Guinevere: King Arthur’s Only Queen?

The famed Queen Guinevere of Camelot, wife of King Arthur, is well known from the French Romance stories of the Middle Ages. Yet, the Romances are not known for faithfully portraying the events or people from the history and legends of the Arthurian Age. Who was the original Guinevere and was she the only woman for Arthur?

Well, to start, her name wasn’t Guinevere. Like my lovely wife’s name, Jennifer, Guinevere is a later pronunciation. Her original name would have been spoken in Brittonic, the predecessor to Welsh, and is lost to time. However, it evolved into ‘Gwenhwyfar’ (Goo-en-HOO-e-var, with the first two syllables almost sounding like one), which means “White Spirit” in Welsh. Because I’m going for a more authentic tale, I use Gwenhwyfar for her name in my historical fiction series, The Arthurian Age. However, people are used to seeing ‘Guinevere’, so I will use that version for this post.

Queen Guinevere Gwenhwyfar at King Richard's Faire 2021
Jennifer as Gwenhwyfar at King Richard’s Faire, 2021

Before we get into the original Guinevere, let’s review the popular image of the queen as portrayed in the French Romances. Much of the later Romances are built upon themes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (HRB). Geoffrey describes her as one of Britain’s great beauties, from a noble Roman family, and raised by Cador, Duke of Cornwall. When King Arthur goes to Europe to fight the Romans, he leaves Guinevere and his nephew, Mordred, in charge. While Arthur’s away, Mordred seduces Guinevere into marrying him and declares himself king. Arthur returns to fight Mordred, killing him at the River Cambula (Camlann) in Cornwall, but is mortally wounded and taken to Avalon. Guinevere goes into a convent for the rest of her life.

Through the Romances, she is portrayed in different ways, sometimes positively, often negatively. Her affair with Lancelot is introduced by Chrétien de Troyes in Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, but it takes another century for Guinevere’s infidelity to become the downfall of Camelot. In some more modern stories, such as by Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, Bedivere (Bedwyr) takes on the role of Guinevere’s lover. Sacrilege!

Queen Guinevere in Boorman's Excalibur
Arthur and Guinevere from Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur.

There is even an old folk poem that may stem from these later stories. Or may not:

Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Ogrfan Gawr,

Bad when little, worse when great.

It actually rhymes in Welsh.

I’m more interested in the older legends about Guinevere. One in particular is fascinating: Guinevere’s abduction by Melwas. This is a very early story, appearing in The Life of Gildas by a Welsh cleric named Caradoc of Llancarfan. It was recorded around the same time as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB, but the abduction story does not appear in Geoffrey’s work. It may draw on very old folklore, even history. In this story, Maleagant (Melwas), kidnaps Guinevere and takes her to his fortress at Glastonbury. Arthur locates her and prepares to attack, but Gildas (a known historical person) intervenes and secures peace and Guinevere’s release. If you’ve read my books, The Retreat to Avalon or The Strife of Camlann, you might recognize some things . . .

King Arthur rescues Queen Guinevere from her abductor.
The Modena Cathedral archivolt depicting Guinevere’s abduction.

This episode is a good indicator that stories of Arthur may have been spreading across Europe prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB, or Caradoc’s Life of Gildas, because those books were published around 1136. Yet, if you ever visit the ancient cathedral at Modena, Italy, you can find an archway carving depicting this story. It is the earliest known sculpture depicting an Arthurian story, being made between 1120 and 1140. So it either predates Caradoc’s publication, or that book, long before the printing press, made an amazingly fast transit across Europe.

Some of the earliest Welsh Arthurian legends are to be found in the Mabinogion and the Welsh Triads, thought to be recorded from ancient oral traditions. One of the stories in the Mabinogion, Culhwch and Olwen, is possibly the oldest recorded Arthurian story, and mentions Guinevere as Arthur’s wife, “chief lady of this island”, and one of the “gentle, gold-torced maidens of this island”.

Culhwch & Olwen

It get’s very interesting when we look at the Welsh Triads. They’re called “triads” because they’re short poems of subjects grouped in threes. Celtic Druids are said to have memorized their lore rather than putting it in writing, even though they were literate. The Triads may be survivors of a mnemonic method they used to memorize subjects.

Guinevere as Gwenhwyfar appears in five of the Triads. There doesn’t seem to be much logical order to how they were recorded, so I’ll start with a simple one:

Arthur’s Three Great Queens:
Gwennhwyfar daughter of Cywryd Gwent,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant.

Triad 56

Triad 56 says that Arthur had three wives, all named Guinevere. I’m convinced that this comes, originally, from a historical memory that Arthur had more than one wife (which I will get into below), that the only name remembered was Guinevere’s, and since a Triad must have three subjects, Arthur was given three Guineveres.

Three Faithless Wives of the Island of Britain:
Three daughters of Culfanawyd of Britain: Essyllt Fair-Hair (Trystan’s mistress),
and Penarwan (wife of Owain son of Urien),
and Bun, wife of Fflamddwyn.
And one was more faithless than those three: Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s wife, since she shamed a better man than any.

Triad 80

Triad 80 is odd because it breaks from the normal three subjects of a Triad and adds a fourth one about Guinevere. It appears that the original Triad did not reference Guinevere at all, and the additional line was added by someone influenced by the French Romances. I’d go so far as suggesting this as evidence that there was no early tradition of Guinevere being unfaithful.

Now let’s get into the interesting stuff. Two of the next three Triads are explicitly about Guinevere’s part in Arthur’s final, tragic battle at Camlann. I think the evidence points to all three being related to Camlann.

Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain:
The first of them Matholwch the Irishman struck upon Branwen daughter of Llyr;
The second Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwenhwyfar: and for that cause there took place afterwards the Action of the Battle of Camlann;
And the third Golydan the Poet struck upon Cadwaladr the Blessed.

Triad 53

The Romances suggest that Camlann, the battle where Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell, was caused by Guinevere’s infidelity and Mordred’s usurpation. However, Triad 53 says that it was “The Slap” that Gwenhwyfach gave to Guinevere that caused “The Strife of Camlann”.

The Strife of Camlann
Did Guinevere cause the Strife of Camlann?

Who was Gwenhwyfach? The name means, roughly, “Gwen the Lesser” and in some Romance stories, is said to be Guinevere’s sister. I don’t believe this is correct, if there is any history behind this Triad. There are a number of confusing and contrary Romance stories that use sisters of Guinevere as explanations for various problems. Some even suggest a “False Guinevere”: Guinevere’s identical half-sister who manages to trick Arthur into marrying her, instead of the true Guinevere. However, the “Harmful Blow” that Gwenhwyfach struck against Guinevere is said to have instigated Camlann. It all seems like late attempts to square Romance stories with mostly-forgotten legends and history.

Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain:
One of them was the Battle of Goddeu: it was brought about by the cause of the bitch, together with the roebuck and the plover;
The second was the Action of Arfderydd, which was brought by the cause of the lark’s nest;
And the third was the worst: that was Camlann, which was brought about because of a quarrel between Gwenhwyfar and Gwenhwyfach.
This is why those were called Futile: because they were brought about by such a barren cause as that.

Triad 84

Triad 84 reiterates that Camlann came about because of the fight between Guinevere and Gwenhwyfach. It points out that the cause was futile because it was so minor, and that Camlann was the worst, probably because it ended Arthur’s Golden Age and opened the way for the Anglo-Saxons to take over much of Britain.

Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Island of Britain:
The first 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 dragged Gwenhwyfar from her royal chair, and then he struck a blow upon her;
The second Unrestrained Ravaging, when Arthur came to Medrawd’s court. He left neither food nor drink in the court;
And the third Unrestrained Ravaging, when Aeddan the Wily came to the court of Rhydderch the Generous at Alclud; he left neither food nor drink nor beast alive.

Triad 54

Finally, we come to Triad 54. This one does not refer to Camlann, however, it is noteworthy that it comes directly after Triad 53, which describes “The Slap”. It could be interpreted to suggest that “The Slap” paved the way for Mordred’s ravishing of Arthur’s court at Celliwig and attack on Guinevere, which in turn instigated Arthur’s reprisal at Mordred’s court (without an attack upon Mordred’s wife, if he had one).

These three Triads intrigued me greatly, and I am frankly surprised that no one else seems to have put them together in a plausible linkage of events leading to Arthur’s fateful battle. If you are curious about the long chain of events that led to the end of Arthur’s Golden Age, you should read the second novel in my series, The Strife of Camlann. But only if you’ve already read the first book in the series, The Retreat to Avalon, so you’ll recognize the seeds of discontent . . .

The Arthurian Age Books 1 and 2 The Retreat to Avalon and The Strife of Camlann
The third book is in progress. . .

Because my historical fiction series is based on the old Welsh legends rather than the Romances, I haven’t had many details available about Guinevere aside from those shown above. She is generally considered to have remained childless, which is one reason Arthur is said to have had no heir. However, it is not said that Arthur had no children. I’m not referring to the Romance nonsense of Mordred being his son. No, I’m referring to something I mentioned earlier in this post: Guinevere may not have been Arthur’s first wife.

Early legends speak of Arthur having as many as three sons, all of whom died young. The mother of those sons is unknown, but it was likely not Guinevere because of the near-universal tradition that she bore no children. So, were these illegitimate children, or was Arthur married before Guinevere? The most intriguing hint that Arthur was previously married comes from a 12th century report from Gerald of Wales, a Welsh-Norman priest and historian who wrote of a visit to Glastonbury, where Arthur and Guinevere were said to have been buried. He describes being shown Arthur’s bones, as well as a lead cross with an archaic inscription found in the grave:

Glastonbury Cross King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere buried in Avalon

Drawing of the original Glastonbury Cross.
The reference to Guinevere is said to have been on the back.


Gerald of Wales

So, was Guinevere Arthur’s only queen, assuming that she and Arthur are dim memories of actual people? My guess is that Arthur was married prior to Guinevere, but by the time he reached the status of “king”, the first wife was no longer in the picture. Perhaps she died or perhaps they divorced (not uncommon in that era). If there is anything to glean from the hints of legend, it seems that only Guinevere may have been called his queen.

The first two books in The Arthurian Age series introduce Guinevere as Arthur’s queen, and describes her fate. My third novel in the series, Three Wicked Revelations, will explore and, perhaps, answer the questions of Arthur’s first wife and children, and how he came to wed Guinevere. I hope you enjoy them, and please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It really helps authors so much. Thank you!

4 thoughts on “Guinevere: King Arthur’s Only Queen?”

  1. Great detail on Arthur’s Lady. Not sure if I have mentioned that we organised a reenactment event where the Battle of Camlann allegedly took place. The event used to be held in Tintagel but stopped and we thought to revive it on a small way at

    Initially it was quite successful with both a Dark Age battle and a Medieval one each day of the weekend but we found it too much of an effort and the group we passed it onto only carried on for a while.

    • I did not know that, thanks!
      The site of Camlann has been a tricky puzzle. Slaughterbridge has been one of the favorite locations, but I’m not convinced that the stone’s inscription “Latinus son of Macarus lies here” is any evidence of any link to Arthur or Camlann. I might have used that location or one of a few others, but I settled on a location on the River Cam below Camel Hill, near Queen Camel (nothing relating to the animal, of course) for three primary reasons:
      1) I am building my historical fiction novel based on Geoffrey Ashe’s work, and that was the location he favored.
      2) “Camlann” means “crooked enclosure”, and if you look at the location near Queen Camel, you can see that the river makes some very sharp turns, which could lend itself to a location involving just such a crooked enclosure, like from a farm.
      3) Strategically, following the chain of events, I could easily find reason for such a battle at that location, with relation to Glastonbury, South Cadbury, and the road from the western coast that led that direction.

  2. Another great summary. And of course, well written and entertaining.
    I am not sure where exactly I got the idea (it was about 30 years ago, but it may have partly come from Tolstoys’ book “The Quest for Merlin”) but there was the suggestion that when a prince came of age, there were ‘rites’ of passage’ or inheritence of Kingship. As the divine son (Mabon?) of the Divine King, to inherit or assume some authority, the son had to “Wed the Land”, personified by the Divine Daughter/Princess, the fertility of the Mother goddess/ the physical Realm( as (Madrun/ Matrona, Gwen…?/…Anna?), through the usual lusty manner. This would not only also confirm the legitimacy if Kingship, but as the “Princess” may have been the daughter of another King, confirm or expand the Chieftains power base. Could this be the basis for as allegotical first Marriage? …How many Gwens, Annas etc, are referred to in relation to Royal marriage. Or did you know this already ? Anyway, just thinking out loud…and I obviously don’t have your literary craft. Thanks, but now I’ve gone off on another tangent. Ha ha …Thankyou Sean.

    • Thank you! Lots of interesting details in the Celtic legendary world. Anna is Arthur’s sister early on but fades away later on. She will be Arthur’s sister again in book 3.


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