Paper soldiers on the march, and tin men tilting at swordpoint: these were the first battle ranks that Grenville Howland Norcross, aged 11 in Civil War Boston, led to glory. Between phantom invasions and replays of Antietam with “relics” received as gifts, Norcross gobbled up the military heroics popularized by the era’s dime novels. In a childhood diary that illustrates how “lowbrow” literature grabbed the imagination of a warsick homefront, Norcross chronicled his progress through the antics of Kate Sharp, Old Hal Williams, and Crazy Dan. By 1875, Norcross had outgrown his toy battalions, graduated Harvard, and stepped into a law career. An avid autograph collector, from his Commonwealth Avenue perch Norcross nurtured the city’s flourishing history culture, taking a leading role at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bostonian Society. He rose to serve as Cabinet-Keeper for the Massachusetts Historical Society, supervising the intake and cataloguing of major collections including, by April 1920, the library of historian Henry Adams. At the Society’s next meeting, held in the midafternoon of 10 June, Grenville Norcross reported on the Cabinet’s newest curiosity, which has proven a royal mystery ever since:
“From W. Sturgis Bigelow, a sword said to have belonged to King George III, bought by Dr. Bigelow in London thirty years ago. The mountings of the sword are silver gilt, and show that it was probably part of a royal uniform, to be worn, however, in the character of a king, and not as honorary colonel or general of a foreign army.”
It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship, with a lion’s head pommel and a prominent “GR” crest near the quillon finial. The lion’s mouth yawns open to support the guard and a ring for a sword knot. The library record, likely culled from Norcross’s observations and that of subsequent curators, reads: “The blade has marks on underside of guard at tang: blued, etched and gilt designs incorporating GR cipher on one side and Order of the Garter/King’s Arms on the other. The scabbard is wood-lined sharkskin covered with gilded silver mountings, extravagantly engraved and stamped by the maker.” The sword and scabbard still gleam with finely etched, well-preserved lines of artistry. See the pictures here and below, for close-up images of the maker’s marks and other details.
So who bought it? Bigelow, a wealthy doctor, scholar of Buddhism, and an ardent collector of Japanese art, also embodied American Victorians’ residual tug of Anglophilia. Though he apparently offered no further details on the sword’s sale, Bigelow was emblematic of Americans’ enduring fascination with all things royal. In June 1785, as first American minister to Great Britain, John Adams made a dramatic appeal to remind George III of “the old good Nature and the old good Humour betwee[n] People who, tho’ separated by an Ocean and under different Gov[ern]ments, have the same Language, a similar religion & kindr[ed] Blood.” Heralding the 19th century with grand tours, Adams’ sons and grandsons poked through royal ruins and reconsidered, as Society members did when they first saw this sword, what constituted the “character of a king.”
Whether the king had three faces or more, this (Georgian?) artifact reminds us that American perceptions of George III and his era need more attention. Now, with the digitization and interpretation of George III’s archive, scholars will have a chance to line up artifacts like these with the king’s words. (Good Junto readers: Omohundro’s George III Archives fellowship applications are due 8 May, act now!) And we’re curious to know more about this sword—the king’s arms?—so we invite your thoughts in the comments.