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Arthurian Tropes: The abduction of Guinevere
Author’s Note: This will take a turn from our normal direction when it comes to my tropes series. A general trend of the tropes series is their lack of potential historicity (in the context of Arthur at least) However… there is more to this trope that I initially anticipated.
The narrative of Guinevere's abduction as it comes down to us is generally known from two sources, the (possibly Pre-Galfridian) Life of St. Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan, and a different spin on the tale by Geoffrey of Monmouth with gives Guinevere a more active role.
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Melwas the king reigning in the Summer Region. The man to be received having been received by the abbot of Glastonbury, he taught his confreres and diverse peoples, sowing the seed to be sown of celestial doctrine. There he wrote the histories of the kings of Britain. Glastonbury, that is, ‘Glass City,’ which name it took from glass, is a city first named in the British tongue. Therefore, it was besieged by Arthur the tyrant, with an innumerable multitude, because of Guinevere his wife, violated and abducted by the aforesaid iniquitous king, and led there, because of the refuge of an inviolable place, because of the hedges of reed, river, and marsh, because of the protection. The rebellious king had sought the queen for the course of a whole year, he finally heard of her remaining there. There he moved the army of all Cornwall and Devonshire; prepared was the war among enemies. Having seen this, the abbot of Glastonbury, accompanied by a cleric and seizing Gildas, entered into the midst of the battle-lines, counseled Melwas his king peaceful, that he would returned the abducted woman; therefore, she who was to be returned, was returned, through peace and benevolence.
Geoffrey tells us a different tale, in which Guinevere seduces Mordred and helps him usurp Arthur's throne while he is away fighting on the continent. The triads remember this as a more violent interaction, with Guinevere in a more passive role.
Triad 54. Three Violent Ravagings of the Island of Britain:
One of them when Medrawd came to Arthur’s Court at Celliwig in Cornwall; he left neither food nor drink in the court that he did not consume. And he also dragged Gwenhwyfar from her royal chair, and then he struck a blow upon her;
The second Violent Ravaging (was) when Arthur came to Medrawd’s court. He left neither food nor drink in the court nor in the cantref;
And the third Violent Ravaging when Aeddan the Treacherous came to the court of Rhydderch Hael at Alclud; he left neither food nor drink nor beast alive.)
All of these seem to stem from an earlier tradition molded to meet the authors needs, but is there an earlier version? It turns out, just barely.
There is a relief carved into an arch of the Duomo di Modena cathedral Italy depicting this very story. Mardoc (Madog) holds Winlogee (Guinevere) in a tower, and is approached by Artus de Bretania (Arthur) and Isdernus (Edern) to rescue her.
This carving was completed before Geoffrey and Caradoc's retellings, giving us the oldest account of the story. Not only are Arthur and Guinevere present, but Kay, Gawain, and Caradoc Vreichfras as well. Madog is harder to place but allowing some speculation I have a theory. Gawain here is shown fighting Caradoc Vreichfras, putting him on the opposing side of Arthur. One of Gawain's probable historical inspirations was Gerguan ap Letan of the Gododdin, a kingdom that was often at odds with Arthwys ap Mar, who I think may be the historical Arthur.
One interesting thing to note here, is that many have often assumed that Arthur is latinized or drawn from the latin nomen gentilicium Artorius. There are reasons to doubt this, as whenever Arthur is latinized it is often seen as Arturus, Arthurus, or Arturius but never Artorius. My esteemed colleague and friend @lmrwanda has recently broken down how the names Arthur and Arthwys are related on his substack, which I urge you to check out. In the Archivolt carving Arthur is rendered Artus, very close to Arthwys.
From my friendin his fantastic article on the name Arthwys and Arthur:
As for the transformation from Arthwys or Arthuis (a spelling variation which may be down to scribal preference or to slightly different realisations in vowel quality) to Arthur, this seems to me explicable as a case of marginal rhotacism of a kind common to many varieties of Vulgar Latin, and mirroring a classic shift seen between Old Latin and Classical Latin.
Arthwys, Latinized as Art(h)usus could very easily be realised as Art(h)urus, especially by a speaker familiar with the remarks of Varro on this phenomenon and of a “classicising” bent.
Arthwys then has a nephew (or son if my esteemed colleague @p5ych0p0mp is correct), Madog. Madog is generally held to be Arthwys' nephew by way of his brother Morydd, who as I have speculated before was the first king of a small, but powerful kingdom known as Caer Wenddoleu. Caer Wenddoleu is famously the kingdom of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, a grandson of Arthwys ap Mar. Gwenddoleu was the lord of the historical Merlin, Myrddin ap Madog, supposedly the same Madog ap Morydd from above. With Morydd’s descendants still being associated with this area it may be that Morydd has an association here as well. This also would indicate that at some point there was a transition of power from Morydd to Ceidio, his nephew instead of to his son Madog. Could this Madog be the one who kidnaps his aunt?
If we fit some of these puzzle pieces together we can form a narrative here. Madog absconds to the north with Arthwys' (second?) wife, taking refuge with Gerguan ap Letan (Gawain) and Medraut ap Letan (Mordred) in the Kingdom of Gododdin.
Arthwys himself is known to have married the Irish princess Cywair (likely daughter of Lóegaire mac Néill), the son of the famous Niall Noígíallach of Ireland. Cywair is thought to be the same person as St. Cywair, the founder of a church in Llangywer, and was said to have become a churchwoman in her later years. Could this Winlogee/Guenevere/Gwenhyfar have been Arthwy’s second, younger wife?
Arthwys then goes north to set things right, taking back his abducted wife, sowing the seeds of distrust amongst the northerners against him, eventually leading to an uneasy peace that breaks under the pressure of the extreme weather events of the later half of the 530s
The Gododdin also are known to have been friendly with the Picts as well, leading to an interesting second piece of evidence. A later account by Boece claims that Guinevere was taken by the Picts, which is also supported by local tradition. My friend @p5ych0p0mp has pointed out that there is a local tradition around one of the standing stones at Meigle which says that this is a depiction of Vanora (a colloquialism for Guinevere) being torn apart by beasts for her infidelity. (It is generally held now that this is actually a depiction of Daniel in the Lion’s den, but local tradition still holds it is Guinevere)
While this is all just speculation we once again find curious parallels surrounding Arthwys ap Mar and later Arthurian tales, as well as local tradition. A little further speculation gives us another interesting possibility, Arthwys/Arthur may have actually been king of the Picts.
There is a figure in the Pictish kings list known as Gartnait I, who ruled from 531 to 537. Gartnait has been proposed by some as one of the inspirations behind Arthur. Curiously his reign ends the same time as Camlann’s date from the Annales Cambriae.
Arthur, Dux Pictorum, ruling realms of the interior of Britain, resolute in his strength, a very fierce warrior, seeing that England was being assaulted from all sides, and that property was being stolen away, and many people taken hostage and redeemed, and expelled from their inherited lands, attacks the Saxons in a ferocious onslaught along with the kings of Britain, and rushing upon them, fought valiantly, coming forward as leader in twelve battles.
-Lambert of Saint-Omer
Pictish kings seemingly used matrilineal descent to claim kingship, and Gartnait’s mother is given as Girom. Equating this with Arthwys’ generally held mother Gwenllian is a little more difficult from a linguistic point, however the superficial similarities are still interesting. Given this potential similarity, and the date of Gartnait’s end, what if Arthwys and Gartnait were in fact the same person? If it was indeed the Picts abducting Vanora/Guinevere (or maybe Madog, and the sons of Letan took refuge with the Picts for a time, bringing the two accounts together) it could be that Arthwys made war upon the Picts and and after subjugated them. After this subjugation the already 'High-King' of Northern Britain Arthwys is officially crowned as 'King of the Picts' as Gartnait I in 531, ruling until his death at Camlann in 537. This is once again speculation, but it is interesting that Gartnait rules until 537, when Arthur/Arthwys dies at Camlann.
Camlann itself is partially linked to the abduction of Guinevere already through a careful reading of the Triads. Below are Triads mentioning Camlann.
30. Three Faithless / Disloyal War-Bands of the Island of Britain
The War-Band of Goronwy the Radiant of (Penllyn), who refused to receive the poisoned spear from Lleu Skilful-Hand on behalf of their lord, at the Stone of Goronwy at the head of the (river) Cynfal;
and the War-Band of Gwrgi and Peredur, who abandoned their lord at Caer Greu, when they had an appointment to fight the next day with Eda Great-Knee; and there they were both slain;
and the War-Band of Alan Fyrgan, who turned away from him by night, and let him go with his servants (subordinates) to Camlan. And there he was slain.
51. Three Men of Shame were in the Island of Britain:
One of them: Afarwy son of Lludd son of Beli. He first summoned Julius Caesar and the men of Rome to this Island, and he caused the payment of three thousand pounds in money as tribute from this Island every year, because of a quarrel with Caswallawn his uncle.
And the second is Gwrtheyrn the Meagre, who first gave land to the Saxons in this Island, and was the first to enter into an alliance with them. He caused the death of Custennin the Younger, son of Custennin the Blessed, by his treachery, and exiled the two brothers Emrys Wledig and Uthur Penndragon from this Island to Brittany, and deceitfully took the crown and the kingdom into his own possession. And in the end Uthur and Emrys burned Gwrtheyrn in Castell Gwerthrynion beside the Wye, in a single conflagration to avenge their brother.
The third and worst was Medrawd, when Arthur left with him the government of the Island of Britain, at the time when he himself went across the sea to oppose Lles, emperor of Rome, who had dispatched messengers to Arthur in Caerleon to demand tribute to him and to the men of Rome, from this Island, in the measure that it had been paid (from the time of) Caswallawn son of Beli until the time of Custennin the Blessed, Arthur’s grandfather. This is the answer that Arthur gave to the emperor’s messengers: that the men of Rome had no greater claim to tribute from the men of this Island, than the men of the Island of Britain had from them. For Brân son of Dyfnwal and Custennin son of Elen had been emperors in Rome, and they were two men of this Island. And then Arthur mustered the most select warriors of his kingdom (and led them) across the sea against the emperor. And they met beyond the mountain of Mynneu (= the Alps), and an untold number was slain on each side that day. And in the end Arthur encountered the emperor, and Arthur slew him. And Arthur’s best men were slain there. When Medrawd heard that Arthur’s host was dispersed, he turned against Arthur, and the Saxons and the Picts and the Scots united with him to hold this Island against Arthur. And when Arthur heard that, he turned back with all that had survived of his army, and succeeded in landing on this Island in opposition to Medrawd. And then there took place the Battle of Camlan between Arthur and Medrawd, and Arthur slew Medrawd, and was himself mortally wounded. And from that (wound) he died, and was buried in a hall on the Island of Afallach.
53. Three Sinister (Ill-omened) Hard Slaps of the Island of Britain:
One of them Matholwch the Irishman struck upon Branwen daughter of Llŷr;
The second Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwenhwyfar: and because of that there took place afterwards the conflict of the Battle of Camlan;
And the third Golydan the Poet struck upon Cadwaladr the Blessed.
59. Three Unfortunate Counsels of the Island of Britain:
To give place for their horses’ fore-feet on the land to Julius Caesar and the men of Rome, in requital for Meinlas (‘Slender Grey’);
and the second: to allow Horsa and Hengist and Rhonwen into this Island;
and the third: the threefold division by Arthur of his men with Medrawd at Camlan.
84. Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain:
One of them was the Battle of Goddau: it was brought about because of the bitch, the roebuck and the plover;
The second was the Contest of Ar(f )derydd, which was brought about because of the lark’s nest;
And the third was the worst: that was Camlan, which was brought about because of Gwenhwyfar’s contention with Gwenhwy(f)ach.
This is why those were called Futile: because they were brought about by such barren causes as that.
Triad 59 seems to recount Arthur fighting on the same side of battle as Medraut, possibly here a misremembered version of his brother Morydd, who as mentioned above is associated with the Kingdom that would have had Camboglanna (the most likely site of Camlann) on It’s border. This could account for many depictions of Medraut or Mordred as a sympathetic, even heroic figure that are held even in post-Galfridian contexts. The earlier mentioned triad 54 then paints Medraut in a bad light, with him violently assaulting Guinevere. Geoffrey’s account is likely a continuation of this tradition, this then is picked up and used in Triad 51. I think this is a logical progression of the narrative here, with Melwas, whose story was well known prior to being featured in the 12th century Life of Gildas, and Medraut becoming the same figure, giving us the story seen in Geoffrey. The last tradition which shifts blame from Arthur and Medraut onto their wives, is alluded to in Triads 53 and 84. This seems to have been an attempt to reconcile the idea of a virtuous Medraut, being a confused conflation of Morydd ap Mar, Madog ap Morydd and Medraut ap Letan, not wanting blame to solely rest on either him nor Arthur. I believe this tradition is later than the one that Geoffrey was drawing upon, as it seems that the memory of Medraut beating Gwenhwyfar is shifted to the “slap” by her sister, Medraut’s wife. All of this combined may be a faint memory of the political dealings that eventually through the turmoil of the 530s led to Camlann. Raiding, retaliatory raiding, subjugation, and eventual open rebellion in the form of the cattle raid on Rheged that was stopped at Camlann.
So we can possibly paint a picture of the last decade of Arthur/Arthwys’ rule here.
Madog ap Morydd, Arthwys’ nephew, absconds with his uncle’s second (younger) wife taken after Arthwys’ first wife Cywair becomes a woman of the church. Madog attempts to find shelter with Medraut and Gwalchmai, the sons of Letan of the Gododdin, and upon having his request for sanctuary denied, the trio make their way to Pictland. Arthwys brings war upon them, and subjugates the entire kingdom. Is subsequently crowned Gartnait I, and is remembered as Dux Pictorum. Madog is disinherited, though likely not killed. The volcanic winter of 536 causes death and famine throughout Arthwys realm as ‘High-King of the North’. Medraut and Gwalchmai, both bitter from their humiliation, and desperate to find some surplus in the wasteland, plan a raid with the sons of the long-dead Caw of Strathclyde, and fight a battle near Camboglanna, as my friend P5ych0p0mp points out is remembered in the poem, MARWNAT VTHYR PEN
It is I who defended my sanctuary
in the fight to the death against Casnur’s kin
Camlann is remembered as disastrous, with all but three men perishing. Arthur, Medraut, Caw’s sons, and Morydd all die, and the high-point of the Brythonic Heroic Age passes, with the chain of events all tied back to the abduction of a Queen.
This short narrative is of course speculation, and my own opinion as to what actually happened is generally in flux. Each new piece of writing offers potential for new connections, and new conclusions. Regardless of the speculation these are enjoyable exercises in trying to find parallels and I hope it makes for an enjoyable read. I have a few more tropes articles lined up, which might take a the more traditional approach. I am always open to suggestions as well. My major focus right now is of course finishing my book, “The Brythonic Heroic Age: The Coeling” and then I will put out a piece on the idea of a composite Arthur, as well as an idea my a friend of my has brought to me, of looking at reasons why some of the popularly proposed figures for the ‘historical Arthur’ are in fact probably not him. At least not the first that is.
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