Henry of Monmouth asserted his claim to the throne of England on this day, March 21st, 1413, a day after the death of his father Henry IV. Yep, 591st anniversary, propitious of a blog about Henry's sword. This is one of our favorite swords, but also one that illustrates some of the pitfalls and challenges of reproducing historical swords.
So, a bit of history to begin with. Henry V was one of Englands most famed warrior kings, the son of King Henry IV and Mary de Bohun, born September 16th, 1386 in the tower of Monmouth Castle, whence his moniker "Henry of Monmouth". During his brief reign from 1413-1422 King Henry invaded France, achieved a legendary victory at Agincourt, and occupied Normandy.
Ruins of Monmouth Castle Gatehouse Tower, Monmouth, Wales
His martial prowess was immortalized by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V, and the St. Crispin's Day speech the bard puts into the kings mouth has become a cultural emblem of bravery against long odds (see Kenneth Branagh's rendition of the speech here). In short, it is hard to imagine a king and a sword that better represent the romantic martial history of medieval England.
A depiction of the Battle of Agincourt from the Vigiles du Roi Charles VII, 1415
The tale of this sword begins in 1951 when Ewart Oakeshott is allowed to clean the relic that had recently been found in an old chest in Westminster Abbey. To make a long story short, Ewart becomes convinced that this sword had once hung above the tomb of King Henry V, though there is continuing controversy over the dating of the sword and whether it might actually date from the time of Henry VII instead. Ewart gives his take on this in Records of the Medieval Sword, pages 172-173, and there is a new analysis forthcoming in May 2022 from the Royal Armouries Research Series entitled "The Funeral Achievements of Henry V at Westminster Abbey: The Arms and Armor of Death". This volume contains an article by Robert C. Woosnam-Savage entitled "'our bruised arms hung up for monuments: The Sword of King Henry V?", which we are excited to read upon its publication.
The controversy over whose sword this was is only part of the difficulty of reproducing the blade. When we first made our replica back in 1989-90, we relied on the measurements for the blade that were noted in Record of the Medieval Sword by Oakeshott. He had taken these during his cleaning of the sword. These measurements, though, where not entirely correct, which we learned when archiving his notes taken at the time he had the sword in his hands. This led to significant difficulty because the sword we made to his specifications in Records looked a bit different than the photos of the piece. For example, the cross in the photo appears wider and the blade appears narrower at the cross than the book indicated.
Original Henry V Sword pictured in Records of the Medieval Sword
Since the description and the photos differed somewhat, and relying entirely on photos can be deceptive due to issues of perspective, we decided to produce the piece based on the published measurements at the time. We only learned later that these were in need of adjustment based on Ewart's handwritten notes that we curate as part of the Oakeshott Institute collection. Also, the sword looks really elegant, feels amazing in the hand, and cuts like a laser.
This is a piece that we have been thinking about redesigning for some years to more accurately reflect the original sword, but we think that this whole process is instructive and, actually, a part of the history of the sword. What this illustrates particularly well is that many museum and antiquarian descriptions of original swords are inaccurate, not least because curators have usually been more interested in the artifacts as pieces of art instead of as tools that were to be used. The attributes that a 19th or 20th century curator thought important, that the sword was gilded, say, or that its hilt design incorporates certain aesthetic features, are quite different from the attributes relevant to someone who is trying to make a copy of the weapon that looks, feels, and functions just like the original. Whether or not we update this sword in the near future, we will probably also continue to make our version of the sword because it is so tied up with our friendship with Ewart Oakeshott, and because it is just such a good sword.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985