In this blog post, Assistant Curator Scot Hurst traces the fascinating history of the writhen hilt sword, from the hands of two of the world’s most prodigious collectors of art and antiques to the silver screen.
It would be impossible to even begin writing about this hand-and-a-half sword without addressing the obvious talking point -our eye is instantly drawn to the beautiful, almost organic form of the sword’s hilt. The grip wooden, carved to resemble a gnarled stave or entwined vines flowing into the gilt bronze pommel and straight quillons, which are similarly crafted to resemble three entwined branches which splay at the end.
There is an undeniable natural beauty to the hilt, which stands out amongst the many utilitarian swords of the late-15th century. The form of the sword is not unique, as a similar sword can be found in the Museo Militar in Lisbon, Portugal and there is also an image of another similar sword in a private collection, published in Ewart Oakeshott’s 1991 work, ‘Records of the Medieval Sword'.
What is exciting, however, is that we also have surviving, contemporary images of swords with this style of the hilt. There is a set of four, early 16th century tapestries that were once owned by Cardinal Wolsey. One, titled ‘The Triumph of Time over Fame, is currently on display at Hampton Court Palace and depicts a knight wearing a sheathed sword with quillons twisted in a similar style as the ‘Writhen Hilt’ sword. Likewise, in St. Helen’s Parish Church in Ranworth, Norfolk, a sword with twisted quillons can be seen wielded by St. Michael, painted on a choir screen dating back to the mid-15th century.
Of course, swords were not just practical, utilitarian tools of war. They were just as much a status symbol and an outward show of wealth, power and prestige, as they were a weapon. This of course raises several questions about this sword: was it a weapon or status symbol? if it was a status symbol, to whom did it belong?
Mapping a History
When studying historical arms and armour it is very easy for us to state the obvious. For example, we have dated the writhen hilt sword to around 1480 and we know that it is probably German in origin. But should this be the extent of its history? What of the 500 years that have passed between then and now? For me, this is the most fascinating part of this sword’s history, for it somehow found itself into the hands of two of the world’s most prodigious collectors of art and antiques: Frederic Spitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
Spitzer (1851 – 1890) was born in Vienna, supposedly the son of a gravedigger. After a brief stint in the army, he began dealing in art and antiques in London, before eventually moving to Paris. He became widely known as Europe’s premier art dealer, with a particular interest in Medieval and Renaissance pieces, and gathered a portfolio of many illustrious clients, including Baron Adolphe de Rothschild and Sir Richard Wallace. Today, much of their collection can be found dispersed in museums around the world.
Eventually, the sword found itself into the private collection of the businessman, politician and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) who was the inspiration for Orson Wells’ iconic ‘Citizen Kane’. So prolific was Hearst’s private collection, spread amongst his several mansions and castles, that many pieces remained in storage crates without ever being properly displayed. The Royal Armouries came to acquire the writhen hilt sword in 1952, after Hearst’s death in 1951.
Since joining our collection, the sword has also gone on to serve as inspiration for a prop in the film ‘Eragon’ (2006), in which the character Durza (Robert Carlyle) wields a sword with a very similar hilt. Unfortunately, the sword of Durza does boast a somewhat diminutive blade more suited to filmmaking then war-making.
The Royal Armouries shop also sells a wonderfully accurate replica of the writhen hilt sword as part of our Royal Armouries Replica Collection, a specialist collection developed with, and approved by, our expert curators at every stage of the design process.