Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

Book I
How Arthur Won the Throne

The Magic Sword

Once upon a time, in that far-off and famous era of chivalry and knight-errantry when wandering knights sought adventures far and wide throughout the land, and no damsel in distress failed to enlist a valiant champion in her cause, there reigned over England's broad realm a noble monarch, King Arthur by name, the flower of chivalry, and the founder of the world-renowned order of Knights of the Round Table. It is the story of this far-famed monarch, and of the wonderful and valorous deeds of his Knights, that we here propose to tell, as preserved in the ancient legends of the land, and set forth at length in the chronicles of the days of chivalry.

Before the days of Arthur the King, there reigned over all England Uther Pendragon, a monarch of might and renown. He died at length in years and honor, and after his death anarchy long prevailed in the land, for no son of his appeared to claim the throne, and many of the lords who were high in rank and strong in men sought to win it by force of arms, while everywhere lawlessness and wrong-doing made life a burden and wealth a deceit.

But by good fortune there still survived the famous magician Merlin, the master of all mysteries, who long had been the stay of Uther's throne, and in whose hands lay the destiny of the realm. For after years of anarchy, and when men had almost lost hope of right and justice, Merlin, foreseeing that the time for a change was at hand, went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and bade him summon to London by Christmas day all the lords of the realm and the gentlemen of arms, for on that day a miracle would be shown by which would be decided who should be ruler of the kingless realm.

The summons was issued, and by Christmas-tide many lords and knights, the flower of England's chivalry, had gathered in London, most of them full of ambition and many of them buoyed up by hope. In the greatest church of that city prayers went up night and day, all who had been guilty of wrong-doing seeking to clear their souls of sin; for all believed that only through God's grace could any man come to dominion in the realm, and those who aspired to the throne ardently sought to make their peace with God.

On Christmas day, after the hour of matins and the first mass, came the miracle which Merlin had predicted; for there suddenly appeared before the high altar in the church-yard a great four-square block of stone, of the texture of marble, upon which stood an anvil of steel a foot in height; and through the anvil and deep into the stone was thrust a gleaming sword, upon which, in letters of gold, ran these words, "Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone is of right born king of all England."

Whether Merlin performed this strange thing by magic, or it was a miracle of God's will, the chronicles say not, but all who saw it deeply marvelled, and word of it was brought to the archbishop in the church.

"Let no man stir," he enjoined. "This is God's doing, and must be dealt with gravely and solemnly. I command that all stay within the church and pray unto God until the high mass be done. Till then let no hand touch the sword."

And so the service went on until its end; but after it was done the audience hastened to behold the miracle, and some of the higher lords, who were ambitious for the throne, laid eager hold upon the sword and sought with all their strength to draw it. Yet all in vain they tugged; the mightiest among them could not stir the deep-thrust blade.

"The man is not here," said the archbishop, "who shall draw that sword; but God, in His own good season, will make him known. This, then, is my counsel: let us set ten knights, men of fame and honor, to guard the sword, and let every man that has faith in his good fortune seek to draw it. He who is the destined monarch of England will in time appear."

New Year's day came, and no man yet had drawn the sword, though many had adventured. For that day the barons had ordered that a stately tournament should be held, in which all knights who desired to break a lance for God and their ladies might take part. This was greeted with high acclaim, and after the services of the day had ended the barons and knights together rode to the lists, while multitudes of the citizens of London crowded thither to witness the knightly sports. Among those who rode were Sir Hector, a noble lord, who held domains in England and Wales, and with him his son Sir Kay, a new-made knight, and his younger son Arthur, a youth still too young for knighthood.

As they rode together to the lists, Kay discovered that he had forgotten his sword, having left it behind at his father's lodging. He begged young Arthur to ride back for it.

"Trust me to bring it," replied Arthur, readily, and turning his horse he rode briskly back to his father's lodging in the city. On reaching the house, however, he found it fast locked, all its inmates having gone to the tournament. The young man stood a moment in anger and indecision.

"My brother Kay shall not be without a sword," he said. "I remember seeing in the church-yard a handsome blade thrust into a stone, and seeming to want an owner. I shall ride thither and get that sword. It will serve Kay's turn."

He accordingly turned his horse and rode back in all haste. On reaching the church-yard he found no knights there, all those who had been placed on guard having gone to the jousting, exchanging duty for sport. Dismounting and tying his horse, he entered the tent which had been erected over the stone. There stood the magic sword, its jewelled hilt and half the shining blade revealed. Heedless of the inscription on the polished steel, and ignorant of its lofty promise,—for the miracle had been kept secret by the knights,—young Arthur seized the weapon strongly by the hilt and gave the magic sword a vigorous pull. Then a wondrous thing happened, which it was a pity there were none to see; for the blade came easily out of stone and steel, as though they were yielding clay, and lay naked in his hand. Not knowing the might and meaning of what he had done, and thinking of naught but to keep his word, the young man mounted his horse and rode to the field, where he delivered the sword to his brother Sir Kay.

"I have brought your sword," he said.

The young knight started with surprise on beholding the blade, and gazed on it with wonder and trepidation. It was not his, he knew, and he recognized it at sight for the magic blade. But ambition quickly banished the wonder from his heart, and he rode hastily to his father, Sir Hector, exclaiming,—

"Behold! Here is the sword of the stone! I that bear it am the destined king of England's realm."

Sir Hector looked at him in doubt, and beheld the blade he bore with deep surprise.

"When and how did you obtain it?" he demanded. "Back to the church! Come with us, Arthur. Here is a mystery that must be explained."

Reaching the church, he made Kay swear upon the book how he came by that weapon, for greatly he doubted.

"I have not said I drew it," Kay replied, sullenly. "In truth, it was not achieved by me. Arthur brought me the sword."

"Arthur!" cried the lord. "Arthur brought it! How got you it, boy?"

"I pulled it from the stone," replied the youth. "Kay sent me home for his sword, but the house was empty and locked; and as I did not wish my brother to be without a weapon, I rode hither and pulled this blade out of the stone. Was there aught strange in that? It came out easily enough."

"Were there no knights about it?"

"None, sir."

"Then the truth is plain. God's will has been revealed. You are the destined king of England."

"I?" cried Arthur, in surprise. "Wherefore I?"

"God has willed it so," repeated the baron. "But I must first learn for myself if you have truly drawn the sword. Can you put it back again?"

"I can try," said Arthur, and with an easy thrust he sunk the blade deeply into the stone.

Then Sir Hector and Kay pulled at the hilt with all their strength, but failed to move the weapon.

"Now you shall try," they said to Arthur.

Thereupon the youth seized the hilt, and with a light effort the magic sword came out naked in his hand.

"You are our king!" cried Sir Hector, kneeling on the earth, and Kay beside him.

"My dear father and brother," cried Arthur in surprise and distress, "why kneel you to me? Rise, I pray; it pains me deeply to see you thus."

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


"I am not your father nor of your kindred," rejoined the baron. "I must now reveal the secret I long have kept. You were brought to me in infancy, and I and my wife have fostered you as our own. But you are no son of mine. Who you truly are I cannot say; that only Merlin the magician knows. But well I feel assured you are of nobler blood than I can boast."

These words filled Arthur with heartfelt pain. He had long revered the worthy knight as his father, and it grieved him deeply to learn that those whom he had so warmly loved were not of kin to him.

"Sir," said Hector, "will you be my good and gracious lord when you are king?"

"You, my father, and your good lady, my mother,—to whom else in all the world am I so beholden?" rejoined Arthur, warmly. "God forbid that I should fail you in whatever you may desire, if by His will and grace I shall be made king."

"This only I ask of you," said the baron: "that you make Kay, my son and your foster-brother, the seneschal of all your lands."

"By the faith of my body, I promise," said Arthur. "No man but he shall have that office while he and I live."

These words said, Sir Hector went to the archbishop and told him, much to his surprise, of the marvel that had been performed. By the advice of the prelate it was kept secret until Twelfth Day, when the barons came again, and another effort was made to draw the sword.

After all had tried and failed, Arthur was brought forward, and while many sneered at his youth and asked why a boy had been brought thither, he seized the hilt and lightly drew the blade from the stone. Then all stood aghast in wonder, marvelling greatly to see a youth perform the feat which the strongest knights in the kingdom had attempted in vain; but many beheld it with bitter anger and hostile doubt.

"Who is this boy?" they cried. "What royal blood can he claim? Shall we and the realm of England be shamed by being governed by a base-born churl? There is fraud or magic in this."

So high ran the tide of adverse feeling that the archbishop finally decided that another trial should be had at Candlemas, ten knights meanwhile closely guarding the stone. And when Candlemas day arrived there came many more great lords, each eager for the throne; but, as before, of all there none but Arthur could draw the magic sword.

Again was there envy and hostility, and another trial was loudly demanded, the time being fixed for Easter. This ended as before, and at the demand of the angry lords a final trial was arranged for the feast of Pentecost. The archbishop now, at Merlin's suggestion, surrounded Arthur with a bodyguard of tried warriors, some of whom had been Uther Pendragon's best and worthiest knights; for it was feared that some of his enemies might seek to do him harm. They were bidden to keep watch over him day and night till the season of Pentecost, for there were lords that would have slain him had they dared.

At the feast of Pentecost lords and knights gathered again, but in vain they all essayed to draw the magic sword. Only to the hand of Arthur would it yield, and he pulled it lightly from the stone and steel in the presence of all the lords and commons. Then cried the commons in loud acclaim,—

"Arthur shall be our king! We will have none to reign over us but him! Let there be no more delay. God has willed that he shall be England's king, and he that holdeth out longer against the will of God that man shall we slay."

Then rich and poor alike kneeled before Arthur, hailed him as king, and craved his pardon for their long delay. He forgave them freely, and taking the sword between his hands, laid it upon the altar before the archbishop. This done, he was made a knight by the worthiest warrior there, and thus taken into that noble fellowship of chivalry which he was destined by his valor and virtue to so richly adorn.

Shortly afterward Arthur was crowned king, with great pomp and ceremony, before a noble assemblage of the lords and ladies of the realm, taking solemn oath at the coronation to be true king to lords and commons, and to deal justice to all while he should live.

Justice, indeed, was greatly and urgently demanded, for many wrongs had been done since the death of King Uther, and numerous complaints were laid before the throne. All these evils Arthur redressed, forcing those who had wrongfully taken the lands of others to return them, and demanding that all should submit to the laws of the realm. In compliance with his promise, Sir Kay was made seneschal of England, while other knights were appointed to the remaining high offices of the realm, and all the needs of the kingdom duly provided for. Thus the famous reign of King Arthur auspiciously began, with God's and man's blessing upon its early days.