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The last historical reference to Caliburn (Excalibur), the mythical sword of King Arthur, was when King Richard the Lionheart presented it  to Tancred of Sicily while on his journey to the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 sword 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
But 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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