King Arthur and His Knights - Maude R. Warren

Arthur's Court and the Order of the Round Table

[Illustration] from King Arthur and His Knights by Maude R. Warren

After Arthur had proved his prowess in his contest with the eleven kings, he decided to establish his Court and the Order of the Round Table. The place he chose was the city of Camelot in Wales, which had a good situation, being built upon a hill. He called the wise Merlin and ordered him to make a great palace on the summit of the hill. Through his powers of enchantment, Merlin was able to do this very quickly, and within a week the king and his personal attendants were settled in the palace.

The main part consisted of a great Assembly Hall built of white marble, the roof on which seemed to be upheld by pillars of green and red porphyry, and was surmounted by magnificent towers. The outside walls of the hall were covered with beautiful rows of sculpture. The lowest row represented wild beasts slaying men. The second row represented man slaying wild beasts. The third represented warriors who were peaceful, good men. The fourth showed men with growing wings. Over all was a winged statue with the face of Arthur. Merlin meant to show by means of the first row that formerly evil in men was greater than good; by the second that men began to conquer the evil in themselves, which in time caused them to become really good, noble, and peace-loving men, as in the third row. And finally, through the refining influence of Good King Arthur and his wise helpers, men would grow to be almost as perfect as the angles.

The main doorway was in the shape of an arch, upheld by pillars of dark yellow marble. The hall was lighted by fourteen great windows, through which the light streamed in soft colors upon the marble floors. Between these windows, and along the cornices, were beautiful decorations. There were carvings in white marble of birds and beasts and twining vines. There was mosaic work of black and yellow and pink marble and of lapis lazuli, as blue as a lake when the clear sun shines full upon its surface. Under the windows were many stone shields, beneath each of which was the name of a night. Some shields were blazoned with gold, some were carved, and some were blank. The walls were hung with beautiful tapestries which had been woven by the ladies of the land for Arthur's new palace. On each had been pictured some episode from the life King Arthur; the drawing of the magic sword from the anvil, the finding of the good sword Excalibur, his deeds of justice and acts of kindness, and his many battles and wars.

The two wings of the palace contained the dining hall and kitchen and the living apartments of all the members of the court who made their home with the king. The dining hall was only a little less beautiful than Arthur's great Assembly Hall. The walls were hung with cloths of scarlet and gold. The deep fireplace was supported by four bronze pillars. In the middle of the room were long tables made of oak boards set on ivory trestles. At a banquet the walls were hung with garlands of flowers or festoons of branches.

The great kitchen had stone walls and stone flagging. The fireplace was so large that there was room for a whole ox to be roasted, and above hung cranes from which half a dozen kettles could be suspended, and pots of such a size that pigs could be boiled whole in them. All about the walls were cupboards. Some were full of plates of wood, iron, steel, silver, and gold and flagons, cups, bowls, and saltcellars of gold and silver. Others were used for the storing of cold meats and fruits. There were several tables on which the cooked food was cut, and benches upon which the cooks rested when they were tired of serving the hungry eaters.

Well might they have grown tired.

Supper, the most important of the day, lasted from three until six, and often longer. But the cooks, and the little scullion boys who washed the pots and pans, and the attendants who carried in the food to the dining hall, all wore contentment and happiness on their faces as they hurried about with their long blouses tucked out of harm's way; for to serve King Arthur and his guests was considered a real privilege.

The sleeping rooms were furnished with chests, and chairs, and beds spread with fine linen and with ermine-lined covers. Hangings of various colors were upon the walls. On the floors were strewn rushes, and among them was thrown mint which gave forth an agreeable odor.

After Arthur, his officers, and his servants had been in the palace a few days, the king formally established his Court. He invited all the knights who cared to do so to come with their families and retinues and live with him. Some preferred to remain in their own castles, but others gladly went to live with the king. Soon all were comfortably settled.

The king's officers were very important members of Arthur's court. First of these came the Archbishop of Canterbury, who held the highest place in the king's regard. It was his duty to conduct the church services for Arthur and his followers, and to christen, marry, and bury the people of Camelot. Next, Sir Ulfius as chamberlain superintended the care of the king's rooms. Sir Brastias, who was warden, superintended the servants. Sir Kay, who was steward, had charge of all the food and the kitchen. Sir Hector, as treasurer, took, care of the king's gold and rendered the accounts. Sir Geraint managed all the tournaments and outdoor sports of the knights and squires. There were other officers to help these, and all did their work faithfully and lovingly.

The knights whom Arthur chose to be members of his Round Table were mostly selected from these officers. As members of the order there were one hundred and fifty of the knights who had shown themselves especially brave in battle and who were devoted followers of the king. Next to being king, the greatest honor which could fall to a warrior was to be made a member of the Round Table, for all who belonged to the order were dedicated to the service of God and mankind. There is no glory greater than such a dedication.

In his great hall Arthur had placed a huge table, made round in shape so that there should be neither head nor foot, a higher place nor a lower place. Arthur wished all who sat there to be equals. These chosen knights were to give him council in times of peace and of war.

It was a solemn hour when the knights took their places. The Archbishop of Canterbury blessed them and their seats. Then each one came to Arthur, who stood at the top of the Assembly Hall, and did him homage. Next they took their vows. They promised to be brave and good, never false, or mean, or cruel. If anyone with whom they fought begged for mercy, they would show him mercy. And they vowed never to fight for a wrong cause or for money. Each year at the feast of the Pentecost they were to repeat these vows.

Other members of Arthur's Court were old, brave knights who cold no longer fight, but who liked to be near the king and his warriors, and gave the wisdom of age and experience to his councils; young, ambitious, and promising knights who had had but little real experience in battle; and faithful squires who had had no real experience at all. Boys from six to fourteen years were pages. There were others who transformed Arthur's Court to a place of grace and beauty,—the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the warriors.

Although they did not help in the councils of war, these ladies were of great assistance in training the knights to be tender and courteous. They taught the little pages good manners and unselfishness. They assisted the knights in removing their armor when they came in tired from riding or fighting. They sat with Arthur and the knights in the evening in the dining-hall, singing or playing upon harps, or listening to the tales that were told. When the knights were away the ladies stayed in their own chambers, Hearing wise readings from the Archbishop of Canterbury, or other learned men, listening to Merlin's words of wisdom, and embroidering the beautiful hangings and cushions which were to adorn the palace.

It was a month before Arthur's Court was established, and during that time the city of Camelot was a scene of continual merriment. The people of the place were glad that the king had come, for that meant much gain for them. Those of them who did not live in the palace had their houses or shops on the streets which wound about the foot of the hill. Many of the shops belonged to armorers, who had armor of all sorts for any one who would buy. They were glad in their turn to buy the swords of famous knights which had been used in great battles, for such weapons they could always sell again at a good price. These shopkeepers and servants and the squires and the warriors all united to make the city of Camelot a beautiful one, for the sake of their king. The streets were kept strewn with rushes and flowers. Rich awnings and silken draperies were hung from the houses.

All day long processions passed, made up of the followers of all those lords who gave allegiance to the king. They carried the banners of their masters, crimson, white, or scarlet, gold, silver, or azure, making the streets glow with color. The marching squires wore ornamented blouses, drawn in at the waist, long silk stockings, and shoes of embroidered leather. The bowmen were dressed in green kirtles, rather shorter than those of the squires, and wore dark woolen hose; they carried their bows and arrows slung across their shoulders. The servants were dressed in much the same way, except that their blouses were longer and of various colors. Many knights rode in the processions, their long plumes waving in the wind, their armor shining, and their falcons perched upon their wrists.

All day long, too, bands of musicians played on flutes and timbrels and tabors and harps; bands of young men and women sang songs in praise of the king; story-tellers went about relating old tales of famous heroes. The young men showed their strength by tumbling and wrestling, and their grace by dancing; the young women also danced.

The wise Merlin often passed along the streets, walking silently among the merry throngs of people. Sometimes the little Dagonet danced at his side, Dagonet the king's jester, a tiny man who made merriment for the Court with his witty sayings. He always wore a tight-fitting red blouse and a peaked cap ornamented with bells, and he carried a mock scepter in the shape of a carved ivory stick.

Whenever Arthur appeared before his people, church-bells were joyously rung and trumpets were sounded. The king, as he rode, distributed presents to the poor people:—capes, coats, and mantles of serge, and bushels of pence. In a dining-hall at the palace, feasts for the poor were held on those days, which were also open for all the people who might come.

When the weather was beautiful, tables were placed on the sward outside the palace, and those who cared to, ate under the shade of the trees, listening to the music of the blackbirds, whose singing was almost as loud as that of the chorus of damsels who sang in the palace. Every hour the servants carried in and out great quarters of venison, roasted pheasants and herons, and young hawks, ducks, and geese, all on silver platters. Curries and stews and tarts were innumerable. In the midst of the sward a silver fountain had been set from which flowed sweet wine. Even the great feasts of the year, which were held at Christmas, upon the day of the Passover, at Pentecost, upon Ascension day, and upon St. John's day, were not as wonderful as these feasts, when the king held holiday with his people.

On these days of merriment, when the people were not eating or drinking or marching in processions, they were at the tournament field, watching the combats. Here the best of Arthur's knights, mounted on strong horses and wearing heavy armor, were ranged on two sides of the field. Behind each row was a pavilion filled with ladies. Four heralds stood ready to blow the trumpets which gave the signal for the combats. Each herald wore crimson silk stockings and crimson velvet kirtles, tight at the waist, and reaching half-way to the knee.

When it was time to begin the heralds blew the trumpets, the ladies bent over eagerly, and the knights spurred their horses forward, riding with their lances in rest. In a moment clouds of dust arose, circling up as high as the plumes on the knight's helmets, and their lances crashed against each other's shields. Many of the lances broke. Sometimes the shock of the contact overthrew a knight. But no one was hurt, for the good King Arthur had ordered that the combats should be friendly.

When the jousting had lasted for several hours, those knights who had shown themselves the stronger, received prizes from the ladies. The prizes were suits of armor ornamented with gold, and swords with jeweled hilts. The knight who, of all, was the strongest, chose the lady whom he considered most beautiful, and crowned her "The Queen of Love and Beauty."

During the month of feasting, Arthur made knights of some of the squires. A young squire was first obliged to show his skill in tilting at the quintain. Then his father presented him with falcons and sparrowhawks for hunting, and arms and robes. He also gave robes and arms to his son's companions, and, to their mothers and sisters, furs and embroidered robes, and belts of gold. Finally he gave money to the singers and players, and servants, and to the poor people of Camelot.

At about sunset the young squire went into the church, where the Archbishop of Canterbury held a solemn service. The youth took the armor which he had chosen, and placed it on the floor in front of the altar. He was then left alone, and all night long he prayed fervently to God to hive him strength to be a noble and true knight. In the morning the king came to the church, attended by his nobles and by the archbishop. The squire laid his sword on the altar, thus signifying his devotion to Christ and his determination to lead a holy life. King Arthur bound the sword and spurs on the young man, and taking Excalibur, he smote him lightly on the shoulder with it, saying, "Be thou a true and faithful knight."

Then the squire took a solemn oath to protect all who were in distress, to do right, to be a pure knight, and to have faith in God. After that the Archbishop of Canterbury preached a solemn sermon.

When the month of feasting and holiday was ended, the members of the Court returned to their usual habits of life. The Knights of the Round Table went forth to right wrongs and to enforce the law. All who were in distress came to the king for help. And to the whole country Arthur's Court was famous as a place where unkindness was never done, and where truth, justice, and love reigned.

[Illustration] from King Arthur and His Knights by Maude R. Warren