Gawaine rode around Tuscany for a few hours. Just before dawn he came across another knight, heading the opposite way on the road.
This guy walked his horse, rather than riding it, and he had a boy following along behind him carrying his spear. Gawaine immediately noted the other knight’s armor and clothing, which was some high-end stuff. He had fur trim, gold and silver decorations, even some gem-encrusted griffon symbols on the stranger’s shield. Gawaine did just what you would expect him to do in that situation: he readied his spear, set himself up for a joust, and rode up on the stranger.
“Hey dude! Where are you from, huh?” Gawaine demanded.
The other knight looked askance. “I’m from Tuscany.” His name was Sir Priamus, although Malory doesn’t get around to mentioning that for a good long while.
Gawaine was unimpressed. “Oh, a foreigner, huh?”
“We’re in Tuscany now. Who are you, to ask me these bold and rude questions?”
“I’m the guy who’s going to joust the heck out of you!”
“Yeah? Well, nobody ever had to try too hard to get me to joust — joust on!”
And they jousted! At first Gawaine wasn’t losing badly, but then he was.
“You should surrender, or at least call for a timeout,” said Priamus. “You’re bleeding all over your clothes; that’s going to stain.”
“I don’t care!” spit Gawaine. “I’m not done jousting!”
“Well, have it your way.”
“Quick time-out, though.” Gawaine took a knee. “After I defeat you, I’m probably going to need a doctor. Do you folks have leeches in this part of the world?”
“We have barbers. I could give you directions to a barber, but first I need you to promise me something.”
“I’ve been looking to convert to Christianity, but I need someone to sponsor me…”
“Done,” said Gawaine. “Wait, how is a Tuscan knight not Christian already?”
“I was born here,” Priamus explained, “but my father was a Libyan general, who fought Rome for many years before, you know, losing. War ended, and my family moved up here before I was born.”
“Huh,” said Gawaine. “So you’re Muslim?”
“In theory, yes,” said Priamus. “But bear in mind Malory knows literally nothing about Islam, so let me instead stress that I’m descended from Alexander the Great, Hector, and the Maccabees. That sounds exotic, yet plausible, right?”
“You’re definitely not English-Logrish-British, or French, or Benwick,” Gawaine agreed.
“I’m supposed to be fighting Arthur and his army. I mean, me and everybody else in Italy,” said Priamus. “But I figure that’s pretty much a nonstarter. So this whole conversion to Christianity thing; what’s the first move? I guess for starters, can you tell me about yourself? I want to be able to explain to people about the knight who converted me.”
“Oh, um, I’m… some guy,” said Gawaine. As had been established in Book IV, he was terrible at coming up with cover stories. “I’m not one of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.”
“I suppose not. If you were, you’d be helping with the siege of Florence, right? Sir Florence’s siege of that one city?”
“Yeah… I, um, I worked for Arthur, for, like, thirty years. I was his personal armor-wearer and horse-washer, and then just recently he promoted me to yeoman and gave me a bunch of money and sent me on my way, so now I’m a wandering knight-errant in Tuscany.”
“That’s hella implausible, but whatever,” said Priamus. “I hear Arthur’s a pretty good boss.”
“Whew!” said Gawaine. “You don’t hate Arthur? Okay, I’m coming clean — I’m his nephew Gawaine, and in fact I am a knight of the Round Table. I lied to you just now to suss out your intentions.”
“You’re a peculiar man, Gawaine.” Priamus sighed, already regretting his choice of Christianity sponsor. “Well, regardless, if you’re a knight in Arthur’s service, and I’ve signed up with you, I guess that means I’m defecting over to Arthur’s side.”
Malory doesn’t specify, but I assume all this conversation took place while Priamus walked Gawaine over to a barber to get his bleeding stopped. Also, I note that Priamus suggested they end the joust and Gawaine refused, but then the joust ended anyway; what with all the conversation they didn’t ever get around to completing the duel. Gawaine probably marked it as a win in his scorebook, though.
Later, after Gawaine had been barbered, Priamus cleared his throat. “So if I work for Arthur now, we should probably go warn him about the sneak attack.”
“Yeah, I was on my way to meet up with them. Sixty thousand men from southern Italy and points further out — we’re talking Lorriane, Dolphiny, Lombardy, Libya. They’re marching on the siege of Florence. Florence, again, being the guy Arthur put in charge of the siege.”
“Shit, yeah, let’s blow some horns and sound the alarm!”
“Whoa, tiger! Right around the corner up there, there’s about a hundred knights that I was, until very very recently, leading. Now they’re my implacable enemies, what with my having defeated you in a joust and then surrendered so you can help me convert to Christianity.”
“Hey now!” Gawaine protested. “That’s not what happened.”
Priamus ignored him. “Those guys aren’t going to come around just because I’ve defected. If they hear you blow the horn, boom, a hundred versus one, and you’re already wounded.”
So Priamus and Gawaine headed back the way Gawaine came, and found Sir Wisshard and the other cattle rustlers, still in the meadow where Gawaine had left them.
Gawaine filled in Wisshard and Florence about Priamus, and also it turned out that Priamus had a magic potion that cures wounds. At this point he broke that out, and within an hour he and Gawaine were fresh as daises, which was great, because there was a sizable host of men coming up behind them.
Priamus asserted that these are the same guys he had been fighting alongside until very recently. There were apparently seven hundred of them in total, even though there had been only one hundred before. I don’t know where the other six hundred came from. Priamus thought it was a terrible idea to stand and fight, just him and Gawaine and the other knights; seven hundred versus six is actually worse odds than a hundred versus one.
Gawaine, though, maybe he was a little drunk on healing potion, because he thought standing and fighting was a great idea.
“Think of all the cattle they have!” he pointed out. And to be fair, they did have a lot of cattle.
Gawaine was raring to go, but he was the only one. Things got a little confused, as Sir Florence called in Sir Floridas. Flo told Flo to run over with some men. “Get that cattle secured before the various Roman-allied knights show up!”
Floridas pulled a hundred knights from somewhere and they rode around, steering the cattle, and then, Romans! Sir Ferrant, from Spain, with seven hundred knights!
“Hoy, comrade!” called Ferrant. “Hoy! We’re looking for Arthur’s men — have you seen them? Are you come to help us, with this cattle? Did the senate send you? Where are you riding to, my friends?”
Floridas panicked and charged Ferrant, even though he was just smiling and waving. Boom, neck broken, Spanish knight dead, and the seven hundred knights were leaderless!
As a group they decided to avenge Ferrant, and started laying into Floridas and his hundred knights, and the melee spilled over into the siege’s main camp, Gawaine and Priamus and Florence and all. Priamus found Gawaine, having a little lie-down once the healing potion buzz had worn off, and told him about the fight. He reminded Gawaine how eager he’d been to get into hopelessly outmatched battle.
“Oh, right, yeah,” said Gawaine. “That was a thing I said.”
Before Gawaine could weasel out of the situation, yet another knight arrived, Sir Ethelwold, and his buddy the Duke of Dutchmen. These were allies, which was good, and they’d brought a few thousand friends, which was also good! Gawaine cheered and rallied the troops and they had a big ol’ fight! Blah blah blah fight blah.
1) The knights that used to follow Sir Priamus arrived. Malory is extremely vague as to whether they defected with Priamus, or fought against him and Arthur’s knights.
2) The Romans had another giant on their side. This one was named Jubance, and he killed Sir Gherard of Wales, whom Malory seems to think we already know.
3) Sir Priamus was MVP on Arthur’s side, this battle. Neither Arthur nor Launcelot participated.
4) Sir Chestaline, the child and ward of Sir Gawaine, Robin to Gawaine’s Batman. Evidently a major character but one whom we’ve heard nothing about up to this point! He was killed.
5) Overall it was another decisive victory for Arthur, even if Arthur himself was technically offscreen.
6) Total casualties map pretty closely to the Battle of the Bulge. This was a big-deal fight in the overall Arthurian invasion of Europe.
Afterwards Florence and Gawaine looted and looted until they were all looted out, with cattle and silver and gold and weapons and treasure — plenty of riches! They led the victorious survivors and their prisoners back to the other end of the siege, where Arthur had sat out the battle for whatever reason. They presented him with all their stuff and their aggrandized tale of awesome exploits.
“That’s all great,” said Arthur. “Counterattack foiled, massive heroism, plenty of cattle seized. Now tell me Gawaine, who’s your well-dressed friend with the exotic complexion?”
“Ah, Uncle Sire –“
“I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
“Let me introduce Sir Priamus, who very nearly defeated me in a joust but didn’t, and whom also I have converted to Christianity! I’m a regular St. Stephen! Anyway, he’s great! You should let him get baptized, I promised I’d put in a good word for him.”
“Fair enough,” said Arthur, and set up a quick baptismal font and christened Priamus with the new name “Priamus.” Then for good measure Arthur knighted him, made him a duke, and promoted him to the Round Table. All on Sir Gawaine’s say-so! Priamus was a good guy, but frankly this was the least wise thing Arthur had done in a while.
“I’ll try to live up to the trust you’ve placed in me, sire,” said Priamus.
“Terrific. Now, we’ve got plenty of cattle, let’s focus on breaking this siege!”
Equipped with cattle, Florence and the rest of Arthur’s men were able to really get to work. They built some ladders, they hauled dirt into the moat, they tore down some outer walls. They erected ladders, and prepared to go over the top for a serious siege-breaking.
“Shit,” said the people trapped in the city. They’d already played all their siege-resisting cards. They were out of boiling oil, they had no arrows left, and they were low on soldiers that weren’t crippled by malnutrition. “This isn’t going to go well for us.”
“I’ve got an idea,” said the ruler of the city, who was both a duchess and a countess, and whose name was Clarisin. Clarisin got together with a wad of ladies-in-waiting and they all slipped out the front gates, which were opened for just a moment.
The women found Arthur right away, and kneeled, and politely asked him not to sack the city.
“Oh, Duchess-Countess, how can I refuse the request of a noble lady?” Arthur sighed. “Seriously, there was this whole big thing last time it came up, and now we’re all oathbound. I promise if the city surrenders, no one will suffer. Except… I need to make an example of somebody. Do you have a husband? Before you answer, let me tell you, you need to have a husband for this to work out.”
The Duchess-Countess considered. “Yessss,” she said slowly. There was a Duke-Count, yes, it turned out. “Or there could be. I am sure I can supply a husband, if that’s what you need.”
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do. You surrender the city to me, I’ll arrest your husband for not surrendering sooner and send him off to prison in Dover. Knight prison, nothing shabby. You and your children will be fine. We’ll set up a dowager-rentage system to provide for you.”
“That sounds fair,” said Clarisin. Soon Clarisin’s eldest son was handing over the keys to the city and everyone was cheering, except for the poor sap Clarisin married in between this sentence and the preceding one. He quietly went off to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Afterwards Arthur rode south across Italy, taking cities as he went. He sent Florence and Floridas with a small group of men over to San Marino, where they sneaked in at dawn and took the city with minimal casualties. He circumvented Milan entirely, but when the Milanese government heard about his invasion they sent him word that they were eager to surrender. Ditto all the rest of northern Italy, central Italy, Tuscany. Genoa, Padua, all those names surrendered without a fight. Every city got a new British-Logrish-English knight for a governor, and a promise of zero rapine and pillage.
Eventually Arthur closed in on Rome. He sent word ahead, asking whether Rome would surrender the same way so many other cities have, or was Arthur going to have to burn it all to ashes, or what. And the following Saturday afternoon (Malory is oddly specific about certain things you know?) all the senators that were left alive along with the college of cardinals and the Pope assembled. They converged on Arthur’s camp en masse, with all kinds of promises of surrender.
“Give us six weeks,” they said. “We’ll throw an enormous party for you, and crown you Roman Emperor. Or Super-King, maybe? We could crown you Mega-President, Ultra-Caesar Omniking… whatever you like.”
“Emperor is fine,” said Arthur.
Six weeks later, which was Christmas, Arthur arrived in Rome. So, while the description of it was pretty breezy, Arthur’s invasion took most of a year. He left Britain on the fifth of February and didn’t arrive in Rome until late December. Not a very short campaign!
The Romans, as promised, held a big party. The Pope crowned Arthur Holy Super Mega-President Roman Emperor! All the other subservient kings and senators cheered. Arthur spent a good long while revamping the Imperial government, setting up a cohesive and sensical system that stretched from England to Sicily. He distributed land and property and titles in such an overwhelmingly fair and awesome manner that no one, not even his enemies, could find fault with his wisdom. Sir Priamus ended up Duke of Lorraine, which I think means he and Benwick were neighbors. Arthur was good at being king, you guys, that’s the moral here.
Afterwards, he made a little speech about how dreadful war was and how great the peaceful home life was. He got all his treasure packed up, and then convoyed all the way from Rome back to Camelot, traveling via the port of Sandwich again. Along the way he passed out more riches everywhere he went. Arthur’s so dreamy!
This is actually the last time before the end that Arthur really takes center stage in his own novel. From here on out, the main characters are Sir Tristram, that jerk, and Sir Launcelot. They share space with Sir Palomides, Sir Gareth, Sir Breunor, Sir Lamorak, Sir Galahad, Sir Percivale, and King Bors’s son Sir Bors, but it’s no longer Arthur’s story past this point, which is perhaps why (I’m told) some chroniclers divide Le Morte D’Arthur into comically-misproportioned thirds: Books I-IV, Book V, and Books VI-XXI.