Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Story of King Arthur

"Y OU said truly," cried Prince Constantine, when Hoel had brought his tale to an end, "that you had a sad story to tell, Let us now, if the hour be not too late, nor you over weary, hear something of a more cheerful kind. Tell us about the great King Arthur."

"Most willingly," answered the minstrel; "were the night altogether spent, and I worn out with weariness, yet I could not refuse to speak of Arthur the Flower of Kings.

"When Ambrosius, son of Constans, was dead, his brother Uther reigned in his place. When Uther's wife was about to bear him a child, the wise man Merlin, knowing that this child would be a son, and would grow to be a great king that should deliver Britain, prayed the King that the child might be delivered to him so soon as it was born. For he knew by his art that this was the best thing that could be done for the child.

"The babe, therefore, was wrapped in cloth of gold, and delivered by two ladies, to whom the King had given this command, into the hands of Merlin himself, who was standing at the castle-gate in the disguise of a poor man. Merlin carried the babe to a priest, who christened him by the name of Arthur. This done he took him to the house of a certain knight, Sir Hector. Sir Hector's wife nourished him, and there he lived many years, being reckoned as one of Sir Hector's children, for none knew who he was in truth, save only Merlin and the King.

"Uther, having fought bravely with the Saxons, who all this time were spreading their power more and more over Britain, became so sick that he was ready to die. His knights came to Merlin, and inquired whether there was any remedy for the King's sickness? Merlin made answer—

" 'Remedy there is none; this sickness is to death. Nevertheless, be ye present all of you to‑morrow, for the King will speak before he die.'

"So on the morrow all the knights came and stood by the King's bedside. Then Merlin said with a loud voice, 'My lord, is it thy will that thy son Arthur shall be King after thee?' Uther turned him about, and said in the hearing of them all, 'I will; the blessing of God and my blessing be upon him.' And having said this, he died.

"The nobles and knights, when they had buried the King, departed each to his own country. Each assembled as many men as he could, desiring to obtain the kingdom for himself, for they said, 'Who is this Arthur of whom the wizard Merlin speaks? Is he indeed son to King Uther? And even if he be, why should a boy rule over us?' So they were divided among themselves, and the Saxons prevailed still more, wasting the land on every side.

"Seeing this, the chief Bishop in Britain, by Merlin's counsel, called together all the nobles and knights, that they might learn who was ordained of God to be King of Britain. Being gathered together, therefore, they prayed for a sign, and suddenly there was seen before the door of the church a great stone with a sword in the midst of it, and on the sword was written in letters of gold, 'Whoso pulleth out the sword from this stone is rightful King of Britain.' Many tried to pull it out, but none could move it even a little. Then ten knights were chosen to watch the stone and the sword.

After these things a great tournament was held, to which among others came Sir Hector with his eldest son Sir Key, and Arthur also, who passed for Sir Hector's son. It so chanced that Sir Key found that he had come without any sword. Turning, therefore, to his brother Arthur, for such he thought him to be, he said, 'I pray thee, fetch me my sword.' So Arthur rode back with all haste to the house, but found it locked. Whereupon he said to himself, 'I will take the sword that is by the church-door, for my brother shall not go without a sword to‑day.' So he came to the church. Now the knights that had been set to watch the stone and the sword had gone all of them to the tournament; so Arthur, knowing nothing of the matter, took the sword by its handle and lightly pulled it from its place. Not once or twice only but many times was this trial made, for the nobles and knights would not believe that this lad was their rightful King. But the end was always the same; none but Arthur could put the sword back into its place, or pull it therefrom. So at last, with consent of all the people, he was crowned King.

"And now, being established in his kingdom, he set himself to overthrow the Saxons, who had taken the occasion of the divisions among the people of Britain to advance their power more and more. First he rode with all his hosts to York, where Colgrin the Saxon lay with a great army. With him he fought a great battle, in which many were slain on both sides; at the last he drove Colgrin into the city and there besieged him. Then came Colgrin's brother Baldulph with six thousand men, to help him; but Arthur fell on him unawares, and scattered his enemies. Nevertheless Baldulph made his way into the city, for he shaved his head, and disguised himself as a jester, and so passed through King Arthur's camp, and on coming to the walls, was drawn up by ropes into the city.

"After a while there came news to the King, as he watched the city, that there had come six hundred ships, and had landed a countless army of Saxons on the eastern coast of Britain. So the King left besieging York, and marched to meet them, having with him his nephew Hoel, King of the Britons that live in Gaul. The Saxons were now besieging Lincoln. There Arthur fell upon them, and after a fierce battle defeated them, killing more than six thousand men.

"Those that remained fled into a wood that was close by, and there defended themselves bravely. But when the King, having cut down the trees, had made a barricade and so shut them in, they asked for peace. And when they had agreed to give up all the gold and silver that they had, and to sail away in empty ships, promising that they would never return, and giving also hostages for the fulfilment of this promise, the King suffered them to depart. But when they had been but a few hours at sea, they repented them of what they had done. They did not indeed return to the place which they had left, but sailed southward and westward, landing at last in Devonshire. Thence they marched inland, ravaging as they went, till they came to the town of Bath.

"When the King heard of their falsehood he was very wroth, and swore a great oath that he would not rest till he had driven these deceivers out of Britain. Then he marched with all his forces to Bath.

"When he came to the place he dressed himself in his armour. On his head he put a helmet adorned with a dragon of gold; he girded himself with his sword Excalibur, and in his hand he took the great spear that he called Ron. Having done this he put his men in order, and led them out against the enemy, who had taken up their place on the side of Badon Hill. All that day the two armies fought, but the Saxons stood their ground, nor could King Arthur, for all his fierceness, drive them from their place. That night both the hosts lay down upon the hill.

"The next day the King led his army again to the attack, and this time he drove the Saxons before him till he gained the top of the hill. From that he drove them again down the other side till they were utterly scattered. Thus did King Arthur that day deliver Britain.

"Of the other things that the King and his knights accomplished, and how at the last he was overcome by treachery, I have not now time to tell, for the night is far spent, and chiefs who have fought as ye fought to‑day must sorely need rest."

So Hoel ended his tale.

We need not ask how far the minstrel's story was true. Perhaps, like most minstrels' tales, it was half poetry; but such tales kept alive among the Britons the recollection of the times of confusion which followed the departure of the Romans, and the memory of a great British chief, who stopped for a while the progress of the Saxons in the West of England.

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