Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut - Part 2

Part 2

For further bibliography, see Fletcher (as above), p. 128, note 1.


Constantine came to Totnes, and many a stout knight with him--there was not one but was worthy of the kingship. The host set forth towards London, and sent messages in every part, bidding the Britons to their aid, for as yet they were too fearful to come from their secret places. When the Britons heard these tidings they drew, thick as rain, from the woodlands and the mountain, and came before the host in troops and companies. To make short a long matter, these marched so far and wrought such deeds that in the end they altogether discomfited those evil men who had done such sore mischief to the land. After these things they held a great council at Cirencester, commanding thereto all the lords and barons of the realm. In that place they chose Constantine as their king, with no long tarrying, none being so bold as to say him nay. So when they had ordained him king, they set the crown on his head with marvellous joy, and owned themselves as his men. Afterwards, by their counsel, Constantine took to wife a dame who was come of gentle Roman blood. On this lady he begat three sons. The eldest--whom the king named Constant--he caused to be nourished at Winchester, and there he made him to be vowed a monk. The second son was called Aurelius, and his surname Ambrosius. Lastly was born Uther, and it was he whose days were longest in the land. These two varlets were held in ward by Gosselyn, the archbishop.

So long as Constantine lived the realm had rest and peace; but he died before his time had come, for he reigned but twelve short years. There was a certain Pict of his household, a traitor, a foul felon, who for a great while had been about his person. I cannot tell the reason why he bore the king so mortal a grudge. This Pict took the king aside privily in an orchard, as though he would speak to him of some hidden matter. The king had no thought to keep himself from this false felon, who whilst he made seeming to speak in his master's ear, drew forth a knife and smote him therewith so shrewdly that he died. Then he fled forth from the garden. But many a time have I heard tell that it was Vortigern who caused Constantine to be slain. Great was the sorrow the lords and all honest people made above their king, for the realm had now no prince, save only those children of so tender an age. They laid him in his tomb, but in no wise put him from remembrance. The whole realm a.s.sembled together that they might make to themselves a king.

They doubted sorely which of the two young children they should choose, for of them they knew neither good nor ill, seeing they were but small and frail, and yet in their warden's charge. As to Constant, the eldest son, who was of more fitting years, they dared not to pluck the habit from his back, since all men deemed it shame and folly to hale him forth from his abbey. The council would have ordained one of the two children to be king had it not been for Vortigern, who arose before them all. This Vortigern came from Wales, and was earl in his own land. He was a strong knight of his body, exceeding rich in goods and kin. Very courteous was he of speech; right prudent in counsel; and long since had made straight the road that he coveted to tread.

"What reason is here," said he, "for doubtfulness? There is naught else to do but to make this monk, Constant, our king. He is the rightful heir; his brothers are not long from the breast; neither is it fitting that the crown should be placed upon a stranger's head. Let us strip the gown boldly from his shoulders. I charge the sin upon my own soul. My hand alone shall draw him from the abbey, and set him before you as your king." But all the lords of the council kept silence, for a horrible thing it seemed in their eyes that a monk should wear the mantle of a king. Vortigern, purposing evil in his heart, took horse, and rode swiftly to Winchester. He sought Constant at the abbey, praying the prior of his courtesy that he might speak with him in the parlour. "Constant," said he, "thy father is dead, and men seek to bestow his throne upon thy brothers. Such honour is not seemly, for thine is the crown and seat. If thou bearest me love and affiance, and for thy part wilt promise to make richer all the riches that are mine, on my part I will free thee from these sullen rags and array thee in the purple and ermine of a king. Choose now between this monastery and the heritage that is thine own." Very desirous was Constant of the lordship, and little love had he for his abbey. Right weary was he of choir and psalter, and lightly and easily he made him ready to be gone. He pledged oath and faith to all that Vortigern required, and after he had so done Vortigern took him with a strong hand from the monastery, none daring to gainsay his deed. When Vortigern was a.s.sured of his fealty, he caused Constant to put off the monk's serge, and clothe him in furs and rich raiment. He carried him to London, and sat him in his father's chair, though not with the voice and welcome of the people. The archbishop who should have anointed the king with oil was dead, neither was any bishop found to give him unction, or to put his hand to the business. It was Vortigern alone who took the crown and set it on his head. This king had no unction nor blessing, save from the hand of Vortigern alone.

Constant reigned in his father's stead. He who had betrayed the commandment of G.o.d, was not one to hold his realm in surety; and thus he came to an evil end. Sorrow not thereat. The man who sells his master with a kiss may not hope to spend the wages of his sin.

Vortigern held Constant and his senarchy in the hollow of his hand.

The king did all according to his pleasure, and granted freely to his every need. Very quickly, by reason of divers matters, Vortigern perceived that the king knew but little of the world, since he was nourished in a cloister. He remembered that the two princes were of tender age. He saw that the mighty lords of the realm were dead, that the people were in sore trouble and unrest, and judged that the place and time were come. Mark now the cunning craft with which he set about to take his seisin of the realm. "Sire," said he, "I have learned and would bring to your knowledge that the sea folk are gathered together from Norway, and from the country of the Danes. Since our knights are few in number, and because of the weakness of the land, they purpose to descend upon the kingdom, and ravish and spoil your cities. Draw now together thy men, to guard the realm and thee. Set food within the strong places, and keep well thy towers. Above all, have such fear of traitors that thy castles are held of none save those true men who will hold them to the death. If you act not after this counsel right speedily there must reign another king." "I have granted," answered Constant, "everything to thy hand, and have done all according to thy will. Take now this fresh burthen upon thee, for thou art wiser than I. I give you all the realm to thy keeping, so that none shall ravage it or burn. Cities and manors; goods and treasure; they are thine as constable. Thy will is my pleasure. Do swiftly that which it is seemly should be done." Vortigern was very subtle. None knew better how to hide away his greed. After he had taken the strong towers, the treasure, and the riches to himself, he went again before the king.

"Sire," said he, "if it seem good to the king, my counsel would be that he should send to the Picts of Scotland to seek of them hors.e.m.e.n and sergeants to have with him about his household. In that place where the battle is perilous we can call them to our aid. Through these Picts and their kindred we shall hear the talk of the outland men. They will parley between us and these Danes, and serve as between us and our foes." "Do," replied the king, "at thy pleasure.

Bring of these Picts as many as you wish. Grant them as guerdon what you deem befits. Do all which it is seemly should be done."

When Vortigern had taken to himself the walled cities, and gathered together the treasure, he sent such messages to the Picts as he desired, so that they came according to his will. Vortigern received them with much honour, giving them greatly to drink, so that they lived in mirth and in solace, altogether drunken and content. Of his bounty Vortigern granted such wages, and spoke so sweetly in the ear of each, that there was not one amongst them who did not cry loudly in the hearing of any who would hearken, that Vortigern was more courteous and of higher valiance than the king--yea, that he was worthy to sit upon the king's throne, or in a richer chair than his.

Vortigern rejoiced greatly at these words. He made much of his Picts, and honoured them more sweetly than ever before. On a day when they had sat long at their cups, and all were well drunken, Vortigern came amongst them in the hall. He saluted them sadly, showing the semblance of a woeful man. "Right dear are you to my heart;" said he, "very willingly have I served you, and right gladly would I serve you still, if but the wealth were mine. But this realm belongs altogether to the king. Naught can I bestow, nothing is mine to spend, save only that I render him account of every doit. So little revenue is mine of this land, that it becomes me to seek my fortune beyond the sea. I have set my whole intent to serve my king to the utmost of my might, and for recompense have of him such estate that I can maintain scarce forty sergeants to my household. If all goes well with me we may meet again, for I commend me to your goodwill. This weighs heavily upon me that I must leave you now. But, beggar as I am, I can do no other; only I entreat you this, that if you hear my business has come to a fair end, you will of a surety seek my love again." For all his piteous speech Vortigern was false, and had falsely spoken, but those who had well drunken gave faith to his words. They held for gospel truth what this vile traitor had told them. They murmured together amongst themselves: "What then shall become of us, since we lose so generous a lord! Let us rather slay this mad king, this shaveling, and raise Vortigern to his seat. Worthy is he of crown and kingdom; so on him we will cast the lot. Too long already have we suffered this renegade monk, whom now we serve." Forthwith they entered in the king's chamber, and laying hands upon him, slew him where he stood. They smote the head from off his shoulders, and bare it to Vortigern in his lodging, crying, "Look now, and see by what bands we bind you to this realm.

The king is dead, and we forbid you to go from amongst us. Take now the crown, and become our king." Vortigern knew again the head of his lord. He made semblance of bitter sorrow, but rejoiced privily in his heart, though of his cunning he hid his gladness from the eyes of men. To cover his falseness the deeper, Vortigern called the Romans together in council. He struck the heads from off those traitors, leaving not one to escape alive. But many a citizen was persuaded, and some said openly, that these murderers would not have laid hands upon the king, neither looked evilly upon him, nor thought to do him mischief, had not Vortigern required of them such deed.

When the death of the king was told to them who held the two brothers in ordinance, they were a.s.sured that he who slew the king would not scruple to serve the princes in the self-same fashion. For fear of Vortigern they took Aurelius and Uther, and fled beyond the sea to Little Britain, commending themselves to the pity of Budes, the king.

Since they were of his kin King Budes welcomed them right courteously.

He received them to his table with great honour, and bestowed upon them many rich gifts. Now having taken to himself the strong places, the castles, and the cities of the kingdom, Vortigern proclaimed him to be king with marvellous pride. His joy was the less because the realm was hara.s.sed by the Picts, who would avenge their kindred, whom he had slain with the sword. Moreover he was sorely troubled, since it was noised abroad that the two princes were gathering a company together, purposing in a short s.p.a.ce to return to their own land. The rumour ran that the barons were resolved to join this great host, and to own the brothers as their lords, so that in a while Vortigern would be utterly destroyed. Many there were who told of such things.

Whilst men talked thus, there came to a haven in Kent three galleys, bearing a strange people to the land. These folk were fair of face and comely of person. They owned as lords Hengist and Horsa, two brethren of mighty stature, and of outland speech. The tidings came to Vortigern at Canterbury, where he abode that day, that a foreign folk from a far country had drawn to the realm in ships. The king sent messages of peace and goodwill to these strangers, praying that be they whom they might, they would come quickly and speak with him in his palace, and return swiftly to their own place. When they received his commandment they sought him with the more surety. They came into the king's presence and did reverence, with a proud bearing. Vortigern looked closely upon the brethren. Shapely were they of body, bright of visage, taller and more comely than any youth he knew. "From what land have you come," inquired the king, "and on what errand? Tell me now the place of your birth." The elder and the mightier of the brethren, called Hengist, made answer in the name of all his fellows. "We be of a country called Saxony," said he, "there were we born and there we abode. If thou wilt learn the chance we seek upon the sea, I will answer truly, if so it be according to thy will." "Say on," said the king, "and hide nothing. No harm shall come to thee of this." "Fair king," answered Hengist, "gentle sire, I know not if I can make it plain. Our race is of a fertile stock, more quick and abounding than any other you may know, or whereof you have heard speak. Our folk are marvellously fruitful, and the tale of the children is beyond measure.

Women and men are more in number than the sand, for the greater sorrow of those amongst us who are here. When our people are so many that the land may not sustain nor suffice them, then the princes who rule the realm a.s.semble before them all the young men of the age of fifteen years and upwards, for such is our use and custom. From out of these they choose the most valiant and the most strong, and, casting lots, send them forth from the country, so that they may travel into divers lands, seeking fiefs and houses of their own. Go out they must, since the earth cannot contain them; for the children came more thickly than the beasts which pasture in the fields. Because of the lot that fell upon us we have bidden farewell to our homes, and putting our trust in Mercury, the G.o.d has led us to your realm." When the king heard the name of Mercury as the G.o.d of their governance, be inquired what manner of men these were, and of the G.o.d in whom they believed. "We have," answered Hengist, "G.o.ds a many, to whom it is our bounden duty to raise altars. These G.o.ds have to name Phoebus and Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury. Many another G.o.d we worship, according to the wont of our country, and as our fathers have told us. But above all G.o.ds we keep in chiefest honour Mercury, who in our own tongue is called Woden. Our fathers held this G.o.d in such reverence that they devoted the fourth day of the week to his service. Because of their hope in Woden they called his feast Wednesday, and yet it bears his name. By the side of this G.o.d of whom I have spoken, we set our G.o.ddess Freya, who is held in worship of us all. To show forth their love, our fathers consecrated the sixth day to her service, and on the high authority of the past we call Friday by Freya's name." "Ill is your faith," replied the king, "and in an evil G.o.d you put your trust. This thing is grievous to me, but nevertheless I welcome your coming right gladly.

You are valiant men, as I deem, accustomed to harness, and so you will be my servants, very willingly will I make you of my household, and of wealth you shall find no lack. Certain thieves from Scotland torment me grievously at this time, burning my land and preying on my cities.

So it be G.o.d's pleasure, your coming may turn to my rich profit, for by His aid and yours, I look to destroy these same Picts and Scots.

For from that land come and return these thieves who so hara.s.s and damage my realm. You shall find me no grudging master, and when I am avenged upon them, you will have no complaint to find with bounty or wages or gifts." In this manner the Saxons came from out their ships, and the king's court was strengthened by a mighty company. Now in no long time afterwards the Picts entered the king's realm, with a great host, burning, wasting, and pilling at their will. When they would have pa.s.sed the Humber, the king, who was told thereof, hastened to meet them with his lords, the Britons, and these Saxons. The hosts came together, and the battle was grim and lasting, for many were discomfited to death that day. The Picts, doubting nothing but that they would gain the victory as they had done before, carried themselves hardily, and struck fiercely with the sword. They fought thus stoutly, and endured so painfully, since they were shamed to do less than was their wont. But their evil custom was broken, for the Saxons gained possession of the field. Since by these Saxons, and their aid, Vortigern was delivered of this peril, he gave them their wages, and added thereto of his bounty. On Hengist he bestowed fair manors, and goods, and great riches, so that love lasted between them for a long s.p.a.ce.

When Hengist saw that the king might in no wise pa.s.s him by, he sought to turn this to his own profit, as was his undoubted right. He knew well how to flatter the king to his own advantage by specious words.

On a day when the king's heart was merry, Hengist opened out what was in his mind. "Thou hast given me many honours," said he, "and bestowed on me plenteously of thy wealth. I am not ungrateful, but am thy servant and will remain thy servant, striving to serve thee better in the future even than I have striven in the past. But the longer I am about the king's person, and the more closely I know his court, the more clearly I see and hear and am a.s.sured that thou hast not the love of one only baron of thy realm. Each bears thee hate, each nurses his own grudge. I cannot speak, since nothing I know, of those children who have stolen away the love of thine own house. They are the lawful lords of thy barons, and these are but loyal to the sons of their king. Within a little they will come from over sea, and spoil thee of this realm. Not one of thy men but purposes to do thee a mischief.

Evil they wish thee, and evil they hope will be thine end. Horribly art thou abhorred; horribly art thou menaced; for evil is on thy track, and evil purposes shortly to pull thee down. I have considered how best I may help thee in this peril. If it pleases the king to bring my wife and children and all that is mine from my own land, the sweeter hostages will be his, and the more faithful will be my service. So diligently will I keep my trust that no foe, however bold, shall spoil thee of one foot of thy heritage Moreover, sire, it is now a great while since I became thy servant, and many bear malice against me by reason of thy love. Because of their wrath I dare not tarry at night outside my house, nor go beyond the walls. For this cause, sire, so it may please thee, it would become thy honour to grant me some town or tower or strong place, where I may lie in peace of nights, when I am weaned in the king's quarrels. When thy enemies mark the generosity of the king, they will cease to annoy so large a lord." "As to the folk of thine house," made answer the king, "send thou at thy pleasure, and receive them with all worship. The cost of their sustenance shall be mine. For the rest thou art not of the faith.

Pagan thou art, and no Christian man Men, therefore, will deem that I do very wrongfully should I grant thee the other gift you require."

"Sire," replied Hengist, "I would of thy bounty a certain manor. I pray thee of thy courtesy to add thereto so much land--I seek no more--as I may cover with a hide, and as may be compa.s.sed therewith.

It will be but the hide of a bull, but for the gift's sake I shall go the more surely." Vortigern granted the boon, and Hengist thanked his master. He made ready his messenger, and sent for his kindred from oversea. He took the hide of a bull, and cutting it as small as he might, made one thong of the whole skin. With this thong he compa.s.sed a great spoil of land, and gathering good masons together, built thereon a fair castle. In his own tongue he called this place Vancaster, which being interpreted means Thong Castle, forasmuch as the place was compa.s.sed by a thong. Now it is hight by many Lancaster, and of these there are few who remember why it was first called after this name.

When Vancaster was well builded there drew near eighteen war galleys, bearing to land Hengist's kindred, together with knights and footmen.

With these came Hengist's daughter, Rowena by name, a maiden yet unwed, and most marvellously fair. After all things were made ready Hengist prayed the king to lodge with him awhile, that he might delight himself with meat and drink, and view the new folk of his household, and the castle that he had builded. And the king was pleased to hearken unto his prayer. The king rode to Vancaster with a mean company, since he would not have it noised about the land. He marked the castle and its towers, which were both strong and fair, and much he praised the work. The knights who were freshly come from sea he took to his service, and gave of his bounty. At the feast that day men ate and drank so greatly that for the most part they were drunken.

Then came forth from her chamber Rowena, Hengist's daughter, sweetly arrayed and right dainty to see, bearing in her hand a br.i.m.m.i.n.g cup of wine. She kneeled before Vortigern very simply, and saluted him courteously after the fashion of her land, saying, "Washael, lord king." The king, who knew nothing of her language, sought the meaning of the maiden's words. This was made plain to him by Redic, the Breton, a fair scholar, who--as it is related--was the first to become apt in the Saxon tongue. He answered swiftly, "The maiden saluted thee courteously, calling thee lord. It is the wont of her people, sire, that when friend drinks with friend, he who proffers the cup cries, 'Washael,' and that he who receives answers in turn, 'Drinkhael'. Then drinks he the half of this loving cup, and for joy and for friendship of him who set it in his hand, kisses the giver with all fair fellowship." When he had learned this thing, the king said "Drinkhael," and smiled upon the damsel. Rowena tasted of the cup, and placed it in the king's hand, and in taking it from the maiden the king kissed her sweetly. By the Saxon were we first taught in this land to greet, saying, "Washael," and afterwards to answer, "Drinkhael," to drain the cup in full measure, or to share it with one other, to kiss together when the cup was pa.s.sed. The custom was commenced as I have shown you, and we observe this ritual yet, as well I know, in the rich feasts of our country.

Now the maiden was gracious of body, and pa.s.sing fair of face, dainty and tall, and plump of her person. She stood before the king in a web of fine raiment, and ravished his eyes beyond measure. She filled the king's cup willingly, and was altogether according to his wish. So merry was the king, so well had he drunken, that he desired the damsel in his heart. The devil, who has led many a man astray, snared Vortigern with such sorcery, that he became mad with love to possess Hengist's daughter. He was so fast in the devil's net that he saw neither shame nor sin in this love. He denied not his hope, though the maid was of pagans born. Vortigern prayed Hengist that he would grant him the maid in marriage, and Hengist accorded her with goodwill. But first he took counsel with his brother and his friends. These praised the marriage, but counselled Hengist to give the damsel only on such covenant that the king should deliver him Kent as her dowry. The king coveted the maiden so greatly, he doted so dearly, that he made her his queen. She was a pagan woman, and became his wife according to the rites of the paynim. No priest blessed that marriage, there was neither Ma.s.s nor prayer. So hot was the king's love that he espoused her the same evening, and bestowed on Hengist Kent as her dowry.

Hengist went into Kent, and seized all the country into his hand.

He drove forth Garagon, the governor, who had heard no word of the business. Vortigern showed more credence and love to the heathen than to christened men, so that these gave him again his malice, and abandoned his counsel. His own sons held him in hatred, forsaking his fellowship because of the pagans. For this Vortigern had married a wife, who long was dead and at peace. On this first wife he had begotten three sons, these only. The first was named Vortimer, the second Pa.s.sent, and the third Vortiger. Hated was this king by all the barons of his realm, and of all his neighbours. His very kindred held him in abhorrence. He came to an evil end, for he died in his shame, and the pagans he befriended with him. "Sire," said Hengist to the king, "men hold thee in hatred by reason of me, and because of thy love they bear me malice also. I am thy father, and thou my son, since thou wert pleased to ask my daughter for thy wife. It is my privilege to counsel my king, and he should hearken to my counsel, and aid me to his power. If thou wilt make sure thy throne, and grieve those who use thee despitefully, send now for Octa my son, and for my cousin Ebissa.

There are not two more cunning captains than these, nor two champions to excel them in battle. Give these captains of thy land towards Scotland, for from thence comes all the mischief. They will deal with thy foes in such fashion that never more shall they take of thy realm, but for the rest of thy days we shall live in peace beyond the Humber." Then answered the king, "Do what you will, and send messages for such men as it is good for us to have." At the king's word Hengist sent messages to his son and nephew, who hastened to his help with a fleet of three hundred galleys. There was not a knight of their land, who would serve for guerdon, but they carried him across the water.

After these captains were come, in their turn, from day to day, came many another, this one with four vessels, this other with five, or six, or seven, or eight, or nine, or ten. So thickly did the heathen wend, and so closely did they mingle with the Christians, that you might scarcely know who was a christened man and who was not. The Britons were sorely troubled at this matter, and prayed the king not to put such affiance in the outland folk, for they wrought much mischief. They complained that already were too many pagans in the land, working great shame and villainy to the people. "Separate thyself from amongst them," they said, "at whatever cost, and send all, or as many as may be, from the realm." Vortigern made answer that he might not do this thing. He had entreated the Saxons to the land, and they served him as true men. So when the barons hearkened to his words they went their way to Vortimer.

The Britons a.s.sembled themselves together, and taking the road to London, chose Vortimer--the eldest of the king's three sons--to be their lord. The king, who was a.s.sotted on his wife, clave to her kindred, and would not forsake the heathen. Vortimer defied the Saxons, and drove them from the walled cities, chasing and tormenting them very grievously. He was a skilful captain, and the strife was right sore between Vortimer and the Britons, against his father and the Saxons. Four times the hosts met together, and four times Vortimer vanquished his foe. The first battle was fought upon the banks of the Darent. The second time the hosts strove together was upon the ford near Aylesford. In this place Vortiger, the king's son, and Horsa the Saxon, contended so fiercely in combat, body to body, that each did the other to death, according to his desire. The other battle was arrayed on the sea sh.o.r.e in Kent. Pa.s.sing grim was this third battle, for the ships fought together upon the water. The Saxons withdrew before the Britons, so that from beyond the Humber even to Kent they were deceived in their hope. The heathen fled in their galleys to an islet called Thanet. The Britons a.s.sailed them in this fastness, and so long as it was day, hara.s.sed them with arrows and quarrels, with ships and with barges. They rejoiced loudly, for the pagans were caught in a corner, and those not slain by the sword were fain to die of hunger. For this reason, the Britons raised a mighty tumult and shouting, when they trapped their enemy in the Isle of Thanet. When the Saxons were a.s.sured that worse would befall them, save they departed from the realm, they prayed Vortigern to go in to Vortimer his son, persuading him to give them safe conduct from the land, and not to do them further mischief. Vortigern, who was in their company and would in no wise depart from their fellowship, went to his son to procure such truce as the Saxons required. Whilst he was about this business the Saxons entered in their galleys, and with sail and oar put out to sea as swiftly as they were able. Such was their haste to escape that they left their wives and sons with the Britons, returning to their own country in exceeding fear. After the Saxons had all forsaken the realm, and the Britons were a.s.sumed of peace, Vortimer gave again to every man that of which the heathen had spoiled him. To build anew the churches, and to declare the law of G.o.d, which had fallen into disuse amongst the people because of Hengist and his heathendom, St. Germa.n.u.s came to Britain, sent by St. Roma.n.u.s, the Apostle of Rome. With him came St. Louis of Troyes. These two fair bishops, Germa.n.u.s of Auxerre and Louis of Troyes, crossed the sea to prepare the way of the Lord. By them were the tables of the law redelivered, and men converted again to the faith. They brought many a man to salvation; many a miracle, many a virtue, did G.o.d show in their persons, and many a country was the sweeter for their lives. When the law of G.o.d was restored, and Britain made again a Christian land, hearken now what foul work was done by treason and by envy. Rowena, that evil stepmother, caused Vortimer, her husband's son, to be poisoned, by reason of the hatred she bore him, since he chased Hengist from the realm. After Vortimer was certified that he must die, and that no physician might cure him of his hurt, he called together all his barons, and delivered unto them the treasure which he had greatly gathered. Listen well to that he prayed his friends.

"Knights," said he, "take into your service warriors not a few, and grudge not the sergeant his wages. Hold one to another, and maintain the land against these Saxons. That my work may not be wasted, and avenged upon those who live, do this thing for their terror. Take my body, and bury it upon the sh.o.r.e. Raise above me such a tomb, so large and lasting, that it may be seen from far by all who voyage on the sea. To that coast where my body is buried, living or dead, they shall not dare to come." Having spoken in this fashion the gentle king died, finishing his course. His body was borne to London, and in London he was lain to his rest. The barons raised no barrow upon the sh.o.r.e, as with his dying speech he had bidden them.

After Vortimer's death, the Britons made Vortigern their king, even as he had been in days before. At the entreaties of his wife he sent messages to his father-in-law, Hengist. Him he prayed to return to the kingdom, but with a small company, so that the Britons should not give heed to the matter; for since Vortimer his son was dead, there was no need of a host. Hengist took ship gladly, but with him he carried three hundred thousand men in mail. For dread of the Britons, he made him ready as never he had done before. When the king learned that Hengist drew to land with so mighty a host, he was altogether fearful, and knew no word to say. The Britons a.s.sembled together in great wrath, promising amongst themselves that they would join them in battle, and throw the heathen from the realm. Hengist was cunning and felon of heart. He sent false messages to the king, praying for a truce and love-day to be granted, that they might speak together as friend with friend. Peace above all he desired; peace he ensued; peace was his love, and he sought her with tears. Nothing was further from his wish than war, and he would rather be banished from the realm than remain by force of arms. It was for the Britons to elect those whom they willed to stay, and for the others they would return whence they came. The Britons granted the love-day, and the two peoples took pledges, one of the other; but who can trust the oath of a liar? A time was appointed when this council should be holden. The king sent messages to Hengist that he must come with few companions; and Hengist plighted troth right willingly. Moreover, it was commanded that none should bear weapons at the council, for fear that men should pa.s.s from words to blows. The two parties met together near the Abbey of Ambresbury, on the great Salisbury plain. The day was the kalends of May. Hengist had taught his comrades, and warned them privily, that they should come each with a sharp, two-edged knife hidden in his hose. He bade them to sit in this Parliament, and hearken to the talk; but when he cried, "Nimad covre seax" (which being interpreted means "Pluck forth your knives," and would not be understanded of the Britons), they were to s.n.a.t.c.h out their daggers and make each a dead man of his neighbour. Now when the council was met, and men were mingled together, the naked Briton near by the false heathen, Hengist cried loudly, "Nimad covre seax." The Saxons, at his word, drew forth the knives from their hose, and slew that man sitting at their side.

Hengist was seated very close the king. He held the king fast by his mantle, so that this murder pa.s.sed him by. But those who gripped the knives thrust the keen blades through cloak and mantle, breast and bowels, till there lay upon back or belly in that place nigh upon four hundred and sixty men of the richest and most valiant lords of the kingdom. Yet some won out and escaped with their lives, though they had naught to defend their bodies save the stones.

Eldof, Earl of Gloucester, got a great club in his right hand, which he found lying at his feet, though little he recked who had carried it to the council. He defended his body stoutly with this mighty staff, striking and smiting down, till he had slain fully sixty and ten of the pagan. A mighty champion was he, and of rich worth. He clave a path through the press, without taking a wound; for all the knives which were flung at his body he escaped with not a hurt to the flesh.

He won at the end to his horse, which was right strong and speedy, and riding swiftly to Gloucester, shut himself fast in his city and victualled tower. As to Vortigern, the Saxons would have slain him with his barons, but Hengist stood between them, crying, "Harm not the king, for nothing but good have I received at his hand, and much has he toiled for my profit. How then shall I suffer my daughter's lord to die such a death! Rather let us hold him to ransom, and take freely of his cities and walled places, in return for his life." They, therefore, slew not the king but binding him fast with fetters of iron, kept him close in bonds for so long a s.p.a.ce that he swore to render them all that they would. In quittance of his ransom, and to come forth from prison, Vortigern granted Suss.e.x, Ess.e.x, and Middles.e.x to Hengist as his fief, besides that earldom of Kent which he had held before. To remember this foul treason, knives were long hight seax amongst the English, but names alter as the world moves on, and men recall no more the meaning of the past. In the beginning the word was used to rebuke the treason that was done. When the story of the seax was forgotten, men spoke again of their knives, and gave no further thought to the shame of their forefathers.

When Vortigern was a naked man he fled beyond the Severn, and pa.s.sing deeply into Wales, dwelt there, taking counsel with his friends. He caused his wise clerks and magicians to be summoned, inquiring of them in what fashion he should maintain his right, and what they would counsel him to do, were he a.s.sailed of a mightier than himself. This he asked because he feared greatly the two brothers of Constant, who were yet living, and knew not how to keep him from their hate. These sorcerers bade him to build so mighty a tower, that never at any time might it be taken by force, nor beaten down by any engine devised by the wit of man. When this strong castle was furnished and made ready, he should shut himself within, and abide secure from the malice of his foes. This pleased the king, who searched throughout the land to make choice of a fitting place to raise so strong a keep. Such a place he met, altogether according to his mind, on mount Erir. [1] He brought masons together, the best that might be found, and set them to the work as quickly as they were able. The masons began to build, getting stones ready and making them fast with mortar, but all the work that the builders raised by day, adown it fell to the ground by night.

They laboured therefore with the more diligence, but the higher they builded the tower the greater was its fall, to the very foundations they had digged. So it chanced for many days, till not one stone remained upon another. When the king knew this marvel, and perceived that his travail came in nowise to an end, he took counsel of his wizards. "By my faith," said he, "I wonder sorely what may be amiss with my tower, since the earth will not endure it. Search and inquire the reason of this thing; and how these foundations shall be made sure."

[Footnote 1: Snowdon]

Then the magicians by their lots and divinations--though, for that matter, it may well be that they lied--devised that the king should seek a man born of no earthly father, him he must slay, and taking of his blood, slake and temper therewith the mortar of the work, so that the foundations should be made fast, and the castle might endure.

Thereat the king sent messengers throughout all the land to seek such a man, and commanded that immediately he were found he should be carried to the court. These messengers went two by two upon their errand. They pa.s.sed to and fro about the realm, and entered into divers countries, inquiring of all people, at the king's bidding, where he might be hid. But for all their labour and diligence they learned nothing. Now it came to pa.s.s that two of the king's went their road until they came together to the town called Caermerdin.[1] A great company of youths and children was gathered before the gate at the entrance to the city, and the messengers stayed awhile to mark their play. Amongst those who disported themselves at this gate were two varlets, named Merlin and Dinabus. Presently the two youths began to chide and jangle, and were pa.s.sing wroth the one with the other. One of the twain spake ill of his fellow, reproaching him because of his birth. "Hold thy peace, Merlin", said Dinabus, "it becomes you not to strive with me, whose race is so much better than thine own. Be heedful, for I know of such an evil matter that it were well not to tempt me beyond my power. Speak then no more against my lineage. For my part I am come from earls and kings, but if you set out to tell over your kindred, you could not name even your father's name. You know it not, nor shall learn it ever; for how may a son tell his father's name when a father he has never had?" Now the king's messengers, who were in quest of such a sireless man, when they heard this bitter jibe of the varlet, asked of those around concerning the youth who had never seen his sire. The neighbours answered that the lad's father was known of none, yea, that the very mother who had borne him in her womb, knew nothing of the husbandman who had sown the seed. But if his father was hidden, all the world knew of the mother who nourished him. Daughter was she to that King of Dimetia, now gone from Wales. Nun she was of her state, a gentlewoman of right holy life, and lodged in a convent within the walls of their city.

[Footnote 1: Carmarthen.]

When the messengers heard these tidings, they went swiftly to the warden of the city, adjuring him, by the king's will, to lay hands upon Merlin--that sireless man--and carry him straightway to the king, together with the lady, his mother. The warden durst not deny their commandment. He delivered Merlin and his mother to the, who led them before the king. The king welcomed the twain with much honour, and spoke kindly unto them. "Lady," said he, "answer me truly.

By none, save by thee, can I know who was the father of Merlin, thy son." The nun bowed her head. After she had pondered for a little, she made reply, "So G.o.d have me in His keeping, as I know nothing and saw nothing of him who begat this varlet upon me. Never have I heard, never may I tell, if he were verily man by whom I had my child. But this I know for truth, and to its truth will I pledge my oath. At that time when I was a maid growing tall, I cannot tell whether it was a ghostly man, but something came often to my chamber, and kissed me very close. By night and by day this presence sought me, ever alone, but always in such fashion as not to be perceived. As a man he spake soft words in my ear; as a man he dealt with me. But though many a time he had speech with me, ever he kept himself close. He came so often about me, so long were his kisses on my mouth, that he had his way, and I conceived, but whether he were man in no wise have I known.

I had of him this varlet; but more I know not, and more I will not say."

Now the king had a certain clerk, named Malgantius, whom he held for very wise. He sent for this learned clerk, and told over to him the whole matter, that he might be a.s.sured whether things could chance as this woman had said. The clerk made answer, "In books I have found it written that a certain order of spirit ranges between the moon and our earth. If you seek to learn of the nature of these spirits, they are of the nature partly of man, and partly of a loftier being. These demons are called incubi. Their home and region is the air, but this warm world is their resort. It is not in their power to deal man great evil, and they can do little more mischief than to trick and to annoy.

However they know well how to clothe themselves in human shape, for their nature lends itself marvellously to the deceit. Many a maid has been their sport, and in this guise has been deceived. It may well be that Merlin was begotten by such a being, and perchance is of a demon born." "King." cried Merlin suddenly, "you brought me here; tell me now what you would, and wherefore you have sent after me." "Merlin,"

answered the king, "know it you shall. Hearken diligently, so shall you learn of all. I commenced to build a high tower, and got mortar together, and masons to set one stone upon another, but all the work that the builders raised by day, adown it fell to the ground, and was swallowed up of night. I know not if you have heard tell thereof.

The day has not so many hours to labour, as the night has hours to destroy; and greatly has my substance been wasted in this toil. My councillors tell me that my tower may never stand tall, unless its stones and lime are slaked with thy blood--the blood of a fatherless man." "Lord G.o.d," cried Merlin, "believe not that my blood will bind your tower together. I hold them for liars who told over such a gab.

Bring these prophets before me who prophesy so glibly of my blood, and liars as they are, liars I will prove them to be." The king sent for his sorcerers, and set them before Merlin. After Merlin had regarded them curiously, one by one, "Masters," said he, "and mighty magicians, tell us now I pray you the reason why the king's work faileth and may not stand. If you may not show me why the tower is swallowed up of the earth, how can your divinations declare to you that my blood will cause it to endure! Make plain to us now what troubles the foundation, so that the walls tumble so often to the ground, and when you have certified this thing, show to us clearly how the mischief may be cured. If you are not willing to declare who labours secretly to make the house to fall, how shall it be credited that my blood will bind the stones fast? Point out this troubler to the king, and then cry the remedy." But all the wizards kept silence, and answered Merlin never a word. When Merlin saw them abashed before him, he spake to the king, and said, "Sire, give ear to me. Beneath the foundations of your tower there lies a pool, both great and deep, and by reason of this water your building faileth to the ground. Right easily may this be a.s.sured.

Bid your men to delve. You will then see why the tower was swallowed up, and the truth will be proven." The king bade therefore that the earth should be digged, and the pool was revealed as Merlin had established. "Masters and great magicians," cried Merlin, "hearken once more. You who sought to mix your mortar with my blood, say what is hidden in this pond." But all the enchanters kept silence and were dumb; yea, for good or ill they made answer never a word. Merlin turned him again to the king. He beckoned with his hand to the king's servants, saying, "Dig now trenches, to draw off the water from this pool. At the bottom shall be found two hollow stones, and two dragons sleeping in the stones. One of these dragons is white, and his fellow, crimson as blood." Thereat the king marvelled greatly, and the trenches were digged as Merlin had commanded. When the water was carried about the fields, and stood low in the pool, two dragons got them on their feet, and envisaged each the other very proudly. Pa.s.sing eager was their contention, and they strove together right grievously.

Well might be seen the foam within their mouths, and the flames that issued from their jaws. The king seated himself upon the bank of the pool. He prayed Merlin to show him the interpretation of these dragons which met together so furiously. Merlin told the king what these matters betokened, as you have oft-times heard. These dragons prophesied of kings to come, who would yet hold the realm in their charge. I say no more, for I fear to translate Merlin's Prophecies, when I cannot be sure of the interpretation thereof. It is good to keep my lips from speech, since the issue of events may make my gloss a lie.

The king praised Merlin greatly, and esteemed him for a true prophet.

He inquired of the youth in what hour he should die, and by what means he would come to his end. For this king was marvellously fearful of death. "Beware," said Merlin, "beware of the sons of Constantine. By them you shall taste of death. Already have they left Armorica with high hearts, and even now are upon the sea. Be certified of this, that their fleet of fourteen galleys comes to land on the morrow. Much evil hast thou done to them; much evil will they do to thee, and avenge them of their wrongs. In an ill day you betrayed their brother to his death: in an ill day you set the crown on your head; in an ill day, to your own most bitter loss, you entreated this Saxon heathenry to your help. You are as a man against whom arrows are loosed, both this side and that; and I know not whether your shield should be arrayed to left or to right. On the one road the Saxon host draws near, eager to do you a mischief. Along this other comes the rightful heirs, to pluck the realm from your hand, the crown from your head, and to exact the price of their brother's blood. If you yet may flee, escape quickly; for the brethren approach, and that speedily. Of these brethren Aurelius shall first be king, but shall also die the first, by poison.

Uther Pendragon, his brother, will sit within his chair. He will hold the realm in peace; but he, too, will fall sick before his time, and die, by reason of the brewage of his friends. Then Arthur of Cornwall, his son, like to a boar grim in battle, will utterly devour these false traitors, and destroy thy kinsfolk from the land. A right valiant knight, and a courteous, shall he be, and all his enemies shall he set beneath his feet." When Merlin had come to an end, he departed from Vortigern, and went his way. On the morrow, with no longer tarrying, the navy of the brethren arrived at Totnes, and therein a great host of knights in their harness. The Britons a.s.sembled themselves together, and joined them to the host. They came forth from the lurking places whence they had fled, at that time Hengist harried them by mount and by dale, after he had slain the lords by felony, and destroyed their castles. At a great council the Britons did homage to Aurelius as their king. These tidings came to Vortigern in Wales, and he prepared to set his house in order. He fled to a strong castle, called Generth,[1] and there made him ready, taking with him the most valiant of his men. This tower was on the banks of a fair running water, called by the folk of that country the Wye. It stood high upon Mount Droac, in the land of Hergin, as testify the people of these parts. Vortigern furnished his fortress with a plenteous store of arms and engines, of food and sergeants. To keep himself the surer from his foes, he garnished the tower with all that wit might devise. The lords of the country, having joined themselves to the brethren, sought so diligently for King Vortigern, that in the end they arrayed them before the castle where he lay. They cast stones from their engines, and were ever about the gates, paining themselves grievously to take it, for they hated him beyond measure. Much cause had the brethren to nurse so bitter a grudge against Vortigern, since by guile and treason he had slain their brother Constant, and Constantine, their father, before him, as all men held to be the truth. Eldof, Earl of Gloucester, had done homage to Aurelius, and was with him in the host. Much he knew of this land of Wales. "Eldof,"

said Aurelius, "hast thou forgotten my father who cherished thee, and gave his faith to thee, and dost thou remember no more my brother who held thee so dear! These both honoured thee right willingly, with love and with reverence in their day. They were foully slain by the device of this tyrant, this cozener with oaths, this paymaster with a knife.

We who are yet alive must bestir ourselves that we perish not by the same means. Let us think upon the dead, and take bitter vengeance on Vortigern for these wrongs."

[Footnote 1: In Hereford.]

Aurelius and Eldof laced them in their mail. They made the wild fire ready and caused men to cast timber in the moat, till the deep fosse was filled. When this was done they flung wild fire from their engines upon the castle. The fire laid hold upon the castle, it spread to the tower, and to all the houses that stood about. The castle flared like a torch; the flames leaped in the sky; the houses tumbled to the ground. In that place the king was burned with fire, and all his household who fled to Generth with him. Neither dame nor damsel got her living from that pyre; and on the same day perished the king's wife, who was so marvellously fair.

When the new king had brought the realm into subjection to himself, he devised to seek the pagans, that he might deliver the country from their hand. Right fearful was Hengist to hear these tidings, and at once set forth for Scotland. He abandoned all his fiefs, and fled straightway beyond the Humber. He purposed to crave such aid and succour from the Scots as would help him in his need, and made haste to get him to Scotland with all the speed he might. The king pursued him swiftly with his host, making forced marches day by day. On the road his power was increased by a great company of Britons; till with him was a mult.i.tude which no man could number, being innumerable as the sand of the sea. The king looked upon his realm, and saw it gnawed to the bone. None drave the plough, nor cast seed in the furrow. The castles and the walled cities were breached and ruined. He marked the villages blackened by fire, and the houses of G.o.d stripped bare as a peasant's hovel. The heathen pilled and wasted, but gathered neither corn into barns nor cattle within the byre. He testified that this should not endure, so he returned in safety from the battle.

When Hengist knew that the king followed closely after, and that fight he must, he strove to put heart and hardihood into the b.r.e.a.s.t.s of his fellows. "Comrades," said he, "be not dismayed by reason of this rabble. We know well enough what these Britons are, since they never stand before us. If but a handful go against them, not one will stay to fight. Many a time, with but a mean company, have I vanquished and destroyed them. If they be in number as the sand, the more honour is yours. A mult.i.tude such as this counts nothing. A host like theirs, led by a weak and foolish captain, what is it worth? These are a trembling folk, without a chief, and of them we should have little fear. The shepherd of these sheep is a child, who is yet too young to bear a spear, or carry harness on his back. For our part we are heroes and champions, proven in many a stour, fighting for our very lives, since for us there will be no other ransom. Now be confident and bold.

Let our bodies serve us for castles and for wall. Be brave and strong, I say, for otherwise we are but dead men." When Hengist ceased heartening his comrades, the knights arrayed them for the battle. They moved against the Britons as speedily as their horses might bear them, for they hoped to find them naked and unready, and to take them unawares. The Britons so mis...o...b..ed their adversary that they watched in their armour, both day and night. As soon as the king knew that the heathen advanced to give battle, he ordered his host in a plain that seemed good for his purpose. He supported the spearmen with three thousand hors.e.m.e.n, clothed in mail, his own trusty va.s.sals, who had come with him from Armorica. The Welsh he made into two companies. The one part he set upon the hills, so that the Paynim might not climb there if they would. The other part he hid within the wood, to stay them if they sought shelter in the forest. For the rest he put every man into the plain, that it should be the more strongly held and defended. Now when he had arrayed the battle, and given his commandment to the captains, the king placed himself amidst the chosen men of his own household, those whom he deemed the most loyal to his person. He spoke apart with his friends concerning the battle. Earl Eldof was near the king's side that day, together with many another baron. "G.o.d," said Eldof, "what joy will be mine that hour when Hengist and I meet face to face, with none between us. I cannot forget the kalends of May, and that murder at Ambresbury, when he slew all the flower of our chivalry. Right narrowly escaped I from his net"

Whilst Eldof spake these reproachful words, making complaint of Hengist, the Saxons drew near the field, and sought to take it. With no long tarrying the battle was joined. What time the two hosts looked on each other they hastened together. There you might see the va.s.sals striving, hand to hand. They fought body to body, those a.s.sailing, these defending. Mighty blows with the sword were given and received among them. Many a champion lay stark upon the ground, and the living pa.s.sed over the bodies of the dead. Shields were hewn asunder; spears snapped like reeds; the wounded were trampled beneath men's feet, and many a warrior died that day. The Christians called on Christ, and the heathen answered, clamouring on their G.o.ds of clay. Like men the pagans bore them, but the Christians like heroes. The companies of the heathen flinched, giving ground on the field. The Britons pressed about them, redoubling their blows, so that the Saxons were discomfited, and turning their backs, strove no more.