Monday, 3 October 2011

The Seax (Two Handed?)

The ubiquitous "seax" was a heavy single-edged knife of wedge-shaped cross-section, used from the 5th to 11th century amongst west-European civilisations, and is particularly associated with the "Anglo-Saxons".

The Sittingbourne Seax; a "broken back" example, highly decorated and inscribed with the name of the maker and owner.
It could vary from from short, (less than 8 inches long, and used for eating and as a tool rather than a weapon) to longer ones, used as weapons (for stabbing as well as slashing) to, later in the Anglo-Saxon Period, long seaxes of up to 20 inch blade-length, which would have been effective short-swords. The seax was often of ‘pattern-welded’ construction and decorated with inlaid silver or copper-alloy, this often taking the form of runic inscriptions. Early examples had small cross-guards and pommels but later ones had none. The seax was typically carried in a folded leather sheath suspended horizontally from the waist-belt. Larger examples, where this would be impossible, were carried at the hip, usually on the right side.


Early Frankish-type seaxes (Wheeler Type 1) had a curved back and cutting edge. The typically English angular ‘Broken back’ Seax (Wheeler Type 4) not being found until the 7th Century A.D.

Some early 5-6th Century English seaxes have an overly long tang, suggesting, when reconstructed, a two-handed grip.
A dagger designed for two-handed use seems rather strange, so I decided to reconstruct one to investigate its handling properties. I chose the seax discovered at Northolt Manor, Middlesex, which reconstructs to a weapon 23 inches long, with a blade length of 13 inches and a blade width of 1.5 inches. Weight is 1.5 lbs. and it has an amazing grip-length of 7.5 inches. This alters the centre of gravity, i.e. the balance point, of the weapon : The Northolt Manor Seax balances virtually exactly at the mid point, (whereas the typical seax has a balance point nearer the point; it is blade-heavy). The weapon is comfortable to the hand when held, naturally, near the guard in the right hand and the left hand comfortably can come up behind it to provide an axe-type two-handed grip. The weapon is not comfortable to hold at the end of the grip in one hand, as there is nothing to lock the hand into.

This compares with the typical sword grip of the period which was only 3-4 inches long, barely sufficient for the width of a warrior’s hand. The better known 18 inch long seax from Ford, Wiltshire, which was found with its copper-alloy sheath fittings and pommel intact, has a 5½ inch grip, about the same as a medieval arming sword and again, allowing two-handed use.

Replica of the Northolt Manor Broadseax

The reason for designing a dagger-sized weapon with a two-handed grip is not known.
One suggestion is that these were previously much longer weapons and following wear / breakage were re-forged. If this is so, why not cut off the 3 inches of excess tang? Also, no long seaxes have been found dated to this early period: the sword-length seax, which does have a two-hand grip, dates to no earlier than the 8th Century.

It has been suggested that these are purely hunting weapons. This seems unlikely: one would not willingly face an animal like a wild boar with only a dagger- even if it were a two-handed one, and to dispatch or butcher one would only require a normal 6 inch knife.

It thus seems clear that this unusual weapon was for combat but this conclusion itself raises considerable difficulties. Conversation with an expert in medieval combat* confirm this : Using the weapon two-handed means that a shield cannot be used. The two-handed Seax armed warrior would be at a huge disadvantage in the typical sword / spear + shield combat of the period. A seax with a one-hand grip makes a perfectly adequate secondary weapon. There must, therefore, have been situations, possibly unique to the early Anglo-Saxon Period, where a 2H seax held some advantage. Two-handed use is seen in axes and swords to give extra weight to a blow. The odd design does make the weapon less blade-heavy and it is possible that it was crafted more for in-fighting in confined spaces where spears and swords were impractical. The other, more human, explanation is that these long-handled daggers were a short-lived whim of fashion.
There remains one further tenuous clue : the wording of ‘Beowulf’ :-
Þa gen sylf cyning
geweold his gewitte wællseaxe gebræd
biter ond beaudoscearp, þæt he on byrnan wæg
forwrat Wedra helm
wyrm on middan (2702 - 2705)

Then the king himself
gathered his wits; drew a killing-knife
of keenest battle-sharpness that he carried on his mail-coat.
The Geats’ Protector hewed the Worm in twain.
The word ‘forwrat’ can be translated as ‘cut in two’. If this is so, Beowulf is using his Wælseax as a chopping weapon and, just maybe, he was using it two-handed!

* personal communication : Mike Ray 2003
‘The English Warrior’ Stephen Pollington. Anglo-Saxon Books 1996. ‘Anglo-Saxon Weapons & Warfare’ Dr.Richard Underwood. Tempus 1999. ‘Anglo-Saxon Thegn’ Mark Harrison. Osprey Military 1993. ‘The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England’ H.R. Ellis Davidson.Boydell Press 1994. ‘The Medieval Soldier’ A.V.B.Norman. Barnes and Noble 1971. ‘Beowulf’- University of Exeter 1988.


FXScouse said...

An iteresting article but I think you mean "elusive" not "illusive"?

amrik singh said...

I , myself, have and use a seax or a bowie knife with a relatively long hilt .For fighting the best is to grip the middle of the handle but for fine work near the blade. For heavy work, like cutting a branch or a bone the best is to have the hand grip near the end of the handle to have more heft ,because the center of gravity is further from the hand.