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Studies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries online

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after various adventures, he came as near the Holy Grail as it was
given to him to come. As he was kneeling before a closed door in a
castle "he heard a voice which sang sweetly, that it seemed none
earthly thing. And him thought that the voice said, joy and Honour be
to the Father of Heaven. Then Sir Lancelot wist well that there was the
Sancgreall in that chamber." Then he prayed.

"And with that the chamber door opened, and there came out a great
clearness, that the house was so bright as though all the torches of
the world had been there. And anon he would have entered, but a voice
said, Flee, Sir Lancelot, and enter not, for and if thou enter thou
shalt forethink it. Then he withdrew him aback, and was right heavy in
his mind. Then looked he up in the midst of the room and saw a table of
silver, and the holy vessel covered with red samite, and so many angels
about it, whereof one of them held a candle of wax burning, and the
other held a Cross and the ornaments of the altar. And before the holy
vessel he saw a good man, clothed like a priest, and it seemed that he
was at the sacring of the Mass.

"And it seemed unto Sir Lancelot that, above the priest's hands, there
were three men, whereof the two put the youngest by likeliness between
the priest's hands, and so he lift it upright high, and it seemed to
show unto the people. And then Sir Lancelot marvelled not a little, for
him thought the priest was so greatly charged of the figure that him
seemed he should have fallen to the ground; and when he saw none about
him, he came to the door a great pace, and said: -

"Fair sweet Father, Jesu Christ, me take it for no sin, though I help
the good man, which hath great need of help. Right so he entered into
the chamber, and came toward the table of silver. And when he came nigh
he felt a breath that him thought it was intermeddled with fire, which
smote him so sore in the visage that him thought it all to brent his
visage."

This is the culminating point of Lancelot's quest; he swooned away, and
lay as one dead for twenty-four days. Nearer he might not come to the
Holy Grail, and the sequel shows why, for after a time he returned to
the court and fell into sin again, and forgot his good resolutions: -

"For, as the French book saith, had not Sir Lancelot been in his privy
thoughts and in his mind set inwardly to the queen, as he was in
seeming outward unto God, there had no knight passed him in the quest
of the Sancgreall; but ever his thoughts were privily upon the queen."

But soon there arose a bitter quarrel between Lancelot and Guinevere,
and she banished him from her sight. During his absence from the court
she made a dinner, at which one of the guests, Sir Modor, was poisoned,
and the queen accused of the crime. Guinevere was therefore impeached,
and so truly did all the Round Table believe in her guilt, that at
first no knight would come forward to defend her.

Ultimately, however, the "good Sir Bors," Lancelot's kinsman, was
prevailed on to be her champion, provided that at the moment of the
contest a better knight did not appear, to answer for her. Of course,
when Sir Bors is about to enter the lists in the meadow before
Winchester, where there is a great fire and an iron stake, at which
Guinevere is to be burned if her champion is overcome, a strange knight
appears in unknown armour, and turns out to be Lancelot, fights for the
queen, and overthrows her accuser.

Here comes in the exquisite story of Elaine, to which Tennyson has done
ample justice.

Soon after the death of the "lily maid of Astolat," Sir Agravaine,
moved by jealousy of Arthur's greatest knight, discloses the story of
Lancelot's treacherous love for the queen, and extracts from the king a
reluctant permission to take the miscreant. But Sir Modred is the real
instigator of the plot, working upon Agravaine's weakness, and Tennyson
has altered little in the dramatic situation which immediately follows.
His description of the parting scene between Lancelot and Guinevere is
fine: -

"And then they were agreed upon a night
(When the good King should not be there) to meet
And part for ever. Passion pale they met
And greeted: hands in hands, and eye to eye,
Low on the border of her couch they sat
Stammering and staring; it was their last hour,
A madness of farewells. And Modred brought
His creatures to the basement of the tower
For testimony; and crying with full voice,
'Traitor, come out, ye are trapt at last,' aroused
Lancelot, who rushing outward lion-like
Leapt on him, and hurled him headlong, and he fell
Stunned, and his creatures took and bare him off,
And all was still; then she, 'The end is come,
And I am shamed forever;' and he said,
`Mine be the shame; mine was the sin; but rise,
And fly to my strong castle over seas
There will I hide thee till my life shall end,
There hold thee with my life against the world.'
She answered, 'Lancelot, wilt thou hold me so?
Nay, friend, for we have taken our farewells.
Would God that thou coulds't hide me from myself!"

Lancelot will not yield himself up lightly to his enemies; Sir
Agravaine and another knight fall in the struggle with him; but it is
not now that Guinevere betakes herself to Almesbury, and the whole
beautiful scene between her and Arthur, and his most touching farewell
to her are weavings of the modern poet's imagination. Beautiful the
scene surely is, although wanting in one supreme touch, which a more
Catholic-minded poet would have given to it. Guinevere's sin, according
to Tennyson, is merely her sin against her husband; according to Malory
it is her sin against God, and this is the very essence of the true
Guinevere's repentance.

What really happens is this: Lancelot takes counsel with Sir Bors and
his other friends, as to how he may save the queen, and it is decided
that if on the morrow she is brought to the fire to be burned, Lancelot
and all his kinsmen shall rescue her.

Accordingly, Arthur's nephews, Gawayn, Gahers, and Gareth, lead
Guinevere forth "without Caerleyell, and there she was despoiled unto
her smock, and so then her ghostly father was brought to her to be
shriven of her misdeeds." But Lancelot's messenger gives the alarm
duly, and Lancelot appears with all his friends. There is much fighting
and bloodshed, and Sir Gahers and Sir Gareth are slain.

"Then Sir Lancelot rode straight unto the queen, and made a kirtle and
a gown to be cast upon her, and then he made her to be set behind him,
and rode with her unto his castle of joyous Garde, and there he kept
her as a noble knight should, and many lords and kings send Sir
Lancelot many good knights. When it was known openly that King Arthur
and Sir Lancelot were at debate, many knights were glad of their
debate, and many knights were sorry. But King Arthur sorrowed for pure
sorrow, and said, Alas, that ever I bare any crown upon my head."

Gawayn, mourning the death of his brothers, incites the king to besiege
Lancelot in Joyous Garde, and at length, reluctantly, Arthur consents
to make war.

"Of this war was noise throughout all Christendom. And at last it was
noised before the Pope, and he, considering the great goodness of King
Arthur and Sir Lancelot, which was called the most noble knight of the
world, wherefore the Pope called unto him a noble clerk that at that
time there was present the French book saith it was the Bishop of
Rochester. And the Pope gave him Bulls under lead, unto King Arthur of
England, charging him upon pain of interdiction of all England, that he
take his queen, Dame Guinevere, to him again, and accord with Sir
Lancelot."

Arthur would have made peace at once, but at first Gawayn prevented
him. Then the bishop went to Lancelot and charged him to bring back the
queen: -

"And the bishop had of the king his great seal and assurance, as he was
a true anointed king, that Sir Lancelot should go safe and come safe,
and that the queen should not be reproved of the king nor of none
other, for nothing done before time past."

To Lancelot the bishop ended his exhortation in these words: -

"Wit ye well, the Pope must be obeyed."

And Lancelot answered that it was never in his thoughts to withhold the
queen from his lord, King Arthur, "but in so much as she should have
been dead for my sake, me seemeth it was my part to save her life, and
put her from that danger till better recover might come. And now I
thank God that the Pope hath made her peace, for God knoweth I would be
a thousandfold more gladder to bring her again than I was of her taking
away."

So he brought Guinevere to the king, and when they had both knelt
before him, he said: -

"My most redoubted lord ye shall understand that, by the Pope's
commandment and by yours, I have brought unto you my lady the queen, as
right requireth." Then King Arthur and all the other kings kneeled down
and gave thankings and louings (praises) to God and to his Blessed
Mother.

But Gawayn would not be reconciled to Lancelot, who in vain offered to
do penance for the death of Gahers and Gareth. In vain he said: -

"This much shall I offer you if it may please the king's good grace,
and you my lord Sir Gawayn. And first I shall begin at Sandwich, and
there I shall go in my shirt and barefoot, and at every ten miles' end
I will found and cause to make a house of religion, of what order ye
will assign me, with a whole convent, to sing and to read day and
night, in especial for Sir Gareth's sake and Sir Gahers; and this shall
I perform from Sandwich unto Caerleyell. And this, Sir Gawayn, me
thinketh, were more fairer and better unto their souls than that my
most noble lord Arthur and you should war on me, for thereby ye shall
get none avail."

But Gawayn answered him with hard words ending thus: -

"And if it were not for the Pope's commandment I should do battle with
my body against thy body, and prove it unto thee that thou hast been
false unto mine uncle, King Arthur, and to me both, and that shall I
prove upon thy body, when thou art departed from hence, wheresoever I
find thee. Then all the knights and ladies that were there wept as they
had been mad, and the tears fell upon King Arthur's cheeks. Then Sir
Lancelot kissed the queen before them all, took his leave, and departed
with all the knights of his kin."

He went to his estates over the sea; but Gawayn gave Arthur no rest
till he had made ready an army and crossed the sea to make war on him.
Modred, in Arthur's absence, seized the kingdom, and would have wedded
the queen by force, had not the Archbishop of Canterbury threatened to
curse him with bell, book, and candle. When Modred defied him, the
archbishop departed, and "did the curse in the most orgulous wise that
might be done."

But Arthur, receiving tidings of Modred's conduct, returned to Dover,
where the usurper met him, and "there was much slaughter of gentle
knights." Here Sir Gawayn was mortally wounded, and Arthur " made great
sorrow and moan." Two hours before his death, Gawayn wrote a letter to
Lancelot, telling him of Modred's crime and beseeching him, "the most
noblest knight," to come back to the realm: -

"And so at the hour of None, Sir Gawayn betook himself into the hands
of our Lord God, after that he had received his Saviour. And then the
king let bury him within a chapel within the castle of Dover, and
there, yet to this day, all men may see the skull of Sir Gawayn, and
the same wound is seen that Sir Lancelot gave him in battle."

In the "Passing of Arthur" Tennyson has kept mainly to the original,
though he omits Arthur's command to Sir Bedevere to pray for his soul.

The king, overcome by his enemies, receives his deadly wound, and sails
away in the barge, with the three queens, to the island valley of
Avilion. But, according to Malory, Sir Bedevere finds him on the
morrow, lying dead in a little chapel on a rock: -

"And when Queen Guinevere understood that her lord King Arthur was
slain, and all the noble knights, Sir Modred and all the remnant, she
stole away, and five ladies with her, and so she went to Almesbury, and
there she let make herself a nun, and wore white clothes and black, and
great penance she took as ever did sinful lady in this land, and never
creature could make her merry, but lived in fastings, prayers, and
alms-deeds, that all manner of people marvelled how virtuously she was
changed. Now leave we Queen Guinevere in Almesbury, a nun in white
clothes and black, and there she was abbess and ruler as reason would,
and turn me from her and speak me of Sir Lancelot du Lake."

Meanwhile, Sir Lancelot had returned to England to avenge King Arthur's
death: -

"Then the people told him how that he was slain, and Sir Modred and a
hundred thousand died on a day, and how Sir Modred gave King Arthur
there the first battle at his landing, and there was good Sir Gawayn
slain, and on the morn Sir Modred fought with the king upon Barham
Down, and there the king put Sir Modred to the worse. Alas, said Sir
Lancelot, this is the heaviest tidings that ever came to me. Now fair
Sirs, said Sir Lancelot, shew me the tomb of Sir Gawayn. And then
certain people of the town brought him into the castle of Dover and
showed him the tomb. Then Sir Lancelot kneeled down and wept and prayed
heartily for his soul. And that night he made a dole, and all they that
would come had as much flesh, fish, wine, and ale as they would, and
every man and woman had twelve pence come who would. Thus with his own
hand dealt he his money in a mourning gown; and ever he wept, and
prayed them to pray for the soul of Sir Gawayn. And on the morn all the
priests and clerks that might be gotten in the country were there and
sung Mass of Requiem. And there offered first Sir Lancelot, and he
offered an hundred pound, and then the seven kings offered forty pound
apiece, and also there was a thousand knights, and each of them offered
a pound, and the offering dured from morn till night. And Sir Lancelot
lay two nights on his tomb in prayers and in weeping. Then on the third
day Sir Lancelot called the kings, dukes, earls, barons, and knights,
and said thus: -

My fair lords, I thank you all of your coming into this country with
me: but we come too late, and that shall repent me while I live, but
against death may no man rebel. But sithen it is so, said Sir Lancelot,
I will myself ride and seek my lady Queen Guinevere, for as I hear say
she hath great pain and much disease, and I heard say that she is fled
into the west country, therefore ye all abide me here, and but if I
come not again within fifteen days, then take your ships and your
fellowship, and depart into your country.

"Then came Sir Bors de Ganis, and said, My lord Sir Lancelot, what
think ye for to do, now to ride in this realm? wit thou well ye shall
find few friends. Be as it may, said Sir Lancelot, keep you still here,
for I will forth on my journey, and no man nor child shall go with me.
So it was no boot to strive, but he departed and rode westerly and
sought seven or eight days, and at the last he came to a nunnery. And
then was Queen Guinevere ware of Sir Lancelot as he walked in the
cloister. And when she saw him there she swooned thrice, that all the
ladies and gentlewomen had work enough to hold the Queen up. So when
she might speak she called the ladies and gentlewomen to her and said,
Ye marvel, fair ladies, why I make this cheer. Truly, she said, it is
for the sight of yonder knight which yonder standeth, wherefore I pray
you all call him to me. And when Sir Lancelot was brought unto her she
said, through this knight and me all these wars been wrought, and the
death of the most noblest knights of the world. For through our love
that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain. Therefore, wit
ye well, Sir Lancelot, I am set in such a plight to get my soul health;
and yet I trust through God's grace after my death to have a sight of
the blessed face of Christ, and at the dreadful day of doom to sit on
His right side, for as sinful creatures as ever was I are saints in
heaven. Therefore, Sir Lancelot, I require and beseech thee heartily,
for all the love that ever was betwixt us, that thou never see me more
in the visage. And furthermore I command thee on God's behalf right
straightly that thou forsake my company, and to thy kingdom thou turn
again, and keep well thy realm from war and wrack. For as well as I
have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee; for both
through me and thee is the flower of kings and knights destroyed.
Therefore, Sir Lancelot, go to thy realm, and there take thee a wife,
and live with her in joy and bliss, and I pray thee heartily pray for
me to our Lord, that I may amend my mis-living.

"Now, sweet madam, said Sir Lancelot, would ye that I should return
again unto my country, and there to wed a lady? Nay, madam, wit you
well, that shall I never do: for I shall never be so false to you of
that I have promised, but the same destiny that ye have taken you unto,
I will take me unto, for to please God and specially to pray for you.

"If thou wilt do so, said the Queen, hold thy promise. But I may not
believe but that thou wilt turn to the world again.

"Ye say well, said he, yet wish ye me never false of my promise, and
God defend but that I should forsake the world like as ye have done.
For in the quest of the Sancgreall I had forsaken the vanities of the
world had not your lord been. And if I had done so at that time, with
my heart, will, and thought, I had passed all the knights that were in
the Sancgreall, except Sir Galahad, my son. And therefore, lady, sithen
ye have taken you to perfection, I must needs take me unto perfection
of right. For I take record of God, in you have I had mine earthly joy,
and if I had found you so disposed, I had cast me for to have had you
into mine own realm. But sithen I find you thus disposed, I ensure you
faithfully that I will take me to penance, and pray while my life
lasteth, if that I may find any hermit, either grey or white, that will
receive me. Wherefore, madam, I pray you kiss me once and never more.

"Nay, said the Queen, that shall I never do, but abstain you from such
works. And they departed. But there was never so hard a hearted man but
he would have wept to see the dolour that they made. For there was
lamentation as though they had been stung with spears, and many times
they swooned. And the ladies bare the Queen to her chamber. And Sir
Lancelot awoke, and went, and took his horse, and rode all that day and
all that night in a forest, weeping. And at the last he was ware of an
hermitage, and a chapel stood betwixt two cliffs; and then he heard a
little bell ring to Mass, and thither he rode and alighted, and tied
his horse to the gate, and heard Mass. So he that sang the Mass was the
Bishop of Canterbury. There was also Sir Bedevere, and both the bishop
and Sir Bedevere knew Sir Lancelot, and they spoke together after Mass.
But when Sir Bedevere had told his tale all whole, Sir Lancelot's heart
almost braste for sorrow, and Sir Lancelot threw his arms abroad and
said, Alas, who may trust this world! And then he kneeled down on his
knees, and prayed the bishop to shrive him and assoil him. And then he
besought the bishop that he might be his brother. Then the bishop said,
I will gladly, and there he put an habit upon Sir Lancelot, and there
he served God day and night with prayers and fastings."

Bedevere followed Lancelot's example, and within half a year seven
other knights joined themselves to these two and endured in great
penance six year, and then Sir Lancelot took the habit of priesthood,
and in twelve months he sang Mass. And there was none of these other
knights but they read in books and holp to sing Mass, and rang bells,
and did lowly all manner of service. And so their horses went where
they would for they took no regard of no worldly riches. For when they
saw Sir Lancelot endure such penance, in prayers and fasting, they took
no force what pain they endured, for to see the noblest knight of the
world take such abstinence that he waxed full lean. And thus upon a
night there came a vision to Sir Lancelot, and charged him in remission
of his sins, to haste him unto Almesbury - and by then thou come there,
thou shalt find Queen Guinevere dead, and therefore take thy fellows
with thee, and purvey thee of an horse-bier, and fetch thou the corpse
of her, and bury her by her husband, the noble King Arthur. So this
vision came to Lancelot thrice in one night.

"Then Sir Lancelot rose upon day and told the hermit. It were well
done, said the hermit, that ye make you ready, and that ye disobey not
the vision. Then Sir Lancelot took his seven fellows with him, and on
foot they went from Glastonbury to Almesbury, the which is little more
than thirty miles. And thither they came within two days, for they were
weak and feeble to go.

"And when Sir Lancelot was come to Almesbury, within the nunnery, Queen
Guinevere died but half an hour before. And the ladies told Sir
Lancelot that Queen Guinevere told them all ere she passed, that Sir
Lancelot had been priest near a twelvemonth. And hither he cometh as
fast as he may to fetch my corpse, and beside my lord King Arthur he
shall bury me. Wherefore the Queen said, in hearing of them all, I
beseech Almighty God that I may never have power to see Sir Lancelot
with my worldly eyes. And this, said all the ladies was ever her prayer
these two days till she was dead. Then Sir Lancelot saw her visage, but
he wept not greatly, but sighed. And so he did all the observance of
the service himself, both the Dirige, and on the morn he sang Mass. And
there was ordained an horse-bier, and so with an hundred torches ever
burning about the corpse of the Queen, and ever Sir Lancelot with his
eight fellows went about the horse-bier singing and reading many an
holy orison, and frankincense upon the corpse incensed. Thus Sir
Lancelot and his eight fellows went on foot from Almesbury unto
Glastonbury, and when they were come to the chapel and the hermitage,
there she had a Dirige with great devotion. And on the morn the hermit
that was sometime Bishop of Canterbury, sang the Mass of Requiem with
great devotion; and Sir Lancelot was the first that offered, and then
all his eight fellows. And then she was wrapped in cered cloth of
Raines, from the top to the toe in thirty-fold, and after she was put
in a web of lead, and then in a coffin of marble. And when she was put
in the earth, Sir Lancelot swooned, and lay long still, while the
hermit came out, and awaked him and said, Ye be to blame, for ye
displease God with such manner of sorrow-making. Truly, said Sir
Lancelot, I trust I do not displease God, for He knoweth mine intent,
for my sorrow was not, nor is not, for any rejoicing of sin, but my
sorrow may never end. For when I remember of her beauty and of her
noblesse that was both with her king and with her, so when I saw his
corpse and her corpse so lie together, truly mine heart would not serve
to sustain my careful body. Also when I remember me, how by my default,
mine orgule, my pride, that they were both laid full low that were
peerless that ever was living of Christian people, wit you well, said
Sir Lancelot, this remembered of their kindness and mine unkindness,
sank so to my heart that I might not sustain myself."

Not long after the death of Guinevere, Lancelot "began to wax sick, and
for evermore, day and night he prayed; but needfully, as nature
required, sometimes he slumbered a broken sleep. And within six weeks
he lay in his bed and called the bishop and said, Sir Bishop, I pray
you that ye will give me all my rights that belongeth unto a Christian
man." Then Malory goes on to say that "when he was houseled and eneled,
and had all that a Christian man ought to have, he prayed the bishop
that his fellows might bear his body unto joyous Garde."

That night the bishop dreamed he saw Sir Lancelot with two angels, "and
he saw the angels heave up Sir Lancelot towards heaven, and the gates
of heaven opened against him. And then they went to Sir Lancelot's bed,
and there they found him dead, and he lay as he had smiled; and the
sweetest savour about him that ever they felt."


III. FOXE'S BOOK OF ERRORS

To take the Acts and Monuments, and as far as it might be possible
after upwards of three hundred years, test the accuracy of each
circumstance which Foxe proposes for the edification of his readers,
would necessitate a work as voluminous as his own immense undertaking.
To sift the chaff from the wheat, and to bind up the latter into one
acceptable whole would perhaps result in a book not larger than one of


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Online LibraryJ.M. StoneStudies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries → online text (page 19 of 28)