The Anglo Saxon Broken Back Seax
A selection of 11th Century Anglo Saxon seaxes
Swords were enormously expensive weapons 1,500 years ago, and the Anglo Saxon warriors of those times needed a blade that could be used for everyday work and double as a fighting knife or sword. They and warriors of many other Northern European cultures chose the seax, which can be considered either a large dagger or a short single-edged sword.
The origins of the seax are difficult to determine, but early forms of the weapon have been found in 5th century Frankish graves. This is surprising in as much as the weapon gave its name to the people known as "Saxons" who were one of three Germanic tribes who settled in Britain.
The term "scramaseax" is sometimes used in modern descriptions of this weapon, but it occurs only once in an historical account. In his History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours describes how sixth century Frankish king Sigibert was assassinated by two young men using "strong knives commonly called scramaseax" (cultris validis quos vulgo scramasaxos vocant).
The Thames Scramaseax: the only example with its entire Anglo Saxon runic script intact
It's difficult to improve upon Richard Underwood's description of the basic seax form in his book Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare:
The blade of the knife terminates in an iron tang by which the grip was attached. The grip was made of perishable material such as wood, horn or bone, and does not generally survive. The majority of knives have quite short tangs, between 3cm and 7cm long, although occasionally it is much longer, suggesting the grip was suitable to be gripped in two hands. The tang is usually a plain iron bar tapering towards the end. It can therefore be presumed that the grip was bored out to hold the tang which was held in place by friction, perhaps aided by softwood wedges or glue. It is possible the tang was heated and burned into place although this would tend to weaken the fabric of the grip. Occasionally knives have metal hilt fittings, either a pommel or both a lower-guard and pommel.
Beyond this basic description, the typological classification of the weapon follows the system devised in modern times to describe Frankish finds:
Class A: The narrow/small seax 5th-6th century
Class B: The broad seax 7th century
Class C: The long seax 8th century
Part of a 10th century burial cross
The Anglo Saxon seax corresponds with the Frankish variety in date, but has some distinguishing characteristics. First and foremost is its distinctive "broken back" blade shape. Compared to its continental relatives, the Anglo Saxon weapon sometimes has a much longer grip, with an upper guard curved away from the blade in a manner that suggests that this seax was adapted for two handed use. This seax commonly features pattern-welding, but usually only along the spine of the weapon. Later examples sometimes feature a shallow rounding of the blade towards the point. The long seax, which could reach a length of up to 24" or 30", in broken back style seems unique to Britain.
In its shorter forms, sometimes just a few inches long, the seax typically was worn across the stomach with edge upright and with the hilt at the right-hand side. This orientation prevented the weapon from resting on its cutting edge. A 10th century burial cross in a churchyard in Middleton, Yorkshire shows a warrior surrounded by weapons. His seax is shown suspended from his waistband. (Shown at right)
In spite of extensive research on the way this weapon was made—including metallurgical tests, examination of grave finds, and even practical experiments in making modern day seaxes (of which I have several good examples of all sizes—relatively little is known about how it was used in battle.
It is certainly possible that there was more than one way to fight with a seax. It may have been used simply as a short sword or a knife along the same principles set down by later masters of the English martial arts, but there are a few other clues about the martial use of the seax.
Fortunately, we have evidence from literary and archaeological sources about many historic weapons and fighting techniques. These sources tell us that the English warrior, and even everyday men and women, systematically trained in martial arts probably already ancient to them, and which comprised a fighting system. For example, the famous British Antiquary Leland tells us that King Alfred the Great (871-899AD) had his warriors trained in unarmed as well as armed combat. The literature of other cultures may offer further clues about Anglo Saxon use of the seax.
England is not the first home of the English. Their ancestral home—known as Angeln—was situated on the mainland of continental Europe in an area that roughly corresponds to the southern half of present-day Denmark. The Engle, as the English were then known, were a Germanic race so it is likely that their culture would have had something in common with that of other Germanic races who settled the region. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose certain likenesses in the military skills of the Engle and the methods of other early Germanic peoples of Western Europe. It may then be possible to extract some understanding of the military practices of the Engle from classical sources such as Tacitus.
The physical features of the broken back seax itself provide some clues to how it might have been used in combat. Even in its longest forms, the seax allowed a warrior to fight in close. Its sharp wedge shape gives it great—even armour-piercing—strength. A cutting blow would smash flesh and bone beneath mail. On an unarmoured body, a cut would prove to be crippling or deadly. Likewise, its needle point would make thrusts devastating to the human body.
About the Author
Frank Docherty is an English martial arts practitioner with 23 years training and who is a Provost and Assistant Instructor to Ancient Maister Terry Brown in the English martial arts. His interests lie in the broadsword, backsword, sword & buckler, sword & dagger, quarterstaff, bill hook, threshalls, and knife work based on Silver's System and Principles. He also practices bare fist fighting, and has a special interest in the seax, particularly the English broken back seax. Mr. Docherty has a Shodan in Jodo (Japanese stick fighting), a Shodan in Iaido, a black sash in five animals kung fu, and has been a kickboxing Instructor.
English Martial Arts: Terry Brown
Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare: Richard Underwood
The Battle of Maldon: Translated and edited by Bill Griffiths
Beowulf: Text and Translation: Translated by John Porter
English Heroic Legends: Kathleen Herbert
The English Elite in 1066, Gone but not forgotten: Donald Henson
The English Warrior from earliest times to 1066: Stephen Pollington
Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens, Women in Early English Society: Kathleen Herbert