The World's Most Famous Swords
More so than any other messenger of murderous mayhem, the sword holds a gruesome yet romantic fascination. To fight with a sword, you had to look your enemy in the eye. It is said that there was honour in such warfare, while striking your opponent down from afar with a bow or javelin, was somehow underhand. Legendary swordsmen were powerful and brave, they were history’s ultimate warriors and the weapons they would wield have become icons of valour.
Take Excalibur. The mythical sword of King Arthur is one of history’s legendary weapons but its tale is spectacularly muddled.
In surviving accounts, there are two versions. The first, the legend of the Sword in the Stone which originally appeared in Merlin, a 12th century poem by Frenchman Robert de Boron states the sword can only be pulled from a rock by the rightful King of England.
The second is the legend of the Lady in the Lake. After King Arthur broke his first sword in a fight, a sword-wielding hand rises out of a lake and Arthur takes it. No-one knows what lake, loch or mere was referenced in the many versions of the stories, but that’s sort of the point.
Despite the chaos of the derivatives of Arthurian legend, everyone knows Excalibur.
Uncle Charlie’s Sword…
You know Uncle Charlie. Charlemagne. Charles the Great, Carolingian King of the Franks, the man who united Europe in the 9th century and who remains one of the world’s great rulers. He is known as the Father of Europe and as it turns out, it’s metaphorical and literal as it has been argued that every modern European can trace their heritage back to Charlemagne.
Yet away from his productive loins and back to Charlemagne’s weapon... It was called Joyeuse and it was reputed to have magical powers. Forged by legendary blacksmith Galas, it was said its brightness outshone the sun. The sword, which resides in the Louvre, was so revered it was mentioned in the 11th century poem Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature –
‘[Charlemagne] was wearing his fine white coat of mail and his helmet with gold-studded stones; by his side hung Joyeuse, and never was there a sword to match it; its colour changed thirty times a day.’
The Reign in Spain….
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar is the next medieval European warrior on the list, or as you will know him, El Cid (likely from the Arabic al-Sayyid, meaning ‘the Lord’). A fearless 11th century Spanish military leader, his swords are as famous and celebrated throughout Spain as the man himself, but the authenticity of these famous foils remains a matter of conjecture.
The first, Tizona, was won in combat from Valencia’s King Yucef and in the epic poem ‘The Lay of El Cid’, the sword, at mere sight, was said to have terrified his enemies into a swoon. It is housed in the Museum of Burgos in the historic northern Spanish city of Castile but as always, no-one’s completely sure if it’s the real deal.
The second, Colada, was won in a duel with the Count of Barcelona. So called, they say, because of how it was made – ‘acero colado’ is alloyed steel without impurities – and the poetic links remain. Cantar de mio Cid, the oldest preserved Castilian epic poem, describes a sword that frightens unworthy opponents if wielded by a brave warrior. Again, its authenticity is questionable but it is kept on display at the Royal Palace of Madrid.
They Make Take Our Lives, But They’ll Never Take My Sword….
Purported to have belonged to Scottish knight and national hero William Wallace, the Wallace Sword is a two-handed weapon supposedly used at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
Measuring a staggering 167cm from hilt to point and weighing 2.9kg, it’s a weapon of such immense proportions it was claimed only a man of seven feet tall could handle such a beast. But as always, the legendary sword in the National Wallace Monument in Stirling is not without conjecture and controversy.
It is supposed that the sword was given to the governor of Dumbarton Castle after Wallace’s execution in 1305. It then it disappeared without trace until 1505 when it was mentioned in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, when King James IV ordered a twenty-six-shilling repair to its handle.
Over 300 years went by until it was mentioned again, for more repairs, at the Tower of London in 1825 and in 1888 it found its current home. Was it Wallace’s sword? It seems unlikely given its size and weight, and after careful study by experts in 13th century weaponry they note too many features inconsistent with medieval swordsmithery. But the blade does appear to be similar to that of other swords of the period, so maybe, just maybe…
Blade Runner: Who Was Sgt Coldy Bimore?
Exactly. Who was he, and how did he end up in possession of Japan’s most revered Samurai sword?
Gorō Nyūdō Masamune was Japan’s greatest swordsmith. During the late 13th and early 14th century at a time of a dramatic rise to power of the Samurai he forged swords of such superior quality and beauty they are spoken of with the same reverence as the nation’s great warriors.
Unlike many of Japan’s famous makers, Masamune was reluctant to sign his creations, so very few are accepted as genuine (the first genuine Masamune to surface in over 150 years was brought to the Kyoto National Museum by a man who found it in his house in 2014) and the Honjo Masamune, believed to be the finest Japanese sword ever made, is one of them, but it has gone….
After claiming it as a spoil of war, 16th century General Honjo Shigenaga – for whom the sword is named – ran into financial problems and sold it. It curved a path through the Japanese elite and the last known owner was Prince Iemasa Tokugawa who had it until the end of WWII but then the story gets weird…
In December 1945 the Prince handed the Honjo Masamune and 14 other swords into a Tokyo police station in compliance with the post-war disarmament of Japan ordered by the Americans.
From there the police gave them to a man who identified himself as Sgt. Coldy Bimore of the Foreign Liquidations Commission of AFWESPAC (Army Forces, Western Pacific). After extensive research, no Coldy Bimore had ever served and it’s entirely likely it was a garbled phonetic effort at the claimant’s name by the Japanese police.
An aside to the story but there was supposedly a Cole DB Moore who served in the Pacific Region towards the end of the war but then again he could have said ‘I’m called DB Moore’, or something similar. It appears there are some people on the internet who love a conspiracy theory…
And that’s it; that’s where the case goes cold. An American squaddie strolls in to a Tokyo nick and strolls out again with armfuls of swords including the most famous sword in a nation of famous swords and it’s never seen or heard of again. Who was he? Who let him walk out with Japan’s equivalent of the Crown Jewels? Did he know what he was doing? Where is it (or he) now? Answers on a postcard please…
Swords have rightly taken their place in the richly-woven fabric of history and there are plenty we’ve missed, including the Jewelled Sword of Offering, presented at the Coronation of Britain’s monarchs and of course the Sword of St Peter.
Finally, no article on famous swords would be complete without a mention of the Sword of Damocles. Legend has it that Damocles, an overly-eager courtier to King Dionysius II of Syracuse in the 4th century BC was invited to a banquet hosted by the king who was growing increasingly weary of the servant’s incessant flattery. Damocles was seated under a sword suspended by a single hair, an illusion to the precarious, ever-present and imminent peril faced by those in positions of power…. A sword that today seems the exclusive domain of politicians and Premier League football managers.
But that’s the point…