You can’t be a swashbuckler without a sword

A swashbuckler is a brave and flamboyant person that engages in daring and romantic adventures. We have always loved best our film swashbucklers who fight evil, rescue fair maidens and save their less brave compatriots from certain death with lots of derring-do.

Even though we should recognise all romantic adventurers as swashbucklers we still know deep down that there has to be a bit of swordplay involved. Captain Jack is a swashbuckler but Indiana Jones not quite so, even though he is every bit as daring and flamboyant. Swashbuckler is often used to describe flamboyant sportspeople but if they don’t wield bats, racquets or clubs in the manner of a sword they don’t quite fit the bill.

There is a strong link between the word, swashbuckler, and swordplay but it is not immediately obvious and we have to go back to a time before Shakespeare to find it. Swashbuckler is a compound of swash and buckler, two words that we don’t hear often in the 21st century on their own.

Swash is a word from about 1530 used to describe the sound of a heavy blow or the fall of a heavy body. It was also used to describe the sound of a body of splashing water. It derives from wash with an “s” added to echo the sound it describes.

The buckler is a small shield that was very popular in the 16th century with swordsmen and light infantry. It was a commonly paired with swords in duels (see The famous duel with sword and buckler). The name is derived from the Old French word bocler, meaning having a boss, a raised centre, which was a feature of the small shield.

The literal meaning of swashbuckle was to bang a sword against a buckler. This was associated with a swordsperson’s display of bravado during or preceding a sparring match or duel. This meaning then shifted to the confident bravado the shield banging was signalling.

Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes several mentions of bucklers mostly in association with the character, Falstaff. In Henry IV Part II, Falstaff’s friend, Robert Swallow, describes how, in their youth, they had used their bucklers to defeat some ruffians:

… you had not four such swinge-bucklers in all the inns o’ court again: and I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were and had the best of them all …

Swinge-buckler is Shakespeare’s version of swashbuckler (and note that bona-robas was a slang word for harlots and is here used as an insult).

The boss at the centre of the buckler was sometimes replaced with a point, which allowed the buckler to be used more offensively. This modification may have contributed to the buckler’s demise in England. Elizabeth I passed a statute in 1562 prohibiting any buckler with a sharp point being allowed in London. The sword and buckler also went out of fashion for sparring; the rapier and dagger becoming the more gentlemanly weapons.

And so the buckler disappeared from history but those that hit it with their swords did not.