Gilbert's King Arthur's Knights
XII. OF THE REBELLION OF MORDRED AND THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR
When Sir Lancelot and all his men had left the realm of Britain and had betaken
themselves to Brittany, where Sir Lancelot had a kingdom of his own, the Saxons began to
increase in Britain, both in strength and numbers. Almost daily a long black ship, crammed
with pagans, was sighted from some part of the coast and the British, praying that the
fierce pirates would not visit their homes, would watch the terrible warship till it
passed; or else, caught unawares, would have to flee inland in a breathless anic when the
dragon-headed prow loomed through the sea-mist, and the barbarous warriors swarmed over
the sides and ran knee-deep in the water, their eyes gleaming with the joy of killing and
their hands eager for the looting.
Then King Arthur made ready a great host, and for two years he fought in the northern
parts against the bands of the pirates. Swift were the blows he struck, for the great wide
Roman roads were still open, not grass-grown and deserted, and with his mounted knights
and men he could ride quickly from place to place, striking fiercely and scattering the
Ten was the number of these battles which he fought in the north, six against the Saxon
pirates and four against the wild-cats of Caledonia, whom men call Picts and Scots, and
who had ventured south in greater numbers as soon as they heard how the king warred rage
with his lords and the rich land was open to plunder. Two others he fought in the south,
one against an insolent band of pirates who dared even to attack his palace-city of
Caerleon-upon-Usk. But so heavy and deadly a blow did he strike at them then, that from
that battle barely a dozen pagans were left to flee like fire to their ships.
Not without loss of many of his brave warriors did Arthur win these battles, for the
pagans were good men of their hands and not easily were they beaten. Saddest of all was
the loss of the noble Geraint, who, thrusting back the pirates once again from the harbour
of Llong-porth, got his death there with many of his valiant men.
When the fame of King Arthur's prowess and the might of his knights had gone abroad among
the pagans, they were afraid and would not venture in great numbers to invade the land
again, and there was peace and rest in Britain for a space.
Then Sir Gawaine, remembering his hatred of Sir Lancelot, persuaded the king to make him
ready another host, with which to invade the land of Brittany where Sir Lancelot ruled his
kingdom. For a long time the king would not listen to his advice, and the queen, with all
her power, strove against Sir Gawaine. But that knight and his large following of knights
and men-at-arms had been of great service in the recent wars against the pagans, and the
king could not wholly refuse to listen to Sir Gawaine's demands.
Also Sir Mordred added his words to those of his brother, and said that men who came from
Brittany said that Sir Lancelot was getting him ready a large army, and training many men,
although he was at peace witli his neighbours in Gaul. But the rumour went, as Sir Mordred
reported, that Sir Lancelot was only waiting his time, and when King Arthur should be more
than usually pressed by his pagan foes, Sir Lancelot and his great host would sail swiftly
across the sea and the kingdom of Britain, when Arthur, exhausted by war, would be unable
to withstand the fresh warriors of Sir Lancelot, and would lose both his queen and his
For a time the king would not suffer these evil rumours to be mentioned in his presence,
but many of his counsellors thought there was much truth in them. At length, so persistent
was Sir Mordred and those whom he craftily persuaded to believe him, that for sheer
weariness, the king consented to take an army across to Brittany, and to demand that Sir
Lancelot should own that the king was his overlord, and that he should do homage for his
The host was prepared, therefore, and at a meeting of his council King Arthur made his
nephew, Sir Mordred, Regent of Britain, to rule in the king's place while he should be
abroad; and Queen Gwenevere he placed under the governance of Sir Mordred, as well as the
officers of the court.
When they had passed the sea and landed in the coasts of Sir Lancelot's country, Sir
Gawaine ordered his knights to go through the nearer parts, burning the houses of the
people and wasting their lands. This he did in order to enrage Sir Lancelot against the
king, so that he would not listen quietly to any demand which the king might make of him.
Word was brought to Sir Lancelot of the landing of King Arthur and the plundering and
wasting of the land, but for some days he would do naught; for he was loath to take up
arms against the king he loved, who had made him a knight.
At length Sir Bors came to him, and with that knight were others, as Sir Lunel of the
Brake, Sir Magus of Pol, and Sir Alan of the Stones with his six mighty brothers.
"My lord, Sir Lancelot," said Sir Bors, "it is great shame that we suffer
them to ride over our lands, burning the homes of our folk and destroying the crops in the
Sir Alan also, who with his brothers were seven as noble knights as a man might seek in
seven lands ere he might find a brotherhood as valiant and withal as courteous, spoke to
the like purport, saying:
"Sir Lancelot, for the love of our land, let us ride out and meet these invaders in
the field, for we have never been wont to cower in castles nor in towns."
Then spoke Sir Lancelot, who was lord of them all.
"My fair lords," he said, "ye wit well that I am loath to raise my hand
against my own dear lord and to shed the blood of Christian men. Yet I understand how it
chafes you to stand by and see your fair land ruined by those that hate me. Therefore I
will send a messenger to my lord Arthur, desiring him to make treaty with me. Then where
we have his reply, we will consider the matter further."
A damsel was therefore sent to the camp of King Arthur, and she bore a message from Sir
Lancelot. She was brought to Sir Lucan, who was the king's butler, and she told him whence
she had come and why.
"Alas!" said Sir Lucan, "I fear ye have made your journey in vain, fair
damsel. My lord, King Arthur, with Sir Lancelot, whom he loves, will not suffer him."
Just then Sir Gawaine happened to pass by, and saw the maiden, and knew that she was not
one of their party. He turned towards her, and his fierce eyes looked at her, grimly sour.
"Whence come ye?" he said harshly.
"I come hither to speak with King Arthur," said the maiden, "for I bear a
message from my lord, Sir Lancelot."
With an angry gesture Sir Gawaine seized her bridle and led her palfrey swiftly to the
edge of the camp.
"Depart!" he cried harshly, "and tell your master that it is idle for him
to send to mine uncle. Tell him from me, Sir Gawaine, that by the vow of my knighthood, I
will never leave this fand till I or he be slain. Now go!"
When this message was told to Sir Lancelot, the tears stood in his eyes and he went apart,
and for that day the knights his comrades held their counsel. But they resolved that next
day they would prevail upon Sir Lancelot to issue forth and give battle.
But in the morning, when they looked from the walls of the castle, they saw that Sir
Gawaine had crept up in the dawn, and now was the place besieged. Thereupon there was
fierce fighting, for Sir Gawaine caused ladders to be reared, and his knights strove to
climb over the wall, but were mightily beaten back by Sir Lancelot's party.
Then the attackers drew off for a space, and Sir Gawaine, well armed, came before the
chief gate, upon a stout steed. He shook his lance at the men over the gate, and cried:
"Where art thou, false traitor, Sir Lancelot? Why dost thou hide thyself within holes
and walls like a coward? Look out now, thou timid soul, for when I may get at thee I will
revenge upon thy evil body the death of my brothers twain."
These shameful words were heard by Sir Lancelot, and all his knights and kin that stood
about him, and they said:
"Sir Lancelot, now ye must be done with thy courtesy and go forth and beat back those
evil words upon his foul mouth."
"It is even so," said Sir Lancelot; "but sorry I am and heavy of spirit
thus to fight with him, who hath been my dear brother-in-arms so long, and whose brothers
I did unwittingly slay. And much evil shall come of this."
Then he commanded his strongest horse to be saddled, and bade his armour to be dressed
upon him, and when he was fully armed he stood at the top of the gate and cried upon the
"My lord Arthur," he said, "you that made me knight, wit you well that I am
right heavy that ever ye do pursue me thus; but now that Sir Gawaine hath used villainous
words about me, I must needs defend myself."
Sir Gawaine, seated upon his horse below, laughed grimly, and cried upon the other:
"0 Lancelot, Lancelot," he said, "what a man ot words thou art! If thou
darest to battle with me, cease thy babbling, man, and come off, and let us ease our
hearts with strong blows."
Then Sir Lancelot issued forth with many of his knights, and a covenant was made between
the hosts that there should be no fighting until Sir Gawaine and Sir Lancelot had fought
together, and one was either dead or yielden.
Thereupon the two knights departed some way and then came together with all the might of
their horses, and each smote the other in the midst of the shield. So strong were the
knights and stout and big the spears, that their horses could not stand the shock, and so
fell to the ground. Then the knights quickly avoided their horses and dressed their
shields, and fought fiercely together with their swords. So valiantly did each give and
receive blows, and so heavy and grim was their fighting, that all the knights and lords
that stood thereabout marvelled thereat and were fain to say, in as many good words, that
never had they seen such sword-play.
In a little while, so shrewd and skilful were they, both were wounded and the blood oozed
from the joints of their armour, and it was great marvel to see that they could still
stand, dashing their shields upon each other, and each beating upon the other with great
slashes of their swords.
And which was the stronger of the twain none might say.
Now Sir Gawaine had a magic power, which had been endowed upon him at his birth by a great
witch who was a friend of his mother, the sorceress, Queen Morgan le Fay, wife of King
Lot. No one knew of this secret power except King Arthur, and often had it availed Sir
Gawaine, so that in dire perils of onfall, sudden ambush, or long battle, it had given him
the victory, when all about him had been slain or wounded or taken captive.
The magic was that, from the hour of nine until high noon, the strength of his body
increased until it was three times his natural strength, which itself was full great,
though in that, for deep wind and breath and might of arm, Sir Lancelot was the stronger.
Now while they fought together, Sir Lancelot felt that Sir Gawaine seemed not to weaken as
time went on, and he marvelled greatly. Then he felt that indeed Sir Gawaine's strength
was greater than it had been at the beginning, and a fear came into his heart that Sir
Gawaine was possessed of a demon.
But Sir Lancelot was stout of heart as well as old in warcraft, and knew that if he could
tire Sir Gawaine he might, by one blow, get the better of him when he saw a good chance.
Therefore Sir Lancelot began to husband his strength, and instead of spending it in
feinting and attacking, he bore his shield ever before him, covering himself from the
fierce blows of his enemy.
Thus he kept up his own strength; but hard put to it was he when, towards midday, Sir
Gawaine seemed to have the might of a very giant, and the shield arm of Sir Lancelot was
numbed by reason of the crashing blows which Sir Gawaine's sword rained upon it.
Great travail indeed had Sir Lancelot to stand up and not to yield; and while men
marvelled how he could endure, none knew all he suffered.
Then, as the bell of the convent in the town boomed forth the hour of noon, Sir Gawaine
heaved up his sword for a final blow; but his sword descended just as the last stroke of
twelve had died away, and Sir Lancelot marvelled to feel that what should have been so
grievous a blow that, belike, he could not have stood before it, fell upon his shield with
no more than the strength of the blow given by an ordinary man.
When Sir Lancelot felt the might of Sir Gawaine so suddenly give way, he drew himself up
to his full height and said:
"Sir Gawaine, I know not by what evil power ye have fought, but now I feel that ye
have done. Now, my lord, Sir Gawaine, I must do my part, for none may know the great and
grievous strokes I have endured day with great pain."
With that Sir Lancelot redoubled his blows, and the sword of Sir Gawaine gave before the
might of Sir Lancelot, and his shield was rent. Then Sir Lancelot gave so great a buffet
on the helm of the other that Sir Gawaine staggered, and with yet another blow Sir
Lancelot hurled him headlong to the ground.
Men held their breath, for now, after so fierce and stubborn a struggle, they felt sure
that Sir Lancelot, hot and enraged against his enemy, would rip off the other's helm and
strike his head off instantly.
But, instead, Sir Lancelot stood for a moment looking at his prostrate enemy. Then men
gasped to see him thrust his sword into its scabbard with a clang, turn on his heel, and
begin to walk away.
They saw the prone knight raise his head and look as if in surprise at the retreating
figure of Sir Lancelot.
"Why dost thou depart?" cried Sir Gawaine, rage in his mocking voice. "Turn
again, false knight, and slay me! If ye leave me thus, thou shalt gain nothing from it,
for when I am whole I will slay thee when I may."
Men marvelled to hear a fallen foe use such shameful and hateful words, but they marvelled
much more when Sir Lancelot, turning, cried:
"I shall endure you, sir, if God give me grace; but wit you well, Sir
Gawaine, I will
never smite you to death."
Many that before had hated Sir Lancelot were moved by these noble words, and by the sight
of his mercy; and they deemed that there was hardly another man in all Christendom that
would have shown such nobility, save Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval, and they were dead.
So Sir Lancelot went into the city, and Sir Gawaine was borne into King Arthur's tent and
his wounds were cleaned and salved. Thus he lay for three weeks, hard of mood and bitter
in his hatred, and longing eagerly to get well, so he might try again to slay Sir
Lancelot. Meanwhile he prayed the king to attack Sir Lancelot's walls, to try to draw him
forth, or to take the city by treachery.
But the king would do naught. He was sick for sorrow because of the war that was between
him and Sir Lancelot, and by reason of the wounds of his nephew Sir Gawaine.
"Alas," was ever his reply, "neither you nor I, my nephew, will win worship
at these wars. For we make war for no reason, with as noble a knight as ever drew breath,
and one more merciful and courteous than any that ever graced the court of any Christian
"Nevertheless," replied Sir Gawaine, raging at the king's love for Sir Lancelot,
"neither his mercy nor courtesy would avail against my good sword, once I could sink
it in his treacherous heart."
As soon as Sir Gawaine might walk and ride, he armed him at all points and mounted a great
courser, and with a long wide spear in his hand he went spurring to the great gate of the
"Where art thou, Lancelot?" he cried in a fierce voice. "Come thou forth,
traitor knight and recreant! I am here to revenge me on thy evil body for thy treacherous
slaughter of my twain brothers."
All this language Sir Lancelot heard, and leaning from the tower he thus spake:
"Sir Gawaine, it sorrows me that ye will not cease your foul speaking. I know your
might, and all that ye may do, and well ye wot ye may do me great hurt or death."
"Come down, then," cried Sir Gawaine, "for what my heart craves is to slay
thee. Thou didst get the better of me the other day, and I come this day to get my
revenge. And wit than well I will lay thee as low as thou didst lay me."
"I will nor keep ye waiting long," said Sir Lancelot, "for as ye charge me
of treachery ye shall have your hands full of me erelong, however the battle between us
Then happened it even as before. The knights encountered first with spears, but Sir
Gawaine's broke into a hundred pieces on the shield of Sir Lancelot. Then, dismounting,
the knights fought on foot with swords.
Sir Gawaine put forth all his strength, hoping, with the magic power which he possessed,
to dash Sir Lancelot to his knees. But Sir Lancelot was more wary than before, and under
cover of his shield he husbanded his strength until the hour of noon, when, as before, he
felt that Sir Gawaine's might had strangely ebbed away.
When that had come to pass, Sir Lancelot said:
"Now once more have I proved that ye fight not with a man's fair strength, Sir
Gawaine, but with some evil power. And full grievously was I put to it to withstand many
of thy sad blows. Now ye have done your great deeds, and I will do mine."
Then with one stroke, of so marvellous a force that men marvelled, Sir Lancelot beat down
Sir Gawaine's guard, and struck him a full heavy blow on the side of the helm, beating it
in so that the old wound burst again.
Sir Gawaine fell to the ground, and for some moments lay still as if he were dead or in a
swoon; but he was only dazed, and soon recovering, he raved and foamed as he lay there,
cursing Sir Lancelot for a traitorous coward and a base knight, and even, in his madness,
thrusting towards him with his sword.
"Wit thou well, base knight," he cried, "that I am not slain yet. Come thou
near and lie here with me, and we will fight this battle until we die."
"I will do no more than I have done, my lord," said Sir Lancelot, "and when
thou art able to stand I will meet thee again. But to smite a wounded man that may not
stand, I will not."
Then Sir Lancelot withdrew to the town, while Sir Gawaine still raved and abused him, and
men marvelled both at the exceeding madness of the hatred of Sir Gawaine and the great
restraint and nobleness of Lancelot. Many said that had Sir Gawaine said half as many
shameful things to one of them, they would have instantly razed his evil head from his
For a month Sir Gawaine lay sick, but was always eager to be up and able again. And at
length the leech said that in three days he should ride, whereat Sir Gawaine was joyful.
"Again," said he to King Arthur, who sat beside him, "again shall I have to
do with that base fellow, and ill attend me if I do not end the matter this time."
"Ye had ended it long ago, or been ended," said the king, "except for the
nobleness of Sir Lancelot that forbore to slay you."
"Ay, we all know your love of the pestilent fool, uncle," said Sir
"but we will stay here until we have made an end of him and his kingdom, if it take
us all our lives."
Even as he spoke there came the clear call of a trumpet outside in the camp, and Sir
Bedevere came to the door of the king's tent, his grim old face pale, his grizzled hair
unkempt, and every sign of haste and travel upon his dress.
The king started up. "Sir Bedevere, ye bring evil tidings from Britain," he
cried. "Can it be that more ruin and wrong is to come than that I suffer now? What is
"0 my king, it is that Mordred your nephew hath rebelled," said Sir
"and has gathered much people about him, and hath sent many letters to all the lords
and knights your vassals, promising them wealth and lands if they make him king. And
Gwenevere your queen he hath imprisoned, saying that he will wed her when ye are
"Mordred! Mordred!" cried the king, "him that I thought was a quiet, strong
man - turned so base a traitor!"
"Ay, he was ever the traitor, though brother of mine," cried Sir Gawaine in a
voice of rage. "A man that speaks in whispers, haunts dark corners, and ever sneers
with his lips."
"Hardly with my life have I escaped to tell you this," went on Sir
"for he placed men to watch me after I had scorned his evil offers to myself. But
now, my lord, quickly ye must betake yourself and all your arm from this fruitless and
wrongful war against Sir Lancelot, and hasten to beat down the poisonous viper whom ye
have nourished in your bosom."
Ere the day was done the army of King Arthur had raised the siege of Sir Lancelot's
town and were quickly marching to the sea, there to take their boats across to Britain to
punish the usurper and traitor, Sir Mordred.
A fair wind carried them across the sea, but long ere they reached the shallows of the
beach at Dover they saw the sunlight flashing from thousands of headpieces of knights and
men-at-arms, set to oppose the landing of their rightful lord. The king was fiercely
angry, and he commanded the masters of the ships to launch their small boats, and into
these the knights swarmed and were rowed towards the shore.
But the rebels of Mordred also launched boats and great pinnaces filled with knights, and
when the boats of the opposite parties met, then there was fierce fighting and much
slaughter of many good knights and barons and other brave men. Then King Arthur and his
chief knights drew forth their horses from the holds of the ships, and leaped with them
into the sea, and fiercely did they throw themselves upon Sir Mordred and his knights, and
there was grievous fighting on horseback in the shallow water, which soon was dyed with
the blood of the slain.
So stubborn were the king and his fighting men that the army of Mordred was forced to
retreat towards the land, and then, when the king and Gawaine had trimmed their own ranks,
order was given for one concerted rush against the enemy. The other side showed little
fight now, and made no stand, but fled inland.
When the battle was over, King Arthur let bury his people that were dead, so far as they
could be discovered in the waves; and the wounded he caused to be carried into the town of
Dover to be cared for.
A squire came to the king as he stood giving orders as to these things.
"My lord king," said the squire, "Sir Gawaine lies sore wounded in a boat,
and we know not whether he be alive or dead."
"Alas!" cried the king, and the knights about him were full of pity at the
sudden grief that came into his voice and his looks, "is this true? Then is all my
joy of life at an end."
The squire led him to the boat in which Sir Gawaine lay, who stirred as the king
approached, and feebly smiled.
"My uncle," said Sir Gawaine, "wit you well that now is my death-day come,
for I know I shall not last this bout. For I am smitten upon the wound which Sir Lancelot
gave me, and I feel that now I shall die."
"Alas, my sister's son," cried the king, taking Sir Gawaine in his arms and
kissing him, while the tears flowed down his cheeks, "this is the woefullest day of
all my life. For if ye depart, Gawaine, how solitary am I! Gawaine! Gawaine! in Sir
Lancelot and in thee had I most my love and my joy, and now shall I lose ye both, and all
my earthly joy is gone from me."
"Alas," said Sir Gawaine, "sorrow's on me now that have caused you such
grief, mine uncle. I see now that I have been mad with rage against that noble knight, Sir
Lancelot, who slew my dear brothers unwittingly. And now I repent me sorely. I would that
I could live to repair the evil that I have done to you and to Sir Lancelot. But my time
is come. I shall not live till evening."
They wept together, and the knights that stood about them also wept for pure grief, to
think how much sorrow and pain was caused by the mad rage of Sir Gawaine, which had pushed
the good king on to make war against his will.
"I am the causer of this rebellion by my traitor brother," said Sir
"and my name shall be cursed for it. Had I not wilfully driven thee, thou wouldst
have accorded with Sir Lancelot, and he and his brave kinsmen would have held your
cankered enemies in subjection, or else cut them utterly away. Lift me up, my lord, and
let me have a scribe, for I will send a letter to Sir Lancelot ere I die."
Then Sir Gawaine was set up by the king, and a priest was brought, who wrote at the dying
man's dictation. And the purport of the letter was in this wise"
"Unto Sir Lancelot, flower of all noble knights that ever I heard of or saw, and once
my dear friend, now do I, Sir Gawaine, King Lot's son of Orkney and the Lothians, and
sister's son to King Arthur, send thee greeting and let thee know by these writings that I
am this day done to death, having been wounded at the landing against rebellious traitors,
and struck upon the wound which thou didst give me twice, before thy city. Whereby I have
got my death. But I will have thee to wit that I sought my death of thee, and got that
wound deservedly of thee, who could have slain me twice, but for thy high nobility and
great courtesy. I, Gawaine, beseech of thee forgiveness for my madness, and crave that
thou wilt remember the dear friendly days we have had together in times long past, and for
all the love that was between us. Come thou over the sea, and with thy knights do thou
press to the help of Arthur, our noble lord, who is beset by a traitorous villain, my
brother Mordred, who hath dared to rebel against his rightful lord, and hath crowned
himself king. Do thou hasten, good Sir Lancelot, when thou shalt receive this letter, and
follow the king. But ere thou goest from this seashore do thou come to my tomb, and pray
some prayer more or less for my sinful soul, that in its madness did evilly entreat
Then was Sir Gawaine shriven, and in a little while he swooned, while all stood uncovered
round about him. When the rays of the afternoon sun cast long shadows of the knights and
fighting men who were hurrying up and down the shore making ready to depart, Sir Gawaine
awoke from his swoon and looked up. For a moment he did not recognize King Arthur; then he
smiled at him very sweetly and said in a low voice:
"Kiss me - and forgive me!"
The king knelt down and kissed the pallid face of Sir Gawaine, and for very sorrow he felt
that the heart in his breast was nigh to bursting.
So in a little while, with the beat of the surf and the cry of the seagulls upon his ears,
the light of the sun in his eyes, and the free air of heaven all about him, Sir Gawaine
died. And his death was as he had ever craved it to be, under the open sky, after battle,
where he had given good strokes and received them.
Now the letter which Sir Gawaine had written was given unto a young squire of Sir
Gawaine's, by name Tewder, and he was commanded to depart forthwith back to Brittany, and
deliver it into the hands of Sir Lancelot. But among the knights that had stood about the
dying Sir Gawaine was a traitor, who was in the service of Sir Mordred the rebel, and he
knew that if Sir Lancelot should receive that letter, and come to Britain with all his
brave kin and their host, Sir Mordred would have much ado to conquer King Arthur.
Therefore the traitor knight, whose name was Sir Fergus, did accost Tewder the squire, and
with fair seeming told him that he also was bidden to go back to Brittany, to bring back
certain jewels which the kin in his hasty departure had left in his lodging at the town of
Tewder unsuspecting of all evil, went aboard a boat with Sir Fergus, and together they
bargained with the master to take them across when the tide should rise again at dark.
Together they crossed the sea that night and took the road towards Sir Lancelot's town ;
and in a dark wood Sir Fergus set upon the squire, who fought bravely but was slain at
last, and the letter of Sir Gawaine was taken by the traitor.
Then, returning to the seashore, the wretch went aboard another boat, and chaffered with
the merchant to take him across the sea to the town of Llongporth, whence he thought to
get quickly to Mordred, to receive from him the reward of his treachery and murder. But
at. night, as they sailed over the dark sea, a fifty-oared longship, filled with Saxon
pirates, crept upon them; the pagans poured over the sides, slew men almost in their
sleep, and flung their bodies overboard. And though Fergus fought well, his head was
almost struck from his body by a great sheering axe-blow. When the pirates had taken all
the goods they desired from the merchant vessel, they stove a hole in its side, and it
sank to the bottom of the sea. So that no man ever again saw the letter which was meant
for Sir Lancelot.
For some weeks Sir Lancelot lay quiet knowing naught of the death of Sir Gawaine; nor of
the letter desiring him to go to the help of King Arthur. Many rumours came to him,
through the ship-folk, of the wicked rebellion of Sir Mordred; and though Sir Lancelot
longed to go across to Britain and fight for King Arthur, his kinsmen would not consent,
but said it would be unseemly, unless the king craved his aid, and sued for pardon for
making war against Sir Lancelot in his own country.
Thus the precious weeks went by, and much ill fortune happened in Britain, that
otherwise if Sir Lancelot had been by the king.
Three days after the battle upon the shore, the king's host came up with the host of Sir
Mordred on Barham Down. Many folks had joined the rebels' side, because they hated the
king for making war upon Sir Lancelot, and the king was sorely hurt in his mind to see a
banner bome by one part of the usurper's army, on which was the device of Sir Lancelot's.
This the crafty Sir Mordred had commanded to be done, knowing that it would damp the
spirits of King Arthur and his men.
"Verily," said King Arthur, "my evil deeds have sprung up as armed men
against me. I fought unjustly with Sir Lancelot, and here are some that loved him arrayed
against me for that wicked war."
"If ye would send for Sir Lancelot," said Sir Owen of the Fountain, who stood by
him, "ye would learn, I verily believe, that Sir Lancelot loves and worships you as
of old, and hath no mind to fight on the side of this sly fox Mordred. Send for Sir
"Nay, I will not - I may not," said the king. "If he cometh by the words
which Sir Gawaine wrote to him, I shall know that he loves me and forgives me; but if he
cometh not, I shall know he hates me, and I shall merit his ill-favour. He owes naught to
me since I used him so evilly, and therefore I may not ask his aid."
All day the battle raged upon the great green down, and many were the fierce fights which
took place upon the top thereof, where behind great earthworks freshly timbered, the main
host of Sir Mordred stood, the banner of the great red dragon in their midst.
But at the last, so fast and fierce did the blows of King Arthur's men fall, and so
stubbornly did they press on, that Sir Mordred's host gave way. Pouring forth by the upper
gate, they ran pell-mell northwards, and the knights and fighting men of Arthur kept up
with them for many miles, and there was a running fight and much wounding and slaying all
through the fresh green countryside, where the hedges were laden with May-blossoms, and in
the sky the larks were trilling.
And that day many a wounded man crawled groaning into the thickets to die, many a chalky
cart-rut ran red with blood, and many a white face, with wide-open, sightless eyes, stared
up at the blue sky, where the fleecy clouds sailed in the gentle wind.
For three weeks after this battle both sides rested, and like great wrestlers gathered all
their strength for one great struggle. Knights and riders were sent by both sides into all
parts, with letters to lords and knights, charging them to take their sides in the war.
Many people from about London came to the banner of Mordred, and the parts now called
Kent, Sussex and Surrey, Essex and Suffolk held wholly with him; but those in the west, as
Wales, Devon, Cornwall and the middle parts, thronged to the banner of the king.
Few came from the north, for there the pagan pirates stalked with fire and sword through
and through the land, and the British lords and chiefs that were alive had little power to
stay them now. King Uriens was dead, slain by the dagger of a traitor, and so were two
other great chieftains; so that men south of Trent sorrowfully shook their heads and said
that now the north was no longer the land of the British folk, but was given over to the
savage heathen hordes.
Then, to meet the many that flocked together in his favour, King Arthur drew him with his
host westward beyond Sarum. There, on the wide downs beside the great standing-stones of
the Old Princes, which men now call Stonehenge, a great multitude of chiefs and knights
and yeomen came to his banner.
But Sir Mordred avoided a battle, and instead, kept aloof with his army, and began to burn
and harry the country which was on the side of Arthur. He took Calleva and
put the people to the sword, and took much gear from those wealthy cities; then he stole
through the great forest by night and came to Palladun, which was a rich town builded upon
the top of a great hill. He thought to take this unawares, but it was well watched and
well armed, and he strove to break into it and was kept about it for some days.
That delay was used well by King Arthur, for he made great haste to pass through the wild
country filled with wide marshes and thick woods as it was, while separated him from his
enemy. Then Mordred, hearing through the spies of the king's approach, got his host away
and thought to pass into the lands of Devon, which were those of King Dewer, son of the
dead Geraint, and held firmly for Arthur.
But in the wild waste-land beside the Endless
Waters, King Arthur caught up with him, and barred his further way. And the king
remembered that this was that same land, full of gaunt standing-stones and
haunted by trolls and witches, where Merlin had once led him, and where he had
gained the sword Excalibur.
It was late in the day when the two armies faced each other, and both prepared to pass the
night upon the field. Bitter was the wind that evening, and the skies were dun and leaden
of hue, as if spring had been over-come by winter; and to shelter the king a tent had been
put up in a little dark wood of stunted firs, called the Wood of Drood. Just in the deep
dark before the dawn, when the blood in men's veins was coldest, and the life in their
hearts was weakest, a dreadful cry wailed out through the dark wood, and there came the
sound as of leathery wings flapping heavily to and fro above where the king lay sleeping.
Men started up about their ashen fires, their faces blanching at the terror that cried in
the dark, and they heard the wailing twice repeated, while none dared try to see the thing
Then, while their blood chilled and their breath stayed, they heard the heavy flapping
pass over their heads and die away towards the camp of Mordred; and there in the distance
did the three cries sound again.
Men's hearts sickened as they turned and crept the nearer to each other, but few dared to
utter the words upon their lips.
Two knights slept in the tent with the king, Sir Kay and Sir Owen; and they lay in the
dark trembling at the cries of terrible import. When they passed, the knights would not
move, fearing to be the first to speak.
"My lords," came the quiet voice of King Arthur out of
the dark, "that was the voice of the Hag of Warning. Men say it hath foretold the deaths of many of my house,
but I know not. Yet will I take the issue as God shall give it to me, trusting in His
mercy and the blood of His Son Jesus, and Him crucified."
"Amen," said the two knights, and said no more.
When, in a little while, the sun rose, flashing his warm rays into the fearful eyes that
greeted him, men's terror quickly vanished; and when fires were lit and oaten cakes were
browning on the irons, or collops sputtered on their skewers, tongues were loosened and
faces began to smile. But few spoke of the cries which they had heard, for all loved their
king, and hoped that somehow they had dreamed an evil dream, or had but heard the cries of
some foul night-bird.
Breakfast being ended, the captains and knights began to trim their men in army array, and
talk was eager of the coming battle. Then were seen, coming from Sir Mordred's camp, two
bishops; and these were taken at their desire to Arthur, where he stood surrounded by his
knights and chieftains.
"Lord," said one of the bishops, he that was head of the great choir or
monastery of Amesbury, "cannot we make accord between you and your nephew? Sad it is
to see so many great and valiant warriors ranged against each other. Many are sisters'
sons, and all are of one speech, one kindred. If this unnatural war doth continue, how
much sorrow there will be, how many noble hearts be stilled in death or broken in grief
for him that shall never return! How many puissant bodies, now quick and passionate and
handsome, will be meat for snarling wolves and carrion for foul birds!"
"What says my rebellious nephew?" asked the king sternly.
"My lord," said the other bishop, a man of soft and silky speech, and he was
chief of the choir of Clovesho, "he asks but little, and if ye are willing to make
treaty he also is willing. Grant him but the earldom of Kent and the Andred, with a seat
at London, during your days, and do thou appoint him king after your days. For now that
Sir Gawaine, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Gareth are slain, he is the only sister's son you have.
If ye grant these things he will be your liege, faithful in all things, and a strong arm
against your enenides."
Then some of King Arthur's knights would have him agree to these terms, but others would
not, and said the king should make no treaty with a traitor, but that Mordred should come
and throw himself upon the mercy of his king and uncle.
At the last, after much counsel had been taken, King Arthur agreed to meet
fourteen of his chief men, in the space betwixt their hosts, and the king should also take
fourteen knights with him. So the bishops went back with this message, and King Arthur
called the chieftains of his host about him.
"I go to see this traitor my nephew," he said to them, "whether he means
falsely or truly with this talk of a treaty. But look ye, I in no wise trust him. Hold ye
your men warily, and if ye see any sword drawn among us where we stand, do thou sound the
horns of attack and come on fiercely, and slay that rebel and all that hold with
In like wise did Mordred warn his men, "for," said he, knowing how greatly he
had sinned against his generous and noble uncle, "I know well that King Arthur and
his knights would be avenged on me if they could."
The party from each army went forward over the stony hillside, until they met midway
between the armies, and men watched them keenly. King Arthur spoke chidingly to his nephew
Mordred, who, sour and dark of face, looked craftily at the faces of his uncle and his
knights. And the chiefs with Mordred, men for the most part of violent and ambitious
natures, looked haughtily at King Arthur's party. Nevertheless, there was no bad blood
shown, and the talk was continued, and Mordred repeated the demands which the bishops had
"But I care not to give to thee Kent and London," said the king. "I tell
thee frankly, Mordred, I would not trust thee there. I fear me thou wouldst try some
crafty plot with the Saxon pagans if I gave them thee, as that rebel Caros did, who for a
time made himself emperor of the Romans here in this land."
"Ha' done, then, my father," said Gorfalk, the son of Mordred, an insolent young
man. "Let us cease this. I doubt not we be big enough to get all the kingdom if we
The king looked sternly at the young man, and there was silence among them all as men
waited for Arthur's reply.
Then it happened that a young chieftain, standing near the king, felt something bite his
foot where the low leathern shoe left it naked. He looked down and saw that he was
treading on a viper, which had struck him and was about to strike again. With a cry the
knight stepped aside, drew his sword, and cut the reptile in two.
As the blade flashed, silvery bright in the sunlight, a great hoarse cry rose like thunder
from the two masses of men watching them on either side; tnumpets blared and horns
squealed, and shouts of command rose sharp and keen.
Instantly the men standing with Arthur and Mordred looked about them, saw where the young
chieftain stood with drawn sword, and knew that now nothing could avert the battle.
"The gods will have it so!" sneered Mordred.
Already the earth trembled and shook with the beat of ten thousand feet of the armies
rushing together. A knight of Mordred's, drawing his sword, thrust it into the breast of
one of Arthur's chieftains, with the cry:
"This for thy land, Sir Digon, that marches with mine!"
Instantly others fell to fighting hand-to-hand, striking on targe and helm; but Sir Owen,
Sir Kay, and Sir Bedevere surrounded the king, and all hurried back to the army
approaching them. So likewise did Sir Mordred.
Then came the crash of battle, as line on line, with flashing swords held high, the ranks
of war closed. Blades rose again, stained red, fierce strangled cries came from men in the
death-grips, helms were cracked, shields riven, dirks sank home, and men who once had
drunk and jested with laughing looks over the same mead-board, now met fierce eye to eye
and never parted until one or both fell in the swaths of the death-harvest.
All day the stubborn battle raged, and ever the king sought out the rebel
never reached him. Many valiant deeds he did, wielding his sword Excalibur; and by his
side were Owen and Kay, Lucan and Bedevere. So spent were they at the last that hardly
could they lift their swords, and so sick of the slaying were they that gladly would they
have ceased. But ever some vicious band of Mordred's knights would come upon them, and
then they quitted them like men, and ceased not till their enemies had fled or were slain.
Suddenly the king came to himself, and, standing still, looked upon the field. In the
morning it had been but a bare hillside of hungry, stunted grass, through which the stones
showed grey and sallow, like ancient bones. Now, in the low light of the sinking orb, it
was red - red, with the pallid faces of the dead stained a lighter red in the rays of the
sun. Here and there bands still fought together, cries of fury rose, and the groans of the
dying mingled with them.
"Alas!" cried the king, and looked behind him, "where are all my noble
There were but two with him now, Lucan and his brother Bedevere.
"Where is Owen, and Kay?" he asked.
"Alas, lord," said Bedevere, "Sir Owen got his death-wound by the thorn
where we fought those five knights but now, and Sir Kay suddenly fell as he walked. And
when I knelt to speak to him, I found him dead."
"Alas," said the king, " that ever I should see this doleful day, for now
is my end come. But would to heaven that I wist where is that traitor Mordred, that hath
caused all this sorrow and ruin."
Then, as he spoke, he looked towards the east, and saw where, by a tall standing-stone, a
man leaned as if spent with a wound. And he was aware that this was Mordred.
"Now give me my spear," said the king to Sir Lucan, "for yonder is the
traitor, and he shall not escape me."
"Lord," said Sir Lucan in a weak voice, "let him bide, for he hath none
with him, while we three are still alive."
"Now, betide me death, betide me life," said the king, "now that I see him
yonder I will slay the serpent, lest he live to work more havoc on this my poor
"God speed you well," said Sir Bedivere, and gave the king his spear.
Then the king ran towards Sir Mordred, crying:
"Traitor, prepare, now is thy death-day come! When Sir Mordred heard King Arthur he
raised his head, then came towards the king with his sword in his hand.
And there, in the shadow of the great stone, King Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the
shield, with so keen a stroke of his spear that it went through the body and out beyond.
Sir Mordred, feeling that death was upon him, thrust himself along the spear almost to the
butt thereof, nigh where King Arthur held it, and grasping his sword in both his hands, he
struck his uncle on the side of the head, with so keen and fierce a blow that the sword
pierced the helm and the skull.
With that stroke Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth, and the king sank in a swoon
upon his body.
Then Sir Bedevere and Sir Lucan, who were both sore wounded and weakly, came up, and
between them, with many rests upon the way, took the king to a little combe beside the
waters, and there they took off his helm and bathed his wound and bound it. After which
the king felt easier.
"We may do naught else with thee here, lord," said Sir Lucan, "and it were
best that we got thee to some town."
"It would be better so," said the king, "but I fear me I have my
When they had rested Sir Lucan tried to rise, so as to take up the king.
"I may not rise," he cried, his hands upon his head, "my brain works
Nevertheless, the knight staggered to his feet and lifted up the feet of the king. But the
effort was too much for him, and with a deathly groan he fell to the ground, and when he
had twitched and struggled a little he lay dead.
"Alas," said the king, " this is to me a full heavy sight, to see this
noble knight so die for my sake. He would not complain, so set was he to help me, and now
his heart has broken."
Then Sir Bedevere went to his brother and kissed him, and closed his eves.
"Now," said the king, "come hither to me, Bedevere, for my time goeth fast
and I remember me of a promise. Therefore," he bade Sir Bedevere, " do thou take
Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it beyond the combe side there where a low thorn
grows, and when thou comest there, I charge thee, throw my sword in that water, and come
again and tell me what thou seest."
So Sir Bedevere departed with the sword, and on the way he looked at the sword, and saw
how noble was the blade and how shining, and how the pommel and haft were full of precious
"If I throw this sword into the water," said Sir Bedevere to himself, "how
great a sin 'twould be to waste so noble a weapon."
Therefore he hid it in the branches of the thorn and returned to the king.
"What sawest thou?" asked the king when Bedevere returned.
"Sir," he said, "I saw the wind beat on the waves."
"Ye have not done as I bid thee," said the king. "Now therefore, do thou go
again and do as I bid thee; and as thou art dear to me, spare it not, but throw it
Then Sir Bedevere went back and took the sword in his hand; but again he could not bring
himself to throw away that noble sword, so again he hid the sword and went back to the
"What sawest thou this time?" said the king.
"Lord," said Bedevere, "I saw the waters ebb and flow and the sedges
"Ah, traitor untrue!" said the king, deep sorrow in his voice, "who would
have weened that thou who hast been so true and dear to me, and who hast been named a
noble knight, would betray me for the jewels on a sword? Now go ye again, I charge thee,
and as thou shalt answer for thy sins at the last day, throw ye the sword far into the
Then in heavy mood Sir Bedevere went the third time, and took the sword from its
hiding-place, and looking away from the weapon lest its beauty should soften him, he bound
the girdle about the hilt, and then he threw the sword with all his might far out over the
As he looked, inwardly lamenting, he saw the jewels flash in the low light as the sword
passed through the air. Then suddenly, when it neared the water, he marvelled to see a
great arm and hand come up through the waves. The hand caught the weapon by the haft,
shook it and brandished it thrice, and then vanished with the sword under the waves.
With some fear in his
heart Sir Bedevere went back to the king and told him all that he had seen.
"It is well," said the king. "Now I have performed my promise. Help me
hence to some village, for I am cold and would die beneath a roof, if I may."
Then Sir Bedevere took the king upon his back, thinking that he would find some road in a
little while which should lead them to a hamlet. And as he went along, he passed by the
waterside, near the low thorn whence he had thrown the sword into the water.
There, in the sedges, he marvelled to see a barge draped all in black cloth, and in it sat
many fair ladies, all with black hoods on. When they saw Sir Bedevere with the king upon
his back, they shrieked and wept.
And one that looked a queen, so fair and stately, yet so sad was she, held out her arms
towards the king, and cried unto him in a voice wondrous sweet, " Come to me,
"Put me into the barge," said the king to Bedevere, "for there I shall have
Softly did Sir Bedevere lay him in the barge, and the fair ladies wept over the king with
much mouming, and one laid his head in her lap and caressed it with soft hands.
Then, without sails or oars, the barge went from the shore, and fear and sorrow shook the
soul of Sir Bedevere to see them go from him.
"Alas, my lord Arthur," he cried, "what shall become of me if ye are
leaving me lonely?"
"Comfort thyself," said the king in a faint voice, "and do as well as thou
mayest, for in me ye may no longer trust. For I will go into the vale of Avalon to heal me
of my grievous wound, and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul."
Sir Bedevere stood watching till the barge went from his sight in the mists of evening,
and then he wept a little, and so fared forward through the night, weeping as he thought
how all the glory that was Arthur's was now past, and how he himself was very old and very
When morning broke he was aware of a little chapel and a hermitage between two hoar woods
upon a beside the marshes, and entering therein he got cheer of the holy hermit and
Now, when King Arthur had gone westwards to collect his host, Sir Owen, marvelling that
Sir Lancelot had sent no word in reply to the letter of Sir Gawaine, had charged a trusty
squire of his to go across to Brittany, to tell Sir Lancelot of all that had passed and
how King Arthur longed for his aid and his love. Nigh mad with grief was Sir Lancelot when
he had learned all, and so deep was his sorrow and so wild was his regret, that hardly
could he wait till the ships were ready to take him and his knights and army across to
When they arrived at Dover, Sir Lancelot sought out the tomb of Sir Gawaine, and there
with much weeping he prayed long and earnestly for the repose of the soul of that dead
warrior, his once dear friend. All the other knights prayed likewise for the soul of
Gawaine, and Sir Lancelot gave one hundred pounds for masses to be said, and the others
gave according to their means.
Then word was brought him of the daylong dreadful battle in the west, and how King Arthur
was gone, mortally wounded, none knew whither, and how all the knights of the Round Table
Silent was Sir Lancelot at this news, but men saw how his stem face paled; and for a time
he walked apart and would suffer none to speak to him. Then he came to his knights, and
all could see how his looks had changed. Grief was deeply lined upon his face, and he had
the air of an aged and weary man.
"My fair lords," he said, "I thank you all for your coming with me, but we
came too late. But now I go alone to find the body of my dear lord, and if I may, I will
see my lady, Queen Gwenevere. And do ye all go back into your country, for now we have no
place in this."
Thus Sir Lancelot fared forth, and would suffer none to go with him. First he went to
Amesbury, and in the convent there he saw Queen Gwenevere. Few but very sad were the words
they spake. Sir Lancelot offered to give her a home in Brittany, away from the trouble and
the ruin of the land, but she would not.
"My lord is dead," she said, weeping, "and this dear kingdom may not long
stand, but while I live I will stay on its dear soil."
Then Sir Lancelot fared far west through the waste-lands, and came to the battlefield; and
there he wept sorely to see the long lines of dead. Many were the dead knights of the
Round Table whom he found unburied, and these with his own hands he laid in the grave, and
he procured a priest to say prayers over them.
Further he went beside the shores of the Endless Waters, until one day he found a black
barge, and stepping therein he was taken without sail or oars far over the wide sea, until
the twilight. Then, raising his sorrowing eyes, he was aware of a fair green island with a
valley between two sweet hills, and there was a chapel, and all about it were trees all
laden with blossoms.
A little bell began to ring just as the barge lightly touched the shore, and stepping
therefrom, Sir Lancelot went into the chapel, and heard mass. Afterwards a bishop came
unto him where he kneeled, and a hermit, and the latter seized his hand; and when he
looked up Sir Lancelot knew it for Sir Bedevere. Neither could speak for the great tears
that rolled down their grim faces, but Sir Bedevere drew him forth and led him to where a
great white marble slab was lying, freshly cut, in the midmost part of the chapel.
Thereon Sir Lancelot saw the words, cut deep and wide, in black letters:
QUONDAM REX QUE FUTURUS
Then did Sir Lancelot's heart almost burst with sorrow; and when he had finished
praying and weeping, he kneeled unto the bishop and prayed him to shrive him and assoil
him. Afterwards he besought him that he might live with him, and the holy man granted his
request, and there ever after did Sir Lancelot, putting off all the fame and glory which
he had gotten in the world, pass all his days and nights, serving God with prayers and
fastings and much abstinence.
When, within a year, Queen Gwenevere died in her cell at Amesbury, Sir Lancelot, having
been advised in a dream of her death, braved the bands of lawless men that now ravaged the
fair land of Britain, and brought her body to the isle of Glastonbury. He laid it solemnly
beside the body of her dear lord Arthur, and thereafter he endured greater penance.
"For," said he, "by my stiffnecked pride did all this evil come. If I had
gone straightway to my dear lord, and cast myself upon his love and justice, my lady the
queen would not have been led to the stake, and I should not unwittingly have slain young
Gareth. I am the causer of all the ruin and the sorrow that hath come unto this land, and
never while I live may I forgive me."
Thus evermore he prayed and mourned, day and night, but sometimes he slumbered a broken
sleep. He ate but little, and neither the bishop nor Sir Bedevere could make him take
comfort. And if thou would know the time and place where Lancelot was happiest, it was
when he was lying on the tomb of King Arthur and Oueen Gwenevere.
At last, on a sweet morn in June, they found him lying there, stark dead, but with a
gentle smile upon his wasted face. And when they had made the mass of requiem, they laid
him in the tomb at the feet of the king, and the queen, and on the slab that covered him
they caused these words to be graven:
HERE LIETH SIR LANCELOT DU LAKE
WHO WAS CHIEF OF ALL CHRISTIAN KNIGHTS; THE MOST COURTEOUS MAN AND THE TRUEST FRIEND, THE
MEEKEST DOER OF GREAT DEEDS, AND THE GENTLEST TO ALL LADIES AND WEAK CREATURES.