Friday, June 2, 2017

Who Pulled the Sword from the Stone? The Truth of the Swords of King Arthur

Ancient Origins

This spring a new movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is to hit the big screens. Staring Charlie Hunnam as the fabled warrior, the film title suggests that the central theme is Arthur’s legendary sword. It will be interesting to see just how the sword is depicted, considering that previous Arthurian epics have been far from true to the original tales.

 The Sword in the Stone
The theme of King Arthur pulling the sword from a stone in order to prove himself worthy to rule is perhaps the most muddled of all the Arthurian legends.

Arthur Draws the Sword from the Stone, by the nineteenth-century English artist Walter Crane. (Public Domain)

To start with, in the original story the sword is stuck in an anvil that rests on a stone—not in the stone itself. And the sword in question is not Excalibur, as commonly believed, but a completely different weapon. The usual setting for the event portrayed by Hollywood is somewhere in the countryside or in a dark forest. However, in the Arthurian romances composed during the Middle Ages, the episode takes place right in the heart of London. The oldest surviving version of the sword and stone story was written by the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron, around the year 1200, who claimed to have taken the theme from a much earlier Dark Age account. According to Robert, the event occurs in the churchyard of “the greatest church in London.”

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century miniature from Robert de Boron's Merlin en Prose (written ca 1200). (Public Domain)

Since Roman times, the largest and most important church in the British capital has been St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although St. Paul’s went through many periods of reconstruction, culminating with the building we see today, erected in the late 1600s, its location is recorded as having been the seat of the bishops of London since the Romans ruled Britain in the 4th century. As cathedrals were the seats of bishops, it’s certain then that there had been a cathedral on the site, whether or not it was originally dedicated to St. Paul, during the time Arthur is said to have lived— around the year 500.

 Surprisingly, an ancient stone really did stand in St. Paul’s churchyard during the Middle Ages that was recorded as being associated with a sword of power. Surviving records dating from as early as eleven hundred years ago refer to the stone as having great ceremonial significance, marking the traditional place where laws were passed and proclamations issued. After 1189, when Henry Fitz-Ailwin became London’s first mayor, the inauguration ceremony expressly required the new incumbent to strike the stone with his sword to validate his entitlement to govern the city. Just how far back the tradition associating the stone with a sword of authority actually goes is unknown, but it certainly existed when Robert de Boron penned his work.

The London Stone
Against all odds, this ancient stone still survives, and local folklore does associate it with King Arthur. Known as the London Stone, it was removed from the churchyard when St. Paul’s was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666. More recently, and for many years, the stone lay unnoticed and almost forgotten, set into a niche in the wall of a bookstore opposite Cannon Street Station, where it was practically obscured by an iron grille.

The London Stone. (Photography by Debbie Cartwright)

The building is now being demolished to make way for a new one, and the London Stone has been taken to the nearby Museum of London. The object is a block of limestone, approximately 53 × 43 × 30 centimeters (21 × 17 × 12 inches) in size, the remnant of what was once a somewhat larger item, and the museum has confirmed that the artifact could well be of Roman origin, making it old enough to have been in the cathedral churchyard at the time King Arthur is said to have lived.

The London Stone was hidden away for years behind an iron grille on a busy city street. (Photography by Debbie Cartwright)

The Angles and Saxons
The unusual notion of a sword being stuck in an anvil on top of a stone might be accounted for by an early mistranslation or mix-up of words. Arthur is said to have successfully fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons, originally two separate tribes— the Angles and Saxons— from northern Germany. The Latin word for a rock or large fragment of stone is saxum, a word that sounds very similar to “Saxon.” This, together with the similarity of the name “Angle” and the word “anvil,” might explain how the unusual motif originated. If the legend held that Arthur had “drawn the sword” – in other word, “taken the fight” – from the Angles and Saxons, then at some point during the turmoil following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 400s, and the subsequent lack of historical records, oral accounts may have become confused. By Robert de Boron’s time, an account of Arthur seizing the initiative from the Angles and Saxons might well have evolved into the story of him drawing a sword from an anvil and stone.

Excalibur is another sword entirely. In the medieval Arthurian tales, Merlin takes Arthur to receive this marvelous weapon from a mysterious water nymph called the Lady of the Lake.

King Arthur asks the Lady of the Lake for the Sword Excalibur, by the nineteenth-century English artist Walter Crane. (Public Domain)

And when the king ultimately lies dying on the field of battle, Excalibur is thrown into an enchanted pool, where the Lady of the Lake catches the weapon and takes it down into the watery depths. This theme probably developed from the ancient Celtic practice of casting prized belongings, such as swords, into sacred lakes and pools as offerings to a water goddess. Archaeologists have uncovered many such objects: for example, from the bed of the dried-up lake of Llyn Cerrig Bach on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. It is thought that warriors’ swords were thrown into such hallowed waters during funerals so as to assure the spirit’s safe passage to the afterlife.

Sir Bedevere Casts the Sword Excalibur into the Lake, by the nineteenth-century English artist Walter Crane. (Public Domain)

A Historical Sword
Perhaps the most common mistake made by Hollywood in the portrayal of Arthur’s sword, be it Excalibur or the one connected with the stone, is to depict it as a long, medieval “arming sword,” commonly, but wrongly, referred to as a broadsword. Around the year 500, the period in which the story of Arthur is set, swords would have been much shorter, with a stunted cross-guard, such as the Roman-style cavalry sword, the spatha.

A historical “Excalibur.” Replica of a high-status spatha, a short Roman-style sword possessed by post-Roman British chieftains. (Photography by Debbie Cartwright)

These were basically used for cutting down opponents from horseback, rather than for swordfights as depicted in the movies. The spatha seems to have been adopted as a sword of office by the post-Roman Britons, so if there was an historical Arthur then his sword would most likely have been one of these.

So, when you watch what is promising to be the new blockbuster Arthurian movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, perhaps it would be fun to tick off just how many aspects of the “legend” tie up with the original tales, or the historical period in which the story was first set.

A fuller account of this investigation into the legends of King Arthur can be found on Graham Phillips’ website:

And in his book The Lost Tomb of King Arthur ***

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