Totems and banners: Hild’s Elmet

What kind of colours, banners, totems, or standards did warriors of Hild’s time carry?

  • In day-to-day life?
  • When geared up for battle?

I don’t know. I don’t even know for certain how fighting groups in Britain were organised 1400 years ago.

Having said that, most of us—writers, readers, researchers—are so used to seeing film, tv, vases, sculptures, and other cultural representations of early-medieval warfare that, consciously or otherwise, we are conditioned to expect easy visual differentiation of opposing forces on the field. Some kind of uniformity or at least commonality.

But, oh, there are so many assumptions embedded in those expectations! Assumptions of a fighting force’s size and cohesion and command structure, of hierarchy and social organisation and standardisation (no pun intended). And having said that, I’m a novelist; I have to start somewhere.

When first thinking about the book that became Hild, I began with the assumption that the warband of a king or underking would number 30 or more.1 I further assumed that, given human nature, each member of that warband would covet what their popular and/or successful colleagues had: if Berhtred had a four-band pattern-welded sword, then, by Woden, Eadric wanted one too! Superstition probably played a part: if one warrior had a particularly lucky day, then anything associated with him—what he was wearing, say, or carrying—might borrow that aura of good luck. If every time Berhtred wore yellow he killed a rich opponent and every time he wore blue he got wounded, you can bet he would stop wearing blue. And if he became particularly lucky and/or successful, others might start to wear yellow, too. Add to that simple fashion: this band of warriors hang this kind of tassel from their baldric, or tied their swords into the scabbards just-so. These differences would be subtle, though, and perhaps not obvious enough for the speed and violence of battle.

This would not be a problem in a skirmish between two small warbands of, say, 32 men. Small, tightly-bonded groups of men would be intimately familiar with their fellows’ gear, stance, jewellery and would spot a foe instantly. It’s when you get to armies that you start thinking about big, obvious, brightly-coloured differentiating sign. If that sign is a fierce tribal totem of some kind—boar, bull, eagle dragon—that strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies, even better. But if your army is so big there are several different tribal groups with different totems, then some neutral-but-obvious icon would be useful: a red circle, a yellow cross, a blue diagonal: an unmissable signal of allegiance to a particular side.

But what if the fight happens unexpectedly and all the super-fancy war gear is stowed in the wagons two miles back? Then you might get that moment when the captain shouts, “Right, pick one of those purple thistles growing over there and tuck it into your baldric buckle, and chaaarge….”

There’s a scene like this in an Arthurian novel (I forget the book and the author—Mary Stewart? Gillian Bradshaw?—one of the good ones, anyway2) in which Arthur’s Companions, trapped on a hill, pick distinctive white flowers to pin to their shoulders before making a desperate attempt to break through enemy lines. The flowers, we’re told, are known to the locals as…well, I forget exactly, but something like Mary’s Tears. As a fellow novelist, I can tell this scene gave the author a great deal of satisfaction because it’s both a nifty little detail and it signals, Hey, I’ve read the Nennian Historia Brittonum!—in which, at the battle of Castle Guinon, Arthur “carried an image of St. Mary, the eternal virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned in flight”—and/or Geoffrey, whose Historia Regum Britanniae tells us Arthur wore an image of the Virgin on his shield.

So for Hild (and now Menewood) I decided that some (though not all) forces would paint their shields with their leader’s tribal totem, while others would have individually-painted shields but fight under common banners. And still others might do both.3 I didn’t get too systematic in the first book, beyond deciding roughly what colour/shape kingdoms such as Deira and Lindsey and Gwynedd might choose (brown bull, purple boar, and red dragon, respectively). Menewood, though, centres on war and its consequences; I needed to get specific.

Actually it turned out I needed to be specific from the very first page.

I had to design a suitably seventh-century-looking Yffing boar and Elmet hazel tree. For the boar I looked at things like the Benty Grange helmet and Scythian gold statues, and experimented with curves until I got something that looked mostly like a boar and mostly fierce. I made it white, to match the hazel tree, but put it on a purple background as a nod to her royal connections (though of course ‘purple’ varied from era to era—more about that in a future post). Then I gave it a sewn leather rim and bronze boss:

But then I thought about how fiddly it is to paint lots of shields with fussy black outlines, and gave the boar a more stencilled look4 (which has the added bonus of being simple enough to use as a map icon—more on that another time).

And then I thought, no, a whole boar is too easy to confuse with the Yffing boar of Edwin so decided just the boar’s head might be better—also it looks vaguely heraldic. Then I couldn’t resist adding the red eye as a nod to the garnet sewn in Edwin’s war banner.

So now we have a shield representing Cian (rumoured to be the son of Ceredig, last king of Elmet) and Hild (great niece of Edwin Yffing, king of Deira and Bernicia and Overking of the Anglisc). I wasn’t that happy with the hazel tree—it turns out they’re sort of scrubby and unprepossessing—and pondered adding some hazelnuts to make the point obvious. But it was getting too cluttered, so in the end I took them out again, leaving this painted and stretched leather cover evenly divided between the Elmet hazel and Yffing boar.

And then I thought, Hmmm a leather cover… I wonder what the planks underneath the cover look like? And remembered this scene:

“They hammered stakes across the Gap and impaled the bodies, the heads, the hands in a long row facing Craven, all branded with the wolf’s-head. That night, by firelight, her men limewashed their unused shields and painted a staked man and a wariangle in a glistening mix of blood, rust, and oil, Men of the butcher-bird.” — Hild, (Blackfriars, 2015) p.487

And, oooh, now I was on a roll! This—deliberately crude and brutal—is what lies under Wilfram’s shield.5

Shield of the Butcherbird

This post is getting long, and I’ve only covered shields used in Elmet. So I’ll stop here.

Still to come—the totem of Oswald Iding and the tufa of Edwin Overking. And possibly a priestly argument about the cross vs. chi-ro… Stay tuned.

1 This might be based on a long-ago skim of one of the early law codes, I forget which. Ine’s? Honestly, I’m not sure. And in the early days when these ideas were first coming together—long before I started to write Hild—I forgot to take notes.

2 For obvious reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about the Matter of Britain lately, and remembering my favourite novels about same: Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. (I can recommend all three.)

3 Because one thing I’m pretty sure of: in most of what is now England in the first third of the seventh century, there was little uniformity between polities and nor, most likely, smaller groups within that polity.

4 How would you make a stencil in 7th-century Britain—could you make a stencil? Probably, and if I took the time I’m sure I could work out how it could be done. For now, though, let’s assume it could be done, and was, and so decorating shields could become fast and uniform.

5 To be clear, while creating basic sketches of these things is necessary work, this particular kind of image-creation is purely a pleasure for me. It’s time-consuming—I’m not a trained artist—but these are labours of love.

2 thoughts on “Totems and banners: Hild’s Elmet

  1. Is the “flower as impromptu badge” a recognized trope in the UK? I’m only familiar with it from Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, where it was sprigs of lilac before a street fight. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was riffing on an actual legend or historic event, but I didn’t have the context.
    [Have preordered Menewood and am impatiently waiting for October…]

  2. This is all fascinating and I love it! But can we pause for a moment to admire the lovely, lovely layout of that page of Menewood? The font is so pleasing and that capital….! So beautiful. Cannot wait to hold this book in my hands.

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