Szczerbiec is the coronation sword that was used in crowning ceremonies of most kings of Poland from 1320 to 1764. It is currently on display in the treasure vault of the Royal Wawel Castle in Kraków as the only preserved piece of medieval Polish Crown Jewels. The sword is characterized by a hilt decorated with magical formulas, Christian symbols and floral patterns, as well as a narrow slit in the blade which holds a small shield with the coat of arms of Poland. Its name, derived from the Polish word szczerba meaning a gap, notch or chip, is sometimes rendered into English as “the Notched Sword" or "the Jagged Sword”, although its blade has straight and smooth edges.
A legend links Szczerbiec with King Boleslaus the Brave who was said to have chipped the sword by hitting it against the Golden Gate of Kiev (now in Ukraine) during his capture of the city in 1018. However, the Golden Gate was only constructed in 1037 and the sword is actually dated to the late 12th or 13th century. It was first used as a coronation sword by Vladislaus the Elbow-High in 1320. Looted by Prussiantroops in 1795, it changed hands several times during the 19th century until it was purchased in 1884 for the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The Soviet Union returned it to Poland in 1928. During World War II, Szczerbiec was evacuated to Canada and did not return to Kraków until 1959. In the 20th century, an image of the sword was adopted as a symbol by Polish nationalist and far-right movements.
Szczerbiec is a 98 cm-long (3.22 ft) ceremonial sword bearing rich Gothicornamentation, dated to mid-13th century. It is classified as a type XII sword with a type I pommel and a type 6 crossguard according to the Oakeshott typology, although the blade may have changed its shape due to centuries of corrosion and intensive cleaning before every coronation.
The hilt consists of a round pommel, a flat grip and an arched crossguard. The grip is 10.1 cm (4.0 in) long, 1.2 cm (0.47 in) thick, and from 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.2 in) wide. It is rectangular in cross-section and its hard edges make it difficult to handle and impractical for fighting, which is indicative of the sword’s purely ceremonial usage. The pommel is 4.5 cm (1.8 in) in diameter and 2.6 cm (1.0 in) thick, with a chamfered outer ring that is 1.3 cm (0.51 in) wide. The crossguard forms an arch that is 1.8 cm (0.71 in) wide in the middle and widens up to 3.4 cm (1.3 in) at both ends. It is 1 cm (0.39 in) thick near the grip and measures 20 cm (7.9 in) in length along its upper edge.
The pommel and the crossguard are made of silver. The core of the grip is a brass chest encasing the tang of the blade. It was probably made in the 19th century to replace an original organic core, which had decomposed. At the same time the tang was riveted to the top of the pommel. The head of the rivet, which is 0.5 cm (0.20 in) in diameter, rests atop a rectangular washer measuring 1.1 cm × 1.4 cm (0.43 in × 0.55 in).
All parts of the hilt are covered with golden plates, which are engraved with sharp or rounded styli and decorated with niello, or black metallic inlay that contrasts against the golden background. Each plate is 1 mm (0.039 in) thick and made of about 18-carat gold. The niello designs include inscriptions written in late Romanesque majuscule (with some uncial addition), Christian symbols, and floral patterns. The floral ornaments are in negative, that is, golden against a black, nielloed background.
On the obverse side of the hilt, the pommel bears a large stylized letter T on top of a letter C or G (the latter could be just a decorative element of the letter T) between the Greek letters Α and ω (alpha and omega) surmounted with little crosses. Below the letter T, there is another cross placed within a cloud or flower with twelve petals.On the chamfered edge around this design runs a circular Latin inscription in two rings which reads: Rec figura talet ad amorem regum / et principum iras iudicum (“This sign rouses the love of kings and princes, the wrath of judges”). The grip bears the symbols of two of the Four Evangelists: the lion of Saint Mark, the ox of Saint Luke, as well as an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) The crossguard bears the following Latin inscription: Quicumque hec / nomina Deii secum tu/lerit nullum periculum / ei omnino nocebit (“Whoever will carry these names of God with him, no danger will harm him”).
The reverse side of the pommel is decorated with a vine bush surrounded by a wreath of vine leaves. On the reverse of the grip, there are the eagle of Saint John and the angel of Saint Matthew, and another Agnus Dei. The crossguard bears, above another pattern of vine leaves, an inscription in corrupted Hebrew in Latin script: Con citomon Eeve Sedalai Ebrebel(“Fervent faith incite the names of God: Sedalai and Ebrehel”). On the opposite ends of the crossguard, there are again the symbols of Saints John and Matthew.
The circumference of the pommel is decorated with a rhombic pattern, while the upper side of the crossguard – with a similar triangular pattern. The narrow sides of the grip used to be embellished with inscribed silver plates, which, however, were lost in the 19th century. These lost inscriptions are partly known from graphical documentation made by King Stanislaus Augustus’s court painter, Johann Christoph Werner, in 1764 and by Jacek Przybylski in 1792. One of the plates had already been broken by that time with only part of the inscription preserved: Liste est glaud… h Bolezlai Duc… (“This is a sword of… Duke Boleslaus…”); the inscription on the other plate continued: Cum quo ei D[omi]n[us] SOS [Salvator Omnipotens Salvator]auxiletur ad[ver]sus partes amen (“With whom is the Omnipotent Lord and Savior, to help him against his enemies. Amen”). The missing part of the first inscription is only known from an old replica of Szczerbiec which once belonged to the Radziwiłł family (see Historical replicas below). The full inscription read: Iste est gladius Principis et haeredis Boleslai Ducis Poloniae et Masoviae, Lanciciae (“This is a sword of Hereditary Prince Boleslaus, Duke of Poland, Masovia, and Łęczyca”). The identity of this Duke Boleslaus is uncertain
The blade is 82 cm (2.69 ft) long, up to 5 cm (2.0 in) wide (about 5 cm from the crossguard) and 3 mm (0.12 in) thick. The fuller is about 74 cm (2.43 ft) long and, on average, 2 cm (0.79 in) wide. Metallographic analysis has shown that the blade was forged from unevenly carburizedsemi-hard bloomery steel. Apart from iron, the material contains, by weight, 0.6 percent of carbon, 0.153 percent of silicon, 0.092 percent ofphosphorus, and other elements. Numerous slag inclusions found in the steel are typical for medieval iron smelting technology. Part of the blade was hardened by quenching. Unlike the hilt, the blade would have been fully functional as a weapon of war. The surface of the blade is covered with deep scratches along its length, a result of intensive cleaning from rust before every coronation, probably with sand or brick powder. Inactive spots of corrosion may be also found on the entire surface.
Just below the hilt, there are three perforations in the fuller of the blade. The largest is a rectangular slot that is 64 mm (2.5 in) long and 8.5 mm (0.33 in) wide. This opening, known in Polish as szczyrba or szczerba, was originally caused by rust and, in the 19th century, polished into a regular shape. A small heraldic shield colored with oil paint is fastened to the slot. It is roughly triangular in shape, with the sides measuring from 4 to 4.5 cm (1.6 to 1.8 in). The shield, bearing the White Eagle of Poland, was originally attached to the scabbard, or sheath. The Gothic scabbard, with a golden or silver locket and chape, was probably created in 1320 and lost between 1819 and 1874. The shield is the only preserved element of the sheath. It was tilted to the left – from the onlooker’s point of view – while it was fastened to the scabbard’s locket, but today it is aligned with the blade. The eagle on the red field of the shield is white, with a golden crown, bands across the wings, ring on the tail, and talons. The two other perforations are round holes, 24 mm (0.94 in) apart. The upper one, just below the slot, is 28 mm (1.1 in) in diameter, while the other measures only 1.4 mm (0.055 in). They were probably punched in the 19th century to fasten the heraldic shield to the blade.