The Legend Behind the Real Sword in the Stone
The sword in the stone is an Arthurian legend about the future king who pulls the sword Excalibur from an anvil sitting atop a large stone. The story was first mentioned by the writer Sir Thomas Malory in one of his 15th-century papers, but the legend of King Arthur dates back to the 11th century when tales of his exploits were told across Britain.
Over the years stories about Arthur evolved to include the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin the Magician, and Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, which would end in tragedy. There is no cold hard evidence that indicates Arthur was an actual person, but there is a real sword in the stone story that occurred in 11th-century Italy.
The story about Arthur and the sword in the stone is just one of many concerning the great king. It has been passed on through the generations and formed the basis for many different stories and novels. There are over 20 movies inspired by the tale, including Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the Walt Disney production The Sword in the Stone, and the Sean Connery starring First Knight.
In a bid to separate fact from fiction, below is a look at the two stories concerning the sword in the stone and how they differ, beginning with the Arthurian legend.
The Legend of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone
The original Arthurian legend began centuries ago and there are various versions that follow the same main story with additional details. This account of the tale might differ from some when it comes to unique details, but is pretty much the same story you will find in any retelling of the classic legend.
It all starts in England where the great King Uther ruled over a peaceful and prosperous land. Not long after he and his wife Queen Guinevere had a baby son, Merlin the Magician, one of Uther’s most trusted advisors, warned the King a darkness was coming and asked to take their only son and hide him away.
Taking no notice of Merlin’s warnings, King Uther and Queen Guinevere continued to raise their child together. But not long after the child’s birth, Queen Guinevere passed away, and then King Uther was killed in battle, leaving the child an orphan. Seizing his moment, Merlin grabbed him and high-tailed it out of the castle, leaving the kingdom without a ruler.
The darkness prophesized by Merlin soon transpired as knights fought to claim the vacant throne and wars decimated the countryside. Nobody was safe as raiders pillaged villages and men took what they wanted without fear of repercussions.
Far, far away in a quiet part of the land, a knight by the name of Ector was raising his two sons. Kay was his first son and his own flesh and blood, while Arthur, his youngest, was adopted. Years earlier an elderly man had entrusted Ector with raising the child, something he was more than happy to do as he had always wanted another son.
One day the elderly man returned and began teaching Ector’s sons to read and write, but only Arthur stuck with the lessons. He was inquisitive and had a thirst for knowledge. If you haven’t figured it out, the old man was Merlin and Arthur the son he rescued from King Uther. After teaching Arthur all he could, he once again disappeared.
The day after Merlin vanished, a strange thing occurred. In the middle of the market square in London, an anvil with a sword sticking out of it on a large stone appeared. Nobody knew where it came from but on closer inspection, the hilt of the sword was inscribed with the words “Whoever pulls out this sword from this stone is the true king of England!”
All of the men of the city tried their luck but to no avail and the story of the sword in the stone soon spread across the kingdom. This gave the Duke of Cornwall an idea: organize a tournament open to all the knights across the kingdom to come and attempt to retrieve the sword.
By this stage, Arthur was now a squire for his brother, Knight Kay, and when word reached them of the sword in the stone, they set off with their father for London. Sir Kay was involved in the festivities and needed his sword. Arthur was sent to retrieve it but couldn’t find it when he stumbled across the sword in the stone in the marketplace. With nobody about, Arthur tried his luck and somehow the sword came loose. He quickly found Kay and gave him the sword.
Knowing what he had in his hands, Kay showed his father and proclaimed himself the true king, but after Sir Ector demanded he tell him where he got the sword, he admitted Arthur gave it to him. They then found Arthur and went back to the anvil where Arthur had acquired the sword. To show he wasn’t lying, he placed the sword back inside the anvil on the stone. Kay then tried to pull the sword out but couldn’t and began making a scene. As people heard the commotion a crowd began to gather. When they asked who pulled the sword out of the stone, Arthur said it was him, and did it once again to prove to the people watching.
Then the Duke of Cornwall appeared and told Arthur to show him what he had done, pulling the sword out and putting it back once again. A steady stream of knights then attempted to do the same, not believing a skinny kid like Arthur could pull the sword from its resting place, but none of them could repeat the feat.
Arthur then stepped up and withdrew the blade, holding the sword above his head as the crowd chanted his name and declared him the new king. This did not go down with the knights, who could not believe this young boy was to be their new ruler. That’s when Merlin magically appeared and declared that Aruther was indeed the heir to the throne and worthy of being king.
Merlin revealed Author’s true lineage and the crowd fell to their feet, hailing Arthur as the one true king who would lead them back into the light.
The Legend Behind the Real Sword in the Stone
The Arthurian legend makes for a great tale, but the real sword in the stone story is just as engrossing. While it doesn’t involve a mystical sword or a big beared wizard, there is a sword trapped in stone. On the outskirts of the Italian town of Sienna is a 900-year-old sword of St. Galgano Guidotti that is embedded deep inside a rock.
Born in 1148, Guidotti became a wealthy knight who was ruthless, never allowing his enemies mercy and always chasing after the pleasures of the flesh. He was said to be arrogant, mean-spirited, extremely violent, and lived a hedonistic life. But all this changed when he reported having a vision of the Archangel Michael, also known as the warrior saint.
These visions led Guidotti to the top of Rotonda di Montesiepi where he realized the error of his ways and decided to renounce his knightship and become a hermit. Quite the dramatic change in lifestyle, and despite protests from his family, Guidotti abandoned his life of sin to live quietly on Montesiepi. But before doing so he thrust his sword into a large stone, which many interpret as being done to imitate the shape of a cross.
A few years after his death in 1181, Pope Lucius III declared Guidotti a saint, and a chapel was built around the sword in the stone. Throughout the centuries many have tried to pull the sword from the stone, but none have succeeded. On display next to the ancient artifact is a pair of mummified hands that are believed to have belonged to a thief who tried to snatch the sword. There’s a story that says the robber was actually sent by the Devil to steal the sword but was intercepted by a pack of wolves who killed and ate him. The sword in the stone is now protected by a plastic covering to stop people from trying to pull it loose.
It might sound a little far-fetched, but research has found the sword dates back to the late 1100s and that just below the rock is a burial chamber where Guidotti was said to be buried.
While both the story of Guidotti and Arthur differ slightly, there is a strong suspicion that what happened with Guidotti inspired the Arthurian legend. The event took place around the same time Arthur was first mentioned and some 300-odd years before detailed accounts of Arthur’s adventures were published. Either way, the real sword in the stone makes for an interesting tale that’s almost as exciting as the Arthur legend.