Le Morte d'Arthur

10. Queen Guenevere



Before Merlin passed from the world of men, imprisoned in the great stone by the evil arts of Vivien, he had uttered many marvellous prophecies, and one that boded ill to King Arthur; for he foretold that, in the days to come, a son of Arthur's sister should stir up bitter war against the King, and at last a great battle should be fought in the West, when many a brave knight should find his doom.

Now, among the nephews of Arthur, was one most dishonourable; his name was Mordred. No knightly deed had he ever done, and he hated to hear the good report of others because he himself was a coward and envious. But of all the Round Table there was none that Mordred hated more than Sir Launcelot du Lac, whom all true knights held in most honour; and not the less did Mordred hate Launcelot that he was the knight whom Queen Guenevere had in most esteem. So, at last, his jealous rage passing all bounds, he spoke evil of the Queen and of Launcelot, saying that they were traitors to the King. Now Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth, Mordred's brothers, refused to give ear to these slanders, holding that Sir Launcelot, in his knightly service of the Queen, did honour to King Arthur also; but by ill-fortune another brother, Sir Agravaine, had ill-will to the Queen, and professed to believe Mordred's evil tales. So the two went to King Arthur with their ill stories.

Now when Arthur had heard them, he was wroth; for never would he lightly believe evil of any, and Sir Launcelot was the knight whom he loved above all others. Sternly then he bade them begone and come no more to him with unproven tales against any, and, least of all, against Sir Launcelot and their lady, the Queen.

The two departed, but in their hearts was hatred against Launcelot and the Queen, more bitter than ever for the rebuke they had called down upon themselves; and they resolved, from that time forth, diligently to watch if, perchance, they might find aught to turn to evil account against Sir Launcelot.

Not long after, it seemed to them that the occasion had come. For King Arthur having ridden forth to hunt far from Carlisle, where he then held court, the Queen sent for Sir Launcelot to speak with him in her bower. Then Agravaine and Mordred got together twelve knights, friends of Sir Gawain, their brother, and persuaded them to come with them for they should do the King a service. So with the twelve knights they watched and waited in a little room until they saw Sir Launcelot, all unarmed, pass into the Queen's chamber; and when the door was closed upon him, they came forth, and Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred thundered on the door, crying so that all the court might hear: "Thou traitor, Sir Launcelot, come forth from the Queen's chamber. Come forth, for thy treason against the King is known to all!"

Then Sir Launcelot and the Queen were amazed and filled with shame that such a clamour should be raised where the Queen was. While they waited and listened in dismay, Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine took up the cry again, the twelve knights echoing it: "Traitor Launcelot, come forth and meet thy doom; for thy last hour is come." Then Sir Launcelot, wroth more for the Queen than for himself, exclaimed: "This shameful cry will kill me; better death than such dishonour. Lady, as I have ever been your true knight, since the day when my lord, King Arthur, knighted me, pray for me if now I meet my death." Then he went to the door and cried to those without: "Fair lords, cease this outcry. I will open the door, and then ye shall do with me as ye will." With the word, he set open the door, but only by so much that one knight could enter at a time. So a certain Sir Colgrevance of Gore, a knight of great stature, pushed into the room and thrust at Sir Launcelot with all his might; but Sir Launcelot, with the arm round which he had wrapped his cloak, turned aside the sword and, with his bare hand, dealt Colgrevance such a blow on the helmet that he fell grovelling to the earth. Then Sir Launcelot thrust to and barred the door, and stripping the fallen knight of his armour, armed himself in haste with the aid of the Queen and her ladies.

All this while, Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred continued their outcry; so when he was armed, Sir Launcelot called to them to cease their vile cries and the next day he would meet any or all of them in arms and knightly disprove their vile slander. Now there was not one among those knights who dared meet Sir Launcelot in the open field, so they were resolved to slay him while they had the advantage over him. When Sir Launcelot understood their evil purpose, he set wide the door and rushed upon them. At the first blow he slew Sir Agravaine, and soon eleven other knights lay cold on the earth beside him. Only Mordred escaped, for he fled with all his might; but, even so, he was sore wounded.

Then Sir Launcelot spoke to the Queen. "Madam," said he, "here may I no longer stay, for many a foe have I made me this night. And when I am gone, I know not what evil may be spoken of you for this night's work. I pray you, then, suffer me to lead you to a place of safety." "Ye shall run no more risk for my sake," said the Queen; "only go hence in haste before more harm befall you. But as for me, here I abide. I will flee for no traitor's outcry."

So Sir Launcelot, seeing that at that time there was naught he might do for Queen Guenevere, withdrew with all his kin to a little distance from Carlisle, and awaited what should befall.



When Mordred escaped Sir Launcelot, he got to horse, all wounded as he was, and never drew rein till he had found King Arthur, to whom he told all that had happened.

Then great was the King's grief. Despite all that Mordred could say, he was slow to doubt Sir Launcelot, whom he loved, but his mind was filled with forebodings; for many a knight had been slain, and well he knew that their kin would seek vengeance on Sir Launcelot, and the noble fellowship of the Round Table be utterly destroyed by their feuds.

All too soon, it proved even as the King had feared. Many were found to hold with Sir Mordred; some because they were kin to the knights that had been slain, some from envy of the honour and worship of the noble Sir Launcelot; and among them even were those who dared to raise their voice against the Queen herself, calling for judgment upon her as leagued with a traitor against the King, and as having caused the death of so many good knights. Now in those days the law was that if any one were accused of treason by witnesses, or taken in the act, that one should die the death by burning, be it man or woman, knight or churl. So then the murmurs grew to a loud clamour that the law should have its course, and that King Arthur should pass sentence on the Queen. Then was the King's woe doubled; "For," said he, "I sit as King to be a rightful judge and keep all the law; wherefore I may not do battle for my own Queen, and now there is none other to help her." So a decree was issued that Queen Guenevere should be burnt at the stake outside the walls of Carlisle.

Forthwith, King Arthur sent for his nephew, Sir Gawain, and said to him: "Fair nephew, I give it in charge to you to see that all is done as has been decreed." But Sir Gawain answered boldly: "Sir King, never will I be present to see my lady the Queen die. It is of ill counsel that ye have consented to her death." Then the King bade Gawain send his two young brothers, Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, to receive his commands, and these he desired to attend the Queen to the place of execution. So Gareth made answer for both: "My Lord the King, we owe you obedience in all things, but know that it is sore against our wills that we obey you in this; nor will we appear in arms in the place where that noble lady shall die"; then sorrowfully they mounted their horses, and rode to Carlisle.

When the day appointed had come, the Queen was led forth to a place without the walls of Carlisle, and there she was bound to the stake to be burnt to death. Loud were her ladies' lamentations, and many a lord was found to weep at that grievous sight of a Queen brought so low; yet was there none who dared come forward as her champion, lest he should be suspected of treason. As for Gareth and Gaheris, they could not bear the sight and stood with their faces covered in their mantles. Then, just as the torch was to be applied to the faggots, there was a sound as of many horses galloping, and the next instant a band of knights rushed upon the astonished throng, their leader cutting down all who crossed his path until he had reached the Queen, whom he lifted to his saddle and bore from the press. Then all men knew that it was Sir Launcelot, come knightly to rescue the Queen, and in their hearts they rejoiced. So with little hindrance they rode away, Sir Launcelot and all his kin with the Queen in their midst, till they came to the castle of the Joyous Garde where they held the Queen in safety and all reverence.

But of that day came a kingdom's ruin, for among the slain were Gawain's brothers, Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris. Now Sir Launcelot loved Sir Gareth as if he had been his own younger brother, and himself had knighted him; but, in the press, he struck at him and killed him, not seeing that he was unarmed and weaponless; and in like wise, Sir Gaheris met his death. So when word was brought to King Arthur of what had passed, Sir Gawain asked straightway how his brothers had fared. "Both are slain," said the messenger. "Alas! my dear brothers!" cried Sir Gawain; "how came they by their death?" "They were both slain by Sir Launcelot." "That will I never believe," cried Sir Gawain; "for my brother, Sir Gareth, had such love for Sir Launcelot that there was naught Sir Launcelot could ask him that he would not do." But the man said again: "He is slain, and by Sir Launcelot."

Then, from sheer grief, Sir Gawain fell swooning to the ground. When he was recovered, he said: "My Lord and uncle, is it even as this man says, that Sir Launcelot has slain my brother Sir Gareth?" "Alas!" said the King, "Launcelot rode upon him in the press and slew him, not seeing who he was or that he was unarmed." "Then," cried Gawain fiercely, "here I make my avow. Never, while my life lasts, will I leave Sir Launcelot in peace until he has rendered me account for the slaying of my brother." From that day forth, Sir Gawain would not suffer the King to rest until he had gathered all his host and marched against the Joyous Garde. Thus began the war which broke up the fellowship of the Round Table.



Now it came to the ears of the Pope in Rome that King Arthur was besieging Sir Launcelot in his castle of the Joyous Garde, and it grieved him that there should be strife between two such goodly knights, the like of whom was not to be found in Christendom. So he called to him the Bishop of Rochester, and bade him carry word to Britain, both to Arthur and to Sir Launcelot, that they should be reconciled, the one to the other, and that King Arthur should receive again Queen Guenevere.

Forthwith Sir Launcelot desired of King Arthur assurance of liberty and reverence for the Queen, as also safe conduct for himself and his knights, that he might bring Dame Guenevere, with due honour, to the King at Carlisle; and thereto the King pledged his word.

So Launcelot set forth with the Queen, and behind them rode a hundred knights arrayed in green velvet, the housings of the horses of the same all studded with precious stones; thus they passed through the city of Carlisle, openly, in the sight of all, and there were many who rejoiced that the Queen was come again and Sir Launcelot with her, though they of Gawain's party scowled upon him.

When they were come into the great hall where Arthur sat, with Sir Gawain and other great lords about him, Sir Launcelot led Guenevere to the throne and both knelt before the King; then, rising, Sir Launcelot lifted the Queen to her feet, and thus he spoke to King Arthur, boldly and well before the whole court: "My lord, Sir Arthur, I bring you here your Queen, than whom no truer nor nobler lady ever lived; and here stand I, Sir Launcelot du Lac, ready to do battle with any that dare gainsay it"; and with these words Sir Launcelot turned and looked upon the lords and knights present in their places, but none would challenge him in that cause, not even Sir Gawain, for he had ever affirmed that Dame Guenevere was a true and honourable lady.

Then Sir Launcelot spoke again: "Now, my Lord Arthur, in my own defence it behoves me to say that never in aught have I been false to you. That I slew certain knights is true; but I hold me guiltless, seeing that they brought death upon themselves. For no sooner had I gone to the Queen's bower, as she had commanded me, than they beset the door, with shameful outcry, that all the court might hear, calling me traitor and felon knight." "And rightly they called you," cried Sir Gawain fiercely. "My lord, Sir Gawain," answered Sir Launcelot, "in their quarrel they proved not themselves right, else had not I, alone, encountered fourteen knights and come forth unscathed."

Then said King Arthur: "Sir Launcelot, I have ever loved you above all other knights, and trusted you to the uttermost; but ill have ye done by me and mine." "My lord," said Launcelot, "that I slew Sir Gareth I shall mourn as long as life lasts. As soon would I have slain my own nephew, Sir Bors, as have harmed Sir Gareth wittingly; for I myself made him knight, and loved him as my brother." "Liar and traitor," cried Sir Gawain, "ye slew him, defenceless and unarmed." "It is full plain, Sir Gawain," said Launcelot, "that never again shall I have your love; and yet there has been old kindness between us, and once ye thanked me that I saved your life." "It shall not avail you now," said Sir Gawain; "traitor ye are, both to the King and to me. Know that, while life lasts, never will I rest until I have avenged my brother Sir Gareth's death upon you." "Fair nephew," said the King, "cease your brawling. Sir Launcelot has come under surety of my word that none shall do him harm. Elsewhere, and at another time, fasten a quarrel upon him, if quarrel ye must." "I care not," cried Sir Gawain fiercely. "The proud traitor trusts so in his own strength that he thinks none dare meet him. But here I defy him and swear that, be it in open combat or by stealth, I shall have his life. And know, mine uncle and King, if I shall not have your aid, I and mine will leave you for ever, and, if need be, fight even against you." "Peace," said the King; and to Sir Launcelot: "We give you fifteen days in which to leave this kingdom." Then Sir Launcelot sighed heavily and said: "Full well I see that no sorrow of mine for what is past availeth me." Then he went to the Queen where she sat, and said: "Madam, the time is come when I must leave this fair realm that I have loved. Think well of me, I pray you, and send for me if ever there be aught in which a true knight may serve lady." Therewith he turned him about and, without greeting to any, passed through the hall, and with his faithful knights rode to the Joyous Garde, though ever thereafter, in memory of that sad day, he called it the Dolorous Garde.

There he called about him his friends and kinsmen, saying: "Fair Knights, I must now pass into my own lands." Then they all, with one voice, cried that they would go with him. So he thanked them, promising them all fair estates and great honour when they were come to his kingdom; for all France belonged to Sir Launcelot. Yet was he loth to leave the land where he had followed so many glorious adventures, and sore he mourned to part in anger from King Arthur. "My mind misgives me," said Sir Launcelot, "but that trouble shall come of Sir Mordred, for he is envious and a mischief-maker, and it grieves me that never more I may serve Sir Arthur and his realm."

So Sir Launcelot sorrowed; but his kinsmen were wroth for the dishonour done him, and making haste to depart, by the fifteenth day they were all embarked to sail overseas to France.



From the day when Sir Launcelot brought the Queen to Carlisle, never would Gawain suffer the King to be at rest; but always he desired him to call his army together that they might go to attack Sir Launcelot in his own land.

Now King Arthur was loth to war against Sir Launcelot; and seeing this, Sir Gawain upbraided him bitterly. "I see well it is naught to you that my brother, Sir Gareth, died fulfilling your behest. Little ye care if all your knights be slain, if only the traitor Launcelot escape. Since, then, ye will not do me justice nor avenge your own nephew, I and my fellows will take the traitor when and how we may. He trusts in his own might that none can encounter with him; let see if we may not entrap him."

Thus urged, King Arthur called his army together and bade collect a great fleet; for rather would he fight openly with Sir Launcelot than that Sir Gawain should bring such dishonour upon himself as to slay a noble knight treacherously. So with a great host, the King passed overseas to France, leaving Sir Mordred to rule Britain in his stead.

When Launcelot heard that King Arthur and Sir Gawain were coming against him, he withdrew into the strong castle of Benwick; for unwilling indeed was he to fight with the King, or to do an injury to Sir Gareth's brother. The army passed through the land, laying it waste, and presently encamped about the castle, laying close siege to it; but so thick were the walls, and so watchful the garrison, that in no way could they prevail against it.

One day, there came to Sir Launcelot seven brethren, brave knights of Wales, who had joined their fortunes to his, and said: "Sir Launcelot, bid us sally forth against this host which has invaded and laid waste your lands, and we will scatter it; for we are not wont to cower behind walls." "Fair lords," answered Launcelot, "it is grief to me to war on good Christian knights, and especially on my lord, King Arthur. Have but patience and I will send to him and see if, even now, there may not be a treaty of peace between us; for better far is peace than war." So Sir Launcelot sought out a damsel and, mounting her upon a palfrey, bade her ride to King Arthur's camp and require of the King to cease warring on his lands, proffering fair terms of peace. When the damsel came to the camp, there met her Sir Lucan the Butler, "Fair damsel," said Sir Lucan, "do ye come from Sir Launcelot?" "Yea, in good truth," said the damsel; "and, I pray you, lead me to King Arthur." "Now, may ye prosper in your errand," said Sir Lucan. "Our King loves Sir Launcelot dearly and wishes him well; but Sir Gawain will not suffer him to be reconciled to him." So when the damsel had come before the King, she told him all her tale, and much she said of Sir Launcelot's love and good-will to his lord the King, so that the tears stood in Arthur's eyes. But Sir Gawain broke in roughly: "My Lord and uncle, shall it be said of us that we came hither with such a host to hie us home again, nothing done, to be the scoff of all men?" "Nephew," said the King, "methinks Sir Launcelot offers fair and generously. It were well if ye would accept his proffer. Nevertheless, as the quarrel is yours, so shall the answer be." "Then, damsel," said Sir Gawain, "say unto Sir Launcelot that the time for peace is past. And tell him that I, Sir Gawain, swear by the faith I owe to knighthood that never will I forego my revenge."

So the damsel returned to Sir Launcelot and told him all. Sir Launcelot's heart was filled with grief nigh unto breaking; but his knights were enraged and clamoured that he had endured too much of insult and wrong, and that he should lead them forth to battle. Sir Launcelot armed him sorrowfully, and presently the gates were set open and he rode forth, he and all his company. But to all his knights he had given commandment that none should seek King Arthur; "For never," said he, "will I see the noble King, who made me knight, either killed or shamed."

Fierce was the battle between those two hosts. On Launcelot's side, Sir Bors and Sir Lavaine and many another did right well; while on the other side, King Arthur bore him as the noble knight he was, and Sir Gawain raged through the battle, seeking to come at Sir Launcelot. Presently, Sir Bors encountered with King Arthur, and unhorsed him. This Sir Launcelot saw and, coming to the King's side, he alighted and, raising him from the ground, mounted him upon his own horse. Then King Arthur, looking upon Launcelot, cried: "Ah! Launcelot, Launcelot! That ever there should be war between us two!" and tears stood in the King's eyes. "Ah! my Lord Arthur," cried Sir Launcelot, "I pray you stay this war." As they spoke thus, Sir Gawain came upon them, and, miscalling Sir Launcelot traitor and coward, had almost ridden upon him before Launcelot could provide him of another horse. Then the two hosts drew back, each on its own side, to see the battle between Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawain; for they wheeled their horses, and departing far asunder, rushed again upon each other with the noise of thunder, and each bore the other from his horse. Then they put their shields before them and set on each other with their swords; but while ever Sir Gawain smote fiercely, Sir Launcelot was content only to ward off blows, because he would not, for Sir Gareth's sake, do any harm to Sir Gawain. But the more Sir Launcelot forbore him, the more furiously Sir Gawain struck, so that Sir Launcelot had much ado to defend himself, and at the last smote Gawain on the helm so mightily that he bore him to the ground. Then Sir Launcelot stood back from Sir Gawain. But Gawain cried: "Why do ye draw back, traitor knight? Slay me while ye may, for never will I cease to be your enemy while my life lasts." "Sir," said Launcelot, "I shall withstand you as I may; but never will I smite a fallen knight." Then he spoke to King Arthur: "My Lord, I pray you, if but for this day, draw off your men. And think upon our former love if ye may; but, be ye friend or foe, God keep you." Thereupon Sir Launcelot drew off with his men into his castle, and King Arthur and his company to their tents. As for Sir Gawain, his squires bore him to his tent where his wounds were dressed.