|Matter of Britain character|
|First appearance||Annales Cambriae|
|Title||Sir, Prince, King|
|Occupation||Usurper high king of Britain (a prince of Orkney and a knight of the Round Table in later tradition)|
|Spouse||Either Guinevere, Gwenhwyfach or Cwyllog|
|Children||Sometimes two sons including Melehan|
|Relatives||Parents: Arthur or Lot, Anna / Morgause |
Brothers: Gawain; often also Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth
Mordred or Modred (//; Welsh: Medraut or Medrawt) is a figure who is variously portrayed in the British tradition. The earliest known mention of a possibly historical Medraut is in the Welsh chronicle Annales Cambriae, wherein he and Arthur are ambiguously associated with the Battle of Camlann in a brief entry for the year 537. His figure seemed to have been regarded positively in the early Welsh tradition and may have been related to that of Arthur's son.
As Modredus, Mordred was depicted as Arthur's traitorous nephew and a legitimate son of King Lot in Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-historical work Historia Regum Britanniae which then served as the basis for the following evolution of the legend since the 12th century. Later variants most often characterised him as Arthur's villainous bastard son, born of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, the Queen of Orkney named either Anna, Orcades, or Morgause. The accounts presented in the Historia and most other versions include Mordred's death at Camlann, typically in a final duel, during which he manages to mortally wound his slayer, Arthur.
Mordred is usually a brother or half-brother to Gawain; however, his other family relations, as well as his relationships with Arthur's wife Guinevere, vary greatly. In a popular telling originating from the French chivalric romances of the 13th century, and made prominent today through its inclusion in Le Morte d'Arthur, Mordred is knighted by Arthur and joins the fellowship of the Round Table. In this narrative, he eventually becomes the main actor in Arthur's downfall as he helps his half-brother Agravain to expose Guinevere and Lancelot's affair and then takes advantage of the resulting civil war to make himself the high king of Britain.
The name Mordred, found as the Latinised Modredus in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, comes from Old Welsh Medraut (comparable to Old Cornish Modred and Old Breton Modrot). It is ultimately derived from Latin Moderātus, meaning "within bounds, observing moderation, moderate".
Early Welsh sources
The earliest surviving mention of Mordred (referred to as Medraut) is found in an entry for the year 537 in the chronicle Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales), which references his name in an association with the Battle of Camlann.
Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
"The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell."
This brief entry gives no information as to whether Mordred killed or was killed by Arthur, or even if he was fighting against him. As noted by Leslie Alcock, the reader assumes this in the light of later tradition. The Annales themselves were completed between 960 and 970, meaning that (although their authors likely drew from older material) they cannot be considered as a contemporary source having been compiled 400 years after the events they describe.
Meilyr Brydydd, writing at the same time as Geoffrey of Monmouth, mentions Mordred in his lament for the death of Gruffudd ap Cynan (d. 1137). He describes Gruffudd as having eissor Medrawd ("the nature of Medrawd") as to have valour in battle. Similarly, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr praised Madog ap Maredudd, king of Powys (d. 1160) as having Arthur gerdernyd, menwyd Medrawd ("Arthur's strength, the good nature of Medrawd"). This would support the idea that early perceptions of Mordred were largely positive.
However, Mordred's later characterisation as the king's villainous son has a precedent in the figure of Amr or Amhar, a son of Arthur's known from only two references. The more important of these, found in an appendix to the 9th-century chronicle Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), describes his marvelous grave beside the Herefordshire spring where he had been slain by his own father in some unchronicled tragedy. What connection exists between the stories of Amr and Mordred, if there is one, has never been satisfactorily explained.
Depictions in legend
In Geoffrey's influential Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), written around 1136, Modredus (Mordred) is portrayed as the nephew of and traitor to King Arthur. Geoffrey might have based his Modredus on the early 6th-century "high king" of Gwynedd, Maglocunus (Maelgwn), whom the 6th-century writer Gildas had described as an usurper. The unhistorical account presented by Geoffrey narrates Arthur leaving Modredus in charge of his throne as he crossed the English Channel to wage war on Lucius Tiberius of Rome. During Arthur's absence, Modredus crowns himself king and lives in an adulterous union with Arthur's wife, Ganhumara (Guinevere). Geoffrey does not make it clear how complicit Ganhumara is with his actions, simply stating that the Queen had "broken her vows" and "about this matter... [he] prefers to say nothing." This forces Arthur to return to Britain to fight at the Battle of Camlann, where Modredus is ultimately slain. Arthur, having been gravely wounded in battle, is sent to be healed by Morgen (Morgan) in Avalon.
A number of Welsh sources also refer to Medraut, usually in relation to Camlann. One Welsh Triad, based on Geoffrey's Historia, provides an account of his betrayal of Arthur; in another, he is described as the author of one of the "Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Isle of Britain" – he came to Arthur's court at Kelliwic in Cornwall, devoured all of the food and drink, and even dragged Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) from her throne and beat her. In another Triad, however, he is described as one of "men of such gentle, kindly, and fair words that anyone would be sorry to refuse them anything." The Mabinogion also describes him in the terms of courtliness, calmness and purity.
Life in romances
In the early 13th century, the Old French cyclical literature of the chivalric romance genre expanded on the history of Mordred prior to the war with Arthur. In the Prose Merlin part of Vulgate Cycle, Mordred's elder half-brother Gawain saves the infant Mordred and their mother Morgause from being taken by the Saxon king Taurus. In the revision known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and consequently in Thomas Malory's English compilation Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), Arthur is told a cryptic (and, apparently, self-fulfilling) prophecy by Merlin about a just-born child that is to be his undoing, and so he tries to avert the fate by ordering to get rid of all the May Day newborns. Whether they were just supposed to be just sent off to a distant land, or was it actually the plan for them to die at the sea all along (the texts are vague about this), the ship on which they were placed does indeed sink and the children drown. This episode (reminiscent of the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents and sometimes dubbed the "May Day massacre") leads to a war between Arthur and the furious King Lot (acting on his belief that he was biological father of Mordred), in which the latter king dies in a battle at the hands of Arthur's vassal king Pellinore, beginning a long and deadly blood feud between the two royal families (Lot's and Pellinore's). Yet, unknown to both Lot and Arthur, the baby Mordred has actually miraculously survived. He is accidentally found and rescued by a fisherman and his wife, who then raise him as their own son until he is 14. In this branch of the legend, following his early life as a commoner, the young Mordred is later reunited with his mother (this happens long after Merlin's downfall caused by the Lady of the Lake).
Mordred becomes involved in the adventures of his brothers (having grown to become the tallest among them), first as a squire and then as a knight, as well as well as others such as Brunor. Eventually, Mordred joins King Arthur's elite fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table. Since the Post-Vulgate, however, he tends to be depicted as murderously violent and known for his lustful habits, including engaging in rape, as in an incident in the Post-Vulgate Queste when he brutally kills a maiden and is injured for this by King Bagdemagus who is then in turn mortally wounded by Gawain (there is also an attempted rape in the standalone romance Claris et Laris). Notably, it is Mordred who stabs in the back and kills Pellinore's son and one of the best Knights of the Round Table, Lamorak, in an unfair fight involving most of his brothers (one of whom had even murdered their own mother for being Lamorak's lover). Mordred displays better knightly values in the Vulgate Cycle (as does Gawain too in comparison to his later Post-Vulgate portrayal), where he is shown as also womanising and murderous but to a significantly lesser degree. In the Prose Lancelot, he becomes a protege and companion of the eponymous greatest knight Lancelot. The older knight comes to the young Mordred's rescue on multiple occasions, such as helping to save his life at the Castle of the White Thorn (Castel de la Blanche Espine), and Mordred in turn treats the much older Lancelot as his personal hero. In this version, his turning point toward villainy happens after they meet an old hermit monk who tells his own prophecy for the two "most unfortunate knights", revealing Mordred's true parentage by Arthur and predicting Mordred's and Lancelot's respective roles in the coming ruin of Arthur's kingdom. However, the angry Mordred kills the priest before he can finish telling it. While Lancelot tells his secret lover Guinevere (but not Arthur), she refuses to believe in the story of the prophecy and does not banish Mordred. The young knight, on his part, tries to get himself before accepting his destiny. The Prose Lancelot indicates Mordred was about 22 years old at the time (two years into his knighthood).
Mordred eventually overthrows Arthur's rule when the latter is engaged in the war against Lancelot (or during the second Roman War that followed it, depending on the version). In the Vulgate Mort Artu, Mordred achieves his coup with the help of a forged letter supposedly sent by Arthur. The text adds that "there was much good in Mordred, and as soon as he made himself elevated go the throne, he made himself well beloved by all," and so they were "ready to die to defend [his] honor" once Arthur returned with his army. Mordred's few opponents during his brief rule included Kay, who was gravely wounded by Mordred's supporters and died after fleeing to Brittany. In the French-influenced English poem Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a council of Britain's knights first elects Mordred for the position of regent in Arthur's absence as the most worthy candidate. As in the chronicles, the returning Arthur will go to war against King Mordred. After Mordred's supporters and foreign allies ambush and nearly destroy Arthur's veteran army landing at Dover (where Gawain is mortally wounded, fighting as Arthur's loyalist), a series of inconclusive engagements follows, until both sides agree to all meet each other at the one final battle.
Traditions vary on Mordred's relationship to Arthur. Medraut is never considered Arthur's son in Welsh texts, only his nephew, though The Dream of Rhonabwy mentions that the king had been his foster father. In early literature derived from Geoffrey's Historia, Mordred was considered the legitimate son of Arthur's sister or half-sister queen variably known as Anna or Morgause (Orcades / Morcades / Morgawse / Margawse) with her husband, Lot (Loth), the king of either Lothian or Orkney. Today, however, he is best known as Arthur's own illegitimate son by Morgause in the motif introduced in the Vulgate Cycle, in which their union happens at the time when neither of them have yet known of their blood relation.
Gawain is Mordred's brother already in the Historia as well as in Layamon's Brut. Besides him, Mordred's other brothers or half-brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth in the later tradition derived from the French romance cycles, beginning with the prose versions of Robert de Boron's poems Merlin and Perceval. In the Vulgate Lancelot, Mordred is the youngest of the siblings who begins his knightly career as Agravain's own squire, and the two will later conspire together to reveal Lancelot's affair with Guinevere (which will result in Agravain's death by Lancelot and will lead to the civil war between Arthur's and Lancelot's faction). In stark contrast to many modern works, Mordred's only interaction with Morgan le Fay in any medieval text occurs when he and his brothers visit Morgan's castle in the Post-Vulgate Queste, which is when they are informed about Guinevere's infidelity for Arthur (in the Vulgate version, Morgan tells her brother personally).
The 14th-century Scottish chronicler John of Fordun claimed that Mordred was the rightful heir to the throne of Britain, as Arthur was an illegitimate child (in his account, Mordred was the legitimate son of Lot and Anna, who here is Uther's sister). This sentiment was elaborated upon by Walter Bower and by Hector Boece, who in his Historia Gentis Scotorum goes so far as to say Arthur and Mordred's brother Gawain were traitors and villains and Arthur usurped the throne from Mordred. According to Boece, Arthur agreed to make Mordred his heir but then, on the advice of the Britons who did not want Mordred to rule, he made Constantine his heir; this led to the war in which Arthur and Mordred die.
In the Historia and certain other texts, such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure reimagination of the Historia where Mordred is portrayed sympathetically, Mordred marries Guinevere consensually after he takes the throne. However, in later writings like the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is not treated as a traitor and instead she flees Mordred's proposal and hides in the Tower of London. Adultery is still tied to her role in these later romances, but Mordred has been replaced in this role by Lancelot.
The 18th-century Welsh antiquarian Lewis Morris, based on statements made by the Scottish chronicler Boece, suggested that Medrawd had a wife named Cwyllog, daughter of Caw. Another late Welsh tradition was that Medrawd's wife was Gwenhwy(f)ach, sister of Guinevere.
In Henry of Huntingdon's retelling of Geoffrey's Historia, Mordred is beheaded at Camlann in a lone charge against him and his entire host by Arthur himself, who suffers many injuries in the process. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Mordred first kills Gawain by his own hand in an early battle against Arthur's landing forces and then deeply grieves after him. In the Vulgate Mort Artu (and consequently in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur), the terrible final battle begins by an accident during a last-effort peace meeting between him and Arthur. In the ensuing fighting, Mordred personally slays his cousin Yvain after the latter's rescue of the unhorsed Arthur and then he decapitates the already badly wounded Sagramore. He also kills Sagramore as well as six other Round Table knights loyal to Arthur in the Post-Vulgate version, which presents this as an incredible and unprecedented feat. These and many other versions of the legend feature the motif of Arthur and Mordred striking down each other in a duel after most of the others on both sides have died.
The version in Le Morte d'Arthur features the now-iconic scene where they meet on foot as Arthur charges Mordred and runs a spear through him. With the last of his strength, Mordred impales himself even further to be within striking distance, and lands a mortal blow with his sword to King Arthur's head. Malory's telling is a variant of the original account from the Vulgate Mort Artu, in which Arthur and Mordred both charge at each other on horses three times until Arthur drives his lance through Mordred's body, but then fully withdraws it (a ray of sunlight even shines through the hole) before Mordred's sword powerfully strikes his head and they both fall from their saddles. The Alliterative Morte Arthure has Mordred grievously wound Arthur with the sword Clarent, stolen for him from Arthur by his co-conspirator Guinevere, but then Arthur slashes off Mordred's sword arm and brutally skewers him up on the sword Caliburn (Excalibur).
The Post-Vulgate retelling of Mort Artu deals with the aftermath of Mordred's death in more detail than the earlier works. In it, Arthur says before being taken away: "Mordred, in an evil hour did I beget you. You have ruined me and the kingdom of Logres, and you have died for it. Cursed be the hour in which you were born." One of the few survivors of Arthur's army, Bleoberis, then drags Mordred's corpse behind a horse around the battlefield of Salisbury Plain until it is torn to pieces. Later, as it had been commanded by the dying Arthur, the Archbishop of Canterbury constructs the Tower of the Dead tomb memorial, from which Bleoberis hangs Mordred's head as a warning against treason and there it then remains for centuries until it is removed by the visiting Ganelon. Conversely, Margam Abbey's chronicle Annales de Margan claims Arthur had been buried alongside Mordred, here described as his nephew, in another tomb purportedly exhumed in the "real Avalon" at Glastonbury Abbey.
There have been also alternative stories of Mordred's demise. In the Italian La Tavola Ritonda (The Round Table), it is Lancelot who kills Mordred at Castle Urbano where Mordred has besieged Guinevere after Arthur's death. In Ly Myreur des Histors (The Mirror of History) by Belgian writer Jean d'Outremeuse, Mordred survives the great battle and rules with the traitorous Guinevere until they are defeated and captured by Lancelot and King Carados in London. Guinevere is then executed by Lancelot and Mordred is entombed alive with her body, which he consumes before dying of starvation.
Since Geoffrey, Mordred is often said to be succeeded by his sons. Stories always number them as two, though they are usually not named, nor is their mother.
In Geoffrey's version, after the Battle of Camlann, Constantine is appointed Arthur's successor. However, Mordred's two sons and their Saxon allies later rise against him. After they are defeated, one of them flees to sanctuary in the Church of Amphibalus in Winchester while the other hides in a London friary. Constantine tracks them down, and kills them before the altars of their respective hiding places. This act invokes the vengeance of God, and three years later Constantine is killed by his nephew Aurelius Conanus. Geoffrey's account of the episode may be based on Constantine's murder of two "royal youths" as mentioned by Gildas. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the dying Arthur personally orders Constantine to kill Mordred's infant children as Guinevere had been asked by Mordred to flee with them to Ireland. Guinevere instead returns to Caerleon without a concern for the children.
The elder of Mordred's sons is named Melehan (evolved from Melou in Layamon's Brut) in the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate. In a battle near Winchester, Melehan slays Lionel, brother to Bors the Younger; Bors kills Melehan, avenging his brother's death, while Lancelot kills the unnamed younger brother who tried to escape deep into a forest. In the 15th-century Spanish chivalric romance Florambel de Lucea, the surviving Arthur is rescued by his sister Morgan in a battle against the sons of Mordred (Morderec).
In later works
Virtually everywhere Mordred appears, his name is synonymous with treason. He appears in Dante's Inferno in the lowest circle of Hell, set apart for traitors: "him who, at one blow, had chest and shadow / shattered by Arthur's hand" (Canto XXXII). Mordred is especially prominent in popular modern era Arthurian literature, as well as in film, television, and comics. He has been portrayed by Leonard Penn (The Adventures of Sir Galahad 1949), Brian Worth (The Adventures of Sir Lancelot 1956–1957), David Hemmings (Camelot 1967), Robert Addie (Excalibur 1981), Nickolas Grace (Morte d'Arthur 1984), Simon Templeman (The Legend of Prince Valiant 1991–1994), Jason Done (Merlin 1998), Craig Sheffer (Merlin: The Return 2000), Hans Matheson (The Mists of Avalon 2001), Asa Butterfield and Alexander Vlahos (Merlin 2008–2012), among others. In such modern adaptations, Morgause is often conflated with (and into) the character of Morgan le Fay, who may be Mordred's mother or alternatively his lover or wife. A few works of the Middle Ages and today, however, portray Mordred as less a traitor and more a conflicted opportunist, or even a victim of fate. Even Malory, who depicts Mordred as a villain, notes that the people rallied to him because, "with Arthur was none other life but war and strife, and with Sir Mordred was great joy and bliss."
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mordred.|
- Mordred at The Camelot Project
- The different accounts of Mordred's death at Camlann (Salisbury Plain)