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The Three Queens: A Glimpse of the sister's of King Arthur
In the legends King Arthur is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and his mother was Duchess Igraine, the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. The circumstances of his conception and birth were less then ideal to say the least; Uther makes a deal with Merlin to help him seduce and bed Igraine as long as Merlin gets the child born of their union. When Gorloris is away Uther is disguised as him, enters his home and sleeps with Igraine. The next morning he is gone and Gorloris’ men return Igraine’s deceased husband to the castle. Igraine can’t understand how that’s possible because she was with him the pervious night. So Uther comes and marries Igraine, making her his queen. Upon Arthur’s birth Merlin comes and takes the baby to Sir Ector to be raised. Igraine and Uther remain married until his death. We know what happened to Gorloris and Igraine, but what about their children? Though the number varies, Igraine and Gorloris have at least three daughters and possibly one son, the two best known of their children are Queen Morgause and Morgan Le Fay.
Igraine is said to have had at least three daughters by Gorloris: Morgause, a second daughter named Elaine or Blasaine and Morgan. According to Monmouth through Uther its said she had one other a child, a daughter they named Anna. This creates a whole lot of confusion since Monmouth also credits Anna as the wife of King Lot and mother of Gawaine and Mordred. But then later writes she was the sister of Aurelius, making her Arthur’s aunt. Monmouth obviously made several mistakes when writing out Arthur’s genealogy though other scholars would later confirm that Arthur did have at least one full-blood sibling. In the Welsh Legends Arthur had a sister named Gwyar who was mother of Gawain, though she may not have been Arthur’s full sister. Whatever her name, later legends would claim that it was Morgause who was the eldest child of Gorloris and Igraine and it is she who becomes one Arthur’s primary antagonists alongside her sister Morgan.
We know little of the early lives of the daughters of Igraine. Its worth noting that Blasaine is the only one of the sister’s who doesn’t try to work against Arthur. What makes her so interesting among her sisters is that she’s such a minor character in comparison. Blasine’s role in the stories is normally tied to her son Galeshin who becomes one of the knights of King Arthur’s court alongside his cousin Owain, son of Morgan. She is named in the Vulgate cycle but rarely appears anywhere else in the stories.
Igraine and Uther
Their mother’s marriage to Uther must have been a hard blow for the girls, particularly Morgause and Morgan who would dedicate the rest of their adult lives to bringing about the end of Uther’s son Arthur. It's not unreasonable to believe that they must have come to despise Uther for murdering their father despite or because of whatever protests he made. Merlin’s trick to help Uther bed Igraine by disguising himself as her husband can only be described as rape. Igraine never consented to sleep with Uther and the truth of his deception would have understandably left her horrified. The feeling was undoubtedly mutual for the sisters and this seems to be one of the reasons why Morgan works against Arthur and his court in later stories.
Igraine was assumed to have been a good mother to her daughters, in almost all modern interpretations of her Igraine is shown to be a loving mother to her offspring bit has little impact in the story after Arthur’s birth. She may have given birth to another child, Anna, but we can’t know for certain since she’s often re-imagined and combined with igraine’s other daughter Morgause. Igraine’s daughters would probably have remained with her while she was hold up in Tintagel and may have even witnessed the false Gorloris come into the castle as he seduced their mother. Its logical to assume their feelings regarding that revelation were less then thrilled. Upon her marriage to Uther, Igraine and her daughters remained in Tintagel until the birth of Arthur and its safe to assume the girls were in company with their mother.
Women weren’t given much of an education back in the day, so it is unlikely the girls were given any education outside of how to be a proper wife and lady. It has been said that Morgan was sent off to a convent at an early age to be educated there, which could mean a number of things. If Morgan was the youngest daughter then she may have been sent to the convent as a means of making her take vows and become a nun. It wasn’t unheard of for younger children of royalty and nobility to join a convent or monastery as they were less likely to inherit much compared to their older siblings. One can make the assumption that Uther sending his stepdaughter away was a means to rid himself of another reminder of his enemy Gorloris and perhaps to punish Morgan in some way if she was acting out against him. Its notable because several later sources claimed that Morgan learned how to use magic from one of the nuns which explains how Morgan gained her status as a powerful and dangerous sorceress.
Uther probably cared nothing for his step-daughters, who he used more as a means to solidify his claim to power by marrying them off to loyal vassals. Morgause was married to King Lot and Blasine is married to King Nentres of Garlot and Morgan is married off to King Uriens, brother of Lot. Though some later legends have it that Morgan is never married, Blasine doesn’t even exist but Morgause still remains married to Lot, who was a vassal of King Uther and would later rebel against Uther’s son and Morgauses’s half-brother Arthur. Whether she had any say at all in it is left to speculation.
The sister’s marriages and their children
Morgause and Blasine may have been married early, as early as thirteen since that was the youngest the Church allowed young girls to be married off. If this is true and Morgause was married off that early it raises eyebrows and certainly sheer horror that someone so young would be forced into marrying a man at least twice her age. Although how else could Morgause have given birth to at least five sons, for at least three of them to grow into adulthood and yet still be a considered a very desirable and attractive lady. The math is hard to pinpoint and we can’t know for sure when Morgause married and had her first child, but it would have to have been when she was a young teenager. As for Blasine and Morgan, its possible that Blasine married shortly after her older sister and Morgan not long after her two sisters. Or perhaps they were all three married at the same time to their spouses. We can only guess.
Blasine had at least two children: a son named Galeshin and a daughter named after her, often anglicized as Elaine. Blasine seems to have had a good marriage to Nentres, there isn’t any evidence to suggest she was ever unhappy being married to him nor any evidence to suggest she was. She gave her son her blessing to join Arthur’s court and become one of his knights alongside his cousin Owain, the son of her sister Morgan. After that she doesn’t appear again and is named in the Vulgate cycle and is mentioned in T. H. White’s Once and Future King.
In the vulgate cycle Morgan has at least one known child, a son named Owain. Sources vary on whether Morgan was Owain’s mother and Urien’s wife, even giving Owain’s mother as someone different though its possible that Morgan’s character was merged with her. Either way its clear that Morgan and Urien’s marriage was not a happy one. Morgan took on at least two different lovers while still married to Urien's, one being the cousin of Guinevere and another a knight named Accolon. Given that Urien’s had acknowledged at least one illegitimate child, a son he also named Owain, it can be assumed it wasn’t a true love match nor was it all one sided. Certainly one could call Morgan an abusive spouse since she attempted to murder Urien’s to free her to be with her lover Accolon, a knight that was planning on killing Arthur for her. Owain stopped her in time but she feigned being enchanted and Owain, whether out of filial loyalty or sheer gullibility, believed his mother and felt inclined to show her mercy. Not long after she left the court and by affect left her husband and son.
Morgause certainly has the largest brood of children, clocking in at least five and as many as seven children. Normally her named children are all boys, though some sources identify her having a daughter named Clarissant born after the death of Lot. But her main named children are Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth (we’ll talk about Mordred in a little while). Morgause’s relationship with her husband and kids aren’t really detailed. Some interpretations make their marriage out to be an unhappy one, or are an evil power couple and others don’t even bother establishing a relationship between the couple. Lot gets killed off, when isn’t made clear, which sets up some serious trouble later on.
Her relationship with her kids is complicated. By all accounts she isn’t portrayed as a particularly bad mother but she probably wasn't the best mom in the world. I’ll get to Mordred in a moment. Her sons seemed to have respected and honored their mother the way any royal was expected to back in the dark ages. Since virtually all of her kids went to Camelot to be knights of the Round Table to serve her brother its assumed they weren’t close. Which makes sense because royal kids weren’t raised by their parents, rather they were raised by tutors because when you are rich, why raise your own kids when you can pay other people to do it for you?
However I don’t believe that Morgause was that bad of a mom or a bad person. She certainly cared about her kids, at least her oldest one. She was proud of her son’s accomplishments:, Gawain especially. In fact Gawain is one of the most popular knights in Camelot, people adore this guy. What mom wouldn’t be proud? He’s also one of Arthur’s favorite knights and probably his favorite nephew. Heck he’s also a potential heir to Arthur’s throne since in these stories Arthur and Guinevere don’t have kids of their own and as the oldest son of his oldest living sibling it make sense. Morgause likely had a lot of ambitions for her son and it wouldn’t be to hard to imagine she’d go to extraordinary lengths to see her kids get what she believes is their due. Which makes what happens to her all the more horrifying.
This is a relevant point when I tell you that Morgause was supposed to be a super hot lady and was still considered desirable even though she had to be well into her early fifties by the time Mordred was knighted, if not older. Yet she managed to get into a relationship with the knight Sir Lamorak. By all accounts this probably wouldn’t be so bad, she was a widow and her husband had been dead for a presumably decent enough time that she decided to get together with this guy. Lamorak is also around the same age as her sons too, so that says something about her looks. Morgause took Lamorak as a lover and they carried out their relationship in secret, until Gaheris gets suspicious and follows them.
Also another relevant point, Lamorak is a son of King Pellinore, the same guy who killed King Lot. As a result Gawain and his Orkney brothers swore vengeance against him. This was really complicated already because several of the knights in Camelot were sons of Pellinore, not just Lamorak but popular guys like Sir Dinadan and even Sir Percival. So when Gaheris gets suspicious of what his mom’s been up to he goes back home to check on her, pushes aside her handmaiden guarding her door and then finds the couple in the after math of their love making. Gaheris is so pissed off by this that he takes his sword and kills his mom where she’s sleeping.
Morgause is killed by one of her own sons — so much for filial loyalty. This brings up a lot of very uncomfortable but inescapable facts about the Arthurian Legends, which is how damn misognystic they can be. It's not like anything written in the dark ages of Europe could ever be considered anything but problematic, especially when compared to our current modern-day standards and yet there are some people today who seem to believe that Gaheris was justified in murdering his mother. This is because Morgause is almost always ported as a super evil seductress lady and should have known better. She wasn’t acting like a proper woman and was punished for it. Gaheris doesn’t even get punished for what he did, not really.
Oh, about Sir Lamorak, he got away. But only because Gaheris wouldn’t kill an unarmed man and then he proceeded to tell his brothers that it was Lamorak who killed their mom after sleeping with her and then they go on a manhunt for the guy. When they find him, they kill him and everything just goes down from there. Even after the truth is revealed all that happens to Gaheris is he gets a slap on the wrist and is temporarily banished from court along with his brothers, though mostly because they ganged up on Lamorak and not so much the whole he commits matricide but hey, who cares about moms, right?
And so ends Queen Morgause. Some stuff happens, maybe a war but that doesn’t last long and the focus is shifted back to Arthur and his own marital problems. It should be noted that none of her kids last long after her death. Her death is just one domino in a line that heralds the end of Camelot and King Arthur. Gaheris does get some karma thrown his way when he’s accidentally killed by Lancelot while he goes a blind rampage trying to save Guinevere. To add salt to that wound, Gaheris was one of Lancelot’s biggest supporters and refused to come armed to Guinevere’s execution. I guess karma doesn’t approve of matricide.
Morgan Le Fay in the legends
I think Morgan deserves her own section here because of how damn iconic she is. Morgan Le Fay is one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about King Arthur. She’s the ultimate villainess, someone you are supposed to hate and yet she’s so awesome as a character in her own right you feel like rooting for her. She’s crafty, she’s cunning, she’s powerful, she’s dangerous, but she’s also intelligent, she’s respected as both an enemy and as a Queen. Historians believe that Morgan may in fact have her roots in an ancient celtic goddess called Morgans who were a type of river fairy or spirit. Some scholars believe she was later based on the Goddess Modron found in the Welsh Triads while some claim she’s based on another goddess called Morrígan worshipped by the pre-christian people of Briton. Usually she’s just a human with amazing magical powers. We can see some shades of this in Marion Zimmerman’s Mists of Avalon and get this vibe from stories in the legends later on. Relevant point: Morgan is a powerful sorceress and she is awesome.
Her methods to off her brother Arthur are pretty creative too and numerous. Of course her ire wasn’t aimed just at Arthur, she hated Guinevere too and could arguably be called Guinevere’s arch-nemesis. We know why she hated Arthur, but her hatred for Guinevere had something to do with her sister-in-law getting in the way of Morgan’s love life, first with a knight who happened to be Guinevere’s cousin that she promptly banished because of the immodesty of it all. Another reason was she had a thing for Lancelot but because his reaction was something along the lines of ew, no, Guinevere made it on her hit list. In Guinevere’s defense, Morgan was legally married at the time when she messing around with her cousin and even I’d be squicked by that and Lancelot said no to Morgan because he was in love with Guinevere but the two hadn’t begun their affair yet. It stands to reason that Morgan probably didn’t care for either of them when they started their love affair. Hypocrites.
Morgan made it her mission to get back at both Arthur and Guinevere and made and good gracious did she go there. Among some of Morgan’s more memorable methods of murder include her role of hiring The Green Knight to challenge Arthur and hoped the shock would kill Guinevere. Another memorable murder attempt was her working together with her lover Sir Accolon to kill Arthur and free herself from her marriage with a double murder. Its probably one of my favorite stories because it almost works. Sir Accolon is a pretty dangerous and skilled knight that almost succeeds in killing Arthur in single combat by stealing his sword form him. Arthur does win, only narrowly and Morgan is stopped from killing her husband by her son Owain and pretends to have been under a spell or something. She escapes after finding out Accolon died and Accolon is given a pretty decent send off by Arthur who regarded him as a worthy foe and probably believed Morgan didn’t care about him.
This leads us to another story that ties in with this one where Morgan is on the run and being pursued by Arthur who decides enough is enough and goes to arrest her. She takes refuge in a convent and where by coincidence so does Arthur. The sisters have no idea what’s going on and assume Morgan is with Arthur and lets her go into his room where he’s asleep and steals his magic scabbard. The scabbard, it should be known, is super important because while Arthur had it he was protected from all physical harm by his enemies and this would come to bite him in the ass later. Morgan escapes and hides in a forest and dumps the scabbard into a lake and then leaves.
Her last attempt to kill Arthur comes when she sends a lady to give Arthur a special tripped out cloak as a peace offering. Arthur is either so damn gullible or if he’s too forgiving but either way he thinks this makes for an ok apology and is about to put it on until the lady of the lake shows up and tells him not to do the thing so he orders the damsel to out it on where she bursts into flames and turns to ash. Morgan does not mess around. After that she doesn’t really show up all that much but she seems to have gone through an off-screen redemption arc or something because toward the end of his life, Arthur and Morgan got along pretty well. He'd even come and visit her on occasion. She’d also try to tell him about what was going on between Lancelot and Guinevere but Arthur didn’t believe her. She’s also one of the three Queen’s that joined Arthur on that boat and ferried him to Avalon to be healed. Morgan was a skilled healer and earlier texts talk a great deal about her amazing abilities as a healer. So thus ends the story of Morgan. She’s certainly the most memorable of the sisters and her status as a villain is so iconic she’s really the only main antagonist that Arthur faces in modern adaptations.
Personally I view Morgan as complex character. The trauma she and her family suffered by Uther clearly left its mark and attacking Arthur was most likely a means of getting back at Uther. She could do nothing to hurt Uther in his lifetime for what he did and when Arthur took the throne she shifted her feelings for Uther toward him and used him as a scapegoat. Yet in spite or because of nearly a lifetime of fighting Morgan must have realized that getting revenge on Arthur would avail her nothing and the siblings somehow made peace with each other. Of course that brings us back to another issue concerning the sisters: Mordred.
The issue of Mordred
I feel the need to talk about him because, as the primary cause of death for King Arthur, Accounts vary on the identity of Mordred’s birth mother but its clear that his whole existence comes from Arthur committing incest with one of his sisters. Just who that sister is depends on which version you are reading. Most people agree that its Morgause whose Mordred’s biological mother, supported by accounts in the Vulgate cycle, Sir Thomas Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Briton that have him be the son of one of Arthur’s sisters and the younger brother of Gawain. Although some later authors made Morgan the mother of Mordred and that interpretation has been largely more popular in recent years like the movie Excalibur for example.
Morgan’s role as primary villain to Arthur would make sense from a story telling standpoint since who better to be the mother of Arthur’s destruction then the one sibling who was always trying to kill him? For Morgan to be Mordred’s mother it's usually because Morgause has been cut out all together. The only exception I know of where both are present in the story is in The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley but any story that features Morgan as the mother of Mordred usually won’t have Morgause in it.
A large part of Mordred’s character depends on who is mother is in an adaptation. If it is Morgan whose the mom, then she knowingly slept with her brother with the set goal of having Arthur’s first born son so that he could either inherit his dad’s throne or kill him. Mordred would be evil and twisted thanks to his mother. Largely its Morgause whose the mother and she unknowingly slept with Arthur, not realizing he was her half-brother. I guess she just assumed some other son of Uther took the throne. Morgause is really just as big as a victim in this as Arthur is since neither of them knew they were related and yet she gets the blame for sleeping with him.
Of course there are other adaptations that claim that Morgause or sometimes Morgan, disguises herself as Guinevere which means one of his sisters rapes him. Or in other earlier texts because she’s just so damn hot, its Arthur who rapes his sister Morgause, not knowing that she’s his sister of course. So really it’s the crime of incest that gets mentioned although his raping her thing does get him into some trouble. So the circumstances of his conception, be they intentional or not, the incest angle added him makes him double evil and makes Mordred his father’s undoing. I always thought how interesting it was that while he committed the sin of incest with one of his sisters, Arthur’s largely ignorant of it and he’s made out to be the victim not his sisters unless one of the writers felt like being really nice.
Igraine’s children by Gorloris are some of the most important characters in the Arthurian legends, even if one doesn’t get to do as much as the others. I even argue that they are two of the most important characters because of the roles they play. They are antagonists, whether intentionally or not and in whatever adaptation you see at least one will always be there. I think its also more telling that by today's standards people really love these ladies, Morgan especially and who wouldn’t? Out of all the named ladies in the Arthurian Legend Morgan and to a lesser extent Morgause actually do stuff. They plot, they scheme, and in the end they succeeded in bringing down King Arthur. There is also an air of tragedy to them and I think its often brushed aside or out right ignored when talking about them because its easier to see them just as the villains.
Yet I can’t help but feel that the sisters are so much more then that. One can’t deny that there is an appealing aspect to these characters. They are human beings who’ve endured through personal tragedies, with so much pent up aggression they attack the very person who embodies all the horrible memories of their youth: their brother Arthur, son of Uther. Yet they also have the capacity to love and be loved in return, by their children and their loves, even each other. They’ve lasted for fifteen hundred years which can be seen as a testament to how amazing and important they really are.
The Mists of Avalon by Marian Zimmer Bradley
The Dragon’s Son by Sarah L. Thomson
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Tales from King Arthur: selected stories, edited by Andrew Lang and published by Wordsworth Classics
Fall of Camelot (The Enchanted World Series) by Ellen Phillips, editors Time-Life Books