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King Arthur is a legendary king who is said to have ruled Britain in the early days of post-Roman Britain. Now Thomas Malory's famous novel "La Morte D'Arthur" puts the following inscription on the stone that Arthur pulls the sword out of: "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England."

My question is, is this an anachronism? Would England have been called England in the days of King Arthur, i.e. early post-Roman Britain? I'm aware that Saxons came into Britain during the early post-Roman period, and in fact feature prominently in the Arthurian romances, but when did the Angles come? They're the Germanic tribe after which England is named.

The oldest reference to the Sword in the Stone seems to in Robert de Boron's poem "Merlin", which only survives in fragments. There is more reference to this in the Prose Merlin, a prose work based on Robert de Boron's poem. In this chapter of the Prose Merlin, the inscription says "Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste." or with modern spelling "Who taketh this sword out of this stone should be king by the election of Jesus Christ." So the inscription doesn't mention England.

  • The Angles are supposed to have come from Angeln in south eastern Schleswig, though the name is possibly etymologically linked to the narrow Schlei estuary or with angled fish hooks – Henry May 24 '17 at 21:52
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    Well it wouldn't have said the rest of the quote in those exact words, either... – Lightness Races with Monica May 27 '17 at 18:05
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No, England would not have been called "England" in the early post-Roman period.

The name "England" derives from the Old English name Englaland, which means "Land of the Angles". The earliest recorded use of the term that I'm aware of is in the late ninth century translation into Old English of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which had been written in Latin in in the early eighth century.

The name certainly seems to have become more widespread from the reign of King Alfred, although that may simply be because we have more surviving written evidence from that date.

Obviously, the name had been long established when Sir Thomas Mallory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur in the late 15th century, so he probably didn't even realise it was an anachronism.

Germanic settlers/invaders arrived in Britain in the early post-Roman period. We don't know how they identified themselves when they first arrived in Britain, but they eventually came to identify themselves as Saxons, Angles, etc. Bede names the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes as the main Germanic tribes that conquered England. The earliest genealogies of the kings of the various kingdoms weren't compiled until the ninth century.

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    Anarchonism, or merely a loose translation of whatever name would "really" have been used in the language used on the stone, which clearly couldn't have been English? – Steve Jessop May 25 '17 at 9:58
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    @SteveJessop Well, if the sword in the stone ever did happen, I assume it would have been in Latin and Brittania, the Latin name for Britain, would have been used. – Keshav Srinivasan May 25 '17 at 10:19
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    @Keshav: indeed. Even better, the Latin "Britannia" (I think) generally refers to the Roman-occupied part of Britain. Possibly only on the grounds that anything outside the Empire was irrelevant, but still. So in English, "England" possibly is a closer translation of Latin "Britannia" than "Britain" would be. At least until indyref2. That said, I have no idea what happened to the Latin language in Britain post-empire. – Steve Jessop May 25 '17 at 10:25
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    @SteveJessop The Romans called the island Brittania even before they invaded. So it doesn't (just) mean "the Roman-occupied part of Britain". – Slow Dog May 25 '17 at 14:25
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    @SteveJessop In brief, to the extent that "England" is understood to mean "the land of the English" it is an anachronism. To the extent that is understood to refer to the territory, it is a good loose translation. – called2voyage May 25 '17 at 21:23
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As Wikipedia notes, "King Arthur is a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD"

He was† therefore a Briton or Romano-British, not a Saxon, Angle, Jute or related tribe. This means that his native language would have been a Celtic language and that he lived at a time long before there was any notion of a political or geographic entity that became England hundred of years later.

Any Romano-British leader, of the sort the legend of Arthur is based on, seems unlikely to have a name for a southern subset of the many kingdoms in Britain at that time. If he did, he is unlikely to have named it after his enemies or to have used his enemies names for the lands in support of his claim to leadership.

Usually it is King Alfred, in the late 9th century, who is credited with the notion of combining the Kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, Anglia, Northumberland etc into a single nation named (something not completely unlike) "England". Notions of swords in stones granting kingship of "England" must be later.


Footnote

† As suggested in a comment below, Arthur is a legendary figure. Legendary means, not merely famous, but nonhistorical and unverifiable. There were British or Romano British leaders who resisted the Saxon invasion of their lands. These leaders apparently did occasionally win a significant battle, though they were eventually largely defeated. A few of the exploits later attached to the name Arthur would have come from the actual exploits of various real British or Romano-British leaders. So instead of writing "[Arthur] was ...", it would have been more accurate for me to write "Arthur would have been" or "The real people, on whose actions some of the legend of Arthur was most likely based, were ..."

  • Yeah, if there was a sword in the stone it would have said king of Britain, not king of England. – Keshav Srinivasan May 25 '17 at 16:54
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    Definitely better than the accepted answer, +1 – kubanczyk May 25 '17 at 21:51
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    This is correct, with the proviso that he would have been a Briton or Romano-British, if he existed. We have another question that goes into the actual historicity of King Arthur. – T.E.D. May 26 '17 at 18:17
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    Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony! I mean, if I went round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away! Oooh, come see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I'm being repressed! – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica May 29 '17 at 2:35
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The King Arthur of history is basically the Arthur mentioned in the Historia Brittonum written about 830 AD and in the Annales Cambriae written about 975. The HB puts the Twelve Battles of Arthur some time between about 450 and 550 AD, while the AC dates Arthur's victory at Badon in a year corresponding to 516 to 518 and the battle of Camlan where Arthur died in a year corresponding to 537 to 539.

Thus they were written about 292 to 438 years after Arthur allegedly died and it is possible that legendary elements have been added to those accounts.

In late Roman times most of Roman Britain was divided into city states called civitates based on former British tribes. Each city state had elected magistrates and a council and was divided into districts called pagi. Late Roman Britain had four or five provinces whose governors used various titles and supervised the governments of the civitates. The governors were supervised by the Vicar who ruled the diocese of Britain - government diocese, not a religious one.

In Cornwall, in Wales, and between the two walls in the North were British tribes that were not very assimilated to Roman culture and may still have had kings, who no doubt lived more or less peacefully with the local Roman military units and acknowledged the authority of the Emperor just as a number of 19th century Indian tribes lived in peaceful coexistence with local US military units and acknowledged the authority of the Grandfather in Washington.

Beyond the Antonine Wall were the Picts, who may not have been culturally British and were often enemies of Roman Britain.

The Diocese of Britain was part of the Praetorian Prefecture of the Gauls, which was part of the Western Roman Empire.

Post Roman Britain may have continued the Roman system of government and also reverted to Celtic forms of government. Leading men may have made themselves kings of each city state, and each pagus may have had a sub king, thus making maybe more than a hundred sub kings in Britain. So Arthur, who led the kings in battle, was probably at least a sub king in rank. Each province may have been ruled by a second level king, and the whole diocese may have have been ruled by a third level king.

Or city states may have continued to elect magistrates, and governors could have been chosen for each province, and a vicar to rule all the diocese. And maybe the vicar claimed to be loyal to the Roman prefect of Gaul and to the emperor. Or maybe the ruler of Britain claimed to be an emperor, a sort of north western Roman Emperor.

Or maybe the rulers of Britain used both Celtic and Roman titles simultaneously, the ruler of a city state claiming to be both a king and magistrate, and the ruler of a province claiming to be both a second level king and a governor, and so on.

Because there were several provinces in late Roman Britain, Britain was referred to as the Britains politically. Thus the vicar used the title of Vicar of the Britains. And so presumably in Arthur's era the overlord of all post Roman Britain would claim to be king, or vicar, or emperor, or whatever, of the Britains, not of Britain, and not of the Britons, though the title of King of the Britons is used in medieval sources.

The story of the sword in the stone is first mentioned by Robert de Boron in Merlin around 1200 AD. That is about 700 years after the time of Arthur.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excalibur#Excalibur_and_the_Sword_in_the_Stone1

And so the Sword in the Stone is considered fictional.

  • Nitpick: Great Father in Washington. Or Great Chief in Washington. But not "Grandfather". – kubanczyk May 25 '17 at 21:46
  • kubanczyk 5 - In movies and tv shows the president is called the Great White Father. In my historical reading the President is called the Grandfather and Queen Victoria the Grandmother. Wikipedia agrees with you that the terms were Great Father and Mother. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Father Of course "great" and "grand" are almost synonyms. – MAGolding May 26 '17 at 3:12
  • The Dictionary of the American West says Grandfather and Grandmother. books.google.com/… – MAGolding May 26 '17 at 3:12
  • Gildas states he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill where Arthur defeated a Saxon army. Gildas's exact year of birth is not known but has been computed to be c. 500. – TheMathemagician May 26 '17 at 10:36
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    The sword ON the stone would have been an Angle or Saxon burial custom where the sword of a fallen warrior of great might was laid out on the stone next to the body. The sword would have afterward been gifted to the one considered worthy to succeed the dead man. If a chief then the chieftain's sword. Presumably, a youth grabbed it when the village was invaded and then afterwards the village realized what he had done. Usurped the right to wield the sword. – Rick Ryker May 27 '17 at 6:10
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As another (good) answer went into, the Etymology of "England" goes back to the Germanic invasions that happened during the time of Badon Hill (the historical setting for the initial tales of King Arthur, roughly 500AD).

There was a recorded sermon discussing the recent history of the island written not long after then, that mentions the battle: Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. That roughly translates from Latin as "The Ruin and Conquest of Britain. So our documented evidence is that locals of letters at the time referred to their island as Britain.

Another popular previous name was Albion (Ἀλουΐων in Greek), but that name appears to have gone out of fashion sometime after the first century.

Due to its etymology, most likely the term "England" initially only referred to kingdoms (lands) run by Old-English speakers. In a way, this is still the proper usage, since technically England is a country (separate from Scotland and Wales), and the island is Britain.

  • Gildas is a good answer to those who claim Arthur is entirely fictional. Writing c. 540-50 Gildas wrote of Arthur winning a battle against the Saxons at Mons Badonicus. Although Gildas does not give an exact date it would have been c. 500 as T.E.D. states. Interestingly, Arthur is described as a Dux Bellorum (war-leader, general) not a king. – TheMathemagician May 4 '18 at 10:40
  • @TheMathemagician - I'd say that would be a horrible answer, because it is not correct. He wrote about war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. Aside from the first letter, this isn't very close to "Arthur", and even later writers who wedged Ambrosius into the newly-developing Arthur legends made Ambriosius Arthur's Uncle, not Arthur himself. Gildas made no mention of an "Arthur" whatsoever, as did no writer we know of for the next 290 years. See this answer for a timeline. – T.E.D. May 4 '18 at 13:46
  • @TheMathemagician - ...just to be clear, arguing the guy really did exist isn't totally out of the historical mainstream. However, that's not a good argument to advance the point. – T.E.D. May 4 '18 at 20:06
  • Oops you're right I was mixing up Gildas with Nennius. – TheMathemagician May 7 '18 at 16:56
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The first appearance of the phrase was that Arthur took the sword from the anvil and the stone. As others have pointed out, the phrase makes more sense if you view it as a miscopied version of took the sword from the Angle and the Saxon. Example source:

The unusual notion of a sword being stuck in an anvil on top of a stone might be accounted for by an early mistranslation or mix-up of words. Arthur is said to have successfully fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons, originally two separate tribes— the Angles and Saxons— from northern Germany. The Latin word for a rock or large fragment of stone is saxum, a word that sounds very similar to “Saxon.” This, together with the similarity of the name “Angle” and the word “anvil,” might explain how the unusual motif originated. If the legend held that Arthur had “drawn the sword” – in other word, “taken the fight” – from the Angles and Saxons, then at some point during the turmoil following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 400s, and the subsequent lack of historical records, oral accounts may have become confused. By Robert de Boron’s time, an account of Arthur seizing the initiative from the Angles and Saxons might well have evolved into the story of him drawing a sword from an anvil and stone.

One theory has the original Arthur as a Welsh king named Owain Ddantgwyn (also spelled Ddanwyn) whose nickname was the Bear. Of course, Bear in Welsh is arth and in Latin is ursus. Put those together and you get Arthursus or Arthur. By that time, the Roman empire had given up on the British Isles, but many Romans had settled there. So it is sensible to think of a leader who tried to appeal both to long term native Welsh and new immigrant Romans by taking a name in both languages.

This is also consistent with the view of Arthur as a High King who united Britain (under whatever name). Of course, the "High King" had responsibilities more consistent with a more modern Duke. The other kings were more like barons, earls, and counts.

As you guessed, it is ridiculous to think of Arthur, the native Welshman who was resisting incursion from the Angles, as the king who unites the land of the Angles. He united against the Angles. If Arthur had been successful in the long term, there wouldn't have been an Angle-land (England). If Arthur had been less successful in the short term, it might have started earlier. England as England formed in the tenth century. Prior to that, there was Anglia. Arthur was the fifth and sixth century, after the time of Roman Britain.

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    Actually "stone and anvil" is from Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur". But the oldest appearance of the sword in the stone is in Robert de Boron's poem "Merlin", and there the inscription is simply "Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste." or with modern spelling "Who taketh this sword out of this stone should be king by the election of Jesus Christ." – Keshav Srinivasan May 29 '17 at 1:54
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The name, "England", is etymologically, Anglo-Saxon; that is to say, it originated with the arrival of the Angles tribe who migrated from Central Germany en route to the British isles 1500 years ago during the immediate aftermath of the Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire.

The word, "England", loosely translates as, "The land of the Angles". And in many foreign languages, a letter or a vowel is replaced by another vowel, so that the "A" in "Angles", is replaced or updated with an "E". Hence, "Engles", became, "the land of the Engles" or "England".

King Arthur would have probably referred to his homeland by the centuries old Roman name, "Britannia". The name, "England", would have been foreign sounding and Germanic in origin. King Arthur was, in all likelihood, of Celtic descent and probably more accustomed to Celtic and Latin sounding languages.

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