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Swords, daggers and staff weapons of the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose has a vast array of swords, knives, and staff weapons such as spears and pikes. Knives were essential to daily life and every one on board had one which is why you’ll find them in all the context galleries throughout the museum. Swords were primarily used by officers whereas staff weapons were for the general military use on land and at sea.

Swords and daggers

Swords and daggers were the most important weapons for personal defence for civilians and those serving in the military and were part of everyday dress for most male adults. Noblemen also carried a sword. None of the inventories for fortifications or ships mention swords, so these were personal possessions.  A few were found in personal chests.  There are about 200 finds which are parts of swords or accessories for swords or daggers.  These include 65 hilts for ballock daggers, 50 detached grips for swords or daggers and remains of pommels, scabbards, sheaths and hangers. There are very few iron blades.

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Ballock daggers

Several forms of dagger were found but the  ballock daggers form the largest dated collection in the world. The hilt is turned (usually in boxwood) and carved out of one piece of wood.

Leather sheaths were found with some of them and 16 had additional smaller knives. 64 of these were excavated in association with human remains and were probably being worn. Only one ballock dagger was found in a chest.

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A single complete sword with a basket shaped hilt was preserved beneath the ship.  It provides the earliest precisely dated example of its type and now the evolution for this form of hilt is based on this miracle of preservation.

Swords of this form are also shown in images of Royal bodyguards. Radiography of corroded iron has revealed parts of sword hilts of different forms. These are important as they show what types of hilt were in use at this time.

Staff Weapons

A Tudor Pike, a staff weapon, recovered from the Mary Rose

Few dated examples exist for the huge number of pikes and bills used by infantry on land and at sea to repel boarders. Those that do exist are often decorative, preserved due to their artistic quality.  The bulk of those recovered from the ship are mundane, it is this ‘ordinaryness’ which makes the collection as a whole so extraordinary. Many of those that do survive have been re-hafted, so it’s the wooden elements which are rare. Most of the hafts are ash and they range between two and five metres in length. Hafts for bills are stouter as the head is bigger, so more of these have survived. These, as all naval weapons, would have been issued from central stores (principally the Tower of London). In England the ‘call to arms’  was ‘Bills and Bows’ for spearmen and archers, reflecting the importance of these weapons. In the inventory created when Henry VIII died, 28,000 bills were recorded in land defences or ships, and nearly 60,000 pikes.

The Mary Rose is listed as having with 150 of each, with haft remains of about 100 bills and 20 pikes. There are only 12 examples with evidence of the iron heads of bills. The majority of these were found close to chests of longbows and arrows on the upper deck within the stern castle.   It was so densely packed with hafts we called this the ‘pike garden’ during the excavation.

A Tudor bill, a staff weapon, recovered from the Mary Rose

The munition bill derived from the agricultural hedging-bill or pruning hook, The iron head has a weight of over two kg, with a plain back and top spike and a curved blade, of varying forms. The pike is a spear-like staff weapon with a long haft and a small, single tipped, leaf or lozenge-shaped blade. On land, traditionally used en masse by squares of foot soldiers to maintain a barrier of points to protect halberdiers and musketeers from cavalry attack. At sea the ‘half pike’ was used to prevent boarding up until the twentieth century, but this name is rarely found in 16th century context.

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One staff weapon was unique, and we think it might be a halberd because it has a similar decorated brass collar to a halberd in the Royal Armouries. It was found on the main deck close to the Surgeon’s cabin. The similar example has a straight-edged slightly down-curved blade with a down-curved beak-like fluke and a long narrow top spike. The collar is almost identical to ours. Italian imported halberds were provided to the Royal Guard.

Another possibility is that it is the haft for a pole axe.  These were also provided to the Gentlemen Pensioners. The captain of the Mary Rose, Sir George Carew was made a Gentleman Pensioner in 1544.