Sword, Lance, and Battle Axe

Sword, lance, and battle axe: the weapons of choice for the twelfth century warrior. His protection from injury depended not only on his fighting ability but a conical metal helmet fitted with a nasal, his shield, and chainmail. What else? A cudgel or mace was occasionally used, as were crossbows; and for the mounted knight, a well made saddle and stirrups, and prick spurs. The equipment and armour used remained largely unchanged during the first half of the century from that of the previous century. Towards the end of the twelfth century helmets became more rounded and additions were made to the mail shirt. However, warfare in the twelfth century was strongly influenced by the battle experiences gained during The Crusades and the impact of heavily armoured knights even though their number in battle was much smaller than infantry soldiers. The ‘ideals’ of warfare were also influenced by the establishment of religious and military Orders of Knighthood for example, The Knights Templar and the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.

One feature of many military campaigns was the tactic of laying siege to a castle, the aim of which was to force the occupants to surrender and make submission and to capture the building itself. They were often tiresome, lengthy affairs, sometimes with an inconclusive ending. For example, occasionally the occupants were starved out or the siege was raised in order to fight other battles. You will find sieges get a recurring mention during the discussion of the events of The Anarchy.

Using the collection of images below we take a look the arms and armour of a typical twelfth century soldier. From top to bottom:

Image set 1: The sword and scabbard on the left has a brazil nut pommel, a large spatulate cross and the blade has a large central fuller.

In the middle is the so called ‘Temple Pyx’ of gilt bronze c.1140-50. It was probably originally part of a reliquary casket, and this fragment shows three mail clad knights with long gowns of cloth underneath their hauberks (mail shirt) together with their familiar Norman kite shape shields with umbos.

The grip of the sword on the right is bound with red and yellow silk, the pommel is bronze and the cross iron. The belt fittings on the scabbard are made of buckskin.

Image set 2:
On the left is a Viking sword c.1000 found in the River Thames, London. It’s blade is inlaid in iron with the maker’s name, INGELRI. In the centre is a collection of medieval spear and lance heads excavated in London. On the right are spearheads and broad axe heads found in the River Thames, near London Bridge. Battle axes such as these were capable of severing a man’s head from his shoulders.

Image set 3: Three swords from the Wallace Collection

Image set 4:  The Construction of Mail
On the left is a theoretical sequence of medieval mail manufacture, since no original tools survive. Drawn soft iron wire wrapped around an iron mandrel is cut into links with a cold chisel. Alternatively a simple punch and former may have been used to form the rings. Another tool simultaneously flattens and shapes the end of each link. A third tool pierced each with a slot. Wedge shaped rivets were probably cut from a flat metal strip, and the mail assembled, four links through every one. The raised rivet heads faced out. The mail was case hardened or if mild steel, quench hardened. In the centre is the detail of a German riveted mail shirt showing the brass ring stamped ‘Bernart Couwein’. The diameter of each link is 1cm, and the shirt weighs approximately 9kg. On the right is an image of a mail maker. Over 30,000 links were needed to make one mail shirt.

Image set 5:
An iron stirrup overlaid with bronze, incised and pointille decoration, and an 11th century style prick spur.

The role played by the magnificent destriers is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the medieval knight, however the horses and the equipment knights used with them was important. ‘Destrier’ doesn’t refer to a breed, but to a type of horse ie, the finest and strongest warhorse, which were usually stallions, bred and raised for the needs of war.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows that the war horses used by the Norman knights were all stallions and also the type of saddle used. This was secured by a single breastband and girth and had an upright bow in front with an equally high cantle behind, both curling outwards. It had long stirrup leathers giving a deep straight-legged seat, so that the knight was virtually standing in the saddle, enabling him to use it as a fighting platform both to take his weight and hold him securely in place while delivering or receiving blows. The Tapestry also shows mounted knights wearing spurs.

Readers who are particularly interested in Anglo-Norman and castle warfare will perhaps find primary sources such as Gesta Stephani, which was edited and translated by K.R. Potter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), interesting reading. De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History may also have relevant information about this era.

Acknowledgement & Recommendation:
I am indebted to the very first book I ever purchased on the topic,  “Arms & Amour of the Medieval Knight” written by David Edge & John Miles Paddock. For anyone who is interested in finding out more about arms and armour in the medieval period I particularly recommend it. I found it a great introduction to both medieval warfare and the development of the equipment. It begins with the early development of weaponry and the origins of the knight and ends with the full flowering of arms, armour, and tournaments in the sixteenth century. A full chapter is devoted to each century. The book certainly ignited my interest and remains one of my favourites. It is very informative, easy to read though full of detail, contains lots of excellent images, and is very nicely presented.

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