Type to search

Could Italian knight Galgano Guidotti be the real King Arthur?


About 20 miles southwest of the town of Siena in the magical land of Tuscany lies a town called Chiusdino, where a true tale of a knight and his sword in the stone is strikingly similar to the Arthurian tale of King Arthur. 

The Montesiepi Chapel was built after the death of San Galgano between 1182 and 1185 in the foothills of Chiusdino in the province of Siena. The Rotonda or circular chapel that houses the sword in the stone of San Galgano is easily visible. | ISTOCK PHOTO

A valiant knight born in 1148 by the name of Galgano Guidotti renounced his life as a knight and became a hermit and saint. According to legend, after Guidotti received a vision from Archangel Gabriel at the age of 20 to build a chapel at Montesiepi and spend his last days there, his horse would not take any orders from him the next day so he ended up going to the Montesiepi mountain top. To renounce his current life of fighting as a knight, he struck his sword into a stone up until the hilt or handle. The sword took the shape of a cross whereby the knight used it to pray for the rest of his life. It is believed that he died of starvation in 1181 at the age of 33. He was canonized just four years later as a saint by Pope Lucius III. 

In the four years after his death, from 1182-1185, the Hermitage of Montesiepi was built with a round chapel enclosing the sword in the stone. The construction of the chapel was also the wish of the knight but he wasn’t able to do so because of his health at the time. To honor the knight the Abbey of San Galgano was built nearby between 1218 and 1288 by Cistercian monks. By the 18th century, the roof had caved in leaving it in ruins which we see today. 

The San Galgano Abbey was built between 1218 and 1288 by Cistercian monks to honor San Galgano. Its ruins are situated between the villages of Chiusdino and Monticiano and are a fine example of Italian Gothic architecture. | PIXABAY PHOTO

With the story of San Galgano and his sword in the stone, one can make similar and strong connections to the legend of King Arthur as first told by Geoffrey Monmouth in 1136, Wace in 1155, Chretien de Troyes in 1170, and Thomas Mallory around 1470.

Galgano renounced his life as a knight to become a hermit. But legend says he was visited by Archangel Gabriel. 

 Geoffrey Monmouth laid the groundwork for the Arthurian legend including Arthur becoming front and center as a true hero and legendary king along with the developed characters of Guinevere, Merlin, Sir Gawain, Uther Pendragon, Mordred, and the birth of Arthur at Tintagel. 

Monmouth is known as the Father of the Arthurian Legend. Wace, an Anglo-Norman poet, brought about the idea of the Round Table and the sword Excalibur, further popularizing the legend. Chretien de Troyes added the concepts of Camelot and the Holy Grail as well as the character of Lancelot. Thomas Malory compiled all of the Arthurian tales before him and wrote them in non-poetic language or prose for the first time called “Le Morte D’Arthur,” which became the basis for many of the stories and films of today.

The sword in the stone is believed to be that of San Galgano. It is located at Montesiepi Chapel in the village of Chiusdino in the province of Siena. | ISTOCK PHOTO

With the introduction of these literary figures and their works in place, it was not until about 1200 that the legend of the sword in the stone in his epic poem “Merlin” was first introduced by Robert de Boron. In his literary work, it was known that whoever pulled the sword from the stone would be the next King of Britain as King Uther Pendragon had just died. It is mainly this addition to the Arthurian legend from de Boron that resembles the life-changing events of San Galgano in Italy and from which we can make a similarity. 

In 2001 the priests of Montesiepi Chapel requested that the sword be tested. It was determined that the sword dated to the 12th century.

We can speculate that because San Galgano died in 1181, which is already some years after he was known to thrust the sword into the stone, the work of Robert de Boron’s version of the sword in the stone is nearly 20 years later. Are we to believe that the legend of the sword in the stone evolved from Italy’s version? Could the news of the canonization of the knight have made it possible to spread it far and wide to Britain? It has been even said that the Round Table in the Arthurian legend that was brought to light by Wace, the Anglo-Saxon poet, was inspired by the round chapel of Montesiepi. It has also been pointed out that the name Galgano is similar to Galvano or later Gawain who was the nephew of Arthur first mentioned in the story written in the 14th century. Let’s look at the evidence at hand regarding the existence of San Galgano and the authenticity of the sword believed to be his. 

Current Evidence 

There have been many speculations as to whether the sword believed to be San Galgano’s is genuine. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the priests of Montesiepi Chapel requested that the sword be tested. The investigation was led by Luigi Garlaschelli, a research scientist at the University of Pavia, and determined that the sword was dated to the 12th century, the period of San Galgano. Therefore, we can say with high certainty that the sword is not a fake. 

The team of Garlaschelli also conducted radar analysis uncovering what is believed to be a small cavity beneath the sword and is thought to be a burial recess. Could this be the burial place of San Galgano’s body? To be certain further excavation would be needed but the church has not yet granted permission. 

What we can say without a doubt is that San Galgano did exist and that the sword is from his era as well as the strong connection to the Arthurian tales. However, whether San Galgano is the real King Arthur remains a mystery and one that may never be solved. The combination of folklore and real facts presented unveils Italy’s version of King Arthur and brings to light what has been concealed for many years to the public.

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.