Guinevere (d. 470 or 542)
Guinevere (d. 470 or 542)
Queen of Britain and wife of King Arthur. Name variations: Ganor, Ganora or Ganore; Ganeura, Ginevra, Genievre, Guenever, Guanhumara, Guanhumar, Guenevere, Guenhumare, Guenièvre, Gwenhwyfar (modern: Jennifer). Pronunciation of Guinevere in Modern English is, roughly, "Gwineveer." Born either as a member of a noble Roman family in post-Roman Britain, or as a Pictish princess during the period of the Saxon invasions in the 400s; died in either 470 or 542; married King Arthur, or Arthur, war leader of the British, and according to some traditions had from one to three sons, sometimes referred to as Lohot and/or Amhar or Amr; many other traditions leave her childless.
Became Arthur's archivist, administered his lands during his absence, and may have assumed the role of high priestess; died not long after Arthur's death in battle either in 470 or 542 ce, after having either retired to an abbey or after having returned to her people in Scotland; she may have been buried either in Glastonbury, England, or at Meigle, Scotland.
The legendary Queen Guinevere is a familiar figure throughout the modern world: young Guinevere, reportedly the fairest maiden of the land, married King Arthur, hero of the fabled Knights of the Round Table. Sir Lancelot became the champion of the queen, they fell in love, and because of their adultery the Round Table was riven with faction, dissent, and war. Arthur, his house divided, fell in battle on the fatal field of Camlann and with him, the realm of Britain.
This storyline has descended to the modern reader through the pen of Sir Thomas Malory who published Le Morte d'Arthur in England in 1485. The splendid Victorian romanticist, Alfred Tennyson, adopted these themes and immortalized them further in his 19th-century work, The Idylls of the King. Thereafter, 20th-century film and literature embellished the evergrowing corpus of Arthurian lore, virtually transmitting them throughout the world.
Most legends contain a kernel of truth, as does the legend of Guinevere. However, the pursuit of the truth behind Arthur's queen is particularly vexing and even controversial, often not unlike following the proverbial will-o'-the-wisp. There really was a Guinevere: to find her, one must search in the period of Dark Ages Britain. Far from being a medieval queen, Guinevere is more appropriately positioned in history as one of the last of the great figures of the ancient world. She was born in the 5th century, after the Romans—the frontiers of their empire increasingly beset by a myriad of foes—had abandoned the province of Britain and sailed for home. By the time of her birth, Britain had faced invasions for over a hundred years by the Scots from Ireland, by the Picts from the Highlands, and by the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes from the Continent.
The search for Guinevere must first inevitably involve locating in history her largerthan-life husband and king, Arthur. Unfortunately, the historical Guinevere had no biographer, and she is only mentioned in documents and oral tradition when she directly affected either Arthur or his realm, and even here she has had scant mention. Arthur himself is exceedingly hard to trace and is perennially the subject of scholarly, but acrimonious, debates.
Much of the trouble lies in the exceptionally meager documentation of the Dark Ages when very few records were kept, and still fewer survived. Those that did surmount the ravages of time are, for the most part, translations—some crude indeed—or copies of copies, which through the centuries suffered many human errors when transcribed. In the words of archaeologist Leslie Alcock: "Thus, we may have a twelfth century copy of a tenth century compilation which includes annals written down in the fifth century; or a thirteenth century copy of a poem composed orally in the sixth but not written down before the ninth century." Other manuscripts passed through appreciative but careless hands, such as the mysterious Arthurian romance lost in a gambling debt by King Richard the Lionheart of England when on crusade in the Holy Land.
Throughout the ages, Arthur and Queen Guinevere have had many powerful admirers, including King Edward III of England (who flirted with the idea of establishing a Knights of the Round Table) and King Henry VII (who created a remarkable if wholly fictional Round Table tapestry which has hung in the town of Winchester, England, since the late 15th or early 16th centuries). Few took the quest for the historical Arthur seriously until the early 20th century.
By 1993, however, several schools of thought emerged, each school championed by exacting scholars. One of the first was proposed by Leslie Alcock who conducted the famous archaeological digs at Cadbury hill fort in Somerset, England, a location which is arguably a candidate for the legendary Camelot:
In our examination of the most reliable Arthurian documents we have discovered acceptable evidence that Arthur was a renowned British soldier, more probably a great commander than a king. His battles were fought principally in the first part of the sixth century AD or perhaps around the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries. It is difficult to overthrow the traditional view that his military activities extended very widely over Britain, perhaps from the southern uplands of Scotland down to Somerset or Dorset. And since no cogent case can be made for dismissing as fable Arthur's connection with the battle of Badon, we should see his major enemy, the one against whom he won his most signal victory, as the Anglo-Saxon invaders. This, then, provides the focal point for any description of the historical background to Arthur, or any discussion of the Arthurian situation.
Historian Geoffrey Ashe has placed Arthur firmly in the 5th century and contends that he was none other than the documented figure Riothamus, which in the ancient British language was "Rigotamos," a title meaning "king-most," or "supreme king." In Ashe's words:
In the High King called Riothamus we have, at last, a documented person as the starting point of the legend. He is the only such person on record who does anything Arthurian. Or, to put it more precisely, he is the only one to whom any large part of the story can be related.
Ashe extracts three references regarding the Roman Emperor Leo I, who ruled at Constantinople from 457 to 474, from Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century work, The History of the Kings of Britain, and thereby achieves a chronological "fix" for the historical Arthur. Based on this and other clues, Ashe places the royal accession of Arthur-Riothamus in 454 ce and has postulated that his death probably occurred, after several years of victorious battles against the Saxons in Britain, in 470 while campaigning against the Saxons on the Continent. Ashe asserts that instead of being buried in "Avalon" in Glastonbury, England, Arthur was probably put to rest in "Avallon" in Burgundy, which is in modern France. Ashe suggests: "Arthur's legend began as a memory of a Restitutor, of civilization endangered and beset, and of Britons headed by their King staging a brave, temporarily successful renewal."
Author Norma Lorre Goodrich views Arthur and Guinevere as personages from the north of Britain. Arthur, son of a noble Roman or Roman of senatorial rank who claimed descent from Constantine (possibly the emperor), and son of a noble British mother, may have been born at the Dark Ages hill fort which is located at the site Caerlaverock Castle in southwestern Scotland, near Carlisle. Goodrich speculates that the Arthurian base of operations was probably between the Roman walls of Hadrian and Antonine, a Celtic area which included Stirling in the northeast to Dumbarton in the northwest to Carlisle and the Lake District in the southwest, then along Hadrian's Wall to Berwick in the southeast. Indeed, Stirling is the most probable place for Camelot and the birthplace of Guinevere. Goodrich asserts that Arthur, a contemporary and equal to King Clovis I of the Franks who carved out territory later known as France, could have launched raids on Ireland and the Continent after halting the Anglo-Saxon invasions from this northern base. Indeed, this historical High King may be "one of the greatest military thinkers of all time."
Geoffrey of Monmouth">
When Arthur learned of their coming, he handed over the task of defending Britain to his nephew Mordred and to his Queen, Guinevere. He himself set off with his army for Southampton, and embarked there with a following wind.
—Geoffrey of Monmouth
But what of the wife of this historical though elusive king? Geoffrey of Monmouth, who finished The History of the Kings of Britain in 1136, claimed to have translated an ancient source from the British language directly into Latin. Whatever truth lies in this allegation, thus far, Geoffrey's account represents the earliest known written mention of Guinevere:
Finally, when [Arthur] had restored the whole country to its earlier dignity, he himself married a woman called Guinevere. She was descended from a noble Roman family and had been brought up in the household of Duke Cador. She was the most beautiful woman in the entire island.
At their joint coronation, Guinevere sported "her own regalia," and "four white doves." Thereafter, she took charge of the administration of Britain along with Arthur's nephew, "Mordred," when the king went on campaign on the Continent. According to Geoffrey, while adventuring against a legion of foes who otherwise would have invaded Britain, Arthur was betrayed by Mordred who "had placed the crown upon his own head." Moreover, "this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage." Mordred had arranged an alliance with the pagan Saxon leader Chelric as well as with the Scots, Picts, and Irish against his uncle and the Britons.
Returning with his troops, Arthur fought a bloody battle on the seashore and drove Mordred's host inland. Meanwhile, Guinevere "fled from York to the City of the Legions and there, in the church of Julius the Martyr, she took her vows among the nuns, promising to lead a chaste life." During the final battle in 542 ce at the River Camblam (often referred to as "Camlann"), Mordred was killed and his forces overthrown, while Arthur "was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon."
Within a generation, Geoffrey's mixture of history and fictional literature had inspired a host of British, French, and even German writers who drew on and embellished the growing Arthurian corpus. Chrétien de Troyes, who dedicated the prose work Lancelot to Countess Marie de Champagne in 1177, was particularly damaging to the reputation of Guinevere by elaborating on the theme of adultery with the renowned warrior-knight, Lancelot. This theme was elevated to the pinnacle of courtly love by the pen of Sir Thomas Malory in La Morte d'Arthur and subsequently was handed down through the word of Alfred Tennyson, who, writing from the position of Victorian England, condemned the queen as a fallen woman.
Yet, as Norma Lorre Goodrich has proposed, there may have been more slander than truth in the allegations. Geoffrey of Monmouth made no mention of Lancelot and Guinevere as lovers (and, indeed, the queen may not have been a willing participant in the supposed affair with Mordred). Certainly, the French had a stake in representing a British queen in a less than favorable light. Chrétien de Troyes, in embellishing the theme of adultery, may have only been following the bidding and pleasure of his patron, Countess Marie de Champagne. In the words of Goodrich: "Lancelot was certainly Guinevere's love. It is far from certain that he ever became her lover."
Goodrich, who believes Guinevere was actually a Pictish noble, has pointed to traditions quite acceptable to the ancient Picts as well as to Roman society which were socially abhorrent by the period of the Middle Ages, when the Arthurian literature began to flower. Medieval chroniclers often assumed the worst, sometimes took meanings out of context, and all too occasionally translated words incorrectly. Geoffrey Ashe, who believes Guinevere was of Romanized Celtic extraction, says much the same with regard to Arthur's queen.
In any case, Guinevere was obviously a prize sought by various contenders, such as King Urien of Rheged who abducted her on at least one occasion. Guinevere came with the splendid dowry, the "Round Table," a legend which blossomed soon after Geoffrey of Monmouth's work became fashionable. Medieval writers explained the Table was round so that no knight would have precedence over the other, or said that the wizard Merlin designed the Table to emulate the universe. Whatever the intent, legend ascribes that Merlin created the Table for Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, and upon his death the Table was transferred to Guinevere's father, who is sometimes referred to as Duke Cador or King Lodegreaunce. From there, the Round Table passed to Arthur through his marriage to Guinevere.
Increasingly, however, scholars have come to view the Round Table not as a cumbersome wooden construction purporting to seat over 150 knights, but as a stone rotunda or even circle wherein Arthur's warriors, and perhaps the notables of Britain, held session. Goodrich, as a proponent of the "Northern" school of thought, sees Guinevere's dowry, the Round Table, in more general terms: "Guinevere was heir to that one prime section of real estate that could sink or crown King Arthur and, if acquired, immortalize both him and Merlin." This dowry was the modern Scottish district of Stirlingshire, which was called the "Round Table" because it was "the most strategic property in Britain."
This property, according to Pictish (and even Celtic) laws of inheritance, would have made Guinevere powerful in her own right, with lands and warriors of her own. Indeed, Goodrich views Guinevere as a noble "warrior" in the footsteps of Boudica , the 1st-century British queen of the Iceni tribe, and points to accounts which suggest Guinevere occasionally led expeditions when disputes involved her properties. Further, Guinevere may have been a Pictish high priestess along with the enchanting Lady of the Lake, and both figures may have been intimately connected with the Isle of Man (set in the "Lake" or Irish Sea). Arthur may have sought betrothal to Guinevere because, in this capacity, she could have countered the influence of his enemies, the Saxons, and their own high priestess called Camille .
Goodrich adds additional dimension to Arthur's wife by gleaning records which suggest Guinevere was the archivist of the realm: these archives were probably destroyed by Arthur's enemies after the fatal battle of Camlann. Both of the Dark Ages chroniclers, Gildas and Nennius, admitted that older British works known as the Northern Annals were lost before they came to write their own histories.
Thus, Guinevere resides in the realm of historical and archaeological speculation even though nearly all scholars have come to accept her existence. Likewise, her unsurpassed beauty remains unchallenged even though posterity has no exact physical description. Monks, who claimed to have uncovered the grave site of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury in the west country of Britain in the 12th century, reportedly discovered among the smaller bones believed to be those of the queen a larger skeleton of impressive size, believed to have been Arthur, which was holding a lock of golden hair. If Goodrich's theory is correct concerning Guinevere's Pictish origins, however, the queen's hair would probably have been dark.
Available records also are controversial regarding the question of children. Many sources, possibly inspired by political malice, have insisted Guinevere was barren. Some have said she gave birth to a son with Arthur called Lohot and possibly one named Amhar or Amr, while the possibility of a third son cannot be ruled out.
Her death, whether in legend or in fact, was certainly one of high drama. Malory and Tennyson recounted the final episodes of Guinevere's life as ones of slander, as the queen's "treasonous" acts with Lancelot were uncovered. Lancelot successfully championed Guinevere's honor in repeated trials-by-combat, but eventually was forced to rescue her from burning at the stake, after which he carried her away to his castle. Thereafter, the Knights of the Round Table chose sides between their king and the most renowned warrior of their brotherhood.
Civil war ensued. Arthur's nephew, Mordred, then staked his claim for the throne, allying himself with a coalition of Arthur's enemies. As Guinevere was conducted out of harm's way to the Abbey of Amesbury, King Arthur faced his final challenge and rode with the remainder of his loyal knights to fall in battle and to live in legend. Guinevere survived Arthur by three years, and became the abbess of Amesbury before her passing. If there is truth to the claim the monks made in the 12th century, Guinevere lies buried with Arthur in Glastonbury.
Goodrich contends that Guinevere had another fate. After Camlann, the queen was either taken prisoner or was escorted to the fortress at Barry Hill in Scotland, and later was buried nearby at Meigle where an ancient stone, called the Guinevere Monument, still stands. Although locals say the stone marks the grave of Arthur's queen and insist that this knowledge has been handed down through the centuries, the monument is still controversial among Arthurian scholars. Goodrich notes that before the bold, equestrian engraving of Arthur stands:
A slim but little angel … Guinevere's wings show clearly in the picture. They strain to form a halo around her face. … There abouts popular memory treasures her still as King Arthur's queen and theirs. To them she is forever his Guardian Angel, and their Stone Flower.
The once and future queen.
Alcock, Leslie. Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology, AD 367–634. London: Penguin Press, 1971.
Ashe, Geoffrey (in association with Debrett's Peerage). The Discovery of King Arthur. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1985.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin Books, 1966.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre. Guinevere. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
——. King Arthur. NY: Harper & Row, 1986.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur. NY: Bramhall House, 1962.
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. Idylls of the King. Edited by J.M. Gray. Penguin Books, 1983.
Troyes, Chrétien de. Arthurian Romances. Translated by D.D.R. Owen. London: J.M. Dent, 1987.
David L. Bullock , Ph.D., author of Allenby's War: the Palestine-Arabian Campaigns, 1916–1918 (London: the Blandford Press, 1988).