The story of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone is one of the most famous British legends. For centuries, this Arthurian story has been passed down from one generation to another through various literary works of authors and poets.
The Sword in the Stone - which some believe to be the same as the world-famous Excalibur - essentially tells the tale of an embedded sword that could only be pulled out from the stone by the one true king of England. The retrieval of the sword was deemed unlikely to be accomplished by any other man until the future King Arthur managed to do the impossible, proving his divine appointment as king and true heir of Uther Pendragon.
However, the story of a mystical sword stuck in a stone is not entirely unique to the well-known Arthurian legend. In fact, a similar yet lesser known story can be found in the Italian region of Tuscany, which some experts have suggested to be the real inspiration behind the British legend. This is the Sword in the Stone of Saint Galgano. And unlike King Arthur’s Excalibur, an actual 12th-century sword believed to be the very same sword that Saint Galgano thrust into the bedrock still exists today.
The Life of Saint Galgano Guidotti
Saint Galgano is considered to be the first saint whose canonization was conducted to a formal process by the Roman Church. Much of his life is known through the documents from the processing of his canonization in 1185, which is just a few years after his demise. There are also a number of written works by later authors that covered the saint’s life.
Galgano Guidotti was born in 1148 in Chiusdino, in the modern province of Siena, Italy. Being the son of a minor noble, he had spent his youth as a wealthy knight, solely concerned with the worldly pleasures that life had to offer. Trained in the art of war, Galgano was both arrogant and violent. However, all of that changed and he later renounced the ideologies of warfare and subsequently chose the path of a hermit.
The Story Behind Galgano’s Legendary Sword in the Stone
Saint Galgano’s path to holiness began with a vision of the Archangel Michael - who, incidentally, is often depicted as a warrior saint. According to one version of the legend, the Archangel Michael appeared before Saint Galgano and showed him the path to salvation, with the angel providing him directions to the place where he should go to achieve this.
On the following day, Saint Galgano declared his intention of becoming a hermit and took up residence in a nearby cave, which was met with ridicule from his family and his friends. Dionisia, Galgano’s mother, managed to convince her son to a pay a visit to his fiancee one last time before he completely renounces all worldly pleasures. And so, wearing his expensive nobleman’s clothing, he rode a horse and set out to visit his fiancee. However, on his way there, his horse suddenly reared, throwing him off its back.
Suddenly, Galgano felt an invisible force lift him to his feet, and an irresistible seraphic voice led him to Montesiepi, a hill nearby his home town of Chiusdino. When he reached the foot of the hill, the voice bade Galgano to be still and to look at the top of Montesiepi. There, he saw a vision of a round temple, with the Twelve Apostles surrounding Jesus and Mary. The voice instructed him to climb the hill, and while he was doing so, the vision he saw faded.
Once he reached the top of the hill, he heard the voice speak again, and this time, it commanded him to renounce all of his worldly desires. Saint Galgano, however, objected since the task was easier said than done. He went on to say that to accomplish such a feat was as easy as splitting a rock with a sword - it simply cannot be done.
In order to prove his point, Saint Galgano drew his sword and attempted to thrust it into the rocky ground. To his surprise and amazement, his blade went through the stone with as much ease as a hot knife slicing through butter. Having understood the divine message loud and clear, Galgano permanently resided on Montesiepi as a humble hermit, leading a life in poverty.
While he led a simple and humble life far different from the extravagant lifestyle he once had as a nobleman, Saint Galgano was visited occasionally by peasants, looking for his blessing. He also made friends with the wild animals he lived with.
According to one legend, the Devil once sent an assassin in the guise of a monk to kill Galgano. However, the saint managed to survive the ordeal because the wild wolves he was living with attacked the killer and “gnawed on his bones.”
At the age of 33, Galgano Guidotti met his demise in 1181, and was canonized four years later. His funeral was considered a major event at the time, and was attended by bishops as well as three Cistercian abbots, including one who had lost his way while headed for Rome.
The following year, the Bishop of Volterra placed Montesiepi under the care of Cistercian monks, knowing that they would erect a shrine in Galgano’s memory. They began the construction of a round chapel in 1185, and this became known as the Cappella di Montesiepi. The chapel is located just above the main abbey and houses the legendary sword of Saint Galgano up to this day.
Authenticity of the Sword in the Cappella di Montesiepi
For centuries, the sword in the stone in Montesiepi was widely believed to be a fake except by the most devout. However, research in the 21st century revealed that based on the composition of its metal as well as its style, the sword is indeed from the 12th century.
The sword has a basic design - its pommel is flat and slightly egg-shaped with a truncated form, while its guard is a straight bar of steel - and its style is typically associated to the known weapons of the 12th century.
In 2001, a metal analysis conducted by Luigi Garlaschelli of the University of Pavia revealed that the sword is indeed very old, with no clear proof to support the claims that the sword is a recent fake.
Ground-penetrating radar analysis also revealed a two-meter by 1-meter cavity beneath the sword believed to be a burial recess, which possibly contains Saint Galgano’s body. Meanwhile, carbon-dating confirmed that the two mummified arms housed in the same chapel at Montesiepi were also indeed from the 12th century. This incidentally supports that legend that anyone who attempted to remove the sword from the stone had their arms ripped out from their bodies.
The recent scientific research and evidence proving that the sword as well as the mummified arms in Cappella di Montesiepi have existed around the 12th century may not be full-proof evidence that the sword in the stone is indeed Saint Galgano’s blade, but it does paint a shade of truth to the story.
Saint Galgano’s Sword vs. King Arthur’s Excalibur
There are those who argue that the “Sword in the Stone” legend of King Arthur did not originate from the Celtic fringes of Britain or France but in Italy. The story of Saint Galgano and the sword embedded in a rock in Tuscany bears similar details to the Arthurian legend of Sir Percival, the finder of the Holy Grail.
It is also interesting to note that the the first story mentioning King Arthur pulling a sword from an anvil on top of a stone appeared in one of the poems written by 13th century French poet Robert de Boron, and that these poems were written several decades after Galgano’s canonization by the Roman Church. By that time, word of Saint Galgano’s life may have already travelled across Europe, with the legend of King Arthur and his sword likely to have been inspired by the story of the reformed Italian knight.
Though the two stories share very similar elements, each convey a different message and fulfills a different purpose. The Arthurian legend of the Sword and the Stone is a story that displays the might, glory and mythical qualities of King Arthur to do the impossible, demonstrated by the unlikely retrieval of a sword. The story of Saint Galgano’s sword, on the other hand, speaks of faith, humility and the path to holiness by doing the opposite - which is thrusting a blade into a rock-solid ground.
Though Saint Galgano Guidotti’s story may just be a curious legend much like the story of King Arthur and the Excalibur, its legacy is far from forgotten. The round temple in Montesiepi is still standing, and is still safekeeping the sword believed to have belonged to Galgano as well as the mummified forearms that supposedly belonged to a man who dared to pull out that very same sword. The walls of the Abbey of San Galgano on Montesiepi are also still standing tall, and has since become a tourist spot for its haunting beauty, history and architecture.