The Sword of Bamburgh Castle

  • 22 May 2020
  • Article

Built to withstand bloody attacks and lengthy sieges, fearsome weapons played a life or death role in castle warfare, but weapons could also be a status symbol, as this unique sword found at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland shows…

While it might look like a piece of scrap metal, this unique 7th century pattern-welded sword  would have had serious bling factor. Its discovery gives further evidence of Bamburgh’s royal heritage as the ancient capital of Northumbria and an Anglo Saxon palace which was the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom Series.

Bamburgh Castle weapons

X-rays taken by scientists at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, revealed its blade is made up of six, strands of iron bonded together to form the blade, a technique rarely been seen before. Called a “pattern-welded” or “snake patterned” swords because of the herringbone appearance created by the forged strands, though rare, examples of up to four iron strands have been found before. However, the six-strand sword which has been found at Bamburgh Castle is absolutely unique because the billet is made up of six strands of carbonised iron which would have been micro-welded to bond them together.

Bamburgh Castle weapons


Experts who analysed the sword say that while four stranded swords have been discovered before, none have ever been found with six, making this a vastly superior sword which, in its time, would have had serious bling factor. The importance of this find is akin to the discovery of the weapons from Sutton Hoo.

An exceptional sword would have belonged to someone of very high status and of European significance.  

Graeme Young is director of archaeology for the Bamburgh Research Project. He believes the sword was commissioned and made at Bamburgh for a King at the height of the Anglo Saxon period. He said: “Bamburgh was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which extended from the English Midlands to Strathclyde. These were bloody times with battles raging constantly and every king in the country would fight in them, frequently losing their lives.

Bamburgh Castle weapons


“Kings ruled their kingdom’s through money, raw power and might and liked to keep their top money-makers in the mint and their chief warriors close and would shower gifts upon them. Weapons too, were highly prized and weaponry making was a jealously-guarded secret. Great care would be taken to ensure the loyalty of their weapon smiths. Gifts were given out to the top weapon smiths to ensure their loyalty and that the technology of the day was kept secret.

Bamburgh Castle weapons


“The role of the king of Northumbria’s chief weaponry smith was a prestigious one and the individual would have had a high ranking. We believe it would be this individual who crafted the sword here at Bamburgh, using iron that could have been sourced from the Cheviot Hills nearby. This is exceptional in itself.”

The making of the Bamburgh weapon would have been an extremely complex process and may have taken over two months to produce the blade which would have been 70 – 80 cm. To produce a weapon of this caliber required state-of-the-art technology of the time. Those who witnessed the creation of this weapon would have thought it the equivalent of magic.

The sword could have been bestowed as an ostentatious gift upon the king’s highest ranking warrior, but perhaps more likely kept for himself. The complexities of its construction and the skills of the maker clearly displayed.

 At the time, pattern-welded swords would be instantly recognizable, but it would be very clear to anyone that this six-strand sword was something different and would look absolutely stunning. It would get the better of anything else side-by-side. In these times it was a case of the more ostentatious the better. 

The discovery of the sword is almost as remarkable as the object itself. It was found in the first-ever excavation at Bamburgh Castle by the late Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, formerly of Cambridge University, in 1960.  Following his death in 2001, the sword was found by chance at his home along with another, rare pattern-welded sword and an axe - all found at Bamburgh - in a suitcase during a clearance of the house.

Bamburgh Castle weapons


Rescued by the Scottish Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, the sword was returned to its rightful home at Bamburgh Castle in 2005, where the Bamburgh Research Project carries out archaeological excavations. It was only then that the remarkable nature of the sword became known when the sword was sent for further examinations. 

The sword, along with other incredible archaeological finds is on display at Bamburgh Castle. The castle’s Norman Keep contains a chilling collection of arms and armour many bearing the scars of battle. Pikes, halberds and muskets issued to local militia in anticipation of a Napoleonic invasion line the walls.

 

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