Medieval London

Spearhead

Dublin Core

Title

Spearhead

Subject

Weapons and armor

Description

This spearhead at the Museum of London was found in the Thames River along the northern section of the London Bridge in the 1920s. Although the spearhead could have been lost while its owner was crossing the Thames, it is also possible that a Saxon passing by this section of the Thames near London deliberately threw his spear into the river since Saxon soldiers would oftentimes throw their weapons into the river in thanks for coming safely through a battle. The dimensions of the spearhead measure 5 cm long x 3.5 cm wide so it is typical of the Norman-Saxon period in the eleventh century.

The spear could have been used in one or more of the battles between Saxon and Viking warriors or Saxon and Norman warriors in this period. From a military standpoint, the spear is able to extend past the reach of a typical infantryman, so in close engagements, it is the first weapon to make contact with the oncoming enemy. It could also be thrown by both infantry and cavalry, as depicted in a battle scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered a decade or more after the Norman invasion of England.

From a religious perspective the spearhead evokes divine strength and the fulfillment of prophesy. The Old Testament mentions the use of the spear on dozens of occasions. The book of Samuel speaks of the soldiers under David’s command, “These be the names of the mighty men whom David had: The Tachmonite that sat in the seat, chief among the captains the same was Adino the Eznite: he lift up his spear against eight hundred, whom he slew at one time.” (2 Samuel 23:8). A more relevant use of the spear in a Christian context is its use in Christ’s crucifixion. When the Roman soldier stabbed Christ’s side, the blood that flowed became the basis for the Eucharistic rite. It is possible that this spear was involved in the battle of Hastings in 1066, when mainly Norman troops led by Duke William of Normandy defeated a large Saxon army under King Harold. After his victory, William and his troops went to London to secure control over this important port and, in the following years, all of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry illustrates the use of the spear by both the elite Saxon housecarls, who were foot soldiers, and the mounted Norman knights. Although the Saxon housecarl used the spear with deadly accuracy, Norman cavalrymen armed with spears were able to break the lines of Harold’s infantry. The Norman cavalry, for example, were also known to employ a tactic called the feint, in which mounted soldiers would advance, probe, retreat and advance again in order to inflict the highest number of casualties. The length of the staff coupled with the speed of the charge dealt a terrific blow to the lines of any frontal assault. During a cavalry on cavalry charge, a skilled spearman would balance the weight of the spear on his horse’s neck.

Archaeological evidence reveals that the spear was constructed of both steel and iron. The softer iron would be used to make the blade of the spear and the more durable steel was welded to form the center of the leaf. At the base of the spearhead, the iron would be hammered thinly around an anvil to form a circular hollowing where the spear could be fitted to a wooden staff. Normandy in northern France dominated by old growth hardwood forests so the majority of spear staffs would be constructed from the sapwood of European Ash (Fraxinus Excelsior). Techniques varied for the production of straight handles, but a common practice was to split wood into long staves using a wedge, and then smooth the rough edges by means of a pedal-operated lathe.

The main difference between spears used by infantry versus those used by mounted soldiers was the size of the haft. Generally, infantrymen had thicker handles in order to dismount charging cavalry. Men on horseback preferred a lighter spear that could be maneuvered in a frontal assault. Some spears even had a hilt fixed at the base of the head to prevent the weapon from becoming lodged inside the victim’s body. The spear continued to be used throughout the Norman occupation of England and into the later medieval period. It was not until the proliferation of gunpowder that the spear was replaced by firearms. -Michael Vecchio

Contributor

Michael Vecchio

Collection Items

Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is a very long embroidered cloth made to depict over 70 scenes about the preparation for and events during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. This scene shows both Norman cavalry and Saxon infantry fighting with spears.

1066: How to Forge a Norman Spearhead
This picture from the English Heritage Society shows a blacksmith, Hector Cole MBE, forging a spearhead similar to what would have been used during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. In the video, he explains how the center of the spear is made…
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