Weapons – Swords – Feature Friday

Beheading Sword
May 22 2020 | Castle History


The theme for this week’s #FeatureFridays with Historic Houses is Weapons!

On this Feature Friday, we take a look at the weapons in the Council Chamber at Hever Castle and in particular at the beheading swords.

The central chamber of Hever Castle’s medieval gatehouse (now known as the Council Chamber) is home to a fascinating collection of weaponry, including instruments of torture, execution, and discipline. From scold’s bridles (muzzle-like masks to humiliate chiefly female victims) to whips and scourges, the somewhat gruesome collection shines a light on the darker history of both corporal and capital punishment in early modern Europe.

Amongst the collection is four items which are particularly pertinent to the story of the castle’s most famous inhabitant, Queen Anne Boleyn, who was unusually beheaded by a sword. We have four such beheading swords on display at Hever Castle for visitors to view, alongside an executioner’s axe, which was by far the more typical implement used for the beheading of nobles in England.

Quite why Anne Boleyn was executed by the sword, and not by axe, remains clouded in mystery. Some historians have argued that the promise of being executed by the sword may have been used as a bargaining chip to encourage Anne to provide evidence to annul her marriage to Henry VIII. Others have speculated that it was more to do with Henry wanting to be seen as a merciful monarch – providing his wife with a more precise method execution. What we do know is that the executioner from Calais dispatched Anne quickly, and was paid handsomely for doing so, receiving £23 6s 8d for one swing of his mighty two-handed sword – roughly two years wages for a skilled tradesman.

Unlike a weapon designed for combat, the executioner’s sword was typically a substantial two-hand weapon with a cross hilt and a broad double-edged blade with a squared-off end, the corners of which were slightly rounded. This blunting of the end of the sword was to mark the blade out as distinct from a weapon of war, which was considered a noble endeavour. The beheading sword was only intended to be held and used by the executioner. Simply touching one could mark you out as a dishonourable citizen, and an outcast from the local populous. While not in use, the swords would often be displayed as a sword of justice in a courtroom: a stark visual warning of the ultimate punishment that could be passed.

The executioner’s swords were often engraved with both mottos that relate both to why the swords were being used and to the person employed to use them. One of Hever’s German swords is engraved: “Wann ich mein Schwerdt thue aufheben so wünsche ich dem armen Sünder das ewige Leben” which translates to “When I lift my sword, I wish the poor sinner eternal life.” This conveyed that the executioner bore no malice to his victim and wished them safe entry into heaven. Another reads “Thue Recht vnd fürchte Niemandt” which translates to “Do justice and fear no one,” reinforcing that the executioner is a dispassionate agent of the law, and not acting out of malice. The blades were also often engraved with scenes of how the swords were used. One of Hever’s swords shows the ritual of penance and absolution, where a priest kneels before the condemned man with the headsman behind him preparing to strike. Another shows the executioner with the sword aloft; the blindfolded victim sat upright waiting for the blow.

It was believed that the ‘vital spirit’ of the victim was contained within the sword that killed them, and that this spirit could be harvested and transferred into sick individuals to cure them. When retired from use, the executioner would often clip pieces of metal from the sword and sell them to individuals to act as a talisman and ward off danger. One of Hever’s swords may have been clipped in this way at the blade is considerably shorter than it would once have been, and the normally blunted end has later been made into a crude and unconvincing point. This tells us that executioners often straddled the divide between being someone who was employed to take lives, but also an individual who sought to extend them. Executioner’s swords gradually fell out of use in Europe; the last such execution being carried out in Switzerland in 1868, although they continued to act as ceremonial swords of justice for many years after.

With many thanks to Dr Owen Emmerson and to Dr Nikolas Funke for his assistance in interpreting these fascinating objects.