A KING'S LESSON
by William Morris
It is told of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary—the Alfred the Great
of his time and people—that he once heard (once ONLY?) that some (only
SOME, my lad?) of his peasants were over-worked and under-fed. So he
sent for his Council, and bade come thereto also some of the mayors of
the good towns, and some of the lords of land and their bailiffs, and
asked them of the truth thereof; and in diverse ways they all told one
and the same tale, how the peasant carles were stout and well able to
work and had enough and to spare of meat and drink, seeing that they
were but churls; and how if they worked not at the least as hard as
they did, it would be ill for them and ill for their lords; for that
the more the churl hath the more he asketh; and that when he knoweth
wealth, he knoweth the lack of it also, as it fared with our first
parents in the Garden of God. The King sat and said but little while
they spake, but he misdoubted them that they were liars. So the
Council brake up with nothing done; but the King took the matter to
heart, being, as kings go, a just man, besides being more valiant than
they mostly were, even in the old feudal time. So within two or three
days, says the tale, he called together such lords and councillors as
he deemed fittest, and bade busk them for a ride; and when they were
ready he and they set out, over rough and smooth, decked out in all the
glory of attire which was the wont of those days. Thus they rode till
they came to some village or thorpe of the peasant folk, and through it
to the vineyards where men were working on the sunny southern slopes
that went up from the river: my tale does not say whether that were
Theiss, or Donau, or what river. Well, I judge it was late spring or
early summer, and the vines but just beginning to show their grapes;
for the vintage is late in those lands, and some of the grapes are not
gathered till the first frosts have touched them, whereby the wine made
from them is the stronger and sweeter. Anyhow there were the peasants,
men and women, boys and young maidens, toiling and swinking; some
hoeing between the vine-rows, some bearing baskets of dung up the steep
slopes, some in one way, some in another, labouring for the fruit they
should never eat, and the wine they should never drink. Thereto turned
the King and got off his horse and began to climb up the stony ridges
of the vineyard, and his lords in like manner followed him, wondering
in their hearts what was toward; but to the one who was following next
after him he turned about and said with a smile, "Yea, lords, this is a
new game we are playing to-day, and a new knowledge will come from it."
And the lord smiled, but somewhat sourly.
As for the peasants, great was their fear of those gay and golden
lords. I judge that they did not know the King, since it was little
likely that any one of them had seen his face; and they knew of him but
as the Great Father, the mighty warrior who kept the Turk from harrying
their thorpe. Though, forsooth, little matter was it to any man there
whether Turk or Magyar was their over-lord, since to one master or
another they had to pay the due tale of labouring days in the year, and
hard was the livelihood that they earned for themselves on the days
when they worked for themselves and their wives and children.
Well, belike they knew not the King; but amidst those rich lords they
saw and knew their own lord, and of him they were sore afraid. But
nought it availed them to flee away from those strong men and strong
horses—they who had been toiling from before the rising of the sun,
and now it wanted little more than an hour of noon: besides, with the
King and lords was a guard of crossbowmen, who were left the other side
of the vineyard wall,—keen-eyed Italians of the mountains, straight
shooters of the bolt. So the poor folk fled not; nay they made as if
all this were none of their business, and went on with their work. For
indeed each man said to himself, "If I be the one that is not slain,
to-morrow I shall lack bread if I do not work my hardest to-day; and
maybe I shall be headman if some of these be slain and I live."
Now comes the King amongst them and says: "Good fellows, which of you
is the headman?"
Spake a man, sturdy and sunburnt, well on in years and grizzled: "I am
the headman, lord."
"Give me thy hoe, then," says the King; "for now shall I order this
matter myself, since these lords desire a new game, and are fain to
work under me at vine-dressing. But do thou stand by me and set me
right if I order them wrong: but the rest of you go play!"
The carle knew not what to think, and let the King stand with his hand
stretched out, while he looked askance at his own lord and baron, who
wagged his head at him grimly as one who says, "Do it, dog!"
Then the carle lets the hoe come into the King's hand; and the King
falls to, and orders his lords for vine-dressing, to each his due share
of the work: and whiles the carle said yea and whiles nay to his
ordering. And then ye should have seen velvet cloaks cast off, and
mantles of fine Flemish scarlet go to the dusty earth; as the lords and
knights busked them to the work.
So they buckled to; and to most of them it seemed good game to play at
vine-dressing. But one there was who, when his scarlet cloak was off,
stood up in a doublet of glorious Persian web of gold and silk, such as
men make not now, worth a hundred florins the Bremen ell. Unto him the
King with no smile on his face gave the job of toing and froing up and
down the hill with the biggest and the frailest dung-basket that there
was; and thereat the silken lord screwed up a grin, that was sport to
see, and all the lords laughed; and as he turned away he said, yet so
that none heard him, "Do I serve this son's son of a whore that he
should bid me carry dung?" For you must know that the King's father,
John Hunyad, one of the great warriors of the world, the Hammer of the
Turks, was not gotten in wedlock, though he were a king's son.
Well, they sped the work bravely for a while, and loud was the laughter
as the hoes smote the earth and the flint stones tinkled and the cloud
of dust rose up; the brocaded dung-bearer went up and down, cursing and
swearing by the White God and the Black; and one would say to another,
"See ye how gentle blood outgoes churls' blood, even when the gentle
does the churl's work: these lazy loons smote but one stroke to our
three." But the King, who worked no worse than any, laughed not at
all; and meanwhile the poor folk stood by, not daring to speak a word
one to the other; for they were still sore afraid, not now of being
slain on the spot, but this rather was in their hearts: "These great
and strong lords and knights have come to see what work a man may do
without dying: if we are to have yet more days added to our year's tale
of lords' labour, then are we lost without remedy." And their hearts
sank within them.
So sped the work; and the sun rose yet higher in the heavens, and it
was noon and more. And now there was no more laughter among those
toiling lords, and the strokes of the hoe and mattock came far slower,
while the dung-bearer sat down at the bottom of the hill and looked out
on the river; but the King yet worked on doggedly, so for shame the
other lords yet kept at it. Till at last the next man to the King let
his hoe drop with a clatter, and swore a great oath. Now he was a
strong black-bearded man in the prime of life, a valiant captain of
that famous Black Band that had so often rent the Turkish array; and
the King loved him for his sturdy valour; so he says to him, "Is aught
"Nay, lord," says he, "ask the headman carle yonder what ails us."
"Headman," says the King, "what ails these strong knights? Have I
ordered them wrongly?"
"Nay, but shirking ails them, lord," says he, "for they are weary; and
no wonder, for they have been playing hard, and are of gentle blood."
"Is that so, lord," says the King, "that ye are weary already?"
Then the rest hung their heads and said nought, all save that captain
of war; and he said, being a bold man and no liar: "King, I see what
thou wouldst be at; thou hast brought us here to preach us a sermon
from that Plato of thine; and to say sooth, so that I may swink no
more, and go eat my dinner, now preach thy worst! Nay, if thou wilt be
priest I will be thy deacon. Wilt thou that I ask this labouring carle
a thing or two?"
"Yea," said the King. And there came, as it were, a cloud of thought
over his face.
Then the captain straddled his legs and looked big, and said to the
carle: "Good fellow, how long have we been working here?"
"Two hours or thereabout, judging by the sun above us," says he.
"And how much of thy work have we done in that while?" says the
captain, and winks his eye at him withal.
"Lord," says the carle, grinning a little despite himself, "be not
wroth with my word. In the first half-hour ye did five-and-forty
minutes' work of ours, and in the next half-hour scant a thirty
minutes' work, and the third half-hour a fifteen minutes' work, and in
the fourth half-hour two minutes' work." The grin now had faded from
his face, but a gleam came into his eyes as he said: "And now, as I
suppose, your day's work is done, and ye will go to your dinner, and
eat the sweet and drink the strong; and we shall eat a little
rye-bread, and then be working here till after the sun has set and the
moon has begun to cast shadows. Now for you, I wot not how ye shall
sleep nor where, nor what white body ye shall hold in your arms while
the night flits and the stars shine; but for us, while the stars yet
shine, shall we be at it again, and bethink ye for what! I know not
what game and play ye shall be devising for to-morrow as ye ride back
home; but for us when we come back here to-morrow, it shall be as if
there had been no yesterday and nothing done therein, and that work of
that to-day shall be nought to us also, for we shall win no respite
from our toil thereby, and the morrow of to-morrow will all be to begin
again once more, and so on and on till no to-morrow abideth us.
Therefore, if ye are thinking to lay some new tax or tale upon us,
think twice of it, for we may not bear it. And all this I say with the
less fear, because I perceive this man here beside me, in the black
velvet jerkin and the gold chain on his neck, is the King; nor do I
think he will slay me for my word since he hath so many a Turk before
him and his mighty sword!"
Then said the captain: "Shall I smite the man, O King? or hath he
preached thy sermon for thee?"
"Smite not, for he hath preached it," said the King. "Hearken to the
carle's sermon, lords and councillors of mine! Yet when another hath
spoken our thought, other thoughts are born therefrom, and now have I
another sermon to preach; but I will refrain me as now. Let us down
and to our dinner."
So they went, the King and his gentles, and sat down by the river under
the rustle of the poplars, and they ate and drank and were merry. And
the King bade bear up the broken meats to the vine-dressers, and a good
draught of the archer's wine, and to the headman he gave a broad gold
piece, and to each man three silver pennies. But when the poor folk
had all that under their hands, it was to them as though the kingdom of
heaven had come down to earth.
In the cool of the evening home rode the King and his lords. The King
was distraught and silent; but at last the captain, who rode beside
him, said to him: "Preach me now thine after-sermon, O King!"
"I think thou knowest it already," said the King, "else hadst thou not
spoken in such wise to the carle; but tell me what is thy craft and the
craft of all these, whereby ye live, as the potter by making pots, and
Said the captain: "As the potter lives by making pots, so we live by
robbing the poor."
Again said the King: "And my trade?"
Said he, "Thy trade is to be a king of such thieves, yet no worser than
The King laughed.
"Bear that in mind," said he, "and then shall I tell thee my thought
while yonder carle spake. 'Carle,' I thought, 'were I thou or such as
thou, then would I take in my hand a sword or a spear, or were it only
a hedge-stake, and bid others do the like, and forth would we go; and
since we would be so many, and with nought to lose save a miserable
life, we would do battle and prevail, and make an end of the craft of
kings and of lords and of usurers, and there should be but one craft in
the world, to wit, to work merrily for ourselves and to live merrily
Said the captain: "This then is thy sermon. Who will heed it if thou
Said the King: "They who will take the mad king and put him in a
king's madhouse, therefore do I forbear to preach it. Yet it SHALL be
"And not heeded," said the captain, "save by those who head and hang
the setters forth of new things that are good for the world. Our trade
is safe for many an many a generation."
And therewith they came to the King's palace, and they ate and drank
and slept and the world went on its ways.