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The deadliest medieval weapons 


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The medieval era was a time of clashing empires, bloody crusades and savage civil wars. But what kinds of weapons were wielded by those caught up in the myriad conflicts? Let’s take a look at the ones that could be relied on to do the most damage…


If there’s one weapon that’s truly emblematic of the middle ages, it’s the sword. Among the main types used during the era were hefty longswords, designed for two-handed use, and smaller, lighter ‘arming swords’ to be wielded with one hand. More than a lethal instrument that could be used to slash and stab the enemy, the sword was also a status symbol, synonymous with knights and leaders. Such was the prestige of swords that some became famous – including 'Colada', the sword of Spanish knight El Cid, and Joyeuse, the legendary sword of Charlemagne.


Cheaper and easier to mass-produce than swords, pikes were long wooden shafts with sharp, metal tips, popularly used by infantrymen. While they weren’t as easy to wield as swords, the sheer length of pikes made them formidable and deadly weapons, ripe for plunging into knights attacking on horseback. Troops equipped with pikes and shields would form tight arrays known as schiltrons, which functioned to all intents and purposes like gigantic, lethal hedgehogs. Schiltrons are particularly associated with Scots fighters during the Wars of Scottish Independence, and were deployed to devastating effect by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn.


Think ‘lances’ and images of medieval jousts may come to mind. However, the lances used in such sporting events were blunt-ended and brittle, and designed to unseat rather than impale opponents. They were a far cry from sharp, deadly battlefield lances that were essentially pikes used by soldiers on horseback. Byzantine armies, for example, would often deploy fearsome cavalry formations consisting of both mounted archers and lancers, the latter wielding their long weapons in underarm and overarm grips. Driven forwards by the surging momentum of the attacker’s horse, a lance could make short work of any infantrymen unlucky enough to be in the way.


Perhaps the most crudely straightforward of all medieval weapons, the mace was quite simply a kind of club used for bludgeoning enemy combatants. Maces came in various shapes and sizes. Some had metal heads, some had stone. Some had protrusions to better penetrate armour (or bone). Even if the enemy’s armour remained intact, the force of the blow could cause serious internal damage. There’s a popular misconception that maces were wielded by priests in battle, so as to avoid shedding blood. But there’s no real evidence this was ever the case. Besides, maces would most assuredly shed blood when used to cave in enemies’ skulls.

Battle axes

Popularly associated with Vikings, the deadly power of battle axes made them a popular medieval instrument of war far and wide. A particularly brutal section of the Bayeux Tapestry, which chronicles the events around the Battle of Hastings, depicts an Anglo-Saxon soldier using his axe to smash in the head of a Norman horse. English monarchs such as King Stephen and Richard the Lionheart were known to have personally used battle axes. One of the most infamous uses of the battle axe came early in the Battle of Bannockburn, when Scottish king Robert the Bruce hacked an English knight’s head wide open during a one-on-one confrontation.


Daggers may be traditionally associated with assassinations and other kinds of secretive skulduggery (hence ‘cloak and dagger’), but they were also a bona fide battlefield weapon for close combat. For example, when they weren’t firing arrows at the Battle of Agincourt, archers were plunging daggers into enemy knights, the narrow blades slipping easily into the chinks of their armour. This weapon also likely played a part in the death of Richard III at Bosworth Field. Forensic analysis of the king’s skull shows that a dagger was used to smash off his helmet, exposing Richard to the further blows that killed him.


Crossbows functioned like medieval rifles: you aimed, pulled the trigger, and delivered the bolt into the body of your enemy. They had the great benefit of being easy to operate: protracted training wasn’t required, nor was brute strength on the part of the soldier. As long as they could load and point the things, crossbowmen were able to dispatch even the most elite enemy knights. The main drawbacks of crossbows were that they were heavy and slow to reload. But their lethality was indisputable, with one notable victim being Richard I. He was shot by a crossbow bolt during a battle in France, famously pardoning the young French lad who’d shot him before perishing from the wound.


Longbows – literally large bows used to fire arrows – had a major advantage over crossbows: they took far less time to reload. However, using a longbow was a tougher ask, requiring significant upper body strength to draw back the arrow and hold the longbow steady while aiming. It took significant expertise to use longbows effectively, which is why Edward III reputedly said ‘If you want to train a longbowman, start with his grandfather.’ The English were particularly renowned for their use of longbows during the Hundred Years’ War. It’s said that, at the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V’s longbowmen filled the sky with enough arrows to blot out the sun, cutting down French soldiers, causing their horses to panic, and helping assure victory.