Thursday 8 November 2018

Saxon Ships... What were they like? By Mary Anne Yarde #amwriting #HistoricalFiction #Saxons

Saxon Ships... What were they like?
By Mary Anne Yarde

Upon the headland the Geats erected a broad high tumulus plainly visible to distant seaman… within the barrows they placed collars, broaches and all the trappings which they had plundered from the treasure hoard. They buried the gold and left that princely treasure to the keeping of the earth, where it remains…”


Inner view of oak made Nydam-boat — Wikipedia.

As a historical fiction author, a great deal of my time is taken up with research. Unfortunately, my books are set in the Early Medieval period — or the Dark Ages, as it is commonly referred to. This is the age of lost manuscripts. Fires, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Civil War, Revolution on the continent, and not forgetting those Viking raiders, have all had their hand in destroying these valuable resources. What is left was usually written way after an event had taken place, and alas, it was also usually written down for a political purpose. This means there are blanks, in the history. Voids, that I needed to fill in somehow. I have had to look at what happened before the time my books are set in, as well as what happened after. On many occasions, I have had to take an educated guess as to what life was like in this period.

However, sometimes a guess isn’t good enough, especially when it comes to something like ships. In particular, Saxon ships. I wanted to know what they were like. But this turned out to be somewhat more challenging than I had expected. This, is what I discovered…

The Sutton-Hoo Ship  

A ghost image of the buried ship was revealed during excavations in 1939. Still from a film made by H. J. Phillips, brother of Charles Phillips — Wikipedia.

In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, Mrs Edith Pretty, asked archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the largest of seven Anglo-Saxon burial mounds on her property. What he discovered turned out to be, not only the most spectacular, but also the most significant find in British archaeology. Basil Brown found an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial.

The Germanic people — most notably the Norseman — used this style of ship-burial. Which led me to initially believe that the Saxon ships must have been similar to the later Viking ships. The ship impression at Sutton-Hoo has been dated to c. 7th Century. However, my books are set in the late 5th early 6th Century. But hey, what is a hundred years? It would have been very easy, and not so stressful for me, to use the Sutton-Hoo ship and the model of a Viking ship to make a guess at what the Saxon ships of an earlier period looked like and, more importantly, sailed like. But would it be right? I wanted to be sure that the boats I depicted were right for the period I was writing about.

Where to begin?

The problem with boats is that they are made of wood. The impression of the Sutton-Hoo boat had been preserved because it had been buried in sandy soil. This is not the case for most ship burials. The wood, unfortunately for historians, has simply rotted away. Also, only a few ships were buried.

The Nydam Boat

The Nydam oak boat on display at Gottorf Castle, Schleswig, Germany — Wikipedia. 

The most famous and oldest Germanic boat was discovered in a place called Nydam Mose in Denmark. The Nydam boat has been dendro dated (tree-ring dated) to c.310–320. It is 23 metres long and 4 metres wide. It had 15 pairs of oars.

Was this the kind of boat that the famed Germanic mercenaries, Hengist and Horsa, sailed to England on, when they got that call for help from Vortigern, the High King of Southern England in the 5th century? Perhaps.

However, there is not a trace of any mast foot on the Nydam boat. Which meant that it did not have any sails. A stark contrast to the Viking ships in the later centuries. Does that mean that Hengist, Horsa, and their men rowed to England? Not necessarily. The Nydam boat has a keel-plank rather than the developed keel that we see in later Viking ships. The keel offsets the height of the mast, which would mean the Nydam boat was not a sea-worthy vessel. It was a riverboat. But sea travel happened. The Romans had their great navy, and they had sails. So perhaps it stands to reason that the early Saxon boats did as well. Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence to back this theory up. 

A modern replica of a Viking ship — Wikipedia.

So what is a historical fiction author to do? After careful consideration, I have given my Saxon ships sails, just because it makes sense for them to have them. I cannot imagine these great Saxon warriors, such as Cerdic of Wessex, rowing to Britain if they knew that a fight was going to greet them when they landed. They would have been too exhausted to lift an axe, let alone defend themselves. I could, of course, be wrong. However, for now, the jury is out.

(Author Unknown) — The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (J. M. Dent, New edition, 1972)
Berresford Elllis, Peter — Celt and Saxon (The struggle for Britain AD 410-937) (Constable and Company Ltd , 1994)
Geoffrey of Monmouth — The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Books Ltd, 1966)
Gildas — On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (Serenity Publishers, LLC, 2009)
Oliver, Neil — Vikings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)
Wood, Michael — In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC Books, 2005)

The Du Lac Prophecy
(Book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles)

Two Prophesies. Two Noble Households. One Throne.

Distrust and greed threaten to destroy the House of du Lac. Mordred Pendragon strengthens his hold on Brittany and the surrounding kingdoms while Alan, Mordred’s cousin, embarks on a desperate quest to find Arthur’s lost knights. Without the knights and the relics they hold in trust, they cannot defeat Arthur’s only son – but finding the knights is only half of the battle. Convincing them to fight on the side of the Du Lac’s, their sworn enemy, will not be easy.

If Alden, King of Cerniw, cannot bring unity there will be no need for Arthur’s knights. With Budic threatening to invade Alden’s Kingdom, Merton putting love before duty, and Garren disappearing to goodness knows where, what hope does Alden have? If Alden cannot get his House in order, Mordred will destroy them all.

Amazon US • Amazon UK  •  Amazon CA

 Mary Anne Yarde

Mary Anne Yarde is the multi award-winning author of the International Bestselling series — The Du Lac Chronicles.

Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury — the fabled Isle of Avalon — was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were a part of her childhood.

Mary Anne loves to hear from readers, you can find her:  

Website/Blog  •  Facebook  •  Twitter  •   Amazon Author Page  •  Goodreads 

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx