The Sunday Section: Snippets of ... Medieval Weapons - Sword

Attempting to make an effort to get back to regular postings, but no guarantee …

Following on from the last ‘Snippets’ 'Knight's, I thought I’d focus more on some weapons, and pick a battle to do with each weapon.  Unfortunately, when I’d compiled this way back when, I’d failed to note the sites that inspired this research *hangs head in shame*

Long Sword (wikipedia)


The 15th century long sword was also known as the ‘hand-and-a-half’, or ‘bastard’ sword.  Generally speaking, its overall length was just under 50inches, with a weight of about 3lb.  The broad double-edged blade was solid yet flexible, with the pommel acting as a counterweight to balance the weapon.

The blade could not be too hard or it would be unable to absorb direct blows, and would break easily.  If it was too soft, it would not retain its cutting edge, and would give way under pressure.   Creating a hard but flexible blade required the bonding of iron and steel.  Strips of each metal were layered into a bar-shape, and welded together by repeated hammering under heat.  The bar was twisted before being hammered flat again.  The edges then had hard steel welded to them to give the blade its double-cutting edge.

This process of tempering was a well-practised method of hardening steel in medieval Europe.  Tempering is basically a process of heating the metal, then cooling it in water, causing the metal to harden.

The parts of the Blade:


  • Ricasso – the unsharpened blade section closest to the hilt.  As it is not sharpened, the wielder is able to wrap a finger around the area for better control.  On larger weapons, it might be covered with leather so as to be gripped by the entire hand to make wielding the weapon in close quarters combat easier.
  • Forte – meaning ‘strong’ in Italian; the lower third of the blade, closest to the hilt
  • Terzo – ‘third’ in Italian; the centre third of the blade
  • Foible or Debole – ‘weak’ in Italian; the third of the blade that ends at the point

The parts of the Hilt;

  • Cross-guard; also called the ‘guard’ or the ‘cross’
  • Quillon block – centre of the cross-guard
  • Quillons – the extended arms of the cross-guard, the simplest design being those that extend straight out.  Other designs include those that curve towards the hand; those that curve towards the blade to protect the ricasso, and also to trap the opponent’s blade.  Several quillons can be entwined into a basket style guard to protect the entire hand.
  • Tang – the part of the blade that extends into the hilt where it is fastened to the pommel
  • Grip – the handle
  • Pommel – the end of the hilt

In battle, the whole of the sword was used.  Apart from the obvious swordplay, there was also jabbing, tripping, using the pommel to land blows, axe-like swings, wrestling, grappling … Despite the notions of chivalry, actual hand-to-hand sword fighting was a brutal affair

The Battle of Barnet, Easter Sunday 1471, during the Wars of the Roses ~

First, a little backstory … In 1461, King Henry VI (Lancastrian) was deposed, and Edward IV (Yorkist) took the throne with the help of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick.  Because Edward was poorly supported, Warwick believed him to be weak, and soon switched his allegiance to Henry.  Edward was deposed, and Henry returned to the throne.

By 1471, Edward had gained substantial support, enough to march on London to reclaim the throne.  On discovering that Warwick was already encamped on high ground at Barnet, 11 miles from London, Edward marchedhis army to the village, which he reached by dusk.  Moving into position, Edward’s troops found themselves under Warwick’s artillery position.

Learning of Edward’s presence, Warwick ordered a night bombardment, but this overshot the enemy.  By morning, thick fog, exacerbated by the cannon smoke, reduced visibility, limiting the use of gunners, archers and crossbowmen.  Despite the availability of ‘modern’ weaponry, the day belonged to the sword.

At dawn, in foul conditions, roughly 24,000 soldiers drew their swords and launched into hand-to-hand fighting.  It was violent, it was confused … and it lasted for over 3 hours.  Many were fighting in plate armour, which exhausted them even further.  And many knights, Warwick among them, dismounted and sent their horses to the rear – the signal that they would fight to the end.

As the morning progressed, the armies’ lines became more disorganized, causing them to rotate in a huge mass.  Warwick was earnestly awaiting reinforcements in the form of his ally, the earl of Oxford.  But when Oxford and his 800 men arrived, Warwick’s men mistook them for Edward’s army, and cut them down with a relentless archery bombardment.

Too late, Warwick realised his men’s error; the battle was lost.  Already, thousands of his knights had fled the field.  Without his horse, and in full armour, Warwick struggled towards the woods where he was soon trapped by Edward’s men.  Captured, he was stripped of his armour, and killed.  His remains were taken to London and put on public display.  

Both sides suffered casualties, about 5,000 in total, along with countless numbers of wounded.

Some famous swords in mythology, literature and history ~ with thanks to Liam for helpful suggestions :)

The most obvious - Excalibur ...

'Sword Excalibur Rises From the Lake' - NC Wyeth

The Lady of the Lake had another sword, called Galatine, and this was given to Gawain: ‘ Then Sir Gawaine was all abashed, and with Galatine his good sword he smote through shield and thick hauberk made of thick mails …’ (‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ Book 5 Chapter 10).  Even though it is seen as Excalibur’s shadow, Galatine’s strength is said to be greatest in sunlight.

Sir Gawain - Howard Pyle

Lancelot’s sword was called Arondight.

It is thought that Excalibur was inspired by Gram, the sword of Sigurd in the Volsung saga.  Gram was struck into the tree, Branstokrr, by Odin.  No one could pull it out save Sigmund, Sigurd’s father.  The Sigurd legend is the basis of Siegfried; in the ‘Song of the Nibelungs’, Siegfried/Sigurd discards Gram for the legendary sword, Balmung.

Siegfried - Arthur Rackham

The sword, Hrunting, loaned to Beowulf by Unferth to slay Grendel’s mother: ‘ The iron blade with its ill-boding patterns has been tempered in blood. It had never failed the hand of anyone who hefted it in battle, anyone who had fought and faced the worst in the gap of danger. This was not the first time it had been called to perform heroic feats …’ Unfortunately, even Hrunting was not enough to slay the monster.

In Irish mythology, Diarmuid, a highly skilled warrior and valued member of the Fianna, was given two swords by his foster-father, Aengus, a member of theTuatha Dé Danann.  The deadlier of the swords, Moralltach, had been given to Aengus by the sea deity, Manannán mac Lir; the sword was said to leave ‘ no stroke nor blow unfinished at the first trial’.  The second sword was called Beagalltach, the Little Fury.

Durendal (or Durandal) was the holy sword of Roland, a heroic knight who served King Charlemagne in the 8th century, and the hero of the medieval French epic, ‘The Song of Roland’.  Durendal was said to be indestructible and unnaturally sharp; the poem tells of how Roland cleaved an armoured Saracen soldier from head to groin with a single blow from the sword.  After many battles, Roland was finally defeated at the border of France and Spain.  Heavily wounded, he tried to destroy the sword to prevent it falling into the hands of the enemy, but it would not be shattered.  Finally, he hid it beneath his body, and died facing the direction of the enemy, Spain.

Tizona, the sword of El Cid, the national hero of Spain, was said to frighten unworthy opponents.


The sword of Charlemagne, Joyeuse; used as the coronation sword of French kings from 1270 to 1824.

Joyeuse [Wikemedia - Chatsam]

The Japanese sword, Kusanagi, originally known as Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (‘Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven’), was discovered by Susanoo, the god of sea and storms when he slew Yamata no Orochi, the ‘8-branched giant snake’; it was in one of the snake's tails.  Susanoo presented the sword to his sister, Amaterasu, as a gift of reconciliation.  

Susanoo slaying Orochi

Generations later, it was given to the warrior, Yamato Takeru.  Attacked by Ainu warriors, Yamato Takeru found himself trapped in open grassland, which had been set on fire.  In desperation, he used the sword to cut back the grass in a bid to stop the fire.  As he did so, he realised that the sword allowed him to control the wind; it moved in the direction of his swing.  He quickly turned the fire to rage in the direction of the enemy, and escaped unharmed.  Yamato Takeru then renamed the sword Kusunagi-no-Tsurugi (‘Grasscutter Sword’).

There are so many swords that deserve to be mentioned, but if I carry on, I’m going to need a whole separate post.  Any favourites that I’ve missed?