Thursday, 20 November 2014

King Arthur, Mordred and the Battle of Camlann

King Arthur's final battle was the Battle of Camlann, where he is fatally wounded by Mordred.  But who was Mordred and what events brought him to fatally wound King Arthur in the Battle of Camlann?


Mordred, as we know him, has evolved over the centuries, much like the other characters of Arthurian legend.  The question of who Mordred is varies from text to text.  In some texts he is King Arthur's nephew, while in others King Arthur is not just Mordred's uncle.  He is also Mordred's father.  Certainly, Mordred is probably best known to be the illegitimate and incestuous child of Arthur and one of his half-sisters, Morgause or Morgan Le Fay.  However, the story in which Morgan le Fay enticed Arthur into an incestuous affair, from which Mordred is conceived, is a misconception derived from the desire of modern writers to merge Morgan with her sister Morgause together as one.

The first mention of Mordred and the Battle of Camlann can be found in the Annales Cambriae, a 9th century collection of obscure Welsh material.  However, here he is known as Medraut rather than Mordred.

537:  The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

While we are made aware of Arthur and Medraut's deaths, we are not told that they were on opposing sides of the battle, nor are we told the reason for the battle.


In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Mordred is called Modred and is presented as Arthur's nephew, the son of Lot and Morgause, who is sometimes known as Anna.

...which when Arthur intelligence of, he committed the government of the kingdome to his nephew Modred...

Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur brings incest into the mix, with Mordred being born to Arthur and the wife of King Lot, Morgause.  It is not until later that King Arthur discovers that Morgause also happens to be his half-sister, daughter of Igraine and Gorlois.

And thither came to him, King Lot's wife (Morgause), of Orkney... with her four sons, Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravine, and Gareth, with many other knights and ladies.  For she was a passing fair lady, therefore the king cast great love unto her, and desired to lie by her; so they were agreed, and he begat upon her Mordred, and she was his sister, on his mother's side, Igraine...  But all this time King Arthur knew not that King Lot's wife was his sister.


When Arthur discovers the truth, Merlin tells him that Mordred must die as his existence is a threat to King Arthur's life.  Arthur has all of the boys born on the day of Mordred's birth, Mordred included, put onto ships which were set adrift.  While most aboard the ships die, Mordred survives.

Then King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, for Merlin told King Arthur that he should destroy him... born on May-day... and so he sent for them all, upon pain of death; and so there were found many lords' sons, and all were sent onto the King, and so was Mordred sent by King Lot's wife, and all were put in a ship on the sea, and some were four weeks old and some less.  And so by fortune the ship drove unto a castle, and wall all toriven, and destroyed the most part, save that Mordred was cast up and a good man found him and nourished him till he was fourteen years old.

In Wace's Roman de Brut, Mordred is again Arthur's nephew and his is in love with Guinever.

...Mordred was a man of high birth, and of many noble virtues, but he was not true.  He had set his heart on Guinevere, his kinswoman, but such 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?


Accounts of Mordred consider him to be traiterous and he was introduced by Layamon, who translated Wace's Alliterative Morte Arthure, to the reader 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.'  Layamon adds that Mordred and the queen did numerous sorrows to the land, losing their lives and souls as a result.

When Mordred reaches adulthood, he becomes one of Arthur's knights and Geoffrey tells us that, when Arthur was away on his Roman campaign, Mordred, who had been entrusted with Arthur's kingdom, seized Guinevere and the throne, paving the way for Arthur's final battle.

...But at the beginning of the following summer, as he was on his march towards Rome and was beginning to pass the Alps, he had news brought to him that his nephew Mordred, to whose care he had entrusted Britain, had by tyrannical and treasonable practices set the crown upon his own head; and that queen Guanhumara (Guinevere), in violation of her first marriage, had wickedly married him.


According to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, when Arthur is away on his campaign, Mordred is left with the care of the kingdom and informs the people that Arthur was killed in battle.  He is crowned king and Guinevere agrees to marry him.

As Sir Mordred was ruler of all England, he did do make letters as though that they came from beyond the sea, and the letters specified that King Arthur was slain in battle with Sir Lancelot.  Wherefore Sir Mordred made a parliament, and called the lords together, and there he made them to choose him king, and so was he crowned at Canterbury, and held a feast there fifteen days; and afterward he drew him unto Winchester, and there he took the Queen Guinever, and said plainly that he would wed her which was his uncle's wife and his father's wife.  And so he made ready for the feast, and a day prefixed that they should be wedded; wherefore Queen Guinever was passing heavy.  But she durst not discover her heart, but spake fair, and agreed to Sir Mordred's will. 



The Dream of Rhonabwy, the latest of the tales included in the collection of the Mabinogion and believed to date from sometime betweel 1159 and 1200, tell us that Mordred is Arthur's nephew and also his foster-son.

I will tell thee.  I was one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrawd his nephew, at the battle of Camlan; and I was then a reckless youth, and through my desire for battle, I kindled strife between them, and stirred up wrath, when I was sent by Arthur the Emperor to reason with Medrawd, and to show him, that he was his foster-father and his uncle, and to seek for peace, lest the sons of the Kings of the Island of Britain, and of the nobles, should be slain.  And whereas Arthur charged me with the fairest sayings he could think of, I uttered unto Medrawd the harshest I could devise. And therefore am I called Iddawc Cordd Prydain, for from this did the battle of Camlan ensue. And three nights before the end of the battle of Camlan I left them, and went to the Llech Las in North Britain to do penance. And there I remained doing penance seven years, and after that I gained pardon.


Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that when King Arthur discovers that his nephew is a traitor, a series of battles commence, with Mordred fleeing Arthur.  Mordred is twice beseiged but eventually decides to stay and fight, whether he might live or die.

Arthur, being inwardly grieved that he should so often escape, forthwith pursued him into that country as far as the river Cambula, where the other was expecting his coming.  And Mordred, as he was the boldest of men, and always the quickest at making an attack, immediately placed his troops in order, resolving either to conquer or to die, rather than continue his fight any longer.

And so Arthur's final battle commences, where many, including King Arthur, lose their lives.

For in this assault fell the wicked traitor himself, and many thousands with him.  But notwithstanding the loss of him, the rest did not flee, but running together from all parts of the field maintained their ground with undaunted courage.  The fight grew more furious than ever, and proved fatal to almost all the commanders and their forces...  And even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded.


Le Morte d'Arthur gives us more information about the battle between Mordred and King Arthur:

Then the king gat his spear in both his hands, and ran toward Sir Mordred, crying: Traitor, now is thy death-day come.  And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand.  And there King Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear, throughout the body, more than a fathom.  And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death wound he thrust himself with the might that he had up to the bur of King Arthur's spear.  And right so he smote his father.

Malory's account of this battle is in line with most of the other literature.  In some texts, while King Arthur is always fatally wounded, Mordred survives the battle.  Jean d'Outremeuse's Ly Myreur des Histors (The Mirror of Histories), an ambitious 14th century narrative claiming to be a history of the world from the flood to the 14th century, tells how Mordred apparently survives the Battle of Camlann only to be defeated by Lancelot.  Lancelot executes Guinevere and imprisons Mordred with her body.  Starving, Mordred eats her body but later dies of starvation.


While it is assumed that King Arthur dies as a result of this battle, sources do vary and the conclusion is often left open to interpretation.

That's all for today.  Next time we will look at the Avalon and the fate of King Arthur.


Annales Cambriae
Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
Roman de Brut by Wace
The Mabinogion: The Dream of Rhonabwy