Who were the Huscarls?


The first problem in dealing with the subject of Huscarls is to decide whether you are looking at the traditional meaning of the word in Old Norse, or whether you are talking about the English military term.

In Old Norse the term Huscarl is just a word meaning a household servant – house-karl – and could be applied to anyone who served a lord in his household. In Old English it has a meaning nearer to the later medieval idea of ‘Household Troops’, the highly trained soldier who served a particular lord and his family or household. Certainly by the later eleventh century, the Norse usage of the word was similar to that of the English, although earlier on it had had a more general meaning. For the purposes of this article we will be looking at the English Huscarls.

There is little doubt that Huscarls were introduced into England during the reign of Cnut (although there is some evidence for an elite mercenary force during Aethelred’s reign). An institution similar to the Huscarls had existed in Scandinavia for some time, and it is possible that Cnut was trying to ‘standardise’ that aspect of all his empire. It is also possible that tales of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium inspired the formation of the Huscarls as the King’s bodyguard. According to Sveno, Cnut re-organised his army in 1018 and proclaimed that only those ‘who bore a two-edged sword with gold inlaid hilt’ would be admitted into his chosen guard. It is said that wealthy warriors made such haste to get swords of the right quality that the sound of the sword-smiths’ hammers was heard throughout the land. It may be that Cnut was trying to get some Englishmen into his elite guard to aid the unification between Englishmen and Danes. Whatever the reason, it can be seen that this would have given Cnut the chance to get some of the best warriors in the land into his personal guard. How was this guard organised?

Many of the writers earlier this century thought that the Huscarls were organised in a similar way to the Jomsvikings. However, more recent research suggests that the Jomsvikings may never have existed as the disciplined guild of warriors portrayed in the sagas. What is certain, however, is that Huscarls were paid troops with their own rules of justice and discipline, answerable directly to the King (or later some of the more powerful Eorls who had their own Huscarls). Most of the Huscarls lived at the King’s court and served him directly. By the time of Edward the Confessor some Huscarls had been given estates by the king, varying in size from half a hide to fifteen hides, with an average being 4 hides, although these were probably the exception rather than the rule.
Traditionally, the Huscarls ‘contract’ to the King was renewed on New Year’s Day, and any Huscarl was free to leave the king’s service. It is also clear that problems of internal discipline were dealt with by a meeting of the Huscarls. The worst sentence was to be declared ‘niðing’ (a Norse word meaning coward or craven) and cast out of the Huscarls. It is possible that Eorl Swein, Harold’s brother, had been a Huscarl since when he abducted the abbess of Leominster and killed his cousin Beorn, he was not tried by a Witan and outlawed, the king and the army declared Swein ‘niðing’, suggesting military, not civil, justice. The exact details of the ‘guild laws’ for the Huscarls are now not as certain as they were once thought to be, since the principle sources for these laws have been shown to be dubious. However, the existing evidence is strong enough to be sure that the Huscarls did have their own ‘guild-laws’ by which they lived, based on loyalty to the king and an oath of true loyalty to the other Huscarls, just as the thegns of Cambridge did in the early eleventh century and the ‘peace guild’ of London did during Aethelstan’s reign.

The royal Huscarls are thought to have numbered about 3000, a vast number of men to pay and, as a consequence, a special tax of one mark of silver from ten hides was levied to pay the Huscarls. In addition to their pay in coin (thought to have been paid once per month), they were housed and fed at the king’s expense. It is not certain whether the king also paid for their arms and armour, although it is likely they were expected to supply these themselves (arms and armour may have been given as gifts in return for good service too). Obviously, they would equip themselves with the best arms and armour they could, not only because their lives depended on it (literally), but also because the king could dismiss them, removing their livelihood too, if their war gear was not ‘up to scratch’. If they were to constitute the core of the army, their war-gear had to be the best available. In addition to his sword, a huscarl would also have been expected to have a horse to carry him to the battle (although he would dismount and fight on foot), a mail-shirt, helmet, shield, spear, and, of course, the ‘massive and bloodthirsty two handed axe’.
Huscarls at Armidale 2006

That Huscarls were valued servants of the king is bourne out by an event in 1041. Two of Harthacnut’s huscarls were killed by the citizens of Worcester whilst collecting a particularly unpopular tax. Harthacnut decided to ravage the entire shire by dispatching the forces of five eorls and ‘almost all his huscarls’ to teach his subjects a lesson in obedience. This also gives us a hint to the fact that a huscarl’s duty to the king was not limited to fighting. Like the thegns, the huscarls served the king in peace as well as war. They appear as tax collectors, witnesses to royal charters, recipients of land grants and donors of land. Often the same man is found described in charters as cynges huskarl and minister regis. If the huscarl’s duty was purely military he would have been described as milites regis not minister regis. Huscarls could best be described as ministers and attendants upon the king (or eorl) who specialised in, but were not limited to, war. Their obligation to serve in arms arose from the lordship bond rather than the cash inducement. In this way they probably differed from their contemporaries, the lithsmen and butecarles who were purely mercenary troops and seem to have sided with the highest bidder.
Saxon Huscarls
Saxon Huscarls

What happened to the Huscarls? The huscarls probably formed the spear head of any army right up until the Conquest. After the Conquest the huscarls seem to have completely disappeared. Why was this? Certainly the vast majority died on Senlac ridge, fighting around the king, but not all. Most of those that did survive, along with many of King Harold’s thegns, and some of the eorl’s huscarls seem to have crossed to the continent as mercenary troops. Many of these made it as far as Byzantium and became members of the Varangian Guard, so much so that, by the twelfth century, the Varangian Guard was sometimes referred to as ‘the English Guard’.

Norway’s pilgrim trail.

Reaching into its medieval past, Norway has revived an old pilgrim path as a challenging long-distance walking trail with possible spiritual vibes.

Called St. Olav’s Way after the country’s patron saint, it follows the footsteps of pilgrims to Trondheim, called Nidaros in the Middle Ages, and the earthly remains of St. Olav buried under its great cathedral.

The Pilgrim’s Route, (Pilegrimsleden) also known as St. Olav’s Way or the Old Kings’ Road, was a pilgrimage route to the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, the site of the tomb of St. Olav. The main route is approximately 640 kilometres (400 mi) long. It starts in the ancient part of Oslo and heads north along the lake Mjøsa, up the Gudbrandsdal valley, over the Dovrefjell mountains, and down the Oppdal and Gauldalen valleys to end at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.


In life, the saint was King Olav Haraldsson, credited with sealing Norway’s conversion to Christianity with a martyr’s death in battle in 1030. He was rushed into sainthood a year later. His spreading fame made Nidaros a major destination for European pilgrams, along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims trod St. Olav’s Way until Lutheranism reached Norway in 1537, shutting down saint worship.

Celebration of Saint Olaf of Norway, King and martyr in Gudhem outside Falköping, Sweden, on 29th July 2011. Having a lecture and strolling around in the ruins of the Cistercian monestary from 12th century. Pilgrims from Europe passed Gudhem on their way to to the grave of St Olaf of Norway in Nidaros (Trondheim).


There is clear evidence that this route saw heavy use in the early Norwegian Iron Age. Oppdal on the route was located at a crossroads for traffic from Trondheim, the traffic over the Dovrefjell mountain range, and the west coast. At Oppdal there are over 700 Viking era grave mounds. This indicates that the Viking trade routes passed through these valleys.

It is appropriately termed “The King’s Road”. Virtually every king of Norway traveled this road. Those for whom we easily find records of their passage range from the first King of Norway through the last King able to pass that way before the road was completely replaced with modern rail and tarmac.

Harald Fairhair or Harold I was the first king of all Norway who crossed the Dovrefjell on The King’s Road. Harald Hårfagres saga describes an expedition he led up the Gudbrandsdal, and north over Dovrefjeld on his way to success at the battle of Orkadal.
“ King Harald went far and wide through Gautland, and many were the battles he fought there on both sides of the river, and in general he was victorious. In one of these battles fell Hrane Gauzke; and then the king took his whole land north of the river and west of the Veneren, and also Vermaland. And after he turned back there-from, he set Duke Guthorm as chief to defend the country, and left a great force with him. King Harald himself went first to the Uplands, where he remained a while, and then proceeded northwards over the Dovrefjeld to Throndhjem, where he dwelt for a long time. Harald began to have children. By Asa he had four sons. The eldest was Guthorm. Halfdan the Black and Halfdan the White were twins. Sigfrod was the fourth. They were all brought up in Throndhjem with all honour.[4] ”
[edit] Kings

* The Saga of St. Olaf says that in the year 1021 and again in 1024 King Olaf (1015–1028) travelled north through the Gudbrandsdal valley to Dovrefjell, where he crossed to Nidaros and remained there all winter.

* Magnus Berrføtts saga describes King Haakon Magnusson’s death in the Dovrefjell mountains in 1094. While crossing them he chased a rock ptarmigan until he got sick and died, leaving Magnus King of Norway.

* Christian V (King of Denmark & Norway from 1670 to 1699) crossed the Dovrefjell mountains on horseback in 1685.

* Frederik IV (King of Denmark & Norway from 1699 to 1730) crossed the Dovrefjell mountains in 1704 by cariole. The Norwegian cariole at that time only held one passenger, and the driver or attendant stood or sat behind on a narrow board above the axle.

* Christian VI (King of Denmark & Norway from 1730 to 1746) crossed the Dovrefjell mountains in a 4-horse carriage in 1733. An illustrated manuscript of King Christian and Queen Sophie Magdalene’s five-month long journey through Norway is preserved in the Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, of which a facsimile edition was published in 1992.[5]

* King Frederik V’s initials remained carved at Tofte from his passage through.

* Christian Frederick passed this way, as did Karl Johan.

Railway lines

The Norwegian railway line Rørosbanen was opened on 13 October 1877, connecting Hamar and Trondheim via the towns of Elverum and Røros. At this point, pilgrims making the difficult route up through the Dovrefjell mountains lost most of its appeal, compared with the relative ease of taking a train to Trondheim.

The final end of the Old King’s Road came on 17 September 1921, when the Dovrebanen railway was completed. Starting at Dombås in Dovre municipality, it passes over the mountainous stretches of the Dovrefjell, before merging with the Rørosbanen again at Støren. It passes close to the Old King’s Road’s historic route, but is to the west along a route which, although longer, has a lesser grade, as is required for rail.

Unique pagan temple unearthed in Norway

A fascinating discovery is shedding light upon pre-Christian Scandinavian religion and early Christian inroads into Norway. In the Norwegian press, this highly important find is being called “unparalleled,” “first of its kind” and “unique,” said to have been “deliberately and carefully hidden” – from invading and destructive Christians. 
The excavated temple [Credit: Preben Rønne, Science Museum/NTNU]

Located at the site of Ranheim, about 10 kilometers north of the Norwegian city of Trondheim, the astonishing discovery was unearthed while excavating foundations for new houses and includes a “gudehovet” or “god temple.” Occupied from the 6th or 5th century BCE until the 10th century AD/CE, the site shows signs of usage for animal sacrifice, a common practice among different peoples in antiquity. Over 1,000 years ago, the site was dismantled and covered by a thick layer of peat, evidently to protect it from marauding Christian invaders. These native Norse religionists apparently then fled to other places, such as Iceland, where they could re-erect their altars and re-establish the old religion.