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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter IV. Arthur
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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter IV. Arthur Post by :kristisayles Category :Nonfictions Author :Thomas Bulfinch Date :January 2011 Read :1340

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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter IV. Arthur

We shall begin our history of King Arthur by giving those
particulars of his life which appear to rest on historical
evidence; and then proceed to record those legends concerning him
which form the earliest portion of British literature.

Arthur was a prince of the tribe of Britons called Silures, whose
country was South Wales, the son of Uther, named Pendragon, a
title given to an elective sovereign, paramount over the many
kings of Britain. He appears to have commenced his martial career
about the year 500, and was raised to the Pendragonship about ten
years later. He is said to have gained twelve victories over the
Saxons. The most important of them was that of Badon, by some
supposed to be Bath, by others Berkshire. This was the last of his
battles with the Saxons, and checked their progress so
effectually, that Arthur experienced no more annoyance from them,
and reigned in peace, until the revolt of his nephew Modred,
twenty years later, which led to the fatal battle of Camlan, in
Cornwall, in 542. Modred was slain, and Arthur, mortally wounded,
was conveyed by sea to Glastonbury, where he died, and was buried.
Tradition preserved the memory of the place of his interment
within the abbey, as we are told by Giraldus Cambrensis, who was
present when the grave was opened by command of Henry II. about
1150, and saw the bones and sword of the monarch, and a leaden
cross let into his tombstone, with the inscription in rude Roman
letters, "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur, in the island
Avalonia." This story has been elegantly versified by Warton. A
popular traditional belief was long entertained among the Britons,
that Arthur was not dead, but had been carried off to be healed of
his wounds in Fairy-land, and that he would reappear to avenge his
countrymen and reinstate them in the sovereignty of Britain. In
Warton's "Ode" a bard relates to King Henry the traditional story
of Arthur's death, and closes with these lines.

"Yet in vain a paynim foe
Armed with fate the mighty blow:
For when he fell, the Elfin queen,
All in secret and unseen,
O'er the fainting hero threw
Her mantle of ambrosial blue,
And bade her spirits bear him far,
In Merlin's agate-axled car,
To her green isle's enamelled steep,
Far in the navel of the deep.
O'er his wounds she sprinkled dew
From flowers that in Arabia grew.

There he reigns a mighty king,
Thence to Britain shall return,
If right prophetic rolls I learn,
Borne on victory's spreading plume,
His ancient sceptre to resume,
His knightly table to restore,
And brave the tournaments of yore."

After this narration another bard came forward who recited a
different story:

"When Arthur bowed his haughty crest,
No princess veiled in azure vest
Snatched him, by Merlin's powerful spell,
In groves of golden bliss to dwell;
But when he fell, with winged speed,
His champions, on a milk-white steed,
From the battle's hurricane,
Bore him to Joseph's towered fane,
In the fair vale of Avalon;
There, with chanted orison
And the long blaze of tapers clear,
The stoled fathers met the bier;
Through the dim aisles, in order dread
Of martial woe, the chief they led,
And deep entombed in holy ground,
Before the altar's solemn bound."

(Footnote: Glastonbury Abbey, said to be founded by Joseph of
Arimathea, in a spot anciently called the island or valley of
Avalonia.

Tennyson, in his "Palace of Art," alludes to the legend of
Arthur's rescue by the Faery queen, thus:

"Or mythic Uther's deeply wounded son,
In some fair space of sloping greens,
Lay dozing in the vale of Avalon,
And watched by weeping queens.")

It must not be concealed that the very existence of Arthur has
been denied by some. Milton says of him: "As to Arthur, more
renowned in songs and romances than in true stories, who he was,
and whether ever any such reigned in Britain, hath been doubted
heretofore, and may again, with good reason." Modern critics,
however, admit that there was a prince of this name, and find
proof of it in the frequent mention of him in the writings of the
Welsh bards. But the Arthur of romance, according to Mr. Owen, a
Welsh scholar and antiquarian, is a mythological person. "Arthur,"
he says, "is the Great Bear, as the name literally implies
(Arctos, Arcturus), and perhaps this constellation, being so near
the pole, and visibly describing a circle in a small space, is the
origin of the famous Round Table."

KING ARTHUR

Constans, king of Britain, had three sons, Moines, Ambrosius,
otherwise called Uther, and Pendragon. Moines, soon after his
accession to the crown, was vanquished by the Saxons, in
consequence of the treachery of his seneschal, Vortigern, and
growing unpopular, through misfortune, he was killed by his
subjects, and the traitor Vortigern chosen in his place.

Vortigern was soon after defeated in a great battle by Uther and
Pendragon, the surviving brothers of Moines, and Pendragon
ascended the throne.

This prince had great confidence in the wisdom of Merlin, and made
him his chief adviser. About this time a dreadful war arose
between the Saxons and Britons. Merlin obliged the royal brothers
to swear fidelity to each other, but predicted that one of them
must fall in the first battle. The Saxons were routed, and
Pendragon, being slain, was succeeded by Uther, who now assumed in
addition to his own name the appellation of Pendragon.

Merlin still continued a favorite counsellor. At the request of
Uther he transported by magic art enormous stones from Ireland, to
form the sepulchre of Pendragon. These stones constitute the
monument now called Stonehenge, on Salisbury plain.

Merlin next proceeded to Carlisle to prepare the Round Table, at
which he seated an assemblage of the great nobles of the country.
The companions admitted to this high order were bound by oath to
assist each other at the hazard of their own lives, to attempt
singly the most perilous adventures, to lead, when necessary, a
life of monastic solitude, to fly to arms at the first summons,
and never to retire from battle till they had defeated the enemy,
unless night intervened and separated the combatants.

Soon after this institution, the king invited all his barons to
the celebration of a great festival, which he proposed holding
annually at Carlisle.

As the knights had obtained the sovereign's permission to bring
their ladies along with them, the beautiful Igerne accompanied her
husband, Gorlois, Duke of Tintadel, to one of these anniversaries.
The king became deeply enamoured of the duchess, and disclosed his
passion; but Igerne repelled his advances, and revealed his
solicitations to her husband. On hearing this, the duke instantly
removed from court with Igerne, and without taking leave of Uther.
The king complained to his council of this want of duty, and they
decided that the duke should be summoned to court, and, if
refractory, should be treated as a rebel. As he refused to obey
the citation, the king carried war into the estates of his vassal
and besieged him in the strong castle of Tintadel. Merlin
transformed the king into the likeness of Gorlois, and enabled him
to have many stolen interviews with Igerne. At length the duke was
killed in battle and the king espoused Igerne.

From this union sprang Arthur, who succeeded his father, Uther,
upon the throne.

ARTHUR CHOSEN KING

Arthur, though only fifteen years old at his father's death, was
elected king, at a general meeting of the nobles. It was not done
without opposition, for there were many ambitious competitors.

"For while he linger'd there
A doubt that ever smoulder'd in the hearts
Of those great Lords and Barons of his realm
Flash'd forth and into war: for most of these
Made head against him, crying, 'Who is he
That he should rule us? who hath proven him
King Uther's son? for lo! we look at him,
And find nor face nor bearing, limbs nor voice,
Are like to those of Uther whom we knew."

--Coming of Arthur.

But Bishop Brice, a person of great sanctity, on Christmas eve
addressed the assembly, and represented that it would well become
them, at that solemn season, to put up their prayers for some
token which should manifest the intentions of Providence
respecting their future sovereign. This was done, and with such
success, that the service was scarcely ended when a miraculous
stone was discovered before the church door, and in the stone was
firmly fixed a sword, with the following words engraven on its
hilt:

"I am hight Escalibore,
Unto a king fair tresore."

Bishop Brice, after exhorting the assembly to offer up their
thanksgiving for this signal miracle, proposed a law, that whoever
should be able to draw out the sword from the stone, should be
acknowledged as sovereign of the Britons; and his proposal was
decreed by general acclamation. The tributary kings of Uther, and
the most famous knights, successively put their strength to the
proof, but the miraculous sword resisted all their efforts. It
stood till Candlemas; it stood till Easter, and till Pentecost,
when the best knights in the kingdom usually assembled for the
annual tournament. Arthur, who was at that time serving in the
capacity of squire to his foster-brother, Sir Kay, attended his
master to the lists. Sir Kay fought with great valor and success,
but had the misfortune to break his sword, and sent Arthur to his
mother for a new one. Arthur hastened home, but did not find the
lady; but having observed near the church a sword, sticking in a
stone, he galloped to the place, drew out the sword with great
ease, and delivered it to his master. Sir Kay would willingly have
assumed to himself the distinction conferred by the possession of
the sword, but when, to confirm the doubters, the sword was
replaced in the stone he was utterly unable to withdraw it, and it
would yield a second time to no hand but Arthur's. Thus decisively
pointed out by Heaven as their king, Arthur was by general consent
proclaimed as such, and an early day appointed for his solemn
coronation.

Immediately after his election to the crown, Arthur found himself
opposed by eleven kings and one duke, who with a vast army were
actually encamped in the forest of Rockingham. By Merlin's advice
Arthur sent an embassy to Brittany, to solicit the aid of King Ban
and King Bohort, two of the best knights in the world. They
accepted the call, and with a powerful army crossed the sea,
landing at Portsmouth, where they were received with great
rejoicing. The rebel kings were still superior in numbers; but
Merlin, by a powerful enchantment, caused all their tents to fall
down at once, and in the confusion Arthur with his allies fell
upon them and totally routed them.

After defeating the rebels, Arthur took the field against the
Saxons. As they were too strong for him unaided, he sent an
embassy to Armorica, beseeching the assistance of Hoel, who soon
after brought over an army to his aid. The two kings joined their
forces, and sought the enemy, whom they met, and both sides
prepared for a decisive engagement. "Arthur himself," as Geoffrey
of Monmouth relates, "dressed in a breastplate worthy of so great
a king, places on his head a golden helmet engraved with the
semblance of a dragon. Over his shoulders he throws his shield
called Priwen, on which a picture of the Holy Virgin constantly
recalled her to his memory. Girt with Caliburn, a most excellent
sword, and fabricated in the isle of Avalon, he graces his right
hand with the lance named Ron. This was a long and broad spear,
well contrived for slaughter." After a severe conflict, Arthur,
calling on the name of the Virgin, rushes into the midst of his
enemies, and destroys multitudes of them with the formidable
Caliburn, and puts the rest to flight. Hoel, being detained by
sickness, took no part in this battle.

This is called the victory of Mount Badon, and, however disguised
by fable, it is regarded by historians as a real event.

The feats performed by Arthur at the battle of Badon Mount are
thus celebrated in Drayton's verse:

"They sung how he himself at Badon bore, that day,
When at the glorious goal his British sceptre lay;
Two daies together how the battel stronglie stood;
Pendragon's worthie son, who waded there in blood,
Three hundred Saxons slew with his owne valiant hand."

--Song IV.

GUENEVER

Merlin had planned for Arthur a marriage with the daughter of King
Laodegan of Carmalide. By his advice Arthur paid a visit to the
court of that sovereign, attended only by Merlin and by thirty-
nine knights whom the magician had selected for that service. On
their arrival they found Laodegan and his peers sitting in
council, endeavoring, but with small prospect of success, to
devise means of resisting the impending attack of Ryence, king of
Ireland, who, with fifteen tributary kings and an almost
innumerable army, had nearly surrounded the city. Merlin, who
acted as leader of the band of British knights, announced them as
strangers, who came to offer the king their services in his wars;
but under the express condition that they should be at liberty to
conceal their names and quality until they should think proper to
divulge them. These terms were thought very strange, but were
thankfully accepted, and the strangers, after taking the usual
oath to the king, retired to the lodging which Merlin had prepared
for them.

A few days after this, the enemy, regardless of a truce into which
they had entered with King Laodegan, suddenly issued from their
camp and made an attempt to surprise the city. Cleodalis, the
king's general, assembled the royal forces with all possible
despatch. Arthur and his companions also flew to arms, and Merlin
appeared at their head, bearing a standard on which was emblazoned
a terrific dragon. Merlin advanced to the gate, and commanded the
porter to open it, which the porter refused to do, without the
king's order. Merlin thereupon took up the gate, with all its
appurtenances of locks, bars, bolts, etc., and directed his troops
to pass through, after which he replaced it in perfect order. He
then set spurs to his horse and dashed, at the head of his little
troop, into a body of two thousand pagans. The disparity of
numbers being so enormous, Merlin cast a spell upon the enemy, so
as to prevent their seeing the small number of their assailants;
notwithstanding which the British knights were hard pressed. But
the people of the city, who saw from the walls this unequal
contest, were ashamed of leaving the small body of strangers to
their fate, so they opened the gate and sallied forth. The numbers
were now more nearly equal, and Merlin revoked his spell, so that
the two armies encountered on fair terms. Where Arthur, Ban,
Bohort, and the rest fought the king's army had the advantage; but
in another part of the field the king himself was surrounded and
carried off by the enemy. The sad sight was seen by Guenever, the
fair daughter of the king, who stood on the city wall and looked
at the battle. She was in dreadful distress, tore her hair, and
swooned away.

But Merlin, aware of what passed in every part of the field,
suddenly collected his knights, led them out of the battle,
intercepted the passage of the party who were carrying away the
king, charged them with irresistible impetuosity, cut in pieces or
dispersed the whole escort, and rescued the king. In the fight
Arthur encountered Caulang, a giant fifteen feet high, and the
fair Guenever, who had already began to feel a strong interest in
the handsome young stranger, trembled for the issue of the
contest. But Arthur, dealing a dreadful blow on the shoulder of
the monster, cut through his neck so that his head hung over on
one side, and in this condition his horse carried him about the
field, to the great horror and dismay of the Pagans. Guenever
could not refrain from expressing aloud her wish that the gentle
knight, who dealt with giants so dexterously, were destined to
become her husband, and the wish was echoed by her attendants. The
enemy soon turned their backs and fled with precipitation, closely
pursued by Laodegan and his allies.

After the battle Arthur was disarmed and conducted to the bath by
the princess Guenever, while his friends were attended by the
other ladies of the court. After the bath the knights were
conducted to a magnificent entertainment, at which they were
diligently served by the same fair attendants. Laodegan, more and
more anxious to know the name and quality of his generous
deliverers, and occasionally forming a secret wish that the chief
of his guests might be captivated by the charms of his daughter,
appeared silent and pensive, and was scarcely roused from his
reverie by the banters of his courtiers. Arthur, having had an
opportunity of explaining to Guenever his great esteem for her
merit, was in the joy of his heart, and was still further
delighted by hearing from Merlin the late exploits of Gawain at
London, by means of which his immediate return to his dominions
was rendered unnecessary, and he was left at liberty to protract
his stay at the court of Laodegan. Every day contributed to
increase the admiration of the whole court for the gallant
strangers, and the passion of Guenever for their chief; and when
at last Merlin announced to the king that the object of the visit
of the party was to procure a bride for their leader, Laodegan at
once presented Guenever to Arthur, telling him that, whatever
might be his rank, his merit was sufficient to entitle him to the
possession of the heiress of Carmalide.

"And could he find a woman in her womanhood
As great as he was in his manhood--
The twain together might change the world."

--Guinevere.

Arthur accepted the lady with the utmost gratitude, and Merlin
then proceeded to satisfy the king of the rank of his son-in-law;
upon which Laodegan, with all his barons, hastened to do homage to
their lawful sovereign, the successor of Uther Pendragon. The fair
Guenever was then solemnly betrothed to Arthur, and a magnificent
festival was proclaimed, which lasted seven days. At the end of
that time, the enemy appearing again with renewed force, it became
necessary to resume military operations. (Footnote: Guenever, the
name of Arthur's queen, also written Genievre and Geneura, is
familiar to all who are conversant with chivalric lore. It is to
her adventures, and those of her true knight, Sir Launcelot, that
Dante alludes in the beautiful episode of Francesca di Rimini.)

We must now relate what took place at and near London, while
Arthur was absent from his capital. At this very time a band of
young heroes were on their way to Arthur's court, for the purpose
of receiving knighthood from him. They were Gawain and his three
brothers, nephews of Arthur, sons of King Lot, and Galachin,
another nephew, son of King Nanters. King Lot had been one of the
rebel chiefs whom Arthur had defeated, but he now hoped by means
of the young men to be reconciled to his brother-in-law. He
equipped his sons and his nephew with the utmost magnificence,
giving them a splendid retinue of young men, sons of earls and
barons, all mounted on the best horses, with complete suits of
choice armor. They numbered in all seven hundred, but only nine
had yet received the order of knighthood; the rest were candidates
for that honor, and anxious to earn it by an early encounter with
the enemy. Gawain, the leader, was a knight of wonderful strength;
but what was most remarkable about him was that his strength was
greater at certain hours of the day than at others. From nine
o'clock till noon his strength was doubled, and so it was from
three to evensong; for the rest of the time it was less
remarkable, though at all times surpassing that of ordinary men.

After a march of three days they arrived in the vicinity of
London, where they expected to find Arthur and his court, and very
unexpectedly fell in with a large convoy belonging to the enemy,
consisting of numerous carts and wagons, all loaded with
provisions, and escorted by three thousand men, who had been
collecting spoil from all the country round. A single charge from
Gawain's impetuous cavalry was sufficient to disperse the escort
and recover the convoy, which was instantly despatched to London.
But before long a body of seven thousand fresh soldiers advanced
to the attack of the five princes and their little army. Gawain,
singling out a chief named Choas, of gigantic size, began the
battle by splitting him from the crown of the head to the breast.
Galachin encountered King Sanagran, who was also very huge, and
cut off his head. Agrivain and Gahariet also performed prodigies
of valor. Thus they kept the great army of assailants at bay,
though hard pressed, till of a sudden they perceived a strong body
of the citizens advancing from London, where the convoy which had
been recovered by Gawain had arrived, and informed the mayor and
citizens of the danger of their deliverer. The arrival of the
Londoners soon decided the contest. The enemy fled in all
directions, and Gawain and his friends, escorted by the grateful
citizens, entered London, and were received with acclamations.

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