Spotlight: Oakeshott Type XVII Swords
An article by Chad Arnow

Click to enlarge
Illustration of three Type XVII
swords by Peter Johnsson
The 14th century shows an ever-increasing amount of evolution in defensive armour. With an increase in the effective use of archers and foot soldiers beginning early in the century, the largely mail-clad mounted warrior began to show an unprecedented level of vulnerability. The response to this, quite logically, was to augment the typical defenses of the early 14th century (a mail suit, iron helm, and early plate defenses for the legs) with additional plates of iron on other parts of the body. These plates were strapped over the existing mail, adding protection, in varying amounts, to the upper extremities and the torso. While these changes may have added some level of protection against foot soldiers and arrows, they had the effect of rendering older-style cutting swords ineffective against anyone wealthy enough to afford one of these so-called "transitional" harnesses (the transition being between basically mail only and full plate harnesses). The difficulty encountered in wounding someone dressed like this led other weapons to rise in favor, most notably impact weapons like the mace, axe, and warhammer.

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.

Historic Examples
Presented here is a sampling of authentic Type XVII swords:

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XVII.1 From the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
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.

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XVII.2 From the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
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.

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XVII.3 From the Corporation of the City of Bristol
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.

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XVII.4 From the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
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.

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XVII.5 From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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.

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XVII.6 Located in a Private Collection
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.

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XVII.7 From The Marzoli Collection, Brescia
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.

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XVII.8 The Royal Armouries, Leeds, IX.16
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

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St. George and
the dragon

It is not always easy to identify Type XVII swords in period art since they can share a silhouette with other types when sheathed, such as Type XVa and Type XVIa. Since hilt configurations that are commonly associated with Type XVII swords (which appear with less frequency perhaps on other types) appear quite frequently on effigial monuments in England and Germany in the late 14th and early 15th century, though, it is possible to conclude that they were quite popular in that period. Oakeshott goes so far as to say that "English monuments between circa 1355 and 1425 show them almost exclusively." For example, the sword worn by Weikhard Frosch (died 1375), though sheathed, shows a slender, pointed blade, down-curved guard, and scent-stopper pommel, making it similar to swords in the Sempach family.

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
Click to enlarge
Albion's Sempach
and Landgraf
Swords of true Type XVII configuration are relatively rare in the production market today, though custom makers have produced one-off examples for customers. Many makers produce swords whose hexagonal cross-sections and long grips might seem to fit the type, but many are simply poorly-done lenticular cross-sections.

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.

All contents © Copyright 2003-2017 — All rights reserved

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