At the end of the previous story Malory explained to us that Arthur soon ruled all of Great Britain, including Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland, but at the start of this story either he claims that was just a spoiler for future events, or else he straight-up contradicts himself. This story is the tale of Arthur making war upon the kings of the parts of Great Britain that he’s not king of. We open at Pentecost, with a new status quo: Arthur crowned, and the folks who live south of the river Trent pretty much all accepting him as king.
Arthur visited Wales, just after his coronation, and threw a big feast at Caerlaeon there, Caerlaeon being the best place available. I can’t tell whether Malory means for this trip to have happened immediately following Arthur’s coronation in London, or if he spent a full year (or more) establishing himself as King of Much of England, then at the next convenient Pentecost traveled to Caerlaeon for an anniversary coronation party. It doesn’t really matter for purposes of the story — if it was a year, it was a year at the end of which there was still a lot of Great Britain that he didn’t rule. Plus there was the earlier assertion that he spent two years conquering everything; is this a celebration of that? Best not to worry about it. What we can be sure of is that it was very early in Arthur’s reign and not everyone accepted his legitimacy. That’s the context, here.
At Caerlaeon Arthur threw a big feast and invited all the other kings in the area, which included his three brothers-in-law from Chapter II: Lot of Orkney who married Margawse, Nentres of Garlot who married Elaine, and Uriens of Gore who married Morgan le Fay once she graduated from necromancy school. Other kings in attendance were the King of Scotland, whom Malory doesn’t name, the King of Carados, and a king known to us only by the epithet “the King with the Hundred Knights.” Or, as I like to call him, Mister 100. Lot, Nentres, Uriens, Scotland, Carados, and Mister 100 each brought along hundreds of knights with them, so this was a gigantic party. Arthur was thrilled by this; it was his first major kingly act, this party, and look at the turnout!
However Arthur’s glee soon turned to disappointment and despondency, because this conversation kept happening:
ARTHUR’S MESSENGER: Hey, King Lot/King Nentres/King Uriens/King Scotland/King Carados/King Mister 100!
MESSENGER: Arthur wanted you to have this gift basket and thank you for coming to his celebratory Arthur-is-King-of-Everything-Outranking-All-Other-Kings party.
KING: Get bent!
(KING throws gift basket in MESSENGER’s face.)
It turns out that if you’re the king of, say, Carados, and you get word that some punk teenager has declared himself Super-Mega-Ultra King, a kid who isn’t even the son of anyone important (you’ve never heard of his dad Ector and besides they say he was adopted), then you’re disinclined to cheerfully swear fealty to him. When you show up at his party with a few hundred heavily armed men, it’s not really a social call.
Malory turns a nice phrase here: the other kings “sent him word they would none of his gifts, but that they were come to give him gifts with hard swords between the neck and the shoulders.” Well, it’s a nice phrase compared to Malory’s usual output.
Reluctantly Arthur made ready for the coming rumble. He’d rather not fight, so instead he holed up in a tower with a few hundred men of his own and waited for the other kings to leave. A couple weeks of siege went by, nothing getting resolved, neither side giving up; Arthur had all his party food in the tower and the kings were motivated to give the little twerp what-for.
Fortunately Merlin showed up to fix the situation. All the kings outside the tower knew Merlin, of course, everyone knew Merlin, and they were all, “how’s it going, Merle, you’ve come to cheer us on?”
And Merlin was like, “no, no, Arthur is the rightful king, you guys are on the wrong side of this issue.”
The kings were all, “wha?” And Merlin went, “listen, he’s actually Igraine’s and Uther’s son, remember Uther? Kind of a dick but still the king of everything.”
One of the kings did some quick math, Malory asserts, and deduced that if Uther fathered Arthur on Igraine, it must have been while she was married to Gorlas, otherwise the timing doesn’t work. Therefore Arthur was a bastard, therefore not the rightful king. I would be unconvinced by that, given the tight timing of Arthur’s conception, Gorlas’s death, and Uther’s marriage to Igraine, but it went over well with the assembled kings.
“I anticipated your objection,” said Merlin, and produced a long-form Hawaiian certificate and a chart and timetable and deck of Powerpoint slides showing that Gorlas had been dead for three hours when Uther and Igraine slept together and that less than two weeks later Uther and Igraine wed. So Arthur was definitely not illegitimate and his claim to the throne was unassailable.
“Well, shoot,” said the assembled kings.
“He’s definitely king, you guys,” said Merlin. “And he’ll be king for a long time, King of All England, including Wales and Scotland and Ireland. The whole schmear. Unless someone murders him, I mean. If he dies young, say putting down a civil war, then he won’t be king long. But for right now he’s totally the rightful king.”
King Lot, at this point, had gotten sick and tired of Merlin and his damnable Powerpoint slides. Lot called him a “witch” as well as a “tiresome jack-ass,” and refused to accept what Merlin was saying. But he was in the minority; the other kings by and large were at least willing to hear Arthur out.
Early the next morning, in his tower, Arthur woke up to find a soothsayer in his bedroom.
“Who are you and how did you get in here?” Arthur demanded, not unreasonably.
Merlin said not to worry, he was Merlin. And yes, this was technically the first time they met (at least it’s the first record Malory makes of their meeting) but it was all cool, come out of the tower and have a nice civil sit-down with the kings.
“The kings who are trying to kill me?” asked Arthur.
“The very same!” said Merlin. “And some of them still want to kill you, so, you know, when you talk to them, sound tough.”
Arthur for whatever reason completely accepted Merlin’s advice, and went out to chat with the other kings, though under his party clothes he wore a suit of armor. That couldn’t have been comfortable.
They were all, so you’re Arthur son of Uther who thinks he’s better than us, and Arthur was all, so you’re Lot and Uriens and Mister 100 and the other guys whose names I can’t remember, who dispute my divinely-granted right to rule you like, and I mean this literally, a king.
“Grr!” said the kings. “We’ll never bow to you!”
“Grr!” said Arthur. “I’ll make you bow to me!”
“Grr!” said the kings. “No way! We’re leaving!”
“Grr!” said Arthur. “Well thanks for coming out! Have a nice trip back!”
“Grr!” said the kings. “Oh, we will! We’re doing some antiquing on the way home!”
“Grr!” said Arthur. “Be sure to get a gift basket on your way out! It’s mostly fruit! Stay healthy!”
“Grr!” said the kings… anyway, this went on for a while because neither side wanted to let the other have the last word, but eventually the kings left. Merlin caught up to them and was like, what now?
“Listen, Merle, get out of my face. I’m really not in the mood right now,” said Lot.
“Pshaw!” Merlin returned to Arthur. “Hey Arthur,” he said, “go attack Lot. He was mean to me just now.”
“Sure,” said Arthur.
Arthur was in the middle of a big crowd of his knights who were all saying things like “you did great back there boss” and “you sure told them, huh boss.”
“Great,” said Merlin. “But listen, don’t pull out your new magic sword-from-the-stone sword. Use a regular sword until you’re right in the shit, and then draw Excalibur. It’ll be great.”
90% sure that the sword-in-the-stone sword isn’t Excalibur, but Malory has Merlin call it Excalibur here, so, that happens.
“Sure sure,” said Arthur. He and his knights hopped onto horses and rode off to attack the various other kings and their knights, as they packed up to go.
Big fight scene! Sir Baudwin killed a guy! Sir Kay killed a guy! Sir Brastias was getting up in years but he killed a guy also! King Arthur killed a pile of guys!
Counterattack! The other kings and their knights mounted horses and circled around and got our boys from behind! Mister 100 was just laying into them! Oh no! Someone killed Arthur’s horse! Arthur is down! King Lot is kicking him in the stomach and laughing! Why aren’t the refs stopping this?!
Arthur’s men rescue him! It’s a classic play, folks, real textbook medieval combat you can tell your kids about! He’s back on another horse! He’s pulling out — is that a magic sword?
Yes, I think it must be his magic sword which may or may not be named Excalibur! You can tell because all of his enemies were blinded! Arthur’s just cutting into them now! Really making the most of that +1 to attack and damage!
The crowd loves it! We’ve got a capacity crowd here at Caerlaeon Stadium, and every one of them is on their feet shouting ARTHUR! ARTHUR! Now they’re spilling over onto the field and rioting and attacking Arthur’s enemies! This is one for the history books!
Then Lot and the other kings fled, because it was either that or start trying to kill all the peasants in the region. Was Arthur going to chase them down and kill them? No, no, Arthur’s head coach Merlin pulled him out of there instead.
Final score Arthur sixty-three, Lot and Mister 100 et cetera seven.
After the battle, Arthur headed back to London, where Merlin told him to call all his barons together for a planning session. Team Lot & Mister 100 were dangerous business, not folks whom Arthur could just ignore. Arthur assembled everyone together for a planning session, they sat down at the royal whiteboard and then, silence.
“Okay, pitches!” Arthur snapped his fingers. “Pitches, I want to hear pitches.”
And the barons exchanged glances and they shrugged. They’d tried nothing and they were out of ideas. Their best plan was “have a big fight with Team Lot & Mister 100,” which was also Arthur’s best idea, and he was worried it wasn’t a very good idea.
So Arthur called in Merlin. “Okay,” he said. “I know you said to get everyone together and hammer out a plan, but we’re flailing here. What are we missing?”
Merlin nodded. “Well, first off Team Lot & Mister 100 has recruited four more kings while you guys have been sitting here, which brings them up to a total of ten kings. You, Arthur, are one king. 10 to 1. Those aren’t great odds.”
“Well, I could win or I could lose, so that’s fifty-fifty, right?” asked Arthur. The only math Arthur knew was how to keep track of the score in jousting.
“That is not how that works,” said Merlin. “Listen, though, I got a plan. You know France, right?”
“And you know Benwick, right?”
“Of course,” said Arthur. “Who hasn’t heard of the powerful and mighty Western European nation of Benwick, and its mighty capital Castle Benwick, with all of those Roman ruins, rich history, center of art and commerce?”
“So I happen to know Bors, the King of France, and Ban, the King of Benwick. They’re a couple of good dudes with a pile of knights each. They’ll make great allies.”
“Cool,” said Arthur. “But how do I bring them on board?”
“Not a problem,” said Merlin. “There’s this other guy, King Claudas, I don’t even need to tell you where he’s king of, he’s at war with France and Benwick both at once. There’s this one castle that all three of them claim, and Claudas is kicking their asses, really, it’s shameful.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Arthur considered. “So you want me to ally with losers. Lot won’t be expecting that.”
“What you do is,” said Merlin, “what you do is you contact Ban and Bors and promise to help them defeat Claudas if they help you defeat Team Lot & Mister 100.”
“Sounds sharp to me,” said Arthur. “I’m sold on this plan. This was a great planning session. Thanks for the idea of holding a planning session, Merlin!”
King Arthur got his two best knights — Brastias and Ulfius, the two guys he used for everything, the old firm, I dunno whatever happened to Sir Jordanus but it couldn’t have been pretty. He wrote out a couple of nice letters to Bors and Ban and gave one letter to each of Brastias and Ulfius. Brastias and Ulfius sailed out to the city of Antwerp Benwick, which was where Bors and Ban ware. No, I don’t know why Bors the King of France was in Benwick. Their trip was super uneventful except at the end as they were going into the city they bumped into this gang of eight knights.
“You’re under arrest on suspicion of not being from around here,” said the eight knights.
“It’s cool,” said Brastias and Ulfius. “We’re King Arthur’s men, here to deliver letters to Bors and Ban about teaming up to take out Claudas.”
“Oh, then you’re double under arrest,” said the eight knights. “We’re Claudas’s men. We were just hanging out in Benwick behind enemy lines causing trouble. We’ll take you back home and ransom you. It’ll be great for us, expensive for Arthur, and humiliating for you two. Also Bors and Ban will be humiliated. That’s a win-win-win!”
“That doesn’t sound like a good deal for us,” said Brastias and Ulfius, so there’s a fight.
No one wanted to kill anyone else during this fight, so they wrapped up their spears in pillows before they get started. At first there were two on Arthur’s side and eight on Claudas’s, then was two and six, then two and four, then two and two, and I guess the last two of Claudas’s men declined to retreat because pretty soon all eight of them were lying on the ground, bruised and pillow-to-the-faced. Brastias and Ulfius rode on into Benwick.
Ah, Benwick! City of Cod! Have you ever been to Benwick? How’s the Benwick cuisine? I’ve always wanted to see the big museum there.
They were stopped by a couple more knights, Sir Phariance and Sir Lionses (whose names sound remarkably made-up and fake). They assumed it was going to be more of the same, but no, Phariance and Lionses had been sent by Bors and Ban to investigate this story that was going around the city about Arthur having sent a couple of messengers in. The messengers were supposedly hella badass, able to take on four-to-one odds.
Ulfius and Brastias met Bors and Ban, and turned the letters over to them, and everyone had a good laugh about Claudas’s eight men and how terrible they were, and Bors and Ban agreed to come help Arthur out.
So Ulfius and Brastias returned to London. Arthur asked how it went, and they said it went well. Bors and Ban were coming! Arthur asked when, and Ulfius and Brastias said November.
I don’t get the chronology here at all and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Arthur was crowned at Pentecost, which was around the first of June give or take a few weeks. Then at either the same Pentecost or the next one (or possibly the one after that) he met up with Team Lot & Mister 100, which took an unknown amount of time. Then he sent his knights to get help, and then the help was coming at the start of November (All Hallowmass is what Malory says specifically, and I assume that’s either All Saint’s Day or All Souls Day, so the first or second of November). But Arthur called this good news, so, I guess November is a reasonable time for Ban and Bors to show up and not many months too late.
Either way, November came, and Ban and Bors came with it. They brought a few hundred knights, and Arthur threw another big party with Sir Kay running the catering. It was such a big deal that Kay needed two knights to assist, Sir Lucan and Sir Griflet. Everyone was dressed up very nice, with Arthur, Ban, Bors, the Archbishop of Canterbury (still hanging around) and Sir Ector (who was after all Arthur’s foster father) hanging out in a special gold VIP area.
This big party to celebrate Ban and Bors showing up with their hundreds of knights, it was besides an eating-and-drinking party a tournament party! Everyone did a bunch of jousts and mock combat. (JOUSTING TOURNAMENT 2!) Arthur divided everyone up into two teams, with the French and Benwick knights on one team and his own knights on the other.
First bout: Sir Kay’s assistant caterer Sir Griflet versus one of the French, or possibly Benwick, knights, Sir Ladinas. It did not go well for Griflet; he went down stayed down after the first fall, which led everyone to worry he had died and that things had thus gone quite poorly for the beginning of the tournament. Sir Kay’s other assistant caterer, Sir Lucan, went in and helped Griflet off the field, and gave him some orange slices and a new horse, and then the two of them started doing some two-on-two fighting with pairs of Continentals, boom boom boom, scoring many points and kicking tremendous amounts of ass. Also Sir Kay put together a six-man team that wallops all the other six-man teams! The lesson here is, don’t mess with the caterers! Everyone cheered for the caterers; they were the heroes of the hour.
Sir Placidas, another knight, took Kay on one-on-one and beat him down, which caused Griflet to jump into the ring and by this point it was basically a pro wrestling match. Tensions got high, the refs stepped in and separated everyone, they all had a good meal and some drink and Arthur and Ban and Bors gave the caterers a trophy.
After the tournament adjourned, Arthur had a long sit-down with Ban and Bors and their brother Gwenbaus… did I not mention that Ban and Bors were brothers? And that they had a third brother who wasn’t king of anywhere? Neither did Malory. Anyway, sit-down. Ban and Bors and Gwenbaus were there, and of course Arthur’s two best knights at the time Ulfius and Brastias, and Merlin because you can’t have a sit-down without Merlin.
The seven of them argued long into the night about how to deal with Team Lot & Mister 100. They went to bed and got up and argued more and then they went to church and then they argued more and then they had lunch and they argued more and finally they were all argued out and decided to go with Merlin’s plan.
I assume it’s Merlin’s plan. All plans are Merlin’s plans.
Plan follows: Merlin would take King Ban’s signet ring back to Benwick with Sir Gracian and Sir Placidas. There, they would make a big deal of fortifying defenses against King Claudas. While Gracian and Placidas would settle in to repel any siege of Benwick that Claudas mounts, Merlin would return over the sea with the bulk of Bors’s and Ban’s men, the assembled combined army of France and Benwick. That was ten thousand men, a substantially larger number of men than has been tossed around in this story up to this point. A big pile of dudes.
Merlin was to take this sizable army over the Channel to Dover, secretly. He would then march them, secretly, across England and put them up, secretly, in Bedegraine, which is a forested valley where they would hide. Secretly.
And so the next time Arthur saw Merlin, he asked the wizard if he wasn’t going to go ahead and make that trip to Benwick as they’d discussed.
“Hah!” said Merlin. “It’s all set up. Already done!”
Arthur and the brothers marveled at how fast it happened.
“Hey, I’m magic,” answered Merlin. “I can do that.”
Arthur gathered all his men together, an incredible twenty thousand guys! He set them up running border patrols along the river Trent. At this point Arthur and his buddies were all come at me bro with regards to Team Lot & Mister 100; all the preparations they could make were made.
Team Lot & Mister 100, meanwhile, were putting all their ducks in a row as well. They recruited one more king, which brought their total ranks up to eleven kings. They were all ready to get revenge for losing the battle at Caerlaeon. 11 to 3 was pretty good odds, though not as good as 10 to 1, which was what they had before the last round of draft picks. Would they be able to pull out a win while Merlin pulled for the other side? I’m guessing not.
But they didn’t know that they were doomed, they were busy high-diving one another and bragging about who was bringing the most men to the field. The finalized roster of kings looks like this:
King Brandegoris of Stranggore, who drinks too much and promises too freely. Five thousand cavalry.
King Clariance of Northumberland, who has nothing to prove to anyone. Three thousand infantry.
Mister 100, who is young and everyone likes him, he’s the Great Welsh Hope. Four thousand cavalry, plus one hundred knights I expect.
King Lot, Arthur’s brother-in-law, who organized the whole thing. Five thousand cavalry.
The Duke of Cambenet, not technically a king but we don’t mind. Five thousand cavalry.
King Uriens of Gore, Arthur’s other brother-in-law, who has plenty to prove apparently, won’t be outdone: six thousand cavalry.
King Idres of Cornwall, nothing interesting about him, five thousand cavalry.
King Cradelmas of nowhere in particular, nothing interesting about him either, five thousand cavalry.
King Agwisance of Ireland, I don’t know why he’s even getting involved, five thousand cavalry.
King Nentres, Arthur’s third brother-in-law whom you probably forgot about, five thousand cavalry.
King Carados of nowhere important, five thousand cavalry.
(Because it wouldn’t be an account of battles from a premodern era if there wasn’t a stultifying list of which general brought how many triremes, that’s why.)
I added those all up and I got fifty thousand cavalry, three thousand infantry, which goes to show you I’m not Malory because he tells us the correct total is fifty thousand cavalry and ten thousand infantry.
Anyway, they assembled and declared themselves ready to invade Arthur’s land. Where to hit him first? Someone suggested the forest of Bedegraine as a likely spot. So they rode into the forest and whoops, there was a castle full of Benwick knights! Malory is very unclear as to whether this castle was built by Merlin using magic, or by the Benwick knights using Roman-era stockade engineering, or maybe there was always a castle there and Malory just forgot about it when he called Bedegraine a forested valley last chapter.
I was, at this point, sort of expecting for Merlin to have cast the original D&D version of mass polymorph. This was a high-level magic spell that temporarily transformed an army of guys into a forest, so as to hide them and confuse your enemies. It sounds reasonably plausible: Team Lot & Mister 100 would get there, they just see a forest, they’d be confused, they’d let their guard down, and then boom, the trees would turn back into the assembled French and Benwick knights and it’s an ambush! But no, instead they merely held a protracted siege.
So their invasion halted as it began. The knights of Benwick and France (those two great powers of the Continent) held off Team Lot & Mister 100, until King Lot was like, screw this, and left behind a skeletal force of men to engage the knights at Bedegraine while the rest of their army rode south with Mister 100 into Arthur’s territory.