The Swordsmith

Owen Bush, bladesmith.

The Bamburgh Sword, forged in the 7th century, excavated in 1960 and rediscoverd in 2001, is possibly the finest sword ever made, being made of six strands of pattern-welded iron. An extraordinary weapon like this was the work of more than one man.

The blade, the hilt and the scabbard were made by different people, each a master of his craft. The technology that went into creating a pattern-welded sword is extremely complicated and takes a lifetime to perfect. The men who had this skill were venerated and rewarded richly. However, the technology was jealously guarded, so bladesmiths were not free to leave the king who employed them. In a time when science was a thousand years in the future, the creation of a perfect blade was a process of magic and ritual.

The very best Early Medieval blades had wootz steel (crucible steel imported from India) alloyed into the pattern welding. It raised the technology hugely.

The hilt was made up of precious metal and precious stones. Garnets were a favourite;  each one was hand shaped by cutting and laboriously polished with a mix of fat and crushed stone loaded onto a leather pad. The goldwork was extraordinary and the level of minute detail huge. How this was done without magnification is a mystery still.

A Short History of the Sword

Angampora, the Sri Lankan martial art.

The sword was the first tool made solely to kill. Other early weapons of war – bows, axes, spears – had uses outside battle but the sword was made for one reason only: to leave an enemy dead on the ground.

The first swords were made of bronze and their origin is obscure. As first essays in the craft of swordmaking, some of these original swords have unusual designs, such as the sickle-shaped khopesh buried with the pharaoh Tutankhamun. But, despite the khopesh being buried with the boy pharaoh in 1327 BC, by then, swords were already old.

Swords were first produced as status items around the Mediterranean basin, from around 3000 BC, once the alloying of bronze allowed for the creation of blades. To start with they were extraordinarily rare, highly prized and a sign of immense wealth. But as bronze technology spread, blades became more common and armies, such as that of the Minoans, were soon well enough armed to carve out an empire with these short, bronze blades.

But the arrival of iron and steel brought a revolution. Iron is strong, durable and readily available, unlike bronze (which needed tin – a relatively rare metal). Once the Hittites had demonstrated iron’s utility when carving out their empire from 1600 BC, the general adoption of iron weapons became inevitable.

In the first millennium BC, the Etruscans began to alloy iron and steel to gain better tensile strength. They made blades that had good edge strength while being flexible enough to absorb shock during combat.

The Romans used and developed Etruscan technology, combining it with carburisation (combining iron or steel with carbon to make it harder), case hardening (hard on the outside, soft within) and plain steel blades. Armed with the gladius, the short, stabbing weapon of the legionary, the Roman war machine carved out an empire. However, it was the spatha, the longer sword of the Roman cavalry, that outlived the empire. The spatha was often employed by the barbarians serving as Roman auxiliaries and, after the western Empire fell, the spatha gave rise to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking blades that are the pinnacle of western sword making.

However, the massed Viking armies of the tenth and eleventh centuries led to homogenised weapons and quality gave way to quantity. In the following centuries, the sword evolved to fit the particular fighting styles of the era.

Sword Stories

The Gladius

The gladius was a short Roman sword used for thrusting, particularly by the legions of the Republic and early Empire. Roman legionaries used it as part of the weapon set that included their scutum (shield) and pilum (javelin). The blades were steel or case-hardened iron. Very rarely the blades were composites of iron and steel. The Roman army made these in vast numbers, the work probably being commissioned to retired soldiers (gladiarii). Being mass produced, and with Roman smiths not completely understanding the properties of iron, the weapons were often of mediocre quality. But there were always replacement weapons to be had.

Anglo saxon/Viking  sword

The swords of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking eras were developed from the spatha, the long cavalry sword of the Roman auxiliary. These swords were used for hand-to-hand fighting in the melee after the shieldwall broke . The early Saxon and Viking smiths took pattern welding to dizzying new heights, making some of the finest blades ever forged.

However, with the arrival of massed Viking armies from the 10th century onwards, sword quality declined markedly. There were simply too many swords required to devote the thousands of man hours required to forge the best weapons, although the Ulfberht swords, made and signed by a family of smiths in the 9th and 10th centuries, were an exception to the trend towards mediocrity: they remain unparalleled.


The famous claymore sword was a two-handed broadsword. It was wielded mostly in Scotland during the incessant clan and border warfare between 1400 and 1700. A later weapon, a smaller basket hilted sword, also came to be known as a claymore, but this was a later sword. The terminology is confusing as is often the case with swords. But here I am talking about the early claymore.

The two-handed claymore was a constant in the medieval wars between England and Scotland, as well as being wielded in internal Scottish clan fights. Being a two-handed weapon, the claymore had a unique style of fighting associated with it, utilising the long, heavy blade, the cross guards to trap and break enemies’ blades and the heavy pommel to strike. The sword could also be easily reversed to make a very effective hooking weapon.


The rapier, a long, one-handed, thrusting weapons, was not primarily a soldier’s sword. The rapier developed in the 16th and 17th centuries largely as a civilian self-defence weapon. As such, it was a personal sword, carried every day, and one meant to be used in the brawls, fights and duels that plagued Renaissance Europe’s cities. The rapier required a fighting style based on thrusting rather than slashing – modern sport fencing styles have developed from rapier duelling.


The popular image of the sabre is a sword with a curved, single-edged blade, used by cavalrymen, in particular during the Napoleonic Wars. The image, depicted in many illustrations of the time, was of horsemen slashing with their sabres, often with devastating effect, on routing infantry formations. But in fact, Napoleonic era sabres were just as often straight blades, used for thrusting attacks by charging cavalry. The sabre remains part of the dress uniform of many military units, while modern sport sabre fencing is alone in counting slashing strokes as hits, although the sword itself is straight, not curved.

The Dane Axe

The favourite weapon of the housecarls of King Harold’s army was the Dane axe. This set them apart from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, who had generally preferred a spear and sword weapon set. Housecarls also made use of the teardrop shaped ‘Norman’ shield much more than the traditional round Anglo-Saxon shield. As the king’s personal retinue and in common with all Anglo-Saxon warriors, housecarls fought on foot, although as high-status warriors they rode to battle, forming up as the front rank of the shield wall and the personal bodyguard of king and earls.

The Dane axe was a formidable weapon. The haft, usually between three and four feet long (although display weapons had longer hafts), was held in both hands. The axe head was relatively light and forged with a reinforced, carbon-steel cutting edge. Although it was not heavy, when swung with the axe at full extension it would build up a terrifying cutting momentum.

Wielding the Dane axe required both hands. To do so the housecarl had to step out from the line of the shieldwall. This was what produced the shift to ‘Norman’ shields. With its pointed end, the shield could be jammed in the earth in front of the housecarl, providing some protection against arrows. With both arms free, the housecarl could build momentum by swinging the Dane axe in circles. With so much stored energy, an enemy coming within cutting distance ran the risk of being cut in two. The Bayeaux Tapestry shows a housecarl cutting the head of a Norman knight’s horse in half: in the battle itself, that housecarl could probably have cut  right through the knight riding the horse as well.

Chickenshed on Britain’s Got Talent

All three of my sons have been members of Chickenshed Theatre. The youngest, Isaac, was one of the members of the Chickenshed group that appeared on Britain’s Got Talent on 22 April, receiving the golden buzzer from Alesha Dixon. Isaac is the boy with curly hair and we couldn’t be prouder of him and all the rest of the troop!

Book review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

An enjoyable, fast-paced four pronged biographical telling of the first half of the 16th century. The titular princes included two emperors, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Suleiman, the Ottoman Sultan, as well as two kings, Francis I, King of France, and Henry VIII of England. The four men were all born within ten years of each other and their rivalries defined the new world that was breaking through the old certainties during the half century in which they held sway.

It makes for a good way to pull disparate historical threads together and their personalities are each big enough to fill books on their own (even poor Charles with his Hapsburg chin was more interesting than his detractors claim). However, in the areas in which I am knowledgeable, I did spot a couple of errors (Ibrahim did not become Suleiman’s caliph until after the siege of Rhodes in 1522 and the Italian military engineer who masterminded the Knights Hospitaller’s defences during the siege was Gabriele Tadino not Tadini), so it suggests that other details might be inaccurate too. Nevertheless, the book is a good introduction to possibly the most crucial fifty years in the last millennium.

Book review: The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

Reading novels set in the 40k universe, you usually know what you are going to get: bolters, lasguns, big guys in armour shooting and getting shot by aliens, all limned in characteristic grimdark. It’s a winning formula. But sometimes it’s good to read something a little outside the usual tramlines, and Alec Worley’s The Wraithbone Phoenix delivers a story outside those tramlines that might just be the most purely enjoyable Warhammer 40k novel I have ever read.

That’s not to say it’s lacking in bolters, action, intrigue and a suitably grimdark setting (the hive city, Varangantua – thought: was the city inspired by Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel? 40k is full of veiled, and not so veiled, references to this world settings). Indeed, in its outline, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a classic 40k quest story, with different kill teams converging on the same prize and, well, killing each other. But what sets it so marvellously apart are its protagonists, the ratling (essentially, the 40k version of Hobbits) Baggit, and the ogryn (yep, a 40k ogre) Clodde. The odd couple is a trope of storytelling precisely because it works so well and Worley employs it like a master, setting and contrasting the personalities and physiques of Baggit and Clodde in juxtaposition to the horrible world that they are attempting to navigate their way through. I loved both characters but must proclaim a particular weakness for Clodde. Ogryns are usually big and stupid, like their folkloric predecessors, but Clodde, having been hit on the head, has become an ogryn philosopher – although no one, including himself, has noticed! It’s a marvellous touch, and helps set Clodde and Baggit in contrast to the violence and nihilism all around them in Varagantua and the wider 40k universe.

So, despite the body count, the double crosses, the general grimness of the dystopian setting, The Wraithbone Phoenix achieves the almost miraculous feat of being a genuinely joyous 40k novel. For fans of the universe, take this as a warning or an invitation, depending on your inclinations, and dive in or withdraw and find something more nihilistic instead.

Arms and the Housecarl

Two Housecarls taking part in the Battle of Hastings re-enactment.

Arms and the man – the weapons and armour that made the housecarl the most feared footsoldier of late Anglo-Saxon England.


According to the Bayeaux Tapestry, the Norman-style helmet was common to both armies at the Battle of Hastings. Only elite warriors wore metal helmets. The noseguard provided a degree of facial protection without compromising vision.

Mail coif

Mail was expensive. A mail coif protected the head, neck and shoulders; together with a helmet and the hauberk it provided great protection to the housecarl’s upper body.

Mail hauberk

Mail was one of the best gifts a housecarl might receive from his lord. If a mail-clad warrior fell in battle, there would be a great struggle to strip the armour from the body. Mail provided effective protection against slashes or thrusts from swords or spears, although clubs could cause trauma without penetrating the armour.


Housecarls wore a padded, quilted jacket under the mail. This cushioned against blows from blunt weapons such as maces and warhammers, as well as providing a further layer of protection against edged weapons. Poorer warriors relied on just this padded jacket for defence.


Although archaeological exhumations have shown that leg wounds were fairly common among warriors of this era, greaves were very rare. Some warriors may have used leather ‘puttees’ to protect their calves.


Thick, leather gloves were worn, but there is no record of more heavy-duty protection for the hands.


Some warriors may have used leather vambraces to protect their forearms.


The typical Anglo-Saxon shield was round, with a central boss, and made of lime, alder or poplar – light woods which are resistant to splitting. By the eleventh century, the teardrop shaped shield had also become widespread. It provided greater whole body protection and, because it could more easily be jammed into the ground, it allowed housecarls to stand behind it while using the two-handed Dane axe.


The ubiquitous weapon of the era. Indeed, the mark of a free man was being allowed to carry a spear – slaves could not. Spears were the ideal weapon in the shield wall, as they kept the enemy at distance while allowing the warrior to thrust at exposed areas. Some spears had small projections, or wings, which were used to hook and pull an enemy’s shield out of position. Spears were usually used over arm, aiming at the enemy’s face.


At the start of a battle there was an exchange of javelins, with the men at the rear of the shieldwall launching missiles at the enemy. A well-thrown javelin could penetrate a shield. Even if it did not, a spear embedded into a shield would drag the shield downward by its weight, exposing the man holding it to further attack.


The very name, Saxon, derives from ‘seax’, the all-purpose knife worn at the waist by Anglo-Saxons. It was a single-edged weapon, worn horizontally in a scabbard on the waist, with the edge pointing upwards. Generally too small to cause much damage in combat, it could have been used to finish off a prone enemy.


The most high-status of weapons but one that was probably not so effective in a shieldwall – it would only really come into play when a shieldwall broke and the battle turned into a general melée or a rout.

Dane axe

The two-handed axe was popularised in England by Cnut and his men, so much so that in the fifty years between the Danish and Norman conquests, it became the preferred weapon of the English housecarls.

The Rule of the Templars

St Benedict giving his Rule to his monks

The Rule under which a monk lived regimented his life, dividing it into a constant round of prayer and work. All very well for monks living in a monastery, but how were the military monks of the Knights Templar going to organise their lives? The life of a soldier on campaign is anything but regular, even if he is also a monk.

To reconcile the different requirements of the soldier and the monk, the rule of the Templars allowed them to say the Pater Noster (Our Father) in place of the regular monastic services if these had to be missed as a result of being in the field. Thus, if the Knight did not attend matins, he had to say 13 Our Fathers, nine if he missed vespers, and seven for the other monastic offices.

The other advantage of this change in the normal Benedictine Rule was that it allowed men to join the Templars who did not know Latin. All they had to do was learn the Pater Noster off by heart, rather than having to recite all the psalms in Latin, as required of ordinary monks.

Furthermore, the Templars’ Rule also allowed knights to join the order for a fixed period of years, as well as for a lifetime. This opened the Order to pilgrim knights visiting the Holy Land who wanted to put their arms to use while there but whose responsibilities required them to return home eventually. With manpower always an issue, these short-term knights were an important source of fighting men for the Templars.

The Templars’ Rule enjoined humility upon the brother knights. Many of the secular knights of the time were psychopathic peacocks, men capable of extreme violence who also flaunted the richest and most elaborate clothing they could afford. Fur, jewellery or rich clothing was forbidden the Templars as was the decoration of their horse’s harness with gold and silver. The Templars were to wear simple white, their horses to be harnessed in plain leather. As for their appearance, they were to have their hair and beards trimmed regularly. The Order was to be ordered outside as well as within.

The Journey of a Super Pilgrim

The conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 reoped the Holy Land to Christian pilgrims. Hearing the news of the success of the First Crusade, people started setting out for Jerusalem from all over Europe. One of the first was an Englishman, Sæwulf. On his return, he wrote an account of his travels and adventures. Pilgrimage was hugely popular during the Middle Ages and, as the Canterbury Tales attest, there were many motivations apart from piety for making such long and difficult journeys. However, Sæwulf was a serious pilgrim, who ‘though conscious of my unworthiness, went to offer up my prayers at the Holy Sepulchre’.

Having reached Italy, Sæwulf embarked upon a ship for the Holy Land from Monopoli, near Bari in the heel of Itlay on 13 July 1102 – only for the ship to be wrecked the same day. Not one to be put off, Sæwulf found another ship and tried again. It took thirteen weeks to sail from Italy to the port of Jaffa, with many storms and ports of call along the way.

With the Holy Land waiting, Sæwulf and his companions decided not to wait overnight on their ship of passage and hired a boat to take them ashore. Their fervour saved them. A storm blew up over night, wrecking the ships anchored in the harbour. A thousand pilgrims drowned without ever setting foot in the Holy Land.

In his account, Sæwulf recorded the dangers of the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem, telling of the pilgrims killed by the bandits who haunted the Judean hills. Their corpses marked the trail from the port to the holy city. Having survived the journey to Jerusalem, Sæwulf visited the holy sites of the city before travelling through the rest of Palestine, recording the devastation he found, with many of the churches and monasteries having been destroyed by the Saracens. Once he had ‘visited and paid our devotion at all the holy places in the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding country’, Sæwulf returned to Jaffa, embarking for his return journey on 17 May 1108. He had been in Palestine for nearly six years.