Fifty years ago, excavating within the walls of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, the archaeologist Dr Brian Hope-Taylor unearthed an extraordinary sword. But, in one of those curious twists of archaeological fate, he didn't realise what he had discovered, and the sword was forgotten until 40 years later, following Dr Hope-Taylor's death, when workmen started clearing his house. A former PhD student rescued an old and corroded blade that was about to be consigned to a skip. This was eventually identified as the Bamburgh sword (apparently it had been left in a suitcase in the garage) and returned to the castle.
The site of the castle, which sits on a huge outcrop of rock on the North Sea, has been continuously occupied since the Bronze Age and was an Anglo-Saxon stronghold in the sixth century (it is first mentioned in 543 AD) and the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria from the seventh century. Here a new generation of archaeologists was working on the Bamburgh Research Project to discover more about this important site. On a hunch, one of the project directors sent the sword to the Royal Armouries in Leeds to be tested.
A few days later an excited armourer called to say that not only was the sword pattern-welded (made of a number of strands of metal twisted together and forged--only the most exceptional swords of the Anglian era were forged that way) but that it consisted of six strands of welded iron: no other Anglo-Saxon sword has been found anywhere in the world with more than four constituent strands.
An Anglian swordsmith was faced with two contradictory problems when forging a weapon. Iron is flexible and thus will not break in battle, but being malleable it loses its edge, turning it into little more than a blunt club. Steel (iron with added carbon) is much harder, so it will retain a cutting edge after slicing through umpteen shields, but it is also more brittle, particularly to lateral, parrying blows. And a warrior with a broken sword would not survive the battlefield for long. Pattern-welding married the strengths of iron and steel and minimised their weaknesses. But it took years to acquire the skills to make such swords and hundreds of hours of labour to heat, turn and beat the strands of metal together to fashion one. There were probably only a handful of swordsmiths capable of forging the Bamburgh sword and even fewer patrons able to pay for it. It may possibly have belonged to King Oswald, the first canonised Anglo-Saxon king, who ruled Northumbria between 634 and 641.
Only a king or one of his closest associates would have been able to afford such a sword and either he would have wielded it himself or it would have been given to a retainer to ensure lifelong loyalty. Any enemy faced with the unsheathed Bamburgh sword would have known immediately that he was facing something out of the ordinary. Pattern-welded swords glint with an unmistakeable iridescent light. The wielder of such a weapon would have trained in combat from childhood and, most likely, spent much of his adult life engaging in the favoured Saxon sport of duelling. …