Danish’ axe, frequently depicted in sculpture and noted in the sources, which becomes common after about 1000. A number of smaller axe types also survive which may be used either as tools or for throwing.
Most surviving axes are undecorated, but some highly ornate examples have been found. One famous example is from Mammen in Jutland in Denmark and is inlaid with designs in silver; it has given its name to the Mammen style of decoration. This particular axe has been dated from dendrochronology of wood remains in the grave where it was found to sometime after AD 971 when the tree was felled.
The Mammen axe is among the few examples where the haft has survived; unfortunately even these few are broken and incomplete so that it is not possible to know how long they were. The axe shown in the Middleton sculpture is quite short – perhaps 1 metre (3 feet) in length – while those shown on the Bayeux Tapestry are longer, perhaps nearer 1.5 metres (5 feet). It is likely that the length of the haft reflected the size of the head – in general, the larger the head, the longer and stouter the haft. Shorter axes could also be used as concealed weapons, under a cloak or behind a shield, and also as a secondary weapon after a sword.
The axe was often used along with a sword, spear, or halberd, a shield, and a seax – a combination shown on the two aforementioned Viking sculptures of warriors from Middleton in North Yorkshire: the first cross has all these weapons on, while the second, smaller sculpture shows an axe and a seax. Often a combination of these weapons has been recovered from graves across the Viking world of the North Atlantic. Others have been recovered from rivers, such as the number found in the River Thames near the old London Bridge, along with spears and a grappling iron. These may have been dropped into the river as sacred deposits, or lost at the time of Cnut’s attacks on London in the early 1000s.
Wielding the axe
The battle-axe’s effectiveness as a weapon is amply demonstrated by references to them in the Icelandic Sagas which tell of fights and feuds being settled by a single well-aimed blow from an axe. It was usually the head of the enemy that was targeted, which shows that many were long-handled and were swung over the head at one’s enemy. For example, when Egil was six years old, he is said to have driven an axe through the head of a playmate because of an earlier humiliation after losing a game.
Elsewhere in Egil’s Saga, an incident is described in which an axe is embedded up to its shaft in the helmeted head of a Viking warrior. In attempting to retrieve his weapon from his victim’s head, the assailant pulled on the axe with such force that his victim’s body was swung into the air and over the side of the ship they were fighting on. Another example which shows their force is this:
Then Karli ran to the Jómali. He saw there was a thick necklace on his neck. Karli swung his axe and struck the band that the necklace was fastened with on the back of his neck in two. The blow was so heavy that Jómali’s head flew off.
Axes could also be used in other ways. One intriguing reference shows how an axe was used to advantage:
Þórir went to the fence and hooked his axe up onto it, hauling himself up after it, thus getting in over the fence on one side of the entrance.
Intriguingly we also have concrete evidence of the effectiveness of the axe. During excavations in 1995 in Mosfell Valley in Iceland, the skeleton of a man was found who had died from two blows to the head from an axe. The report states that the:
gaping defect in the right side of his head exhibits all of the diagnostic features of an axe wound. Especially important is the abrupt termination of the injury at one end. This feature and the straight, clean-cut edge of the wound are both characteristics of the injuries produced by the heavy blades of sharp, short-bladed, chopping weapons such as Viking battleaxes.
The report goes on to say:
Both of these wounds would have severed major endocranial blood vessels. The massive brain damage and blood loss resulting from them would have rendered him almost immediately unconscious as his blood pressure plummeted. Within a minute or so, this exsanguination would have resulted in irreversible shock followed by death.
The use of the axe as a fighting weapon continued through the eleventh century but it appears to have gradually fallen out of use, its place taken by the lance and sword of the medieval knight.
This article was originally published in Medieval Warfare magazine. Click here to buy that issue.