The Arthurian tradition in the Middle Ages provides two separate versions of Guinevere and Mordred’s relationship. Depending upon the text, Guinevere may willingly marry Mordred and act as his accomplice in treason against Arthur, or she may flee from Mordred and lock herself in the Tower of London. Such a vast difference between various tellings of the legend seems extreme; however, these differences represent a division between two separate Arthurian traditions in the Middle Ages.
Maureen Fries states that Arthurian literature is conveniently divided into two mainstreams: the chronicle and romance traditions (“Poem” 30) . This division can also be divided on national lines, with the chronicles written by English authors while the romances were primarily of French origin. The English used the Arthurian legend to glorify England’s past while the French were interested in the legend as a source for romances.
Queen Guinevere by William Morris
Corresponding with this division are the separate traditions of whether Guinevere is Mordred’s willing accomplice as she is in the chronicles, or if she rejects his proposals of marriage as she does in the romances. My argument is that the romancers could not allow Guinevere to wed Mordred because they had made two important additions to the legend: the introduction of Lancelot and the incestuous birth of Mordred. If Guinevere loved Lancelot, she could not be unfaithful to him by loving Mordred, and if Mordred is Arthur’s son, a marriage between Guinevere and Mordred would be incestuous, and therefore, avoided by the romancers. To understand how these differences led to two separate traditions in Arthurian literature, we must begin with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s original treatment of Guinevere and Mordred’s relationship.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae was completed about 1136. In this work, Arthur goes overseas to fight the Roman emperor, while leaving Mordred as Britain’s regent. Mordred is Arthur’s nephew, the son of Arthur’s sister, and no hint of incest exists to suggest that Mordred is Arthur’s son. Only later would the incest motif be added to the legend. While Arthur is away, Mordred attempts to seize the kingdom and to marry Guinevere. Guinevere’s contradictory appearances in later texts all stem from this ambiguous scene in Geoffrey. Geoffrey gives no insight into Guinevere’s emotions regarding the marriage to Mordred. Therefore, it is unclear whether Guinevere is forced into marriage or willingly weds her husband’s nephew.
The ambiguity regarding the marriage begins at its first mention when a messenger arrives to tell Arthur that Mordred has seized the crown, and
“What is more, this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage. About this matter, most noble Duke, Geoffrey of Monmouth prefers to say nothing (257).”
If Geoffrey had preferred to say more, later Arthurian texts would have been less contradictory, but also perhaps, less rich. Geoffrey then has Arthur return to England to fight Mordred, while Guinevere is in York. When Guinevere learns Mordred is marching into Winchester, “she gave way to despair. She fled from York to the City of the Legions and there, in the church of Julius the Martyr, she took her vows among the nuns, promising to lead a chaste life” (259).
These two passages make it difficult to determine the extent of Guinevere’s guilt. Geoffrey suggests she is guilty by stating that she broke her marriage vows, but Mordred may have forced her into marriage. More complicated is why Guinevere flees and from whom? She cannot be fleeing from Mordred because by going to the City of the Legions (Caerleon), she is moving closer to him. Mordred enters Winchester after Arthur has landed and defeated him at Richborough. Perhaps learning of Arthur’s success is what makes Guinevere fearful. In this case, she may flee to a nunnery as a place of clemency from fear of Arthur’s wrath. Certainly, her going to a nunnery rather than joining Mordred suggests she is more concerned about her own fate than Mordred’s. She might also hope that if Arthur finds her in a nunnery rather than with Mordred, he might believe her innocent. While Geoffrey seems to suggest Guinevere’s guilt, the passages are vague enough to make her motives doubtful. Geoffrey’s successors would seek to clarify this problem.
In 1155, Wace, of Normandy, France, translated Geoffrey’s Latin text into French verse, entitling it Roman de Brut. The name reflects his intent to present the Arthurian stories as romance rather than history. Wace’s translation was not closely tied to the Historia Regum Britanniae, but rather it was a free rendering of the work. Then around 1190, the English writer Layamon decided to render Wace’s book into vernacular English verse under the title Brut. In writing of Arthur in English, Layamon was reclaiming Arthur from the somewhat romantic embellishments Wace had added. Furthermore, because Layamon was English, he sought to glorify English history by molding the British Arthur into a model of the brave and heroic Englishman (Jones xi).
Wace and Layamon both clarified Geoffrey’s ambiguities regarding Guinevere although Wace’s style is more romantic than Layamon’s. Wace predates Chretien’s romances with their notion of courtly love, yet Fries points out that Wace credits Mordred with a type of courtly passion for Guinevere (“Poem” 33).
He had set his heart on Guenevere, his kinswoman, but such a love brought little honour to the queen. Mordred had kept this love close, for easy enough it was to hide, since who would be so bold as to deem that he loved his uncle’s dame? The lady on her side had given her love to a lord of whom much good was spoken; but Mordred was of her husband’s kin! This made the shame more shameworthy (79).
Nevertheless, Arthur is unaware of Mordred’s feelings for the queen, so he leaves Mordred as regent when he travels overseas to fight Rome.
Wace also clarifies Guinevere’s flight from York. “She learned also that Mordred had fled from before the king, because he might not endure against him, and durst not abide in the field” (112). Guinevere suspects Mordred will lose the war. Fearing Arthur, she flees to Caerleon and takes the veil in the convent. “This she did by reason of her exceeding sorrow for her trespass, and for the sin that she had wrought” (113). Wace leaves the reader without doubt that Guinevere is guilty of adultery with Mordred.
Layamon goes further than Wace by cursing Mordred at the first mention of his name. Wace states that Mordred loves Guinevere, but he does not foreshadow how this love will lead to the kingdom’s destruction. Layamon, however, introduces Mordred as “Modred, wickedest of men; truth he had none to ever any man . . . . to the queen was his resort–that was evilly done–to his uncle he did treachery” (235). Layamon adds that Mordred and the queen did numerous sorrows to the land, losing their lives and souls as a result (235). Mordred’s evil deeds are again foreshadowed in one of Arthur’s dreams. Arthur dreams he and Gawain are seated on the roof of a hall. Mordred approaches, and with a battle-axe, he destroys the posts holding up the hall, while Guinevere pulls down the roof. Arthur grabs his sword and beheads Mordred, then hacks Guinevere into pieces. When Arthur awakes, a messenger arrives from Britain to tell Arthur of Mordred and Guinevere’s treachery (258-9). The dream clarifies that Guinevere and Mordred’s guilt is equal.
Although Wace and Layamon clarified Guinevere’s guilt, their additions created different treatments of Mordred. Wace suggests that Mordred married Guinevere out of love, while Layamon says it was out of treachery. Furthermore, Wace explains that Mordred has kept his love secret for a long time. This inclusion of love is a looking ahead to the Arthurian romances that would develop in writers such as Chretien de Troyes. Therefore, Wace and Layamon, rather than clarifying the legend, opened up additional complexities, beginning the division between the romance and chronicle traditions in Arthurian literature.
The differences between French romances and English chronicles becomes significant when Chretien de Troyes introduced Lancelot into Arthurian literature in his late twelfth century romance Le Chevalier de la Charette. In the romance, Guinevere is abducted by Meleagant, Prince of Gorre. Lancelot makes his first appearance in Arthurian literature as Guinevere’s rescuer and lover. Because Chretien does not mention Mordred, Fries believes Chretien replaces Mordred with Meleagant as the abductor while making Lancelot the lover (“Poem” 40). Such a reworking almost suggests Chretien’s adoption of Layamon’s treacherous Mordred as Meleagant, while Wace’s romantic Mordred becomes Lancelot. Chretien never writes of Mordred or of Arthur’s death because he is more interested in romance than history. However, by creating a lover for Guinevere, Chretien would significantly influence later developments of Mordred and Guinevere’s relationship.
The next work to show major changes in Guinevere’s reactions to Mordred is the Mort Artu, part of the Vulgate Cycle and written about 1230-35. The author of this work manipulated the legend in a way which further complicated Mordred and Guinevere’s relationship. The Mort Artu author revised the tales of Arthur’s death, so his work would complete the narrative of the earlier works in the cycle, the Prose Lancelot and Quest del Saint Graal. However, Chretien had created a great problem for the Mort Artu author by adding Lancelot to the legend. Lancelot was so popular, he was the primary character in the cycle the Mort Artu was meant to complete, so he could not be omitted from the plot. Therefore, including Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair into the tale of Arthur’s death created complications. If Guinevere faithfully loved Lancelot, she could not be in love with Mordred. To resolve the difficulty created by Lancelot’s addition to the legend, the Mort Artu author found it necessary to make two additions of his own.
First, the author changed the relationship between Arthur and Mordred. In the earlier works, Mordred was Arthur’s nephew, but now, he was turned into Arthur’s bastard son, and even worse, the child of Arthur’s sister, meaning that Arthur had committed incest. Although Arthur is unaware that he sleeps with his own sister, he still commits a sin of lust that must be punished. The result of lust and incest creates Mordred, who is himself lustful in his desire for his father’s crown and wife. By making Mordred the result of Arthur’s sin, the Mort Artu author shows that in Arthur’s sin is created the punishment for that sin (Bruce, Evolution, vol. 1, 441).
Secondly, the Mort Artu author changed Arthur’s reason for leaving Britain in Mordred’s care. In earlier works, Arthur is on a campaign against Rome. In the Mort Artu, Arthur instead goes overseas to fight Lancelot who has committed adultery with Guinevere, and because Gawain desires revenge for the deaths of his brothers, Gareth and Agrivaine, who were slain when Lancelot rescued the queen. During the war, Lancelot returns Guinevere to Arthur, and she is sent back to England. There she is placed in Mordred’s care, while Arthur continues the war because Gawain refuses to stop fighting until he avenges his brothers’ deaths.
Once Guinevere returns to England, Mordred begans to solicit her affections. Arthur’s incestuous act was repulsive, but at least it was an act committed unknowingly. The Mort Artu author refused to allow Guinevere willingly to commit incest with her husband’s son. Furthermore, if Guinevere truly loved Lancelot, she would not be unfaithful to him by sinning with Mordred. In the Mort Artu, Guinevere clearly has no romantic feelings for Mordred when she is left in his safekeeping. “The queen was very angry that she had been given over to his charge because she knew such wickedness and disloyalty in him that she was sure that suffering and ill will would come of it” (156). Mordred, however, seeks not just power but also Guinevere’s love. “Mordred was so often with the queen that he fell in love with her and did not see how he could fail to die of love, if his desires were not satisfied” (160). Mordred’s romantic feelings clearly go back to Wace. Mordred may even be considered sympathetic in his inability to control his love for Guinevere. He attempts to trick her into marriage by forging a letter from Arthur which says the king is dying. In the false letter, Arthur supposedly requests that Mordred marry Guinevere, because “if Lancelot knew she was not married, he would attack you and take her as his wife” (161).
Guinevere and the court believe the letter to be true. However, Guinevere refuses to remarry, saying, “I could never have such a noble husband as I have had” (163). Later, she tells her cousin, Labor, she will not marry Mordred because he is Arthur’s son, and “Even if he were not his son, he is so disloyal that I would not accept him for anything” (164). Labor then helps Guinevere escape to London Tower. The queen, hoping Arthur is not yet dead, then sends a messenger to him on the continent. Of course, Arthur returns, and Mordred and Arthur slay each other in battle.
Guinevere besieged by Mordred in the Tower of London
The Mort Artu’s plot would become the standard for most future versions of the legend. Works such as the Stanzaic Morte Arthur would also contain the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle, Mordred’s incestuous birth, Guinevere’s refusal to marry Mordred, and her locking herself in the Tower of London. What makes the Stanzaic Morte Arthur important, however, is that it is an English text using the French Mort Artu as its source (Benson 2). The author is the first English writer more interested in creating a romance than a chronicle, a sign that even in England the French romantic tradition was becoming accepted as the proper way to tell the Arthurian legend.
However, one other major English text, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, would follow the chronicle format. The Alliterative Morte Arthure, unlike the slightly earlier Stanzaic Morte Arthur, rejected French additions by returning to the plot of Guinevere willingly marrying Mordred. The author of the Alliterative Morte Arthure was familiar with the French texts, but he chose to ignore them because he wanted to tell a structured history which had no room for romance (Matthews 144). The poet first deleted the French romantic additions. Then he added new details to Guinevere and Mordred’s relationship to make the queen’s guilt more substantial. Like Layamon and Wace, the poet was largely clarifying Geoffrey of Monmouth’s statements.
The Alliterative Morte Arthure poet, in deleting French romantic additions, primarily reversed the work of the Mort Artu author. He first removed Lancelot as Guinevere’s lover. While Lancelot remains a character in the poem, he is introduced as merely one of Arthur’s “lesse men” (lines 368-81). Mary Hamel believes that this statement early in the poem is the poet’s warning to the reader that the poem will not be concerned with the themes of the French romance tradition (King Arthur’s Death 266). Rather than being Guinevere’s lover, Lancelot is simply one of Arthur’s many knights, who later dies in battle on the Continent. Perhaps the poet’s only reason for even including Lancelot in the poem is to suggest that the romantic tales about Lancelot are not true. Once Lancelot was removed as Guinevere’s lover, Arthur’s reason for leaving Britain could revert back to the original war against Rome.
The poet also deleted Mordred’s incestuous birth by simply omitting to state anywhere in the poem that Mordred is Arthur’s son; therefore, if Guinevere marries Arthur’s nephew, it will not be as vile an act of incest. Two passages suggest that the poet knew the tradition of Mordred’s incestuous birth, but they are too obscure to be definite proof that Mordred is intended as Arthur’s son in the poem. In one passage, the poet refers to Mordred as “Sir Mordred the Malbranche” (line 4174), which Peck says calls attention to Mordred’s lineage as being the “mal” or ill branch of the family, and therefore, it reflects badly on Arthur as Mordred’s progenitor (173). Benson argues that when Gawain, speaking of Mordred’s treason, says, “Of such a engendure full little joy happens” (line 3743), that the word “engendure” might also be referring to Mordred’s incestuous origins (281). However, both passages are too vague to determine that Mordred is Arthur’s bastard son. Peck suggests that the poet only hints at Mordred as Arthur’s son to keep the blood tie obscure because the incest theme would be embarrassing both between Arthur and his sister, and between Guinevere and Mordred (161). However, one might also argue that the poet is again showing, as he did by introducing Lancelot into the poem, that he knows the French romance tradition, but he is refuting it in this work.
Fries remarks that the Alliterative Morte Arthure poet even deleted any traces of romance Wace and Layamon had added (“Poem” 34), but I would argue that the Alliterative Morte Arthure is probably closer to Wace’s poem than any other text. Despite the focus on history rather than romance, as in Wace, Mordred is in love with Guinevere, and she returns his love. Unlike in the Roman de Brut, however, the reader does not immediately know Guinevere loves Mordred although it is clear she respects him. When Arthur leaves England, he tells Guinevere “Sir Mordred, that thou has mikel praised,/ Shall be thy dictour, my dere, to do what thee likes” (lines 711-2). Only after Arthur is gone will Guinevere’s respect for Mordred turn into love.
Once the poet had removed the obstactles to Guinevere and Mordred’s love, he made some surprising additions to the legend to ensure Guinevere’s love for Mordred and her equal guilt in committing treason. First is Mordred’s objection to being left as regent. He does not want to remain in England when he could win glory through military deeds with the rest of Arthur’s knights. In the Mort Artu, Mordred proposes himself as regent, and in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a council of knights proposes Mordred as the best candidate to be regent in Arthur’s absence. However, when Mordred denies a desire for power in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, he appears less suspicious than in earlier works. Nor does the author accuse Mordred of secretly wanting power despite his words, as Layamon alleges by condemning Mordred at the first mention of him.
A more striking addition in the Alliterative Morte Arthure is that Guinevere bears Mordred’s children as a sign of her and Mordred’s love for each other. No other text makes Guinevere the mother of Mordred’s children. Fries remarks that the poet may have been trying to explain the inclusion of Mordred’s sons in the Mort Artu, who attempt to rule the kingdom after Arthur and Mordred are dead, and who are slain by Bors and Lionel (“Poem” 38). Fries overlooks that these sons are also mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth, where they are slain by Constantine (262). Oddly enough, in both Geoffrey and the Mort Artu, Mordred’s sons are old enough to bear arms, but the time span of the Alliterative Morte Arthure makes it impossible that Guinevere and Mordred’s sons would be old enough to bear arms immediately after Arthur and Mordred’s deaths. Therefore, in Geoffrey and the Mort Artu, one must suspect that Mordred’s sons have a different mother than Guinevere. To avoid confusion, the Alliterative Morte Arthure poet never mentions Mordred’s children as grown, simply that Guinevere gives birth to them. Peck argues that the children are only included in the text to verify Guinevere and Mordred’s mutual affection (173). Later, when Mordred warns Guinevere to flee with their children to Ireland because Arthur has returned to England (line 3907), it is because of his concern for Guinevere, but also a concern that his heirs will succeed him to create a dynasty. Arthur orders the children slain to destroy this ambition of Mordred’s (Fries “Poem” 41).
The final addition the Alliterative Morte Arthure poet makes is to show Guinevere as aggressively committing treason against Arthur by giving Mordred Arthur’s sword, Clarent, which she has in her keeping (lines 4196-4208). Guinevere is the only one Arthur trusted with the sword, so when she gives it to Mordred, she is actively betraying Arthur’s trust. There is no more traitorous act she could commit than to use Arthur’s own sword against him.
Despite all Guinevere’s treason, Arthur holds no grudge against Guinevere in the poem. He orders her children by Mordred slain, but says of her, “I forgive all gref, for Cristes love of heven!/ If Waynor [Guinevere] have well wrought, well her betide!” (lines 4324-5). Guinevere, however, realizes her own guilt, so she takes the veil (Fries “Women” 31-2). Despite Arthur’s forgiveness of Guinevere, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, unlike its many predecessors, leaves no doubt about Guinevere’s treasonous involvement with Mordred.
Although Malory was well versed in the French tradition, the Alliterative Morte Arthure
and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur
are the only English romances we know he read (Benson 3). In compiling the Arthurian legends into Le Morte d’Arthur
, Malory used both French romances and English chronicles. Benson argues that Malory had a preference for the English versions, for when composing the final tale of the Le Morte d’Arthur
if “the English and French versions differed, he almost always preferred the English version” (3-4). The Stanzaic Morte Arthur
is one of the English versions, but because of the French influence upon it, it is more French romance than English chronicle. Because the Le Morte d’Arthur
’s ending reflects the Stanzaic Morte Arthur
, I believe Malory actually preferred the French version. Therefore, the love triangle of Lancelot/Arthur/Guinevere and Mordred’s incestuous conception were both retained while Guinevere appears innocent of any involvement with Mordred. Malory’s work would become the standard Arthurian tradition for centuries to come, making the romance tradition dominant over the chronicle, and freeing Guinevere from any charges of adultery or treason with Mordred.
Alliterative Morte Arthure. King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Kalamazoo, Mi.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.
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Bruce, J.D. Evolution of the Arthurian Romance. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.
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Fries, Maureen. “The Characterization of Women in the Alliterative Tradition.” The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century. Ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1981. 25-45.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. London, Eng.: Penguin, 1966.
Jones, Gwyn. “Introduction.” 1912. Wace and Layamon: Arthurian Chronicles. Trans. Eugene Mason. Dent: London, 1966. v-xii.
Layamon. Brut. Wace and Layamon: Arthurian Chronicles. Trans. Eugene Mason. Dent: London, 1966.
Malory, Thomas. Malory Works. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford UP, 1977.
Matthews, William. The Tragedy of Arthur: A Study of the Alliterative “Morte Arthure”. Berkeley: U of California P, 1960.
Peck, Russell A. “Willfulness and Wonders: Boethian Tragedy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century. Eds. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1981. 153-182.
Stanzaic Morte Arthur. King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Kalamazoo, Mi.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.
Wace. Roman de Brut. Wace and Layamon: Arthurian Chronicles. Trans. Eugene Mason. Dent: London, 1966.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com
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