Queen Guinevere
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Queen Guinevere: Wife of King Arthur

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In Arthurian Literature, Queen Guinevere is often written as the wife of King Arthur of Camelot who is in love with his knight, Lancelot. In this article, we will be going through how she has been portrayed and written since the origin of her story.

  • Etymology of Guinevere’s Name
  • Portrayals in Arthurian Literature
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France
  • Thomas Malory
  • Guinevere in Popular Culture

Etymology of Guinevere’s Name

“Gwenhwyfar” is composed of “Gwen” which means “white” or “fair” in Welsh which signifies purity or brightness and “Hwyfar” which has less clear meanings but is often interpreted as “fair” or “blessed”. Others say that the name comes from “Gwenhwy-fawr” or “Gwenhwy the Great”.

Portrayals in Arthurian Literature

Guinevere’s story and character has evolved over the years from the works of different writers. She first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136 CE), but becomes a more important part of the plot in Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart (1177 CE). This French poet’s work marked the beginning of works on the love triangle plot between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot where it meets one of its most popular treatments in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1469 CE). There are, of course, other writings about their story, but this article will focus on these three works.

Her parentage also differs across the literature. Geoffrey Monmouth portrayed her as the daughter of a Roman noble, Germanic tradition saw her as the daughter of King Garlin of Galore, Welsh tradition holds that she was the daughter of King Ogrfan Gawr of Castell y Cnwclas, and Sir Thomas Malory depicted her as the daughter of King Leodegrance of Cameliard.

There are other parts of her story that also have conflicting versions over the years. One important aspect of Guinevere’s story is her relationship with Lancelot; in some works she is forced into this relationship, and in others she enters the extra-marital relationship of her own free will. Another part of her story is her part in Mordred’s betrayal of Arthur, where is either coerced into joining the effort against Arthur or was a willing accomplice in it.

Each retelling of her story brings something new or different into it, and we will be going into each of the three prominent writers.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

This was Guinevere’s origin as Geoffrey established the basic outline of the Arthurian Legend in History of the Kings of Britain—the same loose outline that is used over the years to tell their story. He called her Gwenhuvara from the Welsh name Gwenhwyvar.

When Arthur leaves to wage war on the continent, he leaves Guinevere to be taken care of by his nephew Mordred. However, Mordred seduces Guinevere in Arthur’s absence and plots to usurp the throne. Arthur returns to rescue Guinevere and his kingdom, but in her guilt, she leaves the kingdom to enter a nunnery. Mordred is killed in battle and Arthur is taken away to the Isle of Avalon after being mortally wounded.

Welsh writer Caradoc of Lancarvan’s Life of Gildas tells the story of her first abduction by Lord Melvas, King of the Summer Land. In it, he hides her away for over a year while Arthur searches for her. Once he finds that it was Melvas who captured her, he prepares to destroy Melvas’ kingdom, but Gildas appears and resolves the conflict peacefully. The kingdoms are left intact as Guinevere is returned to Arthur. There were no details on Guinevere’s part in this, and her character is not given much individual notice.

Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France

This is a turning point in the literature where Guinevere is, for the first time, written as more of an individual with a bigger part in the story.

In Marie de France’s poem Lanval, a knight of Arthur’s court (the titular character, Lanval) enters the world of the fairy princess and falls in love with her. He stays in this world but, after feeling like he should return to court, the princess makes him promise to keep their love a secret. She also tells him that if he does this, she will come to his aid when he most needs her.

Back at court, Lanval is seduced by Guinevere, but he refuses her and says that it’s because he is in love with the fairy princess. Guinevere then runs to Arthur and accuses Lanval of attempting to seduce her; Lanval is then arrested and put on trial. He calls for help from his fairy princess, not expecting her to come as he had broken his promise to her by telling Guinevere of their love, but she arrives to rescue him and they ride off to return to her realm.

Chretien de Troye’s Lancelot tells the story of Guinevere’s abduction by Lord Meleagant. She is locked in a high tower in his kingdom, and Arthur’s knights pursue to rescue her but Lancelot gets closer first. In order to get to Guinevere, he has to ride in a cart (which was associated with criminals) so he hesitates at first but agrees to do so in the end.

Upon reaching Guinevere, she refuses him because of this initial hesitation, implying that he valued his reputation more than his devotion to her. Lancelot wins her back by first losing to unworthy opponents in a series of challenges and then winning when Guinevere tells him to. He then kills Meleagant and frees the queen.

In these writings, Marie and Chretien both give Guinevere more motivation behind her actions and paints her as an individual, not a static character who is driven by the plot lines of the other main characters of the story.

Thomas Malory

In Le Morte D’Arthur, Guinevere is the daughter of King Leodegrance of Camelerd who served Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. After Arthur defeats King Rience (a rival of Leodegrance) in battle, Guinevere is betrothed to Arthur—with the Round Table that was originally in Leodegrance’s possession as part of her dowry. Arthur falls instantly in love with her and tells Merlin of this, but Merlin warns him that she will not be faithful to him and will fall in love with a knight called Lancelot. Despite this, Arthur remains in love with Guinevere.

Guinevere’s first abduction is by Meleagant, which is successful after she surrenders to him in order to save the lives of the knights who were protecting her. She secretly sends her ring to Lancelot using a messenger so that he can rescue her. When he arrives on a chariot after his horse is disabled by archers, Meleagant immediately surrenders.

That night, Lancelot sneaks into her bedroom, wounding himself in the process by forcing the window bars open and leaving blood on Guinevere’s bed. The next morning, Meleagant sees the blood and claims that one of Guinevere’s knights dishonored her the night before.

Lancelot denies the claim on behalf of the queen but does not come forward to say that the blood is his. This results in a gauntlet with the duel to be done in eight days at Westminster. Before the duel, Meleagant tricks Lancelot into falling into a cave. Sir Lavaine steps up to replace and represent Lancelot, but he escapes just in time and appears at the duel to cut Meleagant’s head in two.

Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot; at first, the affair is a secret, but the people around them start to suspect them of this infidelity until Arthur has no choice but to act against them. Lancelot escapes when they attempt to arrest him, but Guinevere does not, and is sentenced to execution. Lancelot then rescues the queen, but she returns to Arthur and asks for his forgiveness. As he then starts blaming Lancelot over Guinevere, he begins using his army to go after his former knight.

He leaves Guinevere and his kingdom in the care of Mordred, his illegitimate son, but Mordred instead betrays Arthur and attempts to abduct Guinevere and seize power over the kingdom. Arthur goes against Mordred in the Battle at Camlann in which Arthur kills Mordred but is also badly wounded from the fight. Bedevere, one of his knights who helped him in battle, takes him away to the Isle of Avalon.

In the end, Guinevere enters a convent and devotes the rest of her life to serving others.

Modern adaptations and retellings of their story are diverse in their depiction of Guinevere. This is possibly because, as her point of view and many aspects of her character are not fully fleshed out in the literature, they need to make her more of an individual character.


  • Gweniver is a warrior priestess and warlord in the book Darkspell.
  • The Squire Tales by Gerald Morris sees her as a supporting character, beginning as Arhur’s queen and ending as Sister Arthur who is in a convent.
  • A series of Arthurian novels called The Warlord Chronicles depicts her as a princess in Wales. She is anti-Christian and devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis, with plans to become queen through her marriage with Arthur.
  • The Mists of Avalon is by Marion Zimmer Bradley and introduces Gwenhwyfar as the daughter of an unloving father who falls into a depression after failing to produce an heir and not being able to be with the love of her life, Lancelot. She then becomes a fanatical Christian who hopes for salvation.


  • Camelot, the Broadway musical, depicts her as a central character. Over the years, she has been portrayed by Julie Andrews, Sally Ann Howes, Vanessa Redgrave, and Philippa Soo.
  • King Arthur was an 1895 West End production where Guinevere was played by Ellen Terry.


  • Camelot 3000 is a futuristic version of the story in which Guinevere is reincarnated as Commander Joan Acton who works with King Arthur to defend Earth from extraterrestrials.

TV and Film

  • King Arthur and the Knights of Justice, a cartoon series, depicts her as Camelot’s queen and the real King Arthur’s wife, who is not aware of her husband being replaced by a time-stranded man named Arthur King
  • Guinevere is a TV film wherein she is portrayed by Sheryl Lee. This follows her point of view of the story from a more feminist lens.
  • Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, a cartoon series, has her as the main protagonist. It focuses less on the betrayal of her original stories in literature and more on her individual character as a princess.
  • Merlin is a TV series in which she is shown as the daughter of a blacksmith. The show hints at her attraction to both Merlin and Lancelot, but in a different twist, her true love is actually Arthur.
  • King Arthur, the 2004 film, depicts Guinevere as a Pictish princess held captive by a Roman noble family and she is played by Keira Knightley.
  • Once Upon a Time is a fantasy television series where Guinevere is Lancelot’s true love but is under a spell that makes her continue her marriage with Arthur.
  • Shrek the Third, the third installation of the Shrek movies, shows Guinevere (or Gwen) as a student at Worcestershire Academy.


  • Mobile Legends: Bang Bang has a playable character named after Guinevere who, in the game, is said to be the sister of Lancelot.


Over time, Guinevere’s story has been changed, added to, or otherwise modified, making it difficult to pin her down as having one definite narrative and personality. Only one part of her story is common across these versions: she was King Arthur’s wife, but had an affair with Sir Lancelot, eventually leading to the fall of Camelot. Other than that, in the original works about her, her personality and motivations tend to differ, which in turn is likely what allows modern media to create their own spins on her character with the freedom to be different from the original writings about her story.

All in all, she is a dynamic character evolving over the years—who knows how else people will tell her story in the years to come?

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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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