Pike - a brief history

Pike - a brief history

During the Seventeenth Century the pike was still considered the most honourable of field weapons “in respect of antiquity; for there hath been the use of Pike and spear, many hundred years before there was any knowledge of the Musket”. Military theory also held the the “tallest, biggest and strongest should be ordered to carry pikes, that they may the better endure the weight of their defensive arms”. Though by the time of the English Civil Wars the reality was that though on the field “The Gentlemen of the Pike craveth the precedence”, musketeers increasingly held the key to warefare being able to pour volleys of shot into their enemies whereas the Pike could not retaliate until they came within their own weapon's length of their enemies. As Daniel Lupton phrased it, pikemen could “only receive the messengers of death but Musquetiers can send them” However since musketeers could not adequately defend themselves whilst reloading, most especially against cavalry, the pike remained necessary in major field engagements. Routinely wings of a regiment's musketeers would be stationed to either side of their block of pikemen ready to take shelter within the bristling hedge of pikes should they be threatened by Horse.

The Pikeman was in theory equipped with a considerable array of defensive armour comprising helmet, back and breast plates, tassets for the thighs and a gorget for the throat. However, few were equipped to this standard and those who did benefit from the additional protection of armour discaeded it as too cumbersome after seeing action for the first time.

The total cost of a pikeman's corselet (the term for the soldier's armour) was established by Charles I in 1632 as:

£ s.d.
The breast- vvi
The backe- iiiivi
The tassets- v-
The comb’d headpeece lyned- iiiivi
The gorgett lyned- iivi
The totall of the footman’s armour1 iivi
If the breast, back, and tassets, be lyned with red leather,
the price be
1 iiii-
The above costs were for russetted armour – that is armour which has been treated to prevent rust.

The Pikeman's arms consisted of “a good stiff Tuck not very long, with a belt” since “if you arm your men with Swords, half the Swords you have in your Army amongst the common men, will upon the first NMarch you make be broken with the cutting of Boughs”. (Swords here are assumed to be the long bladed rapier type, the Tuck being a robust and short bladed sword). The actual pike which gave this infantry its name was a long ash spear shaft sporting an eight inch long (200mm) steel point. Pike lengths are generally given as from 15 - 18 feet long (4.6m - 5.5m) although the lower end of this bracket may refer to the bad habit of some soldiers who cut the length of their weapon to facilitate its easier carrying and handling. This misdemeanour was much bemoaned by officers of the period and could lead to an unpleasant exchange should the malingerers responsible find themselves drawn up against more fastidious soldiers retaining their pikes at their original, longer length!

In 1632 the pike, “strong, straight, yet nimble” were costed as:
£ s.d.
The staffe- iivi
The head- iviii
Socket and colouring- -iiii
Summe- iiiivi

Other polearms included the English “brown bill” a more medieval weapon type advocated for use alongside the pike in 1590. Bills were more frequently issued during the Civil Wars however when pikes were not available or for garrison duties as was the case at Belvoir Castle where aside from anything else they were more easily handled than the pike whilst on raiding forays.

In action “at push of pike”, opposing blocks of pikemen tried to push each other from the field whilst inflicting as many stabbing wounds and fatalities as possible. The pike would be “charged” and the momentum of the block used to force the opposition to give ground, but as the use of firepower grew and the prominence of the pike declined, the Pike more often found themselves defending their musketeers from attack rather than settling the matter by force of their own arms.

A regiment of Pike arrayed eight ranks deep would have presented a formidable battlefield obstacle and given steady soldiers, as with Newcastle's at Naseby, could only be broken by continued musket and cannon fire.