British Museum blog

Swords as symbols of status

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Swordplay and Swagger: Rapier and Dagger looks at violence in Shakespeare’s plays and London’s streets.

An etching of The Fencing School of the University of Leiden, Holland, 1610.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Toby Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour, The Wallace Collection

When we think of rapiers we usually imagine the ‘flashing blades’ of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and other Hollywood swashbucklers. The modern understanding of swords is however littered with misconceptions.

Medieval swords are usually stereotyped as heavy and cumbersome while rapiers are thought of as feather-light and lightning-fast. But actually it is just the reverse: medieval swords tend to be very light and agile while real rapiers, at least in the 16th century, tended to be quite heavy and, to an untutored hand, often seem very ungainly.

The proper use of any weapon depends on the user being trained in the specific fighting technique which relates to it. A sword is inseparable from the movement style that has been developed for it. Most members of the sword-carrying classes in Elizabethan England would have studied with a fencing master. A Tudor gentleman would go to his fight master on a regular basis, every day if he could afford it, in order to improve and refine his sword-fighting abilities.

This was quite an exclusive thing to do. You had to have the luxury of free time, and you had to be able to pay for it. So the ability to use a rapier to a high standard is an immediate and obvious demonstration of status. It’s something that many in Tudor society aspired to. Many actors – Shakespeare and his contemporaries – were all familiar with swords and sword-fighting to varying degrees.

The rapier was literally a ‘dress sword’ (Sp. espada ropera; ‘sword of the robe’) designed for non-military combat, in duels, street-fights, and street-wise self-defence. It was the very long, thrusting sword of the fashionable urban swordsman (the length of the blade is what made it much blade-heavier than a medieval sword). It was one of the icons of the High Renaissance.

A performance of virtuoso metalworking, a fine rapier was the mark of a cultured sophisticate. It was the work of art than showed him to be an connoisseur, the jewellery object that proclaimed him to be a man of honour, and the weapon with which he would defend that honour, to the death.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Swordplay and Swagger: Rapier and Dagger

Find out more:
Royal Armouries
Top ten objects from the Royal Armouries
The Wallace Collection
Exhibition: The Noble Art of the Sword
The Noble Art of the Sword exhibition catalogue
Arms and Armour: Renaissance Rulers, Patrons and Warriors

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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

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