I'm writing a fantasy book and it suddenly occurred to me that I had forgotten the name of the group of thanes that surrounded the king in Anglo-Saxon (or was it Celtic?) culture. As far as I know, how it worked was that the King would have a group of notable warriors in his tribe (thanes) surrounding him to do his bidding, and they would meet in the mede hall and party and all that. But I can't remember what the heck that group of thanes was called.

Anybody remember this or know about the Beowulf culture enough to know?

  • 2
    You might get better answers at History.SE May 9, 2015 at 21:50
  • Are you simply wanting the collective noun for a group of thanes or are you asking specifically about Beowulf (e.g. the poem or the film).
    – Valorum
    May 9, 2015 at 22:05
  • The names that come to mind (from reading wargaming forums -- I'm no expert!) are hird, fyrd and housecarls, but I don't think they're exactly the term you're looking form.
    – Andres F.
    May 9, 2015 at 22:26
  • @JasonBaker I'm wanting the specific term. but whatever Beowulf the poem says is nice too!
    – mkrell
    May 9, 2015 at 23:17
  • 1
    There is now a Mythology Stack Exchange. There is no need to migrate this question, but future readers should be aware and can post questions like this there.
    – durron597
    May 12, 2015 at 19:28

3 Answers 3


The Anglo-Saxon social structure consisted of tribal units led by chieftains ("kings," or "lords") who, theoretically at least, earned their respect from their warriors (or "retainers," or "thanes," the group being called a "comitatus").

  • Comitatus was a Germanic friendship structure that compelled kings to rule in consultation with their warriors, forming a warband. The comitatus, as described in the Roman historian Tacitus's treatise Germania (98.AD), is the bond existing between a Germanic warrior and his Lord, ensuring that neither leaves the field of battle before the other.

The translation is as follows:

  • Moreover, to survive the leader and retreat from the battlefield is a lifelong disgrace and infamy Comitatus, being the agreement between a Germanic lord and his subservients (his Gefolge or host of followers), is a special case of clientage and the direct source of the practice of feudalism.

Source: Michael Delahoyde, Washington State University: Anglo Saxon Culture

  • Comitatus... yeah I think that's right! Been a while since I heard it so it's still coming back, but I think that's right.
    – mkrell
    May 9, 2015 at 23:19
  • From which, I suspect, comes the word "committee"? Jan 14, 2019 at 15:47

Heorðgenéatas and þegns

The actual Old English word repeatedly used in Beowulf is heorðgenéatas, which translates literally to 'hearth-companions', or alternatively gesíð (gesith) or gesteallum, which also translate as 'companion'.

þegn (thegn, or thane) can mean 'retainer' or 'servant', but came more generally to mean a minor member of the landed aristocracy, as described in Geþyncðo (Dignities):

"And if a ceorl throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat, and special duty in the king's hail, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy."

Thus, every heorðgenéat was a þegn, but not every þegn was a heorðgenéat.


There are two problems with using the term comitatus to describe a group of Scandinavian warriors (despite being a famous English work, Beowulf is set in Denmark): firstly, it's a Latin term and thus definitely not what the people themselves would have said, and secondly it's used at least 400 years prior to the writing of Beowulf, and to describe a different culture. This is about as accurate as describing them as knights.

Huscarls (housecarls)

A related term which comes into use late in the Anglo Saxon period to describe an elite group of warriors surrounding a king or lord is huscarl - these were not thegns as they held no land, and were instead paid in coin.

  • Thank you, I didn't know comitatus is a latin word
    – mkrell
    Jan 15, 2019 at 14:11

In the classic Beowulf (Lesslie Hall translation), they're literally referred to as the King's "thanemen"

Misery knew not. The monster of evil
Greedy and cruel tarried but little,
He drags off thirty of them, and devours them
Fell and frantic, and forced from their slumbers
Thirty of thanemen; thence he departed
Leaping and laughing, his lair to return to,
With surfeit of slaughter sallying homeward.


The strength-famous went till he stood at the shoulder
Of the lord of the Danemen, of courteous thanemen
The custom he minded. Wulfgar addressed then
His friendly liegelord: “Folk of the Geatmen
He thereupon urges his liegelord to receive the visitors courteously.
O’er the way of the waters are wafted hither,

You can see it used in (real-world) context here in A History of Shrewsbury by Hugh Owen.

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