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Arthurian Legends - The lost sister of Queen Guinevere

Updated on July 1, 2014
Queen Guinevere's Maying by John Collier, 1900.
Queen Guinevere's Maying by John Collier, 1900. | Source

The Forgotten & The Remembered

The Arthurian Legends are some of the oldest in the world, with no exact origin but by far one of the longest lasting. Naturally these stories have loads and loads of different characters but a disadvantage is that many had the exact same names - Elaine was quite popular in the Arthurian myths. As a result characters who shared the same name would inevitably be confused with someone else and for the sake of convenience would be assimilated with another character. Characters like these today are largely forgotten by popular culture especially if they don’t feature largely in or even at all into the Sir Thomas Malory’s The Death of King Arthur. But the King Arthur legend has more then one interpretation, most of them predate Malory’s work, and a whole new cast of characters are re-introduced.

Her Majesty's Royal Family

Queen Guinevere is a central character in all major Arthurian legends and inevitably some of her family members play a role. She isn’t blessed with a large family tree or have many named relatives in the Arthurian legends. We know the name of her father, King Leodegrance of Camelide in later legends but in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of Britain which pre-date later legends she meet Arthur while she was still the ward of a Duke Cador of Cornwall and is said to be part Roman on her mother’s side. The name and identity of her mother is unknown and one source claimed she had a sister named Lenomie Queen of Alexandria but no other sources could be found. We do know about a few other relatives, such as two named cousins. One was a knight of Camelot who was seduced by Morgan Le Fay but he was banished from the court when Guinevere caught the two in an embrace as a means to save face since Morgan was also married, but that is another story.

Some stories say that she had a female cousin named Elibel who acted as her dutiful lady-in-waiting. As Queen her ladies-in-waiting would be her lifelong companions whose purpose would be to entertain and serve her, were absolutely loyal to her and a close family relative made for the perfect candidate. It can also be assumed that Guinevere’s sister was one of her ladies-in-waiting though the whole loyally serving her for her whole life part didn’t agree with her. As for her cousins, we don’t know if they were either her maternal or paternal cousins, or if they themselves were related as siblings. Neither plays a particularly large role in Guinevere’s story but her sister did play a large, crucial role as Guinevere’s antagonist.

After her father, Guinevere’s sister is easily the most important relation to Guinevere and her role in the earlier stories. Queen Guinevere’s sister would be mentioned throughout early Arthurian legends, all ways as an antagonist to her sister Guinevere, though how she goes about it varies. Guinevere’s sister clearly had it in for her, her reasons why supposedly out of petty spite and jealousy but her reasons could have gone much deeper then mere sibling rivalry. It can’t be said that her sister didn’t have a reason to resent her. Where Guinevere was the lawful, legitimate daughter of their father King Leodegrance her sister was not.

Vulgate Cycle: The Tale of the False Guinevere

The story goes that King Leodegrance desired the wife of his seneschal even though Leodegrance himself was already married and to add insult to injury the woman he lusted after was also one his wife’s ladies-in-waiting. But because he was the King it can only be assumed he got his way. This is a common theme found throughout royal courts in European history where Kings who desired bed partners outside of their lawful spouses would seek out noble ladies who served the Queen. On the night he conceived his daughter Guinevere by his lawful wife he would also visit the bed of his seneschal’s wife while he was away and conceived an illegitimate daughter by her.

Both girls were born on the same day, looked exactly alike and were given the exact same name by their father. No. Really. Leodegrance had some pretty interesting genetics but had the imagination of a rock. In the Welsh stories Guinevere’s name is written as Gwenhwyfar which translates to White Phantom or Gwen the Greater but for the sake of convenience I will still refer to her as Guinevere. Her sister will be referred to as Guinevak, which is an anglicized translation of her welsh name Gwenhwyfach which translates to Gwen the Lesser. The only way to tell the sisters apart was through a birthmark that Guinevere had on her back in the shape of a crown that signified her status as the princess. Her sister had no such birth mark. It should come as no surprise that many later readers and authors would probably be confused by this, since not only were there two Guinevere’s exactly alike but also had the same name. We can probably assume that Guinevak’s character was assimilated with that of her sister, leaving Guinevak on the short end of the stick. The few stories about Guinevak that exist have her named the second Guinevere or the False Guinevere which can be found in The Vulgate Cycle.

Some quick notes: The Vulgate Cycle is sometimes known as the Lancelot-Grail cycle, a work of prose that pre-dated Malory’s work. It was a series of stories written sometime during the 13th century by french authors for the purpose of bringing together popular themes of the King Arthur stories such as the forbidden love of Guinevere and Lancelot, The Grail Quest and King Arthur’s eventual demise. Hunt for the Holy Grail? I wonder what historical event was going on around the time of the 13th century that could have inspired the idea of the Grail Quest? These stories were so influential on later stories about King Arthur that they were even the basis for Malory’s own arguably more popular re-telling in the fifteenth century. Now you know.

In this story of the False Guinevere, Guinevak with the help of a knight from Camelide works to undermine her sister Guinevere by convincing King Arthur that she is his real wife and his current queen was an impostor. Even though the truth was the reverse of that. Guinevak with the help of one of her knights cornered King Arthur in a forest and Guinevak tricked Arthur into drinking a love potion. From there Arthur would believe only Guinevak and do as she wished. He told his knights of his intentions to rid himself of his false wife and place Guinevak as his real queen. Despite the protests of many of his knights he had sentenced Guinevere to be executed. Lancelot found out what was happening and rescued Guinevere, taking her with him to his friends castle where she would be safe and they could carry out their relationship.

The Pope heard about these shenanigans going on in merry old England and sympathizing with Guinevere, ordered Arthur to take back his true wife. He refused, still under the control of Guinevak. Roughly ten months later Guinevak and her conspirator fell ill from a mysterious illness. People believed it was God punishing them for their evil deeds, though why he waited this long is anyone's guess. The two conspirators feared for their immortal souls and confessed their crimes to Arthur. Whether they died of their strange illness or were executed by Arthur remains unknown, but they died and Arthur set about to reclaim his wife and make amends to her. Guinevere went back to Arthur after what many can assume was some serious apologizing on his part and all was well in Camelot.

What we can gather from this story was that Guinevak coveted what her sister had: power, authority and the title of Queen, perhaps even her husband Arthur. One interpretation would be that she might have also fallen in love with Arthur and desired him for herself. Since it was already clear that Guinevere and Lancelot were already carrying out their secret relationship Guinevak might have seen an opportunity to take what she saw as her sister throwing away. We will never know what her exact motivations were, but it is very clear that Guinevak hated her sister enough to have her humiliated before being killed. It should be noted that Guinevak had a considerable number of people who backed her up on her plan to depose Guinevere, all knights from Camelide, so one can draw several conclusions from that. Guinevak was clearly popular enough to have so many supporters although why they backed her up remains a mystery. Perhaps some knights believed that Leodegrance’s other daughter would have made for a better Queen then his legitimate child. The knights of Camelide had to have known who Guinevak really was and truly believed her plan would work to even contemplate committing treason against the Queen and the King.

It is interesting in of itself that Guinevak would be considered so important because as the illegitimate daughter of a king, Guinevak wouldn’t have had any sort of important social standing nor any political influence by virtue of her being a woman, doubly so as a bastard daughter. She was one of the 200 some odd people who joined Guinevere when she journeyed to Camelot to marry Arthur and it is plausible that Guinevak would have been made a lady-in-waiting to her sister long before Guinevere’s marriage to Arthur. The fact that the two were near identical may even indicate she was used as a stand in for her sister on some occasions, although there is no way to prove this. Guinevak seems to have been very calculating and cunning woman, similar to other villains in the Arthurian myths like Morgan Le Fay, who also desired to bring an end to Guinevere.

The Welsh Triads

Her role as an antagonist and as Guinevere’s arch nemesis create parallels between the sisters and Arthur and Mordred. Modern reinterpretations of Arthurian Legends have Guinevak and Mordred be partners, even husband and wife, that work to undermine Arthur and Guinevere. There is even a link between Guinevak and Mordred that can found in the early Welsh Triads where Guinevak first appears. The Welsh Triads predate the vulgate cycle and Malory’s work and first introduces characters like Guinevak and important events such as the Battle of Camlann. What we known about Guinevak in these triads is that she was also at odds with her sister and had some link to Mordred.

In the Welsh Triads of the Trioedd Ynys Prydain, triad 53 Guinevak had an altercation with her sister Guinevere which in turn caused the battle of Camlann - The infamous final battle fought by King Arthur was started by the sisters, showing that Guinevak had to be an important individual in her own right. In triad 84 it goes on to mention that it was this altercation that caused the war but Triad 54 claims that it was Mordred ransacking Arthur’s court while he was away and throwing down and beating Guinevere that had the big impact. Many believe that it was supposed to be Mordred who was named and not Guinevak but Mordred’s enmity with Arthur wasn’t to the extent it was like in later traditions. If the cause of the battle was a dispute between the sisters, then one can assume that both women were incredibly important figures and a possibility that the stories fit into an older matriarchal world. It should also be noted that Guinevak isn’t considered a villains in these triads, but described as a heroine which means her role as a villains was either misinterpreted or re-interpreted by later writers. Guinevak is not mentioned again in the Welsh Triads and rarely appears in later legends.

"Sisters, therefore rivals"

Her role in the Arthurian myths is antagonistic but its never explained why Guinevak despises her sister so much. Was being told the whole of her life that being the lesser of the two sisters, a lifetime of being compared to her sister and denied the chances that were reserved all for Guinevere were what finally drove her over the edge? What about Guinevere’s relationship ?With her sister? There is no evidence to suggest that the sisters were ever close to one another and its possible they hated each other. They may not have even been raised together. Certainly the difference in social status and legitimacy played a role in the sisters rocky relationship.Guinevere’s status as the only legitimate child of Leodegrance granted her rights (or really her husband) to inherit his lands and property upon his death. As his only heir, Guinevere was a desirable prize in the marriage market. As a bastard daughter Guinevak would have been bared any great inheritance by her father and probably any chance of marriage since it was unlikely a father would pay a dowry to an illegitimate daughter. A more likely scenario is Guinevak would have been made to join a convent and devout her life as a wife of Christ rather than a wife for a worldly mortal. But because Leodegrance did acknowledge his child and even bothered to name her, one can make the argument that he did play some role in her life.

Its plausible he had the daughters raised together, even granting Guinevak the same upbringing as his legitimate daughter. Guinevak could have been made to be Guinevere’s childhood playmate and hand maiden. She may have also been made Guinevere’s lady-in-waiting upon her marriage to Arthur. Guinevak’s desire to marry Arthur and take Guinevere’s place as queen could be just her wanting to get back at her sister but its also possible that she wanted to Arthur’s queen because she loved him. What with Guinevere having an affair with Lancelot it seemed only fair to Guinevak that she take her shot at happiness. It should be noted that it wouldn’t be the first time a character in the Arthurian legends does something pretty damn messed up to get what they want. Whatever her feelings were for Arthur, if any at all, it came to nothing and Guinevere still remained queen.

Guinevak’s character is written as a manipulative, power hungry and ambitious woman — all things that were considered unnatural for a woman to be. Her status as a bastard, a child conceived out of wedlock, would also make her seem as being less then virtuous already and as a woman, was considered a sinful creature by nature. The misogynistic mindset of the middle ages portrayed women as dangerous and needed to be kept in a constant state of chastity to curb her sinful nature least she tempt men into committing sin like Eve did to Adam. Which is very similar to what Guinevak did to Arthur in the story: by tricking him into drinking a love potion he cast aside his lawful wife and was by then living in sin with a woman he was not married to and the fact that the woman was also his wife’s sister added a level of incest alongside the adultery? Back then the idea that a Christian having carnal relations with a family member of their spouse made it incestuous and was a huge no-no according to the church. Its ironic that Guinevak is portrayed as a vile temptress and Arthur gets blame for essentially being a victim when Guinevere was carrying out an affair.

"In hope of one resurrection"

Because her appearances in the Arthurian stories are so infrequent its easy to see why many fans and authors today are unaware of her existence unlike her more famous sister. Several modern re-interpretations bring Guinevak back into the spotlight, usually as an accomplice to Mordred and in some cases as a lover or as his wife. The Dragon’s Son by Sarah L. Thomson, is a retelling of the Arthurian legends with a more realistic take on the legends, borrowing more from the welsh triads and told through the point of view from four main characters. Mordred is one of the four P. O. V. characters, called Medraud and he takes as an accomplice and as a lover Gwenhwyfach whose still an antagonist to her sister but considerably more sympathetic. While current popular modern culture seems to not even know she exists she is becoming more and more popular with on line role-players. As more sources on Arthurian Legend and its characters become easier to find on the Internet, the more interest people develop in these characters and their stories.

Guinevak is a character whose role in the story may have been small but her impact was still noticeable. The Welsh Triads showed she held some sort of political power that was serious enough to help start a war. In the Vulgate Cycle she has little official power but is cunning enough to trick Arthur into marrying her but only through divine intervention is she stopped. Beyond that there is little else we can find about her. Guinevak has made some minor appearances in later modern stories based on the Arthurian legends, but there is no single story that focuses on Guinevak herself. The Arthurian legends have a huge cast of characters, with more and more steadily being introduced as the centuries passed. While many have been forgotten some are slowly being reintroduced into modern interpretations and there are thousands of stories ready to be told.

Sources used:

Arthur and Guinevere's marriage had its up's and down's. Guinevere wasn't entirely to blame for the later marital strife: Arthur was just as much to blame for what happened.

Guinevere and Lancelot by E.B. Leighton.
Guinevere and Lancelot by E.B. Leighton.

Guinevere was said to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. As her identical twin it stands to reason that Guinevak was likewise just as beautiful.


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    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 

      4 years ago

      This was a very good article on a very rarely remembered character from the Arthurian Legends.


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