In Memorium
Ewart Oakeshott 1916-2002

"If I had one foot already in Paradise,
I would withdraw it to go and fight"

- Garin li Loherains, 15th century
Chanson de Geste


By John Clements

Ewart Oakeshott, the great 20th century British sword researcher and collector, passed away on September 20, 2002, at the age of 86. To say he was the most important figure in the subject in the last century is probably no exaggeration.

Through his landmark 1960 work, Archaeology of Weapons, Ewart Oakeshott has been credited with inspiring a generation to follow along. Oakeshott offered ideas about how historical combat could best be studied with statements such as: "If we carefully read and correctly interpret what we are told in the Sagas about sword-fighting, and co-relate that with the archaeological evidence plus -and this is the essential -a practical knowledge of the "feel" of the swords themselves, we may arrive at some reasonable conclusions as to how it was done." This in essence is what ARMA has tried to do since it s beginning.

Almost non-stop for more than 60 years he collected, studied, and researched his beloved European swords. He was one of the very few who approached the subject as something more than just an archaeological or anthropological curiosity fit for glass display cases. Before any of us he was involved privately in the martial handling of antique swords and in recreating historical fighting as far back as the 1940's. He had once said he was either born too late or too earlier; too late to have wielded swords and armor in days of yore; too early to have participated in their modern revival. But that very revival owes much of its very energy to his labors.

Ewart suggested to a generation that there was a legitimate way to proceed with practice of lost fighting arts. His tireless lifetime effort of studying and celebrating the swords of Europe was to result in a number of important book titles that have become standard reference works. His many writings reflected a genuine love for the subject and his considerable knowledge in the field was soon recognized. Oakeshott, who had been exposed to antique arms as a youth, soon afterwards began amassing his own private collection. In 1948 he founded the Arms and Armour Society in Britain. Unlike his more academically credentialed peers within the curatorial community, from his earliest days Oakeshott went out of his way to handle antique European arms as he imagined they would have been used by historical warriors. In his quest for knowledge he began conducting experiments and practicing with both authentic and replica arms long before there was any living-history and reenactment communities or historical fencing movement. He went as far as test-cutting with real weapons, attempting to make his own reproduction blades, and even donning antique armor, all in the effort to gain more insight into their historical function and use. As researcher and author of more than ten books on historical European weapons his ideas were also influential in the conceptualization of the new Royal Armouries Museum relocated from London to Leeds, England in 1996. The Royal Armouries uniquely presents its collections by the subject of self-defense, tournament, hunting, and war, as well as offering unique live fight interpretations, presenting the use of historical arms and armor through close study of period sources as Oakeshott once envisioned. Other arms museums are now beginning to follow the Royal Armouries' program.

Among enthusiasts of the sword, a firm familiarity with Oakeshott's major works is considered a prerequisite even to begin conversations on European swords. Hank Reinhardt, original founder of HACA and former president of Museum Replicas Limited, was a long time friend of Ewart and openly acknowledges the importance of his influence in his own lifetime study. Several expert swordsmiths I know say they also got their first interest by reading his books. Yet, Oakeshott's reference works are standard sources so much now that I have researched non-English language books on arms and armor only to see on occasion 75% or so of their bibliographies made up of his works, and even recognized direct quotes of his writings in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. A few years back I even had occasion to rebuff a certain noted instructor of classical fencing over a mistake he was asserting regarding swords, and when I quoted Oakeshott to correct him, his reply of, "Who's Oakeshott?" (!) I will never forget. After I enlightened him, to my dismay his response was then, "What does he know, he's not a fencer". What did he know, indeed?

My own interest in swords and swordsmanship was directly inspired and guided by Oakeshott's many titles, and specifically, by his spirit of viewing swords not as objects but as functional tools, once wielded by living men. Since 1998, ARMA was privileged to have Mr. Oakeshott as a senior Advisor and honorary member, who quietly contributed to us via phone, mail, and email without recognition. His correspondence proved invaluable on several issues of sword classification and history as well as updated research from his writings.

In 1999, I had the honor of being among a handful of individuals to meet with Ewart and his wife Sybil in recent years and spend time in their home. The visit, a highlight of a research trip, was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. There were far more things I learned from my hours of conversation with him than I can possibly relate here. What most struck me about him was how open and approachable he was and how he was still excited about the subject, with a youthful sense of wonder and exploration. He was still staying on top of the latest research and writings and was more than happy to show off his collection and insist they be handled. There were six of us from ARMA buzzing around his home examining everything from 14th century arming swords to 18th century smallswords. It was also a strange feeling to know that several swords which we had only seen on photos in books either at one time in or still were in his collection. To my surprise, I found we also shared two other major interests together, art and historical naval combat.

At one point during dinner he instructed me to take down a particular sword from the kitchen wall, and then asked me how it felt. It was a 15th century style single hand weapon as I recall, and at once I was uncomfortable with it. Something just wasn't right and I attributed it to it just not being my 'style' of weapon. But, he asked me what I thought of it, how it felt to me. At once I was uncomfortable and felt very awkward as to whether I should be truthful or polite. I decided long ago that with weapons to always speak my mind and so told him flat out I frankly didn't care for it. At that he grinned mischievously from ear to ear and said, "Very good, that's a Victoria reproduction". I felt so proud. I had not known by looking, but knew something was not right just from its heft and feel, as he has always stressed in his writings. Another anecdote worth sharing was when several of us were in his garden examining and measuring some of his swords while I tried out a few slow moves with them to get a more subjective and holistic feel for the pieces. At one point, I just could not resist this small low hanging twig on a tree in front of me and I stared at it until I just absolutely could not stop myself from taking a cut at it with this astoundingly beautiful 14th century sword. I quickly cut sideways at it and the twig fell silently to the brick floor. When I turned around there was Ewart being helped down the step into the garden and staring right at me. I was so embarrassed, I was speechless and my mouth hung open. He had witnessed it all and saw my reaction but immediately smiled and said, "Go right ahead, that's what they were made for" and then added, "It probably hasn't been used that way in centuries". I was so floored by his attitude to these valuable objects I could only thank him and politely decline (…besides… there were no good more branches around to cut).

Of the two days that we were able to spend with him, I will never forget the actual initial meeting. My friend Mark Bertrand and I were waiting outside his door in the small town of Ely, and he had told us earlier it would take several minutes for him to come down. While we waited, I turned and was looking at Oliver Cromwell's house, which was across from a park on the other side of the street. I stood there and Mark called, me, and then tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and had not noticed the door had opened. There, a few feet up the steps above us, in the dark doorway stood Mr. Oakeshott --barefoot, in baggy pants and shirt, a knobbed cane in his hand, smiling ear to ear with little wisps of white hair and an orange light glowing behind him. I just gapped and I swear, the first thought that came into my head was, "...Yoda…!". It was pretty funny afterward. I've heard similar stores from others, so I know my impression was not distinct. The most profound statement that made an impact on me was his comment that as a collector, he felt we are all only "temporary caretakers" of all these antique swords, "that they were here long before us and would still be here long after us". It really made me think about how old and fine these weapons are and that we owe it to posterity to preserve and pass them on. The spirit of Ewart's vision survives now in concrete form with the new Oakeshott Institute, to which he bequeathed his collection.

Besides his growing sadness at being increasing infirm and unable to freely hold his beloved swords, one of his greatest laments, he told me at the time, was that across Europe there were still many small private collections of swords kept in old manor houses and family estates that contained in them singular pieces representing one of kind sword specimens that had never been examined or classified. In some cases, he suspected they would rewrite the history of what we know. But because these owners don't care the pieces were deteriorating and would inevitably end up in private collections where the public would never see them and enthusiasts never able to examine them. He also related to me that, as a general rule, he felt we can assume any sword form that is datable to a certain time, was likely in use a good generation earlier.

While in the UK to visit Ewart, we stopped by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see their small collection of swords which we knew he had catalogued. As we looked around we could see that many of the labels on the specimens were quite vague and inaccurate, with many swept-hilt blades labeled simply "rapier"….then suddenly, the labels on other pieces changed: they were much newer with longer paragraphs describing them. Many swept-hilts were more precisely labeled "military sword' or Reitschwert ". We then instantly knew which labels had been done by Ewart!

Although he continually considered himself an "amateur" (being neither accredited nor positioned professionally by an institution) he was a leading force in the study of arms and armor in the 20th century and unarguably the most influential. As a result of his frequent dissent from the status quo he occasionally butted heads with more established views within the curatorial community. Mr. Oakeshott's great contribution was his Typology of classifying Medieval swords not merely by their hilts, but properly by their blade form, a factor of their intended function and use. Today the open-ended Oakeshott Typology has become a standard in spathology (the study and classification of swords).

His October 14th obituary in the UK's, New Telegraph, described Oakeshott's early life and interests: "The son of a civil servant, Ewart Oakeshott was born on May 26 1916 and educated at Dulwich College. An uncle, Jeffrey Farnol, was a successful writer of swashbuckling historical novels, and introduced young Ewart to the romance of the sword. The first antique sword he handled was from his uncle's collection. After leaving school, Oakeshott studied at the Central School of Art in London, then became a commercial artist and illustrator with his own practice in London. But arms and armour remained his passion. In the 1930s and 1940s old swords could be picked up for a few pennies, and Oakeshott began buying swords at Sotheby's. As he was given little information about them, he began himself to research their history. After being invalided out of the Navy in the Second World War, he founded, in 1948, the Arms and Armour Society, which has grown into an international organisation with its own journal. He served as president of the society in 1951 when it mounted an exhibition in the Cutlers' Hall, London. The same year he examined and cleaned the sword of Henry V in Westminster Abbey, publishing his findings in A Royal Sword in Westminster Abbey in Connoisseur magazine. Soon Oakeshott was being consulted by museums and private collectors to identify and assess swords in their collections…In 1960 he wound up his commercial artist business to devote his time to research and writing, though he continued to enjoy success as a painter of marine pictures and other subjects. In 1964 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries."

R. Ewart Oakeshott was considered by many the world's leading authority on the subject of European swords, especially the Medieval sword. Over three decades he wrote (and illustrated) some of the most informative and entertaining works on the subject. These include: "The Archaeology of Weapons" (Boydell Press, 1960, reprinted 1994), which was his initial presentation of his philosophy of study, offers great insights and information on fighting and combat. "The Sword in the Age of Chivalry" (Boydell Press, 1964, reprinted 1994), is a must read for the subject, another great work on the subject. "European Weapons and Armour from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution" (Lutterworth Press, 1980, Boydell reprint 2001), is one of the best book available on arms and armor after the Middle Ages and contain a wealth of information on renaissance armors and sword forms. It was a direct source for my earliest published writings on the subject. "Dark Age Warrior", was originally a children's book but reads well with interesting details on an often neglected area. Among his youth books produced in the 1960s were "A Knight and His Weapons", a work which focuses closely on the details and facts of the equipment, includes some very well written and valuable material and complements, and "A Knight and His Armor", a very well written and entertaining description of four major but lesser known medieval battles from 1100 - 1500. There was also "A Knight and in Battle", "A Knight and His Castle", and "A Knight and His Horse." While "Fighting Men" with Henry Treece (G. Putnam's Sons, 1963), dealt specifically with methods of combat and reveals a number of interesting points. "Records of the Medieval Sword", (Boydell & Brewer, 1981, paperback reprint, April 1998), is one of the best book on Medieval swords and contains some of the best photos available. It represents the culminations of Oakeshott's thoughts, including his notes on dozens of pieces he owned and an appendix on making replica swords. "Sword in Hand" published in 2000 was a valuable reprint and update of Oakeshott's articles in "The Gun Report" magazine (Sep '85 through Jan '88). These twelve excellent pieces were his last published word on many of these topics. One of his final efforts, a collaboration with ARMA advisor Dr. Lee Jones and Ian Pierce, "The Sword in the Viking Age", will soon be released.

Ewart Oakeshott's many ideas on the subject of sword use also had direct impact on the formation of ARMA (under the original name "HACA") as well as much of my own research and writings. He was also among the first to change his views about the historical use of Medieval swords and other cutting blades, eventually stating unequivocally that they were not used for edge parries. As the New Telegraph, noted: "he suggested, for example, that the lack of significant "edge damage" on surviving medieval swords indicated that, contrary to the Hollywood myth, the weapons were rarely used to parry blows from other swords. The medieval "cut and thrust" swordsman, he suggested, would not have parried at all if he could help it; if he had not landed his blow first, he would have got out of the way or turned so that his opponent's blow glanced off his armour or helmet: "We are talking about fighting here, not putting on a play show," he would observe."

In many subjects today it is said that we see so farther only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Like many of my fellows, I would not be where I am today or know what I know, if not for his efforts. When told in a 1998 phone conversation how much his work had influenced us he humbly replied, "it is really extraordinarily heartening to know how much you all appreciate what I've done. I've only written what I thought needed to be said about these things." Though he stood only a little over five feet, he was truly a giant. Ewart Oakeshott, 'Dean of swords', will be missed but not forgotten.

 

If you would like to express your condolences, we ask you give donations to
the Oakeshott Institute in tribute to Ewart's life work.

 
 

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