Plotting Camlan: Letters from the Dead
Throughout the Arthurian legend Guinevere is well known as an adulteress and abductee; the woman who brought about the battle of Camlan and the fall of King Arthur.
But was it always that way?
Arthurian Legend in the 12th Century
The 12th century saw massive change to the Arthurian legend after the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth elevated Arthur of the Britons to conqueror of Europe. This period witnessed the birth of Arthurian Romance; following Geoffrey, Medieval Romance carried King Arthur to the courts of Europe with the tales of Chretien de Troyes introducing the quest for the Grail. Others followed and by the 15th Century Thomas Malory wrote the ultimate Arthurian story, Le Morte d’Arthur.
Malory’s summation weaved together the many strands of Arthurian Romance but has essentially stayed true to Geoffrey’s final days of the King; Medrawd (Mordred) has usurped the throne and abducted Guinevere. The Arthurian journey ends at Camlan.
The First Abduction
|Guinevere - Henry Justice Ford|
Gwenhwyfar makes her first literary appearance in the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen in which Arthur cites the lady along with his other possessions. The tale of Culhwch is dated to the 11th century but the first written account that has survived is found in the White Book of Rhydderch, dated to the first quarter of the 14th Century. Although the first version of Culhwch is generally accepted as being composed before Geoffrey, we cannot rule out his influence on the manuscript version that has survived and the possibility that Gwenhwyfar was introduced to the tale as Arthur’s wife by a later hand.
The first abduction of Gwenhwyfar appears in the Vita Gildae (The Life of Gildas) by Caradoc of Llancarfan. In this account Arthur’s Queen is carried away by Melwas (honey-youth), King of the summer country, to the “city of glass”. The tale explains this as the name of Glastonia, modern Glastonbury.
The Vita is dated to the first quarter of the 12th century; Caradoc being a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Indeed Geoffrey refers to Caradoc at the end of some versions of his Historia as being the only person capable of continuing the history of the Britons. It seems Caradoc was well versed in the early Arthurian tales as he wrote a second version of the Life of Saint Cadog in which Arthur also figures prominently. There is no reason for arguing against this being an early tale, however it is of course possible that Caradoc substituted Gwenhyfar, or "Guennuuar" as he renders her name, under the influence of Geoffrey.
Almost certainly Geoffrey knew of Caradoc’s tale of Gwenhwyfar’s abduction and weaved it into his Historia in support of the feud between Arthur and Medrawd. And this reputation then stayed with Guinevere throughout later accounts of Arthurian Romance for the next four hundred years.
Arthur’s raid on the “city of glass” is recorded in an earlier Welsh poem known as Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn) from the 14th century manuscript The Book of Taliesin. However, scholars have argued on linguistic grounds for a 10th Century composition date. If this is correct it was composed several hundred years before Geoffrey.
This early Welsh poem describes a raid by Arthur on Annwn, the Welsh name for the Celtic Otherworld, to release a prisoner, named here as "Gweir". The poem is divided into eight stanzas, with each using different terms such Caer Sidi (Mound, or Fairy Fortress) Caer Rigor (Fortress of Hardness), or Caer Wydyr (Glass Fortress) to describe the Otherworld.
In Old Welsh, “caer” can mean fortress, stronghold or citadel. In the 9th Century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, aka Nennius) the author lists 28 cities, all of which are called "caer".
It is certainly possible that Arthur’s raid on Caer Wydyr in The Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan is based on an archetypal tale such as Arthur’s raid on Annwn from the Taliesin poem Preiddeu Annwn, but in Caradoc’s account it has been adapted to explain the name of Glastonia and perhaps included Gwenhwyfar for the first time. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth never referred to Glastonbury as “Avalon”, another name for the Celtic Otherworld; to him Avalon was an island where Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged and then he was taken to be cured of his wounds by Morgen and her sisters, a similar concept to the Isles of the Blessed.
Significantly, Gwenhwyfar is not mentioned in the earlier account of Arthur’s raid on the Otherworld as recorded in the Preiddeu Annwn, yet the story of the abduction of Arthur’s wife by his nephew was certainly extant in Europe before Geoffrey.
In the north Italian city of Modena stands the Cathedral dedicated to The Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Saint Geminianus. On the archivolt of the cathedral's north portal, known as the Porta della Pescheria, is a carving claimed to be the earliest monumental sculpture to feature the Arthurian legend.
The carving on the Modena archivolt has been dated to be between 1120 and 1140, making it contemporary with Caradoc of Llancarfan and Geoffrey of Monmouth yet certainly before Chretien de Troyes took the theme of Guinevere’s abduction into Arthurian Romance.
Is there evidence for Gwenhwyfar before Geoffrey?
The First Guinevere
As we have seen above, Gwenhwyfar first appears in the 11th century Arthurian tales Culhwch and Olwen. When Arthur recalls a list of his possessions they all have Otherworldly connections, including Gwenhwyfar.
The original Welsh form of the name Gwenhwyfar, meaning “white fairy/phantom”, is cognate with the Irish name Findabair, the daughter of Queen Medb in Irish mythology, from Old Irish “síabair” meaning a spectre, phantom, supernatural being.
Indeed, for this reason some scholars [Thomas Green for example] see the battle of Camlan as an Otherwoldly event, rather than historical.
There is then an argument that in the original tale Arthur’s Queen was carried off to the Otherworld, the City of Glass. Arthur then carries out a raid to retrieve her, along with other booty, such as cauldron. This tale, perhaps the first and original Arthurian tale, a Celtic version of the Greek myth of Persephone, has been lost to us in the course of time.
And as with Gwenhwyfar’s name, we find that the abduction story may have its origins in an earlier Irish account in which the King’s wife is abducted by his nephew.
Gwenhwyfar in Welsh Tradition
In some versions of Geoffrey’s work the name Gwenhwyfar is rendered into Latin as “Guanhumara”. It has been suggested that this spelling of the name may be based on an earlier Welsh name suggesting Geoffrey had access to some native Cambrian source. Whatever Geoffrey’s sources we find Gwenhwyfar’s appearance in Welsh tradition to be very few and far between.
As we have seen above, Gwenhwyfar first appears in the Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, and occurs in the Life of Gildas (as Guennuuar), yet she is then entirely absent from early Welsh literature until The Triads of the Island of Britain.
The Triads contain a rich body of folklore and legendary tales, yet often include historical characters, often out of time and place. Rachel Bromwich lists 97 Triads in her magnum opus: Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain; a collation of all the manuscripts abbreviated as “TYP”. Peniarth 16 is the oldest version of the Triads, which Bromwich calls the “Early Version” ending at Triad 46.
The earliest, and only Triad in Peniarth 16, to mention Camlan is TYP 30 “Three Faithless Warbands of the Island of Britain” which does not mention Arthur, Gwenhwyfar or Medrawd but tells how the warband of Alan Frygan deserted him the night before the battle. Frygan was a Breton lord who died around 1130 which indicates the likely composition date of the composition of the Triad.
The remaining Triads do not appear in Peniarth 16 but are found in the following manuscripts:
Triads 47-69: The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest,
Triads 70-80: Peniarth 47,
Triads 81-86: Peniarth 50,
Triads 87-97: miscellaneous additions from later manuscripts.
The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest manuscripts are dated to the 14th century while Peniarth 47 and Peniarth 50 manuscripts are from the 16th century.
|Battle of Camlan|
Triad 53 says the slap that Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwehhwyfar caused the conflict of the Battle of Camlan. Apart from this and one other Triad (see below), Gwenhwyfach is only known from Culhwch and Olwen in which she is recorded as Gwenhwyfar’s sister.
Triad 54 tells of Modred’s visit to Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall and he left neither food nor drink that he did not consume. He also dragged Gwenhwyfar from her Royal chair and struck a blow upon her. The Triad records a second reckless ravaging when Arthur came to Modred’s court and left neither food or drink. This Triad is often linked to the previous one (53) and typically interpreted as Arthur’s avenging Medrawd’s insult. However, this tale may not necessarily linked to Camlan.
Triad 56 lists Arthur’s Three Great Queens, all appropriately named Gwenhwyfar yet each with a different named father, one named curiously as Gogfran the Giant.
Triad 80 records Three Faithless Wives of the Island of Britain with Gwenhwyfar more faithless than the three because she shamed a better man than the others.
Triad 84 lists Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain; the third was Camlan which was brought about because of Gwenhwyfars’ contention with Gwenhwyfach.
In addition to the Triads already mentioned (30, 53, 84) the battle of Camlan is also mentioned in Triads 51 and 59. Triad 51 mentions Three Men of Shame in the Island of Britain; the third and worst was Medrawd when Arthur left him with the government of the country while he went oversea to oppose the emperor of Rome. Bromwich writes that the content of this Triad from the Red Book has been lifted directly from the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
The threefold divisions by Arthur of his men with Medrawd at Camlan is recorded in Triad 59 as one of the Three Unfortunate Counsels of the Island of the Island of Britain. Again, this appears to follow Geoffrey’s account which says Medrawd has a force of 60,000 men for the final battle which he split into six divisions, in each he placed six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six armed men, the rest he placed in his own division. Meanwhile, Arthur divided his men into nine divisions.
The later Triads found in the White and Red Books show Arthur’s growing popularity from the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the courtly romances. It should be noted that it is only after Geoffrey that Gwenhwyfar is associated with Camlan and her treacherous affair with Medrawd.
Hence, it is difficult to find evidence of Gwenhwyfar in Welsh tradition that is free from Geoffrey’s influence. Yet where we might there is just a trace of Gwenhwyfar in a supernatural context; this puts her firmly in the realm of legendary beings, which is where the earliest Welsh Arthurian literature, such as Culhwch and Olwen and Preiddeu Annwn, places Arthur as a superhero fighting witches, monsters and giants in the Otherworld.
The Giant’s Daughter
We noted above how Gwenhwyfar was referred to in the Triads as the daughter of [G]Ogfran the Giant (often spelt Ogrfan). Significantly absent from the earliest Welsh literature that is securely free of Geoffrey’s influence which always associates her with Camlan and Medrawd, Gwenhwyfar is remembered by the later Medieval Welsh poets as the “Giant’s Daughter”.
|Old Oswestry hillfort - Caer Ogfran|
In the early 17th century Sion Rhys Davies wrote an account of the Giants of Wales in defence of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that Britain was first inhabited by Giants. Indeed, Geoffrey has Arthur fighting the giant Ritho, or Ritta, on mount Snowdon and he defeats another giant at St Michael’s Mount on his journey to Gaul.
A late tale recorded by Davies tells of the abduction of Gwenhwyfar’s brothers by some giants. She calls upon Arthur for assistance:
“There was a place on the frontier of the land of Shropshire, called Bron Wrgan, and it was the abode of giants.
“And in this place it is related that there were some brothers to Gwenhwyfar, the daughter of Gogyrfan Gawr, who were imprisoned by some of these giants. And she grieved greatly they were in captivity. But Arthur saved them each one, killing the giants, and taking the head of the biggest of them and throwing it into the middle of the river instead of a stone, in stepping across the river, to go to Castell y Cnwclas. And as he placed his foot on the head of the giant in stepping across the river Arthur said, Let the head grow in the river instead of a stone. And henceforth that river was called Afon Tyfed-iad, as the side of the giant's head grew.” [Sion Dafydd Rhys, The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings, c.1600]
Afon Tefeidiad is the Welsh name for the river Teme which flows past Knucklas. A local tradition claims that Knucklas castle is where Arthur and Guinevere were married. There are scant remains of the castle today, but what does remain has been dated to the 12th and 13th centuries when the fortification was constructed by the Mortimers, a powerful family of Norman Marcher Lords, who controlled this area where Offa's Dyke and the River Teme shadow the border between Wales and England.
Another local legend says that further along the Teme valley at Crug-y-Byddar, near Felindre, was the castle of Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father.
In between Felindre and Knucklas along the B4355 road in the Teme Valley is the village of Beguildy. Here we find Pantycaregl Farmstead, once a 16th century gentry house. According to the National Monuments Record of Wales:
“Part of Pantycaregl Farmstead (nprn 404525) was a storeyed and winged stone-built gentry house, probably dating from about 1580. It was built by Morgan ap Maredudd, patron of Sion Dafydd Rhys. The house was gutted by fire in 1931 and a new farmhouse stands on the site, although the cellar of the old house is still in use and carved heads have been preserved.”
|Giant's head at Pantycaregl|
The 11th century tale Culhwch and Olwen details a list of over two hundred characters that Culhwch calls upon to help him win Olwen. One of these characters is "Gwyn Hyfar, steward of Cornwall and Devon, one of the nine who plotted the Battle of Camlan." Rachel Bromwich translates this as "Gwynn the Irascible." This name has an undeniable phonetic similarity to "Gwenhwyfar" who the writers of Welsh Tradition hold responsible for the Battle of Camlan.
Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, UWP, 4th Edition 2014.
Michael Faletra, trans & ed.,The History of the Kings of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Broadview Press, 2007.
Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007.
Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales: Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993.
See: The Abduction of Guinevere
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