Mordred the Traitor

And whan sir Mordred felte that he had hys dethys wounde he threste himselff with the myght that he had upp to the burre of kyng Arthurs speare, and ryght so he smote hys fadir, kynge Arthure. . .

Throughout the tellings and retellings of the Arthurian Legend, a few things about Mordred have remained constant. His name, however is not one of them. The entire time, Mordred is Arthur's cousin, and he dies at Battle of Camlann, the final battle at which Arthur himself is struck down. In most of the stories, he is also the brother of Sir Gawain. And, in addition, in some of the later stories, he is also Arthur's son, mothered by either his sister Morgana le Fay, or his other sister Morgause.

The earliest account from the Welsh tradition, the Annales Cambriae, makes no mention of "Medraut" being a traitor, merely stating that at the Battle of Camlann, Arthur and Medraut fell. It also doesn't mention if they were on the same side, or opposing each other.

A later Welsh text, The Dream of Rhonabwy, explains how during some tense negotiations between Arthur and his nephew and foster son Medrawd, war breaks out because a request for peace on Arthur's part is delivered by a messenger in the "rudest way possible". This particular messenger was apparently itching for a fight. It's this type of stuff that makes me prefer a properly encrypted e-mail.

Later yet came the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Historia Regnum Brittonum. Mordred is the son of King Lot of Norway, and his wife Anna, Arthur's half sister. Naturally, Mordred became Sir Mordred, one of the Knights of the Round Table. Trusting his nephew, Arthur named Mordred regent while he was away fighting the Romans. This turned out to be a poor idea, as Mordred seduced Arthur's wife Guinevere, and usurped his throne, declaring himself king. He made allies with the Saxons, Picts and Scots, who were enemies of Arthur. Raising an army was probably a prudent move, because as soon as Arthur heard of this, he turned around and headed back home. At this point, Guinevere fled to a nunnery. The two armies met at Camlann, where Mordred's army was routed. Arthur's army gave chase, and eventually Arthur himself cornered Mordred for one on one combat. Mordred was killed, but not before inflicting mortal wounds upon Arthur. Arthur was then borne away to the Isle of Avalon, to be healed, and await a time when England needed him the most.

The story is much the same in Layamon's Brut, except Arthur and Gawain are filled with even more righteous anger, and Mordred is more treacherous, sneaking away from his army when it looks like he'll lose the battle, leaving them to die to cover his escape. He does get caught by Arthur, with the same results.

In Alliterative Morte Arthure, after the two armies meet, Mordred engages in combat with his brother Sir Gawain, slaying him. After this, Mordred breaks down in tears, mourning his brother, and the glory of the round table, which he has destroyed. This, change of heart was not enough to save him, or Arthur, once his uncle had caught up to him, the two slaying each other once again.

Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur tells the tale of how Merlin prophesied that Arthur's downfall, that a child born on the first of May would be the one to defeat him. So, Arthur ordered all children born on Mayday to be put into a boat, and then set adrift. Amongst those included was Mordred, the son of Arthur and his half sister Morgause. The boat was wrecked, but Mordred managed to survive. He was saved, and then raised by Lord Nabur the Unruly, until the age of 14, when he visited Arthur's court, and discovered his true parentage. He became one of the Knights of the Round Table, based upon the reputation of his brother, Sir Gawain. His biological father was kept a secret.

He isn't the most popular of the knights, and develops a reputation as a bit of a coward. In a family feud, he manages to slay Sir Lamorak only by stabbing him in the back.

Now, in this telling of the Arthurian Legend, it was Sir Lancelot who was Guinevere's lover, not Mordred. Some in the court suspected this, including Mordred and Agravain. Together, the two plot to expose the two, and by doing so strike at Arthur, by revealing the betrayal of the two people who Arthur loves the most. While the King is off hunting, Lancelot sneaks into Guinevere's bed chambers. It is there that Mordred, Agravain, and 12 other knights, including 2 of Gawain's sons, ambush Lancelot. Lancelot, being the killing machine that he is, manages to slay all of the ambushers, with the exception of Mordred who flees from him.

With the Queen's infidelity out in the open Arthur orders her burned at the stake for her treason. Lancelot, of course, comes in and rescues her from being killed, killing a few more knights, and really pissing off the rest in the process. He gets away, but isn't able to take Guinevere with him. Arthur leaves to pursue Lancelot, and leaves "faithful" Mordred behind, to take care of things while he is gone.

Mordred forged letters indicating that Arthur was slain in combat, and gets himself crowned King. He naturally wants to marry his father's Queen, but Guinevere manages get escape to the Tower of London, locking herself up inside. Mordred doesn't take this lightly, and orders cannons fired upon the tower. Mordred collects his army, to meet Arthur, who once again rushes back from his pursuit of Lancelot, when he hears what's happening back home.

The two armies meet, and an attempt to talk it out is made. The two armies are on orders to rush the other side, if anyone at the talks draws a sword. They didn't exactly trust each other. During the talks, however, one of the Knights is bitten by an adder, and draws his sword to slay the serpent, which causes all hell to break out. In the end, everyone's dead. No, seriously, all of Arthur's knights die. Arthur kills Mordred, Mordred mortally wounds Arthur, who is taken to Avalon. And once again, Guinevere becomes a nun.

And that, my friends, is the extent of any classical representations of Mordred. More recent portrayals of him generally try to show him as a more sympathetic character. He may still be doing naughty stuff, but at least the reader might be left with some idea of why.

The Camelot Project. "Mordred," The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. December 20, 2004. <> (December 31, 2004).

Nathan Currin. "Mordred ~ Other Characters of Arthurian Legend," King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 2001. <> (December 31, 2004).

Erin Ogden-Korus. "Sir Mordred the Traitor," The Quest. April 1999. <> (December 31, 2004).

David Nash Ford. "Sir Mordred," Early British Kingdoms. 2001. <> (December 31, 2004).

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