The Sword of Charlemagne
An article by Björn Hellqvist
One of the most well-known swords in the world is the traditional coronation sword of France, once attributed to the great Emperor Charlemagne. It is kept in the Louvre Museum, the famous museum of art in Paris, France. To this day, it is unclear whether the sword is Charlemagne's sword "Joyeuse" or if it is of a later date. It is shrouded in mystery, but before moving on to the sword itself, I'll try to sketch an outline on who Charlemagne was and why a sword attributed to him is so special.
CharlemagneThe Legendary Emperor
A Most Enigmatic Sword
There are two main schools. One thinks that the sword is basically that which was carried by Charlemagne. Their main argument is that the ornamentation of the hilt, which is not typical of later swords, indicates an early date of manufacture. The other school thinks that the proportions are that of a later weapon and that it is unlikely that the original sword has survived for 1200 years. The antiquarian Sir Martin Conway believed the sword to be made up of parts, some of them from around 800 AD, while Sir Guy Laking put the age at a much later date, the early 13th century. One French antiquarian, a M. Dieulafoy, saw similarities between Sassanidian decorative styles and the decoration of the pommel, thinking that a western craftsman imitated the style for some obscure reason. As the style in question would be of the mid-7th century, it would explain the unusual pommel and also provide evidence for the age of the sword. Laking, on his side, argued that the general proportions of the sword put it at a date of manufacture no earlier than 1150 AD, and that similar ornamental styles can be encountered in European art of that period. Laking speculates that the sword might have replaced the original "Joyeuse" in the 13th century, being made as a copy of the original, which might account for the seeming anachronisms. The late sword expert Ewart Oakeshott, on the other hand, tends to side with those who set an earlier date for the sword, arguing that the proportions aren't that unlikely for an earlier sword and that the decorative style is alien for the years around 1200 AD. Alterations made through the centuries have further clouded the issue. The Louvre Museum official Web site lists the following ages of the different parts: pommel 10th-11th centuries, cross second half of the 12th century and grip 13th century. There's no date for the blade.
The earliest known instance when the sword was used at the coronation of a French king was when Philip the Bold was crowned in 1270. The ceremony was usually held in Reims cathedral, with the regalia kept in the nearby monastery in Saint-Denis. The first mention of the sword being kept in the monastery was in an inventory made in 1505. The sword is listed together with three other swords, none of which survives to this day. They were (reportedly) the sword of Louis IX, carried on his first crusade, the sword of Charles VII and a sword associated with Archbishop Turpin. The sword was taken to the Louvre Museum on December 5, 1793.
The blade is a rather slender Oakeshott type XII. It has a relatively wide, shallow fuller. The blade is 32.6" (828mm) long and 1.77" (45mm) wide at the base. There are differing views on the age of the blade, one school thinking it was forged when the sword got an overhaul in 1804, the other (and in my view probably correct) thinking it is medieval.
As with other coronation swords, there's a scabbard. It has been changed, and I doubt there's anything left of the original except for the precious stones on the scabbard throat and the belt. It is made of gilded silver, the 6" (155mm) throat decorated along its length with gems, while the rest is covered with purple velvet and decorated with fleurs-de-lis embroidered with gold thread. The velvet and fleurs-de-lis were added in 1824 for the coronation of Charles X. The scabbard is 33" (838mm) long and 2.75" (70mm) wide at the throat. A piece of the belt is still in place, fitted with a gilded buckle in a decidedly medieval style.
The Sword of Charlemagne is probably among the most reproduced of any historical sword. The majority are made just for decorative purposes, with stainless steel blades and weak hilts. The replicas from Marto are the best in the decorative category, considering the crisply cast hilt, but short on functionality. The etched coats-of-arms on the blade have no counterpart on the original. Denix makes a cheap, decent wallhanger, which comes with a scabbard which bears no resemblance to the original. The only functional quality reproduction of the sword is the Del Tin Armi Antiche 2120.
Del Tin's "Sword of Charlemagne" (DT2120)
This is a good replica of the sword, even though the cast parts of the hilt aren't as crisp as the original's. The pommel is riveted in place, just like the medieval counterpart. It is rather heavy for a one-hander, but handles pretty well if you like swords with a punch. The Point of Balance is around 5.1" (130mm) in front of the cross, but the weight makes it a second to swords like the Del Tin Armi Antiche 2130.
Measurements and Specifications:
About the Author
Björn Hellqvist is a Swedish optometrist with an interest in historical European swords.
I would like to thank David Counts for his help with Laking's text, as well as Ann Snow, Patrick Kelly and Fulvio Del Tin of Del Tin Armi Antiche for providing valuable information and comments during the writing of this article. Thanks to Paul Kilmartin for the proofreading.
Sources and Bibliography
Conway, Sir W. Martin: The Abbey of Saint-Denis and its Ancient Treasures, Archaeologica, 1915
Cope, Anne (editor): Swords and Hilt Weapons, Multimedia Books, London 1989
Edge, David and Paddock, John M.: Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, Bison Books, Greenwich 1988
Laking, Sir Guy Francis: A Record of European Armour and Arms Through Seven Centuries, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., London 1920
Oakeshott, Ewart: The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge 1964, 1994
Another photo of the original sword can be seen at the Louvre Museum Web site.
Photograph of the original sword provided by Alex Huangfu and Manoucher M.
Photographs of the replica sword provided by Del Tin Armi Antiche