Some 1200 years ago, there lived a famous blacksmith named Galas who embarked on a mission of forging the perfect sword. In 802CE, three long years after the blacksmith first set fire to the forge, the very blade that would help conquer Europe was fashioned into existence.
Fated to rest in the hands of the battle-born King of the Franks, Charlemagne, the sword La Joyeuse would soon command epic tales of conquests, myth, and magic. The history of Charlemagne’s conquest of Europe, for the most part, is a story of Joyeuse. Legend has it that Charlemagne was on his way back from Spain when setting camp in the very region where Galas was working; there the King of the Franks acquired Joyeuse. Charlemagne was known to be especially brutal and ruthless when fighting his battles, and Joyeuse was a weapon that was as glorious and deadly as his reputation.
There exist several accounts that ascribe magical powers to Joyeuse. Legend has it that the sword was forged with the shards of the infamous Lance of Longinus—the very lance that was stabbed into Jesus’ side during the crucifixion. It is said that whenever Charlemagne unsheathed Joyeuse in battle, he revealed a sword that outshone the sun, and left its enemies blind. It is also said that whoever mastered Joyeuse was impregnable to poison.
The King of the Franks
Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, who lived from 742CE to 814CE was the King of the Franks; the Franks was an ancient kingdom that existed in modern day France. Charlemagne was a central figure to the political, military, and spiritual reshaping of medieval Europe.
Soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne was responsible for consolidating the powers of Western Europe. He was able to build one of the vastest kingdoms in written history. The King of the Franks ruled over what are now the countries of France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and the Low Countries. In a rather militaristic method, Charlemagne was able to enforce the spread of Christianity throughout the conquered lands of Europe.
Charlemagne was born in 742CE and was the son of King Pepin the Short. Upon the death of King Pepin, Charlemagne inherited the crown with his brother Carloman. Unfortunately, after the brothers inherited the throne, Carloman passed away. Charlemagne then became the sole King of the Franks.
Among the many things that the new king inherited was the responsibility to protect the temporal of the Holy See, the central seat of government of the Catholic Church occupied by the Pope. As a result, Charlemagne became deeply embroiled in wars against adversaries of the church, the most powerful of which were the pagan Lombards and Saxons of Germany.
Ultimately, the new king was able to prove his military prowess by annihilating the adversaries of the land and the church. In 774CE, with a victory against the Lombards and the Saxons under his belt, the pope declared Charlemagne as the first champion of the Catholic Church.
The Song of Roland
The next two decades of Charlemagne’s reign were marked by brutal wars waged against the Lombards and Saxons of Germany and the Moors of Spain. In 778CE, Charlemagne launched a campaign against the Moors. It was during this campaign that the legendary Battle of Roncevaux Pass took place. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was later immortalized in the epic poem Song of Roland, one of the oldest surviving major works of French literature. The 11th-century epic poem mentioned an account of Charlemagne riding into battle with La Joyeuse:
(Charlemagne) was wearing his fine white coat of mail and his helmet with gold-studded stones; by his side hung Joyeuse, and never was there a sword to match it; its color changed thirty times a day.
According to the story, it was during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass when Charlemagne momentarily lost Joyeuse. To get his sword back, Charlemagne promised to reward whoever could bring Joyeuse back to him. Eventually, one of Charlemagne’s soldiers found Joyeuse and brought it to him. True to his word, the King of the Franks gifted a generous portion of land to his soldier; Charlemagne planted his sword into the earth as he proclaimed—
“Here will be built an estate of which you will be the lord and master, and your descendants will take the name of my wonderful sword: Joyeuse.”
According to the story, this is the origin of the French town Joyeuse which sits in South France.
In 779CE, Charlemagne once again launched a massive military assault against the Saxons; this time, the campaign dealt a rather destructive blow to the King’s adversaries as it yielded the baptism of the Saxon leader in 785CE.
After securing a lasting victory against the Saxons, Charlemagne’s reign became relatively quiet, except for occasional small-scale revolts and Viking raids. Charlemagne’s accomplishments in defending the Holy See and Western Christendom were eventually recognized in 800CE when the Pope crowned him as the Emperor of the Western Empire.
As great a king as he was, Charlemagne proved to be an even greater emperor. He was able to bring order to a chaotic empire and set a good example to future kings and emperors. Under his reign, agriculture, trade, and law saw unprecedented leaps forward.
Safekeeping La Joyeuse
Historians of today associate two swords to Charlemagne. One of Charlemagne’s swords is a saber; it is currently in the care of Weltliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) in Vienna, Austria. While the other one is the legendary sword Joyeuse which is currently in the care of the Louvre Museum.
Joyeuse was transferred to the Louvre in 1793. Before then, the sword was kept originally in a monastery in Saint-Denis, which is a place of burial for French kings. The earliest mention of the sword being kept in the monastery was in 1905; Joyeuse was mentioned in an inventory where it was listed alongside two other royal swords—the swords of Louise IX and Charles VII.
The sword Joyeuse derives its name from the word “joyful.” Since the 13th century, Joyeuse was featured prominently in coronation rites of rulers of France. The earliest known event when Joyeuse was used at a coronation was in 1270 when of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold was crowned into power. This was a tradition continued until the coronation rites of Charles X in 1825.
Anatomy of the Sword
Today, the once battle-wielded Joyeuse is kept in the Louvre Museum; by this time, the sword has been preserved as a composite of numerous parts added over its long years of service as a coronation regalia. According to the Louvre, the pommel, the cross guard, and the grip had been all been replaced sometime between the 10th and 13th century. And although much of the original steel remains intact to this day, the blade itself had allegedly been refurbished sometime in the 19th century.
Because it wasn’t being used in battle anymore, Joyeuse had undergone a lot of cosmetic changes to give it a more prestigious look. These ornamentations made Joyeuse representative of a wide range of cosmetic sensibilities from all around Europe throughout different periods in time.
Joyeuse features two halves of a heavily sculpted gold pommel. The long gold grip measured 4.2 inches and was originally designed with a fleur-de-lis ornamentation within its prominent diamond patterning; fleur-de-lis is a stylized representation of a lily that is most famously recognized as the former royal arms of France. The fleur-de-lis ornamentation, however, was removed for the coronation of Napoleon I in 1804.
Joyeuse features a gold cross-guard that measures 8.9 inches wide. It sports two winged dragons that are beaded with lapis lazuli eyes. The cross-guard was stamped in the 13th century with the text, “Deux marcs et demi et dix esterlins”; this translates to “two marks and a half and ten sterlings”, which is the weight of the gold.
Joyeuse features a slender Oakeshott type II blade with a wide and shallow fuller. The blade of Joyeuse runs 32.6 inches long and measures 1.77 inches wide. There are competing schools of thought that offers opposing views on the estimated age of the blade. One school of thought believes that the sword, to this very day, features the original blade of Joyeuse that dates back to the Middle Ages; the other suggests that the blade was forged when the sword allegedly got an overhaul in 1804.
Much like most parts of the sword, the scabbard that originally carried Joyeuse had long undergone various changes. It is very likely that not much of the original scabbard remains except for its belt and the precious stones that were planted on its throat.
At its present form, the scabbard consists of gilded silver. Its 6-inch throat is covered with purple velvet and ornamented with gold-threaded fleur-de-lis and gems. The velvet and fleurs-de-lis were late additions to the sword; both were added in 1824 for the coronation of Charles X. As for its dimensions, the scabbard has a length of 33 inches and a width of 2.75 inches. A piece of the original belt is still fitted in place, in true medieval fashion, with a gilded buckle.
Today, Joyeuse remains to be one of the most important swords in all of Europe. Although it has long been removed from the battlefields of yesteryears, Charlemagne’s prized weapon serves as a reminder of prestige and royalty—a surviving testament to the King’s legendary conquests and much-storied victories.