The De Valette Sidesword
For the last few centuries a tiny oratory beside the church of St. Lawrence in Vittoriosa (Birgu) has housed an artefact of extreme historical significance. Tucked in a niche inside the oratory of St. Joseph is a sixteenth century sword; the sword which Hospitaller Grandmaster Jean De Valette wore at his side during the events of the Great Siege of 1565.
Tradition has it that the Grandmaster placed his personal sword and hat in the chapel of Our Lady of Damascus as token of gratitude for the victory and the lifting of the siege. Documentary evidence for or against this tradition is limited, but there is no doubt that both artefacts date back to the right time period. Certainly the accompanying marble plaque, placed there during the rule of Grandmaster De Rohan, adds a great deal of weight to the story.
The style of this sword is closely related to military swords produced in Saxony in the mid and late 16th century. Unlike most surviving examples in the Dresden Rustkammer and the Deutsches Historisches Museum, its appearance is very restrained, exhibiting no decorations on the guard and a very plain grip and pommel.
The blade itself appears to be sparsely engraved. Surviving decorations include what appears to be a rosary engraved around the fuller - a very common feature in swords of the time and a detail it shares with most of the blades in the palace armoury - and a crescent moon at the point of balance. The crescent moon mark may indicate a German or Spanish origin for the blade, but is not complete enough to allow a certain identification. It is possible that other engravings might have been erased or obscured by the passage of time, especially on the fuller itself which bears faint marks which might once have been text, but there is nothing to indicate that it was ever heavily decorated.
This was not meant to be a gentleman's fashion accessory, but a practical weapon for use in battle. Contemporary accounts paint De Valette as a hard, practical man, a seasoned veteran not given to vanity. Whether or not this really was the Grandmaster's personal sword, we can easily imagine that he would have heartily approved of this kind of weapon.
Before we started this project, we were already considering the study of the earlier, battle-oriented sidesword in addition to the later, lighter variety which we were already practicing. Having a weapon of such significance to local history practically at our door, we quickly decided to make it the starting point for our research. Apart from its being a magnificent representative of the weapons of the period, it is also an iconic symbol of one of the finest moments of this nation's military history.
In 2012, the Vittoriosa Local Council and the Parish of Saint Lawrence kindly granted the MHFA the opportunity to inspect and measure the weapon with the objective of creating a practical replica of it. After several months of trials and prototypes in collaboration with Danelli Armouries, in June 2013 the final version of a fully functional practice sword was adopted as the official pattern club sidesword for the students of the Malta Historical Fencing Association.
Handling The Original
Even before any measurements were taken, our researchers were surprised to find that the blade felt extremely light; the weapon is extremely maneuverable and although the scales read in at just over 1kg, it feels almost weightless in the hand. The construction of the weapon remains very solid even after the passage of centuries.
The blade is nearly paper thin near the point. No cutting tests were made out of consideration to the age and significance of the artefact, however it has all the attributes of a formidable cutter.
The bars forming the counterguard cross each other; this is referred to as a cross-port arrangement. This is unusual compared to many other swords of the type, including most surviving examples from the Palace Armoury, where the bars of the counterguard are swept parallel to each other. The form leads us to believe that the hilt was produced in Germany, as most surviving examples with this configuration appear to originate there.
Further distinguishing the hilt, even among others with the same configuration, is the fact that the counterguard is not symmetrical. At first glance, the sword appeared to be suitable for use in either hand; however, on closer examination, one of the protective bars at the back of the sword is placed further than the other to allow the thumb to be comfortably placed on the blade. This is a clear indication that this sword was designed for a right-handed person.
The handle is terminated by a pommel, square in cross section. It is interesting that the pommel is not aligned with the grip, but is set at 45 degrees to it. This feature is rather unusual, but far from unique, and while it might cause some discomfort if used improperly, it is not noticeable if the blade is grasped with the index finger hooked over the guard and the thumb resting on the spine of the ricasso. The length of the handle also suggests that this is the intended use.
Precise measurements, diagrams and photographs were taken to document every part of the sword. The weight and point of balance were also determined. This information was then passed on to our collaborator for reconstruction.
The Creation Of The Practice Sword
Once the data was gathered, our swordmaker and friend Marco Danelli of Danelli Armouries started the arduous task of creating a replica suitable for the practice of historical European martial arts, which was as close as feasibly possible to the original.
Over the course of several months, a number of prototypes were created, tested and revised before the design was finalised.
The sword produced by Danelli Armouries is a faithful copy of the weapon that currently rests in Vittoriosa, save for minor diversions in weight and profile required for safe practice. The blade is marginally heavier and slightly thicker to avoid edge sharpness.
The resulting blade is extremely agile and handles very well. The Malta Historical Fencing Association was proud announce that this model would be adopted as its official 16th century practice sword. This is the first time in Malta that a sword with such a close link to it’s martial heritage has been recreated for study and practice. The methods we use in the practice of this sword are still in a phase of study and are inspired from fencing treatises of the 16th century, together with the research and interpretations of teachers that the MHFA collaborates with, who have been studying these methods for a number of years.
Read more about the sword and the Vittoriosa Parish Museum at maltain360.com
Read MHFA student and Historian Franco Davies' article about the De Valette sword on Academia.edu