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An Extremely Rare Scottish Basket Hilted Sword dating to the mid-16th Century

A fine and extremely rare Scottish Basket Hilted Sword dating to circa 1545 – 1560

An extremely rare, fine, and important Scottish basket hilted sword dating to the middle of the 16th century when Scotland and England were two separate kingdoms ruled by different monarchs. This was a time of turbulence and change in Scotland when Mary Queen of Scots occupied the throne from 1542 – 1567 and many Scottish mercenaries were serving in the Lowlands and in Scandinavia. The sword described here is an example of the earliest type of fully developed basket hilted sword from which future English and Scottish variations developed.

Fig 1: Hilt left side of the mid-16th century Scottish basket hilted sword. Ex-Earlshall Collection reference: ERL/05 

The beginnings of the basket hilted sword had evolved in Britain further back in the 16th century. These earliest types had developed with “asymmetrical” basket hilts where more guard bars were present to protect the outside of the hand of the user than on the inside. The origin of this feature lies even earlier when swordsmiths of the late medieval period started to apply more defences to simple cross-hilted swords by applying rings and supporting bars to create more protection on the outside of the hilt for the back of the hand. The sword described here is the earliest type of “symmetrical” hilt where the construction of one side of the guard when viewed vertically from the front or back matches the other.

Fig 2: Full length left side
Fig 3: Full length right side

Typical for this hilt type it is formed with well-wrought rounded bars of impressively consistent thickness. The cross guard is forged with long horizontally counter curved quillons that terminate in swollen mushroom shaped knops. The curved front knuckle bow and the two curved side guard bars form the basis of the basket hilt. Between the knuckle bow and the side guard bar each side saltire bars are present which cross each other in the middle where they are forged into small guard plates. To the back a curved rear guard bar is forged onto the cross bar from near the top of each side guard bar, further strengthened by a connecting bar at the base. Symmetrical loop guards are applied to the front. This structure formed the basis of Scottish hilt designs for the next 350 years until the Scottish basket hilted sword became less of a weapon but more of an adornment to military uniforms in the 20th century.

Fig 4: Hilt oblique left
Fig 5: Hilt oblique right

The large, plain, almost spherical pommel is typical of this group consisting of two hollow upper and lower parts braised together with latten around the meridian. The upper terminal of the knuckle bow fits snugly into a purpose drilled aperture to the front of the pommel. The terminals of the side guard bars closely approach but do not touch the pommel. The tang end does not taper through the top of the pommel to terminate with a tang button. Instead the tang end is peened in its rectangular form leaving a lattice finish with flattened edges to the tang end and a flattened pommel top. This method of securing the tang end to the pommel is the same as that on a sword which once belonged to Claude Blair and is now in the Royal Armouries (collection number IX-2574) (1).  The original baluster shaped grip is of hardwood bound with alternating sunken and raised bands of brass wire. The sword has never been dismounted and the assembly is tight and secure.

Fig 6: Hilt right side
Fig 7: Rear view oblique right

The blade is completely original to the hilt in that the hilt was made to match the blade as can be seen by the exact fit of the blade shoulders with the slot cut into the underside of the cross guard. The blade is long, slender and single edged. The back edge reverts to a false edge just over halfway along the blade. A quarter of the way down an armourer’s mark is present on one side consisting of a curved “thumbnail” flanked by trefoils of punched dots with a single dot above the convex side of the curve.  Two grooves which emulate fullers run in parallel along the blade either side. It is 38.5 inches in length and similar to others mounted with basket hilts of the same period.

Fig 8: Rear view of the hilt
Fig 9: Hilt underneath

The development of this early form of sword took place across England and Lowland Scotland. The  sword discussed here exhibits sufficient differences with English types to be regarded as Scottish, and is therefore a particularly rare sword amongst an already scarce group.

Fig 10: Pommel from the side showing the braised join
Fig 11: Pommel from above showing the peened tang

In this respect of considerable interest are the austere bearded heads individually chiselled into the junction plates of the saltire bars to the front.  The sunken eyes and harrowed expressions of these heads are reminiscent of early corbels found on some Scottish churches, for example the heads mounted onto the outside of the 12th century church at St Athernase in Leuchars in Fife. Similar heads are present at Earlshall Castle also in Fife. Severed heads play a prominent part in Celtic mythology which underpins much of Gaelic culture and lore in the Highlands. In this respect the heads on this sword are important in another way in that they are the earliest known example of anthropomorphic chiselling on a basket hilted sword of British origin preceding that on English mortuary swords for the best part of a century. A further Scottish feature is the slot cut into the underside of the cross guard which accommodates the shoulders of the blade. Whilst not all Scottish swords possess this feature it is rare on swords of English manufacture.

Fig 12: Saltire mask left side
Fig 13: Saltire mask right side

The sword is in fine condition without pitting or rust patches. It has a darkened patination overall which covers the age-stained iron beneath.

Acknowledgements: The narrative above borrows heavily from the description of this sword by the Baron of Earlshall published in his book “The Scottish Basket Hilted Sword” Volume I c. 1450 to 1600”, Earlshall Publications, 2016, pages 128 to 131, and in some places borrows sentences word for word. The Earlshall publication built upon a seminal work by Claude Blair, “The Early Basket Hilt in Britain”, published in “Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100 – 1800”, John Donald Publishing Ltd, 1981, pages 153 to 252, to become the foremost authority on 16th century British basket hilted swords.

Fig 14: Hilt underneath from the opposite angle to Fig: 9
Fig 15: Hilt from above left

Provenance: The Earlshall Collection (reference number ERL/05) and formerly The Kearney Collection in Dublin.

This sword is also featured in “The Scottish Basket Hilted Sword” pages 140 to 142.

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