Spotlight: Oakeshott Type XIII Swords
An article by Chad Arnow

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Illustration of a Type XIII. Type XIIIa, and Type XIIIb sword by Peter Johnsson
Cut-oriented sword blades were a swordsman's companion from the fall of Rome to the rise of the Crusades. Highly effective against unarmoured opponents, and to a degree against mail, they were ideal weapons in the hands of many a warrior. As the High Middle Ages progressed, however, use of mail became more widespread. Many warriors also began to add reinforcements to their mail chausses and hauberks for additional protection. These additions came in the form of hardened leather (cuir-buolli) and steel plates strapped to vulnerable parts of the body. Against warriors clad in that fashion, cutting swords began to lose their effectiveness. To combat (literally) this trend, weapon makers began to experiment with different swords designs in an effort to again move to the forefront of that medieval arms race. Many sword makers concentrated on enhancing the thrusting abilities of their weapons, creating the later, more pointed types. Some, however, took the finest aspect of the old style swords—their cutting efficiency—and sought to improve them.

Ewart Oakeshott classified one of the swords of his latter group of swords as the Type XIII. The defining characteristics of this type are a longer, wider blade whose edges run nearly parallel to a rounded, or spatulate, tip. These blades are known to swell slightly in width just below the hilt, before the edges begin their virtually straight run to the point. Fullers generally run to around, or just over, half the length of the blade, creating a tip area that is wide and flat and is optimized for shearing blows. The cross-section of these blades is best defined as lenticular: a flattened ovoid shape. Grips tend to be longer than the earlier types, with an average length of around 6 inches, allowing for the off-hand to be used for extra leverage and power. Guards are most often simple and straight, and pommels are most frequently of the late Brazil nut and simple chamfered disk types (Oakeshott Types D, E. and I). Few dateable survivors of this type exist, though depictions in art seem to shows its heyday as 1260-1310.

More examples survive in a sub-type known as Type XIIIa. These swords have generally the same characteristics as Type XIII, except that both grip and blade are much larger. These are the early "Grete Swords" or espèes de Guerre referred to in literature and frequently depicted in art. The grips range from 6.5 inches to 9 or 10 inches, while the blades reach lengths of 37-40 inches. These swords are generally considered to be of German origin, since they are referred to as Grans espeès d'Allemagne ("Big Swords of Germany") due to the frequency with which they appear on 14th century German effigial monuments. Research has shown, though, that many Spanish effigies of the same period show these swords; a few English effigies show them as well. These swords were devastatingly effective in slashing attacks from horseback or two-handed use when dismounted. These great swords are found as early as the 12th century and remained popular through the 14th, with examples appearing in the 15th century as well.

It is important to note that some great swords classified in Oakeshott's early publications as Type XIIIa actually belong to Type XIIa. Type XIIa was not included in Oakeshott's original typology, but can be found in his Records of the Medieval Sword. Type XIIa swords will be of similar proportion to those of Type XIIIa, but the blades of the Type XIIa swords taper to a more acute point.

A second subtype was created by Oakeshott, and is called Type XIIIb. This is true single-handed type, though the blade is similar in proportions to Type XIII blades (with the exception of fuller that is sometimes more narrow than typical Type XIII examples).

Historic Examples
Surviving examples of the parent Type XIII are exceedingly rare. Presented here is a sampling:

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XIII.1 In a Private Collection, ex D'Acre Edwards Collection
This specimen, circa 1200-1300, is in excellent condition with very little pitting. It has a classic blade profile and the overall proportions of a Type XIII, regardless of the relatively uncommon triple-fullers. The blade is 31" long and the sword is said to weigh just over 3 pounds.

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XIII.2 In a Private Collection (?)
The classic Type XIII blade is mated to a hilt type that is a typical Viking form. The thin, square-sectioned tang is uncommon for this type. Dating circa 1200-50, this sword is in good condition with some deep pitting on its 32" long blade.

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XIII.3 In a Private Collection (?)
This one is another sword with a classically-proportioned Type XIII blade. It has a 33" blade and a down-sloped cross-guard, both in good condition with a medium amount of pitting.

The subtype Type XIIIa brings us many more surviving examples than the parent type. Here are some examples:

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XIIIa.1 From the Museum of London
Dating from 1300-50 and found in the Thames River, London, this example is in good condition with a shiny brown patina gathered in large patches. Being nearly of two-handed proportions, this is the largest example presented in this article and is rather heavy. The blade measures 39.5" long and is inlaid with a mark of a small dagger within its fuller.

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XIIIa.2 Found in a New Zealand junk shop, now in a Private Collection
Dating circa 1350+, this sword was housed in an armoury and remains in good condition. The 33.5" long blade has an inscription in Arabic script that reads "Inalienably bequeathed to the frontier city of Alexandria the well-guarded during the days of our master, chief of the Emirs Al Nasiri Aristai". Despite weighing nearly 4 pounds, it is said to handle well when used as designed.

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XIIIa.3 From the Burrell Collection, Glasgow
Looking to be a river find and dating circa 1200-50, this example is in excellent condition. The fuller on the 36" long blade has an inscription engraved and inlaid in latten with the letters A.C.L.I. and a mark of a bell within a shield. The leather and wood grip remain in good condition. Another heavy sword at 3.75 pounds, Oakeshott says, "If handled correctly, [it] handles well".

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XIIIa.4 From the Burrell Collection, Glasgow
Dating circa 1270-1330, this sword has a blade length of 36.5", is a river-find in excellent condition and without serious pitting.

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XIIIa.5 From the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery
This is an example of a sword that does not fit neatly into any single category. The long and narrow fuller of the 35" blade is much like an Oakeshott Type XI, but because of the sword's proportions, it is placed into the Type XIIIa group. The cross-guard is also an earlier style, known as a Gaddhjalt or "Spike-hilt" form, and is most common amongst Viking swords. Oakeshott dates this example early for the type at circa 1200-50, or perhaps even as early as 1100.

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XIIIa.6 From the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, A7627i
Dating circa 1350+ and having a 34" blade, this sample was preserved in an armoury and remains in good condition with only light pitting. An Arabic inscription reads: "Inalienable bequest to the Armoury of the frontier city of Alexandria in the time of Alsaifi Faris, the Commissary, A.H. 840 (AD 1430-31)."

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XIIIa.7 From a Private Colection, found in Bohemia
Dating circa 1480-1510, this sword is a good example of the revival of the Type XIIIa near the end the end of the 15th century. It remains in amost perfect condition with only surface corrosion and having its original wood, cord, and leather grip. The blade has a Cross Fourché of inlaid latten and a stamped "twig"—a common mark on blades from the late 13th-16th centuries.

Presented here is a sampling of authentic Type XIIIb swords:

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XIIIb.1 In a Private Collection, ex Peter Dale Ltd.
Found in Scandinavia, this sword remains in excellent condition and appears not to have been excavated. Oakeshott dates it circa 1250-80 and refers to it as "a perfect example of that rather rare subtype, XIIIb". A Roman (?) coin is inset into the recesses of each pommel face.

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XIIIb.2 From the Severance Collection, Cleveland Museum, Ohio
Dating circa 1240-80, this example has a blade aproximately 32" long. It's been well kept, perhaps preserved in a church. The grip is a modern replacement and is criticized by Oakeshott as being too fat, lessening the impact of this otherwise nicely proportioned sword. An unusual feature of this sword is the way the shallow fuller ends before hitting the cross-guard.

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XIIIb.3 From the Philadelphia Art Museum
Found in the Arsenal at Alexandria, this example is in very good shape. The 34.5" blade has an Arabic inscription telling us that it was deposited in the Hall of Victories in 1367. The pommel is of latten.

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XIIIb.4 From the Toledo Cathedral Treasury
This is an excellent example of a near-perfectly preserved sword likely kept in its scabbard, also surviving, for most of its existence since the 14th century. Of rather small size with a 28" blade length, it is thought to be a light riding sword. The hilt is silver gilt and has a grip bound with a single strand of silver wire.

Type XIII Swords Found in Art
Many examples of this type can be found in period art, and these largely provide a dateable reference for the period of use these swords saw. A famous example is found in the Tenison psalter, made for a short-lived son of England's Edward I. In this example, the sword is clearly shown being used with two hands, while its scabbard hangs from the knight's belt. Another example comes again from England, in a manuscript dating from around 1300 called an "Apocalypse of St. John." This shows a kneeling knight girded with a long sword appearing to be a Type XIII. There are numerous sculpted examples in England, Spain and Germany, whether on effigies or other sculptures.

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A&A Bohemian Broadsword

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A&A 12th Century Sword

A Sampling of Available Reproductions
Swords of this type are somewhat rare in the market. When they are found, they are often approximations of the type, missing some of the subtleties of the originals. Many modern makers give the blades a well-defined hexagonal cross-section in the fullered section or a diamond cross-section, rather than a more flat convex lenticular cross-section.

Albion Armorers boasts many examples of the type in their Next Generation lineup, though there are only examples of the sub-types represented. The Duke, Count, and Chieftain are Type XIIIa swords. The Tritonia of the Peter Johnsson Museum Collection is classified as Type XIIIb.

Angus "Gus" Trim also has a number of swords in his lineup classified as Type XIII, though again they are subtypes and not examples of the standard Type XIII. Models AT1421, AT1423, DN1423, and AT1428 are all examples of Type XIIIa.

Arms & Armor's Bohemian Broadsword (modeled after XIIIa.7, above) recreates a late example of Type XIIIa, though the blade has a hexagonal cross-section atypical of the type. Their 12th Century Sword, also of Type XIIIa, is a recreation of an early example (see XIIIa.5, above).

Most improvements to the sword involved making the point more lethal and more able to be precisely controlled. Type XIII swords, however, took the old parallel-edged cutting swords and tried to better them by increasing their brutal slashing efficiency. Against reinforced mail and against plate, they would not have been the most effective choice. These swords remained popular for quite some time, though, giving us another indication that not all warriors were clad in full plate, and showing once again that cutting swords never went entirely out of use on the medieval battlefield.

About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.

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
Sword in Hand: A History of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott

Sword Illustrations © 2002 Peter Johnsson

The list of available reproductions contained in this article is not meant to be all-encompassing. It is, however, a good representation of what was available at the time of this article being published.

All contents © Copyright 2003-2024 — All rights reserved

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