The Vikings also had special troops that would reap fear into the enemy and instill encouragement on the friendly side.
One kind of these special warriors were the infamous berserkers.
Berserkers were warriors that would work themselves into a battle frenzy so much that they ignored pain and injury. Often, there would be many berserkers formed into groups and would be set loose on the enemy as shock troops. The berserkers believed that the god Odin would personally protect them from harm and so they often wore no armor into battle.
There is only speculation as to what a berserker really was, as there are no accurate records of them. The word berserk comes from two words, ‘ber’ meaning bear and ‘serk’ meaning shirt. This probably means that these battle frenzied super warriors more likely wore bear skin shirts to battle as a symbol of their status.
Another special kind of warrior were the Úlfhéðinn (plural Ulfhednar or in Old Norse Úlfhéðnar), meaning “wolf’s head wearer.” These elite Norse warriors had attributes similar to that of a berserker. These warriors were also sometimes described in Norse Sagas as being special warriors of the god Odin himself.
The Ulfhednar were identifiable by the pelt of a wolf or a wolf’s head that they wore on their heads when they went into battle. Just like berserkers, these elite Ulfhednar warriors would whip themselves into a fearsome battle frenzy and were often used as the personal bodyguards of a king or jarl chieftain.
Another special warrior worth mentioning were the Huscarls (Húskarlar in Old Norse). They were “household troops” that were often the most experienced and best equipped warriors around. These special warriors were usually of freemen (Old Norse ‘Karl’ or Old English ‘Carl’) status whom had sworn loyalty oaths to be professional warriors in the service of a jarl or king, typically as personal bodyguards.
It was normal for them to be placed in the front of battle ranks or used as shock troops. Their presence would bolster the morale of the other warriors as they also gave battle guidance with their experience. They’re also used as completely separate units that operated behind the main battle lines and provided an instant reactionary force to the army’s flanks or reinforcing areas on the battle line which may be weakening on the front. It fell to the Huscarls the task of defending the battle standard and the army’s leader.
With all these tactics and methods of using special shock troops, a Viking Age leader was expected to lead his army from the front. After having achieved the respectable position of leadership by their skillful use of weaponry and battle tactics, a Viking leader was expected to stand in the amidst of a battle, personally leading the charge.
The Norse were a superstitious people and would depend on the leader’s personal fortunes and favor of the gods. If the leader fell in battle, it was likely that his army would withdraw or rout from the field, although his personal bodyguard (the huscarls) were expected to stand over him and die with their leader.
It was also normal for the leaders of Viking Age armies to seek each other out on the battlefield and achieve a quick victory by slaying and cutting off the head of the opposing army’s leader. Although this tactic wasn’t usually successful, there have been several cases where the huscarls of one army would charge and breach the enemy’s shield wall and slay the opposing side’s leader. This was presumably part of a charge that was led personally by the earl or king.
A Viking king or jarl led by example, not by title. If they were not brave and battle worthy, they would not be followed.
- Kane, Njord. “Chapter 11 – Norse Warfare.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018
by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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