Royal Armouries

Execution swords

Beheading was carried out using a sword on the Continent, whereas the axe was more commonly used in England. Execution with a sword was generally regarded as cleaner and more certain to do the job in a single stroke. Also, the victim could be beheaded while kneeling upright rather than bent over a block – Click on the image right to see a woodcut from the 16th century book Der Weisskunig.

Purpose-made executioner’s swords were two-handed, with a rounded tip and a broad, thin blade sometimes decorated with images and inscriptions that reflected their use. They had both weight and a very sharp edge, to enable them to sever the neck most effectively.
Swords of Justice were also frequently carried in processions. They would be carried before judges to represent that person’s authority to exercise justice.

The most famous case of a sword being used for a beheading in England was that of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII. Henry decided to grant her a merciful execution rather than subjecting her to burning at the stake or a potentially messy beheading with an axe. He arranged for an expert swordsman and executioner to be brought in from Calais to do the job. Once Anne was in position, the execution was said to have been over in a matter of moments.

Did you know?

4 Eiffel Towers

During the siege of Sebastopol the British fired about 10,000 tonnes of iron shot; the French fired 510,000 round shot, 236,000 howitzer shells and 350,000 mortar shells – a total of around 43,000 tonnes of iron! About the same weight as 4 Eiffel Towers.