Double-handed sword donated to Heritage Malta

Sub-title: Terribly feared sword could cut an armoured opponent in two with just one blow.

A double-handed sword dating from the first half of the 16th century, technically called Zweihänder, has been recently donated by Dott. Francesco Pegoiani Penna from his private collection to Heritage Malta’s Palace Armoury located at the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta.

Users of the Zweihänder had to have particular skills and were even paid in excess of their usual pay. These type of swords were terribly feared since they could easily cut through the period armour and sever an opponent in two with just one blow.

Such swords where used by the knights of the Order of St. John and by the mercenaries in the defence of Malta during the Great Siege of 1565. The use of such weapons is documented in the wall painted frieze by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio in the Grand Council Hall (Throne Room) at the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta, such as in the scenes showing the Piccolo Soccorso and the attack on the Post of Castile.

The Zweihänder or Doppelhänder (double-hander) or Beidhänder (both-hander) developed from the so-called bastard sword or montante (longsword) of the Late Middle Ages. It became a hallmark weapon of the German Landsknechte from the time of Maximilian I (d. 1519) and was popular during the Italian Wars of 1494–1559. This particular weapon represents the final stage in the trend of the increasing length of the blade which started in the 14th century. In its developed form, the Zweihänder acquired the characteristics of a pole arm rather than a sword. Consequently, it was not carried in a sheath but across the shoulder like a halberd.

The Palace Armoury holds two similar ‘hand-and-half’ swords which date to the same period. Even these swords were used during the Great Siege, as were the large quantities of issue plate armour and pole arms that are still preserved in the Palace Armoury collection, all dating to the same period.

The donated double-handed sword is considered as a historically important weapon since its date and typology has filled a lacuna in the present collection. Forty-two similar double-handed or hand-and-half swords were documented to be found at the Palace Armoury in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, only the two hand-and-half swords mentioned above remain, the rest, presumably, having been removed to England in the early 19th century.

The double-handed sword was received by the Curator of the Palace Armoury, Robert Cassar, and Senior Curator, Emmanuel Magro Conti. It is now at the Heritage Malta Conservation Laboratories to be prepared for display at the Palace Armoury in the section representing edged weapons from the early decades of the 16th century together with the above mentioned hand-and-half swords.