A huscarl was a Saxon warrior. They were generally rich men in that they had to be able to afford to equip themselves with at least two horses, steel mail armour, a steel helmet, weapons such as a fighting spear, throwing spears, a Dane-axe, a shield and, perhaps most importantly, a gold decorated two edged sword.
As they were professional warriors they could not have a trade like the peasant classes or a farm like the theigns as these would be distractions. They had to have the time to spend honing their martial skills by constant training; they were an elite force as a result. They could and did own estates that brought them in money but they would be run by trusted servants.
The term ‘huscarl’ meant ‘hearth companion’ and this reflects one of the chief aspects of the post. Originally it was the king who would be attended by such men as he was rich enough to pay them. The Viking kings of the Dane-Law in England are believed to have introduced this idea and it was copied by the Saxons, especially those lords rich enough.
The Saxon huscarl was not just a companion but also a bodyguard to their lord. They swore a death-oath to protect him. If their lord fell in battle then the huscarls were honour bound to either kill all of his enemies or die on the same field. If they should survive the battle then they would recover their lord’s body and see it given a fitting funeral.
Huscarls were ruled by their oath of allegiance however it was not absolute for the full term of their lives. Each year they would renew their oath to their lord but they retained the right to end their service at their own choice. Members of the fyrd, the Saxon army raised by limited conscription, never had this choice; they had to serve as a matter of obedience to the king’s law.
Anglo-Saxons people were quite fond of displaying their wealth in clothes, possessions, and jewellery but they were also a people given to war. Since they invaded Britain in the 4th century they had been fighting to establish kingdoms and then, a little later, fighting the Vikings to defend those kingdoms. It is not surprising, therefore, that rich noblemen saw possessing a body of huscarls as an excellent way to display their power and wealth.
Life for a huscarl was one of danger and adventure. They would be responsible not just for their lord’s immediate security but also for enforcing his law, which was derived from the king. For good or brave service they could expect to be rewarded with gold, traditionally in the form of circlet to be worn about the head, but later measured in land as well. They were expected to be loyal and would demonstrate this by following their lord into exile if he were to suffer such a fate at the decree of the king, as many of the nobility actually did.
As a result of their elite status there were never very many huscarls. The need to possess a degree of wealth to begin with was a barrier to most people in the Saxon world but it was not an impossible one to overcome. The Saxons valued ability over class and people of skill and ambition could rise through the classes with a little good fortune. If a peasant man was brave enough and lucky to have the opportunity he could be rewarded by his theign for deeds enacted on the field of battle. From there he could become a butescarl, a mercenary soldier, and hire his sword to lords not rich enough to hire huscarls of their own. If he kept his rewards he could in time invest his wealth in the trappings of a huscarl and seek employment with someone blessed with the appropriate wealth; this was the path taken by Thrydwulf in The Sorrow Song Trilogy. No matter how a man won his gold decorated sword it was a badge of his rank and his membership to a brotherhood that was an elite fighting force of the early medieval period.