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King Arthur’s Death (commonly referred to as the Alliterative Morte Arthure) is a Middle English poem that was written in Lincolnshire at the end of the fourteenth century. A source work for Malory’s later Morte d’Arthur, it is an epic tale which documents the horrors of war, the loneliness of kingship and the terrible price paid for arrogance.

This magnificent poem tells of the arrival of emissaries from Imperial Rome demanding that Arthur pays his dues as a subject. It is Arthur’s refusal to accept these demands, and the premise of foreign domination, which leads him on a quest to confront his foes and challenge them for command of his lands.

Yet his venture is not without cost. His decision to leave Mordred at home to watch over his realm and guard Guinevere, his queen, proves to be a costly one. Though Arthur defeats the Romans, events in Britain draw him back where he must now face Mordred for control of his kingdom – a conflict ultimately fatal to the pair of them.

Combining heroic action, probing insight into human frailty and a great attention to contemporary detail, King Arthur’s Death is not only a lesson in effective kingship, it is also an astonishing mirror on our own times, highlighting the folly of letting stubborn dogma drive political decisions.

Excerpt 1: Sir Cador battles with the King of Lybia.

This scene gives a flavour of the poet’s great pace but also of his understanding of the speed of battle and the tactics of warfare in the fourteenth century:

Then Sir Cador the keen as becomes a true knight,

Cries out “A Cornwall!” and fewters his lance,

And strikes straight through the battle on a great steed;

Many strong men he struck by his strength alone.

When his spear was snapped he eagerly sprung

And swept out his sword which never failed him,

That cut swathes most wide and wounded great knights,

And he works in this way to anguish their flanks

And hews at the hardiest halving their necks asunder

Such that all blends with blood where so his horse barges!

Many nobles that lord did bludgeon to death,

He topples down tyrants and empties their saddles,

Then turns from his toils when he thought the time right!

Then the Lybian king cries full loud

At Sir Cador the keen with cruel words:

“You have won worship and wounded knights;

You act for your boldness like the world is your own -

I am right here and waiting sir, by my word;

Hold yourself fore-warned you had better beware!”

With cornet and clarion many new-made knights

Listened out for the cry, casting lance to the fewter,

Forged forth on their foe on steeds like iron

And felled as they first came full fifty at once;

Shot through the schiltrons and shattered lances,

Laid down in a pile great noble lords,

And thus nobly our new men use all their strengths!

But new nonsense is here that saddens me greatly:

That king of Lybia takes a steed that he liked

And acts most lordly with silver-lioned shield,

Surrounds the melee and piles in amongst it;

Many lords with his lance their lives he steals!

Thus he chases the child-knights of the king’s chamber

And kills in the fields those most chivalrous knights;

With a spear for the chase he chops down many!

Excerpt 2: The Arrival of the Emissaries:

In this section, towards the beginning of the poem, we witness the arrival of the Senator of Rome, with 16 knights in attendance. The lines include a brief caesura (pause) which all contribute to the poem’s pace and metre.

So suddenly entered a Senator of Rome,

With sixteen knights in harness, attending to him.

He saluted the sovereign, and also that hall,

As king to a king, and made bows inclining;

Guinevere in her degree he greeted as he pleased

And bowed again to the King to deliver his message:

“Sir Lucius Iberius, the Emperor of Rome,

Salutes you as subject, under his great seal

Here are its credentials, Sir King, with its fierce words,

In truth it’s no trifle, as his shield here shows!

Now on this New Year, as signed here by notables,

I summon you in this hall to sue for your lands,

That on Lammas day and with no hindrance

You be ready at Rome with all your Round Table,

And appear in his presence with all your prized knights

At the Prime of the day, in pain of your lives,

In that same capital before the King’s self,

When he and his Senators will be sat as they like

To hear of your answer why you hold the lands

That owe homage to him and his elders of old;

Why you have rode over, robbed and ransomed the people

And cut down his cousins, all anointed kings.

There you shall give reckoning for all your Round Table;

Why you rebel against Rome and withhold your dues!

If you refuse this summons, he sends you these words:

He shall seek you over the sea with sixteen kings,

Burn all of Great Britain, and butcher your knights

And bring you back as a beast begging to breathe

Neither to slumber nor sleep under rich heaven

As for dread of Rome you are run to ground!

For if you flee into France or Friesland either

You shall be fetched with force and overthrown for ever!

Your father made fealty, we find in our rolls

In the register of Rome, as looks so right;

Without further trifling, we ask for the tribute

That Julius Ceasar won with his greatest knights!”

King Arthur's Death: The Alliterative Morte Arthure

Michael Smith
Status: Published
Publication date: 18.02.2021
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King Arthur’s Death (commonly referred to as the Alliterative Morte Arthure) is a Middle English poem that was written in Lincolnshire at the end of the fourteenth century. A source work for Malory’s later Morte d’Arthur, it is an epic tale which documents the horrors of war, the loneliness of kingship and the terrible price paid for arrogance.

This magnificent poem tells of the arrival of emissaries from Imperial Rome demanding that Arthur pays his dues as a subject. It is Arthur’s refusal to accept these demands, and the premise of foreign domination, which leads him on a quest to confront his foes and challenge them for command of his lands.

Yet his venture is not without cost. His decision to leave Mordred at home to watch over his realm and guard Guinevere, his queen, proves to be a costly one. Though Arthur defeats the Romans, events in Britain draw him back where he must now face Mordred for control of his kingdom – a conflict ultimately fatal to the pair of them.

Combining heroic action, probing insight into human frailty and a great attention to contemporary detail, King Arthur’s Death is not only a lesson in effective kingship, it is also an astonishing mirror on our own times, highlighting the folly of letting stubborn dogma drive political decisions.

Excerpt 1: Sir Cador battles with the King of Lybia.

This scene gives a flavour of the poet’s great pace but also of his understanding of the speed of battle and the tactics of warfare in the fourteenth century:

Then Sir Cador the keen as becomes a true knight,

Cries out “A Cornwall!” and fewters his lance,

And strikes straight through the battle on a great steed;

Many strong men he struck by his strength alone.

When his spear was snapped he eagerly sprung

And swept out his sword which never failed him,

That cut swathes most wide and wounded great knights,

And he works in this way to anguish their flanks

And hews at the hardiest halving their necks asunder

Such that all blends with blood where so his horse barges!

Many nobles that lord did bludgeon to death,

He topples down tyrants and empties their saddles,

Then turns from his toils when he thought the time right!

Then the Lybian king cries full loud

At Sir Cador the keen with cruel words:

“You have won worship and wounded knights;

You act for your boldness like the world is your own -

I am right here and waiting sir, by my word;

Hold yourself fore-warned you had better beware!”

With cornet and clarion many new-made knights

Listened out for the cry, casting lance to the fewter,

Forged forth on their foe on steeds like iron

And felled as they first came full fifty at once;

Shot through the schiltrons and shattered lances,

Laid down in a pile great noble lords,

And thus nobly our new men use all their strengths!

But new nonsense is here that saddens me greatly:

That king of Lybia takes a steed that he liked

And acts most lordly with silver-lioned shield,

Surrounds the melee and piles in amongst it;

Many lords with his lance their lives he steals!

Thus he chases the child-knights of the king’s chamber

And kills in the fields those most chivalrous knights;

With a spear for the chase he chops down many!

Excerpt 2: The Arrival of the Emissaries:

In this section, towards the beginning of the poem, we witness the arrival of the Senator of Rome, with 16 knights in attendance. The lines include a brief caesura (pause) which all contribute to the poem’s pace and metre.

So suddenly entered a Senator of Rome,

With sixteen knights in harness, attending to him.

He saluted the sovereign, and also that hall,

As king to a king, and made bows inclining;

Guinevere in her degree he greeted as he pleased

And bowed again to the King to deliver his message:

“Sir Lucius Iberius, the Emperor of Rome,

Salutes you as subject, under his great seal

Here are its credentials, Sir King, with its fierce words,

In truth it’s no trifle, as his shield here shows!

Now on this New Year, as signed here by notables,

I summon you in this hall to sue for your lands,

That on Lammas day and with no hindrance

You be ready at Rome with all your Round Table,

And appear in his presence with all your prized knights

At the Prime of the day, in pain of your lives,

In that same capital before the King’s self,

When he and his Senators will be sat as they like

To hear of your answer why you hold the lands

That owe homage to him and his elders of old;

Why you have rode over, robbed and ransomed the people

And cut down his cousins, all anointed kings.

There you shall give reckoning for all your Round Table;

Why you rebel against Rome and withhold your dues!

If you refuse this summons, he sends you these words:

He shall seek you over the sea with sixteen kings,

Burn all of Great Britain, and butcher your knights

And bring you back as a beast begging to breathe

Neither to slumber nor sleep under rich heaven

As for dread of Rome you are run to ground!

For if you flee into France or Friesland either

You shall be fetched with force and overthrown for ever!

Your father made fealty, we find in our rolls

In the register of Rome, as looks so right;

Without further trifling, we ask for the tribute

That Julius Ceasar won with his greatest knights!”

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