References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, http://www/kingarthursknights.com, http://arthurianadventure.com/, http://kingarthur.wikia.com
Trigger warning: references to rape and incest
My reading of Arthurian legend over years has been less than comprehensive, so 2016 is the year of Round Table Ladies as I research the women involved in these stories, and it has been so worth it because I never knew how many there WERE. I am beginning with a woman kept separate from the bulk of the myth but without whom the key players in Camelot would never have existed: she is Igraine, mother to King Arthur and Morgan le Fay.
In ancient Welsh legend, she is the daughter of Gwenn and Amlawdd Wledig. She may have had up to four sisters – Goleuddydd, Ysbaddaden, Thywanwed and Gwyar – and four brothers: Llydadrudd Emys, Gwrfoddw the Old, Gweir False-Valor and Gweir White-shaft. Also known as Eigyr, Igrayne, Ygerna or Ygraine, the one constant in her story is that she is Arthur’s mother. The Vulgate Cycle gives her three different husbands, the first being Hoel, with whom she had two daughters (one named Blasine); the second was Gorlois, with whom she had three more girls (one named Hermesent). Cador of Cornwall is introduced in another legend as the son of Gorlois, so he may have been Igraine’s child too. Igraine’s third husband was Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives her a daughter by him too, Anna, who in that version becomes the mother of Gawain and Mordred.
Igraine’s family tree, to put it another way, is a mess. And it only gets more chaotic from there!
The Arthurian legend as told by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur does not mention Hoel. In Malory’s version, Igraine is the Duchess of Cornwall, wife to Duke Gorlois. She has three daughters with him: Morgause/ Morgawse, Elaine and Morgan. (Please note: this is not the Elaine who dies for love of Lancelot, or the one who bears his son, there are so many Elaines in Arthurian legend and Lancelot is the kiss of death to them, but fortunately this one appears to have steered clear of him. I’ll talk more about the sisters in a later post.)
Igraine is an exceptionally beautiful woman, not that the term ‘beautiful’ means very much in myth and legend because really every heroine is almost contractually obliged to be the loveliest woman in the room; it is, however, enough to attract the attention of King Uther Pendragon. He summons Igraine and Gorlois to his court in the hopes of seducing her. She could not be less interested. Explaining the situation to her husband, she convinces him to slip away during the night and they return to Cornwall.
Uther doesn’t take well to being refused. He starts a damn war. Gorlois is besieged at Castle Terrabil while Igraine goes to Tintagel. The wizard Merlin is sent for and the way in which Malory describes his arrival makes subsequent events even more awful, because Uther’s man comes across him while Merlin is disguise as a beggar and does not recognise him. Merlin chooses to reveal himself and take Uther’s side in the whole nasty business. He offers to deliver Igraine to Uther in exchange for the child she shall conceive, and disguises the king as Gorlois so he can deceive his way into the duchess’s arms. Seeing his enemy depart from the gates of Terrabil, Gorlois rides out to fight.
Igraine only discovers later that her husband was killed three hours before a man with his face came to her bed.
There is no one left to fight for her and only bad options left to make peace; Uther quickly compels her into marriage, making her his queen. Soon after, her eldest daughter Morgause marries King Lot of Lothian and Orkney and her second daughter Elaine marries King Nentres of Garlot. The youngest of her girls, Morgan le Fay, is sent to be educated in a nunnery – where, according to Malory, she takes up necromancy. Those are interesting nuns. Morgan later marries yet another king, Uriens of Gore.
It is only when Igraine is heavily pregnant that Uther confesses his deceit. Malory describes her reaction as ‘great joy’, because what woman would not want to be tricked into sex with a man she’d already refused, then have the resulting baby promised away to her rapist’s enabler? Uther enforces Merlin’s terms, taking Igraine’s son from her straight after the birth, compounding the violation. She’s not even allowed to give him a name.
The boy is of course Arthur. He is fostered with a knight called Sir Ector and grows up without any contact with his birth parents. Two years after the birth, Uther Pendragon falls ill and his enemies press the advantage. Merlin rouses the king out of bed with a pep talk about how his presence is vital on the battlefield, and maybe he’s even right, because Uther’s men drive back the Northern army. The victory, however, comes at a price: when Uther gets back to London, he’s too sick to even speak. Merlin manages to prod him into naming Arthur as his successor just before his death, but no one has ever heard of this promised prince before, least of all Arthur himself.
Which leaves all the powerful men of the realm eyeing each other and the throne with worrying interest. Having created the problem, Merlin is the one to solve it. He has the Archbishop of Canterbury summon all the lords to witness a Christmas miracle. Upon a huge stone stands a steel anvil, and embedded through the top of that is a beautiful sword with a challenge written in gold upon the blade: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. A festival of jousting is held as everybody awaits the revealing of the sword’s rightful owner. Among the lords coming to compete is Sir Ector, accompanied by his son Kay (newly made a knight) and the younger boy Arthur.
Kay realises he has lost his sword. Sent home to retrieve it, Arthur finds the house emptied as everyone has gone to watch the jousting. Even as a boy, Arthur is not the type to take defeat easily; he goes to the church and pulls Merlin’s sword free with barely any effort so that his brother can fight. Quick to realise the opportunity he’s been given, Kay tries to claim the sword and the crown that comes with it, but Ector gets to the truth of the matter. He confesses to Arthur that he is not in fact his birth father, that Arthur was delivered to him as a baby by Merlin.
The Archbishop accepts Arthur’s claim; the lords are much less convinced. They don’t want to be ruled by some unknown boy. Time and time again the noblemen of the realm attempt to pull the sword free but the only one who can make it budge is Arthur. Merlin, you’ll note, has vanished again. He does that a lot. Finally the common people insist Arthur must take the throne, and he is made a knight by the Archbishop. The groundswell of popular support means nothing to the neighbouring kings, who refuse to accept Arthur’s overtures of friendship. Only when Arthur is actually under siege does Merlin reappear to announce his true birthright. It eases their main grievance, that Arthur is not of royal blood, but they still will not accept his rule.
So, just to make this point crystal clear, Merlin has told his king’s enemies the truth of Arthur’s parentage, but Arthur, his sisters and MOTHER all remain in the dark. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, MERLIN.
It takes years of warfare and a great deal of bloodshed for Arthur to secure his throne. During that time he meets and has a consensual fling with King Lot’s wife, who we know is also his sister Morgause. It’s only then, when it’s rather too late to benefit anybody except as humiliating hindsight, that Merlin chooses to tell Arthur who his birth parents really are. At once Arthur sends for Igraine, who comes to court with her youngest daughter Morgan le Fay. There is a feast of welcome, but during the festivities one of Arthur’s most favoured knights rises to accuse the widowed queen of – wait for this, it’s bloody priceless – treason, because she never told the world of her son’s birth and is therefore apparently to blame for the wars Arthur has fought to become king. The knight making this accusation is Sir Ulfius, the very same man who was sent to find Merlin for Uther’s deception – a man who knows DAMN WELL what a ghoulish lie was inflicted on Igraine. Her response to him in Malory is such a glorious smackdown that I have to quote it in its entirety:
“I am a woman and I may not fight, but rather than I should be dishonoured, there would be some good man take my quarrel. More, Merlin knoweth well, and ye Sir Ulfius, how King Uther came to me in the Castle of Tintagel in the likeness of my lord, that was dead three hours before, and thereby gat a child that night upon me. And after the thirteenth day King Uther wedded me, and by his commandment when the child was born it was delivered unto Merlin and nourished by him, and so I saw the child never after, nor wot not what is his name, for I knew him never yet…Well I wot, I bare a child by my lord King Uther, but I wot not where his become.”
Ulfius, not nearly shame-faced enough, admits the fault lies more with Merlin than Igraine, and the sorcerer in question displays his usual sense of timing by introducing her to Arthur in front of the full court. The young king eagerly embraces his mother and they cry together, overwhelmed by the moment of reunion. The celebratory feasting lasts for eight days. Hopefully nobody ever tells her about what he did with Morgause.
Of course, that’s hardly the end of family tragedy. Morgan becomes Arthur’s most dedicated enemy; Morgause’s cheerful brood of Orkney boys are all doomed to violent deaths and Mordred, the son she had with Arthur, will be the one to kill his king.
So where is Igraine while all this is happening? Not in Tintagel, that’s for sure – in Le Morte d’Arthur it’s taken over by giants to form a silk sweatshop, and at an undefined point after that it becomes the home of King Mark. In some early stories, Mark is Igraine’s nephew, but in Malory there’s no obvious family connection and no reason to think Igraine is living in Cornwall. An alternative ending in the French Vulgate Cycle sees her in the Grail Castle – presumably keeping well out of the way of her warring children – while in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal, she is discovered in an enchanted castle well after her supposed death. The enchanter may have abducted her, but there are hints she may have gone with him willingly. Was he yet another husband in her long and eventful life?
Igraine is a woman of many myths. She is more than a wife, more than a mother, more than a queen. She was wronged, but could not be silenced; she outlived her conquerer and disappeared into a nebulous future all of her own, separate from the struggles of her children. Her daughters are fiercely independent and steadfast in pursuit of their own happiness; her son and grandsons are all attracted to strong-minded women, without whom Camelot would not have become great. That’s a legacy to be proud of.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!