A Deadly Weapon
A baselard is a type of long-bladed dagger with an H-shaped hilt, popular as a civilian weapon in the 14th and 15th centuries and even carried by priests. A register of 1395-1419 from Exeter recorded that only 13 of the beneficed clergy owned books although many of them possessed baselards. This is despite the fact that such weapons had been forbidden by church councils for centuries.
Their length – typically 300mm – meant that they could only be worn visibly, suspended from a man’s belt to provide a sense of security. A satirical song dating from the time of Henry V (early 15th century) described a man who ostentatiously carried a baselard but who probably lacked the courage to use it in self-defence:
There is no man worth a leek,
Be he sturdy, be he meek,
But he bear a baselard.
Baselards were generally owned by people of high status: from 1388 onwards, servants and labourers were forbidden to carry such arms. In the mid-14th century the weapons were shown on tomb effigies as part of the dress of deceased knights; later they became popular with wealthy merchants, and were sometimes depicted on monumental brasses. Although they were often carried merely for show, a baselard was the weapon wielded during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 by William Walworth, Mayor of London: he used it to strike Wat Tyler on the head before the rebel was run through with a sword. In the 19th century the original weapon was “still preserved with peculiar veneration by the Company of Fishmongers” of which William Walworth had been a member.
The Titchfield Baselard was found while dredging the River Meon. Typical features are its double edge and the two equal-length cross pieces which give the hilt an ‘H’ shape. The grip has not survived; it could have been made of wood, horn or bone. There are many variants of spelling of Baselard, such as Basilard in the early 14th century; the word derives from the original place of origin of such knives, Basel in Switzerland.
The hundred of Titchfield lies in the Meon Valley, between Fareham and Southampton. Before the Reformation, there was an abbey at Titchfield, founded in 1222 for a colony of White Canons. Ten years later, Henry III granted the manor of Titchfield to Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester. The manor remained with the abbot until the Dissolution in 1537. Henry VI was married to Margaret of Anjou in the abbey in 1445; in consideration of its services, he granted the abbey liberties and immunities, including the right to hold an annual fair lasting five days. In 1424 the abbot received permission to enclose a park consisting of 10 acres of pasture and 50 acres of wood.
We will never know how the Titchfield baselard came to be in the river. One could speculate that it had been disposed of there, having been used for criminal purposes; alternatively its owner got rid of it because its possession flouted clerical and secular law.
The baselard is on display at Westbury Manor Museum, Fareham.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.