Thomas Bulfinch > The Age of Fable > Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry > V. Arthur (Continued)
Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867).  Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry.  1913.

King Arthur and His Knights
V.  Arthur (Continued)
AFTER the great victory of Mount Badon, by which the Saxons were for the time effectually put down, Arthur turned his arms against the Scots and Picts, whom he routed at Lake Lomond, and compelled to sue for mercy. He then went to York to keep his Christmas, and employed himself in restoring the Christian churches which the Pagans had rifled and overthrown. The following summer he conquered Ireland, and then made a voyage with his fleet to Iceland, which he also subdued. The kings of Gothland and of the Orkneys came voluntarily and made their submission, promising to pay tribute. Then he returned to Britain, where, having established the kingdom, he dwelt twelve years in peace.   1
  During this time he invited over to him all persons whatsoever that were famous for valor in foreign nations, and augmented the number of his domestics, and introduced such politeness into his court as people of the remotest countries thought worthy of their imitation. So that there was not a nobleman who thought himself of any consideration unless his clothes and arms were made in the same fashion as those of Arthur’s knights.   2
  Finding himself so powerful at home, Arthur began to form designs for extending his power abroad. So, having prepared his fleet, he first attempted Norway, that he might procure the crown of it for Lot, his sister’s husband. Arthur landed in Norway, fought a great battle with the king of that country, defeated him, and pursued the victory till he had reduced the whole country under his dominion, and established Lot upon the throne. Then Arthur made a voyage to Gaul and laid siege to the city of Paris. Gaul was at that time a Roman province, and governed by Flollo, the Tribune. When the siege of Paris had continued a month, and the people began to suffer from famine, Flollo challenged Arthur to single combat, proposing to decide the conquest of the province in that way. Arthur gladly accepted the challenge, and slew his adversary in the contest, upon which the citizens surrendered the city to him. After the victory Arthur divided his army into two parts, one of which he committed to the conduct of Hoel, whom he ordered to march into Aquitaine, while he with the other part should endeavor to subdue the other provinces. At the end of nine years, in which time all the parts of Gaul were entirely reduced, Arthur returned to Paris, where he kept his court, and, calling an assembly of the clergy and people, established peace and the just administration of the laws in that kingdom. Then he bestowed Normandy upon Bedver, his butler, and the province of Andegavia upon Kay, his steward, 1  and several other provinces upon his great men that attended him. And, having settled the peace of the cities and countries, he returned back in the beginning of spring to Britain.   3
  Upon the approach of the feast of Pentecost, Arthur, the better to demonstrate his joy after such triumphant successes, and for the more solemn observation of that festival, and reconciling the minds of the princes that were now subject to him, resolved during that season to hold a magnificent court, to place the crown upon his head, and to invite all the kings and dukes under his subjection to the solemnity. And he pitched upon Caerleon, the City of Legions, as the proper place for his purpose. For, besides its great wealth above the other cities, 2  its situation upon the river Usk, near the Severn sea, was most pleasant and fit for so great a solemnity. For on one side it was washed by that noble river, so that the kings and princes from the countries beyond the seas might have the convenience of sailing up to it. On the other side the beauty of the meadows and groves, and magnificence of the royal palaces, with lofty gilded roofs that adorned it, made it even rival the grandeur of Rome. It was also famous for two churches, whereof one was adorned with a choir of virgins, who devoted themselves wholly to the service of God, and the other maintained a convent of priests. Besides, there was a college of two hundred philosophers, who, being learned in astronomy and the other arts, were diligent in observing the courses of the stars, and gave Arthur true predictions of the events that would happen. In this place, therefore, which afforded such delights, were preparations made for the ensuing festival.   4
  Ambassadors were then sent into several kingdoms, to invite to court the princes both of Gaul and of the adjacent islands. Accordingly there came Augusel, king of Albania, now Scotland, Cadwallo, king of Venedotia, now North Wales, Sater, king of Demetia, now South Wales; also the archbishops of the metropolitan sees, London and York, and Dubricius, bishop of Caerleon, the City of Legions. This prelate, who was primate of Britain, was so eminent for his piety that he could cure any sick person by his prayers. There were also the counts of the principal cities, and many other worthies of no less dignity.   5
  From the adjacent islands came Guillamurius, king of Ireland, Gunfasius, king of the Orkneys, Malvasius, king of Iceland, Lot, king of Norway, Bedver, the butler, Duke of Normandy, Kay, the sewer, Duke of Andegavia; also the twelve peers of Gaul, and Hoel, Duke of the Armorican Britons, with his nobility, who came with such a train of mules, horses, and rich furniture as it is difficult to describe. Besides these there remained no prince of any consideration on this side of Spain who came not upon this invitation. And no wonder, when Arthur’s munificence, which was celebrated over the whole world, made him beloved by all people.   6
  When all were assembled upon the day of the solemnity the archbishops were conducted to the palace, in order to place the crown upon the king’s head. Then Dubricius, inasmuch as the court was held in his diocese, made himself ready to celebrate the office. As soon as the king was invested with his royal habiliments he was conducted in great pomp to the metropolitan church, having four kings, viz., of Albania, Cornwall, Demetia, and Venedotia, bearing four golden swords before him. On another part was the queen, dressed out in her richest ornaments, conducted by the archbishops and bishops to the Church of Virgins; the four queens, also, of the kings last mentioned, bearing before her four white doves, according to ancient custom. When the whole procession was ended so transporting was the harmony of the musical instruments and voices, whereof there was a vast variety in both churches, that the knights who attended were in doubt which to prefer, and therefore crowded from the one to the other by turns, and were far from being tired of the solemnity, though the whole day had been spent in it. At last, when divine service was over at both churches, the king and queen put off their crowns, and, putting on their lighter ornaments, went to the banquet. When they had all taken their seats according to precedence, Kay, the sewer, in rich robes of ermine, with a thousand young noblemen all in like manner clothed in rich attire, served up the dishes. From another part Bedver, the butler, was followed by the same number of attendants, who waited with all kinds of cups and drinking-vessels. And there was food and drink in abundance, and everything was of the best kind, and served in the best manner. For at that time Britain had arrived at such a pitch of grandeur that in riches, luxury, and politeness it far surpassed all other kingdoms.   7
  As soon as the banquets were over they went into the fields without the city to divert themselves with various sports, such as shooting with bows and arrows, tossing the pike, casting of heavy stones and rocks, playing at dice, and the like, and all these inoffensively, and without quarrelling. In this manner were three days spent, and after that they separated, and the kings and noblemen departed to their several homes.   8
  After this Arthur reigned five years in peace. Then came ambassadors from Lucius Tiberius, Procurator under Leo, Emperor of Rome, demanding tribute. But Arthur refused to pay tribute, and prepared for war. As soon as the necessary dispositions were made he committed the government of his kingdom to his nephew Modred and to Queen Guenever, and marched with his army to Hamo’s Port, where the wind stood fair for him. The army crossed over in safety, and landed at the mouth of the river Barba. And there they pitched their tents to wait the arrival of the kings of the islands.   9
  As soon as all the forces were arrived Arthur marched forward to Augustodunum, and encamped on the banks of the river Alba. Here repeated battles were fought, in all which the Britons, under their valiant leaders, Hoel, Duke of Armorica, and Gawain, nephew to Arthur, had the advantage. At length Lucius Tiberius determined to retreat, and wait for the Emperor Leo to join him with fresh troops. But Arthur, anticipating this event, took possession of a certain valley, and closed up the way of retreat to Lucius, compelling him to fight a decisive battle, in which Arthur lost some of the bravest of his knights and most faithful followers. But on the other hand Lucius Tiberius was slain, and his army totally defeated. The fugitives dispersed over the country, some to the by-ways and woods, some to cities and towns, and all other places where they could hope for safety.  10
  Arthur stayed in those parts till the next winter was over, and employed his time in restoring order and settling the government. He then returned into England, and celebrated his victories with great splendor.  11
  Then the king stablished all his knights, and to them that were not rich he gave lands, and charged them all never to do outrage nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asked mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen service, upon pain of death. Also that no man take battle in a wrongful quarrel, for no law, nor for any world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And at every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.  12

WHILE the army was encamped in Brittany, awaiting the arrival of the kings, there came a countryman to Arthur, and told him that a giant, whose cave was on a neighboring mountain, called St. Michael’s Mount, had for a long time been accustomed to carry off the children of the peasants to devour them. “And now he hath taken the Duchess of Brittany, as she rode with her attendants, and hath carried her away in spite of all they could do.” “Now, fellow,” said King Arthur, “canst thou bring me there where this giant haunteth?” “Yea, sure,” said the good man; “lo, yonder where thou seest two great fires, there shalt thou find him, and more treasure than I suppose is in all France beside.” Then the king called to him Sir Bedver and Sir Kay, and commanded them to make ready horse and harness for himself and them; for after evening he would ride on pilgrimage to St. Michael’s Mount.
  So they three departed, and rode forth till they came to the foot of the mount. And there the king commanded them to tarry, for he would himself go up into that mount. So he ascended the hill till he came to a great fire, and there he found an aged woman sitting by a new-made grave, making great sorrow. Then King Arthur saluted her, and demanded of her wherefore she made such lamentation; to whom she answered: “Sir knight, speak low, for yonder is a devil, and if he hear thee speak, he will come and destroy thee. For ye cannot make resistance to him, he is so fierce and so strong. He hath murdered the Duchess, which here lieth, who was the fairest of all the world, wife to Sir Hoel, Duke of Brittany.” “Dame,” said the king, “I come from the noble conqueror, King Arthur, to treat with that tyrant.” “Fie on such treaties,” said she; “he setteth not by the king, nor by no man else.” “Well,” said Arthur, “I will accomplish my message for all your fearful words.” So he went forth by the crest of the hill, and saw where the giant sat at supper, gnawing on the limb of a man, and baking his broad limbs at the fire, and three fair damsels lying bound, whose lot it was to be devoured in their turn. When King Arthur beheld that, he had great compassion on them, so that his heart bled for sorrow. Then he hailed the giant, saying, “He that all the world ruleth give thee short life and shameful death. Why hast thou murdered this Duchess? Therefore come forth, for this day thou shalt die by my hand.” Then the giant started up, and took a great club, and smote at the king, and smote off his coronal; and then the king struck him in the belly with his sword, and made a fearful wound. Then the giant threw away his club, and caught the king in his arms, so that he crushed his ribs. Then the three maidens kneeled down and prayed for help and comfort for Arthur. And Arthur weltered and wrenched, so that he was one while under, and another time above. And so weltering and wallowing they rolled down the hill, and ever as they weltered Arthur smote him with his dagger; and it fortuned they came to the place where the two knights were. And when they saw the king fast in the giant’s arms they came and loosed him. Then the king commanded Sir Kay to smite off the giant’s head, and to set it on the truncheon of a spear, and fix it on the barbican, that all the people might see and behold it. This was done, and anon it was known through all the country, wherefor the people came and thanked the king. And he said, “Give your thanks to God; and take ye the giant’s spoil and divide it among you.” And King Arthur caused a church to be builded on that hill, in honor of St. Michael.  14

ONE day King Arthur rode forth, and on a sudden he was ware of three churls chasing Merlin, to have slain him. And the king rode unto them and bade them, “Flee, churls!” Then were they afraid when they saw a knight, and fled. “O Merlin,” said Arthur, “here hadst thou been slain, for all thy crafts, had I not been by.” “Nay,” said Merlin, “not so, for I could save myself if I would; but thou art more near thy death than I am.” So, as they went thus talking, King Arthur perceived where sat a knight on horseback, as if to guard the pass. “Sir knight,” said Arthur, “for what cause abidest thou here?” Then the knight said, “There may no knight ride this way unless he just with me, for such is the custom of the pass.” “I will amend that custom,” said the king. Then they ran together, and they met so hard that their spears were shivered. Then they drew their swords and fought a strong battle, with many great strokes. But at length the sword of the knight smote King Arthur’s sword in two pieces. Then said the knight unto Arthur, “Thou art in my power, whether to save thee or slay thee, and unless thou yield thee as overcome and recreant, thou shalt die.” “As for death,” said King Arthur, “welcome be it when it cometh; but to yield me unto thee as recreant, I will not.” Then he leapt upon the knight, and took him by the middle and threw him down; but the knight was a passing strong man, and anon he brought Arthur under him, and would have razed off his helm to slay him. Then said Merlin, “Knight, hold thy hand, for this knight is a man of more worship than thou art aware of.” “Why, who is he?” said the knight. “It is King Arthur.” Then would he have slain him for dread of his wrath, and lifted up his sword to slay him; and therewith Merlin cast an enchantment on the knight, so that he fell to the earth in a great sleep. Then Merlin took up King Arthur, and set him on his horse. “Alas!” said Arthur, “what hast thou done, Merlin? hast thou slain this good knight by thy crafts?” “Care ye not,” said Merlin; “he is wholer than ye be. He is only asleep, and will wake in three hours.”
  Then the king and he departed, and went till they came to a hermit, that was a good man and a great leech. So the hermit searched all his wounds, and applied good salves; and the king was there three days, and then were his wounds well amended, that he might ride and go. So they departed, and as they rode Arthur said, “I have no sword.” “No matter,” said Merlin; “hereby is a sword that shall be yours.” So they rode till they came to a lake, which was a fair water and broad. And in the midst of the lake Arthur was aware of an arm clothed in white samite, 3  that held a fair sword in the hand. “Lo!” said Merlin, “yonder is that sword that I spake of. It belongeth to the Lady of the Lake, and, if she will, thou mayest take it; but if she will not, it will not be in thy power to take it.”  16
  So Sir Arthur and Merlin alighted from their horses, and went into a boat. And when they came to the sword that the hand held Sir Arthur took it by the handle and took it to him, and the arm and the hand went under the water.  17
  Then they returned unto the land and rode forth. And Sir Arthur looked on the sword and liked it right well.  18
  So they rode unto Caerleon, whereof his knights were passing glad. And when they heard of his adventures they marvelled that he would jeopard his person so alone. But all men of worship said it was a fine thing to be under such a chieftain as would put his person in adventure as other poor knights did.  19

Note 1.  This name, in the French romances, is spelled Queux, which means head cook. This would seem to imply that it was a title, and not a name; yet the personage who bore it is never mentioned by any other. He is the chief, if not the only, comic character among the heroes of Arthur’s court. He is the Seneschal or Steward, his duties also embracing those of chief of the cooks. In the romances, his general character is a compound of valor and buffoonery, always ready to fight, and generally getting the worst of the battle. He is also sarcastic and abusive in his remarks, by which he often gets into trouble. Yet Arthur seems to have an attachment to him, and often takes his advice, which is generally wrong. [back]
Note 2.  Several cities are allotted to King Arthur by the romance-writers. The principal are Caerleon, Camelot, and Carlisle.
  Caerleon derives its name from its having been the station of one of the legions, during the dominion of the Romans. It is called by Latin writers Urbs Legionum, the City of Legions. The former word being rendered into Welsh by Caer, meaning city, and the latter contracted into Ileon. The river Usk retains its name in modern geography, and there is a town or city of Caerleon upon it, though the city of Cardiff is thought to be the scene of Arthur’s court. Chester also bears in Welsh the name of Caerleon; for Chester, derived from castra, Latin for camp, is the designation of military headquarters.
        Camelot is thought to be Winchester.
Shalott is Guilford.
Hamo’s Port is Southampton.

  Carlisle is the city still retaining that name, near the Scottish border. But this name is also sometimes applied to other places, which were, like itself, military stations. [back]
Note 3.  Samite, a sort of silk stuff. [back]


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