Help needed - how many people carried a sword in the C15th

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stumped parent 2
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Help needed - how many people carried a sword in the C15th

Post by stumped parent 2 »

Hi,

My son is currently doing a project on a topic of his choice for school. He is writing about being a soldier in the fifteenth century during the wars of the roses. However as usual he has a million questions I cannot answer. The biggest one is would a man at arms have fought with a sword in a line for battle? I thought I'd look at the pictures on here but I am still not sure. Basically can someone tell me who fought with swords in the 15th century and what was the minimum equipment a swordsman would have had.

Thank you very much, I am sorry if this isn't the place to ask!

Best wishes

Steven Barnes

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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

I, and many other re-enactors carry a sword, but as an ornament and a back up rather than as a first choice weapon. The Burgundian Ordiannces are quite specific about what every soldier was suppossed to carry and they all seem to be required to own or be issued with a sword of differing styles, ie one handed for gunners, stiff two handed for archers. Italian mercenary companies were also specific for what each man was expected to fight with and captains would have money deducted if they did not keep them up to standard. The suggestion is that everyone carried a sword, at least in the mainland of europe. They may however only ever used it too look tough, too cut up fireword, as a walking stick what ever because the main weapon was either a polearm or a missile arm. If it makes any semse to you-and i'm no expert on this by any streach of the imagination-I was issued with a bayonet and did bayonet training but only ever used it to open tins of beans.
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Fox
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Post by Fox »

I'm entirely with Marcus.

It depends on when and where, but the simple answer is that almost every soldier seems to have carried a sword of some sort.

The second half of that answer is that almost no-one used them as a primary weapon; the sword is just a handy jack-of-all-trades backup.

Swords were just not terribly useful on the 15th century battle field, compared to some of the specialist weapons that were about; they were probably saved until those specialist weapons were no longer in their element, if they got used at all.

Swords also still seem to be widely carried off the battlefield for personal defence and possibly even for "fashion" reasons.

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Phil the Grips
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Post by Phil the Grips »

What Marcus said.

People were not employed specifically as "swordsmen" until the C16th when the Spanish brought in their Targetiers (carrying a round shield and sword) to deal with pike units.

Swords were always a backup weapon on the battlefield, and even in C15th duels, but in a civilian setting (around town and especially when travelling between towns and their relative safety) they seem to have been fairly common among all people, or at least not unknown. Much like shotguns today- they are about, you might know someone that has one but unless you live in the country, or use one for a living or hobby then it is unlikely you'll see one out and about, and it wouldn't cause a huge stir if you did.

Wills and the like also show that there was a fair number of old swords lying around houeses in storage- much as grandad's old sabre might be in the attic somewhere today.

However by far the most used weapon was a dagger as that would be carried by all men at all times and so come in handy when tempers fray in and around taverns.
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Fox
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Post by Fox »

Yes. Having reread the end of my post (which was too brief), Phil has the balance of sword carrying much better worded. Also a good point about daggers.

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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

"A good point about daggers" you old card Fox. :roll:
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Chris, yclept John Barber
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Post by Chris, yclept John Barber »

The original question being 'would they have used swords in the line of battle', the answer is no. Swordsmen generally need more room to operate (room to swing the sword) so they can't stand as close together for mutual support as men with polearms. (Please, everyone - don't relaunch the 'did they use bill-blocks' argument here! If anyone wants to read many pages of discussion on that subject, look for the other thread.)

The problem is that with the increased protection value of plate armour and thirty-layer linen jacks, it takes a lot of energy to get through to hurt someone, and that either requires a big swing, or a two-handed thrust. Big swings take more space, and two-handed swords are less efficient, weight-for-weight, than a polearm when used for thrusting.

When the battle-lines break up into a melee, that's when a man-at-arms might choose to use a sword, just to make sure that he can't be beaten by someone getting past the point of his bill or spear. The same applies to carrying weapons in town - you wouldn't want to carry a long polearm to the pub, and if you're unsupported a mugger can get around it, so you'd be more likely to carry a sword, short poleaxe, or some other short weapon.

And of course, archers would have a secondary weapon for when they run out of arrows, or are overrun, or ambushed when their bows are unstrung. They wouldn't carry a bill or long spear because it and the bow would be too combersome. As I understand it, most favoured falchions, which are really medieval machetes, which are also really useful for cutting the stakes with which they often protected their positions.
Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives - it's 1183 and we're barbarians.

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Post by Fox »

Chris, I basically think what you're saying is correct, but I don't think space is specifically a factor; more that a sword is not the best tool for the job.

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Re: Help needed - how many people carried a sword in the C15

Post by Ghost »

stumped parent 2 wrote:Hi,

My son is currently doing a project on a topic of his choice for school. He is writing about being a soldier in the fifteenth century during the wars of the roses. However as usual he has a million questions I cannot answer.
Steven Barnes

Try this for all sorts of interesting information


The Medieval Soldier: Men Who Fought the Wars of the Roses
by A.W. Boardman (Author)

Publisher: Sutton Publishing Ltd (26 Mar 1998)
ISBN-10: 0750914653
ISBN-13: 978-0750914659
"Tell your masters that Englishmen do not surrender" - Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset to French Herald; Valmont, 1416.

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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

Thats a dreadful book. Hardly any of it actually refers to the subject of the Wars of the Roses and not much refers to the average "Tommy" either.
There are easy to obtain and translate copies of the Burgundian and French Ordiannces and the Osprey book Armies of Medieval Burgundy would cover everything and more that a wean at school would need.
To back up what Fox said I will fight using my hand and a half if I havn't brought along a polearm (I don't like using borrowed polearms beacuse I don't know the reach, weight and feel of them and if I don't feel confident then I don't feel safe.) When I use it as a half sword I take up no more room than a spearman.
And I don't have to tell Chris or anyone else that while we use our bills, halbreds and so on as lumpy and cumbersome hockey stick-cum-pikes you only need to read some of the descriptions or look at the illustrations of late 15th/early 16th century battles (I love the line drawing of the Swiss amd German Landknechts giving it large) you can see how they were used as massive hacking and slashing weapons. There are even records of men in the second and third rays having their heads stove in or their skulls split open by over enthusiastic overhead swings from the first rank. Come to think of it you read of men impaling their mates behind them when gearing up for a really meaty thrust with a pollaxe or glaive as well.
Then again most of the fight manuels suggest that you use a half sword technique against someone with a polearm in order to get close enought to wrestle them to the ground and stab them with your bollock dagger. So again the sword is shown as being a poor substitute for a spear.
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Colin Middleton
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Post by Colin Middleton »

The great (or 2 handed) sword was known at the time wasn't it. While it wasn't common, a knight may use such a weapon in place of a pole axe, glaive, etc. Common men would be unlikely to use such an expensive and skilled weapon.

Various forms of sword existed and were carried by many different groups, as was some form of long knife (these could be upto 3 feet long, so are effectivly swords) and it's pretty clear that many if not most people walked around armed.

On the WotR battlefield, no-one would opt to use a sword (see the great sword exception I mention above), much as no solder today would opt to use their knife or pistol on the battle-field. Swords were carried because of their flexability (i.e. they can be used in almost any situation), while a more potent weapon (bill, bow, pole-arm, etc) was used for the main fighting.

Your young'un has picked a surprisingly complex subject to work on there, I wish him the best of luck with it. Of course, he may well know the subject better than the teacher :roll:
Colin

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Post by Fair Lady Aside »

If you're up against another fellow armed in full plate, your best bet is a pole axe or hammer of some type. As my husband is fond of stating, "This suit was made with hammers, it can be taken apart with them". That's when he shows the audience his bec de corbin which he lovingly refers to as a 15th century lobster mallet.

The Ordonnances are continental. So time, place, and who comes into play. The Burgundians are among the most documented and are very specific about type of soldier and their armaments, but do all armies of this time period follow those rules? (I'm not looking for an answer to the question, just playing Devil's Advocate :twisted: )
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Phil the Grips
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Post by Phil the Grips »

Colin Middleton wrote:The great (or 2 handed) sword was known at the time wasn't it.
Depends on what you define as a greatsword- if the twohanders shown in C15th German treatises then they were used for unarmoured play in the main. They have no additional armour breaking capacity-hammer is the only way.

They are more common in the C16th (as defined as being able to get 4 hands on the hilt) and were traditionally issued to the standard bearer's bodyguard as a badge of rank and also as they were effective in defending agaisnt a crowd. This is why Alfieri's banner twirling and defence section shows them in use. One treatise (?Degrassi?) recomends them if you are expecting serious trouble on the street, assuming you are the law, as they make a man " a galleon among galleys" :)

They only really came in due to the lessening of armour and the increase of the pike as they could be used at differing lengths/measures since it is fairly consistent advice that the twohander is used in a very similar manner to a staff.
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Post by Stephen Dobson / Rab »

Fair Lady Aside wrote:"This suit was made with hammers, it can be taken apart with them".
I like that 8)

Oh, and in answer to the original post - I think Phil, Fox and Marcus have it pretty well wrapped up, particularly for C15th.

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