Saturday, December 8, 2012

Icelandic Horse in Viking Warfare

“Thrain had fifteen house-earles trained to arms in his house, and eight of them rode with him whithersoever he went. Thrain was very fond of show and dress, and always rode in a blue cloak, and had on a guilded helm, and the spear - the Earl's gift - in his hand, and a fair shield, and a sword at his belt.”  The Story of Burnt Njal—Icelandic Saga written down in 1200s about events from 960 to 1020

Wikipedia photo
Historically, the Icelandic horse was not used in battle.  From approximately 700 to 1100 AD, the Vikings raided across Europe.  Disembarking from their well built ships capable of sailing both ocean and rivers, Vikings pillaged monasteries and villages.  Armored in mail or leather and carrying axes or spears (and sometimes swords), the Vikings would ransack and terrorize.   “… as they spent much of their time sailing to different destinations the use of horses was impractical. Most Viking armies were relatively small and thus they did not seek open battle willingly…they preferred sailing along a stretch of coast, raiding, looting and enslaving before disappearing over the horizon. Their best weapon was the advantage of surprise”  (Nell, 2008). War horses would have taken up too much space in the Viking ships and been of limited use on quick slash and grab raids.  However on home ground, the Vikings rode horses to a battle but dismounted and fought in a shield wall.
Carved of ivory probably in Skalholt, Iceland, in the first half of the 13th century, the Lewis Chess pieces depict what armed Viking warriors may have looked like at that time. Some of the pieces are riding Icelandic-like horses. The pieces were found on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, in 1831.

Nell, G.  (2008).  Viking Warfare: Weapons and War in the Viking Age.  Last found June 8, 2012 at

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