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A selection of medieval swords

The greatest swords of the medieval period


Swords were an important status symbol in the Middle Ages. They were a sign of prestige for medieval knights and throughout the years, the blade and sword designs adapted to suit the military tactics of the period. Some swords were crafted with stabbing in mind, while others were for cutting and slashing.

Ronald Oakeshott is one of the foremost experts on medieval arms and armour. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Founder of the Oakeshott Institute. He created a unique classification system of the medieval sword which organised weaponry into thirteen understandable categories. Many historians still rely upon the Oakeshott typology today.

Here we’re looking more closely at some of the most well-known swords of the era and how they were used.

1. Knightly sword

The knightly sword, or arming sword, is the common name for what we traditionally picture when we think of a sword. It is the quintessential European sword which features a single-hand cruciform hilt and straight double-edged blade measuring around 70cm to 80cm.

2. Longsword

The longsword was one of the most popular choices of weaponry for European knights. It stood out as a distinctive type of sword by the 14th century. It was popularly used in the early stages of the Hundred Years War by soldiers in full-plate armour, both on horseback and on foot.

As the name suggests, the blade of the longsword was longer than average, around 90cm to 110cm, and is essentially a longer version of a standard arming or knightly sword.

3. Falchion

A falchion, taken from the Latin word ‘falx’, meaning ‘sickle’, features a one-handed, single-edged, heavy and short blade. The blade is similar to a machete, as it gets broader towards the tip and was recognised as being especially versatile. It combined the weight and power of an axe with the versatility of use as a knightly sword.

Falchions are seen throughout history from the 11th century to the 16th century. It was most effective for cutting and chopping rather than stabbing. A cutlass, made famous by pirates and seafaring folklore, is also a later 17th century cousin of the falchion.

4. Broadsword

A broadsword, also known as a backsword, is a fairly typical medieval sword, mainly used in battle in the early medieval period. The broadsword was double-edged and designed for cutting rather than stabbing. Skilled swordsmen could use a broadsword to cause fatal wounds, sever limbs and decapitate enemies.

There are three main types of broadsword most commonly used: the claymore, popularised in Scotland, sabre swords, and the basket-hilted broadsword, which featured an intricate basket-styled handle to protect the hand carrying it. Broadswords were in use as early as the 6th century and remained popular into the 16th.

5. Rapier

Rapier swords became popular towards the end of the Medieval period. Slender in design, it featured a sharp, pointed two-edged blade and was particularly popular in Western Europe. The upper classes and noblemen would keep rapiers for duelling and self-defence. They were also used in the military as a side arm as late as the 17th century.

The rapier is primarily designed for thrusting. However, the blade is quite flat and does not bend so it can still be effectively used for slashing. As other types of sword became more popular, rapiers were used for show and as dress swords. Their design became more elaborate and worn ornamentally rather than in battle.

6. Billhook

The billhook is not the most sophisticated of swords, but it makes its way onto our list of greatest due to the sheer bloodthirsty nature of its use. It was the favoured sword of the English infantry. The English armed forces were known to use massed billmen in the late medieval era and it was these billmen who relied upon the billhook to battle against their foe.

Originally designed as a tool for farming and clearing the undergrowth, it was a surprisingly powerful tool for battle as well. With many different variations, the traditional English billhook featured a short handle and a curved blade. It was generally used in a swinging motion, offering the stopping power of a spear but also able to hook into the chinks of the enemy’s armour for grappling and to draw them in for a more fatal attack.