Dagger of King Henri IV of France , French, Paris, c. 1599- 1600
This exquisite dagger is the companion to the famous rapier of King Henri IV of France (1553-1610), now in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. Henri took the throne of France in 1589, the first of the Bourbon line of French kings and grandfather of King Louis XIV. He was one of his country’s most popular monarchs, a ruler who was generally regarded as caring greatly for the well-being of his subjects. His reign was also distinguished by increased tolerance of different faiths, a remarkable reform in the wake of the religious wars which devastated France in the sixteenth century. The rapier and dagger set were given to him as a wedding present by the city of Paris, on the occasion of his marriage to Marie de’ Médicis in 1600.
Like its matching sword, this ornate little weapon is covered in complex inlaid inscriptions and symbols. Much of the writing and imagery refers to Henri himself, such as the French royal lilies or fleurs-de-lys, the crowned monogram Hs, and the coat of arms of Navarre, Henri’s home territory. As befits a wedding gift, the dagger also carries the monogram of a double M, the Queen’s initials.
One of the most unusual features of both rapier and dagger are the inlaid mother-of-pearl medallions set along the hilt and blade. Each contains an esoteric image, several of which appear to relate to the Order of the Holy Ghost, a religious order dedicated to the care of the sick. Others have a more obvious meaning, such as those on the pommel, which represent the pierced hand of Christ and a hand bearing the palm branch of Victory. Both of the main inscriptions glorify Henri with astrological references, that on the guard reading:
To this Henri vanquisher
The astral bodies most faithful
Give the goodwill
Common to such marvels
The longer inscription on the rear face of the blade continues:
Jupiter and Venus are of beneficial influence
Saturn with Mars very malign and perverse
Mercury and the Sun and the Moon have little strength
always govern the universe.
It is not known when this dagger was separated from the rapier to which it belongs, but it may have been in the early nineteenth century, since the rapier alone later became one of the treasured possessions of Napoleon Bonaparte. The dagger found its way onto the Paris art market, where it was purchased by Sir Richard Wallace in 1877 for 12,500 francs, or around £500. Sir Richard was especially interested in objects associated with famous historical figures.
Tuesday 8 May and Monday 21 May at 1 pm with Curator of Arms and Armour Tobias Capwell in the Smoking Room.