The Huscarls (or Huscarls) were an elite military organization of Anglo-Danish warriors, that served as the guards and professional soldiers of the late Anglo-Saxon kings of England.
Founded by Canute the Great, the Danish ruler of England in the early 11th century, the Huscarls were modeled upon the Jomsvikings; another elite Viking military society of the age. In fact the original Huscarls were built around a nucleus of Jomsvikings who had come to England years earlier under the famous Viking leader, Thorkell the Tall!
Canute established them as a permanent body of professional warriors, originally between 3,000 and 4,000 strong. They attended the king, and were maintained in 3 corps: two stationed around London, the third in the north near York. They were further divided into crews to man the 40 longships maintained from Canute onward, as a royal navy. Thus the Huscarls formed a nucleus for any English national force, both on land and sea.
The corps was maintained by a special tax, on each “hide” of land. In later days, individual Huscarls were granted land of their own, which they lived upon and oversaw. Feudalism was spreading to England
from the continent; and had the Norman Conquest not interrupted their evolution, in time the Huscarls would likely have assumed most aspects of the feudal chivalry found elsewhere; becoming England’s version of the Feudal knight.
Each Huscarl was armed as an elite viking warrior of the time: mail shirt, conical helmet (without horns!!!!), shield, sword, spear, and axe. Their sword hilts and axe blades were famously gilded with gold; a symbol of their elite status! Like the Jomsvikings, the Huscarls maintained a rigorous code of conduct; and kept strict discipline both in camp and in the field.
In battle, they usually fought around the king or earl’s banner, in the center of the army. Or, alternatively, formed across the entire front, the hard edge of the battle array; backed-up by the less reliable and poorer armed Fyrdmen.
Under Canute, the Huscarls were mostly Danes; and served to guarantee Canute’s hold on England. But upon the end of his dynasty, and the return of Edward the Confessor to the throne, many of them enlisted as “household troops” among the various great magnates of England. The largest group served under the Earl of Wessex, maintained by Earl Godwin and his sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, and Leofwyn. In their struggles against Edward and his Normanization of England, the Huscarls played a key role in maintaining the Earl’s position as the shadow government of England.
When Harold Godwinson became king of England, he had an estimated 3,000 Huscarls to serve in his struggle in the Royal Sweepstakes of 1066!
After Hastings, the corps was disbanded: William had little need for an Anglo Saxon military caste. So, like many of the Saxon nobility, they left England in large numbers; emigrating to Scandinavia and Russia, where they found service with the various rulers of the land.
A large portion took service with the Byzantine Empire, enlisting in mass in the Varangian Guard. In fact Englishmen soon replaced Scandinavians as the largest ethnic group within the Guard; and remained so until the 15th century.