Of Swedish Feathers……… by Charles Singleton

The deployment of large groups of musketeers without the support of the pike divisions was a process that was gaining momentum throughout the middle of the 17th century. The King’s Oxford Army was to make great use of them during the breakout from Oxford in early June 1644, and later the same year, under Sir George Lisle at the battles of Cheriton and 2nd Newbury. The pike armed divisions of the infantry lacked the flexibility and mobility for these new kind of manoeuvres. Whilst perhaps not the passive defensive weapon described by many modern commentators, the pike was to become increasingly a junior partner to the musket on the battlefield.

A contemporary depiction of a European musketeer with a Swedish Feather

A contemporary depiction of a European musketeer with a Swedish Feather

On numerous occasions Sir William Waller mounted his musketeers to aid strategic operations. In August 1644 Waller was to attempt to mount a very large number of his musketeers in the fashion of dragoons and he asked the Committee of Both Kingdoms for 50 guidons, 100 dragoon drums, 5,000 belts for muskets and 2,000 swords. The lack of horses however, was to stymie his plans.

Other factors led to the increased use of musketry. The enclosed nature of much of the British landscape encouraged the use of greater numbers of musketeers as cavalry would not be so much of a threat in such an environment. Fighting amongst the hedgerows was to become very characteristic of the fighting in the British Isles.

In 1648, whilst discussing the choice of routes on which to invade England, many within the Scottish army argued against marching through Lancashire. It was feared that the nature of the close terrain thereabouts made it the ideal country for the English musketeers to defend.

A modern interpretation of a Swedish Feather from George Gush’s classic ‘Renaissance Armies’

A modern interpretation of a Swedish Feather from George Gush’s classic ‘Renaissance Armies’

A significant factor in the greater reliance on firearms was the growing realisation that the musketeer was not helpless against mounted attack. Turned on its end, the 5ft long musket made a very effective weapon in the melee. This English style of close quarter fighting was noted with some discomfort on the continent.

This aggressive style of defence was to see cavalry come undone against bodies of musketeers on several occasions. At Marston Moor, Sir Charles Lucas and his brigade – having helped break the Allied right wing cavalry – was wounded and captured; his horse scattered as it attempted to attack the Scotsand English infantry. The same fate awaited Ireton who was to lead a division of horse into the Duke of York’s regiment of foot at Naseby. The same Duke of York, the future James II, was to fight against English foot at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658. In the description of the fighting he gave, he was seemingly lucky to get away with his life….

“….when we had broken into this battalion, and were got amongst them, not so much as one single man of them asked for quarter, or threw down his arms, but every one defended himself to the last: so that we ran as great a danger by the butt end of their muskets as by the volley which they had given us. And one of them had infallibly knocked me off my horse if I had not prevented him when he was just ready to have discharged his blow by a stroke I gave with my sword over the face, which laid him along up the ground”.

The Swedish or ‘Swine Feather’ (as it was sometimes known) was an early attempt to introduce a greater degree of flexibility and self-defence to the musketeer without the need to be supported by slower moving divisions of pike.

The Swine Feather was essentially a musket rest, but with a pike head on the receiving end. It could be used to form a defensive palisade of spear points if placed in the ground, whereby the musketeers could (in theory) retreat behind them and fire at their foe in safety; a favorite of armies on the continent, and supposedly used by the Army of the Covenant. James Turner, in his 1683 book Pallas Armata, Military Essayes of the Ancient Grecian, Roman and Modern Art of War described them thus:

“I think I may reckon in this place the Swedish Feather, among the defensive arms, though it does participate in both defense and offence. It is a stake five or six-foot-long, and about four fingers thick, with a piece of sharp iron nailed to each end of it. By the one end it is made fast in the ground in such a manner that the other may lay out so it may meet the breast of a horse, whereby a body of musketeers is defended as with a palisade, against the rude charge of a squadron of horse, which in the meantime they gall and disorder with their shot. I have seen them made use of in Germany, and before I left that war saw them drop out of use. When the infantry of several regiments or brigades are drawn up in battle, and the pikes and those stakes are fixed in the ground, they make a delightful show representing a wood. The pikes resembling the tall trees and the stakes the shrubs.”

Whilst garrisoning the city of Gloucester, several regiments had Swedish Feathers, issued to them. Amongst those receiving this latest anti-cavalry innovation were the regiments of Col. Edward Massey and Col. Nicholas Devereux. On several occasions both regiments were to supply large contingents of musketeers for service with Waller’s army. They were to see action at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644 and in the operations to support Essex’s army in the south west later in August of the same year. The men of Devereux’s also took part in Massey’s aggressive raiding along the Welsh Marches, the Forest of Dean and into the West Country.

Whether the Swedish Feathers ever saw action is unknown as we have no accounts of their use. However, the decision to issue them to Devereux’s musketeers demonstrates an understanding in the current military developments elsewhere in Europe.

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One Response to Of Swedish Feathers……… by Charles Singleton

  1. Stephen Ede-Borrett says:

    Swedish Feathers must have seemed of use to contemporaries since when Arms and Equipment were sent to the American colonies by the Ordnance Office during Bacon’s Rebellion these included
    24 October 1676
    Swynes feathers – 1500 at 2s per est, each 150 00 00

    Although whether these were ever used may be an arguable point because amongst the stores in the Armoury at Middle Plantation (Virginia) on 8 February 1678 were
    Swines feathers 1500

    But obviously someone thought that these were going to be useful in the colonies although, of course, these may not even be the same items. Incidentally the force sent out was 5 companies each of 200 men so it must have been intended that some of these Swines Feahers were going to be used by the Virginia militia.

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