Sir Thomas Malory's LE MORTE D'ARTHUR




Pegasus Press

01 Booter Road

Fairview, NC 28730


From Book 21


Chapter 1: How Sir Mordred behaved with Arthur gone

Left behind as regent in England, Sir Mordred counterfeited letters to proclaim that King Arthur was slain in France and then had himself crowned king in Canterbury. Next he went to Winchester, where he proposed to marry Guenever, his uncle’s supposed widow. The queen had little support in Winchester, so she pretended to acquiesce and traveled to London for the wedding. Once in London, however, she escaped into the Tower, which she manned with knights loyal to her and barred the gates. Mordred arrived there soon with siege engines, guns, and threats, but nothing he did could dislodge the queen.

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned Mordred. “Will you shame knighthood, sir?” he asked. “Marry your father’s wife? I will curse you with bell, book, and candle.”

“Be silent, false priest!” said Mordred. “Defy me and I will take your head.”

The Archbishop solemnly cursed Mordred and fled to Glastonbury to live as a hermit. He saw a war was coming.

Mordred tried to inveigle the queen from the Tower, but she always gave him the same answer. She would rather kill herself than marry him. Then they learned that Arthur was returning home to reclaim his kingdom. Mordred raised his own army of malcontents to resist the king’s return. Under Arthur, they said, there had been nothing but war and strife. Many of these were lords King Arthur had raised from nothing, but now they opposed him.

Consider this, Englishmen. Do you see their fault? Those men had the best king that ever was and yet they turned against him. People say this is still the custom of our land—that nothing pleases Englishmen long. And so it was that when Sir Mordred led his army to Dover to block his father’s landing, the people proved so fickle that most of England espoused his cause.

Chapter 2: Arthur’s landing

King Arthur and his men fought their way ashore at Dover with great losses on both sides. Arthur led the fighting on the beach and no one could stand before him. He and his men pushed the usurpers back until Mordred fled with all his forces.

After the battle they found Sir Gawain lying in a boat more than half dead. Arthur took his nephew in his arms and fainted three times for grief. “Alas, Sir Gawain,” he said, “how will I live without you? You and Lancelot were my chief joys; now both are gone.”

“My king,” said Sir Gawain, “this is my own willfulness working against me. I was struck on the wound Sir Lancelot gave me in France. If he were still your man this war would never have started, but I came between you. Now uncle, if I may have paper, pen, and ink I will write Sir Lancelot a letter.”

They brought the implements and Gawain sat up weakly to write this letter, which is set down in the French book:


Unto Sir Lancelot, flower of all noble knights, I Sir Gawain, King Lot’s son of Orkney, sister’s son unto the noble King Arthur, send greeting. Here on the tenth day of May was I smitten on the wound you gave me before the city of Benwick and this will be my death day. I wish the world to know I brought death on myself and so I beseech you, Sir Lancelot, return to this realm and see my tomb and pray for my soul. I rejoice that your wound killed me, for of a nobler man I might not be slain.

Also, Sir Lancelot, come quickly to rescue the king who knighted you, my lord Arthur, for he is beset with a renegade that is my half-brother Sir Mordred, who has usurped the kingdom and besieged my lady Guenever. Today we put that false traitor to flight, but I was struck upon my old wound, which I had from you, and now will die. This letter is written with my own hand and subscribed with part of my heart’s blood. I charge you, most famous knight of the world, to see my tomb.


Sir Gawain and Arthur wept and fainted and wept again. Gawain took Communion and at noon he yielded up the spirit. They buried him at Dover Castle, where his skull remains to this day, showing the wound Sir Lancelot gave him. Then word came that Sir Mordred was making a stand at Barham Down, so the king led his forces there for another furious battle. At the end of the day Arthur’s party prevailed again, and Mordred fell back to Canterbury.

Chapter 3: Gawain’s ghost

The country people were coming to side with King Arthur when the armies drew together again near Salisbury and fixed the Monday after Trinity Sunday for a decisive battle. Mordred’s troops came largely from London and the counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Essex, and Suffolk, which favored him, as did knights who were loyal to Sir Lancelot.

On Trinity Sunday night, King Arthur had a wonderful dream. He seemed to be sitting in a chair bound to a wheel, draped in the richest cloth of gold. Beneath was a pit of black water writhing with serpents and ravening beasts. Suddenly the wheel turned and dropped him among them. Every beast took him by a limb, and he tossed in his bed and cried for help.

When his people woke him, Arthur scarcely knew where he was. Later he fell back into a slumber between waking and sleeping and it seemed that Sir Gawain appeared before him with a company of fair ladies.

“Sir,” said Gawain, “these are ladies for whom I fought when I was alive. Now God allows them to attend me. I have come here to say that if you fight tomorrow you will die, along with the greater part of both armies. Almighty Jesu pities you. Put off the battle for a month, no matter what you must offer Mordred to accede to this, and by then Sir Lancelot will be here to slay that villain and everyone who upholds him.”

The king sent Sir Lucan the Butler and Sir Bedevere to Mordred to postpone the battle. “Spare not,” said Arthur. “Promise him lands and goods, whatever you think best.”

They found Sir Mordred at the center of his host, and dealt with him until he took their offer: Cornwall and Kent would fall to him during Arthur’s lifetime and all England thereafter if he would postpone the next day’s battle for the space of a month.

Chapter 4: A misadventure with an adder

To confirm the agreement, Arthur and Mordred met between the armies with fourteen attendants each. Arthur cautioned his people: “Come on fiercely if you see a sword drawn, for I in no wise trust that traitor.” On the other side of the field, Mordred said the same to his men.

So they met and agreed. But then it happened that an adder came out of a little heath bush and struck a knight on the foot. The knight drew his sword to kill it, thinking no other harm. But when the armies saw the sword flash they rallied behind bugles and trumpet calls and swarmed onto the field from either side.

Arthur and Mordred retired behind their armies’ lines lamenting, for there never was a more doleful battle than this in any Christian land. King Arthur rode through Mordred’s army several times and did everything a noble king should, though Mordred’s host often put him in grave danger. By evening a hundred thousand warriors of both sides lay dead upon the downs, and Arthur was mad with anger to see so many of his people slain.

Looking about, he found none of his knights alive except Sir Lucan and his brother Bedevere, both sorely wounded. “Jesu, mercy,” cried the king, “my noble knights!  Surely this is the end of me. But where is that traitor Mordred?”

Then he saw Sir Mordred himself, leaning on his sword among a heap of dead men.

“Give me my spear,” said Arthur to Sir Lucan. “Yonder I can see the wretch who caused all this.”

“Let him be, sir king,” said Lucan. “Survive this day and you will have your vengeance. My lord, recall what Sir Gawain said in your vision. God has preserved you thus far, so stop now. Besides, we have won the field, for there are three of us and only Mordred himself remains on the other side. If you leave off now, sire, this wicked day will pass.”

“Let me live or let me die,” said the king, “that man will not escape me.” He took up his spear in both hands and ran at Mordred, crying, “Traitor! Your death day has come!”

Sir Mordred ran with his sword to meet his father and Arthur pierced him through the body at lance length, a mortal wound. But Mordred thrust himself along the spear shaft up to the hand guard and struck his father a blow to the helm, slicing through Arthur’s helmet and deep into his brain pan. With that Mordred fell stark dead and Arthur swooned beside him.

Arthur was sometimes aware, sometimes not, as Lucan and Bedevere bore him to a little chapel by a lake. Behind them they heard men calling across the field.

“Go, Sir Lucan,” said the king. “Tell me what that noise means.”

In the field Sir Lucan saw pillagers going about by moonlight to strip the fallen knights of armor, rings, and jewels. When they found a man who was still alive, they killed him for his spoils. “Sir,” he told the king, “We must get us to some town.”

Chapter 5: How Arthur returned Excalibur

“I cannot stand, my head is working so,” said Arthur. “Ah, Lancelot, today I sorely missed you.” Sir Lucan lifted the king on one side and Sir Bedevere on the other, but the king fainted again and so did Lucan. Part of the knight’s guts fell out and his heart burst. King Arthur awoke and saw Sir Lucan dead. “Alas,” he said, “that knight had more need of help than I. Jesu have mercy on his soul!”

Sir Bedevere wept at the death of his brother.

“Leave your mourning, my lord,” said the king. “If I meant to live, Sir Lucan’s death would grieve me forever, but my time coming fast. Take Excalibur, my sword, to the waterside and throw it out into the lake; then tell me what you see.”

“I will, my lord,” said Bedevere.

But on the way to the lake he coveted the sword with its pommel and hilt of precious stones. He hid it under a tree and returned to the king.

Arthur asked the knight what he had seen at the lake.

“Nothing, sir,” said Bedevere. “Nothing but waves and wind.”

“You lie,” said the king, “go back and do as I commanded. Spare not, but throw it in.”

So Bedevere returned to the lake, but he still could not bring himself to throw the sword away. He hid it again.

“What did you see?” said Arthur.

“My lord, nothing but gray water and lapping waves.”

“Another lie, traitor,” said Arthur. “Now you have betrayed me twice. Who would have guessed Sir Bedevere would sell me for a sword? Go again, and quickly. You have put my life in jeopardy, for I have taken cold. Do as I said or I will kill you myself while I can.”

Bedevere carried the sword down to the water a third time, bound the belt around the hilts, and hurled it as far as he could out into the lake. A hand came up to catch it and flourish it three times before slipping back beneath the surface. Bedevere returned to tell to King Arthur.

“Help me to the lake,” said Arthur. “I fear I have waited too long.”

Sir Bedevere took the king on his back and bore him to the water’s side. A little barge was there to meet them full of weeping ladies, three of them queens.

“Now put me in the boat,” said King Arthur.

The queens mourned and set him down with his head in one of their laps. “Ah, brother,” she said, “this wound on your head has caught over-much cold.”

They rowed away from land, but Bedevere cried out, “My lord Arthur, what will become of me?”

“Comfort yourself,” said the king. “There is no trust in me. I must go to the vale of Avalon to heal my wound. If you never hear more of me, pray for my soul.”

Sir Bedevere watched the barge out of sight, then took to the forest, traveling all night. In the morning he came to a hermitage between two gray thickets.

Chapter 6: What Sir Bedevere found at the hermitage

Inside, he found a hermit praying before a fresh tomb. The man at prayer was the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Mordred had driven from London.

“Tell me, father,” said Bedevere, “who is buried here?”

“I cannot say, my son. A company of ladies brought me a body at midnight, offering a hundred candles and a hundred gold coins if I would bury it.”

“Alas,” said Bedevere, “it is my lord, King Arthur.” He asked the hermit to let him stay. “I will never leave this place,” he said, “but watch the tomb and pray for my lord Arthur.”

The knight told the hermit all that you heard concerning Arthur’s end. Then he put on poor clothes and lived there as a hermit himself in fasting and prayer.


I have never read more than this about King Arthur in books of authority, not even of his death, except that the queens who took him away were his sister Morgan le Fay, the Queen of Northgales, and the Queen of the Waste Lands. Nimue was there as well. She was the Lady of the Lake who married Sir Pelleas. I have read these ladies brought Arthur to the onetime Archbishop to be buried, but though the Archbishop himself was not sure it was King Arthur in the tomb, Sir Bedevere thought so and had the story written down.

Chapter 7: Opinions of Arthur’s death

Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but carried by the will of Our Lord Jesu to another place. They say he will come again and win the Holy Cross. I will not say that this is so, but only that he changed his life. And many men say these words are written on his tomb:



And so I leave Sir Bedevere and the hermit near Glastonbury living in prayers and great abstinence.

*Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.


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