Morgause (also known as Mogawse) is a lesser known character in Arthurian lore, but one of particular importance in many versions.
The Literary History of Morgause
In the 11th century, Morgause was known only as Orcades which is linked to the Latin name for the Orkney Islands. This is where Gawain, one of Mogause’s sons, is said to be from. The name Orcades was changed over time, probably under the influence of the name Morgan, her sister, and transformed eventually into Morgause.
Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote extensive Arthurian Romance, did not mention Morgause by name though he did speak of Ywain’s mother and King Lot’s wife. These are facts later attributed to Morgause so we can infer that that is whom he was writing about. It is also possible that Morgause was Morgan before this time. The characters could have been one and then split through some typo, error or intent to create two complete characters.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae there is a character known as Arthur’s sister. Her name, however, was Anna. She was said to be the daughter of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. Though the name is later changed, this may have been the first account of Morgause by any name.
Morgause in Le Morte d’Arthur
In Thomas Mallory’s 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur’ Morgause is a full character and is the daughter of Gorlois of Tintagel, Duke of Cornwall, and the Lady Igraine. She is known primarily as the sister of Morgan Le Fay and Elaine, but she also birthed several vital characters who went on to be important in the eventual downfall of King Arthur and Morgause herself.
In her early years, after the death of her father and re-marrying of her mother to Uther Pendragon, Morgause was married off to one of Uther’s allies — the Orcadian King Lot, making her a queen. With him she gave birth to four sons; Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth. All four went on to be knights of King Arthurs round table, though their characters are portrayed in a very different light, not all of it positive.
After King Uther’s death, Morgause’s husband at the time, King Lot, attempted to join the rebellion against King Arthur. But Morgause, not knowing that King Arthur was her half-brother, had an affair with Arthur and they produced one son named Mordred.
No matter what text is read, Mordred is synonymous with treason. He is not only the bastard, incestuous son of Arthur, but he later goes on to kill not only his brother, cousin, and several knights of the round table but also goes to extreme lengths to kill King Arthur, his own father.
When Morgause’s husband, King Lot, was slain in battle against King Pellinore, her sons travelled to Camelot and killed King Pellinore, launching a blood feud between the two families.
Despite this feud, Morgause had another affair with one of Pellinore’s sons, Sir Lamorak, who was also one of Arthur’s best knights. However, when Morgause’s son, Gaheris, discovered the affair, he quickly beheaded his own mother but allowed Sir Lamorak to go free. Both Arthur and Lancelot were horrified at Gaheris for killing his own mother, and he was banished from court.
Morgause was not portrayed as a villain in these early works. She was merely a wife, mistress, and mother. That all changed in modern times.
In the novel The Queen of Air and Darkness written in 1939 by T.H. White, Morgause hates Arthur due to his father, Uther Pendragon, killing her father and then raping her mother. Morgause raised her children to hate all Pendragons. She used magic to seduce Arthur in order to produce Mordred, whom Morgause also raised to hate King Arthur.
Her interest in magic continues in the Merlin novels written by Mary Stewart. This author describes Morgause as an ambitious young woman who attempted to learn magic from Merlin, but he refused to teach her. She seduced Arthur only to have leverage over him.
In the 1980s Morgause became a powerful sorceress in Gillian Bradshaw’s Down The Long Wind series. Morgause had control of dark powers, making her a much more dynamic character than in original versions.
In the 2008-2012 tv series Merlin, Morgause became a central character in the story. Played by Emilia Fox, she was said to be Morgana’s half-sister and was a skilled warrior and sorceress. She was also a High Priestess of the old religion. By the end of the series, Morgana (Morgan) sacrificed Morgause to break the veil between the world of the living and that of the spirit world in order to attack Camelot.
In Robert Jordan’s novel series, The Wheel of Time, a character named Morgase Trakand, the queen of Andor, appears to be based on Morgause. In this story, Morgase is the weakest channeler of magic but is a queen non-the-less. She married Yaringail Damodred in order to secure her claim to the throne, then after his death had a brief affair with Thomdril Merrilin. Her daughter, Elayne, eventually takes the throne. Morgase also has two sons named Gawyn and Galad.
Like many characters in Arthurian legend, not much is written about Morgause’s early life. Combined with the fact that she doesn’t appear as a full character until the 1400s leaves a lot of space for interpretation and may explain her sudden appearance. Many believe she was part of Morgan Le Fay’s character and perhaps a spelling error or typo was responsible for the division, creating a new character in the Arthurian lore.
Some recent tellings, have returned Morgause and Morgan to the same character, making Morgan the mother of Mordred. The lack of individual backstories allows this to be an easy way of limiting characters in an otherwise overflowing storyline.
No matter her origins, Morgause is here to stay, and her contribution as a mother is one of great importance to Arthurian lore. Whether she is an individual character as Mallory depicted her or just a part of Morgan’s character, the story doesn’t change.