Bedivere throws Excalibur into the lake, by Aubrey Beardsley

From the Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory: -
Dent edition, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley

Background on King Arthur's weapons


Completed 06 August 2002.
Last modified 05 May 2003
© Text Copyright 2002 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at' yahoo.co,uk


Contents

Welsh sources

Brief and sparse, as are many mentions of Arthur in Welsh literature, these two extracts give lists of Arthur's weapons. Something that will be a surprise to those who are only familiar with the sword Excalibur. Such a list must have formed the basis of Geoffrey of Monmouth's listing of Arthur's weapons that appears in his description of the defeat of the Saxons at the city of Bath.

They also give an indication that Arthur's weapons had a divine origin. The mention of them having been gifts from God, is doubtless, a Christian takeover of the previous pagan origin myths for them.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen

Arthur speaks to Culhwch.
"You shall have the request that head and tounge name, as far as the wind dries, as far as the rain wets, as far as the sun rises, as far as the sea stretches, as far as the earth extends, excepting only my ship (Prydwen), my mantle, my sword Caledvwlch, my spear Rhongomynyad (cutting-spear), my shield Wynebgwrthucher (face of evening), my knife Carnwennan and my wife Gwenhwyvar (white shadow?)."

The Mabinogion, trans, Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976, pp. 139-40.

The Dream of Rhonabwy

Then they heard Cadwr Earl of Cornwall being summoned, and saw him rise with Arthur's sword in his hand, with a design of two serpents on the golden hilt; when the sword was unsheathed what was seen from the mouths of the two serpents was like two flames of fire, so dreadful that it was not easy for anyone to look. At that the host settled and the commotion subsided, and the earl returned to his tent. 'Iddawg, who is the man who brought Arthur's sword?' (asks Rhonabwy) 'Cadwr Earl of Cornwall, tha man whose task it is to arm the king on the day of battle and conflict.'

The Mabinogion, trans, Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976, P. 184.

The Welsh Triads

....And thus Arthur triumphed over everyone, and in every feat, and over every nation in the world; through the strength of the powerful spirit and the faith and the hope that were in his heart towards those men (The Twenty Four ordained knights of Arthur's court), and through the sacred weapons that God had given him, Rhongomiant his spear, Caledfwlch his sword, and Carnwennan his dagger.

Quoted from Bromwich, R., Trioedd Ynys Prydein by Cox, J. B., Young, S., in Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend, pp. 92-93, Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, 1995.

Arthur's arms in Geoffrey of Monmouth and his 'followers'

Introduction

Here are the early developments based upon Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Arthur's life. Both the authors, Wace and Layamon, wrote in verse; hence the stilted nature of the translations. Their versions were really adaptations rather than straight translations. Hence they add spice to the story that Geoffrey told in Latin prose through making the action more violent and by introducing recorded speech. Both update Arthur's protective armour and his shield. So he is no longer protected merely by a leather jerkin (or cuirass) and a circular shield. Instead his armour conforms more to style fashionable in the time of Wace and Layamon (chain-mail augmented by steel greaves).

Wace adds that the dragon helmet Arthur wore was that of Uther Pendragon. While Layamon makes three innovations. First, is the burnie (coat of mail) fashioned by an elvish smith named Wygar. Second he records the name of Arthur's helmet as being Goswhit (Goosewhite). Third, in Arthur's fight against Frollo, by inserting that the head of Arthur's spear was made at Caermarthen by a smith named 'Griffin' and had previously been carried by Arthur's illustrious father - Uther Pendragon. Whether these three additions reflect authentic traditions or were merely inventions made by Layamon is uncertain.

At the battle of Bath

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Arthur has defeated the Saxons under Cheldric at Caledon Wood and has allowed them to return to Germany in return for their treasure and the promise of future tribute. However, the Saxons renage upon their agreement, land in Somerset, ravage the countryside and besiege the city of Bath. Arthur hangs the hostages who the Saxons had left him as a guarantee of their honest intent. He marches from Alclud, possibly Dunbarton, to relieve the siege. After his army has been inspired by a speech from Dubricius; Archbishop of the City of the Legions.
Without a moment's delay each man present, inspired by the benediction given by this holy man, rushed off to put on his armour and to obey Dubricius' orders. Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to think perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the Isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Thorpe, L., Penguin, 1983, P. 216-7.

Wace

With what men he might, Arthur came to Bath as swiftly as he was able, since he was resolved to chase the Saxons from before the gates, and succour the burgesses of his city. Now, near this a wood stands within a wide country, and there Arthur arranged his men and ordered the battle. He saw to the arming of his meinie, and for himself got into his harness. Arthur donned thigh pieces of steel, wrought strong and fairly by some cunning smith. His hauberk was stout and richly chased, even such a vesture as became so puissant a king. He girt him with his sword, Excalibur. Mighty was the glaive, and long in the blade. it was forged in the Isle of Avalon, and he who brandished it naked in his hand deemed himself a happy man. His helmet gleamed upon his head. The nasal was of gold; circlets of gold adorned the headpiece, with many a clear stone; and a dragon was fashioned for its crest. the helm had once been worn by Uther, his sire. The king was mounted on a destrier, passing fair, strong, and speedy, loving well the battle. He had set his shield about his neck, and, certes, showed a stout champion, and a right crafty captain. On the buckler was painted in sweet colours the image of Our Lady St. Mary. In her honour and for remembrance, Arthur bore her semblance on his shield. In his hand the king carried his lance, named Ron. Sharp it was at the head, tough and great, and very welcome at need in the press of battle.

Wace and Layamon ARTHURIAN CHRONICLES, trans, Mason, E., pp. 47-48, Dent, 1962 (1912).

Layamon

Forth he gan to push exceeding hastily until he beside Bath, approached a plain; there he alighted, and all his knights; and on with their burnies the stern men, and he in five divisions separated his army.
When he had duly set all, as it all besemed, then he put on his burny, fashioned of steel, that an elvish smith made, with his excellent craft; he was named Wygar, the witty wright. His shanks he covered with hose of steel. Caliburn his sword, he hung by his side; it was wrought in Avalon, with magic craft. a helm he set on his head, high of steel; thereon was many gemstones, all encompassed with gold; it was Uther's, the noble king's; it was named Goswhit, each other unlike. He hung on his neck a precious shield; its name was in British called Pridwen; therein was engraved with red gold tracings a precious image of God's mother. His spear he took in hand, that was named Ron. When he had all his weeds, then leapt he on his steed.

Wace and Layamon ARTHURIAN CHRONICLES, trans, Mason, E., pp. 194-5, Dent, 1962 (1912).

The fight by Paris between Arthur and Frollo

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Arthur has conquered Norway and given It's lordship to Loth, Duke of Lothian, who had been willed the crown by the recently dead King Sichelm. Now Arthur invades Gaul (France), which is under the rule of the Tribune Frollo on behalf of Emperor Leo. After Frollo has been defeated in battle by Arthur he retreats to Paris.
Then Frollo reassembled his scattered people, garrisoned the town and made up his mind to meet Arthur in the field a second time. Just as Frollo was considering how to strengthen his army by calling upon neighbouring peoples, Arthur arrived unexpectedly and besieged him inside the city. A whole month passed. Frollo grieved to see his people dying of hunger and sent a message to Arthur to say that they should meet in single combat and that whichever was victorious should take the kingdom of the other. Being a man of immense stature, courage and strength, Frollo relied upon these advantages when he sent his message, hoping in this way to find a solution to his problem. When the news of Frollo's plan reached Arthur, he was immensely pleased; and he sent word back that he would be willing to hold the meeting that had been suggested. An agreement was come to on both sides and the two met on an island outside the city, the populace gathering to see what would happen to them.
Arthur and Frollo were both fully armed and seated on horses which were wonderfully fleet of foot. It was not easy to foretell which would win. For a moment they stood facing each other with their lances held straight in the air: then they suddenly set spurs to their horses and struck each other two mighty blows. Arthur aimed his lance with more care and hit Frollo high up on his chest. He avoided Frollo's weapon, and hurled his enemy to the ground with all his might. Arthur then drew his sword from the scabbard and was just hurrying forward to strike Frollo when the latter leapt swiftly to his feet, ran forward with his lance levelled and with a deadly thrust stabbed Arthur's horse in the chest, this bringing down both horse and rider. When the Britons saw their King thrown to the ground, they were afraid he was dead and it was only with great self-control that they restrained themselves from breaking the truce and hurling themselves as one man upon the Gauls. Just as they were planning invade the lists, Arthur sprang to his feet, covered himself with his shield, and rushed forward to meet Frollo. they stood up to each other hand to hand, giving blow for blow, and each doing his utmost to kill the other. In this end Frollo found an opening and struck Arthur on the forehead. It was only the fact that he blunted the edge of his swordblade at the point where it made contact with Arthur's metal helmet that prevented Frollo from dealing a mortal wound. When Arthur saw his leather cuirass and his round shield grow red, he, he was roused to even fiercer anger. He raised Caliburn in the air with all his strength and brought it down through Frollo's helmet and so on to his head, which he cut into two halves. At this blow Frollo fell to the ground, drummed the earth with his heels and breathed his soul into the winds. The moment this was made known throughout the army, the townsfolk ran forward, threw open their gates and surrendered their city to Arthur.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Thorpe, L., Penguin, 1983, P. 224-5.

Wace

The tribune chose to put his own body in peril--yea, rather to taste death, than to abandon Paris to her leaguers. Frollo had full assurance of Arthur's rectitude. In the simplicity of his heart he sent urgent messages to the king, praying him to enter in the Island, that body to body they might bring their quarrel to an end. He who prevailed over his fellow should take the whole realm as his own and receive all France for his guerdon. Thus the land would not perish, nor the folk be utterly destroyed. Arthur hearkened willingly to the heralds, for greatly was their message to his mind. He accorded that the battle should be between the two captains, even as Frollo desired. Gauntlets were taken from one end to the other, and hostages given on behalf of Paris and on the part of the beseigers for the better assurance of the covenant that was made.
On the morrow the two champions arrayed them in harness, and coming to the Island, entered boldly in the lists. The banks were filled with a mighty concourse of people making great tumult.....The two champions were set over against the other, laced each in his mail, and seated on his warhorse. The strong destriers were held with bit and bridle, so eager were they for battle. The riders bestrode the steeds with lifted shields, brandishing great lances in their hands.....When all was made ready the knights struck spurs to their steeds, and loosing rein upon the horses' necks, hurtled together with raised buckler and lance in rest. They smote together with marvellous fierceness. Whether by reason of the swerving of his destrier, I cannot tell, but Frollo failed of his stroke. Arthur on his side, smote the boss of his adversary's shield so fairly, that he bore him over his horses buttock, as long as the ash staff held. Arthur drew forth his sword, and hastened to Frollo to bring the battle to an end. Frollo climbed stoutly to his feet. He held his lance before him like a rod, and the king's steed ran upon the spear, so that it pierced deeply in his body. When the Britons saw this thing, they might not contain themselves for grief. They cried aloud, and seizing their weapons, for a little would have violated the loveday. They made ready to cross the river to the Island, and to avenge their lord upon the Gauls. Arthur cried loudly to his Britons to observe their covenant, commanding that not a man should move to his help that day. He gripped Excalibur sternly in his hand, resolving that Frollo should pay dearly for his triumph. Arthur dressed his shield above his head, and handselling his sword, rushed upon Frollo. Frollo was a passing good knight, hardy and strong, in no whit dismayed by the anger of his adversary. He raised his own glaive on high, striking fiercely at Arthur's brow. His brand was great and sharp, and the buffet was struck with all his power. The blade sheared through helm and coif alike, so that King Arthur was wounded in his forehead and the blood ran down his face.
When Arthur felt the dolour of his hurt, and looked upon his blood, he desired nothing, save to wreak evil on the man who had wrough this mischief. He pressed more closely upon Frollo. Lifting Excalibur, his good sword, in both hands, he smote so lustily that Frollo's head was cloven down to his very shoulders. No helmet nor hauberk, whatever the armourer's craft, could have given surety from so mighty a blow. Blood and brains gushed from the wound. Frollo fell upon ground, and beating the earth a little with his chausses of steel, presently died and was still.

Wace and Layamon ARTHURIAN CHRONICLES, trans, Mason, E., pp. 60-1, Dent, 1962 (1912).

Layamon

Then fled into Paris Frolle the powerful, and fastened the gates, with grief enow; and these words said, sorrowful in heart: "Liefer it were to me, that I were not born!" Then were in Paris grievous speeches, full surely, sorrowful cries; burghmen gan to tremble; the walls they gan repair, the gates they gan to form; meat they took, all that they came nigh; on each side they carried it to the burgh; thither came they all, that held with Frolle. Arthur heard that, noblest of kings, that Frolle dwelt in Paris, with an immense force, and said that he would Arthur withstand. To Paris marched Arthur, of fear void, and belay the walls, and arreared his tents; on four sides he belay it (the city), four weeks and a day.....
When four weeks were gone, that Arthur was there stationed, then was in the burgh sorrow extreme, with the wretched folk that lay there tha lay there in hunger; there was weeping there was lament, and distress great. They called to Frolle, and bade him make peace; become Arthur's man, and his own honour enjoy, and hold the kingdom of Arthur the keen; and let not the wretched folk all perish with hunger. The answered Frolle--free he was in heart:--"Nay, so help me God, that all dooms wieldeth, shall I never his man become, nor he my sovereign! Myself I will fight; in god is all the right!"
The yet spake Frolle, free man in heart: "Nay, so help me the Lord that shaped the daylight, will I nevermore yearn Arthur's grace; but fight I will, without any knight's aid, body against body, before my people; hand against hand, with Arthur the king! Whetherso of us is the weaker, soon will he be the loather; whetherso of us that may live, to his friends he will be the liefer; and whether one of us that may of the other obtain the better (superiority), have he all this other's land, and set it in his own hand. This will I grant; and this I will swear upon my sword. And the hostages will I find, three king's sons, that I will hold firmly this covenant; that I will not violate, by me quick life! For liefer it is to me to lie dead, before my people, than that I should see them on the ground perish with hunger. for we have with fight destroyed our knights--men felled fifty thousand; and many a good woman have made miserable widow, many a child fatherless, and bereaved of comfort; and now this folk with hunger have wondrously harmed. It is better therefore betwixt ourselves to deal and to dispose of this kingdom with fight; and have it the better man, and possess it in joy!".....
Arthur heard that, noblest of kings; was he never so blithe ere in his life, for the tidings liked to him from Frolle the king; and these wods said Arthur the good: "Well saith Frolle, who is King of France; better it is that we two contest this realm, than there should be slain our brave thanes....."
Frolle heard that, who was King of France, that Arthur would fight himself, without any knight. Strong man was Frolle, and stark man in mood; and his boast he had made, before all his people, and that he might not for much shame disgrace himself; quit his bold bragging that he had said in the burgh. But said he whatever whatever he said, in sooth he it weened, that Arthur would it forsake, and in no whit to take (accept) the fight. For if Frolle, who was King in France, had it known, that Arthur would grant him that he had yearned, he would not have done it it for a shipful of gold! Nevertheless was Frolle to the fight exceeding keen; tall knight and strong man, and moody in heart; and said that he would hold the day, in the island that with water is surrouded--the island standeth full truly in the burgh of Paris--"There will I fight obtain my rights, with shield, and with steel, and with knight's weed; now to-morrow is the day; have it he that may it win!"
The tiding came to Arthur the king, that Frolle would with fight win France; was he never so blithe in his life! And he gan to laugh, with loud voice; and said these words Arthur the keen: "Now I know that Frolle will with me fight, to-morrow in the day, as he himself determined, in the island that with water is surrounded; for it becometh a king, that his word should stand. Let the trumpets blow, and bid my men, that every good man watch to-night for that, and pray our Lord, that all dooms wieldeth, that he preserve me form Frolle the fierce, and his right hand protect me form disgrace. And if I may obtain this kingdom to mine own hand, every poor man the easier shall be, and work I will the great God's will! Now aid me thereto that all things may well do; the high heavenly king stand me in help; for him I will love (or praise), the while that I live!"
There was all the long night songs and candle-light; loudly sung clerks holy psalms of God. when it was day on the morrow, people gan to stir. His weapons he took in hand, Arthur the strong; the threw on his back, and garment most precious, a chesil shirt, and a cloth kirtle; a burny exceeding precious embroidered of steel. He set on his head a good helm; to his side he suspended his good sword Caliburn; his legs he covered with hose of steel, and placed on his feet spurs most good. The king with his weeds leapt on his steed; men reached to him a good shield; it was all clean of elephant's bone (ivory). Men gave him in hand a strong shaft; there was at the end a spear most fair; it was made in Caermarthen by a smith that hight Griffin; Uther it possessed, who was ere king here. When tha stern man was weaponed, then gan he to advance; then might he behold, who were there beside, the mighty king ride boldly; since this world was made, was it nowhere told, that ever any man so fair rode upon horse, as Arthur he was, son of Uther!....
Arthur gan march, with innumerable folk; until he came full surely unto the burgh of Paris; on the west side of the water, with his mickle folk. On the east side was Frolle, with his great force, ready to the fight, before all his knights. Arthur took a good boat, and went therein, with shield and with steed, and with all his weeds (armour); and he shoved the strong ship from the land, and stept upon the island, and led his steed in his hand; his men that brought him there, ad the king commanded, let the boat drive forth with the waves.
Frolle went into ship; the king was uneasy that he ever thought with Arthur to fight. He proceeded to the island, with his good weapons; he stept upon the island, and drew his steed after him; the men that brought him there, as the king commanded them, let the boat drive forth with the waves; and the two kings alone there remained.
Then might behold, that were there beside, the folk on the land, exceedingly afraid; they climbed upon halls, they climbed upon walls; they climbed upon bowers, they climbed upon towers, to behold the combat of the two kings. Arthur's men prayed with much humility to God the good, and the holy men his mother, that their lord might have his victory; and the others eke prayed for their king. Arthur stept in steel saddlebow, and leapt on his steed; and Frolle with his weeds leapt also in his steed; the one at his end of the island, and the other at his end of the island; they couched their shafts, the royal knights; they urged their steeds--good knights they were. Never was he found in ever in any land, any man so wise, that should know it ere that time, whether (which) of the kings should be overcome; for both they were keen knights, brave men and active, mickle men in might, and in force exceeding strong. They made ready their steeds; and together they gan ride; rushed fiercely, so that fire sprang after them! Arthur smote Frolle eith might excessive strong, upon the high shield, so that it fell to the ground; and the steed that was good leapt out in the flood. Arthur out with his sword--mischief was on the point--and struck upon Frolle where he was in the flood, ere theri combat were come to an end. But Frolle with his hand grasped his long spear, and observed Arthur anon, as he came nigh, and smote the bold steed, so that the spear pierced through, and Arthur down drove. Then arose the multitudes' clamour, that the earth dinned again, the welkin resounded for the shout of the folk. There would the Britons over the water pass, if Arthur had not started up very quickly, and grasped his good shield, adorned with gold against Frolle, with hostile glances cast before his breast his good broad shield. And Frolle to him rushed with his fierce assault, and up heaved his sword, and struck down right, and smote upon Arthur's shield, so that it fell on the field; the helm on his head, and his mail gan to give way in front of his head; and he received a wound four inches long;--it seemed him not to sore, for it was no more;--the blood ran down over all his breast. Arthur was enraged greatly in his heart, and his sword Caliburne swung with main, and smote Frolle upon the helm, so that it parted in two; throughout the burnys hood, so that at his breast it (the sword) stopped. Then Frolle fell to the ground; upon the grass-bed his ghost he left. Then laughed the Britons, with loud voice; and people gan to fly eceeding quickly.

Wace and Layamon ARTHURIAN CHRONICLES, trans, Mason, E., pp. 216-221, Dent, 1962 (1912).

The Battle against the Lucius Hiberius in the Vale of Saussy

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Arthur is holding a plenary court at the city of Caerlion upon Usk; City of the Legions. Here he receives an embassy of twelve men sent by Lucius Hiberius, Procurator of Rome. They demand that Arthur recognises the claim that Rome has to Britain, pays tribute to Rome and withdraws from the continental countries he has conquered. Arthur ridicules the threat of invasion that Lucius has made and takes his army to France to oppose the advance of the threatened Roman invasion. After being defeated, the army of Lucius Hiberius retreats from Langres to Autun. Arthur overtakes the Roman army and sets an ambush in the Vale of Saussy. In the battle that follows Gawain forces his way to Lucius Hiberius and engages in a long personal fight with him.

As Gawain and Lucius fought bitterly in this way, the Romans suddenly recovered. They attacked the Bretons and so brought help to their general. They repulsed Hoel, Gawain and their troops, and began to cut their way into them. It was at this juncture that the Romans suddenly came face to face with Arthur and his division. he had heard a moment before of this slaughter which was being inflicted on his men. He moved up with his own division, drew his wonderful sword Caliburn and encouraged his fellow-soldiers by shouting loudly at them. 'What the Devil are you doing men?' he demanded. Are you letting these effeminate creatures steal away unhurt? Not one must escape alive! Think of your own right hands, which have played their part in so many battles and subjected thirty kingdoms to my sovreignty! Remember your ancestors, whom the Romans, then at the height of their powers, made tributaries. Remember your liberty, which these halflings, who haven't anything like your strength, plan to take away from you! Not one must escape alive! Not one must escape, I say.
As he shouted these insults, and many others too, Arthur dashed straight at the enemy. He flung them to the ground and cut them to pieces. Whoever came his way was either killed himself or had his horse killed under him at a single blow. They ran away from him as sheep run from a fierce lion who raging hunger condemns to devour all that chance throws in his way. Their armour offered them no protection capable of preventing Caliburn, when wielded in the right hand of this mighty king, from forcing them to vomit forth their souls with their life-blood. Ill-luck brought two kings, Sertorius of Lybia and Politetes of Bithynia, in Arthur's way. He hacked off their heads and bundled them off to hell.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Thorpe, L., Penguin, 1983, P. 254-5.

Wace

The Roman legions recovered from the panic into which they had fallen. They ranged themselves beneath the golden eagle, and brought succour to the emperor at the moment of his utmost need. The legions swept the Britons before them, and won won again the field from which they were driven. Arthur watched the fortunes of the day. He marked the discomfiture of his host, and hearkened to the triumphant shouts of the legionaries. He could not, and dared not, wait longer. Arthur hastened with his chosen company to the battle. He rllied the rout, crying to the fleeing sergeants, "Whom seek you? Turn about, for it were better to be slain of the Romans than by your king. I am Arthur, Arthur, your captain; and mortal man shall not drive me from the field. Follow me, for I will open a road; and beware lest the maidens of Britain hold you as recreant. Call to mind your ancient courage, by which you have overcome so many proud kings. For my part I will never go from this field alive, till I have avenged me on my adversaries." Arthur did wondrously in the eyes of all the people. He struck many a Roman to the ground. Shield, and hauberk, and helmet he hewed asunder; heads, arms and gauntlets were divided by his sword. Excalibur waxed red that day, for whom Arthur smote he slew. I cannot number the count of his blows, and every blow a death. For as the ravenous lion deals with his prey, so likewise did he deal with his enemies. Not one he spared; he turned aside from none. The man he wounded required no surgeon for his hurt. all the press gave back before so stark a champion, till in his path stood neither great nor small. The King of Lybia--Sertorius to name--was alord exceeding rich. Arthur struck the head from his shoulders. "In an ill hour you drew from the east to bear arms in this quarrel, and to furnish drink for Excalibur." But the dead man answered never a word. Polybetes, King of Bithynia, fought upon his feet. This was a pagan lord, and passing rich. Arthur found the paynim before him. He smote but one marvellous blow, and divided his head from his shoulders. Polybetes crashed to the earth. His soul rushed form his body, and his brains were spattered about the field. "Roman, speed to your doom," cried Arthur loudly, in the hearing of all.

Wace and Layamon ARTHURIAN CHRONICLES, trans, Mason, E., pp. 107-8, Dent, 1962 (1912).


Arthur's shield

Obviously the shield that Arthur bore in battle had supernatural qualities. In Geoffrey of Monmouth the implication is that the image of the Virgin Mary painted on the shield played a part in ensuring that Arthur was victorious at the battle of Bath against the Saxons. Unfortunately Geoffrey gives us no clue as to how this happened and we are left to assume that the image of the Virgin Mary on Arthur's shield was somehow responsible for his victory. Did keeping the Virgin Mary on the forefront of his mind lead Arthur to fight with a reckless courage that inspired his warriors to fight in a like manner? Or did the image act in concert with the blessing and exhortation of Archbishop Dubricius to ensure that Arthur's force was divinely blessed?

Arthur's shield comes from Welsh tradition, where it is given a name that translates as 'face of evening'; very close to Geoffrey's name which means 'fair face'. It is impossible to relate either name to the Virgin Mary, whose image decorated Arthur's shield in Geoffrey of Monmouth. Could not, then the shield's name have come from a Celtic tradition where the image was a Celtic divine figure? But whose might that image be? There are no clues in Welsh tradition, but an Irish story (given below) does give a direct connection to an image painted upon a shield and success in battle. As this image is of a mermaid, the tale provides a tantalising connection with the use of the name 'Pridwen' both for Arthur's boat in the Mabinogion and for his shield in Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Another mythic Irish figure connected with the Isle of Man is Culann, the smith, who in this capacity may be compared with Hephaestus, or Vulcan. Culann was, however; also a Divine and Prophet. He was the possessor of a terrible hound, which was slain by the youthful Setanta, who was in consequence called Cú-Chulainn, i.e., Culann's hound. Culann is said to have lived for a time in the Isle of Man, where he manufactured a sword, spear, and shield of such transcendent excellence for Conchobar. that he was invited by him to dwell in his realm. The story about this may perhaps be found of sufficient interest to be related at length: - Conchobar, who had not yet become King of Ulster, but was an ambitious young man seeking to gain a kingdom, consulted the famous oracle at Clogher as to bow he might best attain his end. The oracle advised him to proceed to the Isle of Man and get Culann to make these weapons for him. Conchobar did so, and prevailed on Culann to begin his task; but, while awaiting its completion, he sauntered one morning along the shore, and in the course of his walk met with a mermaid fast asleep on the beach. He promptly bound the syren, but she, on waking and perceiving what had happened, besought him to liberate her; and to induce him to yield to her petition, she informed him that she was Teeval, the Princess of the Ocean; and promised that if he caused Culann to form her representation on the shield surrounded with this inscription, 'Teeval, Princess of the Ocean,' it would possess such extraordinary powers that whenever he was about engaging his enemy in battle, and looked upon her figure on the shield, read the legend, and invoked her name, his enemies would diminish in strength, while he and his people would acquire a proportionate increase in theirs. Conchobar had the shield made according to the advice of Teeval, and, on his return to Ireland, such extraordinary success attended his arms, that he won the kingdom of Ulster. Culann accepted Conchobar's offer, referred to above, and settled on the plain of Murthemne, which was fabled to have been formerly situated beneath the sea. It was here that he was visited by Conchobar, accompanied by his Court and Cuchulainn.

The Folk-lore of the Isle of Man, A. W. Moore, 1891, Llanerch Publishers 1994, pp. 9-10.


Arthur's Sword

The sword of Celtic myth that can be related to Excalibur differs from that sword in important respect. Excalibur was Arthur's exclusive property and was returned to it's keeper, the Lady of the Lake' after Arthur's defeat. Yet it's Celtic counterpart, whether Welsh or Irish was not used exclusively by a single person.

Excalibur's Irish counterpart was carried the the three kings Feargus mac Léide, Feargus mac Róich and Aillil mac Máta. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen there is a further Irish connection. Here Arthur's sword (Caledvwlch) is wielded with great effect by an Irish warrior of Arthur's army, when Arthur captures the cauldron of Diwnarch in Ireland: -

Lenlleawg the Irishman seized Caledvwlch, swung it round in a circle and killed Diwnarch the Irishman and his entire retinue.

The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976, P. 170.

The destruction of a large number of warriors by swinging a magical sword around in a circle is a feat that was also performed by the Irish equivalent of Excalibur: -

Fergus mac Roith is fighting in the force of Queen Maev against the forces of Ulster

The battle was joined in the plain of Garach, in Meath. Fergus, wielding a two-handed sword, the sword which, it is said, when swung in battle made a circle like the arch of a rainbow, swept down whole ranks of the Ulstermen at each blow,1 and the fierce Maev charged thrice into the heart of the enemy.

1The sword of Fergus was a fairy weapon called the Caladcholg (hard-dinter), a name of which Arthur's more famous "Excalibur" is a latinised corruption.

Rolleston, T. W., Myths & Legends Series: Celtic, Bracken Books, n. d., pp. 223-4.

The mention of Fergus' sword making 'a circle like the arc of a rainbow' suggests that it may have emitted light when used in battle. If this was so, then we have another resemblance to Excalibur. For in battle Arthur's sword is recorded as emitting a blinding light as bright as 'thirty torches': -

Sir, said Merlin to Arthur, fight not with the sword that ye had by miracle, till ye see that ye go unto the worst, then draw it out and do your best. So forthwith Arthur set upon them (the six kings who rejected his claim to the throne of England) in their lodging. And Sir Baudwin, Sir Kay, and Sir Brastias slew on the right hand and on the left hand that it was a marvel; and always King Arthur on horseback laid on with a sword, and did marvellous deeds of arms that many of the kings had great joy of his deeds and hardiness. Then King Lot brake out of the back side, and the king with the hundred knights, and king Carados, and set on Arthur fiercely behind him. With that Sir Arthur turned with his knights, and smote behind and before, and ever Sir Arthur was in the foremost press till his horse was slain underneath him. And therewith King Lot Lot smote down King Arthur. With that his four knights received him and set him on horseback. then he drew his sword Excalibur, but it was so bright in his enemie's eyes that it gave light like thirty torches. And therewith he put them on back, and slew much people. And then the commons of Carlion arose with clubs and staves and slew many knights; but all the kings held tham together with their knight that were left alive, and so fled and departed. And Merlin came unto Arthur, and counselled him to follow them no further.

Le Morte D'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, BOOK I, CHAP. IX.


Arthur's spear

Magical spears are better known in Irish than Welsh sources. A possible divine origin for hero's spears can be seen in the invincible spear of the sun god Lugh: -

Out of Gorias was brought the spear that Lug had. No battle was won against it or who held it in his hand.

Ancient Irish Tales, eds. Cross, T. P., Slover, C. H. (1936), Barnes and Noble, 1996, P.28.

Another spear from Irish tradition had properties that could possibly have been at the root of Geoffrey of Monmouth's statement that Arthur's spear was thirsty for slaughter:

"A great lance in the hand of the midmost man, with fifty rivets through it. The shaft therein is a good load for the yoke of a plough team. The midmost man brandishes that lance so that its edge studs hardly stay therein, and he strikes the shaft thrice against h is palm. There is a great boiler in front of them, as big as a calf's cauldron, wherein is a black and horrible fluid, and he plunges the lance into that black fluid. If its quenching be delayed, it flames on its shaft and then thou wouldst suppose that there is a fiery dragon in the top of the house. Liken thou that, O Fer Rogain!"
"Easy to say. Three heroes who are best at grasping weapons in Erin, namely, Sencha the beautiful son of Ailill, and Dubtach Chafertounge of Ulster, and Goibniu son of Lurgnech. And the spear Luin of Celtchar mac Uthercair, which was found in the battle of Mag Tured, this is in the hand of Dubtach Chafertounge of Ulster. That feat is usual for it when it is ripe to pour forth a foeman's blood. A cauldron full of poison is needed to quench it when a deed of manslaying is expected.s Unless this come to the lance, it flames on its haft and will go through its bearer or the master of the palace wherein it is. It will kill a man at every blow, when it is at its work, from one hour to another, even though it may not reach him. It will kill nine men at every cast, and one of the nine will be a king or crown-prince or chieftain of the robbers."

Ancient Irish Tales, eds. Cross, T. P., Slover, C. H. (1936), Barnes and Noble, 1996, pp. 119-20.

This spear had to be quenched in order to prevent it's inherent destuctive power raging uncontrolled. In this it was like that owned by the Persian king Pisear in the tale called 'The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn.' Here Lug (a sun god) demands the spear as a part of the compensation for the killing of his son, Cian, by Brian, Iucharba and Iuchar sons of Tuirenn.

An excellent poisoned spear, of which Pisear king of Persia is possessed: Aredbair it is called; and every choicest deed is performed with it; and its blade is always in a cauldron of water, lest it melt down by its fiery heat the city in which it is kept;

Ancient Irish Tales, eds, Cross, P. T., Slover, C. H., (1936), Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1996


Return to Arthur's weapons.

Return to Home Page.


Hosted by www.Geocities.ws

1