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Do We Really Know What Excalibur Looked Like?

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: July 2, 2024

In Arthurian legends, Excalibur belonged to King Arthur, the legendary ruler of Britain, known for its protective powers over him and his knights. 

However, across numerous retellings and interpretations, the depiction of this legendary sword varies widely. 

Let’s explore how artists interpreted Excalibur through the ages, spanning from medieval manuscripts to modern imagination.

What Do Manuscripts and Arthurian Texts Reveal About Excalibur’s Appearance?

The Excalibur, renowned as King Arthur’s legendary sword, first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain under the name Caliburnus (or Caliburn). 

It is described as the best of swords forged in Avalon island. With origins that trace back to the Welsh Caledfwlch, which is mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen, it is among the earliest Arthurian texts.

But what exactly do we know about Excalibur’s appearance? 

Excalibur was further developed by later writers. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) written around 1470 CE is the earliest English-language prose version of the Arthurian legend.

Malory described Excalibur as a fine sword with diamond sparks, countless topaz lights, and the subtlest jewelry-like jacinth work.

King Arthur wielding Excalibur with both hands
King Arthur wielding Excalibur with both hands, as depicted in Madison J. Cawein’s Lyrics and Old World Idylls (1907) – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester

The Accolon of Gaul also described Excalibur in vivid and elaborate detail, focusing on its appearance and ornate decoration. It is said to have a splendid hilt featuring a spherical golden pommel adorned with jewels and an unconquerable blade.

The description also suggests a richly embellished sword with a wide belt adorned with gilt goldwork and intricate designs. The poem states that King Arthur “…took the scabbard from his side… and seized Excalibur with both wild hands.”

A description of Excalibur from If Lord Byron had written The Passing of Arthur
A description of Excalibur from ‘If Lord Byron had written “The Passing of Arthur”‘ by Sir John Collings Squire (1917) – Credits: Library of Congress

In Sir John Collings Squire’s Tricks of the Trade, Excalibur was described to have a large hilt decorated with dazzling gems of unearthly origin. Additionally, the blade is elaborately adorned with mystical inscriptions and gilded accents.

Sir Bedivere casting Excalibur into the water
Sir Bedivere casting Excalibur into the water, as depicted in Sir Thomas Malory’s The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur (1893) – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester

In King Arthur and His Round Table by W. Lucas Collins, Sir Bedivere takes Excalibur and throws it into the water as the dying king instructed. However, he feels it shameful to discard such a noble weapon, having observed the precious stones on Excalibur’s hilt and pommel. Magician Merlin also described the scabbard as ‘worth ten of the sword,’ as it protected its bearer from wounds.

Illustrations of Excalibur in Published Works

The depiction of Arthur receiving Excalibur is frequently illustrated, yet artists interpret it in many diverse ways. Some illustrate the sword with an ornate hilt and pommel embellished with jewels, while others depict it with a simpler cruciform hilt that can be held in one or both hands. While some portray the Lady of the Lake, others focus solely on a hand emerging from the waters with the sword.

In various notable published works on Arthurian legend, these illustrations on Excalibur are prominently featured:

Excalibur Protrayals 1
Excalibur from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Poems (The Moxon Tennyson, 1857) [left], and from Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur in 1880 [right] – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester
Excalibur Protrayals 2
Excalibur from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889 [left], and from Frances Nimmo Greene’s Legends of King Arthur and His Court in 1901 [right] – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester
Excalibur Protrayals 3
Excalibur depicted in The Book of Romance (1902) [left], and from Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights in 1903 [right] – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester
Excalibur Protrayals 4
King Arthur asks the Lady of the Lake for the Excalibur, as depicted from Henry Gilbert’s King Arthur’s Knights: The Tales Retold for Boys and Girls (1911) [left], and another depiction from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur in 1912 [right] – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester
Excalibur Protrayals 5
Excalibur from Tennyson’s Guinevere and Other Poems in 1912 [left], and other illustrations from Janet MacDonald Clark’s Legends of King Arthur and His Knights in 1914 [right] – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester
Excalibur Protrayals 6
Excalibur as illustrated [from left to right] in The Boy’s King Arthur: Sir Malory’s History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1917), on the book cover of Doris Ashley’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1921), and from Bernard Cornwell’s novel in 1997 – Credits: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester

A Historical Perspective on Excalibur’s Appearance

What would Excalibur look like historically if it were real? The probable dates of existence of King Arthur, the legendary king of Britain, is likely to be during the 5th or 6th century CE. As a province of the Roman Empire, local rulers were left to fight invaders on their own when Roman rule ended in Britain.

In the Penn Museum Expedition Magazine, Janice Klein, an expert in the archaeology of late prehistoric and early historic Europe, suggested that a more realistic depiction of Arthur would show him dressed like a provincial Roman soldier, carrying a Roman long sword.

Realistic depiction of
A realistic depiction of Excalibur as it might have appeared during the time of King Arthur, if it had existed – Credits: La tienda de larp

The Roman long sword, known as the spatha, was a straight sword with a small handguard and primarily served as a cavalry weapon. Its use extended beyond the Roman Empire’s duration, influencing weaponry during the early medieval or Migration period from around 476 to 800 CE across northwestern Europe.

The Roman spatha eventually evolved into the Carolingian or Viking sword, characterized by its short handguard. By 1000 CE, the classic knightly sword emerged, featuring longer crossguards and disc-shaped pommels. Longswords became increasingly prevalent alongside advancements in armor during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Arthurian legend takes place before the knightly sword, arming sword, or longsword proper came into existence. While it is impossible to determine if Excalibur is in any way related to the Roman spatha or its variations, if the legendary King Arthur’s Excalibur did exist, it would likely have been a spatha.

The Excalibur in Modern Interpretations

Today, Excalibur and Arthurian themes have been adapted across various mediums including films, novels, comics, board games, and video games. Due to its popularity, there are many interpretations of Excalibur as artists and storytellers draw inspiration from medieval swords while also infusing fantastical elements.

Excalibur’s Portrayal in Film and Television

Excalibur in Films
Depiction of the legendary sword in the film Excalibur (1981) [left], and from First Knight (1995) [right] – Credits: MovieStillsDB

Modern film depictions of Excalibur frequently draw inspiration from medieval arming swords, also known as knightly swords, which are characterized by their single-handed grips. These swords were traditionally wielded with one hand and historically used with a small shield for parrying.

Excalibur as portrayed in King Arthur Legend of the Sword
Excalibur as portrayed in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) – Credits: MovieStillsDB

In the film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Excalibur appears as a bastard sword with a distinctive hand-and-a-half grip. It has a decorative gem on the pommel and an inscription on the blade that reads ‘Take me up, cast me away.’ The creators developed a unique written language specifically for this inscription in the film.

King Arthur wielding the Excalibur in the film King Arthur
King Arthur wielding the Excalibur in the film King Arthur (2004) – Credits: MovieStillsDB

A King Arthur film in 2004 took into account the timeline of swords throughout history. Since the Arthurian legend predates the creation of these historical swords, this film depicted Excalibur closer to its presumed historical form.

Excalibur’s Transformation in Comics and Games

The Arthurian legend has greatly influenced twentieth-century popular culture, notably in comic books.

Excalibur depicted in the hands of Doctor Doom
Excalibur depicted in the hands of Doctor Doom from Marvel Comics – Credits: Marvel

For example, Marvel Comics and Detective Comics (now DC Comics) have featured Arthurian characters and Excalibur. In 1988, Marvel Comics released Excalibur Special Edition, blending X-Men characters with Arthurian legend traditions.

Featuring Sir Percy from Marvel Comics wielding both Excalibur and the Ebony Blade
Featuring Sir Percy from Marvel Comics wielding both Excalibur and the Ebony Blade – Credits: Marvel
Marvels Faiza Hussain drawing Excalibur from the stone
Marvel’s Faiza Hussain drawing Excalibur from the stone – Credits: Marvel

Interestingly, Excalibur and other Arthurian symbols have also appeared in various board and card games along with popular video games such as Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail (1990), Knights of the Round Table (1991), Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), Quest for Camelot (1998), Legion: The Legend of Excalibur (2002), and Princess Arthur (2016), to name a few.


Throughout history, Excalibur has captured the imagination of authors, poets, artists, illustrators, and filmmakers, who have continually reimagined and depicted it as a symbol of power and virtue. Despite its uncertain appearance, Excalibur remains one of the most famous swords in European legends, embodying ideals of honor, bravery, and the quest for greatness.

Sources Cited
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  7. History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide. (2019). DK.
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