Peter Finer

A German Swept-Hilt Rapier with Silver-Encrusted Hilt, c. 1610

Item Ref: 1548 Price on application

1548 4
1548 2
1548 1

Germany. Steel, silver and wood.


Private collection, USA
Private collection of the former chairman of The Royal Armouries, Leeds

A. R. Dufty and A. N. Borg, European Swords and Daggers in the Tower of London, London, 1974, pls 13c, 26d
Heinrich Müller and Hartmut Kölling, Europaische Hieb- und Stichwaffen aus der Sammlungen des Museums fur Deutsche Geschichte, Berlin, 1981, pp. 208, 213 and 377
A. V. B. Norman, The Rapier and the Small-Sword 1460–1820, London, 1980, pp. 146–9, pls 31, 47
Hugo Schneider and Karl Stüber, Waffen im Schweizerishen Landesmuseum: Griffwaffen, Zurich, 1980, pp. 154–5 81 

The swept-hilt rapier is not only one of the most elegant forms of sword ever devised, but also one of the most interesting. At the height of its popularity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, considerable variation could be found in the number and arrangement of the several guards that made up its hilt.

Two features in particular serve to characterise the hilt of our rapier: the first is its possession of a forward quillon as well as a rear one, and the second, its possession of two diagonal outer loop guards respectively linking the lower end of the knuckle guard to the proximal end of the rear quillon and the proximal end of the front quillon to the lower end of the rear arm. A portrait of David Joris, probably by Jan van Sorrel, in the öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basle (inv. No. 561), shows this combination of features to have existed as early as about 1540–5. The form of inner guard seen on the hilt of our rapier, however, is unknown before its appearance in Sir Martin Frobisher’s portrait of 1577 by Cornelis Ketel, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. 

Closely resembling that of our example, except in having chiselled rather than encrusted ornament, are the hilts of two rapiers respectively preserved in the Musée de l’Armée, Paris (inv. No. PO 2024), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (acc. No. 14.25.1190). They have not only spherical pommels, but also spherical mouldings decorating their guards. Of perhaps greater relevance to our example, because of their possession of silver-encrusted ornament, are the hilts of three further rapiers of the pattern under discussion: one in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin (inv. No. W 602), and two in the Wallace Collection, London (cat. Nos 583 and 583). Another, in the Collezione Odescalchi, Rome (inv. No. 335), is of interest in showing details generally associated with English swords of the early seventeenth century.

Silver-encrusted decoration involving winged cherubs’ heads of the kind found on the hilt of our rapier is in fact a relatively common feature of high-quality English swords of the early seventeenth century, believed in some cases to have been made by the royal sword cutlers Thomas Cheshire, Nathaniel Mathew and Robert South of London. A royal warrant of 1614, for instance, authorised a payment to the second of those makers for, among other things, a sword decorated with ‘cherubyn heads de argento damasked’.

Such decoration was nevertheless popular throughout much of northern Europe. It is found for example on the hilt of a German rapier of about 1610 in the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds (inv. No. ix. 877), as well as on another of the same date and origin in the Collezione Odescalchi, Rome (inv. No. 415). This latter, aside from the fact that it lacks outer loop guards, is constructionally similar to that of ours. It even has a large vertically grooved pommel. Two further silver-encrusted swords possessing pommels of this type can be seen in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zurich (inv. Nos LM 16736 and 16988). The first belonged to Hans Gugelberg von Moos (recorded 1562–1618), and the second to Rudolf von Schauenstein (recorded 1587–1626), whose name appears on its blade along with the date 1614. A third resembling them is in the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds (inv. No. ix.1033). It seems probable from the foregoing that our rapier, like the pieces just discussed, was made in Germany. 

That would almost certainly be true for its blade which bears the mark of an orb and cross, commonly found on the works of the sword cutlers of the north Rhine-Westphalian city of Solingen, then Europe’s leading producers of sword blades. Their Latin, however, seems not to have matched their metalworking skills. The inscriptions can be seen as a somewhat garbled version of the last two lines of the Te Deum:

In te, Domine, speravi non confundar in aeternum 

In you, Lord, I have hoped may I never be put to shame

– sentiments to which the owner of any sword would have done well to subscribe. 

With hilt of iron formed of a vertically grooved spherical pommel with waisted neck and small tang button, and guards of circular section comprising knuckle guard, long straight quillons supporting a pair of semicircular arms linked at their lower ends by an oval side ring enclosing a flat plate, two diagonal outer loop guards respectively linking the lower end of the knuckle guard to the root of the rear quillon and the root of the forward quillon to the lower end of the rear arm, and three inner loop guards diverging from the lower end of the knuckle guard to the lower ends of the arms, the quillons and the upper end of the knuckle guard each terminating in spherical finials, and the outer loop guards and side ring each interrupted at their centres by spherical mouldings between a pair of constricted mouldings, all except the inner loop guards and the inner faces of the arms richly decorated overall on a blued ground with silver-encrusted foliate scrolls and flower-heads inhabited at points by winged cherubs’ heads, grip of wood carved with a repeated chevron-pattern and bound with fine twisted silver wire between Turks’ heads, and long slender blade of hexagonal section formed at each side of the ricasso with a single broad fuller, and at each side of the forte with a pair of narrow fullers respectively struck with the inscriptions INTE + DOMINE and SPE + RAVIT accompanied by an orb and cross on one side, and NONCONFODAT and INETERNVN on the other. 

Size: Length 120 cm / 47.5 in