Viking Warrior Women

Logo_small“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier’s skills; they did not want the sinews of their valour to lose tautness and be infected by self-indulgence.” – Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, around 1200

Old Norse sagas and chronicles are full of warlike women. The oldest of them is Hervǫr, who led an army against a Hunnish invasion in the 4th or 5th century. Her saga was reworked several times and she became a model for other warrior women. One of them was Queen Thornbjǫrg, who ruled Sweden and performed astonishing feats of arms. Another one, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, is featured in two sagas as the sister of Leif Erikson and as his companion on the expedition to Vinland, where she fought the fierce Skrælingjar.

Broche depicting a Valkyrie from 9th century Denmark.
Broche depicting a Valkyrie from 9th century Denmark.

Warrior women also turn up in chronicles. There is the ‘Red Maiden’ who commanded a fleet against her enemies in the 11th century. William of Jumiège mentions women fighting among the Vikings in France. The most copious amount of examples has been collected by Saxo Grammaticus. In his History of the Danes, he tells of the women Hetha, Visna and Vebiorg, who fought for the Danish king Harald War-tooth at the battle of Brávellir. Another warrior woman, Rusila, fought her brother Thrond for the throne of Norway and led her army to victory in a number of battles before succumbing to the Danish king.

But are those stories based on reality? Experts are still divided. Thanks to archaeology, we now know that Viking women had a much more active role in society than traditionally believed and that they participated in expeditions. To which extent they took part in combat however is still open to debate. Unfortunately, archaeology is a muddy business and often poses more questions than it delivers answers. Do grave goods tell us something about the people buried or do they rather expose the beliefs and customs of the undertakers? If we find a sword with a female corpse, does that mean the woman was a warrior or could it just have been a symbol for her status?

In a cautious and thoughtful overview of Scandinavian findings, archaeologist Leszek Gardela records several graves where weapons have been found buried besides women. Unfortunately (and in contrast to the remains of Scythian warrior women), there is no indication of battle damage (or no investigations have been conducted in this direction), so we can’t know if and how the deceased used those weapons. However, most experts concur that, if nothing else, women would have been fighting when the occasion demanded it, such as on expeditions or when defending their homes in the absence of men.

Female figure with Sword from Hårby in Denmark.
Female figure with Sword from Hårby in Denmark.

How would they have been equipped? Basically in the same way as men. Most of the weapons found in graves were knifes or spears. Freydís is depicted as using an axe, while women with swords feature in several sagas. They would also have had similar armament. This is illustrated by a passage from the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:

“Facing him stood a man in full armour and battle ready. When the man lifted up his helmet and pushed it back, Hrolfr realized it was Queen Thornbjǫrg.”

Chain mail was worn over a thick padded garment, so the body shape would have been largely obscured. Incidentally, this applies to warrior women throughout the ages – skimpy armour emphasising body shape belongs to the realm of fantasy!

Gardela ends his research article on an inconclusive note: He states that it is too early for a definite judgement, but voices the hope that archaeology might “perhaps even sooner than we might expect” surprise us with new evidence for female Viking warriors.

Fortunately, as wargamers we don’t have to yield to the cautious rhetorics of academic safeguarding. Warrior women are certainly plausible – in fact, they are more plausible than other conventions of Dark Ages wargaming, such as units of Berserkers or Jomsvikings! So why not include some in your SAGA warband, or even field Freydís Eiríksdóttir or Queen Thornbjǫrg as female Warlords?

But which figures to use? In 15mm, there are the splendid female Vikings by Peter Pig. Splintered Light has recently presented greens of shield maidens that will soon be available for purchase.

In 28mm, Bad Squiddo Games has recently launched a new miniatures range with an awesome Viking warrior woman. More will follow, so watch the homepage!

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Bibliography

Jansone, Santa: “Ladies with axes and spears. Female Viking warriors around the Baltic Sea,” Medieval Warfare IV.2 (2014), 9-12.

Jesch, Judith: Women in the Viking Age, Woodbridge: Boydell Press 1994.

Jochens, Jenny: Old Norse Images of Women, Philadelphia: Penn. University of Pennsylvania Press 1996.

Gardela, Leszek: “‘Warrior-women’ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study,” Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia 8 (2013), 273-309 (available online)

 

Another Clash of Warlords

Sometimes, we are in the mood for a quick and brutal game – fortunately, there is SAGA! So K. awoke her Vikings from their mead-induced slumber and I gathered my Normans to have another go at the Clash of Warlords scenario.

We both fielded 6 points. I chose one unit of Levy Archers, one unit of crossbows, two units of mounted Warriors and two of mounted Hearthguard. K. also took Levy Archers, two units of Warriors, two of Hearthguard and one of Berserkers. We diced for terrain and only got to place two pieces, so K. took a wooded area and I the watchtower – mainly because I like how it looks.

For the set up, I again made up a cunning plan: I positioned my Warlord together with his Hearthguard and a unit of crossbows to the right of the tower, ready to strike into the Vikings flank. The rest of my men was positioned to the middle – I wanted to keep them back until the flanking force was ready to strike.

K. had her forces lined up with her archers facing mine. She kept to the center of the board, only one unit of Hearthguard was hidden behind the woods (it really was hidden, I didn’t realise it was there until she brought it out).

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K. started the game with shooting at my archers, which hurt them more than I would have thought. She also brought a unit of Hearthguard to cover the flank were my cavalry was advancing. Then she set her SAGA dice so that I couldn’t use my shooting abilities. I nevertheless decided to go for it and sent my first unit of knights to attack her flank Hearthguard without softening them up with crossbows first. The attack went ok but strained my cavalry – three points of fatigue meant that they suddenly were very vulnerable and all alone at the front!

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As was to be expected, K. didn’t show any mercy and massacred them with her Hearthguard, which at least went under with my knights. Meanwhile, my archers managed to deplete one of the units of Warriors. However, they themselves took heavy casualties from the pesky Viking archers! K. decided to give them the rest by attacking with her other unit of Warriors, which threw themselves at my poor Levies. The mounted Warriors were still waiting for the signal to attack.

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My Warlord with his flanking cavalry decided to abandon the flanking manoeuvre and tried to pull his men back. This was one of my classic capricious moments when I decide to change a plan in the middle of a game. Moving the troops around meant that my most powerful units were out of the game for quite a while. I did, however, finally attack with my mounted Warriors.

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However, K. grasped the nettle and threw her crazed Berserkers at my Warriors. Together with the Warlord, they made short shrift of the cavalry. Some ferocious dice rolling also meant that three out of the four Berserkers actually survived the attack!

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This left me in a dire situation. My approaching Warlord, seeing that none of his other troops were left, ordered his remaining Hearthguard to retreat and decided to call it a day.

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Another defeat for the Normans! I put all my eggs into one basket by putting my best units plus my Warlord on the flank. Unfortunately, the flanking manoeuvre got stuck – had I pulled it through, I might have caused havoc in K.’s units. But as it was, I panicked when it didn’t work out and decided to move my cavalry back to the center, which effectively took it out of the game. Meanwhile, K. could systematically decimate the rest of my forces, which were sitting like ducks in the center of the playing area. Nevertheless, the game was great fun, quick and brutal, just as we wanted it to be!

SAGA Once Again!

Autumn 1070, somewhere in England: A Norman Warlord assembles a convoy to get winter provisions into his castle. As they approach a road fork near a church, they spot a Viking raiding party. Can they guard the baggage train, or will they lose all their victuals and spend a hungry winter?

Fitting to the local weather, which is ghastly and not at all summery, we decided to play a game of SAGA. It’s been a while! We played the ‘Escort’ scenario from the main rulebook with 5 points each. I positioned my archers and crossbowmen in front of the baggage train, a unit of foot sergeants to their right and the cavalry on my far left – stubbornly refusing to learn from my mistakes, I had planned another one of those elegant outflanking manoeuvres that never succeed. K. faced me with the Vikings pretty much evenly distributed, only one of her Hearthguards were hidden in the woods (she fielded no levies this time).

The set-up.
The set-up.

The scenario meant that I had to cross the table with all three parts of my baggage train (a flock of sheep, a cart and a group of peasants carrying what turned out to be precious stuff), while K. had to eliminate at least two of the baggages. Everything else would be a draw. We followed the suggestions on the SAGA forum and made a modification to the official rules: The baggage did not generate SAGA dice and had instead a free activation for each of the three bases. This, we thought, would make the game more balanced, as the defender would not just spend all his extra dice on pummeling the attacker.

The game started with what can only be called shock and awe. K. had initiative, rolled some fine SAGA dice and immediately threw her pumped up warriors against my levies, killing all save one, who retreated behind the church never to be seen again.

Shock and awe!
Shock and awe!

That set the pace. Again and again she relentlessly punched into my lines. The cavalry I had moved over to cover the gap was slaughtered by her Berserkers, my crossbowmen by one of her Hearthguard units. Without hesitation she exploited the gap and came at my baggage train. The cart was easily done with and I almost lost heart. But what happened then is still denied by some Viking officials as ‘Norman propaganda’: Her berserkers drove into my sheep like wolves, but the sheep showed teeth and dragged the Viking elite along into Valhalla! What an embarrassing defeat at the hands, or better hooves of a flock of woolly creatures.

Beware of the sheep!
Beware of the sheep!

Now my Normans seemed to wake up. With a cry of ‘Sauvez le vin!’, they set out to at least save the last remaining baggage train containing the precious Norman wine. In a bold move, my left flankers rode around the church to attack the Viking Warlord from behind. This clash was inconclusive as the Warlord proved to be resilient and my knights had to retreat. Not for long, though! They threw themselves onto the Viking warriors who threatened the convoy, slaining them all. The remaining foot sergeants closed the front and covered the wine carriers, while the knights again set out to attack the Viking Hearthguard. Another victory for those gallant riders. Now only the Viking Warlord was left, and side by side with his trusty knights, the Norman Warlord punished him for his bold raid onto the winter provisions. In the end, the Normans managed to make off with the last baggage train. This winter they are going to get hungry, but at least they won’t be thirsty.

What an exciting game! At the beginning, I already saw myself losing after only a couple of turns. Only through derring-do and luck I managed to pull off a draw. In the end, K. payed a price for her aggressive tactics: Having sacrificed too many of her troops in the initial onslaught, she had difficulties upholding the pressure over time. It was my flank Hearthguard, which showed unprecedented bravery and commitment, that saved the day.

The cavalry doing what it does best.
The cavalry doing what it does best.

We both felt that this was a close game and we really liked the scenario, which provided some interesting tactical challenges. We will certainly play it again, this time me being the attacker. I will, however, make sure to beware of the killer sheep.

A SAGA Ends…

It’s been a long time since the last game in our SAGA campaign. We were occupied with the Wars of the Roses and were also travelling a lot, so time was short, but we realised that we really wanted to know how the campaign would go on. So we finally sat down to play another game. We knew that, as things stood, a decision would soon have to be reached. But we didn’t know that the next game would be the grand finale of our campaign!

We had left the game with the Norman 2nd army retreating towards the castle, having ambushed the Vikings and taken a beating. The Vikings now advanced once more towards Little Tipping while the retreating Normans rushed to unite two of their small armies at the bridge. Meanwhile, the Norman 1st army took position in the village, nervously awaiting the Viking host.

When battle was joined, the Normans were at a slight advantage, fielding 5 points versus 4 points of Vikings. Levy, Hearthguard and one unit of Warriors were set up in the middle, while another unit of Warriors and the crossbows were at the right flank, between a house and the church. The Vikings put Warriors, Berserkers and and one unit of Hearthguard in the middle and hid another unit of Hearthguard behind the church.

Vikings marching in
Vikings approaching from the North

This lone unit of Hearthguard looked rather isolated and proved to be too sweet a temptation for the Norman commander, who charged his Warriors around the church to attack them. A sage man who recognises temptation as the devil’s handiwork!

"Into the mouth of Hell / Rode the eight."
“Into the mouth of Hell / Rode the eight.”

“Then they rode back, but not / Not the eight.” In fact, none rode back at all – half of them were lost in the attack, the other half when the Vikings struck back. This was not a good start, but spirits were still high on the Norman side. They started to drop when the crossbowmen, who were advancing on the right flank, were rushed by the Warlord and the Berserkers and cut to pieces. The whole right flank was gone!

"Flash'd all their sabres bare"]
“Flash’d all their sabres bare”

However, the manoeuvering also meant that the Vikings had now split their forces in two and the Normans started to exploit the situation. On the left flank, the mounted Warriors charged the other Hearthguard, while the ranks of the Viking warriors were greatly diminished by Levy archery. The tide had been turned! The Viking Warlord, anticipating that defeat was imminent, put all his eggs into one basket and charged the Norman Warlord, who was accompanied by his trusty Hearthguard. An epic melee followed. In the end, not even the sacrifices of his noble knights could save the Norman leader, who succumbed to the ferocity of the Viking Warlord.

Their daring had earned the Vikings a victory. What would happen now? Eagerly, we turned to the campaign map. Normally, we would end the gaming session at this point, but we both knew that this battle could have been the decisive one. So, what would happen?

The situation after the Second Battle of Little Tipping.
The situation after the Second Battle of Little Tipping.

First, the beaten Normans had to retreat. This took them away from the village, which was now in Viking hands. Those thieving magpies immediately started to grab everything that was not nailed down. No Norman force was in range to stop them in time. As we had determined that the Viking aim was to plunder at least four villages, they had achieved a victory.

Winner of the SAGA campaign was the Viking force played by K.!

The Vikings have won!
The Vikings have won!

This was a worthy finale to a great campaign. When discussing it, we both liked that a decision had been reached in a reasonable time. K. suggested that next time the villages should be distributed differently, as it was pretty clear from the beginning that Little Tipping would be the decisive place. I have to admit that I didn’t put much thinking into the map as I had just played around with the software and was so happy when I had produced a map that I immediately used it! We also agreed that next time we would try to play more diverse scenarios – all but one of our games were straight on battles (the exception being a river crossing scenario).

Some more data on the campaign: We played for 14 turns. As I had losely determined that one turn=one day, the Vikings were rampaging for two weeks in the Norman fiefdom before they retreated to their ship. In real time this took us about four months. However, we had some very long breaks in between. We played five SAGA battles, of which two were won by the Normans and three by the Vikings. But those dry statistics can’t capture the great fun we had with the campaign! The tabletop battles were even more engrossing than normal as they had consequences and we rooted for our troops as the story enfolded on the map.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on the reports, I hope I could convey some of the fun! And do not despair if you like SAGA: There will be more reports coming as we plan to play more scenarios.