By Kathryn Walton
In many renditions of the Arthurian legend, Guinevere gets lambasted for cheating on Arthur with Lancelot, while Arthur is celebrated as the faithful partner. But in some medieval versions of the Arthurian legend, Arthur himself is not quite so chaste and honourable as popular culture tends to imagine. He too takes several lovers, and he acts rather terribly in his affairs.
The love triangle of Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot is one of the most famous in western literature. It is depicted all the time in contemporary retellings of the Arthurian legend and has been rewritten in numerous ways. A heavy burden of guilt is usually placed on Guinevere for betraying her husband, even if some versions, like the 90s movie First Knight try to redeem her by making Arthur much older or establishing a prior relationship with Lancelot.
In the medieval versions, the Guinevere-Arthur-Lancelot love triangle tends to play out in the same way. Arthur and Guinevere are married after Arthur establishes himself as king of England and quashes the numerous rebellions that rise up against him. In early versions, Guinevere is something of a prize won by a warrior king. The marriage ceremony is lavish and an important symbol of the newly glorious Camelot.
In some of the earliest versions, Guinevere then betrays Arthur with Mordred and aids Mordred in the destruction of the kingdom. In later versions, a passionate love affair is established not with Mordred but with Lancelot, the greatest knight of King Arthur’s court. This Lancelot-Guinevere affair was created by Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote some of the earliest romances about the knights of Arthur’s court in French.
The love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is long and passionate and eventually becomes a catalyst for the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom and the death of the king. Guinevere is always placed in a position of guilt (more or less heavily depending on the version) for her role in this and cast as an adulterer. She ends her life in a nunnery enacting perpetual penance for her adulterous affair.
The guilt that lays on her for her love affair is weighty.
Something that tends to be left out of contemporary versions of the Arthurian legend, however, is that Arthur too had numerous love affairs and actually fathered several children outside of marriage. Now, his guilt for this act is less damning in a Christian light, as he was not yet married at the time of his affairs, but he is certainly not the chaste, honourable lover he is often made out to be.
He too falls in love and has affairs with people who are not Guinevere. And he sometimes acts rather terribly in those affairs. Here are the two most significant of King Arthur’s affairs as recounted by Sir Thomas Malory in his fifteenth-century version of the Arthurian legend.
The first of Arthur’s lovers appears early in his career as king amidst some of the many and various wars that he fights to secure his throne. Malory recounts how Arthur finished one battle, how Merlin played a trick on him, and then, “in the meanwhile” there came into Arthur’s life “a damosel…a passing fair damosel.” She “was an earl’s daughter – his name was Sanam, and her name was Lionors.” (My quotations are drawn from Helen Cooper’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript (Oxford University Press, 2008)
She comes into his life somewhat randomly, and nothing is said about her other than her name, her father’s name, and that she was “passing fair.” She meets Arthur when she comes to do homage to him after his most recent battle.
When Arthur sees her, he falls in love with her. Malory suggests his love for her is strong: “King Arthur set his love greatly on her, and so did she upon him.” We are told too that they express their love for one another physically. As Malory puts it, rather delicately as tends to be his way, “and so the King had ado with her.”
That is all the text mentions about this particular love affair: just one very short paragraph. Malory then goes right back into talking about the numerous wars that Arthur is involved in. Neither the affair, nor Lionors or Borre, were mentioned again.
So, in this early instance Arthur is made out to be a passionate if uncommitted lover. He falls madly in love with a woman, impregnates her, then moves right on to the next thing. This first love affair establishes that Arthur is not quite so chaste and interested only in his kingdom as he is sometimes made out to be. This characteristic is solidified in his second, more significant love affair.
Arthur’s second love affair results in even more damning behaviour. It too comes out of nowhere and disappears almost immediately. But, unlike the first love affair, it is illicit in several ways, and Arthur tries to destroy its consequences.
Arthur’s second lover is Morgause (who is named other things in other versions of this legend). Morgause is the wife of one of Arthur’s greatest supporters in the story and the mother to one of his greatest knights. She is the wife of King Lot of Orkney who is a key player in the early years of Arthur’s reign, and she is also Sir Gawain’s mother. This makes her the mother of Arthur’s greatest and most loyal knight (apart from maybe Lancelot).
Like Arthur’s affair with Lionors, this one also comes out of a passing fancy and happens somewhat randomly. Morgause is sent to Camelot “to espy the court of King Arthur.” She comes in all kinds of ceremony: “she came richly beseen, with her four sons Gawain, Gaheris, Agravain, and Gareth, with many other knights and ladies.” She parades into King Arthur’s court with a large entourage of people, and in so doing clearly expresses her importance, her wealth, her power, and her status as wife of an important king.
Morgause too is deemed to be a “passing fair lady” and King Arthur (who seems to like these passing fair ladies) falls in love with her immediately. As Malory puts it, “the King cast great love unto her.” In this case, however, that love is not explicitly returned. Where Lionors is said to love the king in return, the same is not true of Morgause. Nothing is said of her loving him back.
The king, as he did with Lionors, “desired to lie by her,” and, as Malory says, “so they were agreed.” That’s all that is said about it. The king wants to sleep with her. She agrees. And they do. No one says anything about it. Her husband and entourage have no problem with it. She is not condemned (in the hypocritical/misogynistic way that women tend to be condemned for these kinds of affairs), nor is Arthur (which would be more unusual).
Now, this setup reads kind of similar to the one that happened only a short time before in this legend, wherein Uther wants very badly to sleep with Igraine the Wife of the Duke of Tintagel. In that case, however, Igraine and the Duke want so badly to refuse that king’s request that they start a civil war. Igraine is praised for refusing the king while she is married and called a “passing good woman” who “would not assent unto the King.”
So, in that case, sleeping with the king is a big problem. But in Morgause’s case, it seems to be fine. It is an odd inconsistency in the text, and one that perhaps speaks to the writer’s desire to paint a very favourable image of Arthur and the women who desire him.
Now, this affair is perhaps condemned in that it ultimately leads to the downfall of the kingdom, because as Arthur later finds out, Morgause is actually his half-sister. She is the daughter of Igraine and the Duke of Tintagel. So, the son that results from this affair, Mordred, is both Arthur’s son and nephew and the one who is destined to bring down Arthur.
After Arthur finds this out and learns of Mordred’s destiny to destroy him and his kingdom, he acts most despicably of all. In an attempt to preserve himself from the consequences of his affair, he sends “for all the children that were born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies.” He ten puts them all into a ship which is cast out to sea. That ship sinks and all the babies (“some were four weeks old, and some less,”) die. Mordred survives (of course) and still goes on to destroy the kingdom.
Arthur: Not So Great After All?
What both these episodes show is that Arthur is not, perhaps, the ideal, chaste, honourable king that he is often made out to be. In the first instance he engages in a quick affair and then promptly forgets it. In the second, he murders hundreds of babies to cover up the consequences of his affair. So, while Guinevere tends to bear the brunt of the blame in the Arthurian legend for being a bad lover, Arthur is also worthy of condemnation. That he is not condemned, speaks to the longstanding desire to depict King Arthur positively.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: King Arthur getting a fake sword – British Library Add MS 38117