Holy Roman Empire (Nuremberg, Germany)
Beheadings - as a means of punishment anyway - had become the all too universal system of execution throughout Europe up until our modern age. The practice was so popular, in fact, that even the very term “capital punishment” evolves from it (the Latin capitalis meaning “head”). Although decapitation by sword appears to have come to England in 1076 under the order of William the Conqueror, the use of swords over more efficient axes was an already widespread ritual throughout Germany, France and the Far East. Eventually, aristocrats, nobles and royalty throughout Europe came to consider beheading the only real “honorable” method of execution for their class, leaving hangings, burnings and quarterings to commoners and heretics. However, even when facing certain death, the elites still insisted upon what they considered a more tasteful, tactful demise. For them, the skill and finesse of a refined swordsman was far more important than the oafish butchery of an axe-wielding bully. The sword, furthermore, was a genuine weapon of war whereas an axe was a mere worker’s tool suitable only for commoners.
Unfortunately, those requesting swords were taking awful risks all in the name of sophistication. Even in a properly trained executioner’s hands, swords weren’t always as efficient as heavy axes. Officials in charge of Anne Boleyn’s 1536 execution, for instance, certainly knew this and spared little expense bringing in Jean Rombaud - France’s premier sword-swiping headsman - to do the job right. Of course, not everyone was as “lucky” as Boleyn was. The 1626 execution Henri Talleyrand (Comte de Chalais) took nearly 20 horrifying minutes to complete. Failing to get his blade through Talleyrand’s neck after several swings, the winded headsman abandoned his sword for a dull but nearby carpenter’s adze and proceeded to hack away amidst the screams of both onlookers and Talleyrand himself.
Despite their occasional mishaps, headsman’s swords were still formidable weapons. Designed for use with two hands and bearing a 3-inch-wide blade, swordsmiths in the 17th century began specializing headsman swords, eliminating unnecessary pointed tips and incorporating artistic designs. Often employing skilled engravers to decorate the blades, this particular example – still incredibly sharp after approximately 350 years – exhibits highly ornate and detailed etchings and inscriptions including images of a gallows, a breaking wheel and a Germanic phrase which translates loosely into “When I pick up the sword, the poor sinners live eternally with God.” Happy Halloween…and keep a cool head!
Weaponry Wednesday: Each Wednesday we post an object (or group of objects) from the Charleston Museum’s diverse weapons collection. Many Weaponry Wednesday items may be on permanent exhibit in our armory or elsewhere in the museum, but some pieces rarely see exhibition, temporary or permanent, but are well worth sharing. We hope you enjoy our selection each week – do let us know if there’s something in particular you’d like to see on WEAPONRY WEDNESDAY! Also, we always want to learn more about our collection - if you have some insights on a piece, please feel free to share! #WeaponryWednes