According to earlier legend, Arthur met Guinevere or Guenevere (she was called Guanhumara (Guenhuuara) by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia regnum Britanniae) in the court of Duke Cador of Cornwall. Guinevere was the ward of Cador. Guinevere came from a noble Roman family; according to both Wace and Layamon, it was on her mother’s side that she was Roman.
Later legends say that Guinevere (Guenevere) was the daughter of Leodegan (Leodegraunce), king of Camelide (Camelerd). After Arthur helped Leodegan, Arthur became betrothed to Guinevere. One of Guinevere’s companion, after she married Arthur, was her cousin and lady-in-waiting, Elibel. They married but had no children (except in the Perlesvaus, where their son was named Lohot (Loholt)).
In the Welsh Mabinogion called Culhwch and Olwen (before 1100), Guinevere was called Gwenhwyfar (Gwenhwyvar), which possibly means the “White Phantom”. This was Guinevere’s (Gwenhwyfar) first appearance. Gwenhwyfar was the daughter of Gogrfan (Gogrvan or Ocvran). She was the wife of Arthur. The tale also mentioned that Gwenhwyfar had a sister, named Gwenhwyfach or Gwenhwyach.
This sister of Gwenhwyfar, Gwenhwyfach, also appeared in the Welsh Triads 54, in the 2nd line of the 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….
This is the only Welsh reference that we have found in Guinevere’s connection to the Battle of Camlann, which is markedly different from that of Mordred seizing her and the throne of Arthur.
According to Diu Krône, Heinrich von dem Turlin says that her sister was Queen Lenomie of Alexandria.
The Mabinogion had mentioned several times that Arthur had several sons: Gwydre, who was killed by the boar Twrch Trwyth (in Culhwch and Olwen), Llacheu, who was later identified as Lohot or Loholt (in the Dream of Rhonabwy), and Amhar (in “Gereint and Enid”). But there was nothing to indicate that they were her sons, though as wife of Arthur, we could possibly assume they probably were her sons.
In most tales, they were married but had no children, except in the Grail romance, titled Perlesvaus, where their son was named Lohot (Loholt). According to this tale, when Sir Kay murdered Lohot, Guinevere was grief-stricken and she died from broken heart.
In the poem known as the Welsh Triad, Arthur had three queens. All three wives were named Gwenhwyfar (Gwenhwyvar). They were called Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwent (Cywryd), and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran (Gogrvan) the Giant. This reminded me of the Celtic love for the number three, like the triple personifications of Ireland, the triple war-goddesses Morrigan, the triple Sovereignty of Ireland (Eriu and her sisters Banba and Fodla) or triple mother-goddesses Danu in Irish myths.
Here, the Welsh myths are identical to the Irish, with the three wives of Arthur (Gwenhwyfars) being the personifications of Britain or the Sovereignty of Britain. Gwenhwyfar represents the land of the kingdom, and was more than than just a queen, but a powerful goddess. And in order for Arthur to become king of Britain, he must wed and mate with the three goddesses in order to ensure the prosperity and fertility of the land (Britain). See Wedded to the Land in the Celtic World & Cultures page for more explanation of the Sacred Marriage.
In the Latin romance, titled The Rise of Sir Gawain, Gwendolena (Guinevere) was not only Arthur’s wife, she was a powerful sorceress, who had the ability of foretelling. It was she who predicted a champion (Gawain) would come to Arthur’s court, bearing gifts on two horses. The horses had belonged to Arthur and Sir Kay, when these two challenge Gawain, but were unhorsed.
Guinevere was said to be a wise queen as well as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her great beauty also caused trouble for her. She had being abducted a few times, where she had to be rescued.
According to The Life of Gildas, Caradoc of Llangarfan wrote that Melvas, king of the Summer Country, had abducted and raped Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). War erupted between Arthur and Melvas. Melvas retreated to Glastonbury. St Gildas doesn’t like Arthur, since the king had killed his rebellious brothers, but he intervene. St Gildas talked the two warring kings to make peace, and Melvas returned Gwenhwyfar back to Arthur.
This event was most likely the source for the romance of Chretien de Troyes, titled Le Chevalier à la charrette, which translated to Knight of the Cart, though sometimes it was “Lancelot”. This Melvas became Meleagant, the son of King Baudemagus of Gorre. Meleagant had abducted Guinevere and later challenged the hero Lancelot to a duel, which he lost. Lancelot fought him again, in the second duel, and killed Meleagant.
Though, Lancelot appeared in earlier works of Chretien, but his role was minor. The Knight of the Cart is actually Lancelot’s first appearance as a hero, and it was the first time that he appeared as Guinevere’s lover.
In the early tradition (in Geoffrey’s work and the Welsh texts), when Mordred acting as a regent during Arthur’s absence in the war against the Romans, his nephew seized power in Britain. To add salt to Arthur’s wound, Mordred had married Guinevere. Mordred may have forced Guinevere into marrying him, but most say that she was accomplice in the treason, and may have seduced Mordred.
According to the alliterative Morte Arthure, Guinevere had two sons by Mordred. Again, like the Irish myth, king can only rule the land if he marry a goddess of the land. And since the Welsh see Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) as a goddess, it was she who could choose a king, and she had seduced Mordred, therefore Mordred was in effect, a legitimate king.
There is one interesting short story, which a poetess named Marie de France had written in the late 12th century, titled Lanval. Marie had written that she had translated from a Breton song, known as the lai. The story tell of how the hero Lanval was loved by a fairy woman, where he must not reveal of her presence to anyone. When Guinevere, his liege lord’s wife, had unsuccessful tried to seduce him, he boast of the fairy woman’s beauty surpassing the Queen. Guinevere then falsely accused him of making unwanted advances upon her and bragging of loving a woman more beautiful than her. Arthur would have punished him if Lanval could prove his boast, had it not being the timely arrival of the fairy woman saved from execution with her appearance. Lanval and the fairy woman then left the mortal world, to dwell in Avalon.
Here, Guinevere was clearly portrayed as the adulteress, who tried to seduce the young knight. The tale is similar to the another later Breton lai, titled Graelent, written in the mid-13 century, by an anonymous writer.
However, Guinevere was best known for her long love affair with Lancelot, the best knight in the world. This first appeared in Chretien de Troyes’ romance titled Knight of the Cart (or Lancelot).
In the Vulgate Cycle and after, Guinevere had definitely betrayed Arthur by committing adultery. However, it was not Mordred who was her lover, but the greatest knight of them all – Lancelot of the Lake.
All Lancelot’s heroic deeds were performed because of his love with her. Lancelot was inspired by her love. Lancelot was her lover and her champion. Lancelot would often rescue her from one danger to another. (See Knight of the Cart from Lancelot du Lac.)
There was probably some justification of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, since Arthur was not entirely blameless or guiltless. In the Vulgate text (Lancelot), on the night Lancelot first made love to Guinevere, Arthur was in the arms of Saxon sorceress and enemy. (See Lancelot.)
And, their love would cause Lancelot to fail in the Quest of the Grail, and would bring about the circumstance, which would cause death of Arthur and the destruction of the Round Table.
The kingdom and the Round Table became identically associate with Guinevere. When Arthur married Guinevere, he was given the Round Table and a hundred knights, as part of dowry. When Arthur tried to execute Guinevere, then a war broke out between Lancelot and Arthur, the Round Table in a sense had been broken. Before the Grail quest, Guinevere’s love for Lancelot had in fact made Arthur’s kingdom and the Round Table – strong.
The big difference between Mordred and Lancelot was that Lancelot didn’t seek to rule in Arthur’s place. Lancelot loved Arthur as his king, and was willing to carry this secret relation to his grave. This strange loyalty to Arthur had actually made Arthur’s claim to kingship, even more stronger. But this triangle could not last, since adultery is seen as crime and a sin.
It was only when Arthur arrested Guinevere for adultery and treason, that the power of the Round Table broke. The Round Table was not broken in the physical sense, but symbolically when the two strongest supporters of Arthur became two factions between the House of Ban (Lancelot) and the House of Orkney (Gawain), came into conflict.
Though the war ended without either side winning and Guinevere was returned to Arthur, the strength of Round Table was seriously weakened without the support of Lancelot and his kinsmen, when Mordred betrayed Arthur and seized the kingdom.
In the Vulgate Cycle and later authors, Guinevere had managed to prevent Mordred from marrying her by gathering loyal men hide behind the walls of Tower of London.
As Arthur fought Mordred, Guinevere had fled to abbey at Caerleon or the City of Legion (or outside of London, according to Mort Artu). Guinevere took the vow to become a nun, even before the battle was decided.
Before I finish the article on Guinevere, I think I should mention that there were two Guineveres, according to the Vulgate Cycle. In the Vulgate Merlin, the second Guinevere was the daughter of King Leodegan and his seneschal’s wife. His seneschal was named Cleodalis, who married the maid of Leodegan’s wife. The maid became a lady in Leodegan’s court. Leodegan lusted after the seneschal’s new wife. Leodegan had send Cleodalis with an army against the Irish. Shortly after Leodegan had made love to his wife, the Queen being a devout Christian, went to the church. So in his wife’s absence, Leodegan took advantage of the situation and ravished his wife’s former maid.
The two Guineveres were actually half-sisters. As it can be seen, they were conceived on the same night and were later born on the same day aand with the same name, and they looked exactly alike. Leodegan and his wife’s daughter became Arthur’s wife and the mistress of Lancelot. This second Guinevere was frequently known as the False Guinevere or Second Guinevere. The only mean of identifying the real Guinevere from the false was that she had a birthmark of a king’s crown on her back, while the Second Guinevere had none.
In Lancelot Proper, the False Guinevere would later cause the separation of Arthur and his wife. She posed as the false queen and wife of Arthur; trying to get Arthur to execute the real Guinevere. This plan was foiled when Lancelot challenged three of her knights in a trial by combat. Even though, Lancelot won the contest, Arthur was still in love with the imposter, because she had given love potion to the king. The False Guinevere and her accomplice Bertholai confessed to their crime when they were both was struck down by mysterious illness. I not certain, if the imposter died from her illness or she was executed on Arthur’s order. (See False Guinevere in the page called Lancelot du Lac.)