LEFT: Arthur draws the sword from the stone; the coronation of Arthur. BELOW: Arthur in battle with the Pendragon standard. Manuscript illuminations, about 1290, from a French prose romance of Merlin. In the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Fr. 95, fols. 159, 173

KING ARTHUR AND HIS COURT

Although King Arthur's adventures were often overshadowed by those of his knights, a few scenes from his life were repeated over and over in both literature and art for centuries. Such a story is that of Arthur's youth and coming to the throne. When Arthur was born, King Uther, his father, gave him into the hands of the enchanter Merlin, who had him brought up ignorant of his true identity by the noble knight Sir Ector de Maris. After Uther's death there was great strife in England-- the land of Logres, as the romances called it. Finally, says Malory, there appeared in the churchyard of "the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not the French book maketh no mention, . . . a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone, and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:--Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England." Many a noble tried his hand, but none could move it. This sword was not Excalibur, which Arthur found later.

On New Year's Day a great joust was held in London, in which Arthur's foster brother, Sir Kay, found himself unable to take part, as he had wished to do, because he had left his sword behind. Blunders of this sort and a complete lack of any sense of humor later made Kay the comic figure among the knights, perpetually getting into trouble. Young Arthur rode back to bring the sword, but found that everyone had gone out to see the jousting. Remembering the sword in the stone, he set out to get it, saying, "My brother Sir Kay shall not be without a sword this day." He pulled it out easily and bore it to Kay, who recognized it and took it to his father, declaring, "Sir, lo here is the sword of the stone, wherefore I must be king of this land." Sir Ector, who knew his son, took both youths to the churchyard; there Arthur put the sword back into the stone and pulled it out easily, but Kay could not move it. "Therewithal they went unto the Archbishop, and told him how the sword was achieved, and by whom; and on Twelfth-day all the barons came thither" to try the sword again. Still none could move it, and they assembled at Candlemas and the Feast of Pentecost with the same result, though each time Arthur drew the sword easily. Finally, "all the commons cried at once, We will have Arthur unto our king, we will put him no more in delay, for we all see that it is God's will that he shall be our king, and who that holdeth against it, we will slay him." So Arthur "took the sword between both his hands, and offered it upon the altar where the Archbishop was, and so was he made knight of the best man that was there. And so anon was the coronation made. And there was he sworn unto his lords and the commons for to be a true king, to stand with true justice from thenceforth the days of this life." The emphasis upon the "lords and the commons" is distinctly English, re

-18-

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About the Round Table
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Introduction - The Growth of the Arthurian Legends 3
  • Castles Painted with Arthurian Scenes 10
  • King Arthur and His Court 18
  • Tristan and Iseult 40
  • Lancelot and Guenevere 52
  • The Holy Grail 64
  • Romancers and Chroniclers Mentioned in the Text 78
  • Books Suggested for Further Reading 79
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