Falchion Sword: The Medieval Blade of Choice

Characterised by its broad, curved blade, and blending the power of an axe with the versatility of a sword, the falchion sword is a distinctive and formidable weapon that became a popular choice among European warriors between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. This is the story of the medieval falchion.

Military History
14 May 2024

Today, the falchion sword is an enigma. Despite its seemingly widespread use in historical battles all over Europe for well over three hundred years, surprisingly few original falchions have survived – perhaps as few as thirty – making it a rare and intriguing subject for modern historians, museum curators, and collectors of medieval weapons.

Like many types of medieval sword, the falchion, from the Old French fauchon, itself from the Latin falx, meaning sickle, was often a work of exquisite beauty, but it was also a weapon of extreme brutality.

In both its variants – the cleaver falchion and the cusped falchion – the falchion sword has a fascinating story. Let’s take a trip back to the Middle Ages to discover what it was, why it was so popular, and why it appears in paintings rather than museums.

What is a Falchion Sword?

Examples of medieval swords (Credit: alblec via Getty Images)

What was known as the fauchon probably originated in France, but was likely produced in much of western Europe. It was a one-handed, single-edged sword with a unique, cleaver-like design that set it apart from other medieval bladed weapons. The cleaver sword probably weighed around a kilogram and was roughly a metre long from hilt to tip.

The blade of the medieval falchion – which was typically broad, curved and very thin – tapered from a wide base at the hilt to a point at the tip, enabling both slashing and thrusting actions. The curvature of the blade was usually convex, resembling a machete, which allowed for powerful cutting strikes similar to those of an axe, and the weight of the blade was distributed towards the edge, which enhanced its chopping ability while still retaining the balance necessary for quick, one-handed manoeuvres.

The handle of a falchion sword was designed to be gripped comfortably in one hand, similar to most swords of the medieval period. This allowed for great mobility and versatility in combat. The grip was often accompanied by a simple crossguard, which protected the hand, and a pommel at the base to help balance the sword and provide a counterweight to the heavy blade.

Its design was particularly favoured by infantry for its ability to break through the chain mail and armour, which were common on medieval battlefields. It was also highly effective in close combat situations and its capability to inflict severe wounds with a single slash made it a feared weapon in the chaotic melee of mediaeval battle.

Surviving Falchions

The falchion sword at Durham Cathedral (Credit:Nigel Roddis via Getty Images)

One notable surviving example of a falchion sword is the Thorpe Falchion, a well-known example of the cusped or sabre-like type of falchion. Another famous falchion, the Conyers Falchion, is kept at the Durham Cathedral in England; it is medieval in origin and associated with various legends and historical figures.

In addition to the Conyers Falchion and the Thorpe Falchion, another significant example is the falchion housed in the Wallace Collection in London. This falchion features a bird’s head motif on the hilt and is a fine example of Gothic design from the middle of the 17th century.

Types of Falchion Sword

Medieval Turkish sabres (Credit: serikbaib via Getty Images)

There were two main types of falchion sword, the cleaver falchion and the cusped falchion.

The Cleaver Falchion

The cleaver falchion was notable for its wide, heavy blade that resembled a meat cleaver. This design maximised the sword’s chopping capability, with a pronounced weight towards the tip to enhance striking power. Its broad, single-edged blade was built to withstand the demands of hacking through armour and shields, while the thick, blunt back added heft, much like an axe. Some historians theorise that the cleaver sword may only have been made in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and largely fell out of use after this period.

The Cusped Falchion

The cusped falchion is similar to the cleaver but had a flare-clipped (or ‘cusped’) tip reminiscent of the Turkish kilij sword of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was similar in design to the German fifteenth century Messer sword, and may have taken design cues from the earlier Turko-Mongol sabres.

The Falchion Sword in Art

Early 19th century artwork including a falchion sword (Credit: Florilegius via Getty Images)

The frequent depiction of cusped and cleaver falchion swords in medieval artwork can be attributed to several factors that highlight both the symbolic and practical importance of this weapon during the period. However there’s ongoing debate as to why there are so few surviving examples of falchions, yet they’re seemingly over-represented in medieval art.

Symbols of Power & Authority
Swords were often used as symbols of power, authority, and martial prowess in medieval society. The distinctive appearance of the falchion sword made it an ideal symbol for representing strength and courage in visual arts.

Representation of the Common Soldier
Unlike many other swords of the era that were associated with the nobility and knights, the falchion was used by a wider range of people, including common soldiers. This made it relatable and familiar, particularly in scenes depicting battles, military campaigns, or tales of adventure and heroism involving everyday characters.

Artistic & Cultural Significance
In medieval art, weapons often had symbolic meanings, representing virtues like justice and chivalry. The falchion’s presence could also be a nod to popular stories and legends of the time, where such weapons were featured as the tools of heroic deeds. It may also have added to the visual drama of a piece.

Practical Tool
The fauchon was known for its practicality in battle as well as its utilitarian nature, which made it a common sight during the medieval period, not just on the battlefield but in everyday life. Artists documenting contemporary scenes would include weapons that were commonly used and instantly recognisable.

Blade Runner: The Enduring Legacy of the Falchion Sword

One of the few surviving 15th century falchion swords (Credit: Sepia Times via Getty Images)

The falchion stands out as a remarkable weapon from the medieval era, notable for its unique design, versatile function, and profound impact on both the battlefield and cultural iconography.

As a tool favoured by both the common soldier and the nobility, the broad, heavy blades of the cusped and cleaver falchion exemplified the brutal requirements of medieval combat while also capturing the imagination in art and literature.


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