Sunday 1 May 2011

The Abduction of Guinevere

 Throughout Arthurian Romance Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; her love affairs with Arthur's best knight, and very susceptible to being abducted.

Part I:
The Abduction of Guinevere in Medieval Romance

"So it befell in the month of May, Queen Guenever called unto her knights of the Table Round; and she gave them warning that early upon the morrow she would ride a-Maying into woods and fields beside Westminster. And I warn you that there be none of you but that he be well horsed, and that ye all be clothed in green. [1]
 Few people are unfamiliar with the tales of King Arthur presented as a knight in shining armour,  tales of Grail quests, courtly love and chivalry, the product of the medieval continental romancers. Featured throughout Arthurian Romance is Guinevere, legendary consort of the King, portrayed as the archetypal feminine figure of the medieval court, a multifaceted character, the epitome of carnal desire and spiritual aspirations.

However, throughout Arthurian Romance  Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; the medieval tales consistently reveal that Guinevere had a love affair with Arthur's best knight, and she was very susceptible to being abducted. More often than not her rescuer is her lover, but this is not always so.

Along with the quest for the Holy Grail, the love affair of Guinevere and Lancelot, regarded as the first and greatest of King Arthur's legendary knights, dominates Arthurian Romance. The betrayal ultimately leads to the King's death and downfall of the kingdom. The account generally accepted as being introduced by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, Lancelot as Guinevere's lover appears as a common motif in numerous Arthurian cyclical literature through to Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th century.

Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, while in London's Newgate Prison during the 15th century, drawing heavily on Welsh and French sources such as the Vulgate Cycle, wrote what is undoubtedly the last definitive interpretation of the Arthurian myth, which he appropriately  titled "The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table". However, on publishing Malory's opus magnum as 21 books in 1485 William Caxton renamed it simply as "Morte d'Arthur" after the last book, The Death of Arthur, which is the title commonly used today.

By Book VI 'The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake' Malory has Lancelot declare his love for Guinevere, who he reveres above all others in response to her admiration of his proficiency as a knight. In Book XVIII  Guinevere is accused of murder and Lancelot saves her from being burned at the stake for the first time. Guinevere is kidnapped in Book XIX by Sir Meliagrance while she is a-Maying:

“But this knight, Sir Meliagrance, had espied the queen well and her purpose, and how Sir Launcelot was not with her, and how she had no men of arms with her but the ten noble knights all arrayed in green for Maying. Then he purveyed him a twenty men of arms and an hundred archers for to destroy the queen and her knights, for he thought that time was best season to take the queen."

Sir Meliagrance declares his intentions toward the queen:

“So as the queen had Mayed and all her knights, all were bedashed with herbs, mosses and flowers, in the best manner and freshest. Right so came out of a wood Sir Meliagrance with an eight score men well harnessed, as they should fight in a battle of arrest, and bade the queen and her knights abide, for maugre their heads they should abide. Traitor knight, said Queen Guenever, what cast thou for to do?”

“Wilt thou shame thyself? Bethink thee how thou art a king’s son, and knight of the Table Round, and thou to be about to dishonour the noble king that made thee knight; thou shamest all knighthood and thyself, and me, I let thee wit, shalt thou never shame, for I had liefer cut mine own throat in twain rather than thou shouldest dishonour me. As for all this language, said Sir Meliagrance, be it as it be may, for wit you well, madam, I have loved you many a year, and never or now could I get you at such an advantage as I do now, and therefore I will take you as I find you.”

Coming to her rescue Lancelot kills Meliagrance, saving her from being burned at the stake for a second time. In the penultimate Book XX - The adulterous Lancelot and Guinevere are finally caught by Agravaine, Arthur's nephew and Knight of the Round Table. Arthur sentences her for treason, but Lancelot rescues her from being burnt at the stake for the third time. Arthur then lays siege to his castle until the Pope intervenes who negotiates a solution. Guinevere returns to Arthur and Lancelot returns to France where he is pursued by Arthur, but the king receives news that Mordred has claimed the realm and returns to England. Finally in the closing episode of Malory's work, Book XXI, on Arthur's return he defeats Mordred at Dover. Arthur finally battles with Mordred near Salisbury, proving to be fatal for both men.


Chrétien de Troyes, the originator of the Arthurian Romance tradition, famous for introducing the Grail in his most intriguing and final work Le Conte du Graal, or Perceval, first introduced the world to Lancelot as both Guinevere's lover and rescuer in the late 12th century tale Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, (Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier à la Charrette). And as we have seen with Malory, Guinevere and Lancelot's betrayal of Arthur is often portrayed as being fundamental in the downfall of the kingdom.

It has been suggested that Chrétien may have invented their affair to supply Guinevere with a courtly lover or could have been following a model inspired by the Tristan and Isolde legend based on much older Celtic material. Chrétien composed 'Le Chevalier de la Charrette' at the request of the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and wife of Henry I of Champagne. The Countess may well have supplied Chrétien with the essence of the  Guinevere – Lancelot love triangle as the author claimed that she supplied the subject matter as the tale is certainly in stark contrast to the earlier, and first Arthurian romance, Erec et Enide or the later Cligés which extol the virtues of marital fidelity. Chrétien abandoned his Lancelot tale, leaving “the clerk Godefroy de Lagny to put the final touches to it”, possibly because he had grown dissatisfied with the subject matter that had been imposed upon him by his patron. [2]

Lancelot has the hallmark of being a purely French creation who Chrétien substitutes for Gawain as Guinevere's saviour in his tale. Gawain, the best of knights in English accounts, appears to have fallen from grace with the writers of continental romance who give him no more than a supporting role. However, an alternative tradition in which Gawain was the lover of Guinevere is evidenced in the 13th century texts De ortu Walwanii, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Gerard d’Amien’s Der Roman von Escanor and the Prose or Vulgate Merlin. However, in German romance accounts featuring the abduction of Guinevere such as Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet and Heinrich von der Turlin’s Diu Krone, Gawain is frequently cast as Guinevere’s rescuer, not as her lover.

The sources of the writers of the continental Arthurian romances are complex and beyond the scope of this brief work. [3] However, suffice to say that the continental writers of Arthurian Romance evidently followed much older oral accounts and although maintaining the original motif varied the detail. As such we see the persistence of the tale of the abduction of Guinevere throughout the Romances, yet her lover and rescuer's identity changes persistently with Chrétien de Troyes taking the greatest departure from tradition and introducing Lancelot. Whether Lancelot was purely the invention of  Chrétien or if he was following a French oral tradition supplied by the Countess of Champagne seems likely although we will probably never know for certain.

However, we find the theme of the abduction of the King's consort in native British tales prior to
Chrétien's tale. The abduction episode in the The Knight of the Cart appears to be largely a reworking of an earlier account by Caradoc of Llancarvan from the early 12th century, but Chrétien substitutes Meleagant (Malory's Sir Meliagrance) for Melwas as her abductor and the queen's rescuer is of course her lover Lancelot.

Caradoc of Llancarvan, wrote his Life of Gildas (Vita Gildae) around 1120, [4] in which he recounts how Gwenhwyfar was kidnapped by Melwas, king of the "Summer Country" (Aestiva Regio, generally agreed as meaning Somerset), and held prisoner at his stronghold at Glastonbury, protected by thicketed fortifications of reeds, rivers and marshes. The story recalls how Arthur, the war-like king, spent a year searching for her, then on finding her assembled a mass army made up from the whole forces of Devon and Cornwall and prepared for war. The Abbot of Glastonbury, attended by Gildas the Wise, intervened and negotiated a peaceful resolution and reunited Gwenhwyfar with Arthur.

This is the earliest written account of Gwenhwyfar's abduction and the inspiration for the many abduction tales that followed throughout the Romances. As we have seen above the account is followed closely from Chrétien to Malory, a tale that has generally remained true by the writers of medieval romance from the 12th to 15th century. Although Caradoc was a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth the Life of Gildas was published several years before Geoffrey's chronicle pseudo-history and can be considered free of his influence.

Geoffrey of Monmouth
Writing for an Anglo-Norman audience almost half a century before Chrétien penned Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, the cleric Geoffey of Monmouth provides a different account of the Queen's abduction in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain c.1136) adding that she was descended from a noble Roman family and educated under Cador, Duke of Cornwall. When Arthur crosses the Channel to go to war with the Roman Procurator Lucius Hiberius he leaves Guanhumara (Geoffrey's rendering of Guinevere's name in Latin) in the care of his nephew, Mordred. While Arthur is absent, Mordred seduces Guanhumara, declares himself king and takes her as his own queen. On hearing this Arthur returns to Britain and enters into combat with Mordred at the final and catastrophic Battle  of Camlann. Again the essence of the story is essentially the same.

As with Chrétien, determining the sources of the writer's of Arthurian Romance can be challenging to say the least, yet in Geoffrey's case it is even more complex and arduous. [5] However, we find a clue to Geoffrey's source material contained in the epilogue of some versions of the 'Historia'. Geoffrey bids William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon to “be silent as to the kings of the Britons,” and commits the task of writing their further history to “Caradoc of Llanacarvan, my contemporary.”  Geoffrey's Historia was continued from the death of Cadwaladr in 682 up to 1282 (with a further continuation to 1332) in the Brut y Tywysogion (the Chronicle of the Princes). Caradoc is known to have ventured into hagiography authoring a Life of Gildas and a Life of Saint Cadog, both pre-dating Geoffrey's Historia, but none of the extant copies of the Brut y Tywysogion positively identify him as author.

The Abductor's Dialogue
From the evidence of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Caradoc of Llancarvan there would appear to have been an abduction story in circulation in Britain before the writers  of continental romance included the theme in their tales. Two dialogue poems exists in two versions from two manuscripts, from the 16th and 17th century respectively, but have been dated on linguistic evidence to the 12th century. [6] The first namely “The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer” but also known as “The Dialogue of Arthur and Gwenhyfar” (Llanstephan 122) [7] containing the conversation between the queen and her abductor. Gwenhyfer refers to her steed being green, the tint of leaves, which would appear to be reflected in Malory's  account “So as the queen had Mayed and all her knights, all were bedashed with herbs, mosses and flowers”. Her abductor reveals himself as “Melwas from the Isle of Glass”. This version has the added implication that Cei (Kay) is Gwenhyfar's lover as she continually praises him. Indeed, in the second version of “The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer” (Wynnstay I) [8] Cei is included in the dialogue and Gwenhyfer appears to be mocking Melwas for his lack of stature.

It is clearly the same abduction episode of Caradoc of Llancarvan's “The Life of Gildas”; the two poems recalling a tale from a lost Welsh original. However, evidence exists that the abduction story was in circulation before the 11th century.

The Cathedral Door
A seemingly related account appears in a sculpture carved into the archivolt of the The Porta della Pescheria of Modena Cathedral, Italy, dated to between 1099 – 1120 roughly contemporary with Caradoc of Llancarvan's Life of Gildas. The sculpture depicts Artus de Bretania (Arthur) and Isdernus approaching a tower in which Mardoc is holding Winlogee (Guinevere). On the other side Carrado (probably Carados) fights Galvagin (Gawain) while the knights Galvariun and Che (Kay) approach. Roger Sherman Loomis has demonstrated that these names are Breton versions of characters from Arthurian Romance; 'Isdernus' is most certainly an incarnation of 'Yder' (Edern), a Celtic hero whose name appears in Culhwch and Olwen, and who was Guinevere's lover in an all but forgotten tradition mentioned in Beroul's Tristan [9] and reflected in the later Roman de Yder.

Loomis strongly argued for an early date for the sculpture, even if he is not correct it demonstrates an early oral account of the abduction story was in circulation in northern France at the time of Caradoc and before Geoffrey of Monmouth or Chrétien wrote their accounts. [10]

 The earliest mention of Gwenhwyfar is in the 11th century Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, where she appears as Arthur's queen, but little more is said about her. Rachel Bromwich argues that there is little evidence for the existence of Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) before Geoffrey of Monmouth as she is notably absent from the earlier versions of the Triads of the Island of Britain. [11]

As we have seen above the betrayal of Arthur by his queen was considered fundamental in the downfall of the kingdom. Indeed, although the Triads do not allude to the abduction, they do confirm that an event concerning Gwenhwyfar led to the battle of Camlan and therefore ultimately Arthur's demise.

The event is recalled in Triad 53 Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain: “The second Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwenhwyfar: and for that cause there took place afterwards the Action of the Battle of Camlan”. The same occurrence appears to be confirmed as the cause of one of the  Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain in Triad 84 which states “And the third was the worst: that was Camlan, which was brought about because of a quarrel between Gwenhwyfar and Gwennhwyfac.”

The Triads also list Gwenhwyfar as one of the most faithless of Three Faithless Wives of the Island of Britain “since she shamed a better man than any (of the others)”. [12]

Thus, the abduction of Gwenhwyfar according to the medieval romances.

Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson

Part II: The Modena Archivolt


1.  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, the Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table, c. 1469, Book XIX, Chapter I, How Queen Guenever rode a-Maying with certain knights of the Round Table and clad all in green.
2. William W Kibler, (trans.), Chrétien de Troyes Arthurian Romances, Penguin, 1991.
3. Roger Sherman Loomis has done as much as anyone to demonstrate their Celtic sources and, although perhaps a little dated by modern scholarship, anyone wishing to pursue this subject matter further could do worse than use his works as a point of departure:
Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Columbia University Press, 1927.
The Development of Arthurian Romance, Hutchinson, 1963.
The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, University of Wales Press, 1963.
Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes, Columbia University Press, 1949
Wales and the Arthurian Legend, University of Wales Press, 1956
Arthurian Literature in Middle Ages (Editor), Oxford University Press, 1959.
4. There is some significant Arthurian material in Celtic hagiography, in which Arthur is typically portrayed in a negative light, a tyrant warlord often at odds with the church, unruly and unpredictable.
5. In his Prologue to the Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey states that his work is a translation of a "librum vetustissimum" (a most ancient book), written in the British language and given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. Many doubt this book ever existed and Geoffrey is accused of manufacturing much of his 'history'. William of Newburgh declared that "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur ….. was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons."
However, Geoffrey's rendering of the Welsh name 'Gwenhwyfar' in Latin as 'Guanhumara' cannot be from an oral source and suggests he was following a written vernacular source. This could be a lost manuscript or alternatively, as the Welsh name fails to appear in any manuscript prior to Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Vita Gildae, we could speculate on this being one of Geoffrey's sources.
6. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Earliest Welsh Arthurian Poems in  Arthur of the Welsh, Ed. R Bromwich et al, Cardiff University Press, pp. 58 – 61.
7. Mary Williams, “An Early Ritual Poem in Welsh.” Speculum vol. 13 no. 1. January 1938. pp 38-51. Available online at Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective, The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer.
8. Ibid. The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer (version 2).
9. Beroul, The Romance of Tristan, Penguin, 1970, p.156.
10. R S Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Academy Chicago Publishers 1997.
11. Rachel Bromwch, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, 3rd Edition, 2006 pp.376 -380.
12. All Triads quoted from Rachel Bromwch, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, 3rd Edition, 2006.

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