‘Catholic Excalibur’: The True Story Behind St. Galgano’s Sword
Contrary to the legend of King Arthur’s mythical blade, this sword really existed and symbolizes the humility of a knight who renounced power to embrace a hermit life and became a saint.
The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, a classic of Celtic literature and mythology, has captivated generations of people across all faiths for its glorious dimension. Much less known is the story of St. Galgano Guidotti, a knight-turned-hermit, which is often associated with the legend of Excalibur but which is based on proven historical facts. And it is no less worthy of a cloak-and-dagger novel.
Born around 1148 in Chiusdino, Tuscany, Galgano Guidotti had a faith path comparable to that of a St. Francis of Assisi or a St. Charles de Foucauld, leading a rather disorderly and dissolute life into early adulthood. According to the acts of his canonization process and the oldest biographies, it was around the age of 30, after the death of his father, that the impetuous knight had an apparition of St. Michael the Archangel in a dream, which instilled in him a profound desire to radically change his life.
In another dream, the divine messenger led him to the nearby hill of Montesiepi, where the Twelve Apostles appeared to him, urging him to retire there, to build a house to the glory of God, the Virgin Mary and the apostles, and to live as a hermit.
The Symbol of the Sword in the Stone
The exact location of Guidotti’s future hermitage was indicated to him by his horse as he was going to meet the woman his mother, Dionysia, wanted him to marry, as she herself would tell the Church authorities during his canonization process.
In the middle of the journey, the horse abruptly changed direction, ignoring the resistance and the heels of his rider, and led him to Montesiepi, where the horse stopped at a precise point and did not want to move. This new mystical experience officially marked the beginning of Guidotti’s life as a hermit.
There, as a sign of perpetual renunciation of war, he thrust his knight’s sword into the ground, thereby evoking the cross of Christ.
His testimony of life quickly spread to the neighboring villages, attracting a considerable number of pilgrims to Montesiepi, with many faithful asking for prayers and miracles.
“One day, while Galgano was away, some ‘envious’ people broke the sword, so he was forced to plant it in a more solid base: in a boulder of Montesiepi, the same one where it stands now,” Alessio Tommasi Baldi, chancellor of the Confraternity of St. Galgano, told the Register.
When asked about the frequent comparison made by some historians and popular storytellers between the story of St. Galgano and the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table — especially because of the common symbol of the sword planted in the rock — Baldi said that although the two stories have in common that they mark a radical change of life, their deep symbolisms carry at the same time a very different meaning.
“By drawing his sword from the anvil, Arthur becomes king, while Galgano, a knight, transformed his commitment to an external and terrestrial militia to integrate the militia Christi by fixing his sword in the bare earth,” Baldi said. “In the first case, the sword is a sign of power and might, which makes the one who uses it invincible. In the second, it deviates from its primary function, takes the form of the cross and becomes an object of asceticism, of spiritual peace.”
Historical Connection With King Arthur?
Relying also on the book La Spada e la Roccia — San Galgano: La Storia, Le Leggende (The Sword and the Stone — St. Galgano: History, Legends) by Andrea Conti and Mario Arturo Iannaccone, which he considers the best reference on this topic, Baldi refuted the widespread idea that the two stories inspired each other.
This frequent historical parallel between the two characters is, according to the book’s authors, a recent product of “pop culture,” deriving mainly from the Walt Disney universe and developed by unscrupulous contemporary historians.
Indeed, the first traces of stories mentioning King Arthur in Celtic literature date back to the sixth century, several centuries before the birth of St. Galgano.
Baldi added that, contrary to the Breton legend, St. Galgano’s story is based on undeniable historical facts.
“The claim of those — including esotericists or even Freemasons — who want to transform the story of Galgano into a kind of symbolic ‘repetition’ of the legend of King Arthur, taking away all historical value from the sources that testify to the real mystical experience of the hermit of Chiusdino, are completely unreliable,” he said.
St. Galgano remains nowadays a central figure of the Tuscan eremitism of the 12th century, although his religious life in Montesiepi was relatively brief. Indeed, the hermit died on Dec. 3, 1181, only a few months after obtaining the approval of Pope Alexander III for the foundation of his community.
His premature death did not, however, diminish his spiritual impact on the neighboring populations, who soon flocked to his tomb to seek his intercession for the most various causes. The numerous miracles reported to the ecclesiastical authorities of the time led to his canonization just four years later, in 1185.
In the same year, his disciples, among whom were several people who had benefited from miracles through his intercession, gathered in a confraternity devoted to the saint in Chiusdino, known as the Confraternity of St. Galgano, which remains among the oldest Catholic confraternities in existence.
His hermitage in Montesiepi, which contains his tomb and his famous sword, is still the destination of many pilgrimages, attracting several thousands of people every year. The religious-monumental complex dedicated to the saint in the territory of Chiusdino also includes the great 13th-century abbey church, a jewel of Gothic-Cistercian architecture located on the Val di Merse Road, as well as a church adjacent to the birthplace of the knight-hermit, where his feast day is still celebrated on the Church calendar Nov. 30 and locally every Dec. 3.