How Willem II’s sword wound up in the Witham (Solving the sword, Part 5)
I have posited the mysterious Witham Sword was Dutch, with the inscription it bears associating it with Willem II. If this hypothesis is correct, there were many opportunities for it to move to England after Willem’s son, Floris V, retrieved it from West Frisia: Floris was in the British Isles extensively, arranging his treaty with Edward I of England and making his case in the Great Cause of Scotland, negotiating at length with Robert the Bruce for mutual support. Floris’ son, Jan I, was raised in the royal court for a decade as well, and Jan’s English wife, Elizabeth, returned to Holland with him, but on his death at only 16, she returned home.
Although Jan’s death represented the end of Willem’s direct line, Jean II, the old count’s nephew, cemented rule of Holland and Hainault upon his succession, also—finally—adding Zeeland. By the succession of Jean’s son, Willem III, not only was rulership in the area firmly settled, but his marriage to Joan de Valois, sister of the future king of France, Philip VI, and subsequent marriages of their daughters, Margaretha to Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Philippa to Edward III of England meant the family was directly connected to essentially all the major power brokers in Europe.
And Philippa presents yet one more opportunity for the sword’s arrival in England. But regardless of how it got there, why bother bringing it there just to throw it in a river—a misguided attempt to see if the Lady of the Lake’s hand would emerge from the water to catch it? Indeed, I don’t think that’s what happened: Let’s look at yet another sword:
This sword, found along with some 80 others in the Dordogne river, is presumed to have been from the Battle of Castillon, fixing the date at 1453. The swords, all now in similar condition, were packed into barrels after the battle and shipped away on barges, which then sank. The sword is therefore actually 200 years newer than the Witham sword but clearly in significantly worse shape, with rust eating away its edges and causing a number of notches to appear. This strongly suggests not only was Willem’s sword not lobbed into the Witham during his lifetime, it was probably done much later even than the Castillon sword.
So we’ll turn our focus instead to a motive for ditching the sword: The Low Countries and England have always had a strong connection; although Calais sits closer, it’s not by much, and indeed France was often the mutual enemy against which these two united. This became even truer with the rise of their shared Protestant faith on a continent dominated by Catholicism. Still, a significant breach in these cordial relations did occur. We’ll have to go halfway around the world and hundreds of years later to find it.
Ironically, the breach was a direct result of the closeness of the two nations. By the late 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were in a cold trade war with the Dutch¹ and English. For the most part, this was carried out through embargoes, privateering, diplomacy, and the occasional taking by force of colonial outposts. Anglo-Dutch cooperation against the Iberian powers was formalized with the Treaty of Defense of 1619. Because economic factors were foremost in this alliance, the main bodies involved, rather than the nations, were the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), who additionally created a Council of Defense in Batavia (Modern day Jakarta, Indonesia). So hand in glove did these companies work their employees were commonly to be found in one another’s vessels and outposts. The treaty’s regulations allowing this were to be tested in a set of unfortunate circumstances in Amboyna, Indonesia (AKA Ambon Island, present-day Maluku), in 1623.
Although the governments and companies were allied on paper, on the ground, they were still competitors; there were more-or-less petty grievances, tensions, jealousies, and mutual suspicions. Amboyna had all of these in abundance: the VOC’s governor for the area, Herman van Speult, seeing signs the Sultan of Ternate, a former power center in the area, was favoring the Spanish, thought the British might ultimately be behind this reversal of allegiance. Their treaty stated each country was to maintain and police the posts it occupied, which the governor interpreted as meaning he had legal jurisdiction in the area. He rounded up suspects, tortured (waterboarding was the method employed), tried, and executed 10 employees of the EIC, nine Japanese ronin (浪人, rōnin—mercenaries), and one Portuguese employee of the VOC. Four more Englishmen and two Japanese were also found guilty but pardoned.
The EIC, however, did not share van Speult’s opinion of the law. Instead, they believed that the joint body in Batavia should have tried the case. The British dubbed the incident a “massacre”, and proceeded to put out broadsheets including images drawn from martyrology, demonizing the Dutch and fomenting war.
Still, though anti-Dutch sentiment was clearly inflamed, actual war had to wait another 29 years until the pretext could be employed. The Dutch head of state (stadtholder), Frederick Henry, deeply deplored the regicide committed by Oliver Cromwell, having backed Charles I of England in the English Civil war. Indeed, there were Royalists and pro-Commonwealth factions across Europe plotting and inveigling, which, added to the mix of economic tensions, proved a powderkeg. It was lit when Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp was slow to lower his flag to General-at-Sea Robert Blake in the English Channel and the latter fired on him.
Although the “Amboyna Massacre” was hardly a true casus belli, it was now used as a pretext, as it was in the two Anglo-Dutch Wars to follow, in 1665 and 1672. It was such a never-forget moment it’s referenced in Gulliver’s Travels when the eponymous hero boards a Dutch ship called the Amboyna in Japan, pretending to be a “Hollander”. When he refuses to trample a crucifix, the Emperor promises to keep it quiet:²
For he assured me, that if the secret should be discovered by my Countrymen, the Dutch, they would cut my Throat in the Voyage.
Many pejorative terms including the descriptor Dutch entered the English language around this time: Dutch courage—false bravado gained by the consumption of alcohol—being the most common today.³ Others include:
- Dutch bargain or Dutch reckoning: an arbitrary bill that only goes up if you try to negotiate it
- Dutch-bellied, Dutch-built, Dutch-buttocked or Dutch-cut: poorly built or ungainly
- Dutch comfort or Dutch consolation: summed up as “thank God it’s no worse”
- Dutch concert: where every instrument plays a different tune
- Dutch defense: the treacherous or cowardly delivery of a thing into enemy hands
- Dutch leave: desertion
- Dutch nightingale: a frog, alluding to the country’s marshiness, as well as the people’s poor singing ability
- Dutch uncle: someone who is not a relative, yet offers frank advice and/ or rebukes as if they were
- Dutch widow: a prostitute
In a similar period of anti-German sentiment, WWI, George V of England changed the name of his House from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. If occasions like this are enough to make the highest of royals change their names to make allegiances clear, certainly keeping around relic tying you to whomever national hatred is turned against would also seem in need of remedy.
So much the more so in Lincolnshire, center of the wool trade with the Low Countries since the Late Middle Ages, with its own village of New Holland and district of South Holland. John of Gaunt, son of Phillipa of Hainault and Edward III held the proverbial vast tracts there, and a street in the town of Lincoln bears his name, as does a football ground formerly home to Lincoln City.
It’s hard to trace who lived in Lincoln Castle down the years, or who the descendants of this or that duke might be, but I think the sword was in this area from the time of John of Gaunt, until, during some Anglo-Dutch War, through some combination of spite and desire to not be thought of as pro-Dutch, some successor or inheritor took this ancient relic of a forgotten line and flung it into the Witham.
And for comparison, I present a Hungarian riverfind sword; this one from the 17th century, which appears to have gone into the drink shortly after its creation:
You can see the condition of this blade bears a strong resemblance to the Witham sword; the grip is gone, there is an eating away of the flat surfaces, but the edge is intact. It is interestingly archaic in type, but I am assured of the date—perhaps it’s a sword of rank, just as the French Sabre de Troupe à Pied Modèle 1831 resembled a Roman gladius.
It is beyond my scope, and indeed my abilities, to eliminate all the variables in drawing equivalencies between these three swords, but we have the dates of manufacture for all three, and approximate dates for the submersions of the swords I’ve brought in for comparison. All three were found in large, slow-moving rivers prone to silting—all were found during dredging operations. None of them appear to have been scabbarded when sunk; generally, while the organic parts of scabbards, just as with grips, decay quickly, the metal fittings do not, however none of these finds mention any such pieces. If you’re feeling these examples are cherry-picked, I don’t blame you, but sadly I chose them due to the scarcity of reliable evidence rather than its abundance: give me access to the arms collections of several European musea and I’ll be happy to conduct a more thorough survey.
Is the case I made airtight? Hardly, but based on the information I could access, I’ve put together what I think is a fairly compelling hypothesis. Short of making a late career change into academia or being independently wealthy with nothing but time on my hands like the guy in Tim’s Vermeer, this is where the trail must end for me: this blade with which Willem II planned to enforce his ambition to expand his realm, unite the Low Countries, and become a player on the greater European stage, passed through many hands. It was lost to the Frisians, but Floris V recovered it. Willem’s family eventually achieved the high rank and status he had sought, and the sword became an heirloom of the Lancasters. And in a time of ill-feeling between the two nations, someone saw fit to lob it in the river.
I ran across a great quote perfectly summing up the anti-Dutch sentiment in England, especially in the latter half of the 17th century:⁴
What trades and artifices of all kinds do they set up, to the ruin of many a poor Englishman that has lived an apprentice and bondman seven years to attain his art and occupation? What trades are there in which they have not stocks going, or scriveners with money to lend? What land is to be sold, or mortgage to be had, that they have not the first refusal of? What marriages of man or woman falls amongst them that they will enrich the English with so long as any of their country or tribe is found amongst them? What maritime town, or other of account within twenty miles of the sea, opposite to Holland, that is not stuffed or filled with their people, to the impoverishing of the inhabitants and dwellers? What masses of money and gold have they, against the laws of the realm, transported out of it as truth has made it plain?
I also found more terms of disparagement using the descriptor “Dutch”, including a different meaning for Dutch bargain:
- Dutch almanac: gibberish
- Dutch bargain: a one-sided deal or one concluded over drinks
- Dutch father: same as Dutch uncle
- Dutch feast: where the host gets drunk before the guests or monopolizes the booze
- Dutch fustian: nonsense; thieves’ jargon
- Dutch medley: same as Dutch concert
- Dutch nerve or Dutch spunk: same as Dutch courage
Read previous articles in the Solving the sword series
- Although some will say it is not technically correct, I’ll use Holland and Dutch to refer to the United Provinces of the Netherlands and its people, respectively. This simplifies things, maintains clarity, and is a common usage.
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1726.
- Dutch treat, also called going Dutch, is tempting, but is actually a US English term from much later, and probably refers to German (Deutsch)-speaking immigrants. There is a plethora of terms like this in the English language, with their time of origin strongly indicating the disfavored group of that day.
- Sir William Monson, Naval Tracts, 1703.