What is a back-sword?

You may have seen the sword we train with referred to as a back-sword but what exactly does this mean?

The generally accepted term back-sword is taken from ‘Hope’s New Method’ a small sword and spadroon fencing manual from 1707. In this work Sr William Hope describes a back sword when describing all manner of swords as follows;

‘and the English back-sword with a thick back, & only one good sharp edge, & which with a good point, & closs hilt, is in my opinion the most proper sword of them all for the wars, either a foot or on horse-back.’

As a result the current view of the back-sword is a single edged blade. Although, when looking at this description Hope clearly defines the ‘closs’ or close/closed hilt. He references this also in his work as a simile to the highland basket hilt broadsword.

This in itself brings up a few interesting concerns with the currently accepted terminology as well as further historical evidence. First, the term is generally accepted as any single edged blade however, Hope clearly describes a basket hilt so this does not necessarily cover sabres or any other single edged weapon. In fact Hope himself mentions the back-sword and the sabre in the same sentence.

The second direct concern is that extant archaeological examples of English swords are not definitively single edged but rather show a fairly balanced distribution of both single and double edged. So even Hope, who is the first to give us any description of a back-sword is somewhat mistaken.

As Hope is writing in the 18th century it is possible that ‘the Highlanders in Scotland, and backsword-masters or gladiators in England’ who have these swords may prefer single edged weapons by this time but in the hey day of such weapons this does not track with the evidence.

Many people often consider Silver to have used a back-sword as he mentions it briefly in one of his works but he clearly describes such a sword as a short-sword far more often, the term back-sword only being referenced to the English sword twice and both times in the same chapter in Brief Instructions.

It is here where another issue arises with back-sword being a description of the blade and that is that there is no reason for the blade types to be described separately. One would not use a single edged sword any differently to a double edged sword the reference in Silver’s work in fact directs to the ‘chapter on the back-sword’ which, upon searching the book can only be the chapter on the short-sword against the like.

In this, Silver himself makes the back-sword analogous with the short sword and should immediately remove any argument that the term refers to blade type. There are several examples of the sword type that Silver describes in existence in the Royal Armouries in Leeds as well as the famous Mary Rose example. The Mary Rose example is dated as no later than 1545 as it was found beneath the wreck of Henry VIII’s flagship. This example has 2 edges.

The examples in the Royal Armouries are equally distributed between single and double edged. This continues to be the case for the mortuary swords that were used in England from the 16th and into the 17th centuries. The argument is further hampered by the fact that almost every single type of sword has been made with single and double edges. Longswords, rapiers, arming swords….. It was a personal preference and never showed up as a fashion on any blade.

With Silver’s work being published in 1599 (although the back-sword is mentioned in Brief Instructions which is likely dated to around 1603ish) it sits as a reference around 100 years earlier than Hope but he does not describe it. Earlier still than Silver is the records of the Company of Masters of London.

This text offers no description either but as a record that spans from sometime in the reign of Henry VIII and 1590 it references back-sword regularly. In fact many prizes played in the record are played with a back-sword. Importantly every prize where the player plays without a companion weapon the single sword is called a back-sword and when with companion it is always referred to as a sword ie.

‘James Cranydge playd his provoste prize the xxxjth of January At the Bull within Bishopsgate at iij types of weapon that is to say the Longe sword the back sword and the sword and buckler……’

As this follows throughout the text we see again that sword and back-sword are analogous to each other. There is no way that people would have a single edged sword for being single and a double edged sword for using with a companion weapon. As such it stands that the term back-sword is in fact a generic term meaning sword.

This should also be considered next to other contemporary factors. How are swords usually described? Well, normally as a sword. When they are named however they are named for their use – kriegsmesser (war-knife) – or for how they are worn – Rapier (wardrobe) and spada de lato (sword on the side). With this in mind it stands to much better reason that the back-sword is simply the sword that is either ‘away from the front’ or behind or potentially it is being referred to as a support weapon as in the 1540’s is when the term back begins to mean support.

The trend in England from at least the time of Henry VIII all the way through the 17th century the fashion of English swords was a type of basket hilted sword. Although the these baskets varied wildly in design the function varies from other mid European fashions as the hilt covers the hand rather than sitting in front of it. The blades of all of these swords show no fashion towards single or double edge and neither does the use of such weapons.

As our school is inspired by the traditions of the Tudor and Elizabethan warriors we take our terminology of back-sword to mean a sword worn on the back or used as a back up. The sword is really no different to a sidesword performing in the same way, used in the same way and only differing in hilt design, if one chooses a closed hilt.

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