Most movies portray shiel walls wrongly by presenting more or less tightly packed formations charging at each other without any sense of order (or self-preservation). However, despite these wrong depictions, the real shield walls were a highly effective formation. So in the following, I would like to present how a shield wall really worked, how effective a shield wall was, and last but not least, how to break a shield wall despite its effectiveness.
A shield wall was a highly effective defensive formation that was best deployed statically. The warriors in it stood in a tightly packed deep formation while the shields of the front rows overlapped and formed one coherent front. Only when a shield wall had lost its cohesion or showed other weak points it became vulnerable. In that case, wedge formations (like the Viking boar snout) were used to put maximum pressure on the weak points and smash through the shield wall.
Let`s take a closer look!
How did a shield wall work?
Generally, a medieval shield wall is quite similar to an ancient phalanx which was first introduced by the ancient Greeks but would later also soon be adopted by the Romans. Here you can find out more about when and why Rome adopted the phalanx (and when & why they got rid of it).
And just like the ancient phalanx, the medieval shield wall was also a tight and cohesive formation in which the warriors were surrounded on three sides by their comrades which allowed them to focus on their enemies in front of them without having to worry about getting attacked from the sides.
To get that kind of protection the men stood shoulder to shoulder in a tight and continuous formation. Additionally, the men in the first line of the shield wall created an almost impenetrable barrier by overlapping their shields so that approaching enemies faced a continuous wall of shields without any gaps.
For that purpose, the shields had to be built in a way that made them robust but also light enough to be held and maneuvered without tiring the warriors. Here you can find out more about the sophisticated process of building a medieval shield.
Ok, so I wrote that ideally a shield wall did not have any weak spots but presented itself as one continuous wall of shields toward the approaching enemy. Finding or creating weak points in the shield wall was essential for having a chance of breaking a shield wall, but more on that later.
For now, I would like to talk about the effectiveness of such a shield wall.
How effective was a shield wall?
The effectiveness of a shield wall heavily depended on its cohesion. As soon as the cohesion was lost and gaps opened up within the shield wall the entire formation became vulnerable and lost its effectiveness.
The necessity of maintaining cohesion was also the reason why medieval shield walls did not run at each other before smashing into each other in a way that is reminiscent of American Football. Instead, maintaining the cohesion of the formation was a key goal in both approaching and fighting an enemy.
For more information on how medieval battles worked and how formations advanced without losing their cohesion, I would like to recommend you my article here.
The goal of maintaining its cohesion also impacted the way shield walls were best used on the battlefield.
A shield wall that was ideally deployed statically was a highly effective defensive formation as long as it kept its cohesion and the vulnerable ends were covered. Tightly packed and disciplined shield walls were even to stop a cavalry attack (although casualties in the first rows were high). That ability could be increased when long pikes were used.
For more information on the casualty rate of medieval battles in general you might want to check out my article here. There you can also find the numbers of casualties that both the French and the Engish suffered in the famous Battle of Crecy.
By the way. When talking about the casualties of medieval warfare it is important to state that just like in ancient warfare most of the casualties happened after the shield wall had collapsed which resulted in the individual soldiers becoming vulnerable. Because of that, the casualty rate of a medieval or ancient battle was highly dependent on whether or not the battle was won.
That however brings us to another question. If the shield wall was such an effective formation then how could it be broken?
How to break a medieval shield wall
The success of a shield wall depended on its cohesion. Or in other words. The men in the first row had to hold their shields in front of them in a way that they overlapped. As a result, attackers faced one wall of shields behind which the warriors were well protected.
So how to overcome such a wall of shields?
The ones of us who are a little influenced by Hollywood might think of just charging in and breaking the shield wall with brute force. But that would have rarely worked since the men in the static shield wall were well protected while the attackers were exposed to arrows, javelins, and thrown rocks.
A good example of such a failed attempt of breaking an intact shield wall can be found in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
At the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxon shield wall was deployed on high ground so that the Normans had to attack uphill when wanting to engage. But when the Norman shield wall tried to approach the Anglo-Saxon shield wall they were met with a hail of arrows, javelins, throwing axes, and thrown stones (that are depicted on the Bayeux tapestry). The Norman advance uphill had caused their shield wall to lose cohesion which left the individual soldiers exposed to the Anglo-Saxon missiles. As a result, the approaching Normans suffered so many casualties that they were no longer able to form a cohesive shield wall and engage the Anglo-Saxon shield wall awaiting them on top of the hill.
Now while the Normans eventually won the Battle of Hastings that still shows us a way how shield walls could be softened up so that they could eventually be broken.
For a shield wall to break it either had to lose its cohesion or be weakened. For that purpose arrows, javelins, throwing axes, and rocks were thrown at it until the shield wall showed weak spots or even lost its cohesion. These weak points were then exploited by wedge formations (like the Boar snout used by Vikings) that broke through the weakened shield wall by putting head-on pressure onto one of the weak points.
That by the way is quite similar to how Roman legions defeated the Macedonian phalanx. For more information on that, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Maurice Keen: Medieval Warfare. A History (1999 Oxford).