The Finger-Ring Sword from the Arsenal at Alexandria
An article by Björn Hellqvist

A sword found in many books on weapons is that strange sword with an Arabic inscription at the base of the blade and the distinct finger-ring. It is also known as IX-950 in the inventory of the Royal Armouries in Leeds, UK. It is an important link in the evolution from cruciform to more complex hilts, ending with the intricate hilts of 17th century rapiers. I had the good fortune to handle the sword during a visit in July, 1999. It is normally not on display, and was brought out from the storage rooms on my request.

A Tempestous Background
Click to enlarge
The author handling
the actual sword

Why did a European sword end up in Alexandria? In the late Middle Ages, the Christian countries in the Eastern Mediterranian were under strong pressure from their Muslim neighbours, a result of the failed Crusades. One of these countries was the island Kingdom of Cyprus, being beset by the Mamelukes of Egypt. The Mamelukes, Christian warrior slaves who had converted to Islam, were in power in Egypt. They fought the Mongols, among other enemies. The Barquq Mameluk dynasty had seized the throne in 1382, and in 1422, Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Barsbey (aka Baybars) ascended the throne after governing for some time on behalf of an under-age Sultan. There had been many years of wars and plague, but Barsbey recognized the rising power and potential threat of the Ottoman Turks and established good relations with them, which helped Egypt regain its power.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Cyprus had problems of its own. King Jacques I of the House of Lusignan, died in 1398 and was succeeded by his son, Janus. His thirty-four years on the throne were a constant struggle with the Genoese and the Mameluks. Raids on the Egyptian coast resulted in a Mameluk attack on Cyprus in 1425. The island kingdom, weakened by plague, had trouble defending itself, and important cities fell to the Mameluks. King Janus, with all the forces he could muster, met the advancing enemy at Chirokitia, where a battle took place on 7 July 1426. The Cypriot army was routed. King Janus was taken prisoner and most of the nobles were captured or slain. On 11 July the city of Nicosia was sacked. The Mamelukes eventually retired with immense booty and numbers of prisoners, who were sold as slaves in Alexandria. After a captivity of ten months, King Janus was released on payment of an enormous ransom, the promise of an annual tribute to Egypt, and recognition of the suzerainty of the Sultan. King Janus returned broken, both in spirit and fortune. He died in 1432, and with him ended the greatness of the House of Lusignan. He was succeeded by his son, Jean II, who was a weak king. It appears to be in that year that the sword became part of the annual tribute. It was engraved with the following inscription in Arabic Nashki script (according to Treasures from the Tower of London):

"Unalienably bequeathed by al-Malik al-Ashraf Barsbey,—may his victory be glorious!—in the magazines of the victorious armies in the frontier city of Sikandariya (Alexandria), the well guarded, from what came into his ownership, in the month of al-Muharran, of the year 836."

The name of the month should probably be "al-Muharram" (probably a typo in the museum book), which is the first month (roughly April) of the Islamic calendar, and the year is 1432 according to the Gregorian calendar. This is a very valuable bit of information, as it puts a last possible date for the manufacture of the sword. Another sword from Alexandria, now in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, sports an Oakeshott Type XIX blade that bears the year 1368 (was it taken as a spoil of war?). This places the manufacture of the sword in this article somewhere in the latter half of the 14th century, or perhaps in the first quarter of the 15th century.

So What's So Special About the Sword?
At first glance, the sword is just a rather slim, classic knightly sword, albeit with a ring on the guard. Fingering the cross by slipping the index finger across the guard was a way of improving the control when wielding swords, and is evident from many contemporary illustrations. As this could be dangerous (at least if you wanted to keep your finger if you had to parry), a triggerguard-like branch was attached to keep enemy blades from lopping off your finger. The ricasso, where the edge is blunt, made sure that you didn't cut yourself on your own sword. The first pictorial evidence of this feature can be found in a painting made in the first quarter of the 14th century in Northern Italy. It is possible that the idea is even older, but there's no firm evidence for that. The idea didn't have any major impact at first, if one considers the number of finger-ring swords, surviving or in illustrations, but it was a first step. Double rings (one on each side) were introduced around 1440, and by the late 1400s, more complex guards were introduced. A century later, most hilts were more or less elaborate, providing ample protection for the hand.

The Sword
Click to enlarge The sword is preserved in very fine condition, with just some slight pitting on pommel and guard.

Measurements and Specifications:
Overall length: 41" (1041mm)
Weight: 1 lb 11 oz (765 grams)
Blade length: 34" (864mm)
Blade width (at base): 1.33" (34mm)
Length of the fuller: 12.6" (320mm)
Ricasso length: 1.77" (45mm)
Point of balance: 7.5" (190mm) from the cross
Pommel diameter: 2.16" (55mm), thickness: 0.55" (14mm)
Grip length: 4.33" (110mm), width: 0.67" (17mm)
Guard width: 5.75" (146mm), thickness at the ends: 0.1" (2mm)
Width of the finger ring: 1.1" (28mm), "height" lengthwise: 1.42" (36mm)
Blade thickness at base: 0.2" (5mm), 4" (100mm) from the point: 0.1" (2mm), 1.6" (40mm) from the point: 0.1" (2mm, reinforced)

The Hilt
Click to enlarge
The sword's hilt

The hilt is in the classic medieval cruciform style, but with a ring as part of the forward guard arm. The disc pommel and guard are forged from blackened steel. The pommel is a Type G according to Oakeshott's typology, and forged hollow. The guard is an Oakeshott Style 5, straight and spatulate. A corner on the end of the forward cross arm is chipped, but it was filled out for a while, which explains why some photos don't show the damage. The ring (or more properly branch) has probably been chiselled and bent from the guard arm during the forging of the guard. The wooden grip is tightly bound with cord, having an almost metallic finish, and offers enough space for one-handed use.

The Blade
The blade is an Oakeshott Type XIX, a type once believed to be typical for the mid-1500s, as it frequently appears together with more complex hilts, but which Oakeshott has dated to the mid-1300s. The dates are further confirmed by the Arabic inscriptions on the swords (see above). The blade is straight, double-edged and with a central fuller. The rather stout ricasso has two narrow grooves on either side of the central fuller. The last 40 mm's of the point are reinforced, being subtly thickened. A maker's mark is stamped on the blade, and it is likely that it is of Italian manufacture. The blade is very good shape, apart from a single nick in the edge, 56 mm's from the point.

Wielding the Sword
Click to enlarge
The blade's tip

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the sword was how light it felt—and it is light. The grip was comfortable, and it felt natural to slip the index finger through the ring. Considering that it was an antique, I didn't want to try any wild swings with it. Still, I could note that it tracked very well and that it would be able to deal considerable damage to lightly armored targets. My fiancée tried it too, and found it very pleasant. An exact replica of this sword would be fun to use. It was with great reluctance I returned it; it is seldom you're allowed to hold such a well-known sword in your hands.

Other Swords from the Arsenal at Alexandria
Several of the swords in Alexandria were taken from the Arsenal to the Askeri Museum in Istanbul by the Turks somewhere between the years 1517 and 1935, and from there found their way to foreign museums and private collections. Of those with Type XIX blades, five are still housed in Istanbul. For those of the readership who live in North America, it is possible to see more Alexandrine swords (type XIX's) similar to the subject of this article. Four are kept in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, at least one of which is very similar to the sword in question, apart from a different pommel and not having the finger-ring. The Philadelphia Museum of Art keeps four Alexandrine swords, too, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has three, at least one of them closely resembling the more well-known sword apart from not having the finger-ring.

The Replicas

The maker's mark

There are three replicas of this sword of which I am aware. One is the Del Tin Armi Antiche 2151, which is considerably bigger than the original—it's almost a war sword. The difference in size is about 15% bigger, which is more influential than it sounds.

Then there's the Philippino-made CAS Iberia / Hanwei 050-PP, which is undersized when compared to the original; the difference is about 17% smaller. It appears to be discontinued now, but a few vendors might still have some in stock. The #-PP line of swords aren't that impressive in terms of workmanship, though.

The best replica is made by ArmArt, S34, which is based on the measurements supplied by me to a person who commissioned the sword as a custom order. The dimensions are very good, but the sword weighs much more than the original. ArmArt lists the sword at 1.1kg, whereas the owner lists it at 930 grams. That's 21% or 43% more weight than the antique, depending on which stat is used for comparison. The model is now available as part of the ArmArt product line.

About the Author
Björn Hellqvist is a Swedish optometrist with an interest in historical European swords.

Author's Thanks
I would like to express my gratitude to the Board of Trustees and the staff of the Royal Armouries for the permission to handle and document the sword.

Sources and Bibliography
Cope, Anne (editor): Swords and Hilt Weapons, Multimedia Books, London 1989
Norman, A.V.B.: European Swords and Daggers in the Tower of London, HMSO, London 1974
Norman, A.V.B. and Wilson, G.M.: Treasures from the Tower of London, HMSO, London 1982
Oakeshott, Ewart: The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge 1964, 1994
Oakeshott, Ewart: Records of the Medieval Sword, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge 1991
Seitz, Heribert: Blankwaffen, vol. 1, Klinkhardt und Biermann, Braunschweig 1965

Online Source for the Museum Info:
Mediaeval Sword Resource Site

Photographed by Björn Hellqvist and reproduced with permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries


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