What Have Swords Got To Do With Anything?
On Penny Mordaunt and the coronation
“Swords?! Only girls fight with swords these days! No, we fight with cannon, man!”
Thus speaks Stephen Fry as the Duke of Wellington in Blackadder the Third. I can’t see a sword without thinking of this line.
Have you ever been around a proper sword? I know a couple of guys who own them. One keeps a life size replica of Aragorn’s sword from the Lord of the Rings under his sofa. He’s got it out once or twice when we’ve been at his house for Bible study (not due to any exegetical disagreements, I might add).
This has prompted a curious mix of feelings. Predominantly, it seems a bit preposterous. We can’t quite believe swords when we see them. And yet it is hard to be in the presence of a sword and not feel a kind of awe. They carry a certain nobility, a whisper of skill and threat, which we desperately wish we could take seriously. When a sword is drawn, all that old hokum like chivalry and valour and dragon slaying seems on the cards for a moment.
The British public felt these muddled attitudes toward swords all at once last weekend as we watched Tory MP Penny Mordaunt manfully carry two heavy ceremonial swords during the King’s coronation.
This was a solemn part of Mordaunt’s role as Lord President of the Privy Council. She first carried the Sword of State (forged for Charles II’s coronation in 1661) for an admirable 51 minutes, before handing it over to be placed on the altar. Mordaunt then got her second sword: the Sword of Offering, forged for George IV’s coronation in 1821. This sword was then presented to the King, and briefly girded on his side, accompanied by prayers from the Archbishop of Canterbury, before ending up back with Mordaunt, who held it for the remainder of the service.
Mordaunt’s sword-wielding almost stole the show (as did her marvellous dress and hat). It was the stuff of instant memes. She seemed faintly ridiculous holding such an irrelevant weapon, which no soldier or justice of the peace would ever use today; and yet we couldn’t help but be somewhat thrilled by it. We felt the drawing close of a time when swords were serious business.
The swords, of course, symbolised the authority of the monarch to exercise justice. Consider the charge which the Archbishop gave to the King after giving him the Sword of Offering:
WITH this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God and all people of goodwill, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order: that doing these things you may be glorious in all virtue; and so faithfully serve our Lord Jesus Christ in this life, that you may reign for ever with him in the life which is to come. Amen.
All this reminds us that political authority is something maintained by force. Our rulers are entitled to enforce the law by force when necessary—to arrest, punish, even kill.
But in 2023, when force is necessary, it is not carried out with the sword. Usually, it’s the truncheon or the taser. If lethal force is necessary, it is carried out at gunpoint—and this only in instances where life is at risk. We no longer exercise force as direct punishment; we use it only for coercion. Much the same if true in warfare, now usually waged at the distance of a missile or unmanned drone.
Why keep the sword then? Why not replace it with a ceremonial rifle? Or one of Wellington’s cannons? Or, in a nation which has done away with capital punishment since the last coronation 70 years ago, why not replace it with, say, a judge’s gavel?
We sense, I think, that, despite its obsolescence, the sword remains a deeply fitting symbol for the exercise of justice.
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