Trevor Bloom – Author

website of Trevor Bloom, author of The Half-Slave

Did Anglo-Saxon ships have sails?

An intriguing one, this. As a writer, you want to get it right, but how do you do that when the authorities disagree? My novel The Half-Slave revolves around the threat of a Saxon sea-borne invasion and it was vital that I came to a coherent view as to whether a fleet of Saxons in the late 4th century would have travelled under their own grunt-power or with the aid of sails and a following wind.

Some historians argue that the Saxons of this period did not have sails, but travelled on raids in long rowing boats such as the one pictured. The keels of the Saxon ships were not strong enough to support a sail, they say, and without a deep keel and mast-step such as the Vikings subsequently developed, ships had to be driven by oars. The remains of Saxon boats that have been discovered, particularly the Nydam ship and the Sutton Hoo ship, show no evidence of sails, although neither ship may have been typical of ocean-going vessels of the time. The Nydam boat was designed for inland waterways and was not an ocean-going vessel and Sutton Hoo was a burial ship.

Sutton Hoo

Not sure I buy this. The northern Germanics would have been very familiar with sail-driven vessels. Roman naval expeditions had explored the coasts of Germany and Denmark long before the conquest of Britain and Roman traders and warboats were a regular sight along the Rhine, in the North Sea and as far north as the Baltic. And many of the crews of the Roman fleets in Britain and on the Rhine would have been Germanics who would have been able to transfer their experience to their own people.

Reconstruction of Roman Lusoria at Mainz shipmuseum

The naval historian John Heywood has pointed out that the Rhineland Germans are known to have experimented with sail and it’s unlikely that their northern neighbours, the Saxons, were unaware of sail technology or seamanship. The fact that the remains of Saxon ships that have been found such as Nydam and Sutton Hoo do not appear to carry sails does not prove the Saxons did not have sail-driven ocean-going vessels. As the old saw has it: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Reconstruction of Roman Lusoria at Mainz ship museum

Then again, some would dispute whether the Sutton Hoo burial ship was designed to be sail-less. In 1993, Edwin and Joyce Gifford built a half-size sail-driven reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship and tested it at sea. The Sae Wylfing proved to be a highly effective sailing ship, running in many different weather conditions and waters, through steep breaking waves, without taking water. The Giffords are convinced that the Saxons knew how to build and sail a sailing ship.

The issue is not just important for film-makers and fiction writers. It has all sorts of implications beause it impacts on the number of immigrants who came to Britain during the Saxon adventus. If the Saxon warriors and settlers who left northern Germany and travelled to Britain came in rowing boats, they would be severely restricted in the number of people they could carry and the number of journeys they could make. A sailing boat would travel faster and further and could consequently make return journeys more easily. Being less dependent on grunt-power, a sailing boat could carry more cargo: livestock, seed corn, supplies and farm implements, as well as loot and plunder from raids. It could also carry more passengers, particularly the women and children who are essential for effective settler migration and colonisation. A  rowed boat would have to carry a crew of able-bodied male oarsmen, which meant that the space available for non-rowing passengers would inevitably be limited.

Until we find the remains of an ocean-going Saxon migration-era vessel we are not going to know for sure, but my money’s on sail!

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