Few people know, and few Arthurian works mention, that Guinevere had a sister. She was named Gwenhwyvach, but she has been written out of the legend over the centuries. In fact, I believe I’m the only modern novelist to include her in my novels, where she is a major character.
But just who was Gwenhwyvach? We really don’t know anything about her other than that she was Guinevere’s sister.
She is mentioned in the Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, in which her name is included among the 200 men, women, dogs, and horses invoked by Culhwch when he makes his request of King Arthur to help him win his love Olwen. But this reference really tells us nothing of Gwenhwyvach.
Another reference isn’t much more helpful. In The Welsh Triads, it states:
“One of the reasons for the Battle of Camlann was the blow Guinevere struck to her sister Gwenhwyvach.”
This statement is obscure, but it’s obvious that Gwenhwyvach must have had a major role in the early legends, or perhaps in history itself, if she influenced the Battle of Camlann where Arthur and Mordred fought each other and died. At least one writer, Thomas Love Peacock, in his novel The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), decided that Gwenhwyvach was Mordred’s wife, which seems a plausible conclusion based on this statement.
The only other reference to Guinevere having a sister is in the thirteenth century Prose Lancelot where Guinevere has a sister, known as the False Guinevere, who tries to take the place of Guinevere the night she weds Arthur.
In writing Arthur’s Legacy, my curiosity about Gwenhwyvach and the False Guinevere led to my combining the two to create a major villain not just in this novel but the entire The Children of Arthur series. Following is the scene from Arthur’s Legacy where Gwenhwyvach reveals her past to Constantine, whom he hopes to enlist in her desire for revenge:
“Do you know what this is, Constantine, Cador’s son?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, shrinking back at the sight of the foul mark.
“This brand is the reason you never knew of my existence. Arthur banished me as a traitor, though I am not one. He decreed it a crime for anyone even to utter my name.”
Constantine hesitated to associate with a criminal, but his curiosity would not yet permit him to flee from her enticing gaze.
“What is your name, lady?” he asked.
“Gwenhwyvach,” she replied. “I am the rightful heir to King Leodagraunce of Northgallis, and more importantly, the rightful Queen of Britain, Arthur’s lawful wife.”
“How?” Constantine asked. He wondered whether her desire for revenge included her seeking the throne of Britain. But how could she? No woman could rule a kingdom.
“Do not fear. I have no desire for a crown, although I could build an empire if I so wished. All I want is to destroy Arthur and Guinevere. I don’t care what becomes of Britain after that. I will make you its next king if you will assist me in my enemies’ destruction.”
Constantine was flattered and his eyes lit with excitement at the prospect of being king, but he was too conniving to agree at once. He would first determine how useful an ally this evil wench might be.
“Before I agree to anything,” he said, “you must tell me your full story.”
“You will help me no matter what I say,” she replied, “but I will tell you my past if only to relieve my own misery.”
She picked up a stick and poked at the fire while muttering under her breath. The sparks flew up into the air, and as Constantine raised his eyes to follow their path to the cave’s ceiling, Gwenhwyvach began her tale.
“My father, King Leodagraunce of Northgallis, conceived me upon my mother, who was his lawful wife, Queen Elen. That same night, he afterwards left his marital bedchamber, drunk as he usually was, and made his way to the room of my mother’s young handmaiden, whom he raped. Nine months later, upon the same full moon, Guinevere and I were born.
“My mother, the queen, died in childbirth, as did her handmaiden. The handmaiden’s mother assisted as midwife at the births of Guinevere and myself. We were born only an hour apart, and being half-sisters through our father’s royal blood, we have always looked immensely alike. The old midwife, partly out of love for her newborn granddaughter, Guinevere, and partly to revenge her daughter’s rape and death caused by my father, switched the two babes the same night they were born. Guinevere, the bastard child, was raised as King Leodagraunce’s rightful daughter, while I, born of a king and queen and conceived in holy matrimony, grew up as a household servant.
“Being the same age and living in the same household, Guinevere and I were playmates before we could even talk. The old woman, who claimed to be my grandmother, encouraged our friendship because it allowed her to see her true granddaughter more often. I grew up envying Guinevere for having a father, while I had no parents. I had heard rumors from the other servants that I was the king’s bastard child, and although still not knowing the whole truth, I began to believe these tales, for the king clearly displayed an aversion toward me, while he always expressed great love for Guinevere. As I grew older, I found myself resenting the princess. I believed I had as much right to our father’s love as she did. It was not my fault I was a bastard.
“Then as we approached womanhood, King Leodagraunce died, and Guinevere went to live in Cornwall, under your father’s protection. Because we had been close friends, or so I let her believe, she allowed me to accompany her, as well as the old woman who claimed to be my grandmother. All the eligible lords in the kingdom now began to court Guinevere, some for her beauty, while others merely wished to rule her kingdom. Even several royal princes sought her hand. I envied her, for the only man interested in me was a shepherd, and he had nothing to offer me except a hut and a stench I could not tolerate.
“One afternoon, I was walking with Guinevere in the gardens at Tintagel when she told me a messenger had arrived that morning from Camelot. He had come bearing a marriage proposal to her from King Arthur.
“Although she had never seen the High King, Guinevere had fallen in love with the stories told of him, so she did not hesitate to accept the proposal. I could not bear the jealousy I felt over her good fortune. Perhaps I was selfish, but it was unfair that one sister marry a High King while the other could find no husband of worth. I fled from the garden, ignoring Guinevere’s shouts for my return. I did not stop until I was deep in the forest, and then I slumped down beneath a tree and spent several hours crying and wishing my life were different. I felt I could no longer remain at Tintagel. I dreaded having to watch Arthur’s men bear Guinevere off to become High Queen of Britain, so I decided to return to my grandmother’s hut after the old woman had gone to sleep. Then I planned to gather my few belongings and depart forever. Perhaps even depart from Britain, for nowhere in the land would my sister’s name not be known, and I knew the mere mention of it would henceforth be intolerable to me.
“But when I returned to the hut, I found several of our neighbors gathered outside the door, and when they saw me, they all began asking where I had been. Then they told me to go inside and see my grandmother because she had suffered from some sort of dizzy spell and collapsed in the street. She was lying down now, but awake, though she probably would not live through the night. For the last several hours, she had been calling my name, and entreating the neighbors to find me.
“I don’t know that I ever loved the old woman, but I had always believed her to be my grandmother, so I at least felt some respect for her. I wanted to leave Tintagel as quickly as possible, but I could not desert her in her last moments. Deciding I would not leave until after she had died, I entered the hut and went to her bedside. The old woman was pale, yet she nearly shouted my name when she saw me. It was there on her death bed that she told me the truth, that I was the daughter of King Leodagraunce and his late queen, meaning I was the true Princess Guinevere. She also admitted it was her fault my birthright had been taken from me because she had switched my half-sister and me in our beds the night we were born. She begged my forgiveness, but after so many years of living in poverty when I could have lived royally and had any of my heart’s desires, any lingering of Christian mercy deserted me. I spat in her face and uttered a series of curses that made her tremble and seek her grave all the sooner. When the life had left her, her face held a terrible look of fear beyond what anyone could imagine. I believe she saw the gates of Hell opening for her. She deserved no lesser fate.”
Gwenhwyvach’s brow steamed with hatred as she repeated her tale; Constantine’s selfish soul pitied this woman because, like him, what was rightfully hers had been stolen from her.
“Did you go to Guinevere and tell her the truth?” he asked.
“How could I have proven it? The old woman had made certain no one knew her secret until moments before her death. If I had told anyone, the story would have been passed off as the deathbed ravings of a crazy old woman, or worse, I might have been accused of lying and rebelling against my queen.”
“But then why did Arthur banish you from Britain?”
“I was determined to get my revenge. If I were the rightful daughter of King Leodagraunce and Queen Elen, I believed it was my right to wed King Arthur.”
Constantine squirmed in his seat. He sympathized with Gwenhwyvach, but he also wondered whether she did not make up this tale, and if she had made it up, how much of it had she convinced herself was true? Still, if she hated Arthur and Guinevere as much as he did, her hatred could make her an invaluable ally.
Whether or not she noticed Constantine’s puzzled look, Gwenhwyvach continued her tale.
“Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding ceremony took place without interruption. But I had laid my plans for that evening. When Guinevere went to her bedchamber to prepare for the consummation of her marriage, she changed into her nightgown, then stepped out into the garden to relieve herself before Arthur entered the bridal chamber. I had found myself a lover in the village, one Bertolais, a strong, hulking man but weak in his desires for a woman. I convinced him to help me, and then he convinced his friends to do the same with my promise to reward them all later. That night, we hid in Guinevere’s garden. Bertolais and his friends were to kidnap the bride, and then murder her after they had carried her far enough away from the castle. Meanwhile, I would take Guinevere’s place as Arthur’s wife.
“But that foul old druid Merlin learned of my plans by the use of his black arts. Arthur’s soldiers stormed into the garden just before we grabbed Guinevere. Then Arthur ordered that Bertolais and I be banished. My lover was sent to Gaul, forbidden ever to return, while I was imprisoned in Hengest’s Tower in the middle of the Saxon Lake. Instead of marrying the High King of Britain as was my rightful and intended destiny, I spent the next fifteen years enchained in that prison. That is why I will hate Arthur and Guinevere until they are both dead.”
“But then how did you escape from the tower, my lady?”
“The jailer became ill one day, and a naïve, young man came to take his place. Within a week, I had the fool hopelessly in love with me. I offered myself to him, but the mere pleasure of holding me exhausted him, and he fell asleep.” Gwenhwyvach laughed as she recalled the event. “I then extracted the key from his belt, imprisoned him in my cell, and made my escape. Five years have since passed, so if Arthur has ever learned of my absence and made a search for me, by now he must have given up all hope of my recapture.
“Since my escape, I have had to live like an animal in hiding, foraging for berries in the forest, fishing with my bare hands, and taking shelter under trees and in caves. No human being has ever had a more unfortunate and miserable existence than what I have suffered. You have no idea what it is to sleep in a cave without even an animal fur to cover you on a cold winter night. That is why I must have my revenge on those who caused my misery even if it means killing every soldier in Britain before I can reach Arthur and Guinevere. And if they succeed in destroying me first, my spirit will return to haunt Britain for centuries to come. Nothing is too powerful to stop me!”
Gwenhwyvach’s eyes flared with heat that could burn down a forest. Constantine could not help being mesmerized by them.
“Will you assist me in bringing about Arthur and Guinevere’s destruction?” Gwenhwyvach asked. “When it is completed, I will make you the most powerful man in the world. I learned much of the black arts while in my prison, for I was not denied reading material, and my jailers were illiterate, so they never realized how harmful were the books they innocently brought me from the ruins of a nearby monastery. My powers as a sorceress will set you on the throne of Britain, and I shall ask nothing more of you, but that I may continually reward you for the good services you performed in helping to vindicate me. All that belonged to Arthur and Guinevere will be yours. I shall ask no share. What is your answer, Constantine, Cador’s son?”
To find out Constantine’s answer and how I also incorporated the reference to The Welsh Triad in the novel, read Arthur’s Legacy, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and watch for its sequel Melusine’s Gift, coming in January 2015.