Military Bills

Project details

  • Object number –
  • Material – Iron
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date –
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Featured Finds

Iron billhooks once helped farmers prune trees and slash brush. The tool was adapted into a military bill for those same farmers to use in local militias because it required little training to be used effectively. A military bill often had a recurved blade, a top-spike, and a dorsal spike. Humphrey Barwick wrote in 1594 that use of bills was limited to “common countrie men who were unschooled in the use of the more efficacious halberd.” By the end of the 15th century the bill was the most popular staff weapon in England, and 8,000 bills were included in the Tower of London’s inventory of arms.

But as European armies used more protective body armor and as firearms gained power, range, and efficiency, the bill fell into disuse. By 1607 the prevailing view was that a military bill was “unfit and of no use for any moderne service” to the armies of Europe.

But the bladed staff weapon seemed perfectly useful to Virginia colonists terrified after a 1622 surprise attack by Powhatan Indians. The attack killed 347 Virginia colonists—a quarter of the colony’s population. The Virginia Indians had planned their attack carefully so that the fighting on March 22, 1622, would be to their strength: hand-to-hand combat. Many settlers were taken so completely by surprise that they did not even witness the “blow that brought them to destruction.” Panicked survivors withdrew from their scattered farms into the few fortified towns. Sporadic Indian attacks continued in the following months. If they English were to rebuild their scattered settlements, their farmers could surely use hand-to-hand weapons such as the bill. When news of the devastation reached London, Virginia Company officials asked King James I for weapons to arm the colonists.

King James I pulled 1,000 bills from the Tower of London as a “princely and free guift” to his scared subjects. His gift also included 700 caliver matchlock guns, 300 short pistols with fire locks, 300 harquebuses with wheel locks, 400 coats and shirts of mail, 100 brigandines, 40 jacks of plate defensive coats, 2,000 iron skulls, 400 bows, and 800 sheaves of arrows. The Virginia colony received only 500 of the Tower of London bills because Bermuda requested half of the weapons for its own use. The Bermuda colony also got all the bows and arrows and 100 of the firearms.

Most of the 14 bills excavated by the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists probably date to King James’ gift, since none have been found in the early fort features. One bill was found in a fort-period well located just outside of the western palisade wall. Built around 1617, it was no longer useful as a water source by 1625 and was filled with trash. Five other bills were found in features related to the last statehouse, which burned in 1698. By that date the bill had changed from a weapon to a ceremonial piece, so these bills may have been mounted on an interior wall of the statehouse to project power. A similar display of weapons was mounted in the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg when the capital moved there.