When I was very much younger I had a great time battling it out on stage as Sir Percival in a production of “The Tales of King Arthur” at the Wythenshawe Forum in Manchester – a huge stage with lots of room for jumping off trees, chopping off my opponents’heads and whirling a spear around my body like a medieval Bruce Lee.
By the end of the three week run my wooden spear had been hacked to bits by the Red Knight’s broadsword and I’d received numerous scratches and bruises from hopping from tree to tree, jumping over his head and the shower of sparks which would fiercely erupt from the metal trees as my enemy hacked away trying to kill me.
Authentic weapons in performance are not just about looks, they have to be just as heavy as the real thing otherwise they just don’t behave properly on stage. The roars of menace the Red Knight made as he tried to defeat me were as much a cry of adrenaline and exertion as he wielded the heavy sword around as they were an element of his performance.
Lancaster’s Armouries are perhaps the worlds leading supplier of custom crafted weapons and armour to stage and screen (Appearances include Never-Where, Red Dwarf, Brave Heart, Robin Hood (Costner version), Highlander, The Last Knight, The Baron and multiple appearances on the history channel). Recently a Lancasters’sword appeared in the award winning BBC TV show Doctor Who.
We were lucky enough to get hold of Lancaster’s Armouries Clive Lankford for an interview.
Tell us a little about how Lancaster’s got started
Lancaster’s Armouries started as a re-enactment hobby in Sheffield, UK. We now supply swords and armour across the globe to re-enactors, martial arts groups as well the theatre, TV and film industry. The most recent of which were made for TV for the BBC’s Doctor Who special in The Christmas Invasion.
I’ve only dealt with weapons built for stage combat, which given that rehearsals can be long, are often made fractionally lighter – is there a different construction process or are the weapons essentially the same?
All our weapons and armour are made to the same standards, you cannot compromise on safety, after all, in a tournament we are performing for the public.
A compromise has to be sought to match the correct blade and hilt for a person or use. We are able to make blades heavier or lighter using a number of methods, be it selecting the correct pommel and quillon or taking a few extra grams out of the blade. But it’s not just about the weight of the blade that makes a difference to the balance – if a sword is too blade heavy it becomes hard to control and saps the strength of the user. A very light sword for someone who is of a very strong build would be far too quick in use and they would have to work at slowing it down – which is just as hard and tiring because it is not a natural movement. Balance is often more important than weight.
How different are your construction techniques to those of an armourer or blacksmith from the middle ages?
Without giving away too many secrets, we are thankful for the facilities we have close to hand in Sheffield and we have developed a good relationship with our support infrastructure. Our heat treatment company know exactly what we need. We buy the steel in huge one tonne ingots that we have rolled flat and then laser cut to the correct shape. They’re heat treated and then we hand grind them so the centre fuller and edge is the correct depth. Essentially, we carve our products from a solid slab of tempered Alloy. Early medieval blades were traditionally folded and stretched hundreds of times to have the metal fuse together with carbon to make them stronger, even so, they were often so brittle you would tend to parry a sword rather than stop it with another. You could say we use modern technology to help us make a better ancient product. Anything that is made the right way, with all the forces going in the correct direction, is very strong and this is equally true for our armour.
We’ve seen some amazing images of the flexibility of the weapons you produce in particular – is there a balance between producing an authentic looking weapon and something that can be subject to a great deal of stress?
That’s the hard part – trying to keep a weapon blade looking authentic, whilst also making it safe to use in extreme conditions (it can be very scary when a piece breaks away and takes off like a boomerang completely out of control). The stresses involved are incredible – two 36 inch pieces of metal meeting at over 300ft per seconds is quite normal.
We have spent many years developing our swords – the originals started out much heavier than they are now. Because there was no previous data about our chosen material, we started safe with thicker cross sections. Each year we removed a fraction more metal to lighten the blades. We are now able to produce edged medieval weapons in a balanced format to suit almost every requirement. There are lots of theories behind the different ways of making a modern blade – one is to make the complete piece hard so it does not bur (mostly carbon or spring steel). Carbon and spring steels are tempered to be hard, which results in a heavier, courser metallic granular structure.
Our alloy (Chrome Nickel Molybdenum) tempers at a slightly lower hardness which makes a finer granular structure within the alloy, permitting more flexing with the blade. Our heat treatment specialist tempers our blades to achieve two things. Firstly the core of the blade is very soft, so soft in fact that you could easily scratch it with a scalpel. Secondly, the outer layer is a lot harder, but still flexible and is designed for the cutting edges to harden as you fight with it, so over the years it becomes very hard whilst still retaining flexibility. As with all moving parts that make contact with another moving object, they all wear out eventually. However we were very pleased to have seen some blades at the Battle of Tewksbury last year that were over 10 years old and still being fought with.
You guarantee all your swords for a two year period – you must be pretty confident of their strength given the beating they get in the videos on your website?
We are very confident about it, after all – you can’t make a statement like that without knowing your product will last. That said – every thing needs care and maintenance.
Can we ask how you stress test the weapons?
There are many ways to test them but one way in particular of testing a blade to ensure that it lasts, is to train and have fun with it (we started this process about 25 years ago and our earliest tests were to train against other swords with excessive force). More recently we tested a blade in another way – firstly against a steel slab, then by cutting through a concrete curb stone at our workshop (we gave it 1 hour per day for about six months).
We then we took it down to the Knights Fight School with the intention of breaking it (Knights Fight School is a weekend of training where knights from all over the country go to improve their safety and stamina – the perfect testing ground). Eventually we ran out of steam and passed it to others to continue attempting to break it – Ross and Blacky eventually succeeded.
“Knights School is a venue that pushes both sword masters and their swords to the extreme. Blades of the highest quality are tested to extreme measures during the long ordeal of Knights School training. Roger of Lancaster’s blades have been tried, tested and have survived the gruelling task of Knights School with amazing resilience and longevity. The blades are of the highest quality.” – Ross, from Ross and Blacky
Why destroy a good sword blade you might ask? – Only when this blade had broken under “true use conditions” were we able to send it away for analysis. It’s how we improve the tempering to make them last even longer. We calculated that the blade had over 6 year’s worth of use in that short time.
It is unlikely that in a theatre a fight would have as much energy behind the blow – actors still have the rest of the performance to do, whereas a re-enactor can have a rest after their 3 minute fight and they are also wearing armour to protect them from heavy blows. As you can imagine our blades can and do last for a lot longer than two years – with proper care and attention.
Having looked through your weapons and armour it’s clear that a lot of attention is placed on detail and authenticity. A number of items have different historical variants; do you spend a lot of time on historical research?
We do spend time in research and development. Although we are a small family company, we have been around for quite some time and been able increase our range to what it is today. However we won’t put our armourer’s mark on anything we would not use or wear ourselves. We are very lucky to have friends who help us develop and when they see something that may be of interest, they help us develop it further. This can be from making original casts for the hilts to suggesting a new style of weapon.
What’s the strangest request you’ve had for a weapon?
I think the strangest item that we have been asked to make is a steel cod piece. On all our armour and weapons we put our armourer’s mark so it can be seen – where do you put it on one of those?
One of our nicest pieces is a Pictish Sword that had a solid silver pommel and quillion. This was great fun but very hard as silver is very brittle and flakes easily. It was a special commission for the “ARCHAEOLINK pre-history park”, and it had to be just right.
You produce a wide range of weapons – are customers able to present you with a design of their own?
It is from our customers talking to us and requesting different pieces that we have been able to develop our company to what it is today. We’ve had request for religious replicas which have proven to be great fun to make.
This has to be a fun way to earn a living – crafting and testing swords and armour in tournaments?
We run a series of”Full contact Medieval Tournaments” each year in conjunction with EW Services medieval events www.livinghistoryfayres.com. Most of the participants favour our armour and they are only permitted to use weapons provided by us because we know they wont fail, the participants don’t exactly treat the weapons with any respect, being more interested in winning their bout.
The events are great fun and we consider ourselves very lucky to do our hobby – and get paid for it. Who could ask for a better job?
Clive Lankford was interviewed by Martin Paling