Sword and shield of the Spanish
There is one weapon set used throughout the known world, that combination is the sword and shield. In this article we will take a look at the use of a specific type of shield known as a rodella (round shield) in combination with the sword, how it was used and the history behind it.
The rodela or rotela in Italian was a shield type used extensively through Western Europe from the 16th to 17th century. Its use has been seen from one end of Europe to the next with great effect. The shield itself is of circular nature with a convex dome in the middle often sporting a spike. The rodela was known as a medium sized shield with the circumference measuring from your elbow to your hand. The edges were often rolled and the overall weight of the shield was light. It’s a misconception that shields like swords were heavy.
The grip of a rodela was a centre grip with one handle in the middle of the shield, this was primarily used by the Spanish as the Italians often used two straps on their similar shields, one for the upper arm and one for the hand to grip. (This is not to say that the Spanish did not use the straps at times also)
The shield itself as stated above often sported a spike or sword catcher (raised bars meant to catch an enemy blade) some even sported pistol ports or were worn with the shield built around a gauntlet, although these are much rarer and most likely where never used.
The shields were made from steel or wood wrapped with steel fittings, this again depends on the time frame and the person using it as examples of both have been found and described in fencing treaties.
In the 16th century the shield would be used often with a short, cut and thrust sword otherwise known as side-sword. However in the early 17th century the rodela could be seen in use with many different rapiers (in Spain all swords where called rapier) ranging from long thin primarily thrusting blades (although you can still cut with a thin blade, another misconception about rapiers portrayed heavily in Hollywood and literature) to short and thick cutting blades, it really depended on the swordsman or woman (there are depictions of woman fighting with all combinations of weapon, it is a misconception that they did not participate in fighting)
The round shield was used heavily in Italy during the 16th century, it is there that the Spanish began to adapt it themselves using it extremely effectively during the Italian Wars during the 1510s and 1520s. Spain became well known for employing the use of the shield, with the sword and shield men becoming known as Rodeleros (shield bearers)
Its use was seen also in the 17th century, with fencing masters form the 16th and 17th century teaching and writing about its use with a combination of different weapons ranging from partizans (spears) to daggers, swords, lamps, capes and so on.
An example of the rodela in use was with the general Hernán Cortés's who’s troops during his campaigns in the New World were rodeleros: in 1520, over 1000 of his 1300 men were equipped with the shield, and in 1521 he had 700 rodeleros, with only 118 mixed troops with arquebusiers (a rifle that fires a single shot iron ball) and crossbowmen.
When the Spanish began to employ the formation known as the colunella (a mixed pike and shot formation), they used groups of sword and rodela men to attack enemy pike formations when the two opposing pike blocks (formations of men using pikes) locked together. The sword and rodela men would rush between and under the pikes to attack the pikemen directly. Needless to say a very dangerous job.
Breaking the deadlock of two pike blocks was often due to the use of the above tactic. At the Battle of Ravenna in 1512, they proved their worth being very effective with this tactic; however, when facing a new and refreshed and well ordered pike square, they became vulnerable at the Battle of Seminara. Cavalry was also a major concern when implementing rodela men as they were to any infantry unit of the day outside of pike-men. As battlefield tactics evolved during the early 16th century, the Spanish began to take note of the vulnerability of the rodeleros on the battlefield, the risks simply outweighed the rewards as the rodela men became to easy to counter with the new tactics and fast striking Cavalry. As such they were no longer implemented as a troop type when the Spanish infantry were reorganized into tercios in the 1530s.
Sword and shield would not be seen again outside of close protection (body guard work) city militia(town guards) and fencing schools until the early 17th century as they were again put to use on the battlefield.