From Sir Thomas Malory
Le Morte D’Arthur
The Day of Destiny:
The Death of Arthur
During the absence of King Arthur from Britain, Sir Mordred, already vested with sovereign powers, had decided to usurp the throne. Accordingly, he has false letters written, announcing death of King Arthur in battle, and delivered to himself. Then, calling a parliament, he ordered the letters to be read and persuaded the nobility to elect him king. The coronation took place at Canterbury and was celebrated with a fifteen day feast.
Sir Mordred then settled in Camelot and made overtures to Queen Guinevere to marry him. The queen seemingly acquiesced, but as soon as she had won his confidence, begged leave to make a journey to London in order to prepare her trousseau. Sir Mordred consented, and the queen rode straight from the Tower, first by guile and then by threats, but she would listen to neither. Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury came forward to protest:
“Sir Mordred, do you not fear God’s displeasure? If you do not revoke your evil deeds, I shall curse you with bell, book, and candle.”
“Fie on you! Do your worst!” Sir Mordred replied.
“Sir Mordred, I warn you take heed or the wrath of the Lord will descend upon you.”
“Away, false priest, or I shall behead you!”
The Archbishop withdrew, and after excommunicating Sir Mordred, abandoned his office and fled to Glastonbury. There he took up his abode as a simple hermit, and by fasting and prayer sought divine intercession in the troubled affairs of his country.
Sir Mordred now appealed to the barony to support him, and it has been told that they came forward in large numbers to do so. Why? it will be asked. Was not King Arthur, the noblest sovereign Christendom had seen, now leading his armies in a righteous cause? The answer lies in the people of Britain, who, then as now, were fickle. Those who so readily transferred their allegiance to Sir Mordred did so with the excuse that whereas King Arthur’s reign had led them into war and strife, Sir Mordred promised them peace and festivity.
Hence, it was with an army of a hundred thousand that Sir Mordred marched to Dover.
As King Arthur with his fleet drew into the harbor, Sir Mordred and his army launched forth in every available craft, and a bloody battle ensued in the ships and on the beach. If King Arthur’s army were the smaller, their courage was the higher, confident as they were of the righteousness of their cause. Once ashore, they put Sir Mordred’s entire army to flight.
The battle over, King Arthur began a search for casualties, and on peering into one of the ship found Sir Gawaine, mortally wounded. Sir Gawaine fainted when King Arthur lifted him into his arms; and when he came to, the king spoke:
“Alas! Dear nephew, that you lie here thus, mortally wounded! What joy is now left to me on this earth? You must know it was you and Sir Launcelot I loved above all others, and it seems I have lost you both.”
“My good uncle, it was my pride and my stubbornness that brought all this about, for has I not urged you to war with Sir Launcelot, your subjects would not now be in revolt. Alas, that Sir Launcelot is not here, for he would soon drive them out! And it is at Sir Launcelot’s hands that I suffer my own death. The wound which he dealt me has reopened. I would not wish it otherwise, because us he not the greatest and gentlest of knights?
“I know that by noon I shall be dead, and I repent bitterly that I may not be reconciled to Sir Launcelot; therefore, I pray you, good uncle, give me pen, paper, and ink so that I may write to him.”
A priest was summoned and Sir Gawaine confessed; then a clerk brought ink, pen, and paper, and Sir Gawaine wrote to Sir Launcelot as follows:
“Sir Launcelot, flower of the knighthood: I, Sir Gawaine, son of King Lot of Orkney and of King Arthur’s sister, Morgause, send you my greetings!
I am about to die; the cause of my death is the wound I received from you outside the city of Benwick; and I would make it known that my death was of my own seeking, that I was moved by the spirit of revenge and spite to provoke you to battle.
Therefore, Sir Launcelot, I beseech you to visit my tomb and offer what prayers you will on my behalf; and for myself, I am content to die at the hands of the noblest knight living.
One more request: that you hasten with your armies across the sea and give succor to our noble king. Sir Mordred has usurped the throne and now holds against him with an army of a hundred thousand. He would have the queen, too, but she fled to the Tower of London and there charged her loyal supporters with her defense.
Today is the tenth of May, and at noon I shall give up the ghost; this letter is written partly with my blood. This morning we fought our way ashore, against the armies of Sir Mordred, and that is how my wound came to be reopened. We won the day, but my King Arthur needs you, and I too, that on my tomb you may bestow your blessing.”
Sir Gawaine fainted when he had finished, and the king wept. When he came to he was given extreme unction, and died, as he had anticipated, at the hour of noon. The king buried him in the chapel at Dover Castle, and there many came to see him, and all noticed the wound on his head which he had received from Sir Launcelot.
Then the news reached Arthur that Sir Mordred offered him battle on the field at Baron Down. Arthur hastened there with his army, they fought, and Sir Mordred fled once more, this time to Canterbury.
When King Arthur had begun the search for his wounded and dead, many volunteers from all parts of the country came to fight under his flag, convinced now of the rightness of his cause. Arthur marched westward, and Sir Mordred once more offered him battle. IT was assigned for the Monday following Trinity Sunday, 12 on Salisbury Down.
Sir Mordred levied fresh troops East Anglia and the places about London, and fresh volunteers came forward to help Arthur. Then on the Trinity Sunday, Arthur was vouchsafed a strange dream:
He was appareled in gold cloth and seated in a chair which stood on a pivoted scaffold. Below him, many fathoms deep, was a dark well, and in the water swam serpents, dragons, and wild beasts. Suddenly, the scaffold tilted, and Arthur was flung into the water, where all the creatures struggled toward him and began tearing him limb from limb.
Arthur cried out in his sleep and his squires hastened to waken him. Later, as he lay between waking and sleeping, he thought he saw Sir Gawaine, and with him a host of beautiful noblewomen. Arthur spoke:
“My sister’s son! I thought you had died; but now I see you live, and I thank the Lord Jesu! I pray you, tell me, who are these ladies?”
“My lord, these are the ladies I championed in righteous quarrels when I was on Earth. Our lord God has vouchsafed that we visit you and plead with you not to give battle to Sir Mordred tomorrow, for if you do, not only will you yourself be killed, but all your noble followers too. We beg you to be warned, and to make a treaty with Sir Mordred, calling a truce for a month, and granting him whatever terms he may demand. In a month, Sir Launcelot will be here, and he will defeat Sir Mordred.”
Thereupon Sir Gawaine and the ladies vanished, and King Arthur once more summoned his squires and his counselors and told them his vision. Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere were commissioned to make a treaty with Sir Mordred. They were to be accompanied by two bishops and to grant, within reason, whatever terms he demanded.
The ambassadors found Sir Mordred in command of any army of a hundred thousand and unwilling to listen to overtures of peace. However, the ambassadors eventually prevailed on him, and in return for the truce, granted him sovereignty of Cornwall and Kent, and succession to the British throne when King Arthur died. The treaty was to be signed by King Arthur and Sir Mordred the next day. They were to meet between the two armies, and each was to be accompanied by no more than fourteen nights.
Both King Arthur and Sir Mordred suspected the other of treachery, and gave orders for their armies to attack at the sign a single sword. When they met at the appointed place the treaty was signed and they drank a glass of wine.
Then, by chance, one of the soldiers was bitten on the foot by an adder which had lain concealed in the brush. The soldier unthinkingly drew his sword to kill it, as the sword flashed in the light, the alarms were given, trumpets sounded, and both armies galloped into the attack.
“Alas for this fateful day!” exclaimed King Arthur, as both he and Sir Mordred hastily mounted and galloped back to their armies. There followed one of those rare and heartless battles in which both armies fought until they were destroyed. King Arthur, with his customary valor, led squadron after squadron of calvary into the attack, and Sir Mordred encountered him unflinchingly. As the numbers of dead and wounded mounted on both sides, the active combatants continued dauntless until nightfall, when four men alone survived.
King Arthur wept with dismay to see his beloved followers fallen; then, struggling toward him, unhorsed and badly wounded, he saw Sir Lucan and his brother Sir Bedivere.
“Alas!” said the king, “that the day should come when I see all my noble knights destroyed! I would prefer that I myself had fallen. But what has become of the traitor Sir Mordred, whose evil ambition was responsible for this carnage?”
Looking about him, King Arthur then noticed Sir Mordred leaning with his sword on a heap of the dead.
“Sir Lucan, I pray you, give me my spear, for I have seen Sir Mordred.”
“Sire, I entreat you, remember your vision---how Sir Gawaine appeared with a heaven-sent message to dissuade you from Fighting Sir Mordred. Allow this fateful day to pass; it is ours, for we three hold the field, while the enemy is broken.”
“My lords, I care nothing for my life now! And while Sir Mordred is at large, I must kill him; there may not be another chance.”
“God speed you, then!” said Sir Bedivere.
When Sir Mordred saw King Arthur advance with his spear, he rushed to meet him with drawn sword. Arthur caught Sir Mordred below the shield and drove his spear through his body; Sir Mordred, knowing that the wound was mortal, thrust himself up to the handle of the spear, and then, brandishing his sword in both hands, struck Arthur on the side of the helmet, cutting through it and into the skull beneath; he then crashed to the ground, gruesome and dead.
King Arthur fainted many times as Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere struggled with him to a small chapel nearby, where they managed to ease his wounds a little. When Arthur came to, he thought he heard cries coming from the battlefield.
“Sir Lucan, I pray you, find out who cries on the battlefield,” he said.
Wounded as he was, Sir Lucan hobbled painfully to the field, and there in the moonlight saw the camp followers stealing gold and jewels from the dead, and murdering the wounded. He returned to the king and reported to him what he had seen, and then added:
“My lord, it surely would be better to move you to the nearest town?”
“My wounds forbid it. But alas for the good Sir Launcelot! How sadly I have missed him today! And now I must die, as Sir Gawaine warned me I would, repenting our quarrel with my last breath.”
Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere made one further attempt to lift the king. He fainted as they did so. Then Sir Lucan fainted. When the king came to, he saw Sir Lucan lying dead with foam at his mouth.
“Sweet Jesu, give him succor!” he said.
“This noble knight has died trying to save my life. . .alas that this was so!”
Sir Bedivere wept for his brother.
“Sir Bedivere, weep no more,” said King Arthur, “for you can save neither your brother nor me; and I would ask you to take my sword Excalibur to the shore of the lake and throw it in the water. Then return to me and tell me what you have seen.”
“My lord, as you command, it shall be done.”
Sir Bedivere took the sword, but when he came to the water’s edge, it appeared so beautiful that he could not bring himself to throw it in, so instead he hid it by a tree, and then returned to the king.
“Sir Bedivere, what did you see?”
“My lord, I saw nothing but the wind upon the waves.”
“Then you did not obey me; I pray you, go swiftly again, and this time fulfill my command.”
Sir Bedivere went and returned again, but this time too he had failed to fulfill the king’s command.
“Sir Bedivere, what did you see?”
“My lord, nothing but the lapping of the waves.”
“Sir Bedivere, twice you have betrayed me! And for the sake of my only sword: it is unworthy of you! Now I pray you, do as I command, for I have not long to live.”
This time Sir Bedivere wrapped the girdle around the sheath and hurled it as far as he could into the water. A hand appeared from below the surface, took the sword, waved it thrice, and disappeared again. Sir Bedivere returned to the king and told him what he had seen.
“Sir Bedivere, I pray now help me hence, or I fear it will be too late.”
Sir Bedivere carried the king to the water’s edge, and there found a large barge in which say many beautiful ladies with their queen. All were wearing black hoods, and when they saw the king, they raised their voices in a piteous lament.
“I pray you, set me in the barge,” said the king.
Sir Bedivere did so, and one of the ladies laid the king’s head in her lap; then the queen spoke to him:
“My dear brother, you have stayed too long: I fear that the wound on your head is already cold.”
Thereupon they rowed away from the land and Sir Bedivere wept to see them go.
“My lord King Arthur, you have deserted me! I am alone now, and among enemies.”
“Sir Bedivere, take what comfort you may, for my time is passed, and now I must be taken to Avalon for my wound to be heated. If you hear of me no more, I beg pray for my soul.”
The barge slowly crossed the water and out of sight while the ladies wept. Sir Bedivere walked alone into the forest and there remained for the night.
In the morning, he saw beyond the trees a small hermitage. He entered and found a hermit kneeling down by a fresh tomb. The hermit was weeping as he prayed, and then Sir Bedivere recognized him as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been banished by Sir Mordred.
“Father, I pray you, tell me, whose tomb is this?”
“My son, I do not know. At midnight, the body was brought here by a company of ladies. We buried it, they lit a hundred candles for the service, and rewarded me with a thousand bezants.”
“Father, King Arthur lies buried in this tomb.”
Sir Bedivere fainted when he had spoken, and when he came to he begged the Archbishop to allow him to remain at the hermitage and end his days in fasting and prayer.
“Father, I wish only to be near to my true liege.”
“My son, you are welcome; and do I not recognize you as Sir Bedivere the Bold, brother to Sir Lucan the Butler?”
Thus the Archbishop and Sir Bedivere remained at the hermitage, wearing the habits of hermits and devoting themselves to the tomb with fasting and prayers of contrition.
Such was the death of King Arthur as written down by Sir Bedivere. By some it is told that there were three queens on the barge: Queen Morgan Le Fay, the Queen of North Galys, and the Queen of the Wastelands; and others include the names of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake who had served King Arthur well in the past.
In many parts of Britain it is believed that King Arthur does not die and that he will return to us and win fresh glory and the Holy Cross of our Lord Jesu; but for myself I do not believe this, and would leave him buried peacefully in his tomb at Glastonbury, where the Archbishop of Canterbury and Sir Bedivere humbled themselves and with prayers and fasting honored his memory. And inscribed on his tomb, men say, is the legend:
HIC LACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDUM REXQUE FUTURUS.
“Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.”