Charles X, Crusades, Excalibur, French Revolution, Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Glastonbury, King Arthur, King Tancred, Lady of the Lake, Lecce, Lionheart, Louis IX, Louis Philipe, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, Medieval, mosaic, Napoleon, Norman, Otranto, Rex Arturus, Richard I of England, Roger of Howden, swords, Third Crusade
So we were reading this really interesting book, Christopher Tyerman’sngcce How to Plan a Crusade, when, on pages 244-5, we came across this: “While Louis prayed to the relics of the Passion, Richard had carried the sword Excalibur.” And we said, “What? Excalibur?”
Welcome, as always, dear readers. In this post, we want to talk a bit about two historic—or mythical– swords, inspired, as we were, by that reference and by two kings involved with them.
The “Louis” in the passage above is Louis IX (1214-1270) of France,
aka St Louis, a saint of both the Catholic and Anglican churches, who led several crusades in the mid-13th century, but not very successfully, being taken prisoner during the first (1250) and dying of a fever during the second (1270).
The “Richard” is Richard I of England (1157-1199), also called “Lionheart”.
He was also a crusader, having been one of the dominant figures in the earlier Third Crusade (1189-1192).
But how do we know that Richard had “Excalibur”? And how did he acquire it?
We begin with the passage from a contemporary of Richard’s, Roger of Howden (?-1201?), who has left us a history known as Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi, “The Deeds/Acts of Henry II and the Deeds/Acts of King Richard”. This begins in the 8th century and covers the period up to 1201, which is presumed to be the year of Roger’s death. Roger went on the Third Crusade with Richard, although he left it early. He either observed or heard about this event, which took place in 1191:
“Et contra rex Angliae dedit regi Tancredo gladium illum optimum quem Britones Caliburne[m?] vocant qui fuerat gladius Arthuri quondam nobilis regis Angliae.”
“And, in return, the King of England gave to King Tancred that best of swords, which the Britons call ‘Calibern’, which had been the sword of Arthur, the one-time noble king of England.”
(The Latin text comes from page 392 of a collection of earlier English historians, entitled “Rerum Anglicarum Scriptores Post Bedam Praecipui”,–something like, “Writers of/on English Affairs in Particular After Bede”–which was published in London in 1596).
“King Tancred” (1138-1194) was the Norman ruler of Sicily from 1189-1194, just when Richard and his fellow Crusaders had reached that part of the world on their way eastward.
Tancred gave Richard a number of ships to help with transport and we might suppose that this was part of a reciprocal process. Remarkably for this early time, we have what appears to be concrete evidence not only that King Arthur was a well-known figure in southern Italy, but perhaps known to Tancred himself.
Tancred had been born in 1138 in Lecce (on the right-hand side of the map, just inland)
and just a few miles south is Otranto, with its cathedral (below Lecce on the map).
The main floor of that cathedral is covered by an enormous mosaic, installed between 1163 and 1165.
In that mosaic is a figure labeled “Rex Arturus”.
We’ve answered our first question, sort of: “How do we know that Richard had Excalibur?” But, again, how did he acquire it? Unfortunately, the only reference to Richard and the sword is the one we’ve quoted.
One thought, however. About 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey
excavated a grave which
supposedly included a lead cross which read:
“Hic jacet sepultus inclytus rex Arthurius in insula avallonia cum Wennevereia uxore sua secunda”
“Here lies buried the renowned king Arthurius on the Avalonian island with Guinevere his second wife”
(Latin text from Giraldus Cambrensis, Speculum Ecclesiae, Chapter IX.)
Giraldus himself had been shown this cross by the Abbot, as he tells us. (For a more complete version of this story, in an English translation, please see this LINK.)
Modern research suggests that this was a fake, intended to boost the fortunes of a fading religious site, badly damaged by fire in 1184, but suppose that, to increase their patronage, the monks had added another level to their sham and “found” a sword, which they had then sent to Richard, who carried it off on his journey to the East.
(For more on the fakery, see, for example, this LINK.)
Louis IX, as we mentioned, died on campaign in 1270. His son, Philip, was with him at the time, but sailed back to France after his father’s death and was crowned Philip III in 1271. Our sources are vague here (they don’t always get the year right, for example), but all report that, for the first time, a special sword was used in the coronation ceremony. This was the so-called “sword of Charlemagne”, named “Joyeuse” (the “happy one”), which is mentioned in the 11th-century Chanson de Roland:
“Si ad vestut sun blanc osberc sasfret,
Laciet sun elme, ki est a or gemmet,
Ceinte Joiuse, unches ne fut sa per,
Ki cascun jur muet.XXX. clartez.”
“[Charlemagne] was wearing his fine white coat of mail and his helmet with gold-studded stones; by his side hung Joyeuse, and never was there a sword to match it; its colour changed thirty times a day.”
(The translator for this was not identified at the site and we would make one small change—“clartez” might be better as “sheen/brightness” instead of “colour”.)
This, one of the few remaining pieces of the royal regalia, is, in fact, a mixture of a number of different periods, all the way up to Charles X (reigned 1824-1830), and experts argue over whether it is actually possible to date any part of it as early as Charlemagne’s time (see this LINK for more).
What isn’t questioned is that some version of this sword, at least, was used as part of the crowning ritual of French kings for centuries and its association with Charlemagne was as important for French history as linking something to King Arthur for English.
We haven’t managed to locate any medieval manuscript illustration which depicts a French coronation with the sword in place, but, when it comes to “The Sun King”, that is, Louis XIV, you can see that’s its hanging from his left side.
The same is true for Louis XV
and for that most unwarlike monarch, Louis XVI.
The French Revolution brought the crowning of kings to a halt, of course,
but Napoleon, all too aware both of the past and of his need to establish himself as the legitimate heir to the previous kings, brought it back, as you can see in this really over the top portrait.
When the younger brothers of the executed Louis XVI, Louis XVIII (1755-1824)
and Charles X (1757-1836)
became king successively in 1814 and 1824, one can still see the sword—although apparently Napoleon’s craftsmen had fiddled with it, as did those of Charles. His successor, Louis Philipe (1773-1850), who belonged to a cousin branch of the royal family, broke the tradition for good and the sword disappeared into history—and the Louvre, where it’s now on display.
And this brings us back to Excalibur. The tradition is a little murky, but the medieval sources are pretty clear that Excalibur had come from “The Lady of the Lake” and, as Arthur lay, gravely, perhaps fatally wounded, he commanded one of his knights, Griflet or Bedivere, according to the tradition, to return it to the Lady, which he finally, and very reluctantly, did.
With this, Excalibur disappears from the story—until Richard is reported giving it to the king of Sicily and our story—briefly—begins again.
Thanks, as always, for reading and