The "River Thames Sword" and Other Oakeshott Type XVII Swords
An article by Björn Hellqvist, with contributions by Peter Johnsson

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Concept drawings of two Type XVII swords by Peter Johnsson

By the middle of the 14th century, armour had become more effective as more pieces of plate were added. This called for a new class of swords capable of powerful thrusts, as opposed to the cutting blades that had previously dominated. With more effective armour, the need for shields lessened, thus freeing the left hand. The new swords could often be wielded with both hands. One type of these swords was the Type XVII's (Ewart Oakeshott's typology). In his book The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Mr. Oakeshott describes the Type XVII family of blades as follows:

"A long, slender blade acutely tapering. Many are reminiscent of 16th century blades, but others are nearly as broad at the hilt (1 1/2"-2") as some of the XVIa blades. The section is generally hexagonal. Many examples have a shallow fuller in the upper quarter of the blade, though some do not. The grip is always long. The tang is usually very stout, of a quadrangular section. (...) This is a sword-type that offers no complications. There are some clearly datable examples, and English monuments between c. 1355 and 1425 show them almost exclusively—with the reservation that the swords are shown sheathed, and so might be of Type XVa. It is essentially a thrusting sword, some being more like stout, and sharply pointed bars of steel. They are much heavier than the earlier types; an ordinary XVII may weigh as much as 5 1/2 lbs (...)"

Going by the dimensions of the confirmed examples in his book Records of the Medieval Sword, the Type XVII blades averaged 34" (86.5 cm) in length, not counting the tang (nine blades, range 30"-38"/76.2-96.5 cm). The blades were fitted to relatively long-gripped hilts, which allowed for both hands to be used, either by one hand on the grip and the other gripping the pommel, or by both hands on the long grip. This made possible more powerful thrusts, as well as better control. The variation in size and mass is interesting. Some are big, heavy and long-bladed weapons weighing c. 2 kilos, probably demanding both hands for full control, while others are more like long-gripped single hand swords (at almost half that weight). Some have blades that are very similar to some later hexagonal sectioned cut and thrust swords, being slim and agile. Others are really the "sharpened bars of steel" as Oakeshott puts it. The handsome ones are very knightly in character; stark, simple and uncompromising. As the blades are typically very stiff, they have a lot of authority and can be balanced to achieve a high degree of point control.

A Look at Three Swords
Danish antiquarian Ada Bruhn Hoffmeyer's book on fellow Dane E. A. Christensen's collection, Gammelt jern ("Old Iron") shows three Type XVII's, here illustrated to scale, which can serve as examples of the type.

Sword, around 1400, Alsace
The pommel is disc-shaped and flat. The crossguard is straight and increases in thickness towards the ends. The blade is 101 cm long, 4.5 cm wide, evenly tapering, with a shallow fuller in the first third. In the blade are faint traces of an inlaid latten mark. Earth find from Alsace.

Sword from around 1350-1400
The pommel is disc-shaped and flat. The crossguard is straight and increases in thickness towards the ends. The blade is 101 cm long, 4.5 cm wide, evenly tapering, with a shallow fuller in the first third. In the blade are faint traces of an inlaid latten mark. Earth find from Alsace.

Sword, around 1400, French or English
Heavy pommel, diameter about 5.2 cm, with pyramidal rivet block. The crossguard is straight, around 17.5 cm long, with slightly thickened ends. The tang is around 20 cm long and slender: widest in the middle. The blade is narrow, evenly tapering in width: 101 cm long and 3.5 cm broad at the base with a short fuller.

Fencing With Type XVII's
Click to enlarge
The hilt of the
"River Thames Sword"

When judging such a sword today we need to keep in mind the basic concept of the design: a need for a sword to stand a chance on battlefields that saw increasing use of heavy and solid armour. To create a weapon with a more aggressive thrusting capability, a compromise had to be made on cleaving power. A war sword from the early 14th century can have truly amazing cutting/cleaving power due to its broad blade and relatively thin cutting section. To compare the Type XVII to these monsters is unfair. The Type XVII was never meant to do such things, but was specialized in other areas. With a sword of this kind, you can employ half-swording techniques (this is really not effective with the broad, thin blades popular a few decades earlier), and the stiff and sturdy point stands a chance of penetrating mail and padded armour with well-placed and well-supported thrusts. They are not unlike the Type XVa swords in this regard: precise point control and quick maneuverability (on those with that kind of balance). It takes a blade with a sturdy cross-section to take full advantage of the fencing/fighting techniques of this period (see Fiore Dei Liberi's c. 1410 fencing manual Flos Duellatorum). Look at the presentation in art from this period and you'll get the idea: men-at-arms on horseback, clad in pointed bascinets with dogfaced visors, dove-breasted breast plates, heavily padded gambesons complemented with mail and iron-reinforced cuir bouilli. It is not a picnic to make an impression on guys protected like that... The solution is to go for the thrust instead. Or so is the popular consensus when we interpret these weapons today.

What is often overlooked is the effect a high degree of stiffness will have on cutting/cleaving. It is possible to make a sword true to the character of Type XVII and still get it to present some serious cutting power. If the target is difficult to cut to begin with, your effort will be wasted on slim edge geometries. Instead, you have to work with the dynamic handling characteristics of the sword (distribution of mass, inertia and dynamic balance). A thicker blade can have the same final sharpening angle as the thinner sword but will have more material behind the edge to back it up. This is not the best edge geometry for cutting light or yielding targets, but a thicker section is less of a problem when hitting armour and hard targets. The effect is a weapon with a slim Gothic outline that delivers heavy blows and precise thrusts. It can be swung on a bascinet without too great a risk of it breaking, probably not cleaving the helm, but surely stunning the poor guy inside.

The "River Thames Sword"

Click to enlarge
Björn Hellqvist holding
the authentic sword

While visiting the The Royal Armouries, Leeds in 1999, I (Björn) was allowed to measure and handle a fairly typical Type XVII. It is well known, as it is often featured in books on arms and armour. The item number is IX.16, and the Armouries acquired it sometime before 1859. It's thought to have been found in the Thames River near London Bridge. It has surface corrosion, the grip is missing, and the pommel is loose, but it's perfectly clear that this is an elegant sword. The guard is slightly asymmetrical, with one arm 5 mm (0.2") longer than the other.

Measurements and Specifications:
Overall length: 1194 mm (47")
Blade length: 927.5 mm (36.5")
Blade width (at base): 43 mm (1.69")
Length of the ricasso: 156 mm (6.14")
Blade thickness at base: 7 mm (0.28"), 100 mm (4") from the point: at 5 mm (0.2")
Pommel height: 65 mm (2.56"), width (max): 45 mm (1.77")
Grip length: 193 mm (7.6")
Tang width (max): 20 mm (0.79")
Guard width: 258 mm (10.16"), square section of arms, 8 x 9 mm (0.315 x 0.354")
Point of balance: 110 mm (4.33") from the cross
Weight: 1535 grams (3 lb 6 oz), of which the pommel weighs 350 grams (12.25 oz)

With the pommel loose, there wasn't much chance of swinging the sword, and as it was a few years since I handled it, I have almost no memory of how it felt. But as I own a replica of this sword made by Del Tin Armi Antiche, the DT5140 (see our hands-on review), I was still able to make a comparison of sorts. The original sword felt a bit more maneuverable, but not by much. Point control would be somewhat better, but I think this is one of those swords where Del Tin gets really close.

The sword is clearly a knightly weapon, but it is impossible to tell who originally owned it, as it has no distinguishing marks whatsoever. It was probably made by the end of the 14th century, or perhaps in the beginning of the 15th century. Why did it end up in the Thames? My theory is that it fell overboard during a transport, as there are few good reasons why one would dump a fine weapon in the river. Regardless of how it was lost, it was rediscovered and now rests in the Royal Armoury where I had the pleasure to handle it some 600 years later. Like most XVII's, it's a straightforward design, but one which I'm partial to. A link in the development of the sword, the "River Thames sword" and its peers offers insights into the constant development of European medieval arms and armour.

About the Author
Björn Hellqvist is a Swedish optometrist with an interest in historical European swords.

About the Author
Peter Johnsson is a Swedish swordsmith and researcher, who does both custom work for collectors and designs for Albion Armorers.

Bruhn Hoffmeyer, Ada: Gammelt jern, E. A. Christensens våbensamling, 1968
Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott

Text © 2004 Björn Hellqvist and Peter Johnsson, except for quoted excerpts
Sword Concept Illustrations © 2004 Peter Johnsson for Albion Armorers
Photographed by Björn Hellqvist and reproduced with permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

All contents © Copyright 2003-2017 — All rights reserved

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