The Origins of the Two-Handed Sword

Journal of Western Martial Art
January 2000

by Neil H. T. Melville

Any sword which is to be regarded as a two-hander must, by reason of its dimensions and weight, require two hands for its effective management. Hence the blade, as well as the hilt, must be longer than norm, i.e. over 100cm. Secondly, the hilt of the true two-hander should not merely accommodate two hands but be long enough for the two hands holding it to be kept apart, in order to give a fulcrum effect; and the greater the possible distance between the hands the more easily could the long, heavy blade be manoeuvred for an offensive cut or a defensive counterblow. In the case of the hand-and-a-half sword, however, the addition of the second hand to the end of the hilt, even overlapping the first hand or the pommel, is clearly intended only to add weight to the blow, not actually to enable the weapon to be wielded as such. This means that the grip of a two-hander, excluding the pommel, should be not less than 25 cm; and the minimum overall length about 140 cm.

Evidence for the weight of these swords - obviously a relevant factor in assessing their manoeuvrability and controlability - is imprecise where swords have lost their grip-coverings and are corroded. Nevertheless the dividing line between two-handers and lesser swords seems to be around two kilograms - most hand-and-a-half swords are below that weight and almost all two-handers are above it. That is also the weight at which single-handed control of a long sword becomes very difficult. The ideal weight for a two-hander seems to be between 2.5 and 3.5 kilograms. Since the balance is usually good - about 10 cm down the blade from the cross - such a sword is amenable to skilled control. Where the sword is over 4 kg (examples up to 6 kg are known) continuous use would soon exhaust the wielder. It is also interesting to notice that the length of the hilt, as a proportion of the whole sword, increases from a sixth or seventh in the case of ordinary fourteenth-century swords to a quarter or fifth on earlier two-handers to a third on some late, very large German two-handers.

Mediaeval sword-smiths forged numbers of swords which were notably larger than ordinary swords but which do not quite measure up to my suggested criteria of length and weight (so-called "grans espees", "grete swerdes" or "war swords") and it is likely that no very clear distinction was made between them and early two-handers. Considering that the style of these two-handers - broad, flat blade, straight quillons, disc- or pear-shaped pommel - is in effect the same as that off their smaller cousins, we have to admit that they are just overgrown members of the same family. The style of the sixteenth century two-hander, however, has very little in common with that of contemporary ordinary swords; it is a quite distinct entity.

The available evidence, literary, documentary, pictorial and material, is not abundant but at least it seems to agree that swords which we can call two-handers were first used in the period between 1250 and 1350. This co0incides with the development of the large war sword, although the two-hander was always a much rarer weapons. Both were suitable shock weapons to overcome the growing effectiveness of armour, and declined in value when firearms proved more convenient and efficient at performing the same function. Reasons why, during its period of use, it was not more widely employed were the greater expense of making such a sword, the greater strength and skill needed to wield it, and also the fact that the very perfection of plate-armour made its wearing too expensive for the ordinary foot-soldier, too heavy and perhaps too hot, in southern Europe at least. The ordinary sword was effective enough against kettle-hat and brigandine.

Of the various types of evidence for the existence of the two-hander in the thirteenth century the strongest is the material. The Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum possesses a fine blade (the hilt is missing), 141 cm long overall, which bears the arms of Otakar II, king of Bohemia, killed in the battle of Durrenkrut by Rudolf of Hapsburg in 1278. A counterpart of this ceremonial sword, marked with the eagle and lion of the Hapsburgs and belonging to Rudolf or Albert I (1280 - 1308), is the Basle. A third, longer sword, with the arms of Austria inlaid in a similar style to those on the Vienna sword, is in private collection in England.

There are a few references in the chronicles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to warriors wielding long swords with two hands, cutting broad swathes around them. Representations of large swords in manuscript painting are not precise enough definitely to identify two-handers, but by 1342 we have a beautifully clear representation of one of the gravestone of Renier de Valkenburg, a Teutonic Knight from Rouron St. Pierre in Belgium. Readers who are acquainted with the book "Cut and Thrust Weapons" by E.Wagner may know of his claim, on page 135, that two-handers were used in the First Crusade (1096 - 99). Unfortunately Wagner used a German translation of his source, Albert of Aacen, which mis-understands the original Latin text. The word which Albert actually uses means a double-headed axe! I have come across no reliable evidence for the existence of the two-hander before the late thirteenth century.

It has been frequently assumed that the two-hander originated in Switzerland, but not only is there no documentary of this but other evidence bears against it. Switzerland had no iron ore or iron industry in the early Middle Ages and the Swiss had to import (or win as booty) arms and armour, as is clear from the great preponderance of German smiths' marks, from Passau, Solingen, Munich etc. Of 16 two-handers dating from before 1550 in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, none is definitely Swiss, (though two might be), one is Italian and all the others are German. The smiths of southern Germany did have the expertise to forge long heavy blades in the techniqu3es that combined hardness and resilience, and while again there is not documentary proof that they were the first to make two-handed swords there is no evidence so far of anyone else doing so. Another blade in Vienna, dating to the late thirteenth century, is inlaid with the "wolf mark" of Passau. Interestingly there is a record of the city of Liege at the end of the fourteenth century giving tax advantages to foreign merchants, in return for their share of which the people of Nuremberg had to supply to the mayor of Liege "a great long two-handed sword", obviously regarded as a typical product of the German arms-manufacturing city.

Certainly the Swiss had adopted the two-hander by the fourteenth century, but so had Germans, Italians, Burgundians, French, Scots and knights of the Military Orders. We know that the Swiss, Burgundians, Venetians and later the German Landsknechts used it as a regulation weapons; to what extent any of the others did is not clear. Probably the difficulty of its manufacture and greater price in comparison with staff weapons precluded its widespread acceptance.

As I have already mentioned, the early two-hander bears a close resemblance to the contemporary bastard sword or war sword, with a simple cross-guard, wooden grip bound in cord and leather not exceeding 40 cm in length (with the exception of ceremonial swords), and a plain flat blade. The next two distinctive developments are the addition of side-rings to the hilt and small parrying lugs to the sides of the blade about 15 cm down from the cross. Both of these developments seem to have been introduced about the middle of the fifteenth century, without, however, becoming common until the beginning of the sixteenth. A few two-handers sport the lugs without the rings, many possess rings without lugs, more employ both devices.

Most two-handers up to this stage are clean, well-balanced fighting swords - "schlacht-schwerter" as the Germans called them. But in the course of the sixteenth century the whole sword became larger and more elaborate in form. The quillons were frequently curved and ornamented with spirals or volutes on the sides, underneath and at the ends. The grip lengthened (50 - 60 cm became quite common), was frequently made with a baluster shaping in the centre and adorned with velvet coverings, gilt studs, and silk tasselling at pommel, centre or cross, or all three. Side-rings followed the style of the quillons - chiselled, twisted, turn etc. - and were often filled with a fleur de lys; sometimes there was the further provision of extra branches to the hilt and a second set of rings. The blade became thicker and stronger, and was often given a flamboyant edge. The longer ricasso was often bound with wood and leather and the longer lugs hooked strongly towards the point. Overall its length extended to 170-180 cm, sometimes to over 200 cm.

This final stage in the development of the two-hander, the most impressively fearsome version, was really a different weapon altogether, or rather not a real weapon at all but an eye-catching status-symbol for parades and ceremonies. Two features which can often be noted on these late two-handers imply that they were no longer intended primarily for warfare; the positioning of the lugs so close to the hilt that the ricasso cannot be grasped behind them, and the developing of the counter-guards to cover the ricasso, which has the same effect. In this situation the lugs cannot perform their normal purpose of protecting the hand, and if the ricasso is still grasped, ahead of the lugs, they are liable to injure the user's wrist as he wields the sword. Many swords, like the series of Papal presentation swords, are too delicate and finely worked ever to be considered for combat; others, on the other hand, are too huge and heavy: the largest that I have come across is the "Sempill Sword" in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, which is 255 cm long and weights over 10.5 kilograms. It was reputedly carried before Mary Queen of Scots at the battle of Langside, in 1568.

Apart from the definite chronological development it is possible to identify a considerable number of national/regional variations. But to discuss them fully would take another article, so instead let us look at a few contemporary descriptions of the two-hander in use. The Italian Giacomo di Grassi gives a splendid description in his treatise "The True Art of Defence", published in 1570: "The two-handed swords I the manner in which it is used nowadays, with a grip four handsbreadths long or more, and with that broad cross-guard, has been found suitable not so much for matching other such swords on equal terms, one to one, but for its ability, like a galleon among a swarm of galleys, by itself alone to oppose many swords or other weapons. And so in war it is employed to defend the standards because it is able to withstand numerous attackers in defence of the colours. It is also customarily carried inside cities by day or night whenever it happens that a few must oppose many. And because its weight and size demand great strength, to the wielding of this weapon are allocated to those who are of large appearance with tough strong limbs and stout hearts. Such men having by themselves to oppose many, in order to be more safe to strike and to terrify their adversaries with the fury of the two-handed sword, are all accustomed to using great slashes, bringing the sword back in a full circle, balancing their weight now on one foot, now on the other, hardly bothering at all to use the point in a thrust, since they are of the opinion that they can only affect one man while a cut has the power to deal with many."

Another Italian, Paolo Giovio, describes the critical moment in the battle of Fornovo, 1495, where Charles VIII of France with his Swiss mercenaries was opposed by Francesco Gonzaga at the head of an imperial army: "Suddenly, as the *sc. The Italian pikemen, javelin-throwers and crossbowmen) began to approach, about 300 picked young men who are called "the forlorn hope" issued forth from each flank of the infantry body and with their great swords which they wielded with both hands began to chop up those enormous pikes with such boldness that nearly all those pikemen, aghast, turned their backs in flight without waiting for the main body of the infantry to come up."

Among individual devotees of the two-handers were Henry VIII of England, Francois I of France, James IV of Scotland and the Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V. The chronicler Hall, in his account of Henry's reign,  wrote under the year 1511: "In the feast of Pentecoste holden at Grenewyche, hys Grace with two other with hym, chalendged all commers to fighte with theim xxi strokes with twohanded swordes; where the Kyng behaved hymselfe so wel, and delivered himselfe so valiauntly by his hardy prowes and greate strength, that the prayse and laude was geven to his Grace and his aydes." (I have retained the original spelling!) On such an occasion it is likely that Henry would wear the tonlet armour for foot combat now preserved in the Tower Armouries (II, 7), dated to c.1512.

Henry's brother-in-law, James IV was also an enthusiast of the two-hander, among other weapons. The chronicler Lindsay of Pitscottie reports: "This prince mak proclamatiouns out throwe his realme, quilk was abill for justing or tournament to come to Edinburgh sum to rin with speir or battell-axe sum to feight witht the tuohandit suord, handbow, corsebow and collvering." Also from Scotland, but from the other end of the social scale, from the court records of Aberdeenshire for 1652, comes the following account of a fight between Forbes and Kennedy: Kennedy had a "prodigious great two handit sword, furbeesed laitlie before of purpose cruell barbarous and horrid twa handit sword ane extraordinar hidious weapon of offence and not to be carried but on a design of mischieff."

Journal of Western Martial Art

About the author: We are grateful for Mr. Melville's permission to reprint this article written in the UK journal "Guns, Weapons & Militaria" (now no longer in publication). Mr. Melville is a retired historian and teacher, who holds a MA in Latin and Greek (language, history and literature) now residing in Stirling, Scotland. He still devotes a large portion of his time to the study of arms and armour - a life-long obsession. He has written numerous other articles for the Glasgow museum on the Great Swords of the Burrell Collection and an article on the Incised Effigial Stone at Foveran, Aberdeenshire.