Ewart Oakeshott: The Man and his Legacy: Part I
An article by Chad Arnow, Russ Ellis, Patrick Kelly, Nathan Robinson, and Sean A. Flynt
Compiled and produced by Nathan Robinson

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Ewart Oakeshott's affection for, and devotion to, swords of the medieval era has had a profound effect on many students of medieval arms and armour. Oakeshott (1916-2002) was a lifelong enthusiast, scholar, and collector of medieval swords, and his publications are standard English-language reference materials for many collectors and enthusiasts. In several of these books, he described and refined a typology for categorizing swords by their blade type, pommel, and cross-guard designs into a flexible structure of sword families. This system gives us a common frame of reference to use when discussing or comparing aspects of medieval swords and their modern counterparts.


Click to enlarge
Ewart Oakeshott

Click to enlarge
Jeffery Farnol, Oakeshott's uncle

Ewart Oakeshott's love of swords began early in his life. In fact, one of his earliest memories was holding a smallsword when he was four years old. The sword was in the collection of his uncle, the British adventure novelist Jeffery Farnol, a noted collector of edged weapons. This sword, still a cherished part of the Oakeshott Collection, is a practice smallsword dating about 1690 with an ormolu (literally, "ground gold") hilt and a square-sectioned rebated blade marked "Tomas Ayala." Under his uncle's guidance, a young Ewart would help clean and maintain the collection. In this setting, his life-long study and love of the sword was kindled. So profound was this influence on him that Oakeshott endeavored throughout his collecting career to reacquire pieces formerly in his uncle's collection.

Oakeshott was educated as an illustrator, graduating from Dulwich College and London's Central School of Art. The abundance of high quality drawings in his books is a testament to his artistic abilities. Oakeshott's first career was as an artist in London, working at the Carlton Studios and at A.E. Johnson, Ltd. Oakeshott joined the British Naval Service during World War II, served from 1940 to 1945 on a destroyer escort, and was wounded while serving his country. After his subsequent hospitalization, Oakeshott returned to A.E. Johnson, Ltd. and served as its director for fifteen years before leaving to pursue his research full-time.

Oakeshott co-founded the Arms and Armour Society in 1948 and his first publications are found in the Society's journals. He examined many swords while still working at A.E. Johnson, publishing his findings in several journals including The Antiquaries Journal, Journal of the Arms and Armour Society of London and The Connoisseur Magazine.

In 1951, he began his "lifetime of lecturing," as he called it. His lectures on arms and armour and other aspects of history were given to learned societies both in England and America, and in schools and colleges. He also spent time assessing and examining medieval swords in museums.

In 1960, the year in which The Archeology of Weapons was published, Oakeshott decided to devote himself full-time to being a "free lance writer/artist/illustrator" while increasing his time for research. He would spend the rest of his life doing that research, lecturing, writing and/or illustrating books, examining and cataloging weapons, and working as "second in command" to his long-time partner, author and educator Sybil Marshall.

His collecting began in the 1930s, when swords were available for prices that could be considered cheap by modern standards. Even at such low prices, it often was a stretch for his budget to acquire a piece he desired, and he made many sacrifices to develop his collection. It grew to include many weapons over the years, representing nearly half a millennium of historical examples. Pieces from his collection can be seen in his many books and have included some of the finest surviving examples of the sword. The collection of Ewart Oakeshott and Sybil Marshall has been formed into a trust-The Oakeshott Collection- to be preserved, studied, and used for the education of future generations. It forms the core of The Oakeshott Institute, whose objective is "To continue the research of Ewart Oakeshott into the study and classification of swords from the European context, improving our understanding of the materials, construction and stylistic development of these objects."

Thus the Oakeshott legacy lives on through his books, articles, and through The Oakeshott Institute. One of the Institute's objectives is "To continue the research of Ewart Oakeshott into the study and classification of swords from the European context, improving our understanding of the materials, construction and stylistic development of these objects."

Published Works
Oakeshott's many publications reflect his prolific writing and love of his subject. His articles appeared in The Antiquaries Journal, Journal of the Arms and Armour Society of London, and The Connoisseur Magazine, to name a few. He also wrote eighteen articles for the Park Lane Arms Fair. As noted above, many of his books have become standard reference materials.

The list below is only a sampling of Oakeshott's books and does not attempt to cover every published article. Rather, we want to introduce you to his major works and accompany them with a brief description.

The Archeology of Weapons:
Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry

Oakeshott's first book. First published in 1960, this book can still be considered a benchmark in the field of arms study, covering the history of the sword from the Bronze Age through the late Middle Ages. It is in this book that Oakeshott first laid down his typology of the medieval sword that has become an important modern reference. Contained within are descriptions of blade, guard, and pommel types that Oakeshott uses as defining characteristics in his typology. With 340 pages of text, this book also contains 32 black and white photographic plates, as well as many line drawings done by the author. Boydell Press. ISBN: 0486292886

The Sword in the Age of Chivalry
Oakeshott's follow-up to The Archeology of Weapons. First published in 1964, this book focuses specifically on the European knightly sword from 1050 AD to 1550 AD. As a more specific work, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry provides greater detail for and elaboration on the knightly sword and Oakeshott's typology of it. The book's 156 pages of text also contain important revisions of that typology. The 48 black and white photographic plates provide a broad range of visual reference material. Boydell Press. ISBN: 0851157157

Records of the Medieval Sword
First published in 1991, this book can be seen as a follow-up of The Sword in the Age of Chivalry. While it does contain some informational text (of particular interest are the appendices that contain important analysis of two medieval swords), the book is primarily a photographic guide to Oakeshott's typology. Its 306 pages provide black and white photographic documentation of swords that the author felt were important examples of their various types. Again included is a brief overview of Oakeshott's blade and hilt categorizations. Boydell Press. ISBN: 0851155669

European Weapons and Armour:
From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution

Last published in 2000, this book can be seen as the conclusion of Oakeshott's series on the development of the European sword. Its 288 pages outline the development of the European sword from the late Middle Ages, through the renaissance, and into the industrial revolution. The book provides a brief outline of the development of the sword's hilt, from the cruciform hilt of the medieval period to the compound-hilt rapier and basket-hilt. It also contains numerous line drawings and shadow illustrations of the development of European armour. Boydell Press. ISBN: 0851157890

Sword in Hand
Published in 2000 by Arms & Armor of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This book is a compilation of articles that were first published in Gun Report Magazine. The book's 145 pages contain many black and white photographs that illustrate swords from the migration period, Viking Age, and Middle Ages. While the photographs may have been featured in previous works, they have been digitally enhanced here for greater clarity. As quoted, the text provides "A brief survey of the knightly sword". Arms & Armor, Inc. ISBN: 0971437904

A Knight and His Weapons
First published in 1964 with a second printing in 1997. This is one of several books Oakeshott wrote for a young audience. Its 124 pages outline most of the weapons used by the medieval knight, as well as early firearms. Filled with many line illustrations drawn by the author. Dufour Editions. ISBN: 0802312993

A Knight and His Armor
Last published and revised in 1999. Another of Oakeshott's books written as a primer for a younger audience, this book's 122 pages describe the armour of the medieval knight. It also works towards dispelling many of the myths associated with the subject, such as the notion that a knight's armour was clumsy and heavy, etc. Numerous illustrations by the author. Dufour Editions. ISBN: 0802313299

A Knight and His Horse
First published in 1962, 2nd edition published in 1995. Yet another installment in Oakeshott's A Knight... series. Equestrian training and equipping are discussed, as well as the importance of the horse to its rider. Medieval cavalry tactics and methods are broadly outlined. Dufour Editions. ISBN: 0802312977

A Knight in Battle
Published for the second time in 1998. This book's 128 pages outline four important medieval battles. Oakeshott uses these incidents as background for describing a knight's behavior, motivations, and equipment in the combat of the day. Dufour Editions. ISBN: 0802313221

A Knight and His Castle
First published in 1965, with a second edition printed in 1996, this book outlines the architecture and development of the medieval Castle. Why the Castle was important to the knight, as well as its strategic importance as a base of power is also discussed. Dufour Editions. ISBN: 0802312942

Swords of the Viking Age by Ian Peirce, with an introduction by Ewart Oakeshott
Published in 2002, this is one of the most important books written in the field of arms study and certainly the most important work on Viking swords written in the last half-century. Similar in outline to Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword, this book's 152 pages provide a photographic outline for the typology and development of the Viking Age sword. Included are the typologies as developed by Jan Petersen, R.E.M. Wheeler, and Alfred Geibig. Oakeshott's introduction reprises his early writings on the Viking Age sword in The Archaeology of Weapons and The Gun Report Magazine. Boydell Press. ISBN: 0802312942

The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England by Hilda Ellis Davidson, illustrated by Ewart Oakeshott
Published in 1962, this important work on the development of the sword in pre-medieval England contains many illustrations created by Oakeshott specifically for this book. 225 pages of text and black and white photographs. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN: 0851153550

Sword Typology
One of Oakeshott's greatest and most enduring accomplishments, arguably, is his categorization of various elements of the medieval and early renaissance sword. He was not the first to organize swords into classes, though his work is perhaps the most complete system of typology for the medieval sword. Dr. Jan Petersen developed a typology for swords of the Viking Age in the early twentieth century. Less than a decade later, Dr. R.E.M. Wheeler simplified Petersen's 26 categories into 7 types (numbered in Roman numerals as I-VII). Oakeshott further refined this system by adding two transitional types, VIII and IX.

Oakeshott followed this by creating a typology intended to dovetail into the work previously done by other researchers on Migration- and Viking-era swords. A key difference between the Oakeshott system and those that came before lies in the fact that it does not limit its focus simply to the hilt or the blade alone, but looks at the whole of the sword.

Viking Age swords tended to vary very little in terms of blade form, leading Petersen and Wheeler to use hilt styles as defining characteristics for their classifications. Medieval swords, however, show great variety in blade form. Using Wheeler's nine Viking-era types as a starting point, Oakeshott began his medieval typology with Type X (ten), which clearly draws its blade form from its Viking- and Migration-era ancestors. The remaining types are numbered XI (eleven) through XXII (twenty-two). A letter after the Roman numeral denotes a subtype where one exists. (e.g., Type XVIIIa).

These thirteen types and their subtypes were further divided by Oakeshott into two numbered groups. Group I, including Types X-XIV, consists of swords designed primarily to oppose mail. They typically feature wide, flat blades with lenticular cross-sections optimized for heavy-duty cutting. Group II, Types XV-XXII, consists of swords designed to oppose plate armour. In this group, we find the acute points and reinforced cross-sections (diamond and hexagonal) needed to stiffen the blades for thrusting. Most swords in Group II are quite capable in the cut as well as the thrust.

Examining the blade, pommel, cross-guard, and grip allows a sword to be categorized according to four frames of reference for description and comparison. It is then possible to group these swords into families of similar styles.

Oakeshott considered his typology to be incomplete and said he was sure someone would come along to further elaborate on it. Taking into account the vast variety of swords in the Middle Ages, he also pointed out that not all swords fit neatly into a particular category. The typology is designed for use as a starting or reference point and not for defining absolutes.

Oakeshott used all the scholarly and artistic tools available to him to make connections and place into context the armour and weapons he studied. The sword, he said, is an "artifact, historical document, symbol of power and valour, and of course romance." Considering this all, he used archeology, anthropology, historical documents, literature, and art to make comparisons and define the artifacts of history he studied. Never forgetting their "grim purpose," he felt these items needed to be studied as part of the whole of history and not merely as objects of art.

 Continue to Part 2

Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword in Hand: A History of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott

Most of the accompanying text written by Chad Arnow
Typology in Detail table data and the pommel/cross descriptions supplied by Russ Ellis
Typology illustration created by Nathan Robinson and based on the work of Ewart Oakeshott
Sword line drawings created by Nathan Robinson, based on swords from Records of the Medieval Sword
Pommel, cross, grip, and sword family line drawings created by Nathan Robinson, based on the work of Ewart Oakeshott
List of published works created by Patrick Kelly
Contributions and fact checking provided by Craig Johnson of The Oakeshott Institute
Editing tasks provided by Nathan Robinson, Chad Arnow, and Sean Flynt
Production services provided by Nathan Robinson

Additional Information
Please see our Spotlight Articles on each Oakeshott sword type:
  Type X, Type XI, Type XII, Type XIII, Type XIV, Type XV, Type XVI, Type XVII, Type XVIII, Type XIX, Type XX, Type XXI and XXII


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