15th Century Portuguese Weapons I – The Portuguese Sword

São Paulo Nuno GonçavesDada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui

Here is a painting of Saint Paul, made in about 1470, from the workshop of Nuno Gonçalves. The sword in the saint’s hands may be taken as the archetype of the Portuguese sword of the second half of the 15th century: a straight blade, with little tapering, diamond cross-section; “the discoidal pommel and the guards curling, volute-like, towards the blade… the subsidiary guards, by way of blade-breakers, touch the blade of the sword”, forming the so-called “Portuguese guard” [1].

It is swords like these we also find in several of the figures of the so-called Saint Vincent Panels, by the very same Nuno Gonçalves, and wielded by many warriors – including D. Afonso V himself [2] – in the Pastrana Tapestries. It can be said, with no great fear of contradiction, that this is the favourite, or at least costumary,  model of sword for the Portuguese forces of the time. What we can not do, as some have done in the past, is to assert this model as exclusive to the Portuguese of the late 15th century. But let’s start at the beginning.

Obscure Origins

It is hard to tell when this type of sword appeared amongst us, exactly. Contrary to Bashford Dean’s claims in his Notes on Arms and Armor,  weaponry doesn’t evolve linearly, with diachronically distinct and watertight divisions. Weapons and armour are influenced by adaptative need, but also by fashion and personal preference.

Consider the individual elements described above. One of the most peculiar, to the modern eye at least, is the “subsidiary guards”, i.e., finger rings. Although warriors have long placed their index fingers on the guard, it seems that only at the end of the 14th century was there a need to equip these weapons with a protective ring, appropriate for this technique of sword handling/gripping.


See for example the following Castilian miniature, dated from about 1377 to 1400 [3]. The ring is immediately noticeable (as well as a peculiar fullered blade, but I’ll leave it for another time), as noticeable here as on the famous sword of the Arsenal of Alexandria (also known as item IX-950 of the Royal Armories inventory in Leeds, UK, for those of you with a penchant for cataloguing), made at around the same time or possibly a bit later.

Because two are always better than one, it wasn’t long before someone decided to endow their sword with two rings, as we can see in this detail (on the right) of the Paris Missal of the Bibliothèque Mazarine [4], contemporary with the Castillian miniature – yet the rings are shown with a straight(sh) crossguard, so typical of the 14th century.

The pommel isn’t very different from other, older disk-shaped pommels. In fact, in this regard, the style of pommel commonly found in the “Portuguese guard” sword could be said to be somewhat conservative, by dint of being so uniform and widespread. As for the style of the quillons – volute-like -, although there are no earlier records of volutes per se, several types of guards exist that do curve towards the blade (Type 9 of Ewart Oakeshott’s typology of crossguards, for example [5]). Why the quillons got thicker and rounder in Portugal during the 15th century will forever remain a mystery.

The Explosion of the “Portuguese guard”

For about 60 years [6], there are no records of any prevailing sword type that could be said to be peculiarly Portuguese. The sword on D. Duarte de Menezes tomb (built around 1465), for example, is perfectly normal when compared to other European swords of the time – a blade with little to no taper, round pommel, perfectly straight crossguard with stout quillons. From the 60s/70s [7] onwards, however, and particularly with Nuno Gonçalves’ works, everything changes.

It is during the 60s/70s that Nuno Gonçalves paints or completes the Saint Vincent Panels. It is in the 70s that Nuno Gonçalves creates the many portraits of saints, of which the portrait of St. Paul is one. And it is also during the 70s that Nuno Gonçalves (allegedly) sketches the cartoons after which the Pastrana Tapestries were woven. In all these works, the “Portuguese guard” sword takes pride of place.

Espadas Pastrana.png

Two such swords can be seen in this excerpt from Assault on Asilah. They are exact copies of one another, and similar to King Afonso V’s sword in the same tapestry. The quillons and rings, albeit not as thick, have the same distribution of volumes as those of St. Paul’s sword. In addition to this, it is also worth noting the existence of a secondary “ring” over the ricasso.

The swords in the Tapestries are represented with some uniformity of style, perhaps the result of their repetition in so many instances of the battle scene, or their relative smallness among so many other details. With the Panels, it is possible to observe detailed stylistic divergences between several different models. Let’s look at a few.

Paineis 1

In the leftmost excerpt of the Panel of the Prince (Painel do Infante), we have two swords. The one held by the kneeling figure has flat quillons, with the secondary guards hidden by the tassel hanging from the pommel. The sword of the youngest figure, standing, has arched, volute-like quillons. In the Panel of the Archbishop (Painel do Arcebispo), in the centre, we can see a sword that is an almost exact copy of that of São Paulo. The same is true of the figure to the right of the Panel of the Knights (Painel dos Cavaleiros), although the pommel of his sword is of a different type (in the form of a blooming flower rather than a simple circle). The kneeling knight’s sword, however, is yet another instance of the typical circular pommel, albeit with flattened quillons.


As far as I’m aware, there exists only one 15th century specimen of this type of sword left. I refer to the so-called sword of Pedro Álvares Cabral, found in his tomb (and now part of Rainer Daehnhardt’s private collection) [8]. The sword, in a very sorry state (as can be seen on the right), shows striking similarities with the rightmost model in the Panels above – with the exception of the pommel, which presents a non-circular, more ornate configuration.

It is true that both the Tapestries and the Panels are glorified representations of the realities of war and everyday life, respectively. The Panels showcase the armaments of illustrious courtiers, the best that money can buy; and in the Tapestries, although other types of sword are shown, there is an idealized uniformization of the equipment of the Portuguese forces. In spite of this, however, and in spite of the many variations described above, it seems fair to say that this was an incredibly widespread type of sword among the Portuguese  of the second half of the 15th century.

Portuguese, or Iberian?

Except that Portugal does not exist, nor existed, in a bubble. The same influences – whatever they were – that gave rise to the “Portuguese guard” were (supposedly) the same ones that engendered similar weapons among the Castilian forces. From Castile we have beautiful and supremely well preserved examples, like the ones presented below.  These are, from top to bottom: the sword of King Fernando, the Catholic, in the Cathedral of Granada [9]; another of Fernando’ swords, in the Real Armería (Royal Armoury) of Madrid [10]; the so-called Gran Capitan sword, because of “Gran Capitan” Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, also in the Real Armería [11]; and the sword of the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan of Madrid [12] (the photographs are not meant to represent the real scale of the weapons).

Fernando II GranadaFernandoIGranCapitanpic_spotxix05

A more detailed comparative analysis would be relevant in other contexts. So let me just emphasize the similarities between these four “espadas de pitones” (“pitones” meaning “horns” or “tusks”, regarding the salient and curved quillons), as the model is known in Spanish lands. Incidentally, the sword of the Real Instituto de Valencia and the Gran Capitan show not only great similarities with the swords of the Panel of the Prince and the Panel of the Knights, but also with the Pastrana swords, at least as far as the horizontal proportions of the guard are concerned.

The common elements are all present: pommel, volute-like quillons (some rounded at the end, others flat and/or concave), secondary guards touching the blade. The similarities are undeniable. It may therefore be said that, although this type of sword can truly be called the “national” sword in late 15th century Portugal, it is nonetheless shared with tthe rest of the Peninsula (and possibly beyond). The “Portuguese guard” sword is thus the Iberian sword of the second half of the 15th century.

The “Colhona”, An Autochthonous Evolution


It would have been too convenient of me to end this post there. Because there is, in fact, an exclusively Portuguese version of this type of sword – I am referring to the sword known as the “carracks black sword”, “Portuguese crab sword” or, more popularly at the time, the “colhona”. This Portuguese derivation includes a plate / disc (the “colhão”, or testicle, that the name alludes to) at the end of each quillon. These discs are supposed to have been sharp, giving the sword’s wielder another edge for use in melee combat. Of this derivation of the “Portuguese guard” sword, believed to have been conceived between 1460 and 1480, there are some early 16th century specimens (such as the one reproduced on the left) [13], as well as a number of later, and lesser, copies ( given its spread amongst African populations, who adopted it as a status symbol) [14].

The “colhona” is, nonetheless, a consequence of Portuguese expansion in Africa and abroad. The fact that they turn up in contemporary inventories as “espada preta de bordo” (from which derives the “carracks black sword” epithet) refers not only to their mode of use (painted black, the blades would neither rust nor reflect light), but also to their context: hand-to-hand weapons to be used on ships or in the fortresses of the African coast. It therefore behooves oneself not to mistake the “colhona” for the “Portuguese guard” sword.

[1] The original quote reads: “o pomo discoidal e as guardas curvando-se, em voluta, sobre a lâmina (…) as guardas subsidiárias, à maneira de quebra-lâminas, tocam a lâmina da espada”. Parte da breve descrição deste mesmo retrato em  Barroca, M. J. e Monteiro, J. G. (Coords) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela.

[2] “[Afonso V’s] sword, held at the ready in his upraised right hand, is closely resembled by two surviving examples preserved in the Royal Armory, Madrid, particularly the sword attributed to Ferdinand II. Equally if not more relevant is its similarity to the hilts on the swords of the king and members of his court in the Panels of St Vincent, painted by Nuno Gonçalves. The salient features that characterize this type of Spanish or Italian sword hilt of the late fifteenth century are the flat disk pommel, symmetrical down curved quillons (the cross guard of the hilt), and the form of the arms of the hilt (the pair of symmetrical semicircular rings) below the quillons on either side of the blade. On the king’s sword there is another guard called a side ring, joined to the ends of the arms of the hilt, which on an actual sword would be perpendicular to the plane of the blade.” in La Rocca, D. J. (2011). Afonso ‘the African’ and his army: The Pastrana tapestries as a visual encyclopedia for the study of arms and armor”, in Ibarra, M. A. de B. (2011). The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries (p. 29).

[3] Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, BNE MSS 10134 (2), fol. 15r, Grant Cronica de Espanya.

[4] Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 411 B, fol. 180r, Missal de Paris. Disponível em http://manuscriptminiatures.com/4020/11413/

[5] According to the tables in Oakeshott, E. (1991). Records of the Medieval Sword. ix. Retrieved from http://sword-site.com/page/oakeshott-sword-typo#ixzz4zMVXrMUH

[6] From 1400 to 1460, a period of great scarcity of primary and visual sources on Portuguese armaments.

[7] Depending on the date you believe the Panels were painted. In spite of the dendrochronological dating and the date of 1445 found one of the panels, there are too many intra and extra-contextual elements in them that, in my opinion, point to a date – still held as official – of around 1470.

[8] Photograph retrieved from http://www.arscives.com/bladesign/Images/1.PedroAlvaresCabralsmall.jpg

[9] Photograph retrieved from http://i1337.photobucket.com/albums/o673/AlaeSwords/0170g_zpscacfa4d0.jpg

[10] Photograph retrieved from http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/attachment.php?attachmentid=19141&stc=1

[11] Photograph retrieved from http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/attachment.php?attachmentid=19142&stc=1

[12] Photograph retrieved from http://www.myarmoury.com/images/features/pic_spotxix05.jpg

[13] Photograph retrieved from http://www.arscives.com/bladesign/Images/4.NavigatorSwordsmall.jpg

[14] For a more in-depth exploration of the topic, see Daehnhardt, R. (1997). Homens, Espadas e Tomates. Lisboa: Publicações Quipu.


Barroca, M. J. e Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela.

Daehnhardt, R. (1997). Homens, Espadas e Tomates. Lisboa: Publicações Quipu.

Ibarra, M. A. de B. (2011). The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries. 


(ca. 1475). Assault on Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Assault_on_Asilah_(Asalto_de_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). Disembarkation in Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Disembarkation_in_Asilah_(Desembarco_en_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). Siege of Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Siege_of_Asilah_(Cerco_de_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). The Taking of Tangier [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/The_taking_of_Tangier_(Toma_de_T%C3%A1nger)

Gonçalves, N. (ca. 1470). Saint Paul [oil on wood]. Lisbon: National Museum of Ancient Art. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/23/Nuno_goncalves_s.paulo.jpg

Gonçalves, N. (ca. 1470). Saint Vincent Panels [oil and tempera on wood]. Lisbon: National Museum of Ancient Art. Retrieved from https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Painéis_de_São_Vicente_de_Fora#/media/File:Lagos40_kopie.jpg


9 thoughts on “15th Century Portuguese Weapons I – The Portuguese Sword

  1. Interesting but with a big fault, the dating of paineis de são vincente are wrong, they are older, so makes them the earlier and most exact paiting of this kind of weapon, and as you know they are portuguese not castilian.


    1. Dear Bruno, the panels were painted between 8at least) 1469 and 1471. We have surviving medieval documentation detailing their execution. These swords are both Portuguese and Castilian, they were used on both sides of the frontier.


      1. Mr. Antonio Lopo, not true, and not scientifically accepted by most researchers, the only scientifically dating that is exactly was done at the wood analysis and places it 1442-52. They are dates also in the painting, 1445 to be exactly. There is no medieval documentation saying the dates or even the painter or the figures that i am aware of. Present concrete profts.


      2. Dear Bruno, I’ve had the occasion to write at length about the Panels for another page. Please read my findings at:

        https://www.facebook.com/RepensandoMedievo/posts/1349895668535979 (Part I)
        https://www.facebook.com/RepensandoMedievo/posts/1351864315005781/ (Part II)
        https://www.facebook.com/RepensandoMedievo/posts/1354104878115058 (Part III)

        I would also add that it is extremely rude to accuse an historian of making documents up. If you read the many many books I listed as bibliography, you’ll see that the documents do exist, and have been known for quite a few decades now. There is no date of 1445 on the panels, other than the delusions of one Jorge de Figueiredo (in no way, shape or form “most researchers” – he stands with very few allies on that score) who insists he’s able to read it there; I’ve address the dendrochronological argument directly, and the same Peter Klein who stated the wood was cut in 1442-1445 also stated it would normally have matured for about 10-15 years before painting – again, this is the same expert, but Mr. Figueiredo decided to ignore the findings of his own expert because they wouldn’t fit with his theory.

        The documentation exists, as do the material realities: there are things in the paintings that didn’t exist in 1445. It’s that simple.


      3. MR. Antônio Lopo, I did not acuse you of anything, documents are subject to different interpretations! I have read the text you mention and its a theory like everything else! No more! I don’t see any real document that proofts without doubt the assumptions you make! What i know from a arms colector point of view is that these swords are rare very rare! This fact is a indicator that their use was very restrict to a small area (portugal?), It’s also a fact that some of these style swords were used in spain, what can be consider normal from a geographic point of view and from a political point of view. If their use in iberia was wider, I would expect the influences to reach france and other countries, what is not true.


      4. Dear Bruno, please focus on Part II, where I explicitly listed two medieval documents (contained in the books listed in the Bibliography), which explicitly mention the fact that the altarpiece was being built in 1469-1471. These are not theories – these are documents from 1469-1471 telling us that something is actually happening at that moment. Interpretation is one thing, but you can’t argue against reality. If a document tells you it happened, unless you have reason to suspect the document (and we don’t), then it happened. Furthermore, and as I said, there are certain things depicted in the Panels that didn’t exist in 1445. It’d be like having an astronaut in a painting from the 1930s. It’s impossible.

        Regarding swords: certain countries had preferences that other countries didn’t. No-one except Italians used Schiavonas, for example, or Cinquedeas. Only the Iberian kingdoms and, later on, the Italians used the so-called ear-daggers. These swords are extremely well-documented in all kinds of Iberian art, from Portugal but also Castille and Aragon. Those are, again, facts – we can’t argue with material proof (I can point you towards dozens of late 15th century depictions of these swords if you’d like). They were ubiquitous in the Iberian peninsula and were in fact known abroad as “Spanish swords”. The fact that the French or anyone else didn’t adopt these swords is not an academically sustainable argument in any way – we also didn’t wear the same exact armour styles as the French, nor the French wore the same as the Burgundians right next door, or the English.


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