Digging Deeper


Crossing the North Sea

There is huge interest from historians about how the Anglo-Saxons crossed the North Sea (called the West Sea in Denmark and Norway) to live in Britain. The Angles who arrived gave their name to East Anglia where the North Folk (Norfolk) and the South Folk (Suffolk) live. They even gave the name of their people to the whole country Angle-land (England).

So how did they manage to get across?

The answer is so simple.

If they didn’t swim, they came in boats. This, of course, inevitably leads to another question: What kind of boat? or, What did the boat look like? This mighty question has become attached to the Sutton Hoo ship, for no other craft has survived from this migration period in such a complete state.

It is easy to think that because a craft of the Sutton Hoo ship’s size has survived, it must be an example of the kind of craft that transported the Anglo-Saxon peoples across the North Sea, but this may not be the case. This could be an assumption too far. There were at least hundreds of craft at that time spanning several centuries and they would vary in shape and size according to their function – the job that they had been evolved to do. We have only one ship and so we should not jump to conclusions about it, especially if we try to make it fit into a role that neatly answers most of the questions that we are asking. Its function is paramount. It would seem only sensible to examine any evidence with great care before deciding upon a definitive answer as to whether the Sutton Hoo ship was representative of the craft used to migrate the bulk of the Anglo-Saxon peoples into Angleland (England).

A number of Viking ships are available from a couple of hundred years, or even four hundred years later and it is worth looking at these craft which illustrate a range of forms for different uses, because the speed of change in ship-building construction was quite sedate. These craft have the same Scandinavian origin. The Sutton Hoo ship was evolved from the same root as them. It is probably part of their evolutionary path, but we must be careful thinking like this. When it was built it was not constructed as some kind of prototype for a different craft-form that would follow. No - when the Anglo-Saxon's made it, it was at the very forefront of the techniology of its day. The builders were not looking at it with our one and a half millenia of hindsight.  It was state of the art.

My guide in the Viking Ships in Oslo by Thorleif Sjøvold says ‘there were possibilities for differentiation in the various types of ship built for special purposes’  In the television seriesVikings, Neil Oliver described their seagoing craft in these words: 'The Vikings were notorious (Sic) for their fast and notorious warships, but to conquer the ocean they also needed sturdier vessels, shorter, wider and powered by sail. They were perfect to carry goods, animals, tools and people. Crewed by as few as 6 men, ships like these carried them off to the end of the known world and far beyond.' 

There are clear distinctions between 2 craft types that are of immediate interest.

The longship with its warlike reputation for swiftly transporting warriors.

The commercial trading craft, known as the knarr.


At this point it is well worth extracting from a narrative written by Tom Cunliffe in his book Topsail & Battleaxe. A voyage in the wake of the Vikings, published by Seafarer Books and Sheridan House. Extracts and sketches are taken from pages 55 – 67.

Our grateful thanks to Tom for his permission to print the extracts below.


The story in the book is a social account of the people and events that he and his crew encountered whilst sailing from Norway to America as described in the title. Into their experiences he weaves the saga accounts of the early Scandinavian explorers and settlers. The sagas are referenced in his Acknowledgements, page 182 and it is worth adding here that the Grænlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga can both be found combined into the Penguin Classics, The Vinland Sagas mentioned page 171. Tom relates and analyses the hugely important voyage by Bjarni Herjolfsson translating it into colloquial English for the reader to understand and appreciate the events that led Bjarni to become ‘the first seaman from the Old World to officially set eyes upon the American continent.’ The book explains a Scandinavian view of a craft type that was used for extended voyages in high latitudes, as extracted below. We can also include here a description of the process of sailing a similar craft.


The knarr or knorr

Tom is in Norway preparing to sail his Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Hirta to North America following the Iceland - Greenland route. He and his crew are actually visiting aboard a traditional, square-sail rigged Scandinavian craft known as a femboring. The femboring is described as ‘perhaps 44ft (13m) long and her hull was of wooden lapstrake construction, that is with one board overlapping the next.’ Tom is discussing sailing performance with the skipper Johann who says:

 ‘I think you and your friends will have a more comfortable voyage to Vinland than Leif Eiriksson did.  The knarr was a fine way to go to sea – the best they had; but you will be better to windward and  you will be warm and dry.’

                ‘What’s a knarr?’ I thought your ancestors travelled by longship?’

 He studied me pityingly for a moment. My ignorance must have amazed him.‘Loss of life was heavy  on the western voyages,’ he explained patiently, but if they had used longships I think that very few  would have made it at all. The longship was for war and for raiding, not for the sea journey. She had  no freeboard and was not so strong. In the big seas she could break her back,’ he made an  unambiguous gesture, ’or very often be overcome by the waves. The knarr was the ocean ship. All  the traders used them. They were fine carriers and they could stay afloat.’

                ‘How were they constructed?’ I asked immediately.

     ‘The same as all our vessels of the period. Clinker-built, but heavier than longships, and much beamier.’

                ‘What sort of timber did they use?’

                ‘Oak for the most part. Thin planks by your standards, fastened together by soft iron rivets.’

That made sense. Hirta herself is fastened with iron and it seems to last for ever, unlike steel which rusts rapidly away.

‘How big were these knarrs? I asked. What sort of weight could they carry?’

‘They would be 60, 70, 80ft long and maybe 40- to 50-tons displacement. That meant they could carry 20 tons or so of cargo. The arrangements were the same as on this boat, except that the bow was decked in also.’

‘You mean that 20 or 30 people at a time, plus animals and goods, would cross the Atlantic in a vessel like that?’

‘Yes exactly. You’ll have noticed that all the centre section of this boat is open and has stone ballast. The knarr was just the same. You put in the cargo, you throw out the stone. Nothing simpler, eh? And the animals? Perhaps they erected a tent to keep the worst of the weather off. But the people, they lived mainly in the cuddies at both ends.


Sailing the femboring

‘How about sailing performance?’

‘It is better to see than to talk. Tomorrow we make a trip for you and you find out for yourselves.’

The following morning was bright and breezy. Our first job was to row off and gain enough searoom to hoist the sail. Bjorn, Johann’s mate, bore us off with an oar and, with Johann at the helm, the rest of us leaned in with a will. The oars were long and heavy but the femboring moved surprisingly easily into the wind’s eye.

When we had gained as much space as he wanted, Johann laid the boat across the wind and brought our oars aboard to stow them in racks along the bulwarks. He then handed John the tiller and together he and his four shipmates began to hoist the big yard and its single square sail.

There were ropes all over the place at whose function we could only guess, but in a remarkably short time the sail was mastheaded and sheeted home and the slippery ship was rocketing away with the wind abeam. John’s face was a statement of delight as the boat took off under his steady hand. She heeled much more quickly than we were used to which threw us all off balance, but once she had reached her ‘shelf’ she seemed to stiffen up and fairly gallop ahead.

                As we reached the corner of the bay we turned off the wind and ran before it, experiencing the huge benefits of square rig on this point of sailing.

‘Makes you wonder why we bother, doesn’t it?’ said John.

‘The crunch comes when we try to beat back.’ I said gracelessly. But there was no profit in worrying about that at the moment.

‘How fast is she capable of travelling, Johann?’ Chris wanted to know as we stood in the waist.

‘We have no log on board, but I guess maybe 10 knots or more. The femboring is light and she is shaped so that she almost skims over the water, rather than ploughing through it.’

‘But the knarr would have been far heavier?’

‘For sure. They worked on the same principle, but being much more massive they would need more wind to make them fly.’

There was a flurry of activity and the boat was brought up as close as she would point to the wind. The beat home had begun.

It was clear at once that the sail set beautifully closehauled and that the only real obstacle to progress was leeway, which was a good 10 degrees. The femboring was sailing fast and easily, making between five and six points (55 to 67.5 degrees) from the wind. A modern cruising yacht with her tall Bermudan rig will make four points and an older fore-and-aft rigged ship may manage a little better that five. The ship in which Columbus and his contemporaries staggered across the Atlantic wouldn’t make good even 90 degrees to the wind. How did their performance shape up to Thorvald Asvaldson’s knarr? (Father of Eirik the Red)

‘As far as hull shape went,’ Johann was saying,’ the knarr was probably as good as a femboring. Remember she is always much bigger, so she was also deeper. A knarr drew 5ft or so and her keel ran all along her length, so she had reasonable resistance to the sideways forces of the sail when it was braced sharp up to the wind.

The problem they had was with sail cloth. You see how flat our sail is? Good cotton cloth. Tight weave. The best cloth for sails of this shape. The Vikings had only wool cloth. On its own it blew out of shape in no time and wouldn’t pull to windward. So they stitched strips of walrus-hide onto it in a criss-cross form. That made the cloth much more stable and the sail set reasonably well, but not like this of course. Even with that reinforcement the sail would not stand as well as they wanted, so they used a long pole called a beita to push the luff out more firmly when they were sailing on the wind. That did the trick and the ship sailed fine.’

John’s mind was racing through all trial-and-error procedures that produced the state-of-the-art tenth century knarr. ‘Steering oar, not rudder?’ he asked suddenly.

‘Certainly’, replied Bjorn, who was now at the helm of the femboring. ‘It was arranged like a modern balanced rudder so that the ship was light to steer. Also, in shallow water, you could raise it up to clear the ground.’ 


Following the events related above Tom accepts that the craft type used for the Viking exploration, migration and trading voyages was the knarr and he uses this descriptive word throughout the whole of the rest of the book.

It would probably be safe for us to assume today that the Anglo-Saxons had craft that were also constructed to fulfil specific functions i.e. differentiation in the various types of ship built for special purposes’ and in the simplest terms they could have had one kind of craft (longship) for the warlike purpose of delivering and retrieving warriors at speed, as well as another type (knarr) built as a load carrier with a commercial capacity. Which of these function descriptions relates more closely to the Sutton Hoo ship? Which is better suited to bringing people, livestock and domestic goods across the North Sea? 


We are fortunate that amongst the group of sunken craft found in Roskilde two were knarrs. This craft is also known as Suldelev 1. The pictures here show it reassembled for display there. The most striking feature is its depth and volume. Another distinctive point to note is the vertical quality of the ends compared with the longship. This gives maximum speed for length and very buoyant ends.Whilst the hull is very rounded it does have the semi-wineglass cross-section form of a sailed boat. Its repairs proved it had been a working craft. It was made of oak in Norway and a cargo capacity of about 25 tons. It is 16.5m long and 4.8m wide.













At Roskilde replica ships have been made in as authentic a way as possible and they have this sailing knarr Ottar. These are pictures of that craft and it can be seen that a 'working' craft looks completely different from any stripped-out ship model. 














This is what a working Sailing craft might have looked like that had been evolved to carry commercial loads across the North Sea. Its Scandinavian roots are visible. It is not flimsy, because it is constructed to take sailing loads.

If you look at the article 'Invasion What Invasion?' on this website, you will see in the last few lines the information that The Age of Settlement in Iceland lasted from 870-930AD. In that 60 years 30,000 people, goods and livestock were carried out to Iceland in craft similar to this. These craft were not suddenly 'invented' in 870 or (traditionally) on 8th of June, 793 for the first recorded Viking attack on Lindisfarne. This surely was not their maiden voyage under sail? Gotland rock art shows sailing craft pre-dating this; the Franks and Romans used sail well before this. Sailing craft had evolved over a period of time. How long a period? 100 years? 200 years? More years than this? If this evolution is accepted, then they would have been contemporaries of the Sutton Hoo longship a mere 170 years before Lindisfarne.

Flawed logic

It is almost undeniable that Anglo-Saxons would have used sailing craft to cross the North Sea, but this does not mean that the Sutton Hoo ship must be one of them. This is a flawed logic. If we understand that this single, almost-complete ship that we have found from that era does not necessarily represent ALL the ships of the time, we can begin to accept that other craft were evolved for the tasks of commerce and goods transport. They would have been the likely vehicles for undertaking the task of bringing the Anglo-Saxons across the sea.

Moving 'goods, animals, tools and people' to quote Neil Oliver (Scottish TV presenter, academic, and historian) across the North Sea would involve the craft that were being used, in undertaking return journeys. This can be thought of as a commercial enterprise. The vessels concerned had to be viable to operate with a small crew. Using up to 40 men to row the boat is not a viable method. It takes up too much space on board to support that crew and the space could be better used to carry the cargo. The constraints of efficiency and of supply and demand would operate at that time just as they continue to operate today. Neil Oliver points out that the Viking craft concerned in a similar logistical exercise to the Anglo-Saxon migration could be crewed by 'as few as 6 men'. This is a realistic assessment. This exercise in efficient manning of commercial craft under sail was later to reach a zenith in the late 1800s with the evolution of the Thames sailing barge that could move many tons of cargo, at times being sailed by just a couple of men, sometimes assisted by a boy ... or a dog.

It is of interest that a 1988 copy of 'Saxon' the newsletter of the Sutton Hoo Society has an article about the 'Anglo-Saxon Rowing Ship' that refers to the crossing of the Atlantic in an1893 reconstructed ship. The article says 'Historians have since decided that the Vikings probably did not cross the Atlantic in a longship like the Gokstad ship, but in the more beamy merchant ships, the knarr.'

What the Sutton Hoo ship does prove is that people at that time had the technical knowledge and were capable of constructing ships of the size and strength required to bring these Scandinavian folk across the sea and then return back again for more.


Did the Anglo-Saxons migrate across the North Sea using sail?

It make sense to say that they did.

Did the craft that they used look like a longship, or a knarr?

The passengers would have preferred a knarr.

Why do we say that there is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons used sail?

Because we haven't found a real sailing example from that period ... yet.

The Sutton Hoo ship is probably not that sailing example. It had a different purpose.

                                                                                                                      Ottar under sail