By Roel Slachmuylders
Dimensions: 115 x 22 x 2.5 cm.
Decorations and inscriptions:
- on the sides of the pommel a pair of spectacles (‘bril’ in Dutch), as visual pun on the town name Brielle
- the year 1600 on top of the pommel
- the Brielle coat of arms, inlaid in metal in red copper, applied to the front and rear of the sword, more specifically on the ends of the guard, below the hilt and on the pommel
- a scroll with an image which is almost entirely erased
- the name “IOHAN [VAN?] VREESEN”
- .B.V. .R.
- a largely raised image inscribed in a circle which can be identified by a small sword in hand and the accompanying inscription “IVSTITIA” as the personification of Justice.
- the article by Johan Been from 1895 makes reference to a now vanished year mark 1580.

The correct interpretation of the inscription “IOHAN [VAN?] VREESEN” is unclear. It is probably the name of the maker of the executioner’s sword. However, no such armourer is known. The name might be that of an executioner or a beheaded victim. The identity of Brielle’s executioner in 1580 is not known. In 1599 the town appointed “master Jan Woutersz. Dieffhelt” as executioner. This may not have been his real name, but an alias.

The sword’s documented origin from the old Court of Justice in the Town Hall, the inscription “IVSTITIA” and its typology (shape) mean that the sword can undoubtedly be considered to be an executioner’s sword. Various examples have been preserved in the Netherlands, including in the Gevangenpoort Museum in The Hague. Until the end of the 18th century beheadings were carried out on the European continent using two-handed broadswords. The first beheading using the guillotine took place in France in 1792. This device was also introduced in the countries conquered by the French in the subsequent years. Beheading was generally not often used as a form of execution in the past, because the method was reserved for people of a certain standing. Well-known examples include a host of aristocratic signatories of the Petition (Smeekschrift) in 1568 (including the Counts of Egmond and Hoorn and Jan van Blois van Treslong), and Johan van Oldenbarneveldt in 1619. ‘Vulgar’ people sentenced to death were executed by hanging. The Mennonite Jan Marten Pieterszoon was executed with the sword in Brielle in around 1568. Paradoxically this may have been a blessing: two of his companions who were also detained ended up burnt at the stake in The Hague.

A lack of relevant archive documents means that it is no longer possible to establish whether this sword was ever used for a beheading, and if so, which or how many condemned people suffered its bite.

Bibliography: BEEN, J. “Zwaard en Hellebaard” (Sword and Halbard) Weekblad Voorne, Putten, Overflakkee en Goedereede, 7 April 1895, second edition, p. 2.; GROENEVELT, J. and M. HOLTROP. Hier zijn de schutters van Den Briel (Here are Den Briel’s militiamen), Brielle, 2009, p. 27-28; HOLTROP, M. Honderd jaar verzamelen (One hundred years of collecting). Brielle Historical Museum 1912-2012, Brielle, 2012, p. 38.

Roel Slachmuylders, Brielle Historical Museum, 14 March 2014