During the latter half of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th, as the furnished burial rite was in decline, the elegant narrow-seax was being replaced by a much larger, heavier weapon; the broad-seax. Known examples tend to have fairly simple hilt fittings or seem to lack them completely suggesting that they were either purely organic or had precious components stripped off prior to deposition, as seems to have been done with swords. The Staffordshire Hoard has demonstrated that the abundance of golden-hilted swords during the 7th century was far in excess of what grave evidence had suggested, and it is reasonable to suppose that the same would be true of seaxes. Although many excavated broadseax blades have a brutal magnificence to them, no definitively 'princely' or 'kingly' examples have been found in England, though such weapons likely did exist. It is an interesting exercise to imagine what such items would have looked like.
Our associate specialist weapon-smith Paul Binns (of Paul Binns Swords) produced a blade of extraordinary beauty and breathtaking complexity. This has a slim band of ‘pattern-welding’ sitting below two deep parallel grooves, themselves bearing subtle ribbons of patternation, and a graceful wave-like pattern interface between the blade-core and the carbon-steel cutting edge.
The blade is 48cm long, 4cm wide and 8mm thick at the spine edge. Longer than is typical for a light broad-seax, and a little more slender than is typical for a heavy-broad-seax, this blade arguably falls into the category of “atypical broad-seaxes”; a more elegant form which arguably foreshadowed the advent of the more familiar and fearsome longseaxes of the 8th-10th centuries.
Paul, an artist of iron, relishes interesting projects and the opportunity to push his skills to new limits. I am sure he would not mind me saying that the blade he produced for us was, to a great extent, far more elaborate and impressive than we had really anticipated, and necessitated us re-thinking our original plans in order that the other elements; hilt and sheath, would live up to the magnificence of the blade. It is a nervous and sometimes agonising business, attempting to add to another craftsman's masterpiece, and we only hope we have done it justice.
Gilt bronze hilt collars, decorated with filigree work, were custom-made for the blade by our associate historic jeweller George Easton, taking inspiration from a number of items from the Staffordshire Hoard. The hilt was capped with a gilt bronze replica of the pommel-cap STH-K347 made for us specially by Mr Easton for this project.
Although some broad-seaxes, notably those from Northolt Manor and Purton have very long grips of at least 24cm in length, most vary between 10 and 20cm. Taking into account the proportions and balance of the blade we settled on a hilt length of 19cm, with the actual grip (excluding the jewelled elements) measuring 9.5cm, producing a grip comfortably wide enough for one hand. Because of the size of the grip collars, the hilt was made wasp-waisted to some degree with an offset central widening to promote a comfortable grip. The haft was carved in sections from walnut using spacers of black cow-horn.
The result is, expectedly for such a weapon, blade-heavy, but nevertheless comfortable in the hand. Such weapons, and their even more substantial brothers – heavy broadseaxes – seem to have been optimised for heavy chopping blows, and this is no exception.
The thick veg-tanned leather was tooled to a conservative and well evidenced design, featuring lines delineating the shape and fullers of the blade contained within, with other tooled elements having been designed in a manner informed by, and sympathetic to the metallic elements of the sheath. It was lined with fine animal hide to further protect the blade (-an approach more commonly associated with wood-cored sheaths, but nevertheless evidenced having augmented the core-free sheath of the seax from Buttermarket G2297). The sheath was closed using a myriad of tiny copper-alloy pins on the suspension-flap following the style of Buttermarket G1306, and likewise, an L-shaped copper-alloy fitting of U-cross-section was added to the suspension-flap at the mouth of the sheath. Further decoration came from 7 rivets interspersed with 5 larger decorative copper-ally buttons 16mm in diameter showing what at first sight looks to be an abstract chip-carved design but is actually a devolved Salin Style-II picture of what I take to be a raven. Such large decorative rivets are seen on the sheaths of continental large seaxes but are not unknown in England, being found in Buttermarket and the smith’s grave at Tattershall-Thorpe, which was dated to the late 7th century. The buttons and rivets used here, though not precise replicas of either find, mirror their styles and arrangement closely and together, we hope, are highly representative of these overtly Frankish-influenced, highly decorative and wealth-displaying sheaths.
The suspension system relies on two iron three-way strap-dividers and utilises two of the large brass studs to secure the vertical straps. Adjustment is via a small iron buckle on the anterior strap and a larger iron buckle on the breast strap of the baldric. This system produces very comfortable carriage of this big seax with no damaging torsion being placed on the straps.
The name we have given to this ‘atypischer Breitsax’ is ‘Átorþorn’, which means ‘poison-thorn’ in Old English. The Anglo-Saxon term ‘þorn’ actually means ‘a sharp point on a stem’ and has always had the associated idea of its causing pain. In Norse poetry the term was sometimes used to describe a jötun. Our blade has the classic seax twist-welded pattern now described as ‘herringbone’ or ‘Anna’ but which was known in Anglo-Saxon times as ‘átertánum fáh’. This meant ‘poison-twig pattern’ and was clearly a kenning for the venomous adder whose markings it resembles. We particularly like the wave-like appearance of the area of the blade which marks where the hard steel edge meets blade core. It is now known that good quality seax-blades did sometimes show this interface which some have likened to the hamon on a Japanese sword.
Having taken well over two years of planning and research, this project has, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, taken copious quantities of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. We hope the end result has been a replica seax and sheath worthy of a late c7th king of Mercia, and brought to life what such a weapon assemblage might have looked like at the time of its making.