Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

Arthur's Wars and the Mystery of His Birth

After Arthur was crowned king he removed into Wales, where he gave orders that a great feast should be held on the coming day of Pentecost, at the city of Carlion. On the day appointed for the feast there appeared before Carlion the Kings of Lothian and Orkney, Gore, Garloth, Carados, and Scotland, each with a large following of knights. Their coming greatly pleased King Arthur, who believed that they desired to do honor to his reign, and he sent presents of great value to them and to their knights.

These they disdainfully refused, sending back a hostile challenge by the messenger, and saying that they had not come to receive gifts from a beardless boy, of ignoble blood, but to present him gifts with hard swords between neck and shoulder. It was a shame, they said, to see such a boy at the head of so noble a realm, and this wrong should be redressed at their hands.

On receiving this defiant message, Arthur threw himself, with five hundred good men, into a strong tower near Carlion, for he was ill prepared for attack. There he was closely besieged by his foes, but the castle was well victualled, and held out stoutly against its assailants.

During the siege Merlin appeared suddenly among the kings, and told them privately who Arthur really was, assuring them that he was of nobler blood than themselves, and was destined long to remain king of England, and to reduce Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to his sway. Some of the hostile monarchs believed the magician's story, but others doubted it, King Lot of Orkney laughing him to scorn, while some among them called him a prating wizard.

But it was agreed that they should hold a conference with Arthur, they promising if he came out to them to place no hindrance to his safe return. Merlin then sought the king and advised him to accept the conference, telling him that he had nothing to fear. Thereupon Arthur armed himself, and taking with him the Archbishop of Canterbury and several noble knights, went out boldly to meet his foes.

The conference was an angry and bitter one, the kings speaking strongly, and Arthur answering them with stout words of defiance, in which he told them plainly that if he lived he would make them bow to his throne. In the end they parted in wrath, the kings returning to their camp and Arthur to the tower.

"What do you propose to do?" said Merlin to the kings. "If you take a wise man's advice you will withdraw, for I tell you that you shall not prevail here, were you ten times as many."

"We are not the men to be advised by a dream-reader," answered King Lot. "If you are the wise man you say, you will take yourself away." At this reply Merlin magically vanished from among them, and immediately appeared to King Arthur in the tower, bidding him boldly to sally forth and attack his enemies, and trust to fortune and valor for success. Meanwhile three hundred of the best knights of the kings had deserted their ranks and come to join him, much to his comfort, for he had been greatly outnumbered.

"Sir," said Merlin, "fight not with the sword that you had by miracle, till you see things go to the worst; then draw it out and strike shrewdly for your throne."

These words said, Arthur sallied from the tower at the head of all his knights, and fell fiercely on the besiegers in their camp. All went down before his bold assault, the hosts of the hostile kings retreating in dismay. Great deeds were done that day, Sir Kay and other knights slaying all before them, while Arthur laid on nobly, and did such marvellous feats of arms that all who saw him wondered greatly, for until now he had been an untried youth. While the combat thus went on in Arthur's favor in front, King Lot and others of the kings made a detour and set fiercely upon his force from the rear, causing momentary dismay in his ranks. But Arthur wheeled alertly with his knights, and smote vigorously to right and left, keeping always in the foremost press, till his horse was slain beneath him, and he hurled to the ground.

King Lot took instant advantage of this, and with a mighty blow prostrated the unhorsed king. But his knights hastily surrounded him, drove back his crowding foes, and set him on horseback again. And now King Arthur drew the magic sword, and as he waved it in the air there flashed from it a gleaming lustre that blinded the eyes of his enemies. Back they went before him, many of them falling under his mighty blows, while his valiant knights followed hotly in the track of the flaming sword, and the enemy fled in panic fear.

Then the people of Carlion, seeing the enemy in retreat, came out with clubs and staves, and fell upon the defeated host, killing numbers of the dismounted knights; while the hostile kings, with such of their followers as remained alive, fled in all haste from the disastrous field, leaving the victory to Arthur and his knights.

Thus ended in victory the first battle of Arthur's famous reign. It was but the prelude to a greater one, the mighty deeds of which the chroniclers tell at great length, but of which we shall give but brief record. It was predicted by Merlin, who told the king that he should have to fight far more strongly for his crown, that the defeated kings would get others to join them, and would ere long proceed against him with a mighty force.

"I warn you," he said to the king and his council, "that your enemies are very strong, for they have entered into alliance with four other kings and a mighty duke, and unless our king obtain powerful allies he shall be overcome and slain."

"What then shall we do?" asked the barons.

"I shall tell you," said Merlin. "There are two brethren beyond the sea, both kings, and marvellously valiant men. One of these is King Ban of Benwick, and the other King Bors of Gaul. These monarchs are at war with a mighty warrior, King Claudas. My counsel then is, that our king ask the aid of these monarchs in his wars, and engage in return to help them in their war with their foe."

"It is well counselled," said the king and his barons.

Accordingly two knights with letters were sent across the seas, and after various adventures reached the camp of Kings Ban and Bors. These valiant monarchs gladly responded to Arthur's request, and, leaving their castles well guarded, came with ten thousand of their best men to the aid of the youthful king. Then were held great feasts, and a noble tournament was given on All-hallowmas day, at which Sir Kay carried off the honors of the lists and received the prize of valor.

But sport had soon to give place to war, for the hostile kings, now eleven in all, with a host of fifty thousand mounted men and ten thousand footmen, were marching upon King Arthur's camp, then at the Castle of Bedegraine, in Sherwood forest.

Two nights before the hosts met in battle, one of the hostile leaders, known as the king with the hundred knights, dreamed a wondrous dream. It seemed to him that there came a mighty wind, which blew down all their castles and towns, and that then there came a great flood and carried all away. All who heard this dream said that it was a token of great battle, but by its portent none were dismayed, for they felt too secure in their strength to heed the warning of a dream.

Soon the two armies drew together, and encamped at no great distance asunder. Then, by advice of Merlin, a midnight attack was made by Arthur and his allies upon the host of the eleven kings, as they lay sleeping in their tents. But their sentinels were alert, the sound of the coming host reached their wakeful ears, and loud the cry ran through the camp:

"To arms! lords and knights, to arms! The enemy is upon us! To arms! to arms!"

On like a wave of war came the force of Arthur, Ban, and Bors. The tents were overthrown, and all the valor of the eleven kings was needed to save their army from defeat. So fiercely went the assault that by day-dawn ten thousand of their men lay dead upon the field, while Arthur's loss was but small.

By Merlin's advice, while it was yet dark the forces of Ban and Bors had been placed in ambush in the forest. Then Arthur, with his own army of twenty thousand men, set fiercely on the overwhelming force of the foe, and deeds of mighty prowess were done, men falling like leaves, and many knights of tried valor staining the earth with their blood.

Fiercely went the combat, hand to hand and blade to blade, till the field was strewn with the dead, while none could tell how the battle would end. But when Kings Ban and Bors broke from their ambush, with ten thousand fresh men, the tide of battle turned against the foe. Back they went, step by step, many of their men taking to flight, and hundreds falling in death. King Bors did marvellous deeds of arms. King Ban, whose horse was killed, fought on foot like an enraged lion, standing among dead men and horses, and felling all who came within reach of his sword. As for King Arthur, his armor was so covered with crimson stains that no man knew him, and his horse went fetlock deep in blood.

When night approached, the hostile force was driven across a little stream, the eleven warrior kings still valiantly facing the victorious foe.

Then came Merlin into the press of struggling knights, mounted on a great black horse, and cried to Arthur,—

"Wilt thou never have done? Of threescore thousand men this day thou hast left alive but fifteen thousand, and it is time to cry, Halt! I bid you withdraw, for if you continue the battle fortune will turn against you. As for these kings, you will have no trouble with them for three years to come, for more than forty thousand Saracens have landed in their country, and are burning and despoiling all before them."

This advice was taken, and the defeated kings were allowed to withdraw the remnant of their forces without further harm, while King Arthur richly rewarded his allies and their knights from the treasure found in the hostile camp.

Thus was King Arthur seated firmly on his throne. But who he was he knew not yet, for the mystery that lay over his birth Merlin had never revealed. After the battle Merlin went to his master Bleise, who dwelt in Northumberland, and told him the events of the mighty contest. These Bleise wrote down, word by word, as he did the after-events of King Arthur's reign, and the deeds of his valiant knights. And so was made the chronicle of the great achievements of arms, and the adventures of errant knights, from which this history is drawn.

Of some things that Merlin further did we must here speak. While Arthur dwelt in the castle of Bedegraine, Merlin came to him so disguised that the king knew him not. He was all befurred in black sheepskins, with a great pair of boots and a bow and arrows, and brought wild geese in his hand, as though he had been a huntsman.

"Sir," he said to the king, "will you give me a gift?"

"Why should I do so, churl?" asked the king.

"You had better give me a gift from what you have in hand than to lose great riches which are now out of your reach; for here, where the battle was fought, is great treasure hidden in the earth."

"Who told you that, churl?"

"Merlin told me so."

Then was the king abashed, for he now knew that it was Merlin who spoke, and it troubled him that he had not known his best friend.

Afterward, on a day when Arthur had been hunting in the forest, and while he sat in deep thought over a strange dream he had dreamed and some sinful deeds he had done, there came to him a child of fourteen years, and asked him why he was so pensive.

"I may well be so," replied Arthur, "for I have much to make me think."

"I know that well," said the seeming child, "also who thou art and all thy thoughts. I can tell thee who was thy father and how and when thou wert born."

"That is false," rejoined the king. "How should a boy of your years know my father?"

"He was Uther Pendragon, the king," replied the seeming boy, "and you are of royal blood."

"How can you know that? I will not believe you without better proof," said Arthur.

At these words the child departed, but quickly after there came to the king an old man of fourscore years.

"Why are you so sad?" asked the old man.

"For many things," replied Arthur. "Here but now was a child who told me things which it seems to me he could not know."

"He told you the truth," said the old man, "and would have told you more if you had listened. This I am bidden to tell you, that you have done things which have displeased God, and that your sister shall bear a son who will destroy you and all the knights of your land. That is the meaning of your dream in which griffons and serpents burnt and slew all before them, and wounded you to the death."

"Who are you," said Arthur, "that tell me these things?"

"I am Merlin," replied the old man. "And I was the child who came to you."

"You are a marvellous man," replied Arthur. "But how can you know that I shall die in battle?"

"How I know matters not, but this much more I am bidden to tell you: your death will be a noble one; but I shall die a shameful death, and shall be put in the earth alive for my follies. Such is the voice of destiny."

While they conversed thus, horses were brought to the king, and he and Merlin mounted and rode to Carlion. Here Arthur told Sir Hector what he had heard, and asked if it were true.

"I believe it to be the truth," answered the old baron. "Merlin has told me that the child he brought to my castle was the son of King Uther Pendragon and of Queen Igraine, his wife."

But Arthur was not yet convinced, and sent in all haste for Queen Igraine, who dwelt in a castle not far away, and came quickly with Morgan le Fay, her daughter, a fair lady, and one who had been taught all the arts of necromancy.

The king welcomed her with rich cheer, and made a feast in her honor, without saying why he had asked her to his court. But when the feast was at its height, Sir Ulfius, the chamberlain, and a knight of worth and honor, rose in the midst, and boldly accused the queen of falsehood and treason.

"Beware what you say," cried the king. "Those are strong words, and this lady is my guest."

"I am well advised of what I say," replied Ulfius, "and here is my glove to prove it upon any man who shall deny it. I declare that Queen Igraine is the cause of your great wars and of deep damage to your throne. Had she told in the life of King Uther of the birth of her son you would have been spared your wars, for most of your barons know not to-day of what blood you were born. Therefore I declare her false to God, to you, and to all your realm, and if any man shall say me nay I stand ready to prove it upon his body."

"I am a woman, and I may not fight," said Queen Igraine to this. "But there are men here will take my quarrel. Merlin will bear me witness that it was King Uther's wish, for reasons of state, that the birth of my child should be concealed, and if you seek a traitor you should accuse Uther Pendragon and not me. At its birth the child was wrapped in cloth of gold, by order of the king, and taken from me, and from that day to this I have not set eyes upon my son."

"Then," said Ulfius, "Merlin is more to blame than you."

"I bowed to the will of my husband," replied the queen. "After the death of my lord, the Duke of Tintagil, King Uther married me, and I bore him a son, but I know not what has become of my child."

Then Merlin took the king by the hand and led him to Queen Igraine.

"This is your mother," he said.

Therewith, Sir Hector bore witness how the child has been brought by Merlin to the postern gate of his castle, wrapped in cloth of gold, and how he had reared him as his own son, knowing not who he was, but full sure he was of high birth.

These words removed all doubt from Arthur's mind, and with warm affection he took his mother in his arms, and kissed her lovingly, while tears of joy flowed freely from the eyes of mother and son, for never was gladder meeting than that which there took place.

For eight days thereafter feasts and sports were held at the castle, and great joy fell upon all men to learn that the son of great Uther Pendragon had come to the throne. And far and wide the story spread through the land that he who had drawn the magic sword was the rightful heir to England's crown.