Monday, January 11, 2016

Sword Names - What's in a Name? What's Yours?

~ By Scott Howard

Throughout history, heroic figures have wielded swords to stave off hordes of enemies, whether man or beast. The style and shape of the weapon varied, depending on the time period and level of craftsmanship at the time. The blade could have been single or double-edged, one or two-handed, exquisite or ordinary.

Many pieces survive to this day, adorning a wall in a writing corner or preserved in a museum. Some are buried inches below the surface, begging to see the light of day and share its tales of glory or infamy. Others have decayed to the point of resembling only a shadow of what they once were.

The Vikings were feared for their ferocity and skill in battle. Their longships with their dragons heads had the ability to sail up shallow rivers, thus terrorizing England and making Saxon mothers wonder whether their men and stockade fences could withstand a sustained assault. Perhaps the attackers had the name ULFBERHT inscribed on the blade, which would have placed no small amount of fear in the defenders.

This type of blade was an early form of a brand name; it was a high-end brand of swords whose maker was ULFBERHT. It is believed that these high quality, super strong weapons were forged in a German monastery between 800 and 1000 AD. The name does not refer to one single person, but rather those who had the skill to forge under this name. The steel was of a high purity that it was not believed to have been available until the Industrial Revolution, which explains why 170 of these pieces bearing this inscription have been found.

While ULFBERHT is a type of brand name for a sword, sword-naming, that is, naming one’s personal sword is nothing new in history, myth, or historical fiction. Durendal, which is a French form of “endure”, came from Roland, who was Charlemagne’s paladin in a series of literature known as the “Matter of France”. The “Song of Roland” purports that an angel gifted it to Charlemagne, who then gave it to Roland. Inside of its hilt is a tooth of Saint Peter, the blood of Saint Basil, the hair of Saint Denis, and a piece Saint Mary’s garment. It is no wonder that Roland was able to hold off an advancing Muslim army so that Charlemagne could retreat into France, with a sword infused with such power.

This very sword caught the eye of young Henry, son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who stole this sword along with many other treasures. “The wondrous Durandel, to be sure, was brought back after Roland’s death and hung up before the altar of Notre Dame de Roc Amadour, to whom it had been vowed, where it remained till carried off by Henry Court-Mantel, who, adding sacrilege to hypocrisy, came here in 1183 on the pretext of a pilgrimage, and, in order to pay his soldiers who served him in his rebellion against his father, pillaged the holy chapel so revered by King Henry. He was soon after seized with a fatal illness and died, but not unabsolved, in the arms of Gerard III., Bishop of Cahors.”

 Like Arthur’s Excalibur, which is associated with Britain’s kings, there is a certain reverence associated with a sword’s name, whether it is the maker or a fitting name that hearkens back to its glory days. During the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart gave Tancred of Sicily a sword that was named “Excalibur”; Richard was larger than life and the aura of his prowess, coupled with a sword named thus, added to the greatness that surrounded him. Excalibur’s present location is curently unknown.

 When Edward of Woodstock was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, his armor and arms were suspended over his tomb.  Centuries after his death, he was dubbed the Black Prince, either because of his black-hued armor or his acts of cruelty during the Hundred Years War, depending on the scholar.  He was also known for for great acts of chivalry and legend has it that Oliver Cromwell, recognizing his sword as a potent symbol, stole it during the English Civil War.

 It becomes clearer that it is not only the actual physical sword that give it its strength, but the mystique and the persona behind it and, its name. There is also a spiritual aspect, based on the holy relics said to be contained in Durendal. Those who carried such a sword could command respect, regardless of skill or popularity.  Moreover, Cromwell understood the chivalric significance of Edward of Woodstock's sword if he indeed did steal it, but that is an entirely different matter requiring deeper research.

So when you come across the inevitable writer’s wall and have need of something spicy to add to your character’s inventory, choose a name or ideal that says much, but with a brevity of words. And if you come across a sword name that graces someone else’s pages, think about what that name means to the wielder and, what it portends to the one on the receiving end.

Mine would be Peacemaker.  What's yours?

Photo by Scott Howard Higginbotham

A Soul's Ransom
Scott Howard Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.


Catholic World, Volume 26, page 28.


  1. Interesting post, thanks! I've done a lot of research into how pattern-welded swords were made, but never given much thought to their names. I read a great article once about a Norse conman who was found selling inferior quality swords and passing them off as decent. Plus ca change ...

  2. Thanks Scott for a fascinating piece. Like Annie I've researched how pattern-welded swords were made and have had a lot of fun investigating sword names for my characters' weapons in my novels. Some of these blades through history could be said to be larger characters than their human owners!

  3. This was interesting, Scott. I've named my latest sword, Singer of Mighty Blood Songs. :)

  4. I used Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne, in my last novel. I gave it a bit of a detour out of France during the Am Rev that never happened, but as I was researching the French Rev, the sword's history caught my eye and I couldn't resist.

  5. So interesting - like the rather ironic feel of Joyeuse

  6. Very cool:) I watched a documentary on these swords and how the skill involved wouldn't be matched again until modern metal smithing techniques.


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