Swords - to carry or not
August 20, 2001
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 mutinies - 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 don't seem to be 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.
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
Swords seemed to have begun their time on board ships from 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 sword, probably dating
from the days of knightley vows where the knight's sword was his most prized
and revered weapon. It was the sword that made him knight, after all, in
the ceremony in which he was "dubbed" by tapping him on both shoulders with
the naked blade.
To it therefore was attached his honour. Even today at the commencement
of a court-martial an officer's sword is taken from them, and signifies
at the end of the trial whether the office is guilty or not - by being presented
on a table when the accused 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 one carried
the weapon; with interesting comments about wearing swords on the back and
shoulder and several references to wearing them on the belt, but not to
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 . 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 maneuverable 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
This perhaps puts paid to suggestions that Victoria ordered it 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 particular
these officers are carrying their swords, or are 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 PGW 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."
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,
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. While the army personnel of the world
have lifted theirs - as no doubt soldiers often had to do for practicality's
sake, with their practice of drill - the navy still lifts theirs, perhaps
because they rarely wore swords, and therefore never saw a need to change.
The air forces, I suppose, originally mostly springing off from the armies,
would no doubt copy that model. Captain James Goldrick, RAN, has also pointed
out to me that having a "detached" sword makes it a lot easier to carry
whilst being transported in a small boat.
Indeed, 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 3/8 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 have 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 an "plain" pair . 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 that worn by captains and commanders from
If anyone can throw some doubt on the reasoning given above, I would be
most interested to hear from them.
Annis, PGW. 'The Wearing of Swords' in Naval Swords. Harrisburg: Stackpole
Arbuckle, Graeme. Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy. Nimbus Publishing
Boasanquet, Captain Henry TA. The Naval Officer's Sword. London: Her Majesty's
Stationery Office, 1955.
Davidson, HR Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon
Goldrick, Captain James, RAN. 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: JM Dent and Sons Ltd. 1960.
Rodgers, NAM. The Wooden Wall. New York: Norton, 1986.
Royal Australian Naval College. "Guide to Parade and Ceremonial Procedures"
from ABR 1834A. Canberra.
Davidson, HR Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon
Winton, John. Hurrah for the Life of a Sailor. London: Michael Joseph, 1977.
by LEUT Tom Lewis