Queen Guinevere, King Arthur (her husband), and Sir Lancelot (her lover), form the most celebrated love-triangle in European literature. From her origins - probably Welsh - Guinevere's presence (and non-presence by abduction) runs strong throughout mainstream Arthurian legend: in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniae, in the works of the French poets Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, in the Vulgate Cycle, and most famously in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth Guinevere is descended from a noble family of Romans and is "the loveliest woman in all the island". In later romances she is the daughter of Leodegrance, previous owner of the Round Table, which she brings, together with one hundred knights, as her dowry when she marries Arthur. By the time of Chrétien de Troyes her affair with Lancelot is well established - it is he, not Arthur, who rescues Guinevere from her abductor Méléagant. She is an accomplice to Mordred's treachery against Arthur in the Vulgate cycle, a theme continued by Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur, where Queen Guinevere's character comes to full fruition. Here, her lifelong relationship with Lancelot, who rescues her from being burnt at the stake for adultery, eventually brings about the downfall of Camelot.
Chapter 18, Book 1 of Le Morte d'Arthur is titled 'How King Arthur, King Ban, and King Bors rescued King Leodegrance, and other incidents.' This comes at the conclusion of King Arthur's wars against the eleven kings. King Arthur and his two companion kings arrived at Camelerd (Leodegrance's castle, and incidentally a name that may echo the Cornish river Camel and the town of Camelford) with twenty thousand men, where they slew ten thousand of King Rience's men and put him to flight, and rescued King Leodegrance. During the celebrations (paragraph 2) "... and there had Arthur the first sight of Guenever, the king's daughter of Camelerd, and ever after he loved her. After, they were wedded, as it telleth in the book..."
This mid-paragraph sentence is all that Malory has to say about the initial attraction between Arthur and Guinevere - 'less is more', it seems, and nothing is said about Guinevere's feelings towards Arthur.
The first chapter of Book 3 is more expansive: 'How King Arthur took a wife, and wedded Guinever, daughter to Leodegrance, king of the land of Camelerd, with whom he had the Round Table.' The role of Merlin the Wizard comes into play: Arthur says to Merlin "My barons will let me have no rest, but needs I must take a wife, and I will none take but by thy counsel and by thine advice."
"Is there any that ye love more than another?" enquires Merlin, to which Arthur replies "Yea, I love Guenever the King's daughter Leodegrance, of the land of Camelerd, the which holdeth in his house the Table Round that ye told he had of my father Uther. And this damosel is the most valiant and fairest lady that I know living, or yet that ever I could find."
At that point Merlin warns Arthur that Guinevere is not wholesome enough to be his wife, and that Lancelot would love her (and she him). But Arthur's heart is set, and Merlin agrees to go to Camelerd to act as go-between. Leodegrance is overjoyed and delivers his daughter, via Merlin, to London with the Round Table and "a hundred good knights".
The occasion of the marriage between King Arthur and Quinevere is interwoven with the ordination of the Knights of the Round Table by the Bishop of Canterbury. The marriage ceremony itself is a strange affair, marked by the appearance of a white hart that came running into the hall with a white brachet chasing after it, closely followed by sixty black hounds. As the hart ran around the tables the brachet bit a piece out of its buttock, and it leaped into the air, unseating a knight from his chair in the process. The knight got up, grabbed the brachet, and went out of the hall and rode away with it.
Three quests immediately follow, by the knights Sir Gawain, Sir Tor, and King Pellinor. When they return to Camelot - with the marriage celebrations seemingly still under way - each reports to the king and queen, after which "all the knights were sworn to the Round Table, and every year thereafter they would be so sworn at the high feast of Pentecost."
Guinevere's adbuction by men is a recurring theme throughout Arthurian legend, and when kidnapped, she must be saved - the epitome of the damsel in distress, though never is she at serious risk of harm.
In The Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan (c.1130-1150) the queen (Gwenhwyfar) was abducted to Glastonia by the wicked King Melwas of Somerset (possibly an early manifestation of Méléagant), and Arthur - then depicted as a tyrant and accompanied by a "countless multitude" on account of his wife being violated and carried off - searched for the queen throughout the course of a whole year, and at last heard that she remained there (in Glastonia). He roused the armies of the whole of Cornubia and Dibneria, but the Abbot of Glastonia, attended by the clergy and Gildas the Wise, stepped in between the contending armies and advised King Melvas to restore the ravished lady. Accordingly, she was restored "in peace and good will".
Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of Guinevere's abduction casts Mordred, Arthur's nephew, as the villain. Arthur left her his care whilst he went to Europe to campaign against the (fictitious) Procurator of Rome, Lucius Hiberius. In the King's absence Mordred seduced Guinevere, declared himself king, and took her as his own queen, forcing Arthur to return to Britain and fight Mordred at the Battle of Camlann.
Chrétien de Troyes in Le Chevalier de la Charrette has poor Guinevere abducted by the evil Méléagant (the son of King Bagdemagus) and this time it was Sir Lancelot who came to her rescue, in a cart driven by a dwarf, then crawling across a bridge whose upper edge was a sharp sword-blade. During the ensuing combat between Lancelot and Méléagant, Guinevere, at King Bagdemagus's pleading, was able to stop the fight but Lancelot defended her honour again later when Méléagant (mistakenly) accused her of an affair with Sir Kay - he thought that bloodstains on the love-bed were Kay's when in fact it was Lancelot's blood (from an injury he sustained forcing the window bars apart to climb into Guinevere's bedroom).
In Le Morte d'Arthur (Book 19) Queen Guinevere happened to go a-Maying in the woods behind Westminster, with her usual retinue of ladies-in-waiting and page-boys, plus ten of the Queen's Knights (arrayed in green). Sir Meliagrance (Méléagant), inspired by many long years of lust - and aware of Lancelot's absence from the party, attacked with 160 men-at-arms. To avoid her noble knights being killed, Guinevere surrendered herself to Meliagrance, then secretly dispatched a young messenger to bear her ring to Westminster with a plea that her lover come to her rescue.
Lancelot rushed to her aid on his horse, but the animal was disabled en route by archers so he hijacked a chariot and was soon at the gates of the kidnapper's castle, at which point Meliagrance immediately surrendered. Guinevere and the Queen's Knights were saved and Sir Lancelot became known as 'Le Chevalier du Chariot'.
As in Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot that night climbed into Guinevere's bedroom by forcing the window bars and injuring his hand in the process (also in the bedroom, incidentally, were the Queen's Knights still recovering from their wounds and presumably still dressed in May-green). Malory continues: "Sir Launcelot went unto bed with the queen, and he took no force of his hurt hand, but took his pleasance and his liking until it was in the dawning of the day ... and when he saw his time that he might tarry no longer he took his leave and departed at the window, and put it together as well as he might again." [ one imagines Malory was aware of his own joke ]
In the morning Meliagrance saw the blood and claimed Queen Guinevere had been dishonoured by one of her wounded knights. Lancelot answered for the Queen, denying the charge but not admitting the blood was his. Meliagrance threw the gauntlet, Lancelot accepted, and the duel was set for eight days later at Westminster. But Meliagrance tricked Lancelot into falling ten fathoms through a trap door down into a cave, then made it look as if Launcelot had gone off adventuring. Sir Lavaine stepped in to represent him but Lancelot was able to escape, and at the last moment appeared at the duel, and with one arm tied behind his back (and shieldless) he cut Meliagrance's head in two.
Technically, this wasn't an abduction. In Le Morte d'Arthur Book 21 Mordred, both son and nephew of King Arthur, was ruler of all England, having been left in charge whilst Arthur had gone to France to wage war with the now treacherous Sir Lancelot. After claiming the King had died at Lancelot's hands he made himself king and tried to marry Queen Guinevere (his father's wife). Guinevere beguiled Mordred into letting her go to London, ostensibly to buy "all manner of things that longed unto the wedding" but she locked herself and her entourage away in a well-stocked Tower of London. Mordred laid seige on the Queen and by fair means or foul tried to persuade her to come out, but she stayed put and eventually he departed with his army to Dover to repel a returning King Arthur.
[ More about Malory's Queen Guinevere in Le Morte d'Arthur summaries ]
Guinevere's origins seem firmly Welsh. The name Guinevere may be directly from the Welsh 'Gwynhwyfer', or from 'Gwenhwy' (Gwen the Great) in contrast to 'Gwenhwy-vach' (Gwen the Lesser). A Celtic queen was equal in status to her husband and was able to conduct affairs unhindered. Queen Guinevere's involvement with other men, willingly or otherwise, is a recurring theme throughout Arthurian legend. Although the early circumstances of her character may have defined her persona from the beginning, the later Medieval writers, with their Christian-based social perceptions, would have found it hard to treat Guinevere as anything other than a morally dubious, unfaithful woman.
Significantly perhaps, Guinevere stays childless, and loves a man with which she can never bear children because of the circumstances of her husband. To this extent, her life is tragic, but she also represents an ideal - that of courtly romance. Obviously too, she remains both desirable and well-protected (sometimes too well) by the male of the species, and avoids execution at the stake several times.
In the end, Guinevere's enduring love of her equally devoted Lancelot, and the resultant betrayal of King Arthur, brought about the end of the Round Table and the fall of Camelot. But as Sir Thomas Malory says, "She was a true lover and therefore she had a good end."
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