In 11th century England, “hearth companion” was a general term for a lord’s household troops or personal bodyguards. However, hearth companions often did more than simply bear arms, and they were also known by other names: house-carls, huscarls, or gesitha. The terms changed and took on different meanings throughout the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period–there was even a time in which hearth companion and thegn meant the same thing. To avoid confusion in my own stories, I use the word “thegn” based on its legal definition, which was a man who owned five hides of land or more and provided at least one warrior (usually himself) for the king’s fyrd in times of war. I use “hearth companion” as the term for an Anglo-Saxon’s household troops, and “house-carl” for that of a Dane’s.
The status of the men who became hearth companions also varied considerably throughout the Viking Age. In the case of the king, his hearth troops might be composed of actual thegns and war-leaders, along with hand-picked warriors. In the case of a thegn distinguished enough to obtain his own hearth companions, they could be men to which he gave land, or men who simply ate off the lord’s table in exchange for their ongoing services. The lord might also provide them battle arms, horses, clothes, and a portion of his spoils in war, all of which would be returned to the lord upon the companion’s death or treachery (Thrupp 184).
“It was the proudest distinction of a Teutonic chief to be surrounded by a band of young companions whom he had attracted to his home by his reputation for hospitality, valour, and open-handedness. They came to him as reverential pupils and retainers, who hoped through him to learn the art of war, and to attain the fame that hallowed all the companions of a hero and a conqueror. They bound themselves to him as friends, pupils, and servants, anxious to participate in his triumphs and ready to share all his dangers.”
The primary purpose of the hearth companions was of a military nature. In battle, they directly surrounded and fought with their lord. But when they were not at war, the duty of the hearth companion became more malleable. “In times of peace, the king’s hearth companions were the nearest equivalent to a police force: they administered his laws and enforced his royal authority” (Lacey, 154-155).
As for the hearth companions of minor lords, their tasks might become very menial, everyday household duties. John Thrupp lists several aspects of the lord’s household that the hearth companions would divide and take charge of: the lord’s horses, stable, bedroom, clothes, dishes, money, and so forth (Thrupp 185). Therefore they might be given such titles as marshall, stall-man, bower-thegn, clothes-servant, hoarder, and so on. The lord might even make one of him his private executioner (such as Godwin Port-Hund in “Eadric the Grasper”). However, “Menial as were the tasks which the chief’s ‘companions’ performed, they, received, in return, attentions nearly as humble. It was the duty of the queen and princesses personally to make and mend their clothes” (Thrupp, 185).
By aligning themselves with a powerful lord, hearth companions rose and fell with their leader, gaining when he gained and losing when he lost. If a hearth companion betrayed his lord, he would lose everything his master had given him. The companions’ loyalty to the lord went unmatched, and with certainty one can surmise that they were also his advisers and closest friends.
Lacey, Robert and Danny Danzinger. The Year 1000 : What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium. Little, Brown and Company, 1999. Print.
Levick, Ben. “Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation.” Regia Anglorum Publications 2002. Web. http://www.regia.org/saxons2.htm
Thrupp, John. The Anglo-Saxon Home: A History of the Domestic Institutions and Customs of England (from the Fifth to Eleventh Century). London, 1889.