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Here we shall examine some types of medieval longsword: the Scottish claymore sword that emerged in the 14th-century, the ‘Type XVa’ knightly longsword which was the world’s biggest and best hole-punch, and finally the late-medieval Central-European Zweihänder sword which allowed men in big hats to go toe-to-toe with ranks of pikemen.
The emergence of the two-handed medieval longsword generally mirrors that of the emergence of plate-armour – it’s easy to see why. Would you give up a nice big shield made out of sturdy wood, iron reinforcement and hard leather for a silly-big sword, if you couldn’t step into a tin suit? No? Then you’re not thinking like a Highlander! Whilst reading, think about the psychology of the medieval longsword: who wields it, how it reflected their view of the world and their position in society, and how, often, its use shaped the wielder. You can bring the answers to those questions into your LARP outfit or re-enactment impression, and they can help you make the best choice from the longswords for sale.
Examples of Longswords:
The Highland Claymore
English-speaking historians have attached the name ‘claymore’ or ‘Cly-more’ (an Anglicisation of the Scots Gaelic claidheamh mór, literally ‘big sword’) to a number of different sword designs, including the ‘basket-hilted’ broadsword which was used during the Early Modern period in Scotland throughout the later inter-clan conflicts and the Jacobite Wars with the English – this sword was small and was wielded in one hand, the other free to hold a small shield called a targe. But we’re interested in the older, greater claymore: an enormous two-handed longsword, supposedly wielded by William Wallace himself, which has become a symbol of Scottish nationhood and independence. We’ll refer here to the Highland claymore as to be extra clear which one we mean.
The Big Sword
Unfortunately, the early history of the Highland claymore is frustratingly obscure. Much written history of medieval Scotland was lost in the forced migration of Scots clans from their traditional lands in the second half of the 18th-century, known as the Highland Clearances. Thus, we have to go on sources from outside Scotland which will inevitably give an incomplete picture. These seem to indicate that the two-handed Highland claymore sword was adopted by the Scots in the 14th- or 15th-century – this would be unsurprising, as it is in line with what we see almost everywhere else in Europe: in response to the increasing use of plate armour and long polearms, swords either became narrower, faster and pointier, or bigger, swingier and smashier. However, it appears that Scottish claymores became even bigger and badder than most. Medieval claymore swords have been found over 60 inches in length, featuring few of the accommodations to comfort and ease-of-use seen in later Central-European Zweihänder. Being a comparatively poor and marginal region (certainly as compared to developing late-medieval England), plate armour was rarely available to Scots clansmen, and their adoption of the claymore, forsaking the extra protection of the shield without the recourse to heavy plate armour for defense, speaks to the unique martial culture north of the Border.
An echo of that martial culture is embodied in the sword on display at the Wallace Monument which overlooks Stirling: the ‘Wallace Sword’. You will note the inverted commas – it is tragically doubtful whether Wallace’s own hands ever touched the blade. William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson in Braveheart), or more properly in Scots Gaelic, Uilleam Uallas, was a Scottish knight who led a rebel army against the English during the First War of Scottish Independence at the turn of the 14th-century. According to tradition, he wielded a claymore, that great symbol of individual heroism and singleminded might. The ‘Wallace Sword’, the story goes, was kept by John Menteith (the ‘Fause Menteith’, Wallace’s betrayer), who then later presented it to the King of Scotland. The earliest evidence we have for this narrative is from two centuries after Wallace’s execution in 1305: a 1505 source which says James IV of Scotland ordered the “binding of Wallace's sword with cords of silk”, as well as the creation of a new hilt and scabbard. Just as well he did - Wallace’s original scabbard was reputedly made from the skin of the hated English taxman Sir Hugh de Cressingham, although the sources for this grisly accusation are all English.
There is unfortunately much to lead us to doubt the veracity of the claymore sword at the Wallace Monument, or that at least muddy it somewhat. Aside from the lack of written provenance for the sword itself is the lack of any evidence that Wallace used a claymore: contemporary records make no mention of his use of a two-handed sword, which would have been an unusual weapon at the time. Also, being a knight, Wallace would almost certainly have fought on horseback, and the ‘Wallace Sword’ is far too large to be wielded from a horse. The ‘Wallace Sword’ appears to be much closer in style to that of a 16th- or 17th-century Lowlands claymore, possessing no fuller and a ricasso (unsharpened length of blade after the cross-guard) which did not feature on swords until the early-modern period. However, it also appears that the blade is a compound made from several different mismatched steel pieces welded together. The bottommost piece of the blade appears to have a construction typical of late 13th-century swords – so it remains possible that the ‘Wallace Sword’ blade consists of a partially reconstructed original blade, the fragments being carefully forged with later steel and added to a later hilt, or, as historian David Caldwell believes more likely, a single-handed sword blade that has been enlarged to give it a legendary aspect. Whatever the case, the ‘Wallace Sword’ is a fascinating piece of history to puzzle over.
Hot To Scot
The archetypal style of claymore which is most often sold as a Scottish claymore sword reproduction today – broad fullered blade with steel braces securing it to a forward-sloping cross-guard with quatrefoil terminations – isn’t seen until the 16th or 17th-century, by which time it was a deadly and historied weapon. The high-point of the claymore comes after the medieval period, with the devastating havoc it wreaked on English forces at the Battle of Killiecrankie, where the deposed James II of England and VII of Scotland led an army into revolt after the (supposedly bloodless) Glorious Revolution of 1688. John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee – either ‘Bonnie Dundee’ or ‘Bluidy Clavers’ depending on which side of Jacobitism one sits – led a charge of claymore-wielding Highlanders into the muzzles of the English muskets and scattered them, laying down his life in the process. But this weapon was one of an age of plate and pike now long past, and its greatest moment would be its last: there are no recorded uses of the claymore sword after its zenith at Killiecrankie. Talk about going out on a high.
The resurgence of Scottish nationalism in the 1800s CE led to absurd 19th-century recreations of the late-medieval claymore, such as this extremely silly 4-quilloned claymore in the National Museum of Scotland. Although the blade is probably 16th-century, a skeptical eye will reveal the ‘narwhal tusk’ handle as being suspiciously like a common cow horn, and the pommel is an extremely poor copy of anything from the period – not to overstate the obvious that it would be so awkward as to be wholly unusable. However, if you avoid these obvious over-romanticised pitfalls, finding a Scottish claymore for sale can make an arresting centrepiece to a period-accurate medieval Scots re-enactment or a fantasy LARP costume. Think about the kind of choice your character would have to make in the period where they had access to little or no plate armour - choosing between the safety of a targe and the offensive exposure of a huge two-handed claymore sword – and how their worldview and beliefs would condition that choice.
The Late-Medieval Longsword
By the end of the High Middle Ages (c. 1300 CE), plate armour was beginning to become a more and more common site on the battlefield. The ‘coat of plates’, usually simple flat plates of steel sewn into the surcoat worn over mail, was giving way to the brigandine, a doublet lined with overlapping steel lames which was cheap and available to most soldiers. Wealthy knights and nobles were commissioning full suits of steel platemail, giving them lobster-like protection against the new heavy polearms and powerful warbows of the period. In response, knightly arming swords were becoming slenderer and more tapered to be able to exploit joints and weak spots, well on their way to becoming the estoc.
At some point, a swordsmith must have critically examined one of these glorified needles, and thought ‘What if I made a REALLY big one of these’. Cue Handel’s Messiah – hallelujah! This enterprising swordsmith designed what Ewart Oakeshott, historian, illustrator and categoriser of medieval weaponry, would (rather unsexily) designate the ‘Type XVa’. Most swords and longswords of the high-medieval period have a ‘lenticular’ profile with a fuller: that is, a horizontal cross-section would look like a lens-shape, with a dint pressed into both sides. This created relatively light, long blades that only tapered very slightly along most of the blade: these were resilient and good for delivering fierce slashing blows. However, that wasn’t going to cut it – literally, in the case of plate armour. Swordsmiths in this period instead developed a sword with a diamond-shaped profile without a fuller that tapered to a point along its whole length. This meant it was stiff and inflexible - less effective at cutting and potentially fragile - but end-on, its rigidity gave it the requisite puncturing power to pierce plate armour. The Type XV arming sword – such as this arresting example which was likely taken in battle from a European Christian invader in the Middle East and given an inscription in Arabic – was later extended into the Type XVa two-handed longsword which would have been truly terrifying in its ability to burst mail and pierce plate.
This beautiful longsword found in Lake Lucerne has become a much-copied archetype of the Type XVa. It is obviously very badly corroded (so would you be if you’d spend 500 years in a Swiss lake), but it is clear what a noble weapon it was when it was first made. The length of the sword is not absurd, being only 44 in./112cm, of which 34 ½ in./87cm is the blade – but any longer, and it would have been unwieldy for stabbing, this blade’s whole point. It features a wide cross-guard which point sharply downward at the terminations, and a large solid wheel-pommel which would have balanced the sword to make it much faster and more wieldy. This configuration of blade appears throughout the medieval devotional art of the period, being intimately associated with the highest of knightly virtues. Nowadays, the Type XVa is one of the most commonly reproduced longsword types – and for good reason, it’s an iconic and beautiful shape. When adding one to your armoury, imagine the kind of soldiers who would have had means and motive to acquire and use such a weapon: knights who wanted to kill other knights. Put such an insight into the psychology of medieval weaponry to good use – if you want to show your knightly character as a dark soul, then the stark shape of a Type XVa longsword is the perfect choice.
Before we dive into the history, a brief word about definitions. Late-medieval people would not have called the large German and Swiss two-handed swords of the 15th- and 16th-centuries ‘Zweihänder’; this is a neologism coined by historians in the 19th-century, mainly because it sounds incredibly cool. They would usually have been referred to in Italy as spadone, which follows the same lineage of spatha meaning a flat paddle as in ‘spade’. In Germany, they were known as a ‘Beidhänder’, ‘both-hander’, or the virtually-unpronounceable ‘Schlachtschwert’, ‘battle sword’, which contains an impressive seven-consonant cluster in the middle. This led to a grisly Anglicisation as ‘slaughter swords’- although, unlike earlier longswords, they were rarely tools of indiscriminate mass slaughter.
A cluster of similar outsized longswords emerged in German, Italian and Swiss armies in response to a very specific set of circumstances: mainly, the ‘push of pike’ tactics that emerged in the late 1400s CE. Armies of the European Renaissance became heavily supplemented or even dominated by mercenaries employed by rising economic elites, as opposed to feudal nobles, to contest for political power. These mercenaries, such as the Italian condottieri, engaged in a somewhat ritualised form of battle against one another, organising their troops into squares of troops wielding extremely long pikes, who would then clash in a ‘push’, more of a rugby scrum devoted to shoving an enemy back than an open battle aimed at inflicting mass casualties. Enterprising mercs realised that pre-existing forms of the late-medieval longsword could play a trump card in this environment – with a little adjustment.
The result was the Beidhänder – oversized longswords usually about as tall as the wielder (c. 67 inches/170 cm) with a long ricasso and parrierhaken (a secondary cross-guard midway down the blade. Some examples, such as this one at the Royal Armouries, have ‘flamberge’ rippled blades – these would probably not have been greatly more effective than straight blades, but they were iconic and fearsome on a battlefield. Many ceremonial ‘rebated’ (blunt-edged) Beidhänder have been mislabelled and displayed by museums as longswords used in combat; it was only these poorly-weighted display swords that were inordinately heavy at more than 10 lbs/ 4.5 kg – most Beidhänder would not have weighed more than 7 lbs/3 kg.
The Beidhänder would be wielded by Doppelsöldner (literally, ‘double men’ on twice the pay of an infantryman) out front of a pike formation: knocking aside enemy pike to give openings for their comrades’ own, and striding forward to use the enormous forces generated by the length of the sword to split plate armour with a swing. Paolo Giovio, a Swiss historian writing in the early 1500s CE, describes Swiss two-handed-swordsmen chopping clean-through the hafts of enemy pike at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495. The complexity of these longswords allowed them to be used in a hybrid manner to achieve its role: sometimes with both hands on the grip to allow it to deliver sweeping blows, sometimes with one hand on the ricasso protected by the parrierhaken in the manner of a pike for thrusting, or even sometimes reversed to use the quillons as halberd-hooks. Clearly, this was a masterfully specialised weapon, and the gaudy Landsknechte who wielded it took enormous swaggering pride in the status it conferred – just look at these glorious chaps! When depicting a champion or extremely ostentatious soldier, a replica Zweihänder is an excellent choice: their absurdity is their visual strength, it can outline and exaggerate your character’s clothing and style, just like the Landsknechte knew full well it did for theirs.
Give Me My Longsword!
Thus spake Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. Little known fact, he was impatient to begin browsing the longswords for sale having properly pondered how he could best incorporate the psychology of medieval weaponry and feudal society into his LARPing outfit. Enjoy!