Medieval London


Originally an agricultural tool, the English billhook or bill for short, was used as melee weapon for English soldiers during the late medieval period.  The weapon has a traditional head with a blade that curves outward, a vertical spike on top and a shorter horizontal spike on the back of the blade. There are also several decorative marks on the weapon including a triangle-shaped piercing on the head and a wavy line with stars on the original staff of the weapon that is still attached with an open socket connected to 2 langets that pin the head to the staff.  This example is approximately 77.5 inches in length.  The cleaver head measures 29.5 inches.  The spike on the top measures 10.5 inches.  The bill has an overall weight of 5 pounds and 9 ounces.  The blades would have often been made of iron and eventually steel while the staff was typically made of ash wood.  This piece was presented by a Francis Henry Cripps-Day, whom according the British National Archives was an English lawyer and antiquary during the early 1900’s who died in 1945.

With the development of plate armor, there was a need for an infantry weapon that could slash as well as thrust  since a spear alone would often be deflected by the armor.  The bill was such a weapon. Because it was simple to construct, English peasant levies could quickly arm themselves with this weapon. Over time, the bill became synonymous with English infantry soldiers.  Soldiers with bills, often referred to as billmen, would have a range disadvantage against the much longer pike, which was a more common infantry weapon.  But, if a formation were to break through, billmen would enjoy a close quarters advantage due to the multiple angles of attack against their opponents.  The design of the weapon also gave English infantry a fighting chance against opposing cavalry forces.  The heavy blade enabled soldiers to chop and slash at opponents in a similar fashion to an axe.  The spike on the top of the weapon was used to thrust at opponents like a pike or spear.  The back hook could also be used to grab hold of opposing troops, either by snagging their weapon or grabbing ahold gaps in the armor, pulling opponents to the ground or off their horses to be set upon and attacked by other billmen.

Though not prominent early on, the bill did see use during the Hundred Years’ War.  By this point during the medieval period, the bill had evolved from a simple weapon of a peasant levy to a sophisticated weapon of war for trained soldiers, who were also using similar polearms like the glaive and the halberd.  This focus on professional soldiers came out of necessity due to the logistical constraints of transporting troops from England to France during the long Hundred Years War.  The English increasingly focused on the quality of soldier as opposed to the quantity.  

Billmen used their weapons in a similar fashion to other troops using polearms.  The English often fought in a defensive manner with the polearms simply referred to as lances in the center and flanked by archers who made up the majority of English armies in France.  This fighting style proved to be formidable in combat as it enabled the English to defeat the much larger armies of the French.  An example of such a battle was at Agincourt where an estimated 6,000 English troops under the command of King Henry V were able to defeat a force of French numbering an estimated 30,000.  When the battle devolved to melee combat, the less than 1,000 men-at-arms, some of which were armed with billhooks, could pull their opponents to the ground where many of the French were killed as they were either crushed by their falling allies or suffocated in their cumbersome armor in the muddy terrain.  While the longbow became the weapon of fame, the victory at Agincourt also came at the end of the bill and pole arms like it.

For those in medieval London, the bill would become associated with the Tower of London.  Bills were carried by the guards of the tower and stored in the Tower armory.  Some bills remained in those armories, even being discovered still within the Tower arsenal as recently as the twentieth century.

The commonality of the bill would be further increased for the everyday people of London during the English civil war between those laying claims to the throne in the House of Lancaster and the House of York, known as the Wars of the Roses.  During the conflict, the city was in a constant state of militarization with many of the city’s lodging houses filled with English lords and their soldiers.  Many of those men-at-arms were armed with bills, making the weapon a constant presence for those in London.

As for this piece, since it is dated at 1471 at its earliest, it is possible that this weapon was used in the battle of Barnet in April of that year.  It is also possible that this bill may have belonged to a soldier of Edward IV, who had to travel through London to reach Barnet.  This bill may have also seen use in the battle of Tewkebury, which took place in May of 1471 and secured the throne for Edward IV, making him the first Yorkist king of England.  As such, it is quite possible that this weapon served the Yorkists and eventual Tudors who united England.

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