The Search For Excalibur: Chapter I

∴ The Borderline of History ∴

The Balefire was always fuelled by stories. Stories of knights-errant and wily rogues; the kinds of stories that filled our shelves and hearts as children, and which inspire us still as we forge and fence. The great swords of legend are never far from our minds when we design bespoke weapons – and in our flights of fancy, we suppose our own work to be a link in the centuries-spanning chain of tales upon sword-wielding tales.

Ask anyone with a passing interest in history to name a famous sword, and one name will find its way forth: Excalibur. The legend of King Arthur has seen a constant cycle of rebirth since it was first recorded in the 11th Century – from Monmouth’s pseudohistories, to Tennyson’s poetic epic, to a stream of star-studded film adaptations. This ancient tale of a great leader and defender, replete with mysterious wizards, dangerous lovers, and magical swords, is often considered the rosetta stone of all English fantasy, drawing older traditions together into one cohesive thread, which has been woven into almost every sword-and-sorcery tale since.

We have all heard the tales of Excalibur, whether drawn from a stone or raised from a lake by an ethereal maiden. But what do we imagine when we bring that sword to mind? An elaborately jewelled hilt, perhaps, and a long, gleaming blade. The gem-encrusted gladius of a Roman emperor, or a gold-inlaid templar longsword. Our interpretations of Excalibur are as myriad as the retellings of Arthur’s tale, each altered to reflect the values and signifiers of wealth in the era it was written in.

Of course, we all know that Excalibur is more than just a sword: it is a symbol of Arthurian nobility and valour, and often a symbol of pagan and Christian traditions entwined. In our own time, it has become equally symbolic of the pride and power of an era long-passed, which we may look back on wistfully or aspire to attain once again. Yet all symbols have their sources. In this series of essays, I hope to explore what the original Excalibur might have looked like, and how that vision has changed over time, reflecting each society that revisited it.

Along the way, we’ll examine relics, retellings, and theories as to the sword’s origins. We will encounter dragons, witches and Viking heroes. And somewhere amidst this trove of tales, we may draw an authentic vision of Excalibur from the dense stone of its stories.

∴ The Battle of Badon ∴

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The Battles of Arthur from the Historia Brittonum, Harley 3859, f. 187. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The first mentions of Arthur in our canon are from purportedly historical texts. The 9th Century Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae both refer to the Battle of Badon, dating Arthur to the early sixth Century with scholars variously dating the battle to 493, 501 or 516. This battle is referenced by multiple chroniclers of the 6th-12th centuries, and according to these early sources was won by the Britons against the “barbaric” Anglo-Saxons. 

Even the earliest recollection of the battle, from Gildas’ 6th century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, gives the victorious Briton forces a Christian motive for battle, stating, “From that time, the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of today, whether it loves Him or not”[1]. He goes on to cite the Christian Romano-Briton leader Ambrosius Aurelianus as a key figure, stating that he won battles “by the goodness of our Lord”[2]

Gildas’ chronicle does not mention Arthur, a fact which Thomas Green suggests is due to the battle being so well known to the chronicle’s 6th century audience that an exhaustive list of participants was unnecessary[3].  A more intriguing explanation for Arthur’s omission belongs to the 12th century Life of Gildas, which claims that the chronicler removed Arthur from his account after writing, destroying many works which praised him as revenge for the death of his brother Hueil mab Caw[4].

The much later Gesta Reglum Anglorum, written in the 12th century, links Arthur to Gildas’ account by positing him as a soldier commanded by Ambrosius, perhaps of Roman origin himself: “the Britons’ strength withered away, and their hopes dwindled and ebbed; at this point, in fact, they would have collapsed completely, had not… Ambrosius, the sole surviving Roman, kept down the barbarian menace with the outstanding aid of the warlike Arthur.”[5] The passage goes on to claim that Arthur “deserves to be the subject of reliable history rather than of false and dreaming fable” – a sentiment echoed by scholars still!

∴ King or Commander ∴

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Iron spearhead from early 5th-mid 7th century. British Museum 1980 1021.19. Image courtesy of the British Museum creative commons.

The Historia Brittonum, written in 828, contains our first recorded first mention of Arthur, listing twelve battles in which he fought against the Saxons. These include the aforementioned Battle of Badon, in which “nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance.”[6] Here Arthur is given not the title of King, but the epithet “the magnanimous Arthur”, the bold familiarity of which implies that readers may have already heard of the character. This, as well as the 400 years between the suggested battle and the Historia’s writing, suggests that Arthur was already a figure of legend by the 9th century, and that his tale long predated these extant chronicles in the form of oral and earlier written tradition.

Elsewhere in the Historia, Arthur is referred to as “Arthur the soldier” rather than King Arthur. This lack of title is remarked upon explicitly in the text: “though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.”[7] Overkingship, or the practice of a king commanding lesser kings, was common in the 5th and 6th centuries, and this passage could still be interpreted to allow for Arthur as a “provincial” king serving under greater rulers. However, it could equally be read that Arthur was remarkable for his common origins: a bold fighter who rose from humble means to command kings and noblemen. 

In such a case, the weapon that this Arthur carried may not have been the exquisitely decorated sword of a king, but the battle-beaten tool of a general. In the 6th century, swords were the domain of only the richest warriors, so there’s a chance that the original Excalibur – or at least the weapon wielded by historical Arthur – wasn’t a sword at all, but a spear. According to Richard Underwood, the spear was the most common weapon used between the 5th and 9th centuries, represented in 85% of grave finds containing weapons and 40% of all adult male graves.[8] Spears dated to the purported time of the Battle of Badon commonly had diamond-section blades, concave curved edges and long iron shanks between the socket and blade. The most distinctive of these featured blades up to 50cm long – almost a sword in themselves.

∴ A Clash of Chronicles ∴

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The Annales Cambriae, Harley MS 3859, f. 190r. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The Annales Cambriae, dated to the 10th Century, provide correlation to the Historia’s account, dating the Battle of Badon to 516-518, and further mentioning the Battle of Camlann, “in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”[9] This cross-reference has been used by scholars both ancient and modern to confirm that a notable Arthur really did fight at Badon. 

The name Medraut can be anglicised to the more familiar Mordred – Arthur’s treacherous nephew and nemesis – adding further “historical” richness to later romanticised accounts of their tragic rivalry such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s. The question is whether Monmouth lifted the names Arthur and Medraut from the Annales for a tale of his own devising, or whether his rendering refers to a fleshed-out story which predates the Annales themselves.

It is worth noting that the Annales as we know them were likely compiled from a great variety of since-lost source materials. Our earliest extant version of the chronicle, known as the A text, is found in the Harleian Manuscripts, and is a 12th century copy of a 10th century original. The B text, containing much of the same information, is dated to the 13th Century and contains its own additions and amendments. The A text doesn’t give calendar dates, but instead lists years in relation to one another. The B Text includes later entries, with anno domini dates given from 1097. However, these calendar dates conflict with the earlier years, and both disagree with the known dates of historical events.

While Arthur features in the older A text, this complex textual history makes it difficult to ascertain that the Arthurian annals were part of the 10th century original, of which the A text itself is though to be a copy. Arthur may have been added as late as the 12th century, when tales of Arthur and his knights were gaining popularity as a result of Monmouth’s text. The Annales’ correlation with the Badon passage in the Historia Brittonum may in fact prove nothing more than a later collator of the Annales borrowing and embellishing tales from the older text.

It is likewise confounding that Arthur is mentioned neither in Bede’s early 8th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, nor the late 9th Century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, both of which give versions of 6th Century history and the former of which deals directly with the Battle of Badon. Bede does seemingly intend to elaborate on the events of Badon, giving a “but of this hereafter”[10], yet the text never returns to the subject. Perhaps, but for this apparent act of forgetfulness, Bede too would have provided tales of a magnanimous Briton leader single-handedly slaying hundreds of Saxons.

It is, of course, worth taking these early histories with an academic pinch of salt. Considering the extent to which the Historia’s account refers to superhuman feats such as Arthur’s single-handed slaying of 940 men, it is apparent that its author and audience did not share modern scholars’ preoccupation with factual accuracy. Nor, at a time when hagiographies of saints and their miracles were proving popular, did the line between history and allegory seem so set in stone.

∴ Of Wealth and Welding ∴

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Fragment from a pattern-welded 6th century sword. British Museum 2006 0305.13. Image courtesy of the British Museum creative commons.

If we do take these early sources at face value, and imagine that the historical “Arthur the soldier” is indeed the Arthur of legend, we can conjure a fairly close idea of what his sword would have looked like. Numerous finds from across the British Isles dating from the 4th-7th centuries follow the same distinct form. Occupying the space between Roman spathas and the Viking swords of later centuries, these single-handed weapons feature straight, broad, two-edged, unfullered blades not dissimilar to Oakeshott’s Type X[11]. Typically these would have measured 86-94cm long and 4.5-5.5cm wide, with exceptional examples as long as 100cm[12].

Early Anglo-Saxon swords were difficult to make, as only small pieces of iron could be smelted using contemporary furnaces. This required the bladesmith to forge-weld many small pieces into a single blade, and by the early 6th century a great number of blades were pattern-welded from twisted iron rods. This technique allowed for aesthetic patterning, such as herringbone stripes or more complex designs, referred to in Beowulf (itself set in the 6th century) as brogdenmæl (weaving marks) and scirmæled (brightly-patterned).

As such, swords took significantly more time and skill to make than a spear. They were hence held in special regard, symbolising rank and wealth. While 85% of warrior graves bore a spear, only the richest and most highly regarded fighters seem to carry swords to the afterlife. We also have records of significant Anglo Saxon swords being bequeathed across generations, passed down from one king to another. One example is the will of 10th century Æthelstan Ætheling, son of king Æthelred, who left his brother Eadmund Ironside the sword of King Offa of Mercia[13]. This relic was already 200 years old at the time, suggesting that the Anglo Saxons considered swords valuable beyond their use as a tool, imbuing them with the legacies of their wielders.

If Arthur was a celebrated figure of the early 6th century, it is reasonable to argue that he was – or certainly became through his deeds – a man of great means. Despite the Historia’s assertion that Arthur the soldier was outranked by many of the men he commanded, his feats were unlikely to have gone unrewarded. If Arthur the Soldier carried a sword at all, this alone would have raised his status in the eyes of his comrades.

∴ A Kingly Ring ∴

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6th century ring sword found in Buckland, Kent. British Museum 1963 1108.751. Image courtesy of the British Museum creative commons.

Hilts of the 6th Century and beyond were typically made up of three parts: a lower lenticular guard, which sat in the place of later crossguards; the grip which was usually made of wood or horn; and the upper guard. This latter took the form of a wide pommel, extending often to the width of the lower guard – typically between 7-9cm. Combined, the guards would provide protection to both sides of the hand, sandwiching the fingers along a relatively short grip.

Though there is little extant evidence of of early Anglo Saxon grips (due to the organic material from which they were most often made) one of the earliest identified forms shares characteristics with the grips of Roman spathae. This can be seen on finds such as the Cumberland Hilt, housed in the British Museum. The Cumerland Hilt’s horn grip is carved in an oval section, with three deep ribs creating space for the fingers to grip. If Arthur the soldier served under the Romano-Britannic commander Ambrosius Aurelianus, it is not too great a stretch to imagine this Roman styling to his sword.

The most striking extant finds feature composite upper guards of metal and organic material – most of which has been lost to time and erosion. These feature a lenticular metal plate to the base, a central piece made from wood or horn, and often a decorative top cap of precious metal. These would be pinned or riveted together at either end of the lenticular shape.The most common top cap variants took the form of Oakeshott’s Type D or “cocked hat” pommel.

The most widely recognised example of this setup must be the Sutton Hoo sword. This remarkable find has been dated to the sixth century, and features a broad blade of almost 6cm across, and a gold filigree cocked hat pommel inlaid with garnet and adorned with beaded wire. This degree of fine adornment, and the sword’s inclusion in the Sutton Hoo ship burial, suggest that this was the sword of a king or great leader – and perhaps an ideal pattern to use as a basis for a contemporary Excalibur.

A particular feature of some late 6th-century sword hilts was the decorative loop set to one side of the “cocked hat”, often found with a free ring passing through it. In many extant finds, both of these rings are inlaid with decoration. This feature can be seen on a number of finds from Kent, the most complete being the Buckland sword sword housed in the British Museum.

There are a variety of scholarly arguments as to the purpose of this ring. Two of these are practical in nature: that the ring offered a hitching point for a lanyard, either to keep the wielder from becoming disarmed, or to stop the sword from being drawn in haste or passion. Some evidence for the former comes from Old Icelandic accounts, such as Egil’s saga in which “there was a strap on his hilt which he pulled over his hand to let the sword hang there.”[14] 

Rosemary Cramp argues for the latter, suggesting that the translation of the word hring-mæel in Beowulf as “ringed-hilt” “would imply that the hilt was in some way attached to a belt, and not just that the belt was fixed in the more normal way to the sheath”[15]. She brings to mind the Snartemo sword, which features a ring not on the cocked hat of the upper guard, but on the metal base of the lower guard – an ideal position for binding it into the sheath itself.

Hilda Ellis Davidson dismisses these theories on the basis of the relative lack of examples of ring swords. She argues that “if this were the purpose of the ring it seems strange that there are so few surviving examples… since the ring knob… would not be a convenient substitute”[16]. She refers here to later finds with a “faux” ring fitting, in which both loops are stationary and made from a single solid piece of metal. The existence of these suggests that the form of the ring was more important than the function.

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Detail of the ring pommel found in Buckland, Kent. British Museum 1963 1108.751. Image courtesy of the British Museum creative commons.

In this case, it is worth considering the social and ritual significance of rings in Anglo Saxon society. A great many works of the time eulogise great lords as beag-gifa or “ring givers”, implying that rings were given by lords to their fighters or allies as a mark of troth. This certainly holds true in Medieval Icelandic literature, with warrior poets traveling from hall to hall telling tales in return for arm rings as a mark of favour. In many cases, the generosity and wealth of a lord would be measured by the number of rings he gifted his thanes, with Odin taking first place thanks to his possession of a gold ring which drips infinite new gold rings.[17] The tradition was carried through to Anglo Saxon culture, as Beowulf states that King Hrothgar “doled out rings and torques at the table”[18].

Davidson draws parallels between such accounts with those of warriors swearing their allegiance on the hilts of swords: “It is stated in early Norwegian law that the hilt of the king’s sword had to be presented to the man who entered his service, and that as the follower swore the oath… he had to touch the hilt of the royal sword”[19]. The combination of traditions suggests that attaching an oath-ring to the hilt of an oath-sword would be doubly significant and symbolically potent. A ring-hilted sword may be an indication that the bearer has sworn, or received, an oath of fealty.

Intriguingly, no ring swords have been found dating into the 7th Century, after Christianity became widespread in the British Isles. The fact that Beowulf, which was written in the late 10th century but harks back to the 6th, uses the term hring-mæl could suggest that the pre-Christian tradition was remembered through tales passed down. The word, meaning “ring-adorned”, is used with reference to the sword Beowulf finds in Grendel’s mother’s lair. The sword is also described as “a victory-eager blade”, “the choicest of weapons”, and “the work of wonder-smiths”. If this translation is to be accepted, it implies not only that the Beowulf poet was aware of the pre-Christian tradition of ring-swords, but that being “ring-adorned” was a mark of a sword’s value, both in terms of material riches and its lasting legacy.

Underwood offers an alternative translation of the phrase as “ring-decoration” and suggests that it instead refers to the patterning on the blade from finessed pattern-welding. He compares the kenning to “the phrase fyrmælum fag, ‘gleaming with the marks of the fire’”[20] which he also considers a reference to the welded manufacture of the blade.

In either case, it’s clear that this “choicest of weapons” was made sparing no expense, and that it is worthy of a great wielder. Given Beowulf’s own place as a hero of English legend, it seems not impossible that Arthur – a hero who can be traced back to the same period Beowulf is set in – may have wielded a sword of similar renown. In imagining the historical Excalibur as a pattern-welded sword with an elaborate ring-adorned hilt and a Romanesque ridged grip, we highlight some of the earliest facts we’re given about this legendary figure: that he was a Sixth-century warrior of high renown, who may have served under a Romano-Britonnic leader.

∴ A Religious Relic ∴

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Decorated upper guard of the Abingdon Sword. Image courtesy of Wikimedia creative commons.

While the allusions in Beowulf may suggest that the memory of the ring sword lived on beyond its material demise, it is possible that the 9th and 10th century authors of the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae were imagining a sword of their own era in the hero of Badon’s hand. 

The Abingdon Sword is a prime example of a late 9th century sword, in many ways similar to the swords of earlier centuries. While most of the blade is missing, its width and taper seem not dissimilar to that of 6th century swords, with the significant difference being the inclusion of a fuller. This feature was far more common to later Anglo-Saxon swords than to earlier variants. 

A more symbolic difference can be seen in the ornamentation of the upper and lower guards. Rather than a flat lenticular disc, the Abingdon sword features a downturned rectangular-section crossguard with cast and inlaid silver mounts. The base of the upper guard mirrors this, turning upward toward the cocked hat pommel cap. Both are heavily ornamented, with the silver base plate bearing the symbols of the four evangelists. This imagery supplants the pre-Christian symbolism of the ring with a new, Biblical inspiration.

As Christianity did not truly take hold across England until St. Augustine’s mission in the 8th century, it is quite possible that the Historia Brittonum’s assertion that Arthur “bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders”[21] was an embellishment by the author. That historical Arthur was himself a Christian is not out of the question, given the potential link to Ambrosis Aurelianus at Badon. However, it’s important to not the Historia’s author, Nennius, was a monk, and therefore likely to add a Christian bias to his tales of heroic deeds. In fact, as with many early Christian chronicles, a theme emerges throughout the Historia that Briton leaders who achieved victory over the Saxons were only able to do so with God’s help.

Either way, 9th Century Christian writers certainly wished to present Arthur as one of their own. In such a case, they may well have imagined his flashing blade as being bedecked with intricate silver inlay and Biblical imagery, much like that of the Abingdon sword.

Robert Huntingdon Fletcher points out that “the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders” is likely a misspelling or mistranslation of the Middle Welsh for shoulder (ysgwydd) and shield (ysgwyd), and that Arthur actually bore the image of the Virgin on his shield.[22] Given evidence of religious decoration in arms and armour at Nennius’ time of writing, this seems a far more likely explanation. We can certainly imagine that the sort of man who would charge into battle with a shield bearing the image of the Virgin Mary would also favour a sword decorated with religious motifs.

∴ Into The Mists ∴

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The Sutton Hoo sword. British Museum 1939 1010.95. Image courtesy of the British Museum creative commons.

Of course, the historicity of all these documents, and the existence of Arthur himself, are still matters of scholarly debate. Archaeologist J.N.L. Myres famously observed that “no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian’s time” than Arthur[23]. He goes on to suggest that “if we add anything to the bare statement that Arthur may have lived and fought the Saxons, we pass at once from history to romance.” 

Yet others like me find that the folk hero’s position on that borderline is, in itself, a compelling reason to keep exploring him. After all, isn’t the place between reality and make-believe where magic lies? Perhaps to tie Arthur down too explicitly to a historical figure would be to remove the very uncertainty that makes him most fascinating. As long as we don’t know for certain whether or not there was an Arthur, a whimsical part of us can go on asking whether or not there were wizards, or fae folk, or magic swords.

So then, is it too contradictory to ask what his legendary sword truly looked like? This first exploration has offered as close a glimpse as we may get of a historical Excalibur. Perhaps from this point the greater quest is to see the sword as a mirror for English literature’s changing concepts of valour and nobility, from the dawn of writing itself to our own no-less-glory-obsessed era.

In the next chapter of my search for Excalibur, I will be exploring Arthur’s Welsh origins and the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which our hero grows from a footnote in the history books into a crowned king with adventures of his own – and a named sword.


∴ References ∴

[1] Hugh Williams ed. (1899) Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae. Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, p. 63.

[2] Williams, p. 61.

[3] Green, Thomas (2007) Concepts of Arthur. Stroud: Tempus, p.31.

[4] Hugh Williams ed. (1899) Two Lives of Gildas by a Monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Llancarfan. Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1899.

[5] R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom eds. (1998) Oxford Medieval Texts: William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 27.

[6] J. A. Giles ed. (2006) Nennius, History of the Britons. Project Gutenburg. pp. 50

[7] Giles, pp.50

[8] Richard Underwood (1999), Anglo Saxon Weapons and Warfare. Stroud: Tempus, p.39.

[9] James Ingram ed. (1912) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Everyman Press.

[10] A.M. Sellar ed. (1907) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of Britain. London: George Bell and Sons. Gutenberg Press. p.32

[11] Ewart Oakeshott (1991) Records of the Medieval Sword. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. p.23

[12] Underwood, p.47

[13] Dorothy Whitelock (1973) Anglo Saxon Wills. New York: AMS Press.

[14] Bernard Scudder trans. (1997) The Sagas of the Icelanders, Egil’s Saga. Reykjavík: Leifur Eirkíksson Publishing. p.140

[15] R.J. Cramp (1957), Beowulf and Archaeology, Journal of Medieval Archaeology, p.57

[16] Hilda Ellis Davidson (1962) The Sword in Anglo Saxon England. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, p.75

[17] Anthony Faulkes ed. (1998) Snorri Sturlson, Edda: Skáldskaparmál. London: Viking Society for Northern Research. p.42

[18] Seamus Heaney trans. (1999) Beowulf. London: Faber and Faber. p.4

[19] Davidson, p.76

[20] Underwood, p.49

[21] Giles, pp.50

[22] Robert Huntingdon Fletcher (1906) The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles. Boston: Harvard, Ginn & Company. p.16

[23]  J.N.L. Myres (1986), The English Settlements. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.16