TEMPL Historic Arms Sutton Hoo Sword
A hands-on review by Paul Mortimer
The Sutton Hoo sword is part of a long tradition of Germanic swords that began during the late Roman period when some of the tribes, at least those in the north, adopted the Roman cavalry sword, the spatha, and began to make it their own. The evidence for this comes from many bog finds, particularly those in Nydam, Kragehul1, Vimose and Illerup Ådal. Apart from details of decoration, fuller, and to some extent length, the blade shape and type continued in use until well into the medieval period. In terms of decoration, the type reaches its zenith during the 6th and 7th centuries with gold- and jewel-encrusted hilts and highly decorative scabbards. After that time, swords, even high status ones, become better balanced with heavier pommels, but plainer by comparison.
I did not give Patrick many instructions apart from sending all the hilt details that I could. I left the interpretation of materials to be used and the actual measurements of components up to him. He enjoys making spatha swords because, I believe, it allows him to express his creativity and to experiment with new materials. Patrick did not set out to make an exact replica of the sword found in the mound nor did I ask him to do so. What I wanted was a sword that reflected the spirit and craftsmanship of the time. One example of the lengths that Patrick will go to get things right are the garnets on this sword. He had not produced cloisonné like this before so he bought rough, uncut garnets and experimented with them until he was able to cut them to the correct shape. I found his dedication absolutely remarkable.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Patrick Bárta, TEMPL Historic Arms of the Czech Republic.
The original sword was found in the famous Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk England. This burial has been dated to the early 7th century and current consensus is that the inhabitant was probably King Raedwald who died in about 625 AD. It also contained the largest known buried ship at more than 90 feet in length. There are some 19 known mounds at Sutton Hoo and most of them were robbed, probably during Elizabethan times. Apart from the Mound 1 sword, only one other has been recovered from the site so far and that was found in Mound 17. Like Mound 1, this one was not successfully robbed.
Fit and Finish
Patrick spent 250 hours on the extremely complex hilt. The grip is made from brown ebony wood and has four inserts of partly mineralised bone to separate the fingers. At each end of the grip are two filigree clips. Patrick experimented with the filigree until he achieved the desired result. Each element of the design is made from separate twisted wires that have then been soldered on to the clip. The sword from Sutton Hoo, at the time of burial, only possessed two clips but Patrick has included four as most surviving swords that have them are equipped with four. There is a Lomabardic sword found in grave 32 in Nocera Umbra, Italy that has four hilt clips that are so similar in technique to the ones on the Sutton Hoo that they are both likely to have been made by the same maker.
At either end of the grip are two sets of metal plates with polished horn inserts between them in the form of a sandwich. Each of the lower plates is slightly dished as they were on the original and all the large rivets that hold the sandwich together are decorated in some way.
The pommel consists of a bronze core which gives the fittings their shape. The tang protrudes through this bronze core and is then peened over to secure the hilt and blade together. To the bronze core are fixed five plates which cover the whole surface of the core. Each plate has a number of cells for the garnets that Patrick has cut, individually to shape. On this pommel there are 41 carved garnets. There are a few garnet pommels of a similar design from the 7th century, found mainly in Sweden, but they were a rare and expensive means of hilt decoration. All the metal parts of the hilt have been gold-plated. I would have preferred solid gold but opted for bronze for cost reasons.
Since I have had the sword I have added two mounting bosses just as on the original. These have ivory discs as backing material. I have used ivory pegs in order to fix the bosses to the belt and mount the sword. I know of only one other sword that has bosses of this type and that was found in grave 9 in Niederstotzingen, Germany. I have added two sword pyramids suspended on tablet woven braid as extra decoration. The original was also found with a pair. Pyramids of gold, silver, or bronze were found, in pairs, on some swords of this period: the significance is still far from certain. They are quite often found as stray archaeological finds by metal detectors, too, so they are not as rare as was once thought. The particular pyramids that I have used are copies of those found in Mound 17 as I don't yet know of any Mound 1 pyramids of sufficient quality2. The braids can be used as "peace bands". That is, they can be used to tie around the hilt to show that the sword owner will not draw the sword. At other times, as can be seen in the pictures they would be wrapped around the top of the scabbard to provide extra decoration and prevent the valuable pyramids from bouncing around and destroying themselves.
I have four other copies of spatha-type swords from this period. The Bárta sword is by far the easiest to handle, being lighter and better balanced, in spite of being only one inch shorter than the others. Swords of this period were rarely designed for subtle handling techniques, but rather for dynamic slashing attacks. It is only later during the Viking Age and early Middle Ages that an evolutionary change occurs. The development of iron hilt components and blades that featured increased profile taper made more subtle techniques possible. This sword is mainly a cutter, as several small branches of a tree in my garden can testify, but it does thrust quite well too. The blade is flexible yet would thrust adequately against the lightly armoured targets of the era. The grip is comfortable and secure.
The sword is solidly made, handles well, and is made in exactly the same way, as far as we can tell, that a 6th / 7th century sword would have been. There aren't many swordsmiths making swords from this period so this is an extremely good example of a comparatively rare breed.
I am so pleased with the work of Patrick Bárta of TEMPL Historic Arms that I have ordered another sword from him.
About the Author
Paul Mortimer has been interested in weapons as long as he can remember. After a flirtation with the army in his younger years, he became a schoolteacher and now teaches history and mathematics. He is particularly interested in arms and armour of the early medieval period.
Special thanks go to Nathan Bell for his willingness to provide his sword for review.
Photographer: Nathan Robinson