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The secrets of the Queen’s Sword of Mercy

Will the legendary Cortana be used at the next Coronation?

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

At the Queen’s Coronation, the Duke of Northumberland carried the Sword of Mercy called Cortana. I mention this for three reasons: by way of a holiday, since it is as far from the American elections as we can get; because I am worried that the sword might not be carried at the next Coronation; and because I was surprised to find the word cortana in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED does not include proper names, so in 1893, when it reached the letter C, it pretended that cortana was a common noun. It notes that the sword has no point and that its name comes simply from Latin curtus, short, which in Old French was extended to cortain and in Anglo-Latin cortana (feminine, agreeing with spatha, ‘sword’). It is not easily connected with curtain, itself of uncertain origin. Cortana is also called the sword of King Edward the Confessor.


The OED calls it the sword of Roland, the hero of the French national epic. But according to Gaston Paris, the historian the dictionary cites, Charlemagne tried out three swords forged by Wayland (‘Galant d’Angleterre’) by thrusting each into a block of steel. Cortain bit in, but broke at the tip, and was given to Ogier. The two other swords, Almace and Durendal, were given to Turpin and Roland. In the Chanson de Roland, Durendal is an important character, addressed in a speech by Roland covering two laisses or stanzas.

That epic swords have names is also seen in the Spanish national poem, the Cantar de Mio Cid, about a more recent hero, the 11th-century Rodrigo Diaz. Like Roland he fights the Moors or Saracens.

Cortana is mentioned by Matthew Paris in the 13th century, and the present sword is a rare bit of regalia predating the Restoration in 1660. The English Coronation service does not claim that Cortana is the sword that Charlemagne wielded. In fact the service doesn’t explain much: neither the colobium sindonis, nor the armills, nor the pall held over the monarch at the anointing. It is all the more important that Cortana, as a symbol not contrived for the moment but, like any ancient word in the language, inherited, should not be dumped now.


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