Stories of King Arthur and His Knights/Chapter 5
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Chapter V. The Noble Order of the Round Table
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Arthur was indeed king, but enemies long held out against his just authority. When he went into Wales to be crowned at the city of Carlion, he let cry a great feast to be holden at Pentecost. Unto this feast came the six kings of that region with many of their knights, and Arthur thought it was to do him honour. But when he made joy of their coming and sent them great presents, the kings would none receive, and said they had no joy to receive gifts of a beardless boy that was come of low birth. They sent him word that they were come to give him gifts with hard swords betwixt the neck and the shoulders, for it was great shame to all of them to see such a boy have rule of so noble a realm as this land was.
This answer was told King Arthur, who now betook himself to a strong tower and five hundred good men with him. Here the six kings laid siege to him, but he was well victualled; and soon Merlin came and bade him fear not, but speak boldly to his enemies, "for," said he, "ye shall overcome them all, whether they will or nill."
So the King armed himself and all his knights and came out to do battle with his enemies. Then three hundred good men of the best that were with the kings went straight over unto King Arthur, which comforted him greatly. So he set upon the hosts of the six kings, and he and his men did marvellous deeds of arms. Therewith he put them back, and then the commons of Carlion arose with clubs and staves and slew many of the enemy, and so they fled away.
Since the enemy were still passing strong, Merlin counselled King Arthur to send letters well devised beyond the sea to the two brethren, marvellous good men of their hands, named one King Ban of Benwick and the other King Bors of Gaul, and to say to them that, if they would come and help King Arthur in his wars, he in turn would be sworn unto them to help them in their wars against King Claudas, a mighty man that strove with them for a castle.
So there were made letters in the pleasantest wise, according to King Arthur's desire, and Ulfius and Brastias, the messengers, rode forth well horsed and well armed, and so passed the sea and came to the city of Benwick. Here they had good cheer as long as they tarried, and received the answer that King Ban and King Bors would come unto King Arthur in all the haste they might.
Now those six kings in Wales had by their means gotten unto them five other kings, and all swore together that for weal or woe they would not leave each other till they had destroyed Arthur. So their whole host drew towards Arthur, now strengthened by Ban and Bors with their followers that had crossed from Gaul to his aid. Then followed a great battle, and they did on both sides great deeds of arms until at the last Merlin counselled Arthur to fight no longer, since the eleven kings had more on hand than they were ware of, and would soon depart home; for a messenger would come and tell them that lawless people as well as Saracens, forty thousand in number, had entered their lands and were burning and slaying without mercy. So the great battle was ended, and the eleven kings went to their own country.
Now King Arthur, King Ban, and King Bors came with their following into the country of Cameliard, and there aided King Leodegrance against an enemy of that land. King Leodegrance thanked them for their goodness, and made them great cheer ere King Ban and King Bors departed back towards Benwick.
In Cameliard Arthur had the first sight of Guenever, the King's daughter, and ever afterwards he loved her. So when peace was once more in his land, King Arthur asked counsel of Merlin about seeking her as his wife, for to him she was the most valiant and fairest lady living or to be found.
"Sir," said Merlin, "as for her beauty, she is one of the fairest alive, but if ye loved her not so well as ye do, I could choose better for you. Yet when a man's heart is set, he will be loath to change."
So Merlin was sent forth to King Leodegrance, and he told him of King Arthur's desire. King Leodegrance was glad that so worthy a king of prowess and of nobleness would wed his daughter, and promised him as wedding gift, — not lands, for he had enough and needed none, — but what would please him much more, the Table Round, which Uther Pendragon had given to the King of Cameliard, — a table made by Merlin at which an hundred and fifty knights might be seated.
So Guenever, attended by Merlin and an hundred good knights (all King Leodegrance could spare, so many had been slain in his wars) with the Round Table rode with great pomp by water and by land to London. There King Arthur made great joy of their coming, for he had long loved Guenever. Also the gift pleased him more than right great riches. And the marriage and the coronation were ordained with all speed in the most honourable wise that could be devised.
Merlin was sent to espy out in all the land fifty knights of most prowess and honour, who should make up the full number for the Round Table. Only twenty-eight could he find worthy enough, and these Merlin fetched to Arthur's court. And Merlin made sieges (seats), an hundred and fifty in all, for the knights, and he placed in every knight's siege his name in letters of gold.
On that same day King Arthur founded the great order of the Round Table, the fame of which was to last for all time. An hundred and twenty-eight were then sworn as Knights of the Table Round, and every year at the high feast of Pentecost others were to be added as they showed themselves worthy. Only one siege was long empty, the Siege Perilous, for no man should sit therein but one, and if any one of unworthy life were so hardy as to sit therein, he should be destroyed.
With great ceremony each one took the vows of true knighthood, solemnly promising to do no wicked deed, to be loyal to the King, to give mercy to those asking it, always to be courteous and helpful to ladies, and to fight in no wrongful quarrel for wordly gain, upon pain of death or forfeiture of knighthood and King Arthur's favour. Unto this were all the knights of the Round Table sworn, both old and young. To dishonour knighthood was the greatest disgrace; to prove themselves worthy of knightly honour by strong, brave, courteous, loyal bearing under great difficulties was the highest end of living.
So King Arthur stablished all his knights, and to them that were not rich he gave lands; and they rode abroad to right the wrongs of men, and to give help to the oppressed. With their aid he secured order and justice throughout his realm, and then the weakest man might do his work in peace, and prosper.