Viking (and Dark Age) Combat Training Exercises

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So far, on my blog I have discussed various weapons and the more (and less) advanced techniques of using them in combat. I have discussed weapons individually, I talked about shields, there was even a generic training post in the early days. But what I have missed out up until now, was the training regime itself, other than mentioned in rather generic terms. As we all know, practice makes perfect. I heard once, that Olympic athletes say, you must repeat a motion 20,000 times, before your body and mind truly master it. With this in mind, I am going to talk about exercises, techniques and ideas for training in Dark Age combat. Without further ado, let us delve right into the long topic of training…

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1. Individual and Pair Exercises:

a) Sparring

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Simplest and most common way of getting better, at any kind of combat. Find an opponent and go at it. Again, and again. To keep things more organised, it is good to have a third person watching and telling you from an outsider’s point of view what you are doing right and what you should do differently. Swap partners as often as possible, to get a wider spectrum of opponents and challenges.

b) Half-Speed Sparring

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This is when things get a little different. Just as before, find an opponent, and go at it- only this time, do EVERY move at half the normal speed. The idea here, is to build up muscle memory, so the moves you make come out naturally, almost as a reflex; but also to give you and your opponent time to think through and observe each action and it’s effects. Everything is much slower, so you have plenty of time to analyse, think about each move and see exactly where the move is or isn’t working. It is important (and a tad difficult) to make sure EACH AND EVERY move is done at half speed, by both opponents. It is harder, and more tiring , than might seem at first! Again, it is a good idea to have an outsider watching and giving you feedback.

c) Figure of Eight- Standing and Moving

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As an individual, practice both your footwork and your attacks and defense in this simple exercise. Walk forwards and backwards performing the eight basics attacks (head, shoulders, sides, legs, thrust), then do this whilst standing still. While it may seem it is not doing much, you are still practicing your footwork, and control of your weapon and shield, as well as your general stance. Use both “shield” and “sword” stance, “shuffle” and “waddle” walk, stationary position, moving backwards and forwards. Never underestimate the importance of this exercise, because, as any combat specialist will tell you, if your feet are in the wrong place, chances are everything else is. Strength, control and balance all come from the roots: make sure you train yours!

d) Accuracy Training

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On a flat surface, put some suitable targets, you can hit with your weapon. Cones, sticks stuck in the ground, old furniture, punching bag or even a cardboard cutout of yourself- anything will do. Take your weapon and hit the targets, in a random order, making sure you hit SAME EXACT SPOT each time (mark it maybe, or just try to hit top of a target, or some specific part of it, as long as you know exactly where your blow is supposed to land). Spread the targets around, so you are forced to turn and move as you strike. The aim of this exercise is to develop accuracy and confidence in delivering an attack. If you can consistently hit top of a cone whilst striking fast and moving around, you should be able to hit an exposed part of an opponent’s body with equal precision. When repeated enough, this exercise will help you to hit where yo aim, and make sure each blow lands where it is supposed to, safely and accurately, as well as with lethal speed. Repeat the exercise at half speed and full speed, making sure you do not form a pattern, but strike randomly. The more often you do this, the better.

e) Play with weapons

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Try different stances, and weapons, Try different grips, Spin a weapon around, jab it in the air, practice pirouettes, try out new moves on imaginary opponents. Any form of “play” will do, as long as you keep doing it. A warrior must be intimately familiar with his weapons and protective equipment, to use it effectively. You weapons and shield should be extensions of your body, your armour should feel like second skin. Make sure you know the feel and the balance of all of them and that you are used to wielding them; otherwise, handling something you only use twice a month, you will never achieve the result you aim for.

2. Group exercises:

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And now, let us take a look, at training exercises done in groups. The more, the merrier, and I would recommend group size of 8-16 as ideal, but let’s face it; you will want to use as many people as you have available, and if your group has 50 members ready to train, then good on you!

a) Circles- with and without Honour

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This is simply sparring, but on a bigger scale. We start, by getting all the participants to form a rough circle and raise their weapons, once they are ready. If the Circle is with Honour, contestants will engage in honourable one-on-one duels, with no backstabbing, ganging-up and no alliances. Each duel lasts till the first Valid Hit scored on your opponent- losers lie down dead or leave the circle, while the winners find a new opponent. This goes on, until a lone victor remains, who is the overall winner of the circle. With the Circle is Without Honour, anything goes, and every dirty trick imaginable is allowed.

b) Circle of Infinity- individual and warbands

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The idea is exactly the same, as above, but with one important difference- when the person who killed you, is in turn killed by someone else, you are allowed to go back into the Circle and fight again. When you are killed, all those whom you have defeated are going back into the Circle. This takes a lot longer to find a victor, and sometimes may go on for what like seems forever (hence the name). There comes a point though, at which one person manages to defeat all of their opponents, and win the Circle. This exercise, while a lot longer, does allow for more fun for all the participants, and it does mean, you get several chances to win, and ultimately more practice.

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When the Circle of Infinity is played with warbands, the difference id, that warriors group into bands of between 3 to 6 warriors, and fight it out as units. Each time a warrior is killed, he/she goes to a designated spot known as “the dead-pile” or “the re-spawn”. Once there are enough dead warriors there, they form a new warband, and enter the competition again. This time, there is no single unit which wins, but rather the exercise goes on, until everyone has had enough. The idea here, is that not only you learn to work in a unit, you also learn to work with a variety of warriors and weapon combinations, against largest possible variety of opponents.

c) Hunting Parties

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Very simple exercise, where bands of between 3 to 6 warriors compete against each other, just as they would in a Circle of Honour. Warriors practice tactics, mobility, battlefield awareness and working as a small unit, as well as finding solutions for problems encountered in combat. It is important, while fighting other warbands, to have some sort of a plan- this exercise helps warriors to practice coming up with various stratagems, as well as honing their leadership skills.

d) Shieldwall- Infinite Shieldwall

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This time, two opposing groups form their respective shieldwalls, and fight it out, until one side is vanquished. Just like with the Hunting Parties, warriors practice the most essential skills with combat, and this form of fighting is the most common and important to Dark Age combat. Formation, tactics, battlefield awareness, individual skills, team work- they all come into play in the shieldwall, and it is in the shieldwall, that the warriors are truly tested. Infinite shieldwall means, that units behave, as if they were in the middle of a huge shieldwall, with no flanking, running round sides etc. The only way to go is forward- towards the enemy and their blades. Most essential exercise for any group that takes reenactment combat seriously, shieldwall must be practiced at every conceivable opportunity, as often, and for as long as possible.

e) Formation Practice

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This set of exercises focuses on various aspects of what one might call a “Viking Age military drill”. Shieldwall is more than just two straight lines clashing, and there are various manoeuvres involved, some more, some less common. Wheel, about-turn, advancing, retreating, reforming, receiving a berserker, forming two lines, forming one line, adopting shield-burh formation, forming a boar-snout… Things can get pretty complicated! It is important to have a person (preferably multiple people) in the group, who know how to perform these maneuvers and who can instruct and drill the others. Formation practice is equally as important as combat practice, as without it, it is very hard to keep discipline and cohesion within a fighting unit, not to mention that if you never practice, say, about-turn, you will not be able to perform one, when called upon to do so. Now, wouldn’t that be embarrassing…

f) Rotating Shieldwall

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It is a variation of the traditional shieldwall, where warriors, after each clash is concluded, rotate clock-wise, to shift places within their formation, and ultimately join the opposing team. Say you start in the middle of a 6 man wall. After first clash is finished and one side has won, each warrior moves along one space clockwise, so you will end up second from left. One more clash, you end up at the end of your line. After one more clash, you will join the opposing team, while a warrior from the opposition’s left-most flank will join yours. Usually this goes on, until everyone is back in their original spot. What makes this exercise great, is that you sometimes end up with uneven, or bizarrely arranged sides, teaching you to fight when odds are stack-up against you, or in your favour, and to deal with a variety of opponents and weapons combinations, as well as how to cope when forced into a certain spot in a formation.

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And there we go: a run down of some of the most important (and my favourite) exercises and training regimes. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have encountered many exercises I have not mentioned here, and I am sure there are some I have not yet heard of. For the sake of keeping things manageable, I have not gone into too much detail about each training technique, and I rely on the reader’s common sense and experience when attempting to replicate any of the above. Do you have any comments on these exercises? Have you got any you would like to share, which I have not included? Feel free to comment and discuss below. Until next time!

 

Beaumaris- the show that (almost) didn’t happen

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So, the last weekend I was invited over to attend a minor show, organised by a University reenactment group in a beautiful castle called Beaumaris on the Welsh coast. I have managed to hitchhike a lift with one of my friends and we went off to the show nice and early.

The place was beautiful, the castle was amazing and the show itself- despite having barely any public and being only a minor event- was a mountain-sized heap of tremendous fun. And to think that it was almost cancelled… Before we begin- most of the photos included in this post were taken by Mr Gary Phillips, to whom I extend my deepest gratitude for making these available. You can easily reckognize which ones they were, as they are the quality ones!

So, on with the show! Here we are, after three hour drive, arriving at the castle gates, only to be told, that the show was cancelled, because there was no Risk Assessment send over… The panic, the anger, the frustration! Eventually the problem got sorted and as it turned out the Assessment was send over indeed, only it got lost somewhere… Phew! (and bravo castle, bravo…)

So, we could finally unload, gear up and enter the castle.

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All the equipment got put away, and we were ready to begin. There was an added bonus, as we had a medieval reenactment group attending the show, which would put up their display alongside our own. We were planning to get an inter-period battle going, but these plans were foiled by… RAIN!

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The rainfall was so heavy, that it made inter-period fight impossible, as it would have been simply too dangerous to do. At one point, we even considered calling the whole thing off, as we were wading in water up to our ankles. Fortunately, we got a bit of luck in, and the rain stopped. The Vikings were, of course, first out to do the fighting, and in the absence of public, we have fought just for the sheere fun of it. Duels between individual warriors, small warband competition and a few Combat Circles followed:

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Once we were tired, and the ground dried up some more, the medieval group went on to the arena, and this time, since there was actually come public around, gave a proper display, showing their weapons, armour and giving a bit of a talk, as well as a drill and combat display.

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And, once they were finished, it was time for us, the Vikings to make a display of our own. In a truly Viking style, we have stolen the show completely, and gave the public enough excitement to last them a fortnight (raise your horns and drink to the Vikings- hurray!).

Starting off with talk of weapons and armour, we then moved on to Viking military drill:

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After which, we had showed them how the weapons work in practice (by the way of display duels) and gave them a taste of shieldwall battle as well. We fought, we hacked, we screamed and charged, and the public (however small it was) cheered and enjoyed themselves to the point that only free beer would have made it better (ok, maybe it was not THAT amazing, but it was really good, I promise). Also- if you have spotted a guy wearing Norman/Crusader outfit, award yourself ten points- he will crop up more in the coming pictures, and yes, it is our show and we can include any kit we like! Obviously, we did point out to the public, that he was wearing Norman outfit and that Vikings DID NOT look like this.

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When our show was finally done, we have stayed on for a few more rounds of Combat Circles, both individual and as teams of two. I honestly cannot remeber how long it took us but it must have been an hour of clashing. About which none of us had any complaints at all, if anything, we wished we could stay on for longer!

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The great thing about visiting places like this and being with people you have never met before, is that you get to learn a lot. In just one day, I have faced opponents, with vastly different fighting styles, some of which I have never faced before. As a warrior, it is incredibly important to fight against as many styles as possible. Only through this, one can gather the experince necessary to truly excel in combat. I for one, have learned quite a few new tricks and counter-measures, and seen some very interesting developments in fighting technique, especially in the stance and the way the shield is held in relation to one’s body. It was a very valuable experience, as is any show with this amount of fighting going on.

All in all, it was an amazing day, during which I got to meet some really great people, learned a lot of new thigns and had immense fun, not to mention the exercise! I thoroughly recommend for you visit the beautiful castle of Beaumaris if you can, and I will look forward to my next show!

Big thank you, to all the people who attended the show and made it happen- you gus deserve a medal. Until next time!

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The Rhuddlan festival, part 2

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As promised, here is part two of my story from the Rhuddlan festival- and this time, I will be talking about the fighting that took place over the two days of the event.

We have had immense fun, the battles were fierce and closely fought, each side’s warriors displaying great skill and showmanship, as well as wonderful team spirit! The castle would open to public at 10 a.m., then at 11.30 first fight of the day would commence. It was a skirmish between the Welsh and the Saxon troops, under the walls of the castle itself. The Saxon vanguard would first cross the bridge, that spanned the moat around the castle walls:

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The Saxons would fight over the bridge, and push the Welsh defenders back, as more and more men would cross.

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After the initial push, there was a brief parley, during which Saxons explained, that they are raiding the place in retaliation for the local Welsh king’s breaking the peace and burning of an English town. They demanded the king’s head, but were refused by his commander, and battle followed.

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Notice, how tight is the Welsh shieldwall. Our counterparts worked wonderfully as a unit, and it was very difficult to break through, or push them back. The whole fight however was scripted, with a pre-determined outcome, and so, for now we concentrated on fighting for a good show, rather than competition. In the course of the skirmish, the Welsh were pushed further and further back, and it looked is if they might be overcome, until timely reinforcements arrived, and the day was won. First victory of the day for the defenders of Rhuddlan!

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And, after the scripted battle, we had a competitive re-fight, where the best side won. This time, our forces stayed on the offensive all the time, and kept pushing the Welsh shieldwall back. It was a short but brutal fight, and our side has emerged victorious, inviting some rightly earned Boo!! and Hiss!! form the onlooking local audience, for beating their Welsh kinsmen:

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Then, there was a weapons display, warband competition, and a chance for the children in the audience to face the ferocious Vikings in battle, and show them they way back to their boats. Finally, at 3 p.m., there was time for the main battle of the day- the recreation of the historical battle from the year 1062. It was a scripted battle also, followed by a free-fight. In the scripted battle, it would be the Saxon invaders who would emerge victorious, as per actual events. And in the re-fight, as always, the victory would go to the better side.

The scripted battle started with a brief skirmish, when light Saxon troops would clear the field and chase the Welsh defenders behind their defensive palisade:

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This would be followed by another parley, during which treats, insults and urgings to leave the field would be exchanged. From the Saxon side earl Harold Godwinson and his trusted Huscarls, and form the Welsh side, the castle garrison commander and his bodyguard took part. After the parley broke off, it was time to storm the palisade, which the Saxon force did two times, and were repulsed:

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After the third storm on the palisade, there was yet another brief parley, and another opportunity to hurl insults at one another, in true Viking fashion. Then, the gates opened, and the Welsh went forth from their position, confident in their abilities. They pushed our men back at the start, but once the initial momentum was lost, they were put on the defensive, and the Saxons pushed back, with all the ferocity they could muster. The Welsh defenders, as per the scenario were defeated and cut down, after a long and brave fight:

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And then, of course, there was the re-fight, where the outcome would be determined by skill, discipline and quality of warriors as well as some decent luck!

This time, both sides faced each other off on the field straight away, and marched onwards without parley. Both groups had decided to split into two separate flanks, mostly due to the fact that the trees interfered with our shieldwalls. The Welsh side was strong on the offensive again, and pushed hard, killing some of our men instantly and forcing us on desperate defensive. Our line held however, as they did not push their advantage to the full and hung back, losing some men in the process. Things looked pretty bleak for our side at the time, but we did not give up hope and fought hard to stay alive.

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Our opponents pushed us hard, but our line held, and we did not break. After the initial losses we have managed to avoid further deaths, and slowly  brought the result back. It did not seem like it from our perspective, but we were almost even by that time. We were however, very close to loosing, and if only few more warriors would fall, all would be lost. Battle descended slowly into chaos, as men fell and gaps in the line became bigger. It was only when we killed some most senior warriors of the opposing side, we have been able to go on to the offensive, and started gaining an advantage.

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Our side has defended itself ferociously and fought fiercely. Thanks to great discipline and some skill, as well as few lucky strokes, we have now gained the upper hand over our opponents. We now pushed on, killing more warriors, until only a couple remained. By then, even though there was only very few of us left, we could secure a victory.

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And so, we have managed a win in the free-fight, but it was very close to a loss, and we have only averted disaster by the skin of out teeth. The Welsh reenactors fought well, they were skilled and disciplined. They did not manage to break our line, and lost a few too many men by holding back, instead of rolling over us while they had the clear advantage, which enabled us to turn the battle around. It was an amazing fight, and great show for the public too. Well done to everyone involved, and congratulations to my fellow members of Y Ddraig, for being on the winning side each time over two days.

This festival was a great and fun event, I have learned lots, discovered how much more there is left to learn, and I have seen some truly inspiring battles. All in all it was a show to remember, and I am so very looking forward to the rest of the season!

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