The Sword in the Stone
Excalibur, Arthur Pendragon's mighty blade, did this hero of romantic legend have such a sword and if he did, where did its story begin?
Lying inside Rotonda di Montesiepi or Montesiepi's Hermitage in Tuscany, there is what is known as St.Galgano's Sword, it has been embedded in a stone for over eight hundred years which is around the time that Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing is Historia Regum Britanniae, it is in this work that we get the first glimpses of the legendary Arthur. Was it from this sword we see below that Monmouth got his inspiration?
If Gildas talks of a powerful Cornish tribal leader then Monmouth would have based his Arthurian story on Gildas accounts probably embellishing the facts and here we see the very beginnings of an English legend.
As we know in the legend, Arthur's sword is set deep a large stone and, as we have seen, the Sword of St Galgano too is embedded in a rock, but the similarity between this sword's story and that of Arthur's ends there. Arthur's sword is representative of his future kingship and glory this will bring, Galgano's sword, however, is a symbol of brutality and piety. Arthur's takes his sword from the stone, Galgano places his in the stone, Arthur's story and that of St Galgano's are a mirror image of each other. All the known facts that make up Arthur's story, Geoffrey of Monmouth had put together from what he read in the writing of Gildas, and probably what he read of his Cornish followers in the Annales of Wales, it is unlikely that Gildas wrote of a Cornish tribal leader who a embedded a sword in a stone. If it wasn't from Gildas that Monmouth gets his idea of a mythical sword it would be wonderful to think that Monmouth's idea of Excalibur comes from the story of St Galgano's sword, but it sadly it does not.
However, whose to say that it was not the other way around, after all Arthur's and Galgano's tale is a mirror image of each others, they both occur at almost the same time, could it be that Monmouth's Caliburnus, was used by the people of Tuscany to explain their sword and Arthur's Sword in the Stone tale begins here.
Saint Galgano was born Galgano Guidotti in 1148 in Chiusdino, a village in what is now the modern province of Siena in Italy. Galango was said to have been a medieval Tuscan knight, the son of a feudal lord. Galgano had a reputation for selfishness and being somewhat of a rebel in his youth. Galgano, after have a vision of the Archangel Michael, saw the error of his ways, abandoning his old life for that of a hermit at Rotonda di Montesiepi. To prove his total commitment to his new cause Galgano plunged his sword into a large stone forcing it through the rock up to its hilt, thus changing the sword into a cross a symbol of his new found piety. Galgano died here on 30 November 1181 and since then pilgrims have arrived in large numbers and miracles have been performed. A papal commission was set up in 1185, after which Galgano was canonised in 1190. For centuries the sword was thought to be a fake, but researchers revealed in 2001 that the sword is in fact, twelfth century. The University of Pavia, who tested the metal of the sword also used ground penetrating radar analysis and revealed that beneath the sword there was a cavity in which is thought to be the body of Galgano. Incidentally, in the church, there are two mummified hands and these too are twelfth century. A local legend says that anyone who tried to remove the sword from the stone had their arms ripped off.
With such a story as this, do we really want to believe that this real and unusual occurrence on a small Tuscan hillside plays no part in the Arthurian legend?
Geoffrey of Monmouth wasn't the only one writing of the legend of King Arthur in the twelfth century, French writer Chretien de Troyes wrote of the legend too. Where then did Troyes get his inspiration? It was Troyes who introduced the tales of Lancelot and Sir Percival, both these knights are never mentioned by Monmouth, so Monmouth wasn't where Troyes got his ideas, in fact no one really knows where he got them. There was another writer whose stories were written a little later than Monmouth and Troyes named Robert de Boron. Boron wrote The Grail Story of Joseph d'Arimathe and the story of Merlin and it is here in Borons tales that for the first time that we may have our answer. Boron's predecessors only wrote of Excaliber but it is here that we first hear of Arthur actually pulling out a sword. Boron's sword was not drawn from a stone but from an anvil which is placed upon a stone, it is interesting that Boron's tale appears only a few decades after Galgano's canonisation.