(From Roger Sherman Loomis and Rudolph Willard, Medieval English Verse and Prose (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1948).
There was a priest in the land; Layamon was he called.
He was Leovenath’s son; the Lord be gracious to him;
He dwelt at Earnley, at a noble church,
Upon Severn shore,-good there he thought it,-
Quite near to Redstone; he read there his service book.
It came to his mind and into his serious thought,
To relate of the English their noble deeds,
What they were called and whence they had come,
Who first did possess the land of the English,
After the flood, which came from the Lord,
And did destroy all things that it found alive,
Except Noah and Shem, Japhet and Ham,
And their four wives who were with them in the ark.
Layamon did travel widely among the people,
And got him those noble books that he set as his pattern.
He took that English book that Saint Bede had made;
Another he took, in Latin, that Saint Albin had made
And the fair Augustine, who brought baptism hither;
A third book he took, and laid it alongside,
Which a French cleric had made, well learned in lore;
Wace was his name, he knew well how to write,
And he then did give it to the noble Eleanor,
Who was Henry’s queen, that high king’s.
Layamon laid these books out, and he turned the leaves;
With love he searched them, the Lord be to him gracious.
He took feathers in his fingers, and he composed on parchment;
And these three books he condensed into one.
Now Layamon prayeth each noble man,
For the love of Almighty God and of his gracious heart,
Who will read these books and learn these runes,
That some true words he will say together
For his father’s soul, who did beget him,
And for his mother’s soul, who bore him as man,
And for his own soul, that it be the better for them. Amen.
(vss. 19246- 69)
There Uther the king took Ygerne for queen.
Ygerne was with child by Uther the king,
All through Merlin’s wiles, ere she was wedded.
The time came that was chosen; then was Arthur born.
As soon as he came on earth fays took him.
They enchanted the child with magic right strong:
They gave him the might to be best of all knights;
They gave him another thing, that he should be a mighty king;
They gave him a third,-his death would be long deferred.
They gave to that roya1 child right good virtues,
That he was most liberal of all living men.
This the fays gave him, and thus the child thrived.
There came tidings to Arthur the king,
That his kinsman Howell lay sick at Clud.
Therefor he was sorry, but there he left him.
With very great haste he tried him forth
Until beside Bath he came to a held.
There he alighted and all his knights,
And the doughty warriors donned their byrnies,
And he in five parts divided his army.
When he had arrayed all, and all seemed ready,
He did on his byrny, made of linked steel,
Which an elvish smith made with his noble craft;
It was called Wigar, and a wizard wrought it.
He hid his shanks in hose of steel.
Caliburn, his sword, he swung at his side;
It was wrought in Avalon with cunning craft.
He set on his head a high helm of steel;
Thereon was many a jewel all adorned with gold.
It had been Uther’s, the noble king’s;
It was called Goose-white; ’twas unlike any other.
He slung from his neck a precious shield;
Its name in British was called Pridwen.
Thereon was graven in red-gold figures
A dear likeness of the Lord’s Mother.
He took in hand his spear, which was called Ron.
When he had all his weeds, he leapt on his steed.
Then might they behold who stood there beside him
The fairest knight who would ever lead host.
Never saw any man a goodlier knight
Than Arthur was, the noblest of ancestry.
Then Arthur called with a loud voice:
“Lo, here are before us the heathen hounds
Who killed our chieftains with their base crafts;
And they on this land are loathes” of all things.
Now let us attack them and lay on them starkly,
And avenge wonderously our kin and our kingdom,
And wreak the great shame with which they have shamed us,
That they over the waves have come to Dartmouth.
They are all forsworn and they all shall be lorn;
They all are doomed with the aid of the Lord.
Hasten we forward fast together,
Even as softly as if we thought no evil.
And when we come on them, I myself will attack;
Foremost of all I will begin the fight.
Now let us ride and pass over the land,
And let no man, on his life, make any noise,
But fare firmly, with the help of the Lord.”
Then Arthur, the rich man, to ride forth began,
Went over the weald and would seek Bath.
The tidings came to Childric, the strong and the mighty,
That Arthur came with his army, all ready to fight.
Childric and his brave men leapt on their horses,
Grinned their weapons; they knew themselves fey.
This saw Arthur, noblest of kings.
He saw a heathen earl hastening against him,
With seven hundred knights all ready to fight.
The earl himself came ahead of his troop,
And Arthur himself galloped before all his army.
Arthur, the fierce, took Ron in his hand;
He couched the strong shaft, that stern-minded king.
He let his horse run so that the earth rumbled.
He laid shield to his breast; the king was bursting with anger.
He smote Borel the earl right throug hthe breast,
So that his heart was split. The king cried at once:
“The foremost hath met his fate! Now the Lord help us
And the heavenly Queen, who gave birth to the Lord!”
Then cried Arthur, noblest of kings:
“Now at them, now at them! The foremost is done for!”
The Britons laid on, as men should do to the wicked.
They gave bitter strokes with axes and swords.
There fell of Childric’s men fully two thousand,
But Arthur never lost one of his men.
There were the Saxon men most wretched of all folk
And the men of Almain most miserable of all peoples.
Arthur with his sword executed doom;
All whom he smote were soon destroyed.
The king was enraged as is the wild boar
When he in the beechwood meeteth many swine.
This Childric beheld and began to turn back,
And bent his way over Avon to save himself.
Arthur pursued him, as if he were a lion,
And drove them to the flood; many there were fey.
There sank to the bottom five and twenty hundred.
Then was Avon’s stream all bridged over with steel.
Childric fled over the water with fifteen hundred knights;
He thought to journey forth and pass over sea.
Arthur saw Colgrim climb to a mount,
Turn to a hill that standeth over Bath;
And Baldulf followed after with seven thousand knights.
They thought on that hill to make a stout stand,
To defend themselves with weapons and work harm to Arthur.
When Arthur saw, noblest of kings,
Where Colgrim withstood and made a stand,
Then cried the king keenly and loud:
“My bold thanes, make for that hill
For yesterday was Colgrim most daring of all men.
Now he is as sad as a goat, where he guardeth the hill.
High on a hilltop he fighteth with horns,
When the wild wolf come there, toward him stalking.
Though the wolf be alone, without any pack,
And there be in the fold five hundred goats,
The wolf falleth on them and biteth them all.
So will I now today destroy Colgrim altogether.
I am a wolf and he is a goat. The man shall be fell”
Then still shouted Arthur, noblest of kings:
“Yesterday was Baldulf of all knights boldest.
Now he standeth on the hill and beholdeth the Avon,
How there lie in the stream steel fishest
Ready with sword, their health is broken!
Their scales float like gold-colored shields;
There float their fins as if they were spears.
These are marvelous things come to this land,
Such beasts on the hill, such fish in the stream;
Yesterday was the kaiser boldest of all kings;
Now hath he become a hunter, and horns follow him;
He flieth over the broad weald; his hounds bark.
But beside Bath he hath abandoned his hunting;
He fleeth from his deer and we shall bring it down,
And bring to naught his bold threats;
And so we shall revel in our rights again.”
Even with the words that the king said,
He raised high his shield before his breast,
He gripped his long spear and set spurs to his horse.
Nearly as swiftly as the bird flieth,
There followed the king five and twenty thousand
Valorous men, raging under their arms,
Held their way to the hill with high courage,
And smote at Colgrim with full smart strokes.
There Colgrim received them and felled the Britons to earth.
In the foremost attack there fell five hundred,
Arthur saw that, noblest of kings,
And wroth he was with wondrous great wrath,
And Arthur the noble man to shout thus began:
“Where be ye, Britons, my warriors bold?
Here stand before us our foes all chosen.
My warriors good, let us beat them to the ground.”
Arthur gripped his sword aright and smote a Saxon knight,
So that the good sword stopped at the teeth.
Then he smote another who was that knight’s brother,
So that his helm and his head fell to the ground.
Soon a third dint he gave and in two a knight clave.
Then were the Britons much emboldened
And laid on the Saxons right sore strokes
With spears that were long and swords that were strong.
There Saxons fell, met their fated hour,
By hundreds and hundreds sank to the earth,
By thousands and thousands dropped there to the ground.
When Colgrim saw where Arthur came toward him,
He could not, for the slaughter, flee to any side,
There fought Baldulf beside his brother.
Then called Arthur with a loud voice:
“Here I come, Colgrim; we will gain us a country.
We will so share this land as will be least to thy liking,”
Even with the words that the king uttered,
He heaved up his broad sword and brought it down hard,
And smote Colgrim’s helm and clove it in the middIe, And the hood of the byrny;
the blade stopped at the breast.
He struck at Baldulf with his left hand,
And smote off the head and the helm also.
Then laughed Arthur, the noble king,
And began to speak with gamesome words:
“Lie now there, Colgriml
Thou didst climb too high!
And Baldulf thy brother lieth by thy side.
Now all this good land I place in your hand,
Dales and downs and all my doughty folk.
Thou didst climb on this hill wondrously high,
As if thou soughtest heaven; now thou shalt to hell!
There thou mayst ken many of thy kin!
Greet thou there Hengest, who of knights was fairest,
Ebissa and Ossa, Octa and more of thy kin;
And bid them dwell there, winters and summers.
And we on this land will live in bliss,
And pray for your souls that they may never be blessed,
And here shall your bones lie beside Bath.”
It was on a Yule Day that Arthur in London lay.
Then were come to him from out his whole kingdom,
From Britain, from Scotland, from Ireland, from Iceland,
And from out every land that Arthur had in hand,
All the highest thanes with horses and with swains.
There were seven kings’ sons come with seven hundred knights,
Besides that household which followed Arthur.
Each one had in his heart over-proud feelings,
And felt that he was better than his fellow.
That folk was from many lands; There was “rear envy:
When one held him high, the other held him much higher.
Then men blew upon trumpets and spread the tables;
Water was brought on the floor with golden bowls;
And then soft cloths. all of white silk.
Then Arthur sat him down, and by him Wenhaver;
After him sat the earls, and after them the nobles;
Afterwards the knights, even as it was ordained them.
Men of high birth then bore in the meats,
First to the head of the table, and then to the knights,
Then towards the thanes, after that to the swains,
Then to the bearers forth at the board.
The courtiers became angered; dints there were rife.
First they hurled the loaves the while that they lasted,
And then the silver bowls that were filled with wine;
And afterwards fists sped forth to necks.
Then there leapt forth a young man who came from Winetland;
He was given to Arthur to hold as a hostage;
He was the son of Rumaret, the king of Winet;
From the beginning to the ending, of Arthur the king,
“Lord Arthur, go quickly into thy bower,
And thy queen with thee, and thy native-born kinsmen,
And we shall settle this fight with these foreign-born warriors.”
With these very words he leapt to the board,
Where lay the knives before the land’s king.
Three knives he seized, and with the one he smote
On the neck of that knight who first began that fight,
That his head on the floor fell to the ground.
At once he slew another, that same thane’s brother;
Ere the swords came in, seven he had cut down.
There was then a great fight; each man smote the other;
There was much bloodshed; in the court was disaster.
Then came the king hastening out from his bower,
With him a hundred warriors with helms and with byrnies;
Each bore in his hand a white steel brand.
Then called out Arthur, the noblest of kings:
“Sit down, sit down at once, each man on pain of his lifer
And whoever will not do that, condemned shall he be.
Take me that same man who this fight first began,
And put a withy on his neck and drag him to a moor,
And throw him in a low-lying fen, where he shall lie.
And take all his next of kin, whom ye can find,
And smite off their heads with your broad sword;
And the women that ye can find nearest him of kin,
Carve off their noses and ruin their beauty;
And thus will I wholly destroy that kin that he came from.
And if I evermore shall hear afterwards
That any in my court, be he high, be he low,
For this same assault stir a quarrel later,
No ransom shall be given for him, neither gold nor any treasure,
Tall horse nor armor, that he shall not die
Or be drawn asunder with horses, as beseemeth such traitors.
Bring ye holy relics, and I will swear thereon;
And so shall ye, knights, who were at this fight,
Both earls and warriors, that ye will not break it.”
First swore Arthur, the noblest o£ kings;
Then swore the earls; after swore the warriors;
Then swore the thanes, and then swore the swains,
That they would nevermore stir up that quarrel.
They took all the dead men and to their grave bore them.
Afterwards they blew trumpets with exceeding merry sounds.
Were him fief, were him loath, each took water and cloth;
And they afterwards sat down in peace at the board,
All in fear of Arthur, the noblest of kings.
Cup bearers then thronged in; minstrels sang there,
Harps aroused melodies; the court was in happiness.
Thus for a full seven nights was that company maintained.
Afterwards, it says in the tale, the king went to Cornwall;
There came to him anon one who was a skilled craftsman,
And went to meet the king, and courteously greeted him:
“Hail to thee, Arthur, noblest of kings.
I am thine own man; I have traversed many a land.
I know in woodwork wondrous many devices.
I heard beyond the sea men telling new tidings,
How shine own knights at thy board did fight
On midwinter’s day; many there fell;
For their mighty pride they played the death-game,
And because of his high race each would be on the inside.
Now I will, make for thee a work most skillful
That there may sit at it sixteen hundred and more,
All in succession, that none may sit at the end,
But without and within, man beside man.
Whenever thou wilt ride, with thee thou mayst take it,
And set it up where thou wilt after thine own will;
And thou needest never dread throughout the wide world
That ever any proud knight at thy board stir a fight;
For there shall the high be equal to the low.
Let me but have timber, and begin that board.”
In four weeks’ time that work was completed.
On a high day the court was assembled;
And Arthur himself went forthwith to that board,
And summoned every knight to that table forthright.
When they were all set, the knights at their meat,
Then spoke each with the other as though it were his brother.
All of them sat round about; none had an end seat;
A knight of every race had there a good place;
They were all side by side, the low and the high;
None might there boast of a better beverage,
Than had his companions who were at that table.
This was the same board that the Britons boast of,
And tell many kinds of lies about Arthur the king.
So cloth every man who love th another;
If he is too dear to him, then will he lie,
And say in his worship more than he is worth;
Be he never so base, his friends will wish him well.
Further, if among people there arise hostility,
At any time so ever, between two men,
Men can tell of the loathed one many lies,
Though he were the best man that ever ate at board.
The man who is loath to him can find charges against him.
‘Tis neither all truth nor all lies which the people’s bards sing.
But this is the truth about Arthur the king:
Was never ere such a king so valiant in everything,
For the truth stands in writings, how it came to pass,
From the beginning to the ending of Arthur the king,
Neither more nor less, but as his traits were.
But the Britons loved him greatly, and oft tell lies of him,
And say many things about Arthur the king,
That took piace never in this earthly kingdom.
Enough can he say who will relate the truth
Of wondrous things about Arthur the king.
Then there came at that time a valiant man riding,
And brought tidings to Arthur the king
From Modred, his sister’s son; to Arthur he was welcome,
For he weened that he brought exceeding good news.
Arthur lay all the long night and spoke with that young knight;
But he never would tell him the truth, how it fared.
When it was day, in the morning, and the court began to stir,
Arthur then rose up and stretched his arms;
He rose up, and down he sat, as though he were very sick.
Then asked the young knight, “Lord, how hast thou fared this night?”
Arthur then answered, in mood he was uneasy,
“This night in my bed, as I lay in my bower,
I dreamt a dream for which I am most sorrowful*
I dreamt I was taken high upon a hall;
That hall I did bestride as though I would ride;
All the lands that I owned, all them I looked over;
And Walwain sat before me, my sword he bore in hand.
Then came Modred faring thither with numberless folk;
He bore in his hand a strong battle-ax;
He began to hew exceeding vigorously,
And all the posts he hewed down that held up the hall.
There I saw Wenhaver also, the woman dearest to me;
All that mighty hallroof with her hands she pulled apart.
The hall began to fall, and I fell to the ground,
So that my right arm broke. Then said Modred, ‘Take that.’
Down fell that hall, and Walwain began to fall,
And fell to the earth; both his arms broke.
And I gripped my beloved sword with my left hand,
And smote off Modred’s head that it rolled to the field.
And the queen I cut to pieces with my dear sword,
And I then put her down in a dark pit.
And all my royal folk betook them to flight,
So that I knew not under Christ where they had gone.
But myself, I did stand upon a wooded land.
And there I did wander widely over the moors.
There saw I griffins and grisly fowl;
Then came a golden lioness moving over the down,
Of all beasts the most gracious that our Lord hath made;
The lioness ran towards me, and by the middle seized me,
And forth she betook her, and turned towards the sea;
And I saw the waves driving in the sea,
And the lioness into the flood went bearing me.
When we two were in the sea, the waves took me from her;
There came a fish gliding, and ferried me to land;
Then was I all wet and weary, and sick from sorrow.
When I did awake, I began greatly to quake,
And I began to quiver as though I were all afire.
And so I have thought all the night of my dream,
For I know in certain that gone is all my bliss;
Forever in my life I must suffer sorrow;
Woe is me I have not here Wenhaver my queen!”
Then answered the knight, “Lord, thou art not right;
Never should a dream with sorrow distress me.
Thou art the mightiest man that reigneth on earth,
And the wisest of all that dwell under heaven.
If it hath befallen-may the Lord forbid it –
That Modred, thy sister’s son, have taken thy queen,
And all thy royal land have set in his own hand,
Which thou didst entrust him when thou didst set out for Rome,
And he have done all this in his treachery,
Even yet thou mightest avenge thee honorably with weapons,
And hold again thy land and rule thy people,
And fell thy foes who wish thee evil,
And slay them all wholly, that none should survive.”
Arthur then answered, the noblest of kings:
“So long as is ever, I have weened never
That Modred, my kinsman, who of men is dearest to me,
Would betray me for all of my riches,
Or Wenhaver, my queen, weaken in her thoughts;
She will never begin it for any man on earth!”
With those words straightway then answered the knight:
“I tell thee the truth, dear king, for I am shine underling,
Thus hath Modred now done: thy queen he hath taken,
And thy beautiful land he hath set in his own hand.
He is king, she is queen; of thy coming they no longer ween,
For they believe never that thou wilt return from Rome ever.
I am thine own man, and I saw this betrayal;
And I am come to thee myself the truth to tell thee;
I will stake my head, it is true what I have said,
The truth without lies, of thy beloved queen,
And of Modred, thy sister’s son, how he hath taken Britain from thee!”
Still sat they all in Arthur’s hall;
Then was there great sorrow for that blessed king.
Then were the British men much disheartened therefor.
Then after a while there stirred a sound;
Widely might one hear the Britons’ outcries,
And they began to tell in various speeches
How they would condemn Modred and the queen,
And punish all those men who held with Modred.
Then called out Arthur, most gracious of all Britons:
“Sit you down still, knights in this hall,
And I will tell you news unheard of.
Now tomorrow when it is day, if the Lord send it,
Forth will I turn me on towards Britain;
And Modred I will slay and burn the queen,
And I will destroy all who favored that treachery.
And here will I leave the man dearest to me,
Howell, my dear kinsman, the highest of my race,
And half of my army I leave in this country,
To hold all this royal land that I have in my hand.
And when these things are all done I will go on to Rome,
And entrust my beloved land to Walwain my kinsman,
And perform my promise afterwards with my bare life;
All of my enemies shall make a doomed journey.”
Modred was in Cornwall, and summoned many knights;
To Ireland he sent his messenger in haste;
To Saxonland he sent his messenger in haste;
To Scotland he sent his messenger in haste;
He bade all come at once, those who would have land.
Either silver or gold, either goods or lands;
He in every wise looked out for himself,
As doth wise man when need cometh upon him.
Arthur heard that, the most wrathful of kings,
That Modred was in Cornwall with a very great host,
And would there abide till Arthur thither should ride.
Arthur sent messengers throughout all his kingdom,
And commanded all to come who were alive in the land,
Who were able to fight, and could bear weapons;
And whoso should neglect what the king ordered,
The king would to the ground burn him alive wholly.
There moved towards the court countless folk,
Riding and marching, as the rain falleth down.
Arthur went to Cornwall with immeasurable army.
Modred heard that, and held against him
With countless folk-there were many fated.
Upon the Tamar they met together;
The place called Camelford, forever will that name endure;
And at Camelford were assembled sixty thousand,
And more thousands besides; Modred was their leader.
Now thitherwards did ride Arthur the royal,
With countless folk, fated though they were,
Upon the Tamar they met together,
Raised their battle-standards, advanced together;
Drew their long swords, laid on upon helms;
Fire sprang out there; and spears did shiver;
Shields began to break, shafts to shatter;
There fought together folk uncounted.
The Tamar was in flood with immeasurable blood;
No man there in that fight could know any knight,
Who did worse, or who better, so closely joined was the conflict.
For each one struck downright, were he swain, were he knight.
There was Modred slain and taken from his lifeday’
And all his knights were slain in that fight,
There too were slain all the swift men,
Arthur’s retainers, the high and the low,
And all of the Britons of Arthur’s board,
And all his fosterchildren from many kingdoms.
And Arthur was wounded with a broad battle-spear;
Fifteen had he, all ghastly wounds:
Into the least could one thrust two gloves.
There were none more left in that fight,
Of two hundred thotlsand, who lay hewn in pieces,
Save Arthur the king only, and two of his knights.
Arthur was wounded wondrously sore.
There came to him a boy who was of his kin;
He was the son of Cador, the earl of Cornwall;
Constantine was the boy called; he was dear to the king.
Arthur looked at him as he lay on the ground,
And these words spoke he with sorrowful heart:
“Constantine, thou art welcome; thou wert Cador’s son;
Here I commit to thee all of my kingdom;
Defend my Britons ever to thy life’s end,
And keep all the laws that have stood in my days,
And all the good laws that stood in Uther’s days.
And I will fare to Avalon, to the fairest of all maidens,
To Argante the queen, a fey most fair,
And she will make sound all my wounds,
And make me all whole with healing potions;
And afterwards I shall come again to my kingdom,
And dwell with the Britons in very great joy.”
At these very words there came from out the sea
A short boat gliding, driven by the waves,
And two women therein, wondrously clad;
And they took Arthur anon and in haste bore him,
And softly laid him down, and then forth did glide.
Then was it come to pass what Merlin once said,
There would be very great sorrow at Arthur’s departure;
The Britons believe yet that he is alive,
And dwelleth in Avalon with the fairest of fays;
And the Britons still look ever for Arthur to come.
There was never man born, of any maiden chosen,
Who knoweth of the truth more to say of Arthur.
But there was once a prophet, Merlin by name;
He foretold in words,-his sayings were true,-
That an Arthur must still come to help the Britons.