(King Arthur left his nephew, Mordred, son of Arthur's half sister Morgause and King Lot of Orkney, in charge of Britain when he went to fight in Europe. Treacherous Mordred seized the throne, and Arthur returned to reclaim it.)
Entrenched in woodland, King Arthur’s knights sat with backs to trees. Bright flags snagged on gorse. Cornwall was a familiar visiting place for Arthur’s court and his knights knew every dip of the land, every beach on the shore. Luring Arthur to Cornwall was perhaps not the wisest of Mordred’s plans. King Arthur’s army moved on easily toward the river Camel.
They cut a stout path through the brambles, bracken and oaks to where Mordred waited by the river. King Arthur’s standard flapped a regular beat in the wind, the golden dragon resplendent. As the knights approached, they heard the sounds of thousands of men waiting for battle.
Arthur had hoped Mordred would have moved on, perhaps even returned the traitor’s crown. As it stood, Arthur and his nephew would fight to the death. The horses’ repetitive snorts gave some scarce reassurance. Thousands of men savoured the familiar smell of the woodlands then steeled their hearts for blood.
Both sides waited for the first man to draw his sword, signaling the beginning of the battle. An adder appeared, wishing to sun its back on hot, gleaming armour. The nearest knight drew his sword to fell the snake and the battle began. Mordred’s troops stood in three battalions, each man to fight until they fell. Arthur’s men cut paths down to them and waded into battle, a horrible slaughter followed.
Arthur wished he were making his way to Rome as he had hoped to after many successful battles in Gaul. Again it was one close to him who had crossed him, taking his battles to the nerve. This wasn’t a battle for victory, it was carnage to reclaim his throne from a traitor.
They fought all day until Sir Lucan the Butler and Sir Bedivere were the only knights left. Nearly all fighters on both sides lay dead. On Mordred’s side Celdric and Elaf, thousands of Scotts and Picts. On Arthur’s, Olbricht king of Norway, Aschil King of Denmark and Cador Duke of Cornwall.
Cador’s death hurt Arthur most, he signaled for his friend to be carried away for burial. When Cador was gone, Arthur rode in search of his nephew. ‘Traitor,’ Arthur shouted as he raced toward Mordred launching in with his sword. Before he died, Mordred drove his sword into Arthur’s helmet. Arthur was stunned, Mordred fell dead. Sir Bedivere rode to Arthur’s side and held him steady in his saddle as they left the field of dying men. A field where, to this day, is silent of birdsong.
It would not be long before Arthur too would die. He and Bedivere rode through the woods and across the moor to Dozmary Pool. Too weak to hold its weight, Arthur instructed his knight ‘Take my sword to the side of the lake and throw it into the water.’
Sir Bedivere knelt to take Excalibur and went to the edge of the lake with Arthur’s sword. He said to himself, ‘If I throw this beautiful sword, covered in jewels into the lake, no good will come of it.’ He hid the sword under a tree.
‘Bedivere, you must return my sword to the lake,’ Arthur said. ‘It has served me and was for my use only. Go again to the water’s edge and throw in the sword.’
Sir Bedivere collected the sword and returned to the water’s edge. Bedivere thought it would be an awful shame and waste to throw Excalibur away and again he hid the sword and went back to the King.
‘What did you see?’ Arthur asked.
‘Nothing but water my King.’
‘You are not telling me the truth, do not betray me a third time for my sword. Please Sir Bedivere, take it to the lake. I am becoming so weak I can hardly lift my arm.’ Arthur smiled kindly to his knight and Sir Bedivere went to find the sword. Sir Bedivere walked to the edge of the dark waters and raised his arm to throw King Arthur’s great sword Excalibur into the lake. As the blade fell toward the surface, the Lady of the Lake reached up and took the sword gracefully beneath the waters.
Retold by Anna Chorlton
Introduction to Legends and Tales of North Cornwall Enys Tregarthan
Thomas Mallory Le Morte D'Arthur. 1485 Wordsworth 1996.
Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain. 1136
Alfred Lord Tennyson Idylls of the King 1885