War Breaks Out Between Arthur and Lancelot – A Neglected Perspective
The tale of Queen Guinevere and the knight Lancelot is one of the most popular romances of Western literature. The origin of Arthurian legend is difficult to trace, but it seems Arthur was mentioned in Welsh poetry as early as the 9th century AD. The following is my own rendition of the tragic events following the discovery of Guinevere and Lancelot's relationship. It was inspired by Le Morte D'Arthur, which was complied by Sir Thomas Malory and published in 1485.
It wasn’t much of a trial. My guilt was clear, for Sir Mordred, Sir Agravain and twelve other knights of my lord Arthur’s Round Table had surprised Sir Lancelot and I as we were together in my chambers. The corpses of all save Mordred, whom Lancelot had managed to wound, merely confirmed our crimes. Arthur did not even deign to speak to me, beyond grimly pronouncing my sentence. “You, Guinevere, are guilty of treason. Your sentence is death by burning, to be carried out at first light tomorrow.” That was all.
One small mercy I had been granted, in deference to my royal station. Instead of waiting out the night enchained in the dungeon of Carlisle, I was allowed to spend my final few hours in my chamber, attended by my ladies-in-waiting. Small comfort they were, weeping and nigh swooning, as ladies are wont to do. For myself, it gave me some peace to suppose that my love had made good his escape, as I was sure there would have been a great hue and cry in the castle if he had been caught.
Just before dawn, the guard came to lead me to my doom. No knight of Arthur’s fellowship, he was just a common arms man. “Jesu, grant me courage,” I prayed. My love had fought bravely on my behalf time and again; it would not do to shame him and myself in these final moments. My first sight of the raging fire that was to be the instrument of my execution nearly undid me. A shudder ran through my body, and I averted my eyes from the fearful sight of the flames. Two of my most faithful ladies helped me out of my gown, wailing and begging my forgiveness the while. It would have made little difference in the end, to leave me my clothes. Textiles burn as well as flesh, but criminals are customarily shown little mercy.
There I stood, naked but for my shift, shivering in the cold, misty morn. Bereft even of the small dignity afforded by raiment, I struggled to remain dry-eyed. My father, King Leodegrance, God rest his soul, would have died of shame to see me then. Thusly humbled did I meet the holy father who came to hear my confession. “Bless me father, for I have sinned…” I began. My list of crimes was short, but grievous. I had broken faith with my husband, the King, and in so doing, committed treason against the realm. Even so, I could not quite bring myself to regret the love between myself and Sir Lancelot, who had ever been my loyal protector. Bitterly, then, did I regret my inconstancy toward him, my jealous rages and demands that he remain always near me. What folly, to treat such a faithful soul thus, and give the wags of the court cause to whisper.
Well I remembered Sir Mordred’s hateful voice without my door, demanding dear Lancelot’s surrender. Him I mistrusted, Sir Mordred, for it seemed plain he was jealous of Lancelot, and held little love for me. Only he, and Sir Agravain, now repaid for his mischief, would seek to sunder the fellowship of Arthur’s Round Table in such a manner. Almost idly, I wondered what larger ambition lay behind Sir Mordred’s actions. Certainly, friendship between the King and the best of his knights was now ended. What else would come of that matter, now had nothing to do with me, it seemed.
As the priest administered the last sacrament, Lancelot’s promise to rescue me echoed still in my ears. That he would surely save me from the fire if he lived, he had sworn, and well I knew the value of that good knight’s word. Any amount of mischances could have delayed his coming, though, and I feared to hope too much.
Glancing about the yard without the castle, I saw a goodly crowd of lords and ladies arrayed. Most wept, to see me stripped of my gown, standing barefoot in only my undergarment, about to be surrendered to the flames. Of the King, there was no sign. It seemed his heart still held enough tenderness that he had no wish to witness my death, the wife of his youth. Or perhaps his despite was so great that he could not stand the sight of me, even in dying. Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, those honest and faithful young knights, I spied among the onlookers. Like many of the knights in attendance, they went unarmed.
The priest finished his blessing, and I steeled myself to die as a Queen should, with courage and pride. Just then, a great clatter arose, and Sir Lancelot, with his kinsmen, spurred their horses into the yard and began to slay any who opposed them. Some few of the King’s knights there were to secure my death, and as many as raised arms against him, Lancelot slew. It was impossible to tell in the melee who had been killed, and I feared for Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, who had worn no armor.
Soon, I stood surrounded by dead guards and knights. Speechless, I could only stare as Lancelot finally reached me, together with Sir Bors, Sir Lavain and Sir Urry. Most of the ladies who had been in attendance had either fled or swooned by this time, but the bravest of my own ladies-in-waiting was found cowering beside the castle wall, quivering and weeping. Lancelot commanded the girl; I think Eileen was her name, to assist me with the gown and kirtle he had brought. After I was properly dressed, Lancelot pulled me up behind him on his steed, and we made haste to depart before King Arthur should hear of my escape.
“There, my Lady,” said Lancelot, as we fled, “be of good cheer. I have kept my word to rescue you from the fire, and you shall be safe with me at Joyous Garde.” The tears I had disdained to show at my imminent execution would be held back no longer, and I wept with relief and gratitude. “Blessed Jesu, you have heard my prayer and spared both the faithful Lancelot and myself,” I prayed. Then, to Lancelot, “Thank you, my brave knight. I had no wish to die, and am heartily glad to be saved from death. Let us now ride for your lands.”
Would that the tale ended there, but alas! No mortal love lasts forever, and angered Kings and jealous husbands do not forgive easily. Had we known then what sorrow would come of these events, I might have bid Lancelot let me die. That command he would never have heeded, though, no matter the consequences.
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