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Mortuary Swords

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Basic cut-and-thrust broadswords favoured by cavalry officers and used throughout the Civil Wars were made in England between 1625 and 1670.  They had a wooden or corded grip,  a metal basket-hilt to protect the hand and usually a two-edged blade between thirty-three and thirty-four inches long.  In 1645, two hundred of them were made for the New Model Army at a cost of five shillings each – hard to believe these days.

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The main point of interest in these swords lies in the basket-hilt.  These were frequently decorated in some form or other; a coat-of-arms, a man in armour, intricate patterns of leaves – presumably whatever the purchaser wanted and was willing to pay extra for.  (It is reasonable to assume that the five-shilling ones, being mass-produced, were plain.)
But following the execution of Charles l in January 1649, a new trend was born.  Basket-hilts started to be engraved with small portraits of long-haired men with pointed beards; faces bearing a striking resemblance to the late King.  And these blades – which were only made in England – soon became known as mortuary swords.

It’s impossible to know how many were made but authentic 17th century examples are now very rare. However, a few days ago I was lucky enough to acquire one – to be honest, something I’ve wanted for years but never expected to own – so hence my excitement and this post.

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When you hold a significant piece of history in your hand, it’s hard not to speculate about its own particular story.  I know that my sword would have been made around 1650 and that it almost certainly belonged to a cavalry officer.  I can guess that its first owner was probably a Cavalier because it seems unlikely that the Roundheads wanted Charles l memorabilia.  And because my sword has seen some action – though not a great deal – I can wonder if it was at Dunbar in 1650 or Worcester in 1651.
Its edge is still extremely sharp, its point thoroughly wicked … and it is still capable of doing a great deal of damage.  And the weight of it gives me a healthy respect for the strength and stamina of the men who wielded weapons like this whilst on horseback.

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10 thoughts on “Mortuary Swords

  1. How exciting, Stella. I would love to own something like that – if only it could tell you its story! I love old doors in ancients buildings – the thought of the people through the ages who have walked through or touched them really fires my imagination.

  2. Yes, I’m thrilled and would love to know about the cavalryman who originally owned it – though of course I can only imagine him. Maybe Ashley Peverell, after his new business took off?

  3. How interesting. Seeing (and, I imagine holding) such an artefact must bring history alive in new ways. I knew of basket hilts but had not seen one but had not heard of mortuary swords – fascinating. These kinds of facts make historical fiction so rich and why I love it so much.

    • Totally agree, Jill – and as far as facts go, there’s always something new to discover. One of the first things I wondered when I first bought the sword was how much its original owner paid for it. That was when I found out about the five shilling ones made for the New Model – so I guess my guy probably paid about seven shillings and sixpence!

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