Swords of the English Civil Wars

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During the English Civil War all types of soldier, cavalry and infantry carried swords. There were different types of sword for cavalry and infantry. In 1645 Parliament ordered 3200 swords and belts at five shillings each. Two hundred of these were for cavalrymen. Today it isn’t known what types are meant for cavalry and which are meant for infantry.

Before the English Civil War many swords were made at the Hounslow sword factory to the west of London. It produced thousands of swords and sword blades. Many swords of the time have blades marked Hounsloe, Hounslo or other versions of Hounslow. The organiser of this factory was Benjamin Stone he became “His Majesty’s blademaker for the office of the Ordnance”. Many of the men who made the sword blades were from Germany.

The Mortuary-Sword

Mortuary-sword is the name given to a type of sword that is unique to Britain. These swords have an iron hilt with bars to protect the hand. Some are decorated with heads with long hair, moustaches and small pointed beards. These look like miniature portraits of Charles I.

It was thought that this type of sword was made to commemorate his execution in 1649. Because of that they have been given the name mortuary-sword. But swords of this type were in use long before Charles was executed. The term is still in use to describe this type of sword.

Mortuary swords have lots of other types of decoration. These include figures in armour on horseback, coats of arms and patterns of foliage and piercing. One mortuary sword is the sword carried by Olive Cromwell at the siege of Drogheda. There are marks on the blade where it was hit by musket balls as Cromwell led his men in the attack on the town.

The Proto-Mortuary Sword

This type of sword gets its modern name because it is thought to be the forerunner of the mortuary-sword. This hasn’t been proved and the two types of sword were in use at the same time. The proto-mortuary sword has two shell-shaped guards on either side of the hilt and a circular or shell-shaped guard in the middle of the knuckle-guard. The two shell-guards are often different sizes.

Like the mortuary-sword there are also various combinations of bars to give further protection. The decoration of the proto-mortuary is usually much simpler than that of the mortuary-sword. The most common is simple chiselled lines.

Some do have more ornate chiselled heads and patterns of foliage. One type has a pommel shaped like a lion’s head with the neck forming a large part of the grip. These are almost always cast brass and are often silver-plated.

The Basket-Hilted Sword

The basket-hilt had already been around for some time by the mid-seventeenth century. It appears in Britain during the sixteenth century and was often called the Irish Hilt. The term ‘Irish’ was used for the Gaelic speaking people of both Ireland and Scotland.

The hilt of a basket-hilted sword is made up of three sets of three bars each. The bars of each set meet at the pommel to form a tongue that is usually screwed to the pommel. Where the bars of one set meet the adjacent bars of another set they form saltire like features and this junction is often formed into a disc or plate.

The pommels of this type of sword are usually large and round. Some mass-produced poorer quality swords have a flat bun-shaped pommel.

The Hanger

The name hanger is given to any short sword, usually with a curved blade. During the mid-seventeenth century there was a type of hanger unique to Britain. It usually has two shell-shaped guards, the outer one larger and curved towards the point, the inner one, sometimes missing, smaller and curved towards the pommel.

The grip is sometimes made of wood with wire binding, sometimes of stag or buck-horn. The knuckle-guard is decorated in the middle.

These swords are always decorated, often with a pattern of dots and squares or piercing and chiselled decoration. The blades are usually curved and often have what is known as a Falchion point or a saw back blade. These swords were intended for use in hunting rather than war, but there is little doubt that were used during the English Civil Wars.

The Rapier

The rapier had been in use for some time by the start of the English Civil War. By then there were some very distinctly British styles of rapier. One has a pierced cup guarding the hand, which is surmounted by linked rings. Another form has a solid cup decorated with chiselled figures and patterns of foliage.

On one rapier these figures appear to be the heads of Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria. Yet another English rapier has a pair of shell-shaped guards with rings and bars. All of these have quillons that curve in opposite directions at their ends.

Pattern Swords

Since 1632 weapons made for the British army have been made according to regulation patterns. As part of the quality control of these weapons a pattern or approved example was kept in the Tower of London.

Weapons supplied could be compared with this to make sure they were up to standard. This still happens today just as it did at the time of the English Civil Wars. Unfortunately none of the patterns from the English Civil Wars can now be identified. But some types of sword exist in such quantities that they probably are regulation or pattern swords.

One of these is a very basic proto-mortuary with simple chiselled line decoration. An example of this sword is marked on the blade with the words FOR THE TOWER. It is possible that this is the original pattern for this type of sword.

Did you know?

Strange but true

A bullet fired from a gun parallel to the ground, and an identical one dropped from the same height simultaneously, will both hit the ground at exactly the same time.