Sunday 31 July 2016

The Sword in the Stone

After the death of Uther Pendragon the realm stood in great jeopardy for a long while without an heir apparent; his son Arthur was just a boy who had been fostered by Sir Ector, as was the practice of the time. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury and counselled him to gather all the lords of the realm at London at Christmas time for some miracle to occur which would indicate the rightful king of the realm.

The lords of the realm came to the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not, Malory says the French book he is using as his source does not say;

“when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.” 

After high mass the Lords attempted to remove the sword from the stone, but none could move it.

Upon New Year's Day all the knights gathered for a jousting tournament. Sir Ector arrived with his son Sir Kay and his foster-brother Arthur. Sir Kay had left his sword at his father's lodging so Arthur was sent to fetch it. Arthur found no one at home to give him Sir Kay's sword. When he came to the churchyard and saw the sword in the stone there he pulled the naked sword from the stone and then went back to Sir Kay and handed it to him. Sir Kay recognised the sword from the stone and took it to Sir Ector saying he must be rightful king of the land.

Arthur draws the sword from the stone
Sir Ector took the sword back to the churchyard and Sir Kay admitted he had not pulled it from the stone but his foster-brother Arthur had given it to him. The sword was placed back in the stone. Sir Ector tried to pull it out but failed. Arthur then pulled the sword out and Sir Ector stated that Arthur must be rightful king of the realm.1

Arthur later breaks this sword in a duel with Pallinore, then Merlin takes him to the Lady of the Lake who presents him with a new sword, the mythical Excalibur. At Arthur's death the sword is returned to the Lady of the Lake; after three attempts Bedivere finally throws Excalibur into the Lake where a hand reaches out the water and catches the sword and draws it under.2

The 'Sword in the Stone' is one of the most famous episodes of the Arthurian legend but its origins remain a mystery. Magical swords are common enough in Celtic mythology and many lakes and rivers in North Western Europe have been found to contain ironwork from the Bronze and Iron Ages, deposits interpreted as votive offerings, and as such may explain the Lady of the Lake element of the story. Yet the motif of extracting a sword from an anvil or stone is entirely absent from the Celtic tradition. Some historians have conjectured that the 'sword in the stone' originates from the casting of molten metal into a stone mould in the Bronze Age.3 The art of the blacksmith and the anvil are certainly significant in the origins of this legend as will shall see.

Origins of the Tale
The London Stone also known as the Stone of Brutus after the city's legendary Trojan founder, is often claimed to be the stone from whence Arthur pulled the sword, no doubt due to its close proximity to St Paul's, if that were indeed Malory's 'greatest church of London'.

The stone has been described as an outlier to a stone circle that once stood on Ludgate Hill, a sacred place from ancient times. Tradition claims a pagan temple once stood on the site and was destroyed around 597 AD to make way for the first Christian church to be built there in 604 AD, the precursor to St Paul's Cathedral. Another popular theory claims it was a Roman ‘milliarium’ the point from which all distances in Britain were measured. At one time London Stone stood at the centre of the street-grid laid out by King Alfred when he re-established Lundenwic in 886 AD, after the Vikings had destroyed much of the original Saxon town.4 Whatever the truth of the stone's origins, it from a source not native to London.

London Stone, a Grade II listed block of oolitic limestone, a material brought into the city by Romans and Saxons, stood encased behind an iron grill at WH Smith in  Cannon Street for many years having been moved from opposite St Swithin’s Church before its destruction during the Second World War. In a redevelopment of the area, the stone is now due to be mounted on a plinth as the centrepiece of the Square Mile. The stone currently resides at the Museum of London until the construction work is completed. Could this be the stone that inspired Malory's story?

The Sword in the Stone is entirely absent from the earliest Arthurian tales such as The Spoils of Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and the chronicles of Wace and Layamon. It does not enter Arthurian Romance until the work of Robert de Boron in his tale entitled 'Merlin', c.1200, and then appears in just about every account thereafter. In its origin de Boron has the stone drawn from an anvil atop a stone as shown in the last great Arthurian tale by Sir Thomas Malory.

In his Historia Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur as Uther's well known son and successor. Yet in later accounts Arthur's status as the rightful heir to the throne is less clear owing to his secret conception and fosterage. The Sword in the Stone is devised as a magical test by Merlin to prove Arthur as the rightful king. Robert de Boron has the sword as a symbol of justice and Arthur's ability to withdraw it from the anvil atop the stone a sign of God's approval.

Yet the Arthurian tale of the Sword in the Sword has no clear parallels in legend, indeed there are only two other examples of the motif of a sword that can only be moved by the right person: the 'sword in the tree' from the Völsunga saga; and an oral tale from India.5

The Sword in the Branstock 
A Germanic variant of this legend can be found in “The Sword in the Branstock” in which the sword is embedded in a tree rather than in an anvil or a stone.6

The Branstock
At the wedding of Signy and Siggeir, a man with one eye and wearing a blue cloak thrusts a sword into the Branstock, an ancient oak tree in the centre of the hall. The man declares that the sword will belong to whichever warrior can pull it free - then he leaves. He is identified by the wedding guests as the great Norse god Odin. Several of the warriors, including Signy's father, Volsung, attempt to pull the sword from the oak, but all fail. However, Sigmund, the tenth and youngest son, manages to pull the sword free.

The “Sword in the Branstock” exists in the “Sigurdsaga” part of the 13th century Norse Völsunga saga which tells of the origin and decline of the Völsung family. The saga tells the story of the legendary hero of Norse mythology Sigurd, the posthumous son of Sigmund who dies in battle against Odin when his sword, Gram, shatters.

Sigurd is fostered by Reginn the smith who makes a sword for him. But every sword Reginn forged for him, Sigurd broke by striking it against the smith's anvil. Finally Sigurd collects the broken pieces of his father Sigmund's sword, Gram, and brings them to Reginn. The smith repairs the sword and when Sigurd tests the blade against the anvil, this time it is the anvil that splits in two, down to its base. Sigurd uses the sword to kill Fafnir the dragon and then beheads Reginn after he learns the smith is plotting to kill him.
Sigurd splits the anvil
The earliest known pictorial representation of this tradition can be found on “The Sigurd Stones” a group of seven runestones and one picture stone from Sweden that depict scenes from the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer. The Sigurdsristning (Ramsund Stone) is a carving on a flat rock believed to have been carved around the year 1030 AD during the Viking Age, being the earliest known Norse representation of the matter of the Sigurd legends found in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and the Völsunga saga.

As Siegfried he is the hero of the German version told in the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs) based largely on the old stories of historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries echoing the Old Norse legends such as the Völsunga saga.

Transmission from the East
However, the origins of the material in these sagas is considerably older, reflecting, in part, real events in Central Europe during the Migration Period, particularly the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns in the 5th century. Yet, although the Huns must have had significant contact with the Germanic peoples prior to the recording of the tales in the Völsunga saga, the Alano-Sarmatian peoples must have experienced interaction with their Germanic neighbours long before the Huns swept westward. As the story in the Völsunga saga continues the Huns feature prominently; it follows, therefore, that they obtained their knowledge of the sword cult from the Alans.

The Alans were a Sarmatian tribe, a Scythian subgroup of Iranian nomadic pastoral people, whose homeland was in the North Caucasus. Having migrated westwards, by the 1st century AD they were reported by Roman sources as the dominant group among the Sarmatians inhabiting an area from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

By around 50 AD the bulk of the Sarmatians were located in the vicinity of the Tisa and the Danube putting them in close contact with several Germanic tribes. The Roman historian Tacitus (Germania 46) tells us that there were several tribes who were so intermingled that he could no longer tell which was German and which was Sarmatian.

However, in the 4th century the westward onslaught of the Huns destroyed the Alan kingdom, and they are reported joining the Vandals and the Suebi and crossing the Rhine in 406 AD and invading Roman Gaul. Some moved on to Iberia, many settled in Gaul; the Alans of Orléans played a major role in halting the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD. In the aftermath, the Roman general Flavius Aetius settled large numbers of Alans in and around Armorica, Brittany, as attested by placenames such as Allaines, Allainville and Les Allains.

In “From Scythia to Camelot7 Littleton and Malcor argue that folk tales (the Nart sagas) of the Alano-Sarmatians who settled in Western Europe formed the core of the Arthurian tradition including a variant of the Sword in the Stone legend which was brought to Europe by the Alans during the 5th century AD. For example, of Lancelot's family, famed for their swordplay and possible descent from the Alans, they write;“no family is a bigger practitioner of thrusting weapons of war into stone and withdrawing them to prove their right to something than the knights of Lancelot's clan.8

Malcor expanded the possibility that Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who lived in the late 2nd century, was the inspiration for the figure of Arthur in medieval European literature, a concept first suggested by Kemp Malone in 1924.9

Sarmatian heavy cavalry
At the time Castus enlisted, c.158, into Legio III Gallica was posted to Syria. Around eight years later he transferred to Legio II Adiutrix stationed on the Danube at Aquincum, capital of Pannonia Inferior. It is here that he first became acquainted with the Iazyges, a tribe of Sarmatians.

By 175 Castus was primus pilus of one of the three Danubian legions in the Roman victory when they conquered the Iazyges among the 8,000 Sarmatian cavalry that Marcus Aurelius conscripted into the Roman army. According to the historian Cassius Dio (72.16) 5,500 of these recruits were sent to Britain, with Castus later becoming their commanding officer in 181.

The bulk of the Iazyges detachment to Britain were stationed at Bremetennacum (Ribchester in Lancashire) under the command of Castus with Legio VI Victrix who manned Hadrian's Wall including the western forts at Camboglanna (Castlesteads) and Avallana (Burgh-By-Sands); two sites identified with Camlann and Avalon of Arthurian legend.

The Romans of the north suffered heavy losses through repeated Pict invasions of 180-185, killing the governor of Britain (probably Caerellius Priscus). But the defences of the western end of the Wall held and Castus was promoted to dux and despatched to Armorica to deal with an uprising c.185 AD. The military expedition to Armorica has been suggested as the inspiration for King Arthur's legendary invasion of Gaul as detailed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and often used in the argument to equate Arthur with Riothamus, the British king who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 men 'by way of ocean'.

A Sword Cult in the West?
Littleton and Malcor argue then for the existence of a sword cult among the Alans and that they had a significant impact on Germanic groups in the 4th and 5th centuries as they moved westward through Europe. The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (31.4.22) observed the ancient Alans practising a form of religion associated with their war god which included a ritual in which they embedded a sword in the ground. Clearly, this ritual is a survival of an earlier ceremonial ritual of the Scythians, who displayed a spiritual-like affection for their swords, performed in honour of their war god, as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus (4.59-62) in the 5th century BC in which the sword is placed in neither an anvil nor in the ground but in a pile of wood placed upon an altar.

Littleton and Malcor conclude that the veneration of swords as divine symbols seems to have its origin in the peoples of the steppes with the cult taken westward by the Alans; the legend may have survived in regions of France they settled and later taken into Arthurian Romance by French writers. Littleton and Malcor suggest that the motif of the Sword in the Stone, seen for the first time in Robert de Boron's 'Merlin' may reflect an Alano-Sarmatian sword cult.

They further speculate that the extraction of swords plunged into the earth or wood atop altars could have existed as, an as yet unattested, initiation rite for youths seeking acceptance into the warband. As romantic and attractive as this concept may sound they reluctantly admit there is no evidence for such a rite among the tribes of the steppes.10

To this lack of evidence for an initiation ritual involving the withdrawal of a sword, we must add that the folk tales (the Nart sagas) told by the Ossetians, the descendants of the Alans, include many elements of the Arthurian Sword in the Stone legend, but are entirely deficient of the weapon being drawn from a stone or anvil.

Furthermore, research from Sarmatian occupied sites in Britain, such as Roman Ribchester, has as yet failed to provide evidence of a sword cult. Coupled with the deficiency of the act in Celtic mythology, clearly we need to look elsewhere for the origins of the the Arthurian tale of the Sword in the Stone.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Book I, Chapter V. How Arthur Was Chosen King, And Of Wonders And Marvels Of A Sword Taken Out Of A Stone By The Said Arthur.
2. Malory, Book I, Chapter XXV. How Arthur By The Mean Of Merlin Gat Excalibur His Sword Of The Lady Of The Lake.
3. Michael Wood, Arthur: The Once and Future King, in In Search of Myths & Heroes, BBC, 2005.
4. John Clark, Curator Emeritus Museum of London, London Stone in seven strange myths.
5. C.Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, Revised edition 2000, pp.181-193.
6. C.Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, The Germanic Sword In The Tree: Parallel Development Or Diffusion? The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 11, 2008.
7. Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, op.cit.
8. Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, p.181.
9. Linda A. Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, The Heroic Age, Issue 1, 1999. See also Appendix 3 to From Scythia to Camelot.
10. Littleton and Malcor,  From Scythia to Camelot, op.cit.

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Sunday 10 July 2016

The Staffordshire Hoard comes to Stafford

Coinciding with the 7th Anniversary of the discovery of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, the  Staffordshire Hoard comes to the county town of Stafford.

Treasure! The Discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard
From Tuesday 5th July to Saturday 10th September items from the Staffordshire Hoard will be on display at the Ancient High House, Greengate Street, Stafford, in the “Treasure! The Discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard History Exhibition”, telling the story of how the Hoard was found and saved for the nation.

Running concurrently, and in support of the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, will be “Anglo-Saxon Stafford: Throwing light on the Dark Ages” a history exhibition exploring the emergence of the kingdom of Mercia and the foundations of Stafford.

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered on 5 July 2009 when metal detector Terry Herbert uncovered more than 3,500 items in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, England.

Consisting of over 5kg of Gold and 1.4 kg of silver the Hoard was purchased jointly by the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke on Trent for £3.3 million. Mainly all martial, or warlike in character, including sword pommels possibly as old as the mid 6th century, it is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork ever found anywhere in the world.

Stafford Ancient High House
While viewing the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition in Stafford it is worthwhile delving into a little history the Ancient High House. This Elizabethan town house, constructed in 1594, is said to be one of the finest Tudor buildings in the country and the largest remaining timber framed town house in England. Although now a historic house museum operated by Stafford Borough Council since 1986, the High House has a history of its own and featured in the conflict in the Midlands during the English Civil War, 1642–1651.

The Ancient High House Stafford (Wikimedia Commons)
On 17th and 18th September, 1643,  Charles I stayed at the Ancient High House shortly after raising the Royal Standard at Nottingham; the act of calling his loyal subjects to arms is seen as marking the start of the English Civil War. Charles made the High House his temporary headquarters, taking counsel and planning the forthcoming campaign. A local story claims that while staying at the High House with King Charles, Prince Rupert demonstrated the accuracy of his cavalry pistol by shooting the weather on St Mary's church.

The Royalists had steadily gained ground in the Midlands, establishing garrisons at Tamworth, Lichfield, and Stafford by the end of 1642.  After defeating the Royalists at Stratford-upon-Avon the the Parliamentarian forces marched on Lichfield in an effort to break the Royalist hold on the Midlands. Following his success at the Siege of Lichfield, in March 1643, the Parliamentarian Sir John Gell had turned his attention to Stafford and arrived at Hopton Heath, about 3 miles north of the town, on 19th March. On hearing of Gell's arrival Spencer Compton, the Earl of Northampton, marched his Royalist forces out of Stafford to engage the Parliamentarians.

The Battle of Hopton Heath did not result in a decisive victory for either side following withdrawals by both Parliamentarian and Royalist forces after nightfall. The Royalists captured several pieces of artillery but the Earl of Northampton was killed and Gell carried away his corpse demanding the return of the artillery lost at Hopton for the body. The Royalists refused to pay the ransom and the Earl's body was buried at All Hallows Church in Derby.

The Hoard continues to reveal its Secrets
As research and conservation work continues in the largest study of its kind ever undertaken on Anglo-Saxon gold the full story of the Hoard continues to unfurl with new discoveries being revealed. Scientific analysis has revealed that the goldsmiths of Mercia treated gold objects to improve their colour and make them appear even more golden by removing alloys such as copper and silver from the surface. The study has revealed that this technique was being widely used in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Helmet fragment from Staffordshire Hoard (Wikimedia Commons)
Two rare items have been discovered among the Staffordshire Hoard. The first is a 7th century helmet. Helmets from the Anglo-Saxon period are very rare, this being only the fifth to be discovered. Around 1,500 thin, fragile silver sheets and fragments, consisting of around a third of the Hoard in size, have been painstakingly pieced together to form a band around the circumference of the helmet, featuring warrior friezes gilded with gold.

The Sutton Hoo helmet found in the royal ship-burial in 1939, was silver, and possibly made for the East Anglian King Rædwald, the decoration directly comparable with finds from cemeteries in eastern Sweden. In comparison, the gold decoration on the Staffordshire Hoard helmet suggests it too was probably worn by a King or someone of great importance from Mercia.

The other item is a unique sword pommel. There are are over seventy pommels (the decorated end of a swordgrip) among the Staffordshire Hoard. Conservation and research teams have identified one that is unique, reconstructing it from 26 fragments. This pommel is Anglo-Saxon in style, but features British or Irish influences; its central garnet with glass inlaid disc forms an early Christian cross, while on its opposite side is a motif formed of three serpents, seemingly representing both Christian and pagan beliefs. The pommel has a round hump on the shoulder, know as a 'sword-ring', and displays evidence that there would have been one on each shoulder. Many swords from the Anglo Saxon period in England and Europe display similar rings, but the Hoard pommel is the first to feature two.

Sword Pommel from Staffordshire Hoard (L) and reconstructed sword (R)

The Mercian Trail
The Mercian Trail has been developed as a partnership between Birmingham Museums Trust, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Lichfield Cathedral, Lichfield District Council, Tamworth Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council. The aim being to promote the emerging story of the Staffordshire Hoard and the history of this region of  Anglo-Saxon Mercia through a series of permanent and temporary displays.

There are four Staffordshire Hoard permanent displays at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, the Chapter House display at Lichfield Cathedral and the ancient capital of Mercia at Tamworth Castle.

A touring exhibition led by Staffordshire County Council is visiting schools, galleries, visitor centres, bringing the story of the Staffordshire Hoard and Anglo-Saxon Mercia to a wide audience.

Warrior Treasures
About a hundred items of Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard collection is now on the first UK-wide tour. Providing visitors with the opportunity to view a large number of items from the collection outside the West Midlands where the Hoard was discovered.

The Warrior Treasures exhibition will visit the Royal Armouries, Leeds from 27 May 2016 - 02 October 2016, and at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 22 October 2016 - 23 April 2017.

The Staffordshire Hoard permanent exhibitions at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery- Stoke-on-Trent, Tamworth Castle and Lichfield Cathedral will remain open during the tour.

For further information visit the Staffordshire Hoard website.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

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Saturday 9 July 2016

Glastonbury Pilgrimages 2016

Every year since the early 1950’s the Glastonbury Pilgrimages have been held in Glastonbury. The first pilgrimage to Glastonbury in modern times was in 1895 to celebrate the beatification of The Last Abbot of Glastonbury Richard Whiting, on the anniversary of his martyrdom at Glastonbury Tor on 15 November 1539.

This year the Anglican Pilgrimage will take place on Saturday 9th July and the Clifton Diocese on Sunday 10th July.

The Anglican Pilgrimage commences with a Vigil Mass in the Undercroft of the Lady Chapel at 6.00pm on Friday 8th July.

On Saturday  9th July at 12.00 noon Solemn Concelebrated Mass will be sung in the Nave of the Abbey Church.

The Procession of the Blessed Sacrament will start from the eastern end of Glastonbury High Street, starting outside St John’s Church, from 2.45pm. The Procession will move off following the traditional route down the High Street, through the main Abbey entrance.
The Procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the Abbey for Solemn Benediction in the Nave of the Abbey Church will take place at 3.00 pm.

The Clifton Diocese Pilgrimage starts in St Mary's church, the Shrine of Our Lady, at 11.30am.

A Liturgy of the Word, commemorating the martyrdom of Blessed Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, and his fellow martyrs, Blessed Roger James and Blessed John Thorne in the Abbey Grounds, followed by the start of the procession at 2.15pm.

The procession exits the Abbey grounds through the Abbey House Gardens and proceeds through the town centre via Chilkwell Street, the High Street and Magdalene Street, returning to the Abbey through the Magdalene Street Gates, opposite the Shrine Church at approximately 3pm.

The Pilgrimage Mass will be celebrated by Rt. Rev. Declan Lang, Bishop of Clifton, in the Abbey grounds at 3.30pm.

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Sunday 3 July 2016

King Arthur's Sword

The last historical reference to Caliburn (Excalibur), the mythical sword of King Arthur, was when King Richard the Lionheart presented it  to Tancred of Sicily while on his journey to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade. The sword then disappeared and was never seen again.

Sicily, Island of Morgana
After “taking the cross” in 1187 Richard I, “The Lionheart”, finally joined the Third Crusade in the summer of 1190. By September that year he had sailed down the west coast of Italy and arrived in Messina, Sicily. In March 1191, according to Benedict of Peterborough and Roger of Hoveden, in an exchange of gifts Richard  presented Tancred, king of Sicily, with a sword “which the British call Caliburn, which was the sword of Arthur, former noble king of England”.1

Richard was delayed in Sicily with family business to attend to. William II, king of Sicily, was married to Joanne of England, the seventh child of Henry II, King of England and his queen consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Following William's death in 1189, Joanne was kept prisoner by the new king of Sicily, Tancred. When her brother Richard I, finally arrived in Italy on his way to the Holy Land he demanded her return, along with her dowry. Richard parted with his sword, said to have once belonged to the Great Arthur, as part of the exchange of gifts with Tancred.

Yet, is it conceivable that the Lionheart would actually depart with the genuine sword of the legendary King? The date of the exhumation at Glastonbury and Richard's arrival at Messina with Caliburn at first glance certainly looks remarkably concurrent. However, Tancred may have been easily duped as the island of Sicily held a special place in the Arthurian legend.

The Arthurian Romance Flouriant et Florete (c.1250) identified the island of Sicily as Avalon, the last resting place of Arthur, no doubt inspired by the Sicilian tradition that identified Mount Etna (Mongibello) as the dwelling place of Morgana la Fay. The mirage phenomenon, apparent in the Straits of Messina, named “Fata Morgana” is based on the belief was that these illusions were sightings of false landfalls created by the sorceress to lure unsuspecting sailors to their death.

The Lady of the Lake tells Arthur of Excalibur - Aubrey Beardsley
Presumably this same tradition influenced the chronicler Jean d'Outremeuse, who in the late 13th century in Ly Myreur des Histors, tells how, after being shipwrecked nine days from Cyprus, Ogier the Dane fights with 'capalus' (Palug’s Cat) before meeting Arthur in a Mediterranean Avalon where Morgan is their host in a palace surrounded by pools and fruit trees in which they both appear ageless and enjoying immortality.2

Similarly, in La Faula Guillem Torroella describes a voyage on a whale's back to an island in the Mediterranean that is clearly meant to be Avalon. The Majorcan poet describes Morgan's palace which houses paintings of Arthurian characters. A young man in her company turns out to be Arthur healed of his wounds.3

It is popularly reported that Richard the Lionheart's father, Henry II, had found Arthur's sword on the discovery of Arthur and Guinevere's grave at Glastonbury Abbey in 1190, or 1191. King Henry was apparently told of the location of the grave by a Welsh bard, probably at Cilgerran Castle in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, where he stopped whilst on his way to Ireland in 1171. On his return he is said to have initiated a search at the Abbey and the grave was duly discovered, or so the story goes, but the chronology just doesn't fit.

Henry stayed in Ireland only six months, returning to England in 1172, and was called away by the rebellion of three of his sons and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1173–74. Henry II died 1189 yet the monks of Glastonbury did not dig for King Arthur's body until 1190 (or 1191). If the account that Henry was told told of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury on his way to Ireland in 1171 is correct why then did it take the monks twenty years before they dug for King Arthur's remains?

There are several versions of the discovery of the grave, including Ralph of Coggeshall in 1221, Adam of Damerham 1290s, each offering slightly different details; there are at least five different versions of the inscription on the leaden burial cross found in the grave. Yet, differ as they may, not one of these accounts mentions the discovery of a sword, indeed the only metallic object found in the grave was the inscribed leaden burial cross, now lost. Clearly, we must look elsewhere for the source of King Richard's famous sword.

The Origins of Excalibur
The Arthurian legend is famous for the motif of the “Sword in the Stone” proving Arthur is Britain's rightful sovereign. The account contained in Malory's Le Morte Darthur, c.1469, is the tale most familiar to readers today.  However, Malory's rendition closely follows the earliest mention of “the sword in the stone” found almost three hundred years earlier in in the “Merlin” section of Robert de Boron's Le Roman du Graal.

But the sword that the young Arthur pulled from the stone is not the famous Excalibur, the sword attributed with magical powers; according to Malory, this first sword that Arthur pulled from the stone is broken when Arthur fought King Pellinor. Merlin then leads Arthur to the Lady of the Lake to receive Excalibur. But he is told that the scabbard is more valuable than the sword as the wearer will never shed blood. However, Morgan le Fay throws the scabbard into the lake. Indeed, this is the sword of Arthurian Romance which commenced with Chretien de Troyes and Perceval, or the Story of the Graal (Perceval, ou Le Conte Du Graal) in which he writes that Gawaine carried the sword Escalibor. To the French Romancers this sword could cut through steel, hence Malory thought that Excalibur meant “cut steel”.

In his Historia Regum Britanniae, (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136) Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur's sword (Latinized as “Caliburnus”) was forged in the 'Isle of Avallon'. The sword's name Caliburn is perhaps from the Latin 'chalybs' meaning 'steel'. On his second and last mention of Avalon in his Historia Geoffrey merely states that when mortally wounded Arthur was taken there. On both occasions he clearly means an Otherworldly location. Contrary to popular belief Geoffrey does not equate Avalon with Glastonbury; he in fact makes no effort to identify its location.

The Lady of the Lake offers Excalibur to Arthur - Alfred Kappes
Like much of Geoffrey's work, his inspiration for Arthur's sword seems to have come from Celtic traditions in which Arthur's sword is named “Caledfwlch” in Welsh. Caledfwlch is a compound word constructed from the elements 'caled' which can have the adjective meaning 'hard' or the noun 'battle'. The second element 'bwlch' means 'breach, gap, notch', and may mean 'hard-notch' or 'battle-notch'. In The oldest Arthurian tale, “How Culhwch won Olwen” Arthur's sword is used to kill the giant Diwrnach Wydel. Caledfwlch is an Otherworldy weapon and cognate with the Irish sword Caladbolg. In in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, Caladbolg is the name of the sword that Fergus mac Róig inherited from the Ulster King Fergus mac Leite who had brought it from the land of the Sidhe, the Otherworld. The name of the sword has the same meaning; 'hard gap'. John Koch suggests the compound would mean ‘hard cleft’ or ‘cleaving what is hard’.4

Although writing in the 12th century Geoffrey's description of Arthur preparing for the Battle of Badon seems to be based on authentic Dark Age detail. Arthur dons his golden helmet with dragon crest, a leather jerkin (lorica), across his shoulder he carries his circular shield Pridwen, on which an icon of the Virgin Mary is painted (Prydwen was actually the name of Arthur's ship). His sword is named as Caliburn and his spear as Ron.Geoffrey's list of Arthur's arms is based on a similar account found in “How Culhwch won Olwen”.

Unlike later writers of Arthurian Romance who describe Arthur and the knights of The Round Table clad in suites of armour of the 12th to 14th centuries, the war-gear for the time of writing, Geoffrey has Arthur attired in armoury similar to that found in the 7th century ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

In their Chronicle accounts (Brut) of the Arthurian legend Wace and Layamon follow Geoffrey. In writing the first account of the Arthurian legend in Middle English Layamon concurs that Arthur's sword Caliburn was forged on the Isle of Avalon, but adds that his corslet was the work of Wygar, an elfish smith, and his spear the work of the smith Griffin and made in Kairmerdin (Merlin's city).

Legendary Swords
The most treasured weapon of warriors in Northwestern Europe was the sword. Anglo Saxon swords are often found constructed by pattern-welding, the craft of twisting several rods of red-hot steel together before forging into a flat weapon by the smith. This technique would result in not just a stronger blade but also intricate patterning described as 'dragon-skins' or 'twisting snakes'. To enhance the appearance and value of a sword it often had its hilt and scabbard decorated with silver, gold and garnets by outstanding craftsmanship as attested by the Staffordshire Hoard.

Legendary smiths, such as Wayland, are well known for manufacturing magical weapons exclusively for the Legendary Hero and certainly not unique to King Arthur. Famous swords were given personal names, such as Gram (Sigurd), Nagelring (Beowulf), Durendal (Roland) and Joyeuse (Charlemagne), to name just a few.

At one time The Sword of Attila, also called 'The Sword of Mars' sent by the gods, was thought to be Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne, King of the Franks. A sword identified with Charlemagne's Joyeuse was used in the Coronation ceremony of French kings from 1270 to 1824.

Legend claims the blade of Joyeuse was smithed from the same materials as Roland's Durendal and Ogier's Curtana. Durendal was the sword of Charlemagne's paladin Roland forged by Wayland the Smith, the legendary Norse blacksmith.

Charlemagne used Joyeuse to knight Ogier the Dane. Ogier was a legendary character from the Old French 'chanson de geste' who became popular in European literature, as discussed above with his connections to Sicily. Ogier possessed a sword named Curtana which according to legend bore the inscription “My name is Curtana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durendal”. Ogier is said to have inherited the sword from the Arthurian knight Tristan.

The Plantagent kings carried the swords of legendary heroes in the belief that the power of its original possessor was transferable by means of their weapon.

At one time Richard the Lionheart's brother (Bad King) John claimed to possess the “sword of Tristan”; the sword is listed amongst his regalia in an inventory of 1207 AD. By 1250 the sword is named as “Curtana”. According to legend, Tristan used this sword to kill the giant Morholt, the champion of Ireland, its length becoming shortened when part of the blade was embedded in the giant's skull when he hacked off his head. The Romance of Tristan and Iseult records how Tristan was injured in the fight with the giant and his wounds were nursed by Iseult. She saw his broken sword and realised he had killed Morholt.

Swords of the Coronation
Henry III of England possessed a coronation sword which was also named Curtana and said to have been Tristan's sword, which no doubt, he inherited from his father King John. The name is probably intended to imply “shortness” (from the Latin Curtus, meaning short) as the end is broken off.

The sword Curtana is first documented as one of the three swords employed in the coronation of Henry's wife Queen Eleanor of Provence in 1236. The coronation tradition involving three swords dates back at least to Richard I. Later sources on the coronation of modern kings of England tell us that the sword featured a notch. As we saw above the name of Arthur's original sword Caledfwlch can mean 'hard notch'. This notch appears to be significant in the swords used in the coronation of kings.

Szczerbiec” is the coronation sword that was used in crowning ceremonies of the kings of Poland from 1320 to 1764. Its name, derived from the Polish word szczerba meaning again a gap, notch or chip, is sometimes rendered into English as “the Notched Sword” or “the Jagged Sword”, although its blade was apparently straight with smooth edges.

During the coronation of Henry VI, Curtana was considered to be the “Sword of Justice” while a second sword was the “Sword of the Church”. Eventually, however, the shortened blunt edge of Curatana was taken to represent mercy, and it thus came to be known as the “Sword of Mercy”.

Today Curtana is a ceremonial sword used at the coronation of British kings and queens, which, along with the Sword of Spiritual Justice and the Sword of Temporal Justice, is catalogued as part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. The official version says the Sword of Mercy is so named as its end is blunt and squared. However, it appears this sword has its origins in Arthurian legend as the sword Curtana carried by Tristan, and later Ogier the Dane, with its end shortened because its tip lies embedded in the skull of the giant Morholt.

Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake - Aubrey Beardsley

Yet the most notorious of all the swords from Arthurian legend is surely the “Sword of Peace” seemingly, perhaps, the complete opposite to the lethal Excalibur. In the Middle English poem the Alliterative Morte Arthure, c.1400, there is mention of “Clarent”, the “Sword of Peace”, used for knighting ceremonies as opposed to a weapon of war. However, there is a dark side to the so-called Sword of Peace; it was also known as the “Coward's Blade” as it was stolen by Mordred and later used to kill King Arthur.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. EMR Ditmas, The Cult of Arthurian Relics, Folklore Volume 75, Issue 1, 1964.
2. Caitlin (Thomas) Green, Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend, The Lindes Press, 2009.
3. Norris J Lacey ed., The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1986.
4. John Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC Clio, 2006.
5. Lewis Thorpe, trans., Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, Penguin Classics, 1973.

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