Anglo-Saxon skirmishing shield

I own a large battleshield of which I am very proud. This shield was carefully researched and constructed to look as much like the shields of sixth century England as I could achieve in foam, including small details like a metal handle forged by a blacksmith in imitation of the originals.

My battleshield, on the right.

This battleshield is, however, large. For Dagorhir line fights, its 30″ diameter is ideal. Historical shields of the mid sixth century were often much smaller, however, with diameters closer to 24″. This smaller size is not well suited for use in a shieldwall (it is too small to cover both crotch and collarbone). It does, however, allow its wielder to make several spear thrusts which are not possible with a larger, more encumbering shield. That is to say, what it lacks in passive protective potential is made up for in maneuverability. It is a shield for a skirmish.

I set out to build one for myself.

My starting point was Dickinson and Härke’s indispensable volume, Early Anglo-Saxon Shields. This book details the construction of archaeological finds (which are extremely fragmentary), and made it possible for me to determine a few considerations. Specifically: the shield’s size, the style of shield boss, the handle construction, covering material, and decoration.

Shields grew larger through the early Anglo-Saxon period. Many from late fifth-century burials are the size of bucklers: perhaps as small as 16″ across. By the middle of the sicth century, size had increased to nearer 24″. By the seventh century, shields were nearer 30″, that is the size preferred by Dagorhir players. I chose to go with 24″, as my character comes from the middle of the sixth century.

The shield boss is a style typical of mid-sixth-century burials. The nob on the tip of the boss may have been meant to bind spears or swords. Constructing this boss from foam was a challenge, and required me to carefully carve a block of 2lb microcell down into the appropriate shape, following which I applied more than a dozen layers of Plastidip around the nob / apex to prevent it from being torn off during a fight.

My shield boss, center, before being plastidipped

The handle is cut into the boards of the shield, and then reinforced with an iron band that is nailed in place. I forged the iron band, and its outline remains visible beneath the ‘leather’ cover. The handle was then wrapped with a spiral of leather, just like surviving originals.

The back of the shield, showing its handle

The shield was covered with an immitation leather fabric, held in place with liberal amounts of DAP. Shields were always covered with leather, probably rawhide. This holds the boards together, prevents the shield from splintering, and greatly improves its overall durability. On my reproduction, I substituted the fake leather fabric for rawhide. Here, too, the covering added stability: by being glued to the foam beneath, the cover adds an additional layer of strength to the material. I stitched the edges closed using leather thong, just like I would on a real shield.

We remain very much in the dark about the style of decorations that might have been painted onto shields. None survive in the archaeology and none are pictured in contemporary art. As a consequence, I decided to find a different contemporary object which could inspire a design. I settled on a brooch from a cemetery in Cambridgeshire.

The brooch that inspired my shield’s decoration

This was the same brooch that inspired my battleshield three years ago. On my interpretation, I changed one of the human faces to the face of a woman, in homage to the warrior woman buried in West Heslerton, Yorkshire. She is my Wælcyrge, my Valkyrie, my ‘corpse chooser’; she keeps me safe from enemy spears.

The finished shield
Shirmish and battleshield, side by side
The foam and real shields, together

I am eager to take this shield onto the field at Ragnarok to prove its mettle!

About the author: Alric