Shakespeare on Show: Top Ten Exhibition – a Wedding Knife Sheath or a Knife Sheath

Today’s object for the Shakespeare on Show blog is a knife sheath which is currently on display at Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the Top Ten exhibition.

A sheath for a pair of wedding knives, dated 1602.

A sheath for a pair of wedding knives, dated 1602.

This sheath, believed to be a knife sheath, is made from boxwood and is beautifully carved with various Christian motifs as well as the date 1602. The carvings include depictions of the six works of mercy from the book of Matthew (Matthew XXV. 35, 36) and six illustrations of the story of the Prodigal Son, both from the New Testament in the Bible. Below the works of mercy is a shield supported by an angel inscribed with a merchant’s mark and the initials ‘I.N’. On each of the sides are six of the Apostles with their symbols and below these are the letters ‘W.G.W’ and the date, 1602. Interestingly theses initials occur on two similar wooden sheaths, dated 1593 and 1615, which where in the Debruge-Dumesnil Collection in Paris and appear to have been the mark of a sculptor in wood, who was probably Flemish.

The sheath, according to Peter Hewitt, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham, follows a tradition of late medieval carving in ivory before protracted wars against the Ottoman Empire steadily cut off the supply from the east. It is believed that knife sheaths were usually worn by women hanging from their girdle or belt alongside other personal items such as purses, keys, or sweet-bags. There is an early reference to the sheath in a catalogue from 1868 in which it describes the sheath as, ‘A sheath for a pair of knives, formerly carried by ladies..’ Furthermore, there are also references to knives been worn by women as wedding gifts in some of the contemporary literature of the time. For example, they are referred to in ‘King Edward III’ (anonymous but attributed to Shakespeare)

‘Here by my side doth hang my wedding knives:/Take thou the one, and with it kill thy queen,/And learn by me to find her where she lies;’.

Edward III, Chapter 2,  Lines 171-

Therefore it is possible that our sheath was given as a wedding gift to a lady in the year 1602.

There are similar knife sheaths in the collections of the Victorian and Albert Museum and the Museum of London. Research at these institutions suggests that it was customary for a pair of knives to be given as part of a bridal trousseau. Later on, a matching knife and fork was given instead.

Peter Hewitt has suggested that in England, knives were given to prospective wives as part of courting rituals and it is possible that an empty sheath worn by a woman was a sign that she was ready to marry. Indeed there were many superstitious that pertained to birth, marriage, and death in Shakespeare’s time and many objects were endowed with a symbolism that we no longer apply. This especially appears to be the case when it comes to knives and forks. Shakespeare often used the word ‘knife’ in order to refer to the male genetalia, and fork was thought to represent the (female) upper thighs and buttocks. According to Peter Hewitt, cutlery sets could also have been less formal gifts between men and women early in their courtship.  If the objects did have the potent symbolism already mentioned then they have revealed the man’s intentions for his prospective wife, such as the hope of a fertile union, or the desire for sexual intercourse.

However, it is also possible that there role may not have been as exciting. In the 17th century cutlery used at table was often designed to be portable, since knives for eating were also used for other purposes and carried on the person. Therefore, such sheathes may have been little more than a method of carrying your cutlery.

Whatever the pupose of the sheath, it is above all a very beautiful object and well worth the trip to Nash’s house in order to see it.


  • Liski

    A very fascinating article. An interesting point of view on a thing which seems so usual.

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.