A RECORD OF EUROPEAN ARMOUR AND ARMS
THROUGH SEVEN CENTURIES
by Sir Guy Francis Laking
CHAPTER I PART 2
Concerning the weapons of the nobles, it has been asserted that none below the rank of thegn was girt with the sword, but to differentiate between the long knife of the ordinary soldier and the short sword of the thegn - more especially as the hring mæl or sword in the earlier Saxon times was practically quillonless - is to draw a sharp line. Many swords of this date have been handed down to us. They are fine, and, in many cases, enriched weapons worthy of the closest scrutiny, for they are the very type depicted in the Anglo-Saxon and early Norman illuminations.
OF THE CATHEDRAL OF PRAGUE
(a and b) Reverse and obverse views of the hilt; (c) the same sword, giving its general proportions
In addition to these authentic swords of Saxon times there are many famous swords with mythical histories attached to them, which have always been considered to belong to very early dates, even prior to that with which we are now dealing. Chief amongst them are the two St. Maurice swords, respectively in the Royal Armoury of Turin and the Imperial Treasury of Vienna, and the two swords of Charlemagne, one in the Louvre of Paris and the other in the Imperial Treasury of Vienna.
FIG. 14. SWORDS FROM THE EPISODE OF THE BATTLE OF THE THREE
KINGS AGAINST THE CITIES OF THE PLAIN
Cott. MS. Claudius B. iv. British Museum
But, as may be imagined, they are not of the age they purport to be. They will be found dealt with later on in their proper period (pp. 85, 86, 88, 89, 90, 92, 93, and 94). There is yet another sword, preserved in the treasury of St. Veitus in the cathedral of Prague, which is known as the sword of St. Stephen of Hungary (Fig. 13, a,, b, c).
Although the fable as to its original owner is not acceptable, it is yet a much earlier sword than the four others mentioned, and it might well be a weapon of the XIth or even Xth century.
The blade, which has chamfered edge, is considerably worn from cleaning, rendering it now very pliable, which clearly has also obliterated an inscription in large Roman letters, of which there are traces running down its centre.
The inscription is now wholly illegible. The short, thick quillons and the deep trilobed pommel are fashioned of ivory, engraved with intertwined dragons and foliage directly under runic influence, strongly suggestive of the sword hilts of Northern Europe of very early date. The wire grip must have been added in the XVIth century.
The inventory of the Prague Cathedral Treasury Of 1355 mentions: “Gladius beati Stephani regis Ungarorum, cum manubrio eburneo.”
The same notice also appears in the inventories of the years 1368, 1371, and 1387. It has been the theory of late years that the sword was presented to the treasury of St. Veitus by King Charles IV of Germany some time during his reign (1347-1378).
But to return, many swords without speculation of the Xth and XIth centuries do exist, but before describing the actual swords, let us see how they figure in the Anglo-Saxon MSS. Take as an instance that already referred to which is reproduced (Fig. 12) from the Cotton MS. Claudius B. iv.
The book is Ælfric's Paraphrase of the Pentateuch and Joshua; the particular illustration chosen is the battle of the three kings against the cities of the Plain.
Here we see the swords of two of the kings drawn most accurately in detail, although greatly out of scale (Fig. 14). That they are represented in exaggeration as to size we can satisfy ourselves when we look at the Gargantuan sword arm and hand of the foremost king. As these are so much out of proportion, we may be assured that the sword was not actually six feet long and six inches wide in the blade as represented, but of the ordinary size of these swords of that time that have come down to us.
The artist's inaccuracy in matters of proportion we again notice in the absurdly small feet of the same king. However, despite these irregularities, the details of the armaments are accurate. The swords represented have hilts which are almost the counterpart of two swords in the British Museum, a sword in the Collection of Mr. Godfrey Williams, and an example in the London Museum (Fig. 15, a, b, c, d).
These weapons have the same shaped pommels, but the quillons droop slightly at the ends and lack that accentuated point over the centre of the blade.
In the drawing (Fig. 14) the hindmost king has the hilt of his sword so fashioned, though by an artistic licence his sword is not so robust in proportions.
The register of Hyde Abbey, written in the early years of the XIth century, shows a slightly different type of hilt, for King Cnut is represented wearing a sword with a three-lobed pommel and thick heavy straight quillons (Fig. 16).
FIG. 16. KING CNUT
From the register of Hyde Abbey
Of this make of quillons one can quote existing examples in the Wallace Collection (Fig. 17), in the collection of Sir Edward Barry, Bart. (although the pommel on the Barry sword is lobeless) (Fig. 18), a sword found in the Thames at Vauxhall, in the author's collection (Figs. 19 and 19A), and finally a sword, with a differently formed pommel, but with the heavy, thick quillons.
The last sword is of earlier date, probably of the Xth century, and is the true Saxon mæl or hring mæl. It was found in the river Lee at Enfield (Fig. 20).
It is now in the collection of Prince Ladislaus Odescalchi, Rome. For the richness of the harnessing, as represented in the MSS., we can but draw upon our imagination, but the actual ornamentation on the weapons in existence we can describe.
They are nearly all decorated by the same process - gold, silver, and copper worked into intricate runic and geometrical designs, and applied to the surface of the pommels and quillons in the manner of the azzimina damascening of the XVIth century, although we can give an illustration of a superb sword hilt found in the Thames at Wallingford about 1875, formerly in the collection of Sir John Evans, but now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where the decoration is composed of overlaid silver plates chased with figure subjects and scrolls. It has been suggested that in this particular sword the animals upon the pommel represent the emblems of the four Evangelists (Fig. 21).
No.1 [now # A 456], Wallace Collection
Collection: Sir Edward Barry [now in the Royal Armouries, Leeds, IX-859]
Collection: Author 
Collection: Prince Ladislaus Odescalchi, Rome
FIG.21. SWORD OVERLAID WITH PANELS OF ENGRAVED SILVER
The date is from about A.D. 900 to 1000. The decoration is under strong Norse influence Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Many of these swords, when in their original condition, must have been genuinely beautiful quite apart from any barbaric splendour lent to them by the addition of elaborate scabbards and settings of gems. Most of the hilts which we have illustrated, it will be seen, are English finds, much resembling one another in the principle of their manufacture.
They are usually classed together under the heading of the "Viking" type. The blade was forged double edged, the section at the hilt varying a little according to the accentuations of its central grooving.
In constructing the sword, the quillons were passed over the tang (the continuation of the blade for the reception of the hilt); these on their underside were deeply grooved in order that they might fit firmly over the extreme top edge of the blade.
Next the grip was added: here we must once more conjecture, as no sword of the type, at least those known to the present writer, has been handed down to us with its grip entire, save perhaps for the famous Essen sword to which we shall shortly refer.
From the absence of rivet-holes in the tang in the generality of these swords, we may guess that in most cases the grip was passed over the tang of the blade as in the sword grips of later times. A few, however, have the rivet holes by which grip plates were attached, and of these we give an illustration of a reconstructed specimen (Fig. 22).
The grips were probably fashioned of wood, bone, horn or ivory; if of wood, they were doubtless covered with leather, though not bound with wire, as at a later date. The foundation wood of the grip, from close examination of the few remains that have been found, appears to have been pine-wood, as do some of the remnants of the foundation wood of the scabbards. On the top of the grip was placed the pommel, the tang of the blade passing through it and being riveted over at the apex.
There has been much controversy as to the origin of the shape of the pommel with the five or three lobed ornament. It has been suggested, with some degree of likelihood, that at the time when the flat oval pommel was in fashion, not of the type just illustrated, but about a century and a half anterior to the appearance of the lobed ornament, as, for instance, on such a pommel as shown on the sword hilt (Fig. 23), a mæl dating from the IXth or even VIIIth century, the fighting man used to bind a relic or charm to counteract misfortunes or strengthen his arm, and from this habit the lobed pommel was evolved. Its gradual development might be traced in the manner suggested (Fig. 24) until its latest form is seen in the early years of the XIIIth century (Fig. 25).
From a drawing by the present writer (full page19)
This theory, brought forward by a very eminent authority, is strengthened by a careful examination of some of the actual lobated pommels here illustrated and described. In nearly every case the cord by which the relic was originally tied to the flat disk pommel is indicated, and in individual weapons it is represented by its counterpart in metal, either gold or silver. Certain museums of Northern Europe, notably that of Copenhagen, are extremely rich in these so-called Viking swords, though it may be accepted that the ultra-enriched specimens they display are of somewhat earlier date than those British finds we have illustrated.
FIG. 25. THE LATEST DEVELOPMENT OF THE LOBATED POMMEL
Examples in the British Museum; XIIth or Early XIIIth century
FIG. 26. THEGNIC SWORD FOUND NEAR DUBLIN
Apart from the mystic Runes found upon the blades of weapons of the Iron Age, about which much has been written, it is often difficult, wellnigh impossible, to construe any meaning to the arrangement of letters and curious markings so often seen on those of the XIth and XIIth centuries. There exists a very learned treatise on the subject of the names and emblems found on the blades of the Northern Viking swords of the VIIIth and IXth centuries, written by A. L. Lorange, curator of the Bergen Museum; but we well remember that consummate authority, the late Sir Wollaston Franks, expressing his fixed belief that on blades of somewhat later date the survival of such lettering was practised by bladesmiths ignorant of letters, and that in the passage of generations the original significance of such lettering was lost sight of, developing into a jumble of often ill-formed and unconnected letters out of which no possible sense can be made.
Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Low Countries, France, England, Scotland and Ireland have all produced specimens of these so-called Viking swords, but those swords from the latter two countries differ a little in form and show a varying tribal influence, as will be seen by the illustration of the example of a thegnic sword found near Dublin. This sword, however, may be considered of rather later date (Fig. 26).
The strangest of all these swords that has come to the notice of the present writer is that found in Italy near the outskirts of Florence, at present in the collection of Mr. Henry G. Keasby (Fig. 27) presently #312 in the Kienbusch Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On the pommel of this sword the lobations are exaggerated to such a degree that it resembles a palm leaf in form, the lobes finish in spikes so long that they must have proved a considerable hindrance to the use of the weapon. Its probable date is about 1100. [This sword is X.6 in Oakeshott's Records (1991) where he postulates a date of 950 - 1000.]
FIG. 27. SWORD FOUND NEAR FLORENCE
Collection: Henry G. Keasby, Esq. [now in the Kienbusch Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art]
FIG. 28. TWO VIEWS OF THE SWORD IN THE DÖMSCHATZ OF
Late Xth or earl XIth century
We have left to the last our description of perhaps the finest and possibly the earliest of the historical swords that the hand of Time has spared us - the superb but little-known sword in the Dömschatz at Essen, Germany (Fig. 28). In our opinion it is perhaps the only sword that can possibly claim the antiquity assigned to it, namely, the Xth or XIth century, as apart from its actual form the argument of its decoration vigorously acclaims its very early date.
Indeed, the question has arisen, a question not lightly to be set aside, as to whether or no the blade is not of even greater antiquity than is claimed by the mounting. There is the possibility, and tradition so claims it, that the blade belongs to Roman times, to the IVth century, and was used at the execution of the patron saints of Essen, St. Kosmas and St. Damian, who suffered for their Christian faith in the year A.D. 303. Though within the category of truth, this tradition requires strong belief.
The following is a description of the sword as we see it to-day.
The flattened lobated pommel is studded with precious stones, showing very little of the gold filigree groundwork. The quillons have, besides the precious stones, decorations in the form of small enamelled plates, but of which only three still exist. The enamel is in form of stars and fan-shaped ornaments: pale yellow (opaque), deep yellow (opaque), dark green (opaque), greenish blue (opaque), white (translucent), cobalt blue (translucent), light blue (opaque), and very dark blue (opaque).
The upper and lower parts of the quillons, as well as the front and back of the hilt, are decorated with gold filigree work.
The scabbard consists of a wooden lining of beechwood overlaid with gold plates. At the sides it has been restored, like one or two of the embossed gold plates that cover the scabbard. The locket mount and the chape have been strengthened, probably in later mediaeval times, by fresh plates of gilded silver.
The artistic beauty of this splendid sword lies in the embossed gold plates that decorate the front and back of the scabbard. The raised design is masterly in treatment, and consists of scrollwork in the form of spirals, with foliage and animals interspersed. Experts on architectural ornament assign to this scabbard a date between the Xth and XIth centuries, for as early as the Xth century similar designs of foliage and animals occur on Byzantine work, with which feeling the general decoration of this scabbard is imbued.
The locket mount and ferrule of the scabbard were, as we have already said, added to it, probably in the XVth century, but reveal beneath their scalloped edges parts of the original plates of gold.
On the front of the chape are Gothic ornamentations, and on the back two cylindrical-shaped fasteners soldered on to facilitate hanging the weapon to the belt.
The locket mounts display on the front face the two patron
saints of Essen, St. Kosmas and St. Damian, and on the reverse
side the inscription:
GLADIVS, CVM QVO DECOLLATI FVERVNT NOSTRI PATRONI.
If this wonderful sword, or at least its mountings, were executed in Germany, either at the time of Otto III or Henry II, the town of Trèves or Ratisbon might either have produced them.
Such applied arts in the Xth and XIth centuries then flourished in Trèves under Archbishop Egbert, 977-993, rendered with a strong Byzantine influence, or at Ratisbon under Abbot Ramvold von Emmerau, 979-1001. If Italy was responsible for the mounting of this sword, either Venice or Monte Casino might have been its birthplace.
Works produced there like-wise show Byzantine influence, such as is in the designs of foliage and animals conjoined with the leaves on this scabbard. There is the possibility that it was made in Constantinople, and either looted from there or sent as a present by the Empress Theophano to one of the German emperors, afterwards to be presented by them to the Abbess of Essen.
We have given more space to the consideration of the Essen sword than to the other weapons of this time, partly because we appreciate it as the most important of its period extant, and certainly the most complete in all its parts.