(Previously posted on elainemoxon.blogspot 30th October 2012.)
There are many things a historical novelist will subject themselves to in the name of research. A few years ago, prior to the publication of ‘WULFSUNA’ I decided to don a helmet and shield in order to adopt the mindset of a 5th Century Saxon warrior…
To enhance my research on the first novel in my Wolf Spear Saga series, I enrolled the help of Andy Pilkington or ‘Wulfgar of Mercia’ as he is also known. I was shot at by arrows, advanced in a shield wall (of two!) and took out an opponent with axe and sword. Most of the action was slow-motion relay and we discussed how to wield the weaponry, though I found there are some things you cannot slow down.
With my helmeted head tucked down behind a shield, a hand and knee bolstering the back of it, I was privy to the force of a blunt arrow hitting my one-woman shield wall from close range. The smack of the rubber arrow dented my shield, splintering the back. The shield was knocked into the face plate of my helmet and the force reverberated through my arms and leg. I swore! A real arrow would have passed through the shield as well as my body (unless I had worn a chain mail shirt).
Saxons preferred their axes and short daggers, or Seax, for close range combat. There are many ways to fight using a shield and a battle axe (which has a longer haft or handle than an axe used for throwing). Where the blade of the axe curves down, known as the ‘beard’, you can ‘hook’ your opponent’s shield and reveal him. You can also hook the beard under the face plate of the enemy’s helmet or around any ornamentation. Holding the axe at the very top under the blade, the axe haft becomes a hammer, for battering your own shield as you yell your war cry, or to hammer an opponent’s shield/helmet/body.
Shields are also used as weapons with which to hit the enemy, making good use of the iron ‘bosses’ that jut out from the centre of the shield faces. If a warrior loses his shield he can then turn to fighting with his axe in one hand and his Seax in the other. Spears are the mainstay of the foot soldiers in the shield wall, the round circles overlapping like roof tiles and the spears levied on top of the shields or thrown long distance. Bowmen are ideally positioned 30 yards away for a good, high arc of arrows shot down into the approaching force.
Amid all that, if you are wealthy enough, you will be wearing 65lbs of chain mail shirt and another good many pounds of iron helmet. Add to that the weight of a 3-foot wooden shield plus weaponry and you have to admit, it’s all you can do to stand up! In wet conditions or battles in water, it was common for fallen warriors to drown.
It was well worth the time and effort to ‘live’ my characters’ moments. I was sweating beneath an iron helmet, the cheek flaps digging into my collarbone. The weight of the shield meant I had to constantly alter my centre of gravity. It was physically tiring and there was the mental challenge of strategy. Carrying the weapons and wearing the armour I could ‘feel’ how my characters moved in battle. It was fascinating to put years of research into action. Mere imagination is no substitute for the personal experience and realism I can now feed into my writing. Plus…I had fun!