Spotlight: Oakeshott Type XVII Swords
An article by Chad Arnow
The sword had to change to retain (or regain) its effectiveness or it would likely face obsolescence. To combat the armour of the time, it was necessary to make greater use of the thrust to find vulnerable gaps and joints in an opponent's defenses. The flat lenticular cross-sections so popular on earlier swords were not well-suited to the thrust, since they gave the blade a necessary measure of flexibility to aid the cut. The wide tip sections needed for heavy cleaving were also an impediment to thrusting. Different cross-sections and blade profiles, therefore, needed to be developed to give the stiffness and the proper tip shape required for thrusting.
One such combination resulted in what Ewart Oakeshott called the Type XVII in his typology of the medieval sword. Rather than using a diamond cross-section like the Type XV, Type XVI, and Type XVIII, these swords used a pronounced hexagonal section to add stiffness to the blade. All of these swords are of hand-and-a-half proportions, to take advantage of the extra power and maneuverability given by the addition of the second hand to the grip.
Blades on swords of this type, which were popular between 1355 and 1425, often possess a fuller in their upper third, though this is not a defining feature of the type. These blades can be slender and, in Oakeshott's words, "reminiscent of 16th century rapier blades" or they can be wider at the base, similar to other types of swords. No matter the width, they taper to an acute point.
The cross-section and desire to defeat armour has resulted in some swords in this class having unusual weights and balance. Oakeshott mentions that the weight of some of these swords can be as much as five and a half pounds. One example from his own collection weighed nearly four pounds and had a balance point nearly halfway down the blade. Other examples, of course, weighed what would be expected for swords of the day. An example from the Fitzwilliam Museum even weighs in at around two pounds.
The mountings of these swords may have led Oakeshott to refer to Type XVII swords as "on the whole rather a boring type," as most examples seem to fall into one of two groups. The first group is what has become called the Sempach family of swords, so named because two swords of this configuration were found in graves of knights who died at the Battle of Sempach in 1386. These swords all possess scent-stopper pommels of Type T2 and down-curved crosses of Style 1a. Swords of the other group usually have wide, flat oval pommels of Type H1 and crosses of either Style 1 or Style 6. A handful of other examples don't fit into either group; these typically have other forms of scent-stopper pommels or other forms of wheel pommels.
Presented here is a sampling of authentic Type XVII swords:
This example found at the River Great Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire has been called the "leading example" of the Sempach family. Dated to between circa 1370 and 1400, it is in relatively good condition, has a 36" long blade, and weighs around two pounds.
This slightly earlier example, dated to between 1360 and 1390, is an example of the other major hilting style common to Type XVII swords. This sword, once in Oakeshott's collection, weighs almost four pounds and has a balance point almost near the center of its 34.125" long blade. Oakeshott called it heavy and "clumsy" even for this sword type.
Thought to have had a working life between 1380 and 1400, it was presented in its present form to the city of Bristol in the 1430s. The hilt is of silver-gilt and the decorations on it were applied so that they were best viewed with the point held up, similar to a bearing sword. It has a 38" long blade and its cross-guard is identical to the Battle Abbey Sword (1403) found in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh.
The Naskhi inscription on this sword gives it a date of 1436-37, when it was likely deposited in a Middle Eastern armoury as a tribute. The forging of the sword and the beginning of its working life likely date to the end of the 14th century. It has a 36.5" long blade and a modern replacement grip. The pommel has a copper-inlaid cross potent on its face.
The 38.5" long blade is of flattened hexagonal section at its forte and transitions to a flattened diamond section. The pommel is egg-shaped and the cross is horizontally recurved and gently arching, having a series of pinched medial ridges on one of its faces.
This sword is dated to circa 1375-1400 and, despite being a river find, is in excellent condition. It has a pommel typical of the Sempach family. A latten mark is inlaid on its 33" long blade.
Dating from circa 1380, this large sword has a 40.75" long blade of typical hexagonal cross-section. The flattened oval pommel and straight cross are also common features of the type. This example is heavily corroded, presumably a river-find.
This sword, found in the River Thames, is in decent condition but has pitting overall and a corroded point section. The 35" long blade has a ricasso, facilitating safe grabbing during close-quarters thrusting.
Type XVII Swords Found in Art
A wooden statue of St. George slaying the dragon, dated between 1350 and 1390, shows a sword best categorized as a Type XVII. The pommel is in the shape of a flattened wheel and the blade appears to have a hexagonal cross-section. Its grip, while slightly longer than St. George's hand, seems to fall a bit short of hand and a half length, and its blade also appears to be shorter than typical examples. A sword in The Wallace Collection, though, seems to be of similar proportions and sports a blade of only 29 3/8 inches.
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
Albion Armorers produces two versions of Type XVII swords, mounted on the same blade. Their Sempach is not surprisingly inspired by swords of the Sempach family. The Landgraf is representative of the other hilting of Type XVII blades, possessing a wide flat pommel of Type H1 and a guard of Style 6.
Angus "Gus" Trim's model 1526 "Lady Ash" could fit the Type XVII mold, since its blade has a short fuller and what appears to be a hexagonal cross-section.
These swords were a direct result of the heavy plate-over-mail harnesses so popular in the late 14th and early 15th century. While some are said to display excellent handling characteristics, others seem to be designed to damage and crack armour, much like an axe or warhammer. While other swords types, especially those with diamond cross-sections, may have possessed a better blend of cutting and thrusting abilities, Type XVII swords must have been effective, given their popularity and the frequency with which they appear on monumental effigies. The visual similarities between groups of surviving specimens is quite interesting, a situation that seems to be unique to this type. Hopefully, future research will bring more about these swords to light, which could, in turn, lead to a larger presence in today's market.
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
European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword Illustrations © 2004 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.