Militaria and edged weapons

The Sword in Britain 1600-1700 – a Brief History

BRITAIN IN THE 17TH CENTURY experienced a prolonged period of enormous social, economic and  technological change that affected most corners of the country.  By the end of the century, Britain had also witnessed a devastating civil war, the execution of a reigning monarch, foreign wars and the growth of a formerly middle ranking European nation into an economic powerhouse of world importance.

The development of the sword in Britain also mirrored many of the social and technological changes occuring throughout Europe, particularly in the nature of warfare, where the use of more effective and reliable firearms and cannon, had drastically reduced the importance of both armour and the sword in battle.  Despite this, this sword continued to be held in high esteem by the soldier in the field and could always be relied on as a weapon of both first and last resort.  Its effectiveness might have been diminished when facing a line of cannon or musketeers, but in close quarter combat, cold steel usually prevailed and was an important psychological weapon against an enemy, particularly an enemy fleeing the battlefield.

It is important to remember that the 17th Century sword was utilised for a variety of tasks and specific types were required for different functions.  In general terms, swords were divided into military and civilian types, although in many cases they became interchangeable and were privy to the whim of the owner.  Here is a brief historical overview of the main sword types available in England during the 17th Century.  Subsequent chapters will cover these types in more detail.

© Harvey J S Withers Military Publishing.


As England and Europe entered the 17th Century, the main sword of choice for the civilian gentleman was the rapier and especially, its swept-hilt form.  Originating in the Iberian Peninsula during the mid- 16th Century, it was an attempt by sword makers to add more protection to the swordsman’s hand and was a direct response to the decline of armour (specifically, the armoured gauntlet) in the face of rapid technological improvements in firearms.  The swept-hilt rapier came in many forms but it is clear that by 1600, most Western European countries had adopted this sword type.  During the first quarter of the century, hilts became more elaborate and complex, with finely worked chiselling and inlaid silver and gilt decoration.

In England, the swept-hilt was also adopted and soon became a fashionable sword style worn by English gentleman.  But there were other distinctively “English” rapier hilt types emerging in tandem, based on the swept-hilt, but with changes to the configuration of hilt bars and exhibiting open cup-hilts, ranging from the quite plain (when compared with continental examples) to finely wrought hilts, featuring inlaid silver shell guards and pierced cups.  The dish-hilted rapier was also a common English style during the first half of the 17th Century and many of these delicate hilts are attached to extremely long and narrow blades, indicating their primary use as duelling weapons by civilians.

The “Cavalier” hilt was also a peculiarly English contribution and so-called because of its preponderance during the reign of King Charles I (1600-1649).  It is a more robust version of the standard English duelling, dish-hilt and is defined by the use of a forward-projecting knuckle bow, quillons (straight or coiled), and a series of pommels, varying in shape from ovoid to bulbous or onion-shaped.

Other hilt types in England during this period included the “Pappenheimer” rapier hilt, a design originating in the Netherlands and named after Gottfried Heinrich, Graf zu Pappenheim, a German cavalry general and field marshal of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  It comprises a large hilt with multiple rings, upturned shell guards (invariably pierced), and a faceted, urn-shaped pommel.  Some are also attached to wide, broadsword blades and would have been used by military officers in the field.


The appearance of the smallsword during the late-17th Century was a consequence of the diminishing importance and requirement for rapiers and long-bladed swords within the civilian environment.  The earlier rapiers, with their massive hilts and extremely long blades, had become a cumbersome nuisance when combined with civilian dress and so the trend started for smaller hilts and shorter blades.  These “Town” or “Walking” swords were more comfortable to wear and also followed the dictates of contemporary fashions.  When Charles II (1630-1685) returned from exile in Holland and Spain, his entourage brought to the English Court the continental (particularly French) fashion for carrying smaller swords and thus the term “smallsword” was adopted.

Hilt design also changed gradually and we see the narrowing and lengthening of grips, widening of knucklebows into more rectangular shapes and introduction of double-shell guards and the distinctive pas-de-ane.  Pommels moved away from the typical fluted, ovoid profile of the rapier, to more spherical shapes.

© Harvey J S Withers Military Publishing.


A diverse range of military sword types came into prominence in England during the 17th Century.  They include the English Mortuary and Dutch Walloon sword and the Venetian Schiavona and English/Scottish basket-hilted broadsword.

The Mortuary sword was a common English hilt style of the early to mid-17th Century.  It was  termed “Mortuary” in the 19th Century by antiquarians who believed that they could discern the chiselled head of the executed Charles I within the hilt decoration.  This name has stuck ever since

and is still used to describe this sword type despite the obvious fact that it was definitely carried before the death of Charles I and was also a sword of choice for both Royalist and Parliamentarian soldiers.  Note: I have decided not to question this established description and will refer to these swords as “Mortuary” within the text of this book.  In general terms, they are distinguished by a large boat-shaped guard and a series of knucklebows and hilt bars fixed to the pommel by means of a screw(s).  The underside of the bowl is commonly chiselled with human head designs, foliage, martial trophies and esoteric (sometimes indistinguishable) decoration.  They are found in varying degrees of quality although there are some notable exceptions.  The wide, double-edged or backsword blades of these swords tended to be of consistently high quality and a large number were imported from Germany and the continent to be subsequently fitted to English-made hilts.

The Walloon hilt is a sword type that must have been produced in relatively large quantities because they are still common in the contemporary antique sword market.  It is also apparent from their simple construction and plainness that they were cheap to produce.  It is now believed that the sword has an English rather than Dutch origin as a number of Walloon type hilts are noted in the Tower of London and dated precisely to around 1610.  It seems that they were not developed any further in England at this early stage but transferred to the  Netherlands where the true Walloon form evolved.

They are quite distinctive swords, with pierced, double-shell guards, large thumb-rings and flattened pommels.  The Walloon hilt and its many derivations was the standard fighting sword in Europe for many officers and ordinary soldiers towards the end of the 17th Century.

The Venetian Schiavona sword is one of the most unique and visually attractive of military sword styles of the period and its origins can be traced back to Dalmation troops in the service of Rome, who carried a simpler form of this basket hilt from the middle of the 16th Century.  It later evolved into the more recognisable, cage-like basket, with leaf-shaped hilt bars and “cat’s-head” pommel, and was at its height of popularity during the mid to late 17th Century.  It is also likely that the sword was carried by English officers (particularly during the English Civil War) as it afforded considerable protection to the hand and was usually mounted with a wide, double-edged, broadsword blade.

A particularly recognisable sword type to emerge and develop during this century was the basket-hilted broadsword.  Although it will always be associated with the Highland Scots, its origins are actually English.  Late-16th Century contemporary portraits clearly show English gentleman carrying swords with enclosed hilts, comprising a series of ribbon-like bars and wide, counter-curved quillons.  This basket hilt style was later adopted, developed and perfected by Scottish Highland hilt makers into a series of designs that were distinct from English basket hilts of the period.

This included pommel shapes ranging from flattened and rounded to pointed and bun shaped.  Extra hilt bars and “beak” projections to the front of the basket, formed from the drawing together of a series of thin, ribbon-like metal strips developed into a truly Highland hilt style.  English military swords of the period were also of basket hilt form but they tended to have more open, simpler baskets, with fewer hilt bars and large, apple-shaped or spherical pommels.  Many Scottish basket hilts utilised continental broadsword blades, most notably from Germany.  They were usually double-edged and of superior quality to English blades. English cavalry soldiers typically carried a heavy, single-edged (double-edged towards the point), backsword blade.

The Scottish Highlander had another significant edged weapon in his armoury during the 17th Century; the two-handed sword (“twahandit”) or claymore.  Sometimes mistakenly confused with the traditional Scottish basket hilt (although this confusion can be easily understood, as the Highlanders themselves referred to both the two-handed sword and the basket hilt as a claymore), it was carried from the beginning of the 16th and well into the 17th Century, only being superceded towards the end of the century, by the Highland basket hilt.  Due to their huge size, these swords would have taken great strength and skill to wield effectively in a melee.  The demoralising effect on any enemy when confronted with a group of screaming Highlanders brandishing these huge weapons would have been obvious and devastating.

The English infantry hanger of the mid-17th Century was another sword design noted for its consistency in design and style.  This is seen in the common use of shell guards, slightly curved, falchion-type blades and flattened pommels with prominent tang buttons.  Knucklebows were usually attached to the pommel by means of a large screw.  Many blades were imported from the continent but a considerable number were also manufactured in England.  A famous example of an indigenous sword maker was the Hounslow sword manufactory, an ill-fated and short-lived sword making venture located just outside London. Employing both English and foreign (mainly German immigrant) sword makers, it was known particularly for the production of iron and brass-hilted, infantry and hunting hangers.  The application of inlaid silver decoration to these Hounslow hilts is common and the quality can range from the mediocre to the extremely high.

At the end of the 17th Century, immigrant German sword makers also established an extensive sword making community in Shotley Bridge, County Durham, in the north of the country.  The abundance of iron ore deposits and the fast flowing River Derwent created the ideal conditions for sword production.  It was here that we see the development of a hollow ground or triangular blade that greatly enhanced the strength and durability of smallswords.


The pastime of hunting in England was extremely important during the 17th Century and a specific sword was required to cater for the huntsman and the need to both despatch and butcher the carcass.  English versions of mid to late-17th Century hunting swords or hangers usually conform to a standard type, including a brass, shell guard hilt, staghorn grip and slightly curved, double-edged (sometimes sawback) blade.

These hangers were also carried as an all-purpose weapon of protection for the gentleman around town and subsequently adopted by English naval officers, where they proved effective within the cramped confines of a crowded ship’s deck.  Foreign-made hunting hangers, particularly German examples, were common at this time and their robust manufacture and range of styles, made them popular in England.


During the 1600’s, the Royal Navy was at an early stage of its development and swords designed and approved for naval use were just not available.  Officers and men therefore used whatever edged weaponry was prevalent on land.  As the century progressed, long-bladed swords such as the rapier and broadsword gave way to shorter, more practical weapons for fighting on board a crowded and cramped ship-of-war.   This led to the adoption of the hunting hanger amongst naval officers, although the newly popular smallsword was also carried into battle and worn for formal, dress purposes.

The ordinary English seaman did not carry any kind of officially designated naval sword for most of the 17th Century and was armed with a range of crude, hanger-type swords and shell guard cutlasses that would evolve over time into the more traditional naval pattern cutlass of the 18th Century.

© Harvey J S Withers Military Publishing.
Taken from The Sword in Britain.
An Illustrated History.
Volume One 1600-1700.
Available from

© The Sword in Britain 1660-1700 – a Brief History article by Harvey Withers –