Bedivere throws Excalibur into the lake

Bedivere throws Excalibur into the lake by Aubrey Beardsley: -
'Le Morte D'Arthur', Dent edition of 1909

Arthur's weapons etc.

Completed 23 June 2002.
Last modified 7 December 2003.
© Text Copyright 2002 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at',uk

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, my mantle, my sword Caledvwlch (Excalibur), 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.

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. 217.


  1. Forward
  2. Arthur's shield
  3. Arthur's ship
  4. Arthur's sword
  5. Arthur's spear
  6. Arthur's knife
  7. Arthur's armour
  8. Arthur's club and shield?
  9. Arthur's cauldron
  10. Arthur's mantle
  11. Arthur's animals
  12. Background on King Arthur's weapons


Excalibur. Yes everyone knows about Arthur's peerless sword and the part it played in his life. Though other named weapons were owned by Arthur, but the memory of them did not survive in the Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages. The order of the sections reflects their first written occurnces and their connections. So the shield section comes first and is connected with the boat. Then comes the sword, which is connected to the spear. Other lesser weapons follow with animals, a dog and a mare associated with Arthur, and a magical mantle. Mentions of these latter are fragmentary and rather uninteresting. Other things associated with Arthur are mentioned in the Welsh Triads, but the Triads are essentially lists composed to aid memory and give few insights into the legenday King Arthur we know.

Arthur's shield

The shield, despite the later fame of Excalibur, is the first weapon that Dark Age sources mention in connection with Arthur. In these Arthur is mentioned as bearing a religious image upon his "shoulder" during a battle. Modern translators agree the writers who wrote the Latin accounts of Arthur in which religious images are mentioned confused the Welsh words for "shield" and "shoulder". In the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), Arthur is described as bearing this shield during the battle of Badon in 516 AD

516 The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders [i.e. shield] and the Britons were the victors.

NENNIUS: British History and the Welsh Annals, ed. & trans. John Morris, Phillimore, 1980, P. 45.

This feat of Arthur's is also recorded in Nennius' British History (a work assigned to the early ninth cantury). In this Arthur bears a shield with an image of the Virgin Mary at the Battle of Gunnion Fort. Not at the Battle of Badon: which is listed as a separate battle

The eighth battle was in Gunnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the Holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Virgin Mary, his mother ...... The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.

NENNIUS: British History andd the Welsh Annals, ed. & trans. John Morris, Phillimore, 1980, P. 35.

According to Nennius the power of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary ensured the victory of Arthur over his opponents: who would have been pagans. Yet why was the image of the Virgin Mary depicted on a shield and not upon a banner which would have both been visible to Arthur's entire force and would have inspired them to fight unstintingly? When we move on a few hundred years, to Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of 'King Arthur' of about 1136, we find the same motif. Geoffrey relates that the Saxons were besieging the city of Bath and Arthur's army left a campaign in Scotland to relieve the siege. After Arthur's army has been exhorted to fight by Dubricius, Archbishop of the City of the Legions: -

Without a moments delay each man present, inspired by the benediction given by this holy man, rushed 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 put 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 be thinking perpetually of her.

Geoffrey of Monmouth: the History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin 1983 (1966), pp. 216-217.

Features of this description of Arthur's armaments suggest that Geoffrey of Monmouth was utilising traditions concerning him that came from Celtic sources. The assertion that Arthur's shield was circular is one. Such a shield would have been carried by a Dark-Age warriors, unlike the knights contemporary with Geoffrey, who carried elongated shields. Likewise these knights would have worn chain mail augmented with metal plate. They would not have worn a leather jerkin or cuirass (this leather must have been hardened to resist sword cuts and thrusts) which might have been used in the technologically deficient Dark Ages. Finally, the image painted on Arthur's shield has a parallel in an ancient Irish story that is quite specific over how this might benefit the warrior bearing the shield.

In this story the image-bearing shield benefitted the whole force of the leader who carried it. When the leader invoked the image upon the shield his army took over some of the strength of their opponents. The story concerns the Ulster king Conchobar. At first Conchobar's shield was to be merely a normal shield, though made by the famous smith Culann. However, a mermaid captured by Conchobar bargains for her release by promising that her image painted upon the shield, when invoked in battle, will transfer a part of the strength of Conchobar's opponents to his own men.

Could the assertion that Arthur's shield bore a Christian image possibly be another instance where Christianity has appropriated a dramatic motif from a pre-existing mythology? A motif that was used to provide a magical image in stories. Taken by Christianity, this motif was shorn it of it's substance and was used as an empty symbol. The purpose of this transformation would have been to associate a popular tale with Christian iconography and beliefs. This also happened with popular pagan festivals, which were allowed to survive and given a Christian gloss through being associated with the Saints and the events in the Christian Calendar. The common people would continue to celebrate these festivals, but eventually would come to regard them as completely Christian and so would forget their earlier associations with pagan beliefs.

Sometimes this takeover was not too successful. Samhaim was turned into All Saints Night, but the festival's Celtic origins can still be seen. It follows the Celtic practice of setting the start of a new day at sunset, hence the popular name of Halloween (All Hallows Evening). Then childrens practice of 'Trick or Treat' is a survival of ancient beliefs about Samhain. Originally the start of the Celtic year, it was a time when the barriers between this world and the 'Otherworld' of the dead were at their weakest. The ghostly and grotesque disguises worn by children are representations of the spirits of the dead who were believed to walk the Earth on the night of Samhain. The demanding of gifts to prevent mischief is an attenuated survival of the custom of leaving gifts of food for wandering ancestral ghosts. Though ancestors of the living, these ghosts had no feelings of benevolence towards their living descendants and could easily cause magical harm to them if not bribed with offerings of food and drink.

The two names given to Arthur's shield are closely related, despite appearing completely different. For Pridwen (Geoffrey of Monmouth) means 'fair face'. While Wynebgwrthucher (The Mabinogion) means 'face of evening'. Both names are apt for a shield that bore a painted image of a female face. They are also very appropriate for an image of a semi-divine Celtic figure, such as a mermaid, which had the magical properties cited above. Yet the names do not seem as relavent to a portrait of a Christian figure (either Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary), who should have been given a name that reflected their place in Christian theology.

Now for an anomaly. In Geoffrey of Monmouth Pridwen is Arthur's shield. Yet in the Mabinogion Prydwen is Arthur's boat. Let's have a look at the ship now.

Arthur's ship

This receives only a few scattered mantions. In the Mabinogion story of Culhwch and Olwen it is mentioned upon three occasions. First Arthur sails in Prydwen so he can approach, from the sea, the cave in which the bitch Rhymhi has her two pups, while his companions approach the cave from the land. Second, Arthur and a small force sail in Prydwen to Ireland to obtain the cauldron of Diwrnach. Third Arthur sails in Prydwen, with his troops and horses and dogs, to Wales as they pursue the pig Twrch Trwyth. Outside the Mabinogion, Prydwen features in the enigmatic poem Preideu Annwfyn (The Spoils of Annwn): carrying three boatloads of soldiers with Arthur to an attack upon an otherworld fort from which only seven men return.

As noted above the word 'Prydwen' has been translated as 'fair face'. This is a very odd name for a ship. One would expect a name that glorifies the speed and sailing qualities of the ship, instead of a name that, as noted above, is apt for a shield with a female head painted upon it. Though is is possible that a legendary shield and a ship became confused in the oral transmission of Arthur's story.

It is possible that the calling of both a shield and a ship 'Pridwen' could be a distorted memory of an ancient Celtic war tactic. The members of the army of the Celtic leader Brennos used their long shields as rafts to aid them in swimming across a river in 280 BC (Ellis, P. B., Celt and Greek, London, 1997, P. 14). A memory of this tactic may have led to a shield, with a painted female face upon it, becoming confused with a ship. With the consequence that the name of the shield would have been transferred to the ship, leaving both with the name Prydwen.

Arthur's Sword

Geoffrey of Monmouth gives us the first mention of Arthur's sword, which he calls 'Caliburn'. He also tells that it was forged in the island of Avalon: where Arthur went after being wounded in the final battle that saw the death of Mordred. Welsh sources call Arthur's sword Caledvwlch (hard-cleft) and say that it was a sacred gift from God (The Welsh Triads). The notion that Arthur bore a sword that had superlative cutting qualities survives in Malory, where the word Excalibur is said to mean 'Cut-steel' (Malory, BOOK II, CHAP. III)

With Caledvwlch there is a close connection between Welsh and Irish myth. For the Irish knew of a magical sword of fairy origin called Caladcholg (hard-dinter). This was borne by more than one Irish king: by Feargus mac Léide, who slew a water monster with it, by Aillil mac Máta and by Fearhus mac Róich. The last swung the sword round in arcs that slew all around him. A feat that paralleled a like exploit in Culhwch and Olwen, when one of Arthur's warriors used Caledvwlch in a battle:-

Llenlleawg the Irishman seized Caledvwlch. swung it round in a circle and killed Diwnach the Irishman and his entire retinue;

The Mabinogion, trans. Gantz, J., Penguin (Harmondworth), 1976, P. 170

We must infer from this description that Caledvwlch/Excalibur was not the exclusive property of King Arthur. A fact confirmed in Chrétien de Troyes poem Perceval, where Sir Gawain like Arthur's Irish warrior, wields excalibur (escalibor) with great effect when he is attacked in a tower in the city of the King of Escavalon:-

Come what may, he now felt sure that he could hold the door and entrance to the tower, for he had Escalibor girded on, the finest sword there was, which sliced through iron as though through wood.

Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: the story of the grail, trans. Bryant, N., D. S. Brewer (Woodbridge), 1996 (1982), P. 63

Though Caladhcholg, the Irish magical weapon, was a sword, its name has been connected to another word Caladhbholg (hard-spear). It is postulated that this weapon was once the typical weapon of the archetypal Celtic War God. With changes in the weapons carried by warriors over time, the name of this legendary divine weapon became associated with an equally fearsome magical sword. Indeed the Welsh name for Arthur's sword (caledvwlch) is seen as being closer to Caladhbholg than is the name of Feargus mac Léide's sword (Ó HÓgáin, D., Myth Legend and Romance, Prentice Hall 1991, P. 194 & 196).

In Malory's Morte D'Arthur the king's sword is the more familiar Excalibur. However it's origins are confused. At the most general level the gaining of the sword by Arthur involves the magician Merlin and the sword itself possesses magical qualities. The two ways in which Arthur obtained Excalibur must come from different sources. The method used to join these contradictory origin tales was the device of having one Excalibur (the sword in the stone) broken in a fight with Pellinor. With one Excalibur disposed of, the alternative version of the origin story could then be interpolated.

The first acquisition of Excalibur is the familiar kingship test in which Arthur proves his right to the throne by pulling Excalibur from a stone at a Christmas gathering. The gathering had been suggested by Merlin, but a religious element is introduced by the sword-in-the-stone appearing in the churchyard of the greatest church in London, close by the high altar, and by the prominent part that the Archbishop of Canterbury plays in the proceedings (Malory, BOOK, I CHAPS. VI-VIII). Only later is the sword's name revealed to be Excalibur, when Arthur draws it to rescue his army from defeat in a battle and the light from Excalibur blinds his enemies eyes (Malory, BOOK I, CHAP. IX). This notion that Arthur's sword emits a blinding light is also found on the Mabinogion tale '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 serpents was like two flames of fire, so dreadful that it was not easy for anyone to look.

The Mabinogion, trans. Gantz, J., Penguin (Harmondworth), 1976, P. 184

Merlin is also involved in Arthur obtaining the second Excalibur. When he guides Arthur to the Lady of the Lake and prompts him to ask for the gift of the sword that an arm holds above her lake. Arthur now obtains a second Excalibur, with a scabbard this time, from the Lady of the Lake. Though magical, this sword has different properties to the original Excalibur. It does not shine with a dazzling light, but gives extremely cutting blows while the scabbard protects it's bearer from losing blood from his wounds (Malory, BOOK I, CHAP. XXV). The gift of a lady who rules an underwater otherworld, the sword is returned to her after Arthur has been mortally wounded (Malory, BOOK XXI, CHAP. V). Earlier the scabbard had been returned to a lake when Morgan le Fay stole it from Arthur and threw it into a lake to prevent him taking it back (Malory, BOOK IV, CHAP XIV).

Merlin also prepared another sword-in-stone test: that by which Galahad obtained his sword at Camelot (Malory, BOOK II, CHAP. XIX). Though this event is not part of Arthur's story, it shows that the old magician was deeply involved in the magic sword business!

Arthur's spear

Called Rhongomynyad (cutting-spear) in the Mabinogion. While Geoffrey of Monmouth more familiarly calls the spear Ron and describes it in the following way. "A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter." In the Welsh Triads the spear is one of the "sacred weapons that God had given him (Arthur)".

In the Irish story 'Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel' a magical spear that approximates to Geoffrey of Monmouth's description of Arthur's spear Ron can be found. This is called 'Luin of Celtchar mac Uthercair'. It needed to be quenched in poison when battle was expected, for it then became so ardent for blood that it would destroy it's handler. When used it would kill nine at each throw.

Arthur's knife

Mention of this comes from the Mabinogion. Its name was Carnwennan (little white hilt) and it is another of Arthur's weapons that was a "sacred weapon" given him by God. With it Arthur killed the Black Hag in her cave. After the Hag had wrestled and defeated four of Arthur's warriors who attempted to obtain her blood to shave Chief Giant Ysbaddaden, Arthur used Carnwennan to kill her. As would be expected from a divine gift, Arthur's knife had magical properties. When thrown it hit it's target, even when the target was hidden in the darkness of a cave. While, when it struck the knife split the person it was thrown at in two: -

Then Arthur sprang to the cave entrance and threw his knife Carnwennan at the hag, so that it struck her down the centre and made two vats of her, and Caw of Scotland took the blood and kept it with him.

The Mabinogion, trans. Gantz, J., Penguin, 1976, P. 175.

Arthur's armour

Geoffrey of Monmouth does not describe Arthur as wearing the protective armour that was worn by the knights of his era. Instead he has Arthur protected by a leather jerkin, or cuirass, and bearing a round shield. Perhaps these items were ascribed to Arthur in lost traditions that were familiar to Geoffrey. Those who produced versions of Geoffrey's history in Norman French and in English (Wace and Layamon) gave armour that was familiar to their contemporaries.

Arthur's club and shield?

These items are only mentioned in one story that has continental origins. A dragon that ravaged the Breton countryside had successfully avoided Arthur, who searched and fought monsters in the region. Instructions from churchmen lead Arthur to the dragon's cave, where he attacks it: -

Arthur was cheered by the advent of the holy men and he rejoiced with all his heart at the directions to the monster's cave, because he had so often departed sad because he had not been able to find the monster, angry with himself as though having been beaten by it. He armed himself with the triple-knotted club and defended his eager torso with the shield which a lion-skin covered, and then alone he attacked the public enemy, fighting for all.

The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend, Coe, J. B., Young, S., Llanerch Publishers, 1995, P. 39.

Arthur fights the dragon all day. Though unwounded, he is not only exhausted, but has failed to cause the dragon any more than pain. Arthur then seeks the assistance of Saint Euflamm, who banishes the dragon.

This story is from of those Saint's lives that portray Arthur as inferior to churchmen. The weapons that Arthur was armed with do seem rather spurious. Indeed the partnership of the triple-knotted club and the lion skin make one suspicious that the story is a fabrication that owes more than a little to a clerics knowledge of the classical hero Hercules. A more charitable view would be that the story came from a continental tradition in which Arthur had taken over the weapons, and performed the feats of strength and courage, characteristic of heroes who may have originally been Celtic divinities.

Arthur's cauldron

A very important item in a king's household, for the food for his retinue was cooked in it. Arthur's cauldron was carried by Hwgwydd, who also kindled the fire beneath the cauldron. When Arthur captures the cauldron of Diwnarch the Irishman (Culhwch and Olwen), it is given to Hwgwydd to carry.

In order to secure the loyalty of their warriors, kings and military leaders had to provide their food and give them land. From the Dark Ages this pattern continued into the Middle Ages. In Arthurian romance this customary behaviour can seen in the feastings at the Round Table, the gifts of land to knights and, rather more bizarrely, in incidents where Arthur promises to fulfil a petitioner's request before the petitioner reveals their demand. These reckless promises inevitably lead to the king having to fulfil a request that he would have dismissed, had he known its nature before he had promised to act with regal benevolence.

Arthur's mantle

This was the last of the thirteen treasures of Britain. It is described as follows: -

the mantle of Arthur in Cornwall. whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everybody.

The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend, Coe, J. B., Young, S., Llanerch Publishers, 1995, P. 77.

Arthur's animals

Animals were of supreme importance in earlier societies and the posession of superlative specimens was of great importance to warrior heroes. Arthur's hunting dog Cavall (the word means horse!) was certainly important enough to have been been mentioned in connection with the wonders of Britain described by the Dark Age writer Nennius: -

There is another wonder in the country called Builth. there is a heap of stones there, and one of the stones placed on top of the pile has the footprint of a dog on it. When he hunted Trwch Trwyth Cafal, the warrior Arthur's hound, impressed his footprint on the stone, and Arthur later brought together the pile of stones, under the stone in which was his dog's footprint, and it is called Carn Cafal. Men come and take the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the morrow it is found upon the stone pile.

Nennius, British History, trans. Morris, J., Phillimore, 1980, P. 42

Cavall is also twice mentioned in passing in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion. It kills the 'Chief Boar Ysgthryrwyn' and it is by the side of Bedwyr in the hunting of the boar 'Twrch Trwyth'. It is also mentioned in 'Geraint and Enid' as being Arthur's favourite hound. In this story Cavall turned a hart towards Arthur, who then chased the animal and beheaded it.

Arthur also had a mare called Llamrei that is mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen. During the pursuit and killing of the 'Chief Boar Ysgithryrwyn' it is ridden by Caw of Scotland. Llamrei must also have been able to bear great loads, for she carried four of Arthur's wounded companions after they had been throroughly drubbed by the Black Hag in her cave.

A further horse tradition concerning Arthur was current in Wales in the nineteenth century. The tradition was that Arthur and his war-horse expelled an 'afanc' from the lake Llyn Barfog (52° 34· 3´ N 3° 59· 2´ W) in the former county of Merionethshire. The afanc was a water monster that could not be killed. It could only be prevented from causing harm to those living near a lake by dragging it from it's home waters and putting it another body of water. Near the Llyn Barfog is a rock (Carn March Arthur 52° 34· 0´ N 3° 59· 4´ W) that bears an imprint that is supposed to be a hoofprint of Arthur's horse (Celtic Folklore, John Rhys, 1901, pp. 142, 429).

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