Spotlight: Oakeshott Type XV Swords
An article by Nathan Robinson
Throughout the course of the 13th century, more and more steel-plate reinforcements were added to the knight's defenses. The development of this plate armour presumably caused the introduction of swords designed more specifically for thrusting over the cut. Such thrusting weapons were intended to combat the increased weight and protection of the knight's armour by providing a means to find and penetrate the openings between plates and defeat the mail worn underneath.
Ewart Oakeshott dubbed one such weapon the Type XV and defined it as having a strongly tapered blade profile with an acute point and a flattened diamond cross-section. This specialized sword type had edges with straight lines that lacked the noticeable curves seen on previous blade styles. The design is purely a single-hand variety, having a medium length grip of about four inches long.
Evidence shows that Type XVs may have appeared as early as the second half of the 13th century, developing alongside and in response to the advancements of armour. The beginning of the 14th century saw sword design evolve to balance thrusting ability with the cutting designs of earlier years. The Type XV didn't seem to see its full development and widespread use until the end of this transitional period during the middle of the century.
It was during this time that sword development started to change much more rapidly than in previous years. The technological advancement of armour necessitated experimentation and specialization amongst sword forms and caused the development of a longer-hilted variant of the Type XV that Oakeshott called the Type XVa.
The Type XVa has a similar blade, being generally more slender than its parent type, and having a grip that is much longer; ranging from seven to nine inches long or more. Surviving examples of the Type XVa are more prevalent than the type itself, being common enough to cover a good number of well-known "bastard" or hand-and-a-half swords displayed in museums.
It might be tempting for scholars to classify the shorter-gripped swords of this type into the earlier part of its period and the hand-and-a-half variety into the later, but as Oakeshott notes, at least one sword in ten up to 1400 had a short grip. Many Type XV swords are shown in paintings dated between 1440 and 1510, all characterized by short grips and having blades broad at the shoulders that taper evenly to an acute point. Unlike previous examples that simply had a well-marked diamond cross-section, these later swords featured blades with a very strong central ridge flanked by deeply hollow-ground faces, or by a ridge rising abruptly from nearly flattened faces as shown to the right.
Presented here is a sampling of authentic Type XV swords:
This quintessential Type XV is in pristine condition and has a form seen in art as early as the mid-13th century extending all throughout the 15th. An identical sword is shown on the alabaster effigy (c. 1310) of John de Hanbury, at Hanbury, Staffordshire. Dating on this example is uncertain and may be as early as 1275 or as late as 1450, but the later date is likely because of the maker's mark on the blade.
The overall condition of this sword is very good, though it looks to have been over-restored and may have been a Type XVIII at one time. In its current state, after being severely honed, it's a Type XV in form. This example was once in the collection of Comte de Nieuwekerke.
This Italian sword, circa 1470-1500, is in excellent condition. It's presumed to have been kept in an armoury or a house. The blued hilt components retain much of their color. The grip, covered in red velvet and bound with steel and silver wire, remains in-tact, though shows signs of wear. Please see the large Color Photograph of the Hilt.
This well-preserved sword is likely Italian and from the first half of the 15th century. The blade shows pitting, but the hilt is in near perfect condition. Pommel and cross are of bronze-gilt and the grip is made of greenish-black horn, supported on each side with vertical bronze-gilt strips. The upper third of the blade has a flattened central rib. Despite having a rather long grip (5.25"), this sword is still a Type XV.
This sword has been well preserved, being found in the coffin of Estorre Visconti (Lord of Milan 1412-13). The pommel is adorned with engraved silver shields decorated alternately with the Viper of Visconti and the Cross of Milan. The grip is bound with a single strand of twisted copper wire with traces of gilding. The silver rain-guard decorated with a floral motif is present only on one side, the other half being lost to time. This piece now resides at the Treasury of Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, Monza.
Sword of possible English origin, circa 1400. The pommel is faceted and fig-shaped with recesses for small shields of arms. The quillons are flat and straight, with pierced cross cut-outs. The blade is a diamond section with a central fuller and traces of an inscription. Looking at the proportions of this photo may make this sword appear as a XVa, but Oakeshott classifies it as a Type XV.
Presented here are four authentic Type XVa swords:
Heavy pitting sits below the patina. The grip survives, though the tang and lower one-third of the blade is badly corroded. This style of sword appears to have been popular in the 14th century based on surviving examples.
This sword of outstanding quality and condition dates from 1320-40. It retains its grip core and outside part of the iron rain-guard. Marks on the blade give indications of scabbard mounts and offer insights to the date of the sword.
Research indicates this sword most probably hung above the tomb of Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. The condition is poor, being found quite corroded and having some two-thirds of the blade broken off. Extensive restoration has brought it into its current state, having a new grip fashioned, the blade repaired, and the pommel and guard blackened.
This sword, found in the collection of Sir Edward Barry, is a lake find and resembles closely many surviving swords including one in Northern France, two in the Thames in London, another in Yorkshire, and yet another with an Arabic inscription found in Italy.
Type XV and XVa Swords Found in Art
The Type XV is a sword type that has many surviving examples for scholars to study, many of which are able to be accurately dated. Much of this dating information can be gained from art and literature. The Type XV was in use for centuries and so it is difficult to pinpoint when it was first developed, as many of the early examples of this type have been lost to time. As with any sword type, appearances in art help to define its developmental timeframe.
The Type XV is prevalent all through 14th century art and is often seen in Italian paintings of the 15th century, particularly during 1420-1460. Paintings by Piero della Francesca, such as The Victory of Heraclius Over Chosroes in the church of St. Francis at Arezzo, clearly feature Type XV swords.
Oakeshott makes mention of the episode of Sieur de Joinville, a writing in 1309 of an incident in the battle of Mansourah in St. Louis's fatal crusade of 1250. He writes of a passage describing a sword being drawn from its place in front of the saddle and tucked under the arm, and being "used in the manner of a lance", it was run into the opponent to slay him.
The sword shown in a monument dating 1275-1290 in Salisbury Cathedral of William Longespée the Younger shows a blade with a four-sided cross-section and a mid-rib. The alabaster monument in Westminster Abbey to John of Eltham (+1337) shows a similar sword with a four-sided section. Type XV swords are also shown in The Romance of Alexander, circa 1330.
Eighty-percent of the military effigies and brasses of 1360-1420 show swords of the "bastard" or "hand-and-a-half" style of the Type XVa. It cannot be said for certain how many of these are of the Type XVa form because many are shown in scabbards. Perhaps the most famous, and of certain XVa form, is the sword appearing on the effigy of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral.
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
A replica of sword XV.4 from The Metropolitan Museum of Art is available from Del Tin Armi Antiche as their model DT2153 15th Century Sword. They also recreated the XV.5 Monza sword, calling it the DT2150 Sword of Estore Visconti.
Example XV.6 found in The Wallace Collection has been replicated by both Museum Replicas Limited as the "Shrewsbury Sword" and by Del Tin as the model DT5144.
Museum Replicas also has a Type XV available with a strong central ridge that they call "The Guingate Sword".
Albion Armorers makes a few Type XVa models: The Next Generation Castellan, Mercenary, Constable, and Agincourt swords. The Squire Line Late 15th Century Bastard Sword is also a Type XVa. The Poitiers is a Type XV.
The distinction between the Type XV and XVa is clear, though the observant reader will note that many actual swords would seem to fall midway between. Much of the means of categorization come from the blade's cross-section and profile taper, and not simply the proportions of its grip. Many swords might have a general appearance of the subtype, but because of the shape of the blade, must be classed as a Type XV.
Both of these types have been regarded by some as highly specialized weapons that completely disregard the cut in favor of the thrust. It could be surmised that their developmental bias went too far into being single-purposed, but the popularity of these swords for well over two centuries goes far into convincing us otherwise.
Though these swords posses a stiff cross-section and reinforced tip, it is clear that the ability to cut was not entirely tossed aside. These very same features that aide the thrust also have the effect of adding strength to the tip-section of the blade, reducing the chance of breakage to the acutely-pointed tip during a cut.
Every sword design must weigh the possible scenarios it may face, creating compromises and picking specifics on which to focus. In this regard, the Type XV and its subtype both seem to have made far fewer compromises than others, while still enjoying versatility in their design. Certainly, this type was not simply effective at its intended purpose, but devastatingly successful.
About the Author
Nathan Robinson has been interested in history and the hobby of reproduction arms and armour collecting for well over a decade. A professional Web developer in San Francisco, he started myArmoury.com as a resource for like-minded people and hopes to help educate and entertain enthusiasts and consumers alike. He strives to push the sword community forward, helping create a healthy market with functional and historically-researched pieces available for us all.
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
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Arms and armour (Pleasures and treasures), by A. Vesey B Norman
Historical Guide to Arms & Armor, An, by Stephen Bull
Sword Illustrations © 2004 Peter Johnsson
Illustration of the effigy of William Longespée © 1964 Ewart Oakeshott
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.