The Wallace Collection

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A Swept-hilt Rapier, English, c. 1605-15 (A596)
Detail of A596
Detail of A596
Sword A511
Sword A511
Treasure of the Month - November 2008

A Swept-hilt Rapier, English, c. 1605-15 (A596)

An exceptionally rare example of Jacobean swordsmithing, this beautiful sword was as much a fashion statement as it was a lethal weapon.

Distinct in style from the work of the larger Italian and German sword-producing centres, this robust yet refined piece exemplifies English taste, combining a strong construction with delicate gold and silver ornament.   

Before Sir Richard Wallace acquired this rapier, it was in the collection of William Meyrick, the cousin and heir to the great arms and armour scholar Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick (1786-1848). In 1861 William Meyrick stated that the hilt and pommel of this sword had been ‘recently dug up at Saffron Walden’ in Essex. The pieces were cleaned and possibly to some extent restored and a ‘suitable blade’ added to reform the fragments into a complete weapon. Though in part restored, this fine rapier remains an important example of the type of sword fashionable at the court of King James I.

A number of features mark this piece out as being English work of a high quality, rather than the product of one of the great Italian or German workshops. The very large pear-shaped pommel is typical of English swords of this period. The rounded qualities of this sword are further emphasised by the oval terminals located on the ends of the cross-guard and forward-guard, and placed centrally on the knuckle-bow and loop-guard. The decoration is also distinctively English, the rich silver encrusting being found on a number of comparable English swords, including that of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (1594-1612), the son of King James I, shown below, also in the Wallace Collection (A511).

The encrusting on this sword takes the typical form of masks surrounded with feathers and foliage, while lines of silver beads form panels along the bars of the hilt and surrounding surface of the pommel. These panels are filled with very fine gold foliate scrolls. These are false-damascened; the surface is roughened or cross-hatched and covered with gold foil or wire. The style of these scrolls is closely comparable to the decoration found on knives of the period bearing London cutlers’ marks.

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2008. Text by Tobias Capwell
 

Further Reading

  • Norman, A.V.B., Wallace Collection Catalogues: European Arms and Armour Supplement (London: The Wallace Collection, 1986), p. 138.
  • Mann, Sir James, Wallace Collection Catalogues: European Arms and Armour (London: The Wallace Collection, 1962), pp. 302-3, pl. 122.