The Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, contains the remains of between 80 and 150 bejewelled sword hilts, all having been ripped from their original blades. It can be difficult to keep track of the terms for all these various components, and how they relate to each-other. To reduce confusion when discussing Anglo-Saxon sword parts, we've prepared this illustrated guide, to help.
By convention swords are discussed in an orientation with the tip of the blade pointing downward; the same orientation they would have when worn in a scabbard. This means that when we say the the 'lower' part, we mean further towards the tip; 'upper' means further away from the tip.
An alternative way of orienting the sword is to consider it an extension of the human body when wielded; in this context 'distal' means further away from the hand, and 'proximal' means closer to it, hence weaponological phrases like 'distal taper'. This can create some confusion, however, when discussing the very top of the sword hilt, which, being further away from the hand but in the opposite direction to the blade, is pedantically, is more 'distal' than the grip.
Although relatively consistent in profile, Early Anglo-Saxon sword blades were complex works of smithcraft. All examples which have been subjected to radiography show signs of 'patternwelding' - the forging together of strips of wrought iron of different compositions into welded stacked billets, which were heated, tightly twisted, and combined with each-other in carefully planned arrangements. Carbon-steel edges were then added around the 'core', before the blade was ground down, sharpened, and possibly treated with a weak acid to emphasise the contrast between the different irons within the structure, which would reveal elaborate patterns. This process is also sometimes called 'twist-welding', for the objective of the process was not primarily the pattern it produced, but the effect that the process had on homogenising the iron so that the resulting blade would not have any axis of weakness along which it might snap (for more on twist-welding see Mortimer & Bunker, 2019). A very complex pattern did not necessarily add to the real strength of the blade, compared to a simpler one, but the skill required to achieve a complex pattern meant that (like a peacock's tail being an advert for fitness while not, in of itself, being particularly useful) pattern quality could be used as a proxy for the quality of the blade as a whole.
Like later medieval swords, early Anglo-Saxon swords sometimes had a single broad groove longitudinally down the middle of the blade - a fuller - which served to reduce the weight of the blade and improve its wieldiness without compromising on its strength (effectively giving the sword an optimised cross-section rather like an engineering I-beam). However many early Anglo-Saxon sword blades show no signs of a fuller, so instead had a smooth elliptical/lenticular cross-section. The blades were almost parallel-sided (little, or very gradual profile taper) with two cutting edges, and only towards the end of the blade did they start to taper to an often relatively rounded point.
Like swords which came before, the blade thinned into a narrow spike onto which the handle could be attached - the tang. An important innovation from swords of the late Iron Age / Migration Period, Anglo-Saxon swords had swaged tangs, which means that the tang was forged out of the billet by hammer-work, rather than cutting metal away (stock removal) or welding-on a narrow piece of iron to make the tang. This meant that the hard-won composite grain from the pattern-welded core flowed continuously, compressed by hammer-work, into the tang. Swords made like this are much less likely to snap at the shoulders / blade-root (the transition between the blade and the tang).
The Basic Hilt
Recent exceptions to this lack of clarity are the Staffordshire Hoard monograph (Fern et. al. 2019), Sue Brunning's study on the social history of the early medieval sword (Brunning, 2019) and particularly the most comprehensive work on early Anglo-Saxons to date, by Mortimer & Bunker (2019). Each employ a labelled diagram of parts to begin their chapters on sword-hilts allowing discussion to proceed with greater precision and clarity, and these works are - mostly but not totally - in agreement with regard to the terms used. The scheme for labelling hilt parts offered here is largely in agreement with Chris Fern et. al. (2019) and Matt Bunker (Mortimer & Bunker 2019) with only one significant adjustment. As many of the parts in the 'archetypal' early Anglo-Saxon sword hilt were optional or uncommon features, the labelling scheme offered here is visualised 'unpacked' into multiple diagrams representing different evidenced swords on a spectrum of accumulating complexity.
In some contexts the word 'hilt' might be used to refer only to the guard of a sword (which protects the hand from the blade) but with Anglo-Saxon swords we tend to use the word 'hilt' to mean the sum of all of the components fitted onto the blade (MyArmoury Glossary).
The majority of swords from early Anglo-Saxon graves had few, if any metal fittings, and because organic elements rot away, often, little of the hilt survives, and we are left with a bare rusty tang. However, the grain of the organic parts of the hilt can sometimes be seen preserved in the rust, and in rare cases (such as the Snape sword) organic hilts survive in better condition so we can learn about how they were shaped.
- The Lower Guard - The piece which some might be tempted to call the "crossguard" was usually not much wider than the blade itself, and had a slot which was carefully shaped, so that when slotted onto the tang, it would lock into place, over the shoulders of the blade. Lower guards on Anglo-Saxon swords were not really designed to protect hands from enemy swords, as blade-on-blade contact was generally avoided. Instead they served to stop the wielder's hand from slipping down onto the sharp blade, and together with the other parts, to make the sword easier to keep hold of. Lower guards were typically oval or elliptical in shape, flat, and not very much wider than the blade itself.
- The Grip - A long piece of wood or horn, one hand-width in length, with a hole running all the way through, allowing the tang of the sword to run all the way through and come out the other side. The grip was slotted onto, and covered up, most of the length of the tang, and judging by grain traces on the tangs of surviving swords, must have been extremely precisely fitted. Glues and small wedges may have sometimes been used to improve the fit and prevent rattling. Examples such as Snape, and the Cumberland hilt, as well as the shape implied by surviving metal grip fittings, tell us that the outside of Anglo-Saxon sword grips were often very elegantly, and sometimes ergonomically carved. This is no easy task, considering the danger of breaking through into the tang's tunnel.
- The Upper Guard - The last of the three main pieces, was similar to the lower guard, usually of the same wood or horn, but was often a little narrower, and with a much smaller rectangular hole for the tip of the tang to pass through (as opposed to the wide blade-root slot of the lower guard). The upper guard's function was primarily keep the sword from flying out of the hand when swung, and not for "pummeling" enemies. The upper guard occupies the same position as the true pommel of later swords and is part of the latter's evolution, so has been referred to as the pommel by some weaponologists. Due to the use of the same word for other parts of early Anglo-Saxon swords, however, we argue that the use of the word 'pommel' for the upper guard is confusing and unhelpful.
This 'tripartite' hilt was usually fixed on by peening - ie. hammering and squashing the tip of the tang. In this way the whole tang effectively acts as a big rivet, fixing the whole hilt together, and fixing it onto the sword.
In the many cases of swords from graves recovered with just bare tangs, with no metal fittings, it must be assumed that the tang was peened over the upper-guard leaving a small, slightly unsightly lump.
In practice it is far easier to peen a rivet when it has a rove (similar to a washer) providing a metal surface to hammer over ("tang-rove"), and preventing the hammer-blows from causing the iron to squash inside the upper-guard's hole rather than over it, which can easily cause it to crack or split, ruining many many hours of hard work. Continental examples survive where such roves are in evidence, but, probably due to corrision / disintegration, there are reportedly no cases of swords from Anglo-Saxon graves where a simple tang-rove is preserved (Mortimer & Bunker, 2019).
Even with a rove, peening the end of the tang so close to the surface of the upper guard carries risk of hitting it with the hammer. If the hilt is entirely organic there is a big risk of breaking the upper guard during assembly. For this reason swordsmiths developed an enhanced tang-rove or knob, with sloping sides, which make it much easier to peen the tang. The tang would pass through a hole in the middle of the knob (or napp - see later), coming out at its apex, which would then be much easier for the hammer to hit without damaging the fittings below.
As the upper-most fitting, onto which the tip of the tang is peened, these roves occupy the same position on the sword as the large wooden Obviabis on the hilts of Roman swords, and the heavy 'pommels' (from Vulgate Latin via Norman French, for 'little apple') on medieval swords which acted as a counterweight to the blade and improved handling. Migration Age or Early Anglo-Saxon swords had no such feature- the weight of the fitting is negligible so it had no impact on the handling characteristics of the sword. They are therefore not 'pommels' in the functional sense.
To add further confusion, into the late Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian, or 'Viking' Age, upper hilt-fittings became heavier and more solid, starting to contribute more toward balancing the blade, and began to merge with each-other, ultimately leading to the "pommel and crossguard" arrangement on swords from the 10th century onwards. It's therefore been common in discussion of Viking-Age swords, and even earlier Anglo-Saxon ones (Davidson, 1992) to refer to the whole upper part of the sword hilt (everything above the grip) as the pommel even if it still has a distinct upper-guard and 'pommel' element. Thankfully more systematic guides on terminology (MyArmoury "Anatomy of a Sword") advocate for the distinct naming of upper-guard and pommel, even if the distinction between these parts on a particular transitional Viking Age sample is only vestigial.
It has become typical for the top rove part of a Migration Period or early Anglo-Saxon sword to be referred to as a pommel, though this does create a risk of confusion when it comes to more complex hilt assemblages, as we will see shortly. No Old English texts survive which describe this part of the sword precisely but the most likely extant term for it would probably be Cnæppe - meaning hillock, summit, apex or knop (pl. cnæpes). From this we might get the compound '*Swyrd-cnæppe' and thus, a better more precise word for this part would be a Napp.
It is common for swords from early Anglo-Saxon graves to have just a napp/pommel, on the end of the tang, with no other hilt fittings, such as Westgarth Gardens g51 (pictured below).
The rivets which held hiltplates on often had an exaggerated domed head and rove, sometimes augmented with gem-settings or beaded wire surrounds. These exaggerated rivets (*rof-nægl ?) have been termed "bosses" (Fern et. al. 2019) but should not be confused with jewelled studs found sitting further down on the blade, or as stray finds, which probably formed part of the strap system and are termed "scabbard-bosses".
Once the organic core of the guards, and the grip, has rotted away, the hiltplates and their rivets are left behind on the tang, in what could be termed a sword's "hilt skeleton".
Pommel-caps / "Pommels"
To improve on this, 'pommel-caps' were developed - hollow 'hats' which fitted over the peened end of the tang (with or without a napp inside). Unlike the napp, these were not fixed to / penetrated by the tang, but instead held on independently by two or more long nails or rivets which, most often, passed through the upper guard and were peened onto its underside near the grip. On swords without hiltplates small roves might be added to make peening these tiny rivets easier.
Pommel-caps (perhaps *Cnæppe-cæppe in Old English) most often were of sub-triangular or 'cocked hat' shape and a rectangular footprint, though some were round-backed or 'boat shaped". As the most visible part of the sword when worn, the pommelcap became a major focus for embellishment. Confusingly both 'knapp/pommels' and 'pommel-caps' are recorded by archaeologists as 'pommels'.
As the single most recognisable part of an early Anglo-Saxon sword other than the blade, there is a growing corpus of pommel-caps in the Portable Antiquities Scheme, found by metal-detectorists, usually without any association to blades. Pommel-caps were valuable objects, and fixed onto sword-hilts very securely. That they turn up so frequently as stray finds is, therefore, remarkable, and suggestive of deliberate depositional practice; that perhaps it was customary to remove, and discard or bury the pommel / pommel-cap of a captured sword before reusing the blade.
Particularly into the 7th century in Britain, as evidenced by Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard, and a growing number of examples in the Portable Antiquities Scheme, pommelcaps were delicately fabricated from precious metals.
A sword with such a fitting might therefore have a thin gold pommelcap (called a pommel) sheathing a copper-alloy inner pommelcap (called a pommel), fitted over a peened tang and knop (called a pommel), sitting on an upper guard, which later medieval specialists would tend to call a pommel; four different parts, all called a pommel, and all on the same sword. And none functioning as a pommel in the traditional sense.
The "Cumberland Hilt" - a preserved horn sword-hilt in the British Museum whose precise provenance is not known, but which stylistically is consistent with an early 7th century date - is heavily ornamented with small appliques / grip mounts fixed into the organic parts of the grip by means of tiny rivets and nails. The grip is thought to be older than its appliques, which may have been added gradually in a piecemeal fashion or all at once, as part of a later refit of the sword. Nothing quite similar has so far been found in situ on any sword from an early Anglo-Saxon grave but there are a great many similar mounts in the Staffordshire Hoard, belonging to Fern (2019)'s "Hoard Phase-2".
Grip mounts which only partially encircle the grip may be called "grip clips" as famously seen on the sword from Sutton Hoo Mound 1.
Miscellaneous Fittings & Variations
On some (mostly slightly earlier) examples, such as the sword from Dover Buckland g41 a loop-shaped mount emerges from one side of the pommel and ends with a rod (or 'post'). Slipped onto the loop is a complete cast, loose ring, which is free to rattle. The 'post' of the sword-ring mount then passes through the upper guard and is usually peened on its underside. Typically this post takes the place of one of the upper guard-rivets.
Although examples of free rings like the 'Dover Ring Sword' show us what these mounts are 'meant' to be, most are not free-rings, and instead, the two elements are more like two very thick, intersecting discs, and, cast as one piece, in many cases merging and partly losing definition.
Pieces from the later phases of the Staffordshire Hoard - manufactured approx 630-80 CE, show variations in hilt design which foreshadow developments through the 8th century which would give rise to the more familiar hilt designs of the 'Viking Age'.
It follows that the swords these two pommel-caps came from did not have separate upper-guard rivets at all. These pommel-cap, rather than having visible pommel-cap-rivets, instead had integral or hidden, thicker rivets projecting from their bases, which would pass through the very corners of the guards, fixing the hiltplates, guard-core and pommel-cap together. It logically follows that the upper guard and its hiltplates therefore must have been fitted onto the sword loose, and only permanently fixed together after peening of the tang and the installation of the pommel-cap.
The combination of the peak of the central element and the two rings give a "three lobed" effect reminiscent of later, more solid sword pommels. At least one of these unusual giant pommel-caps matched stylistically to an array of other fragments, of what was once a decorative sheathing which completely enveloped the sword's guards, hiding the organic element inside.
By the 8th century high-status swords would have entirely metal guards, albeit sometimes with purely decorative vestiges of hilt-plates and false rivets worked into them (such as on the Fetter Lane hilt).
Brunning, S. 2019. The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe: Experience, Identity, Representation. Anglo-Saxon Studies 36. Boydell & Brewer.
Davidson, H.R.E., 1998. The sword in Anglo-Saxon England: its archaeology and literature. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
Fern, C., Dickinson, T. and Webster, L., 2019. The Staffordshire Hoard. An Anglo-Saxon Treasure (p. 640). Society of Antiquaries of London.
Hines, J. and Bayliss, A., 2013. Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries AD: A chronological framework.
Mortimer, P. and Bunker, M. eds., 2019. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: from the 5th to 7th century. Anglo-Saxon Books.
MyArmoury - Anatomy of a Sword: Sections of a Viking Age Sword. MyArmoury - A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors. [Online] [Url="http://myarmoury.com/feature_anatomy.html"] [Accessed 28/03/2023]
MyArmoury - A Beginner's Glossary of Terms. MyArmoury - A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors. [Online] [Url="http://myarmoury.com/feature_glossary.html"] [Accessed 28/03/2023]