Bedwyr: The True Sir Bedivere

Today we’re talking about Bedwyr, one of King Arthur’s most loyal and brave warriors known to most as Sir Bedivere. He is a much more interesting character in the old Welsh legends, which are the source for his portrayal in my historical fiction novel series, The Arthurian Age.

Bedwyr is associated with Arthur as one of his two best friends, alongside Cei (Sir Kay) from Arthur’s youth. He is thought to have been based on a real person, appearing as an important character in the earliest Welsh legends. In these depictions, Bedwyr “Of the Perfect Sinews” (a reference to his handsomeness), is considered one of Arthur’s greatest warriors, despite having only one hand. In the Welsh Triads, he is one of the three “Battle-Diademed” warriors, superior to Drustan, Hueil son of Caw, and even Cei.

Bedwyr (Bedivere) One Hand
One of the few portrayals of Bedwyr with a missing hand comes, surprisingly, from Marvel Comics.

Why Bedwyr is missing a hand is lost to time, but a possible hint may be found in the early Welsh poem, Pa Gur (Who is the Gate Keeper). Arthur is describing his warriors, and refers to Bedwyr:

They fell by the hundreds before Bedwyr of the Perfect-Sinews.
On the shores of Tribruit, fighting with Garwlwyd, furious was his nature with sword and shield.

We don’t know for sure where Tribruit is, though it is thought to be a river, and the context of the poem (On the heights of Eidyn) suggests it is in the region of Edinburgh, Scotland, fighting against “Dogheads”, who may have been Picts. Since the poem refers to Bedwyr using sword and shield, either he had both hands at this time, or had managed to use a shield at a time when they were not strapped to an arm, but rather held by a single handle in the middle.

Welsh references to Arthur’s early life typically include Bedwyr and Cei as his companions. The Life of Saint Cadoc, perhaps the earliest hagiography to mention Arthur, describes how a chieftain called Gwynllyw had eloped with Gwladus, the daughter of King Brychan. Brychan’s men pursued them, killing many of Gwynllyw’s men until Gwynllyw and Gwladus reached a hilltop on his own borders. There, playing dice, were Arthur, Cei and Bedwyr. Arthur became enflamed with lust for Gwladus and proposed that they take the girl for him. However, Cei and Bedwyr convinced Arthur that they should instead help those in need, so Arthur sent them to find out who they were and why they were in distress. Upon learning, Arthur, Cei, and Bedwyr attacked Brychan’s men and routed them. Gwynllyw and Gwladus were married and their son was Cadoc.

Bedwyr (Bedivere) helps Culhwch win Olwen
Culhwch asking Ysbaddaden for Olwen’s hand in marriage.

In the ancient story, Culhwch and Olwen, Culhwch wishes to wed Olwen. However, her evil father, the giant Ysbaddaden, will only grant Culhwch his daughter on completion of a number of deadly and near impossible tasks. So Culhwch goes to Arthur for help. Arthur agrees and gathers his warriors, including Cei and Bedwyr:

And Arthur called Bedwyr, who never shrank from any enterprise upon which Cei was bound. None was equal to him in swiftness throughout this Island except Arthur and Drych Ail Kibddar. And although he was one-handed, three warriors could not shed blood faster than he on the field of battle. Another property he had; his lance would produce a wound equal to those of nine opposing lances.

Bedwyr plays a key role in many of the tasks, including the hunt for the monstrous boar, Twrch Trwyth. In the end, Ysbaddaden is killed, and Culhwch and Olwen are married.

Bedwyr’s father was Pedrawd, possibly from south-east Wales, though little more is known of him. Bedwyr’s wife, if he had one, is not mentioned, though he is said to have a son, Amren, and daughter, Eneuawc, who is called one of the “gold-torqued women” of Britain.

Bedwyr Bedivere
Mont St. Michel on the coast of Normandy, where Bedwyr and Cei helped Arthur kill a giant who terrorized the region.

Bedwyr is portrayed much the same in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, but goes through a variety of changes through the various French Romances, where he becomes Sir Bedivere, Knight of Round Table and King Arthur’s Marshal. At the time the Romances were written, a marshal was essentially in charge of a king’s household security and stables. It is likely that some similar role was filled in much earlier eras, and it would have been as influential as the king’s seneschal, or butler (Cei’s role).

Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bedwyr dying in Gaul, fighting the Romans, but an old Welsh poem, The Stanzas of the Graves, puts his grave on a mountain in Snowdonia, Wales (shown in the title image).

After many a slaughter,
The grave of Bedwyr is in Gallt Tryvan.

This may fit with the tradition that Bedwyr was one of the few to survive Arthur’s final, tragic battle of Camlann. In the Romances, the mortally wounded Arthur gives Bedivere his sword, Excalibur, to throw into the lake. Bedivere can’t bring himself to throw it away, and returns to Arthur, saying he had done as requested. Arthur asks him what he saw, and knows Bedivere lied. Bedivere, shamed, returns to the lake and learns why he was given this task:

Following Camlann, Bedwyr is said to have become a monk at the abbey located at Glastonbury, which some legends and evidence suggest was Arthur’s burial place.

Bedwyr is a major character in The Retreat to Avalon, and especially in The Strife of Camlann. In the upcoming final book of the trilogy, Three Wicked Revelations, we’ll see how Bedwyr became friends with Arthur, and much more.

It’s been too long since I posted, but I’ve been busy, not only on writing the final book in the trilogy, but also a related, exciting project due out this year. I’ll have more on that soon, so until then, thanks for stopping by. As always, I’d love to hear from you with any comments or questions.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.