Once there was a great king in Britain named Uther, and when he died the other kings and princes disputed over the kingdom, each wanting it for himself. But King Uther had a son named Arthur, the rightful heir to the throne, of whom no one knew, for he had been taken away secretly while he was still a baby by a wise old man called Merlin, who had him brought up in the family of a certain Sir Ector, for fear of the malice of wicked knights. Even the boy himself thought Sir Ector was his father, and he loved Sir Ector's son, Sir Kay, with the love of a brother.
When the kings and princes could not be kept in check any longer, and something had to be done to determine who was to be king, Merlin made the Archbishop of Canterbury send for them all to come to London. It was Christmas time, and in the great cathedral a solemn service was held, and prayer was made that some sign should be given, to show who was the rightful king. When the service was over, there appeared a strange stone in the churchyard, against the high altar. It was a great white stone, like marble, with something sunk in it that looked like a steel anvil; and in the anvil was driven a great glistening sword. The sword had letters of gold written on it, which read: "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England."
All wondered at the strange sword and its strange writing; and when the archbishop himself came out and gave permission, many of the knights tried to pull the sword from the stone, hoping to be king. But no one could move it a hair's breadth.
"He is not here," said the archbishop, "that shall achieve the sword; but doubt not, God will make him known."
Then they set a guard of ten knights to keep the stone, and the archbishop appointed a day when all should come together to try at the stone,--kings from far and near. In the meantime, splendid jousts were held, outside London, and both knights and commons were bidden.
Sir Ector came up to the jousts, with others, and with him rode Kay and Arthur. Kay had been made a knight at Allhallowmas, and when he found there was to be so fine a joust he wanted a sword, to join it. But he had left his sword behind, where his father and he had slept the night before. So he asked young Arthur to ride for it.
"I will well," said Arthur, and rode back for it. But when he came to the castle, the lady and all her household were at the jousting, and there was none to let him in.
Thereat Arthur said to himself, "My brother Sir Kay shall not be without a sword this day." And he remembered the sword he had seen in the churchyard. "I will to the churchyard," he said, "and take that sword with me." So he rode into the churchyard, tied his horse to the stile, and went up to the stone. The guards were away to the tourney, and the sword was there, alone.
Then he rode straight to Sir Kay, and gave it to him.
Sir Kay knew instantly that it was the sword of the stone, and he rode off at once to his father and said, "Sir, lo, here is the sword of the stone; I must be king of the land." But Sir Ector asked him where he got the sword. And when Sir Kay said, "From my brother," he asked Arthur how he got it. When Arthur told him, Sir Ector bowed his head before him. "Now I understand ye must be king of this land," he said to Arthur.
"Wherefore I?" said Arthur.
"For God will have it so," said Ector; "never man should have drawn out this sword but he that shall be rightwise king of this land. Now let me see whether ye can put the sword as it was in the stone, and pull it out again."
Straightway Arthur put the sword back.
Then Sir Ector tried to pull it out, and after him Sir Kay; but neither could stir it. Then Arthur pulled it out. Thereupon, Sir Ector and Sir Kay kneeled upon the ground before him.
Sir Ector told him, then, all about his royal birth, and how he had been taken privily away by Merlin. But when Arthur found Sir Ector was not truly his father, he was so sad at heart that he cared not greatly to be king. And he begged his father and brother to love him still. Sir Ector asked that Sir Kay might be seneschal when Arthur was king. Arthur promised with all his heart.
Then they went to the archbishop and told him that the sword had found its master. The archbishop appointed a day for the trial to be made in the sight of all men, and on that day the princes and knights came together, and each tried to draw out the sword, as before. But as before, none could so much as stir it.
The knights and kings were terribly angry that a boy from nowhere in particular had beaten them, and they refused to acknowledge him king. They appointed another day, for another great trial.
Three times they did this, and every time the same thing happened.
At last, at the feast of Pentecost, Arthur again pulled out the sword before all the knights and the commons. And then the commons rose up and cried that he should be king, and that they would slay any who denied him.
So Arthur became king of Britain, and all gave him allegiance.