Little Details: Mordred’s Family

Hi folks, we’re back today with a chat about some of the little details I work into my historical fiction re-telling of the Arthurian legends. This time with some astonishing things about Mordred’s family, namely his children, wife, father, and sister, that are revealed in chapter six of The Retreat to Avalon, and later in book two, The Strife of Camlann.

There are many little details in my books that you might think I invented as simple backstory or fluff. However, many of the story elements come from very obscure history or legends. Finding ways to fit these pieces into the story is part of the challenge and fun of writing historical fiction. Sometimes it results in unexpected answers to historical questions, or solutions to contradictory legends.

Be warned, there are minor spoilers ahead, but they won’t ruin the story. For those who have read my books, they might notice that I spell Mordred differently here than I do in the books. As I explain in “Mordred: Villain or Hero?“, I use the older spelling, Modred in the books, but because people are more familiar with “Mordred”, I’ll use that in articles.

Mordred’s Father

Mordred's Family
Y Gododdin, leaving Din Eidyn for Catreath. (My photo, from Edinburgh Castle.)

Before the Romances, Mordred was described as the son of Lot. I go over most of what we know about Mordred in that other article, so let’s start with King Lot. Through much of the Arthurian Age, Lot ruled a region of southeast Scotland named for it’s people, the Gododdin. Later legends have Lot married to Arthur’s half-sister, but I don’t use that connection in my story because, as I’ve said, medieval authors tended to make all famous people related. At this early stage in post-Roman Britain, there would not have been enough consolidation of power for a few aristocratic families across all of Britain to be related.

Lot, said to have been a pagan in his youth, shows up early in a hagiography of St. Kentigern as Kentigern’s maternal grandfather. Later Romance stories tended to portray Lot negatively. I don’t use the Romances for my story, but there is some sort of falling out between Mordred and his father, hints of which begin in chapter two. In chapter six, we finally learn why, and it has to do with Mordred’s sister, Teneu.

Mordred’s Sister

Mordred’s family likely included several siblings. But before the Romances, the only one mentioned is Teneu, the mother of St. Kentigern. There are two basic stories attached to her. One describes her father trying to marry her to a prince against her will and she instead chooses his other option: to live with a lowly swineherd. She was later raped by the prince and impregnated, but refused to tell anyone who did it. Her father sentenced her to death for “whoring”, but by a series of miracles, she was spared and spirited away to the care of St. Serf, who raised Kentigern.

Mordred's Family
Traprain Law, southeast of Edinburgh, where Teneu was thrown over the walls.

The other story says that Teneu became pregnant and refused to tell her father who did the deed. Lot threatens to marry her to a swineherd and she responds as any parent of a teenager could expect. Instead of grounding her, he threw her over the walls of his clifftop fortress. He thought she fell to her death, but she and her unborn child are saved by a miracle and taken to St. Serf.

Mordred’s Wife

If you’ve read The Retreat to Avalon, you can recognize how I wove this legend into the story, and why Mordred leaves his home. It also suggests why Mordred jumps into a rather rash marriage. Of course, we don’t get this much detail from the legends, but Mordred is said to have married, and to have had children.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (the oldest surviving complete Arthurian story), Mordred is said to have married a willing Guinevere while Arthur was away fighting the Romans in Gaul, and this theme of Guinevere’s infidelity becomes the standard through most of the Romances. However, Welsh legends that probably have much older sources, say nothing of this, and I do not use this storyline, though in reading my story, you will find allusions to it, such as in rumors and accusations.

In the older legends, Camlann, the battle which ended Arthur’s Golden Age, is instigated by Gwenhwyfach (Gwen the Lesser) slapping Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar). This seems to be followed by Mordred attacking Guinevere in her hall and sacking the place, presumably without Arthur there. Arthur is said to have quickly retaliated by sacking Mordred’s hall, though there is no mention of him harming Mordred’s wife. Camlann follows soon after.

Mordred and Arthur battle at Camlann
Mordred and Arthur battle at Camlann.

Was Mordred married to Gwenhwyfach? No source suggests this, but the chain of events in these ancient references suggests a linkage. In Culhwch and Olwen, one of the oldest Arthurian poems, Gwenhwyfach is mentioned as Guinevere’s sister, but that seems unlikely and explained away for two reasons. First, the term may have been used between unrelated members of noble households as expressions of comity. We have seen such things in later medieval letters between nobles. Second, what parent would name one daughter a lesser version of another? Gwenhwyfach sounds more like a nickname, if unflattering, which was not uncommon in this era.

Do any sources suggest who Modred’s wife was? The 13th century Romance Escanor describes Mordred as having a vain and evil lover, but does not mention her name. In the 16th century, Hector Boece wrote the History and Chronicles of Scotland, combining earlier written works with Scottish oral tradition. In this, he reports that Mordred was son-in-law to Guallanus, which is said to have been Caw, a chieftain or king of a region near Glasgow.

Now we’re narrowing in. Caw is an interesting character, said to have had numerous children, several of which became saints, such as Gildas, who we know is a historical person. One of Caw’s daughters, Cwyllog, is an obscure saint who founded a church at Llangwyllog (Enclosure of Cwyllog) on the isle of Anglesey, Wales. Tradition states that Cwyllog was married to Mordred, and relocated to Anglesey after her husband’s death at Camlann, becoming a nun. Her father and other family members may have already relocated there after losing his lands in the north.

Their Children

Which brings us to the children in Mordred’s family. Cwyllog is said to have borne two sons to Mordred. We know that Geoffrey of Monmouth used a combination of legend and invention, along with garbled history in his writings, and Mordred’s children are an example. Geoffrey says that after Arthur and Mordred die at Camlann, Mordred’s sons carry on the rebellion until defeated by Constantine. They flee to a church, where Constantine finds and kills them. It seems unlikely that Mordred’s sons would be old enough to lead a rebellion, but by describing them as rebels, Geoffrey may have been trying to soften the history behind this incident in order to reduce the black mark on Constantine’s reputation.

Because this incident appears to actually have happened. The monk, Gildas, writing Britain’s only surviving document from Arthur’s era, calls out five British “tyrants” for their misdeeds. One is Constantine, who Gildas accuses of dressing in an abbot’s robes and murdering two royal youths in a church. Gildas doesn’t name the youths, possibly because he was trying to appear impartial in his condemnations. Because, if the tradition is accurate, these were Mordred’s sons, and thus, Gildas’ nephews. Wow, right?

Mordred's Family
St Cwyllog’s Church, Llangwyllog. This one dates from the 15th century. The original would probably have been wooden.

Before we go, let’s go back to Cwyllog, briefly. If you’ve read the first two books, you know that the portrayal of Cwyllog would hardly seem to fit the mold of a future saint. Yet, consider that the disastrous battle of Camlann, though caused by other reasons, is instigated by “The Slap”. In this battle, she loses her husband and likely her high position in society, and shortly after, her children are killed. Such a chain of events makes a drastic change in a person seem less unlikely, doesn’t it?

These are yet more hints that there is actual history behind the legends of King Arthur, and why weaving them into the stories of my series, The Arthurian Age, is so exciting. I hope you enjoyed this, and as always, I’d love to hear from you.

The Strife of Camlann
Book II of The Arthurian Age

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