Swords “to carry” or not
By Tom Lewis
There seems to be an oft-repeated story about our navy, and perhaps the Royal Navy too, that following some disgrace within the RN, perhaps a mutiny, an order was once given that naval officers could not wear their swords, as they were not gentlemen. Instead, they would have to carry them.
This at first seems a little strange, as there doesn’t seem to have been too many mutinies within the RN where officers disgraced themselves. The Spithead mutiny on 1797 was confined to sailors, not officers, although it might be said that officers’ mismanagement led to that situation. The rumour also suggests that this was a Victorian decision, perhaps made by Queen Victoria herself, which sounds strange coming so long after the famous RN mutiny.
Carried on slings
Officers’ swords within the RAN are “carried” to an extent in that they hang from two material supports or slings. They can be hooked up to a small eyelet on the sword belt, but on parade they are carried. Sailors’ cutlasses, when carried on parade, always are hooked up to a belt.
I also thought there were plenty of regiments within the British Army where officers “carried” swords rather than “wore” them on a belt attachment. Nevertheless a few sailors have told me that they were told in their training that it is especially Navy officers who carry their swords, and for that ancient reason.
hang their bigger and heavier swords from shorter lanyards
attached to their Sam Browne belts.
Swords seemed to have begun their time on board ships since the invention of the weapon. Naturally the higher in status a mariner was, the better weapon he would be expected to possess. In particular, the “mark of a gentleman” for many hundreds of years in British society was the sword, probably dating from the days of knightly vows where the knight’s sword was his most prized and revered weapon. It was the sword that made him a knight, after all, in the ceremony in which he was “dubbed” by tapping him on both shoulders with the naked blade. His honour, therefore was attached to the sword.
Even today at the commencement of a court martial an officer’s sword is taken from the accused, and at the end of the trial it signifies whether the officer is guilty or not, by being presented on a table when the person is brought back into court after the presiding board’s deliberations. If found not guilty, the sword hilt is towards the officer, signifying that one’s honour and duty can be taken up again. If guilty, the point is presented.
The sword in Anglo-Saxon England gives some background to how the weapon is carried, with interesting comments about wearing swords on the back and shoulder and several references to wearing them on the belt, but not hanging.
The wearing of a sword back in days when it was more than a badge, but also a weapon, is fairly well documented. Scabbards can be seen from the days of the Greek hoplite, worn suspended at the waist. Sometimes the weight of a heavy sword was helped by a frog, a leather belt worn over the opposing shoulder from which the belt was supported. Figures in the Bayeux tapestry dating from the 11th century show swords being worn in scabbards on belts around the waist, with a hanging strap preventing the chape, the metal cap at the bottom of the scabbard, from dragging on the ground. Swords, or even a second sword, were sometimes worn over the shoulder down the back, ready for a high-handed draw.1 This is after the fashion of the Roman cavalryman’s weapon, the spatha.
For many hundreds of years then, swords were used for defence, and anyone who could own one would carry it, especially on the road, as a measure to be used against highwaymen and the like. However, a sword needed some training to use, and it was expensive, and so it was the mark of someone better-off than the norm, a “gentleman” by this measure.
Incidentally, we may note that a sword was indeed the preferred method of close-quarter defence, as it is most versatile in the way it can be used for both defence and attack, and is extremely manoeuvrable as well, in the way an axe or spear is not. The early versions of firearms were both expensive and unreliable, and so right up until the days of mass-production of guns, the sword was preferred.
By the 19th century it had evolved into the smallsword, a smaller version of the long pointed blade of the rapier. For those who were lesser fencers, an edged weapon was preferred, and indeed in close quarter fighting the cut-and-slash was the norm.
So the sabre was therefore the weapon of choice for naval officers, with the less decorated and less well-made cutlass the sailors’ weapon.
It may be noted in several illustrations of the time in David Howarth’s The Nelson touch, that officers are wearing their swords in a hanging fashion from slings, but also, significantly, officers are wearing swords suspended from belts. There are further such examples in Dudley Jarrett’s British naval dress.
This perhaps puts paid to suggestions that Victoria ordered naval officers not to wear swords via a casual remark, as one of my oral sources suggests: “they are not gentlemen”, simply because Victoria came to the throne well after Nelson’s day. In summary, there are a variety of illustrations showing officers in all sorts of poses: carrying their swords, or seated with the sword obviously detached from slings or belt, perhaps so they can be shown with their hand on the sword-hilt “a particularly martial posture.”
In The wearing of swords the authoritative P.G.W. Annis makes no reference to officers being made to “carry” swords. He does make some detailed references to sword belt slings, and notes that after 1780 “unequal slings became the rule—the rear sling being longer (often much longer) than the other,” (Annis p. 80).
Graeme Arbuckle, in Customs and traditions of the Canadian navy, refers to the rumour, giving some idea that it is widespread. He thinks:
…it is doubtful that the Admiralty would recommend any change in uniform that would bring ridicule on the Royal Navy. It is most improbable that trailing one’s sword was a mark of disgrace. It was the great discovery of the seventeenth century that the ‘esprit de corps’ and fighting spirit of a body of troops could be greatly increased by drilling them together and clothing them alike. Any mark of disgrace worn under order would contravene this principle. Moreover, the history of uniform shows that any item of clothing not approved of by those who wear it doesn’t survive.
In discussions on the Maritime Historians’ Internet Mailing List, Bill Schleihauf makes what I think is the right judgement in the question:
The trailing sword was, unquestionably, a sign of pride. In fact, the sword would have been no mark of distinction at all unless it was trailed, for all arms wore the same pattern belt. The cavalry regiments have always been splendidly dressed, with the light horse being the most dashing. To draw attention to themselves while on foot, troopers and officers alike let their spurs jangle and their steel-shod scabbards rattle over the cobblestones. This is the origin of the phrase “sabre rattling”, which denotes a swaggering, bullying attitude.
So the argument goes that everyone wore trailing swords, which had to be carried. So it is the case, perhaps, that all military personnel once wore their swords in a hanging fashion, with the slings as long as possible, so as to draw attention to the wearer. The army personnel of the world have now lifted their swords to their belts, as no doubt soldiers often had to do for practicality’s sake, with their practice of drill, but the navy still carries theirs, perhaps because they rarely wore swords, and therefore never saw a need to change. The air forces, following army traditions, generally copied the soldier’s model. CDRE James Goldrick RAN has also pointed out that having a “detached” sword makes it a lot easier to carry while being transported in a small boat.
King Edward VIII (left) hows how swords are worn with the belt and most of the
hooked-up scabbard hidden under the greatcoat. The sword hilt and perhaps a
centimetre of scabbard protrudes hrough a slit in the coat, allowing the sword to
be drawn. Another reason for the long lanyards on naval swords is apparent in this
photo of a USN officer in formal tropical rig. In this dress, black swordbelts are worn
that protrude through the jackets, thus maintaining the jacket’s skirt in an even line.
According to Boasanquet’s The naval officer’s sword, there seems to have been a little effort to regulate the trailing of the weapons:
…in 1856 the blade returned to its former width of 1? inches and the scabbard to two lockets, each with a ring. This made necessary a return to the two long belt-slings of different lengths, so that the sword would hang at a slight forward angle. This has continued ever since.
Certainly there were variations made in sword belts throughout the time the Royal Navy has regulated naval uniforms, as they did reasonably firmly from 1748 onwards. After 1856 it seems that officers wore two different types, which evolved to become a full-dress and a “plain” version.2 The former, now confined to Admirals, has gold embroidered acorns and oak leaves, with the usual sword belt for an officer having three gold embroidered stripes. Incidentally, this pattern was worn by captains and commanders from 1832-1939.
If anyone can throw some doubt on the reasoning given above, I would be most interested to hear from them.
1. Davidson, HR Ellis. pp. 88-95.
2. Jarrett, Dudley p.144-145.
Annis, P.G.W. The wearing of swords: Naval swords. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1970.
Arbuckle, Graeme. Customs and traditions of the Canadian navy. Canada: Nimbus Publishing Ltd, 1984.
Boasanquet, Captain Henry T.A. The naval officer’s sword. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1955.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
Goldrick, James. Email of 30 November 2000, on the wearing of swords in boats.
Howarth, David. The Nelson touch. Collins: London, 1969.
Jarrett, Dudley. British naval dress. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1960.
Rodger, N.A.M. The wooden world. New York: Norton, 1986.
Royal Australian Naval College. Guide to Parade and Ceremonial Procedures. In ABR 1834A. Canberra.
Winton, John. Hurrah for the life of a sailor. London: Michael Joseph, 1977.