Mordred or Modred (/ˈmoʊdrɛd/; Welsh: Medraut or Medrawt) is a character who is variously portrayed in the Arthurian legend. The earliest known mention of a possibly historical Medraut is in the Welsh chronicle Annales Cambriae, wherein he and Arthur are ambiguously associated with the Battle of Camlann in a brief entry for the year 537. His figure seemed to have been regarded positively in the early Welsh tradition and may have been related to that of Arthur's son.
|Matter of Britain character|
Sir Mordred by H. J. Ford (1902)
|First appearance||Annales Cambriae (chronicles) |
Historia Regum Britanniae (legendary)
|Title||Sir, Prince, King|
|Occupation||Usurper high king of Britain (a prince of Orkney and a knight of the Round Table in later tradition)|
|Spouse||Either Guinevere, Gwenhwyfach or Cwyllog|
|Children||Sometimes two sons including Melou or Melehan|
|Relatives||Parents: Arthur or Lot, Anna / Morgause |
Brothers: Gawain, often also Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth
As Modredus, Mordred was depicted as Arthur's traitorous nephew and a legitimate son of King Lot in Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-historical work Historia Regum Britanniae which then served as the basis for the following evolution of the legend since the 12th century. Later variants most often characterised him as Arthur's villainous bastard son, born of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, the Queen of Orkney named either Anna, Orcades or Morgause. The accounts presented in the Historia and most other versions include Mordred's death at Camlann, typically in a final duel during which he manages to mortally wound his slayer Arthur.
Mordred is usually a brother or half-brother to Gawain, however his other family relations as well as his relationships with Arthur's wife Guinevere vary greatly. In a popular telling originating from the French chivalric romances of the 13th century, and made prominent today through its inclusion in Le Morte d'Arthur, Mordred is knighted by Arthur and joins the fellowship of the Round Table. In this narrative, he eventually becomes the main actor in Arthur's downfall as he helps his half-brother Agravain to expose Guinevere's and Lancelot's affair and then takes advantage of the resulting war to make himself the high king of Britain.
The name Mordred, found as the Latinised Modredus in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, comes from Old Welsh Medraut (comparable to Old Cornish Modred and Old Breton Modrot). It is ultimately derived from Latin Moderātus, meaning "within bounds, observing moderation, moderate".
Early Welsh sources
The earliest surviving mention of Mordred (referred to as Medraut) is found in an entry for the year 537 in the chronicle Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales), which references his name in an association with the Battle of Camlann.
Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
"The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell."
This brief entry gives no information as to whether Mordred killed or was killed by Arthur, or even if he was fighting against him. As noted by Leslie Alcock, the reader assumes this in the light of later tradition. The Annales themselves were completed between 960 and 970, meaning that (although their authors likely drew from older material) they cannot be considered as a contemporary source having been compiled 400 years after the events they describe.
Meilyr Brydydd, writing at the same time as Geoffrey of Monmouth, mentions Mordred in his lament for the death of Gruffudd ap Cynan (d. 1137). He describes Gruffudd as having eissor Medrawd ("the nature of Medrawd") as to have valour in battle. Similarly, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr praised Madog ap Maredudd, king of Powys (d. 1160) as having Arthur gerdernyd, menwyd Medrawd ("Arthur's strength, the good nature of Medrawd"). This would support the idea that early perceptions of Mordred were largely positive.
However, Mordred's later characterisation as the king's villainous son has a precedent in the figure of Amr or Amhar, a son of Arthur's known from only two references. The more important of these, found in an appendix to the 9th-century chronicle Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), describes his marvelous grave beside the Herefordshire spring where he had been slain by his own father in some unchronicled tragedy. What connection exists between the stories of Amr and Mordred, if there is one, has never been satisfactorily explained.
Depictions in the legend
In Geoffrey's influential Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), written around 1136, Mordred (Modredus) is portrayed as the nephew of and traitor to Arthur. The unhistorical account presented by Geoffrey describes Arthur leaving Mordred in charge of his throne as he crossed the English Channel to wage war on Lucius Tiberius of Rome. During Arthur's absence, Mordred crowns himself king and lives in an adulterous union with Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Geoffrey does not make it clear how complicit Guinevere is with Mordred's actions, simply stating that the Queen had "broken her vows" and "about this matter... [he] prefers to say nothing." This forces Arthur to return to Britain to fight at the Battle of Camlann, where Mordred is ultimately slain. Arthur, having been gravely wounded in battle, is sent to be healed by Morgan in Avalon.
A number of Welsh sources also refer to Medraut, usually in relation to Camlann. One Welsh Triad, based on Geoffrey's Historia, provides an account of his betrayal of Arthur; in another, he is described as the author of one of the "Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Isle of Britain" – he came to Arthur's court at Kelliwic in Cornwall, devoured all of the food and drink, and even dragged Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) from her throne and beat her. In another Triad, however, he is described as one of "men of such gentle, kindly, and fair words that anyone would be sorry to refuse them anything." The Mabinogion also describes him in the terms of courtliness, calmness and purity.
The Old French chivalric romance prose literature of the 13th century expand on the history of Mordred prior to the civil war with Arthur. In the Vulgate Merlin part of Vulgate Cycle, his elder half-brother Gawain saves the infant Mordred and their mother Morgause from the Saxon king Taurus. In the Old French prose narrative's revision known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and consequently in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), Arthur is told prophecy by Merlin about a just-born child that is to be his undoing, and so he tries to avert the fate by ordering the killing of all the May Day newborns. This episode (reminiscent of the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents and sometimes dubbed the "May Day massacre") leads to a war between Arthur and the husband of Mordred's mother in which the latter king dies. However, unknown to Arthur, the baby Mordred miraculously survives. As told by Malory, Mordred is accidentally found and rescued by a man who then raises him until he is 14.
In this branch of the legend, the young Mordred later joins Arthur's fellowship of the Round Table after Merlin's downfall. Known for his lustful habits (including even attempted rapes in the French romance Claris et Laris), he is involved in the adventures of his brothers and some of his fellow knights such as Brunor, becoming the killer of Lamorak as well as a friend and companion yet eventually a bitter enemy of Lancelot. His turning point toward evil is hearing an old priest's prophecy for him and Lancelot, revealing his true parentage and predicting their roles in the ruin of the kingdom (the angry Mordred kills the priest before he could warn Arthur). In this narrative, Mordred overthrows Arthur's rule when the latter is engaged in the war against Lancelot. The Vulgate's Prose Lancelot indicates Mordred was about 20 years old at the time. In the French-influenced Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a council of Britain's knights first elects Mordred for the position of regent in Arthur's absence as the most worthy candidate.
Traditions vary on Mordred's relationship to Arthur. Medraut is never considered Arthur's son in Welsh texts, only his nephew, though The Dream of Rhonabwy mentions that the king had been his foster father. In early literature derived from Geoffrey's Historia, Mordred was considered the legitimate son of Arthur's sister or half-sister queen variably known as Anna or Morgause (Orcades / Morcades / Morgawse / Margawse) with her husband, Lot (Loth), the king of either Lothian or Orkney. Today, however, he is best known as Arthur's own illegitimate son by Morgause in the motif introduced in the Vulgate Cycle, in which their union happens at the time when neither of them have yet known of their blood relation.
The 14th-century Scottish chronicler John of Fordun claimed that Mordred was the rightful heir to the throne of Britain, as Arthur was an illegitimate child (in his account, Mordred was the legitimate son of Lot and Anna, who here is Uther's sister). This sentiment was elaborated upon by Walter Bower and by Hector Boece, who in his Historia Gentis Scotorum goes so far as to say Arthur and Mordred's brother Gawain were traitors and villains and Arthur usurped the throne from Mordred. According to Boece, Arthur agreed to make Mordred his heir but then, on the advice of the Britons who did not want Mordred to rule, he made Constantine his heir; this led to the war in which Arthur and Mordred die.
Gawain is Mordred's brother already in the Historia as well as in Layamon's Brut. Besides him, Mordred's other brothers or half-brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth in the later tradition derived from the French romance cycles, beginning with the prose versions of Robert de Boron's poems Merlin and Perceval. In the Vulgate Lancelot, Mordred is the youngest of the siblings who begins his knightly career as Agravain's squire and the two later conspire together to reveal Lancelot's affair with Guinevere. In stark contrast to many modern works, Mordred's only interaction with Morgan le Fay in any medieval text occurs when he and his brothers visit Morgan's castle in the Vulgate Queste, in which she is Mordred's aunt.
In the Historia and certain other texts, such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure reimagination of the Historia where Mordred is portrayed sympathetically, Mordred marries Guinevere consensually after he takes the throne. However, in later writings like the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is not treated as a traitor and instead she flees Mordred's proposal and hides in the Tower of London. Adultery is still tied to her role in these later romances, however, but Mordred has been replaced in this role by Lancelot.
The 18th-century Welsh antiquarian Lewis Morris, based on statements made by the Scottish chronicler Boece, suggested that Medrawd had a wife Cwyllog, daughter of Caw. Another late Welsh tradition was that Medrawd's wife was Gwenhwy(f)ach, sister of Gwenhwyfar.
In Henry of Huntingdon's retelling of Geoffrey's Historia, Mordred is beheaded at Camlann in a lone charge against him and his entire host by Arthur himself, who suffers many injuries in the process. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, he first kills Gawain by his own hand in an early battle against Arthur's landing forces and then deeply grieves after him. In the Vulgate Mort Artu (and consequently in Le Morte d'Arthur), the terrible final battle begins by an accident during a last-effort peace meeting between Arthur and Mordred. In the ensuing fighting, Mordred personally slays his cousin Yvain after the latter's rescue of the unhorsed Arthur and then he decapitates the already badly wounded Sagramore. He also kills Sagramore as well as six other Round Table knights loyal to Arthur in the Post-Vulgate version, which presents this as an incredible and unprecedented feat. These and many other versions of the legend feature the motif of Arthur and Mordred striking down each other in a duel after most of the others on both sides have died. The Morte Arthure has Mordred grievously wound Arthur with the sword Clarent, stolen for him from Arthur by his co-conspirator Guinevere, while Arthur brutally skewers him on the sword Caliburn (Excalibur). In Le Morte d'Arthur, they meet on foot as Arthur charges Mordred and runs a spear through him. With the last of his strength, Mordred impales himself even further to be within striking distance, and lands a mortal blow to King Arthur's head.
In the Post-Vulgate, one of the few survivors of Arthur's army, Bleoberis, drags Mordred's corpse behind a horse around the battlefield of Salisbury Plain until it is torn to pieces. Later, as it had been commanded by the dying Arthur, the Archbishop of Canterbury constructs the Tower of the Dead tomb memorial, from which Bleoberis hangs Mordred's head as a warning against treason and there it then remains for centuries until it is removed by the visiting Ganelon. Conversely, Margam Abbey's chronicle Annales de Margan claims Arthur had been buried alongside Mordred, here described as his nephew, in another tomb purportedly exhumed in the "real Avalon" at Glastonbury Abbey.
There have been also alternative stories of Mordred's death. In the Italian La Tavola Ritonda (The Round Table), it is Lancelot who kills Mordred at Castle Urbano where Mordred has besieged Guinevere after Arthur's death. In the pseudo-historical Ly Myreur des Histors (The Mirror of History) by Belgian writer Jean d'Outremeuse, Mordred survives the great battle and rules with the traitorous Guinevere until they are defeated and captured by Lancelot and King Carados in London. Guinevere is then executed by Lancelot and Mordred is entombed alive with her body, which he consumes before dying of starvation.
Geoffrey and the Lancelot-Grail Cycle have Mordred being succeeded by his sons. Stories always number them as two, though they are usually not named, nor is their mother.
In Geoffrey's version, after the Battle of Camlann, Constantine is appointed Arthur's successor. However, Mordred's two sons and their Saxon allies later rise against him. After defeating them, one of them flees to sanctuary in the Church of Amphibalus in Winchester while the other hides in a London friary. Constantine tracks them down, and kills them before the altars in their respective hiding places. This act invokes the vengeance of God, and three years later Constantine is killed by his nephew Aurelius Conanus. Geoffrey's account of the episode may be based on Constantine's murder of two "royal youths" as mentioned by the 6th-century writer Gildas. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the dying Arthur personally orders Constantine to kill Mordred's infant children as Guinevere had been asked by Mordred to flee with them to Ireland. Guinevere instead returns to Caerleon without a concern for the children.
The elder of Mordred's sons is Melehan (possibly related to Mordred's son Melou in Layamon's Brut) in the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate. In these texts, Lancelot and his men return to Britain to dispatch Melehan and his brother after receiving a letter from the dying Gawain. In a battle, Melehan slays Lionel, brother to Bors the Younger; Bors kills Melehan, avenging his brother's death, while Lancelot kills the unnamed younger brother. In the 15th-century Spanish chivalric romance Florambel de Lucea, the surviving Arthur is rescued by his sister Morgan in a battle against the sons of Mordred (Morderec).
In later works
Virtually everywhere Mordred appears, his name is synonymous with treason. He appears in Dante's Inferno in the lowest circle of Hell, set apart for traitors: "him who, at one blow, had chest and shadow / shattered by Arthur's hand" (Canto XXXII). Mordred is especially prominent in popular modern era Arthurian literature, as well as in film, television, and comics. In such modern adaptations, Morgause is often conflated with (and into) the character of Morgan le Fay, who may be Mordred's mother or alternatively his lover or wife. A few works of the Middle Ages and today, however, portray Mordred as less a traitor and more a conflicted opportunist, or even a victim of fate. Even Malory, who depicts Mordred as a villain, notes that the people rallied to him because, "with Arthur was none other life but war and strife, and with Sir Mordred was great joy and bliss."
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mordred.|
- Mordred at The Camelot Project
- The different accounts of Mordred's death at Camlann