Literature Review #3: Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland by Richard H. Bezdek

I thought it would make sense to read the two Bezdek books in close succession – not just because they’re informative and helpful books, but because it would help me to gain a fuller picture. Again, not the cheapest book in the shop, but if you’re interested in swords and swordmaking, then it’s a worthwhile investment.

My interest is purely in the Solingen swordmakers who came to Shotley Bridge in the late 17th century, and this book contains a considerable amount of information about them. In the opening pages, Richard H. Bezdek makes mention of many useful sources, including the (excitingly named) Senior Sword Adviser at Wilkinson Sword. And it made me smile to see listed in the sources Durham City Library, Newcastle City Library and Durham University, so I’ll be following in Mr Bezdek’s footsteps when I start my archival research.

Cover of Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland

Cover of Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland

Chapter 1: Rulers of England

My relatively short period of interest (say 60 years in total) will mainly feature the House of Stuart, but it will take in quite a few rulers (including parliament for a time): Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, James II, William III, Mary II, Anne and George I. This fast-moving array of rulers immediately gives a flavour of the turbulent times in England. Charles I and Oliver Cromwell are of particular interest to me, and they’ll crop up a bit later when we come onto swords.

Chapter 2: Cavalry Swords Made at the Enfield Royal Small Arms Manufactory

Founded in 1811, with the last sword listed in 1908. This is too recent for my purposes, but I was interested in Enfield because I lived in nearby Bush Hill Park for a while in 1990 and also because my maternal grandmother’s father came from Enfield and travelled north with her when she was barely more than a toddler (after a spell in the workhouse). Now, I’m wondering whether he may have worked there and moved north when it shut. A tiny chance. Ah, so many stories, so little time! (I’m determined to find a swordmaker in my background somewhere!)

Chapter 3: The Sword and Blade Making Center of Hounslow Heath

England was buying most of its sword blades from Solingen, Prussia after finding those made in England to be inferior. Thousands of blades were imported over the years. It was a short step to import more Solingen swordmakers instead. I say more, because Solingen swordmakers had first come to Greenwich, London (1603) and later moved to Hounslow Heath around 1629 (and swordmakers had been arriving from Brussels (1512) and Milan (1514 onwards)). There was some splitting off when those loyal to King Charles went to Oxford and some of the men in Hounslow were jailed for supporting the king. This will be interesting in terms of fiction writing, because I wonder where the loyalties really lay. (More on this when I get to the swords – for example, King Charles had a Solingen sword made by Clemens Horn, and Johannes Ohlig created a blade sporting the faces of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax. Even more fascinating, Oliver Cromwell’s sword of choice was a mortuary sword, which featured the death mask of Charles I – this is reputedly in the Tower of London, so I must go and have a look to see if it bears the mark of the running wolf.)

Much later, some of the first waves of swordmakers came to Shotley Bridge, along with many more who came direct from Solingen. There is evidence of swordmakers leaving Solingen and moving to many other countries around the world, with the first record showing departure for Madrid in 1350. So, Shotley Bridge is by no means unique in having a community of Solingen swordmakers!

Chapter 4: The Sword and Blade Making Center of Shotley Bridge (The Hollow Sword Blade Company)

As the chapter name indicates, this section is all about Shotley Bridge. It provides details about a syndicate of businessmen from Newcastle, London and Hounslow (including one German, Johannes Dell [Bell]) who persuaded swordmakers to move from Hounslow and Oxford to Shotley Bridge in the first instance. It describes the houses that were built for the incoming swordmakers as being built on the Durham side of the River Derwent, with the forges on the Northumberland side. Then, the bulk of the swordmakers (19, plus families) came over in 1687, led by Clemens Hoheman – although leadership was subsequently taken by Adam Ohlig and Herman Mohll. They were helped to set up their forges and so on by a Newcastle cutler.

This is fascinating, but disappointing to me. I had initially been tempted into the story by tales of religious refugees fleeing persecution on the grounds of their Lutheran religion. However, given the sheer volume of swordmakers leaving Solingen over the centuries, and the fact that syndicates were organised to bring over swordmakers at the behest of various agents (including the king), it begins to look increasingly unlikely. In addition, metalworkers were much in demand, and it seems much more likely that the swordmakers were just part of the endless traffic of skilled workers travelling the world. But, I have lots more research to do, so I’m keeping an open mind…

This chapter also touches on the death threat made to the swordmakers. It contains a court order issued against the swordmakers that ‘Clemens Hoheman enticed away’ (Bezdek, 2003, p. 20). Hoheman is called a ‘seducer’ and threatened with ‘the severest punishment’. What is most interesting, is that this order seems to have been issued a year after the swordmakers left. This strikes me as being a little late. I also wonder whether the authorities had issued similar orders to other families leaving, or whether this departure was simply the final straw. It’s also interesting as it seems that Herman Mohll and his family returned to Solingen and then left again (perhaps on more than one occasion). And he was arrested and thrown in Morpeth jail on grounds of smuggling in blades from Solingen. So many questions I need to ask when I get to Solingen.

Despite huge initial success, it appears that the price to be paid for blades was driven down. In 1703, ‘the top price was to be 1 pound, 10 shillings per dozen blades’ (p. 21). In 1704, the price ranged from ‘7 to 14 shillings per dozen blades’ (p. 22), but by 1710, a new agreement was put in place where blades were sold for only ‘6 pence per dozen’ (p.23). Then as now, wars create a thirst for arms and arms makers, and peacetime the reverse. This chapter runs right up to 1840, saying that most of the sword mills had closed and that those who were still smithing had moved to Birmingham and Sheffield. It concludes with a list of those who left Solingen for (various parts of) England and how long they resided there (pp. 24–25).

Chapter 5: German Edged Weapon Makers & Retailers Who Had Offices or Agents in London

Two pages, and not much for me here.

Chapter 6: English Cutlers Who Were Appointed Sword Cutler to the Board of Ordnance

Going only by the names, these all look like Englishmen. Since there was a lot of competition and jockeying for contracts, I wonder if this was galling to the Solingen swordmakers, or whether they took it as just how the establishment worked. More on industrial relations in a later book…

Chapter 7: English Sword Blade Markings

Out of scope for me (1714–2003), but the drawings are interesting to look at.

Chapter 8: The Cutlers Company of London

A useful explanation of time serving (seven years as an apprentice, one year as a journeyman under company supervision, and then a freeman who could sell blades in London). There are some good examples of competition and inharmonious industrial relations. Most English cutlers assembled swords using blades created (mainly) in Solingen. The London cutlers were able to use their sign of the dagger on swords they had hilted (assembled); this sign would accompany the bladesmith’s own mark. It seems the cutlers of Birmingham appropriated this dagger sign, and the London cutlers had to petition to prevent them. (This is an interesting echo of the Solingen running wolf logo, which had originally been in use in Passau, Bavaria.)

Chapter 9: English Sword Makers, Cutlers, Dealers, and Craftsmen Who Mounted Swords

This is a description of the various trades involved in sword making (blade makers, hilt makers [hafters], handle [grip] binders, sheath [leather] makers, scabbard [metal] makers, decorators [including engravers, jewellers, goldsmiths and so on]). There are then many pages listing swordmakers in England (including those from Solingen). I got over-excited by the fact that there is an English swordmaker listed by the name of Leaton Blenkinsop. Not only is this a Northumberland name, it is also the maiden name of one of my great-grandmothers, so I need to go and give the family tree a good shake to see what falls out.

Chapter 10: English Sword Makers, Cutlers and Dealers Who Exported Swords to the United States

This is outside of my dates.

Chapter 11: English Armourers

Most interesting point here is about Henry VIII importing swordmakers from Solingen and elsewhere in Germany, who were known as the ‘Allmayne or Almain Armourers’ (p.221). So these would predate even the Greenwich contingent.

Chapter 12: Rulers of Scotland

From the modern-sounding Kenneth MacAlpine in 843 to James VI (James I of England).

Chapter 13. Scottish Words Pertaining to Swords and Sword Guards

Most interesting is sword sleper (slipper) a sword assembler. Slipper in this sense comes from the German Scheifer, which is a blade grinder. I’m most interested because the next book I will consider (Thread of Iron by Douglas Vernon) refers to ‘slaping’ or ‘slipping’ stones (Vernon, 2003, p.28). It’s never a huge leap from Scottish terms to those used in the north east…

Chapter 14. Scottish Royal Armourers and Cutlers

Nothing much here for me.

Chapter 15. Scottish Sword Makers, Dealers, Cutlers and Craftsmen Who Mounted Swords

The most notable thing in this long list of swordmakers in Scotland is the dearth of non-Scottish names, which is in huge contrast to England. Hew Vaus is mentioned as being ‘probably a German’ (p.253) and there are a couple of other Vaus names. Vaus was a master damascener – a highly sought-after skill, so that might explain his presence. There is also a James Weland. This name interests me because of Weland [Wayland] the Smith from Norse mythology, so I wonder if he might have some connection with Germany or Scandinavia. Interestingly, several Andrea Ferrara swords appear, most notably one dated 1650, which has his name next to the running wolf (p.381). This is fair enough; the assembler would sign his name next to the bladesmith’s sign. What is most interesting is that Andrea was an Italian, who may have lived in Scotland, but he was born in 1550. Perhaps he had such a good name that people kept using it. Either that, or we all need to seriously consider adopting a Mediterranean diet. The scarcity of foreign swordmakers makes me wonder whether Scotland operated more stringent protectionist measures when it came to importing swordmakers. It doesn’t seem to indicate superior blade-making skill because, according to Bezdek, ‘Very few sword blades were made in Scotland; most were imported from Solingen, Prussia’ (p. 233).

Photo Section

The book concludes with over a hundred pages of sword photos. There are many Solingen swords, as well as interesting curios, such as the mortuary sword favoured by Oliver Cromwell, and the sword bearing the faces of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax that was made by Johannes Ohlig (p.278). Curiously, fish skin seems to be a popular leather used for grip covers, and there is even a child’s sword featuring a horse-head pommel (p.360).

Bibliography

There is an extensive bibliography that provides lots of useful sources for further reading, so I’ll be writing a list to Santa very soon. Sadly, there is no index. I have made copious notes and recorded the page number next to each note to keep me straight. Where I have had to go back to something I didn’t note, I have managed quite well by searching on the ‘Look Inside’ function on Amazon.

Next book to undergo review: Thread of Iron by Douglas Vernon.

Sources

Bezdek, Richard H. (2003) Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

Vernon, Douglas (2003) Thread of Iron. Knebworth, Herts: Able Publishing.

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