King Arthur’s greatest enemy was not a Saxon leader. After all, Arthur defeated the Saxons. Rather, his greatest enemy was the person who actually caused the downfall of his kingdom – Mordred. Let’s find out who this Mordred was, what he did, and what we can say about him historically.
Mordred appears in one of the very earliest Arthurian sources, the Annales Cambriae of the tenth century. In the second Arthurian reference there, for the year 537, here is what we are told:
The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell; and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.
So according to this, Mordred (or ‘Medraut’, as it was spelt in ancient Welsh) and Arthur both ‘fell’ at this battle. Whether this means that they died is uncertain, but it is likely that that was the intent of the word.
What else can we say about Mordred from this entry? The entry itself does not give us any information about whether Arthur and Mordred were on opposing sides. After all, could it have just been a battle against the Saxons? In view of Gildas’ claim that the Battle of Badon established a period of peace that lasted right up to his time, 43 years later, the fact that this battle of Camlann supposedly took place just 21 years after Badon would strongly suggest that it was not a battle against the Saxons.
The alternative is that it could have been a battle against the Picts or the Scots, but Gildas does not give us any reason to believe that they were causing significant trouble by that point in history. On the other hand, his does report that there were civil wars in the period between Badon and his time, which fits Camlann perfectly.
This information strongly supports the conclusion that Camlann was a battle of Britons against Britons. This indicates that Arthur and Mordred may have been on opposing sides, though it is admittedly only indicative. In any case, we can see that there is not very much information that can be gathered about Mordred from this earliest reference.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Mordred was Arthur’s nephew. His mother was Anna, the sister of Arthur. She was married to Lot of Lothian, Lothian being a kingdom in the north of Britain. As well as having Mordred, they had another son, Walgan (or ‘Gawain’, as he is more famously known).
Mordred’s family was a prestigious one. His father was the brother of Urien Rheged, one of the most powerful kings of Britain in the sixth century. Urien’s son Owain was also highly-regarded and well known, though not as much as his father.
Lot of Lothian, Mordred’s father, is a figure who is not as well attested as Urien (about whom there are surviving sixth century poems), but he does appear in a number of non-Arthurian sources. For example, he appears in the Life of St Kentigern as Leudunus, and he appears in several genealogies as Llewdwn.
In the Welsh versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB, Lot appears as Llew. Thus, it appears that both ‘Lot’ and ‘Llew’ are shortenings of the full form ‘Leudun’ or Llewdwn’.
Gildas makes mention of two royal youths who were killed by King Constantine of Dumnonnia in the very year in which he was writing. Constantine allegedly killed them inside a church. In the later records, such as the HRB, these two royal youths are portrayed as the sons of Mordred. They supposedly continued their father’s rebellion, before eventually being killed by the successor of Arthur. They are unnamed in Gildas’s account, but later accounts give them the names Melehan and Melou.
Thus, Mordred’s family was definitely historical. His uncle and cousin definitely existed, and there is general agreement that Lot was real too (on the basis of the aforementioned references). Additionally, we have seen that his two sons were historical as well. Therefore, Mordred exists within a bubble of historicity, though he himself remains legendary.
There is also some information about Mordred’s wife, though there is no definite evidence for her existence. She was supposedly the daughter of ‘Gawallon’, traditionally identified as Caw the father of Gildas. If so, this would mean that Mordred and Gildas were brothers-in-law. This might explain why Gildas, while condemning the civil wars, was critical of Constantine killing the two youths (if they really were Mordred’s sons).
Remarkably, it appears that everyone in Mordred’s family was loyal to Arthur other than Mordred himself and his two sons. Let us now examine the information about this prince and how he came to betray Arthur.
Mordred’s Service to Arthur
The earliest source that describes the events leading up to Camlann is the Historia Regum Britanniae. According to this source, Mordred was initially a faithful prince in Arthur’s service. The later romances likewise describe him that way, portraying him as one of Arthur’s knights.
According to the HRB, Mordred was the person to whom Arthur had entrusted the kingdom when Arthur travelled to Gaul to make war against the Romans. A question that arises is, why was Mordred the one to whom Arthur entrusted the kingdom? After all, it does not appear that he was the only one available for the role. For example, the HRB (and most subsequent sources) describes Arthur as eventually abdicating in favour of his relative Constantine of Dumnonia (one of the five kings mentioned by Gildas). Why did he not make this king regent in the first place instead of Mordred?
This account does not provide any explanation for this, nor does it describe Mordred’s prior actions in Arthur’s service. Nonetheless, this suggests that Mordred had proven himself to be a capable commander.
Interestingly, some references from the 12th century indicate some things about what Mordred was like prior to his betrayal of Arthur. One of them was written at the same time as the HRB, in c. 1137. The poet Meilyr Brydydd wrote an elegy to his lord Gruffudd ap Cynan, positively describing him as having the ‘nature of Medrawd’, apparently in reference to his valour in battle. Having valour would certainly help to explain why Arthur chose Mordred as his regent.
In addition, Meilyr’s son Gwalchmai wrote a poem in which he praised Madog ap Maredudd, referring to him as having Arthur’s strength but ‘the good nature of Mordred’. Again, this shows that Mordred was held to have had desirable qualities. He allegedly had a good nature and was courageous, and this would definitely explain why he was chosen as Arthur’s regent.
This general profile of Mordred’s character is supported by some of the Welsh Triads. One of them describes him as one of the three royal knights of Arthur’s court, having such courtliness that no one would deny them anything they asked for. This matches very well with the reference by Gwalchmai ap Meilyr to Mordred’s good nature. Additionally, the triad mentions that these three knights were exceptionally courageous and powerful in war. This also matches Meilyr’s use of ‘Mordred’s nature’ to represent valour in battle.
In contrast to this, the later romances generally do not portray Mordred in a very good light at all. Rather, they portray him as a villainous character even before he actually betrays Arthur. He is shown to have affairs with women and harm their husbands, as well as actually raping and even murdering some women. This goes completely against the code of chivalry by which all of Arthur’s knights were supposed to live.
Clearly, it cannot be the case that these romances are correct as well as the Welsh Triads and the poets. It seems most likely that the Welsh sources are more accurate, being closer to the original area in which these events took place. In contrast, many of the romances were written on the continent by French writers who had no connection to the most ancient traditions.
This conclusion also makes more sense of Arthur appointing Mordred as regent. It would be far more logical for this to have occurred if Mordred was virtuous and praiseworthy than if he had a reputation for wrongdoing.
In any case, Mordred was placed in the position of regent while Arthur was away. This immediately raises an interesting question, because it cannot be the case that Arthur was actually away from Britain due to waging war with the Romans. Such an event would have undoubtedly been recorded by continental historians, such as Gregory of Tours. This is universally dismissed as fictional or an earlier event that became mistakenly attributed to Arthur (see the article ‘King Arthur’ for a more extensive examination of this legend).
So, why was Mordred made the regent of Britain? There seem to be two distinct possibilities. Firstly, it could be that Arthur was away on some other business. One theory is that the Yellow Plague, which allegedly caused many Britons in the southern half of Britain to flee to Brittany, actually overlapped with Arthur’s reign rather than taking place after Arthur’s death. This would explain why Arthur left but Mordred did not, for Mordred’s kingdom was in the north (this would also explain why none of the southern kings, like Constantine of Dumnonia, were chosen as regent, for they would logically have also fled Britain).
Alternatively, Arthur could have been away due to assisting one of his Breton allies, such as Hoel. In either case, the fundamental thought behind this possibility is that Arthur had to leave Britain for an extended period of time for some reason (though not fighting the Romans), and this was why Mordred was left in charge of the kingdom.
The second distinct possibility is that Arthur did not actually leave Mordred in charge at all. Rather, Mordred simply rebelled. However, this does not appear particularly likely. By far the most common tradition is that Mordred was left in charge of Britain for a while, and that he and Arthur battled on the coast as Arthur attempted to fight his way back into Britain.
So, it appears most likely that Mordred was appointed regent while Arthur was away for some reason, though we cannot be sure what exactly that reason was. Now, let us consider what actually took place.
According to the earliest source, HRB, this is what Arthur heard while he was on the continent:
“His nephew Modred, to whose care he had entrusted Britain, had by tyrannical and treasonable practices set the crown upon his own head; and that queen Guanhumara, in violation of her first marriage, had wickedly married him.”
So Mordred apparently declared himself king. He no longer recognised the absentee Arthur as king with he himself merely a regent. This was an act of usurpation and Arthur responded to it. He sailed back to Britain to fight Mordred.
At this point, the HRB describes Mordred making an alliance with Cheldric, a Saxon leader (possibly Cerdic of Wessex – see the article ‘Cerdic of Wessex’). He sent this Saxon leader to Germany to gather more men. In return, Cheldric would receive the part of Britain between the Humber and the border of Scotland (in other words, the northern part of England). In addition, Mordred made alliances with the Picts and the Scots. In fact, the HRB said that Mordred attempted to make alliances with ‘all others he knew to be enemies of his uncle’.
With this multinational army at his disposal, Mordred fought against Arthur as he attempted to land at the port of Richborough, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. In reality, Richborough was deep in Saxon territory by the sixth century, so this claim is nonsensical. Bearing in mind the fact that Geoffrey’s geography is demonstrably unreliable in other parts of his book, it is no doubt the case that this is a mistake for some other port of Britain.
In any case, Mordred was not able to prevent Arthur and his men from fighting their way ashore, so Mordred was said to have fled to Winchester. Arthur caught up with him there and besieged the city, eventually putting Mordred to flight.
From there, Mordred was said to have fled to Cornwall. This is where the final battle of Camlann allegedly took place (though in reality, there are many different theories as to the location of Camlann). Mordred and his men awaited the arrival of Arthur and his army, and then the battle took place. It was renowned for being an extremely bloody affair, with countless men dying on both sides.
In the end, Arthur slew Mordred, but not before Mordred severely wounded Arthur. While the exact fate of Arthur is not easily determined, by all accounts Mordred died at this battle. Admittedly, the idea of Arthur personally being the one to kill his enemy seems like fiction, but in any case, we can be confident that one way or another, provided the Battle of Camlann was a historical event, Mordred died there.
The effects of Mordred’s rebellion were immense. The apparently stable kingdom of Arthur’s was thrown into disrepair due to his nephew’s usurpation. After Arthur was gravely wounded at Camlann, he abdicated in favour of Constantine and then disappeared from the record, probably dying soon thereafter. From this moment onwards, the western half of Britain was no longer broadly united, but many civil wars erupted. Arthur’s peaceful and united kingdom was in ruins. In the later romances, where Arthur’s allied kings are described as his ‘knights’, this event is portrayed as the fall of the order of the knights of the Round Table.
A Historical Usurper?
Is there any reason to believe that the events described above are actually an accurate reflection of what happened in the sixth century in Britain? Well, the only way of confirming or denying this is by examining the words of Gildas, our one contemporary source. He was born in the year in which Badon took place, so he would have been an adult by the time the Battle of Camlann broke out (if it was a real event), so his description of events is very valuable to us.
After mentioning the Battle of Badon, Gildas laments the fact that now there are civil wars in the place of the foreign wars. He attributes this to the generation that grew up in the peace established by Badon, pointing out that they did not know the hardships of the foreign wars. According to Gildas, this younger generation threw to the side the order that had existed among kings, magistrates and others during the previous period, and ended up causing civil wars.
This is a perfect description of Mordred casting aside his previous recognition of Arthur as sovereign and the structure established by him, leading to a civil war. But is the timing correct? Gildas states that it was those who had grown up in the peace established by Badon, so would this apply to Mordred or not?
The HRB does not mention Mordred’s birth specifically, but it does provide us with some interesting information about his brother Walgan (Gawain). About 12 or 13 years after Badon, Walgan is mentioned as being 12 years old. Thus, he was evidently born at about the time of Badon or just after. The age difference between Mordred and Walgan is never specified, but we can assume that as brothers, they were most likely born within a few years of each other.
Therefore, Mordred would have likewise been born at about the time of the Battle of Badon, or perhaps slightly before it took place. In any case, he certainly grew up in the peace established by Badon, so he perfectly fits the description given by Gildas of those who effected civil war.
On this basis, and the fact that the Battle of Camlann is mentioned in the reasonably early Annales Cambriae, there is good reason for concluding that Mordred was both a historical figure and that he fought a civil war against Arthur.
Mordred’s story is expanded upon quite significantly in the later romances. The major difference between the earliest surviving accounts of Mordred and the later ones is that in the later versions, Mordred is Arthur’s son, not his nephew.
In a twisted turn of events, Arthur ends up unwittingly having intercourse with his sister Morgawse (identical to Anna in the earlier accounts). The result of this is Mordred. Nonetheless, he is still raised as Lot’s son, as in the earlier versions.
However, Arthur is then told a prophecy about how his downfall will come from a just-born child. Attempting to avert this, he ordered all the newborn boys to be sent away. The boat that they were sent away in then sank, but Mordred survived and was washed up on the shore of an island. He did not reunite with his parents Lot and Morgawse until he had grown up, when he travelled to King Arthur’s court to become one of his knights.
As mentioned previously, these romances portray Mordred as cruel almost from the beginning, even going so far as to rape and murder some women. Another notable event in his legendary life is the fact that his father Lot was said to have been killed by Pellinore. This caused strife between the family of Pellinore and the family of Lot. Pellinore’s son Lamorak became the lover of Morgawse, Lot’s former wife (and Mordred’s mother). Mordred and his brothers then became determined to hunt down and kill Lamorak, which they eventually did.
The rest of the story of Mordred’s life is similar to the earlier accounts in that he is portrayed as leading to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom. However, the details are a little different.
In the Vulgate Lancelot, Mordred conspires with his brother Agravain to uncover the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. This ends up resulting in war between Arthur and Lancelot, with the former pursuing the latter to France. It is while Arthur is away engaged in this war that Mordred takes the crown for himself, and the rest of Mordred’s story plays out essentially as it does in the earlier accounts.
Possible Connection to Amr
On the basis that Mordred is described in some accounts as Arthur’s son and he was killed by Arthur, some researchers have perceived a connection between Mordred and Amr. This latter figure is a figure who appears in a very early Arthurian source, the Wonders of Britain at the back of the Historia Brittonum.
According to this account, Amr was killed by Arthur and buried in a tomb in Ergyng, near the south-east border of Wales. The account is short and it is focused more on the tomb itself than the story behind Amr’s death, so it does not reveal any details as to why Arthur killed him.
While it may seem like an attractive idea to associate Amr with Mordred on the basis of these apparent similarities, there are some significant objections to such an equation. Most significantly, as we have seen, the earliest records do not describe Mordred as Arthur’s son. Rather, he is his nephew. It is not until the later romances that Mordred’s parentage is made to include Arthur.
In fact, even in the later sources, no Welsh text describes Mordred as Arthur’s son. The closest any of them get is The Dream of Rhonabwy, a 14th century tale that makes up part of the Mabinogion. This tale mentions that Arthur was Mordred’s foster father.
So when we consider all the evidence and give preference to the earlier sources, we must come to the conclusion that Mordred really was Arthur’s nephew, not his son. Thus, there is no good reason for equating Mordred with Amr.
Relationship with Guinevere
One aspect of Mordred’s betrayal which is consistent across the legends is his connection to Guinevere. He was said to have taken her as his wife, though some accounts portray Guinevere as willing, while others portray her as unwilling.
This aspect appears as early as the first account of the events leading to Camlann, the HRB. In this version, Guinevere (spelt ‘Guanhumara’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth) is described as having ‘wickedly married’ the usurper.
This version of events is generally followed in the later romances and some traditions (such as a Scottish tradition that Guinevere was killed by Arthur’s hunting dogs after he defeated Mordred, in revenge for her unfaithfulness). However, in some later versions, such as Le Morte d’Arthur, Guinevere is portrayed as completely unwilling and she actually flees to the Tower of London to escape from the usurper. This is not out of faithfulness to Arthur, though, but out of faithfulness to her lover Lancelot.
The Welsh sources present things rather differently. In these (such as the Welsh Triads), Mordred is associated with Gwenhwyvach, nor Gwenhwyvar (the Welsh spelling of Guinevere). She was actually the sister of Arthur’s wife, not Arthur’s wife herself.
Regarding Guinevere herself, the Triads depict Mordred as dragging her from Arthur’s court and beating her, so it is unlikely that Guinevere would have ‘wickedly married him’ in view of that.
Of course, it is difficult to say what the real situation was. The Welsh sources do not appear to be in harmony with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that Mordred married Guinevere, but Geoffrey’s account is older. Given that the Welsh sources also claim that Arthur had more than one wife called Gwenhwyfar, it is possible that one of them married Mordred while the other one was faithful to Arthur (and thus was beaten by Mordred). Or it may be that Mordred beat her as a way of forcing her to marry him, which she then did.
Traitor or Ally?
An interesting issue that some modern researchers have raised is whether or not Mordred was originally conceived of (evidently not considering him to have been historical) as a villain, or as a loyal ally of Arthur.
This issue stems from the references to Mordred that were mentioned above, primarily in the Welsh Triads and by the poets Meilyr and Gwalchmai. It is held that Mordred could not have originally been conceived of as a traitor in view of the fact that he is praised for certain qualities in these sources.
However, this is not necessarily a valid line of reasoning. Consider, for example, the reference in Gwalchmai’s poem to Mordred’s good nature. This was written decades after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB was published. His work quickly became very popular and well-known and had an enormous influence on many pieces of Arthurian literature that were produced between 1137 and the end of the century.
The idea that a poet or writer would not make such a reference to Mordred if he was known as a traitor is evidently not true, for Gwalchmai made the reference to Mordred’s good nature long after Geoffrey had given him an international reputation of being a traitor. If Gwalchmai had been writing in the previous century, then such a claim might have merit. But as it is, he made his reference to Mordred’s good nature while being aware of his reputation as a usurper. The same applies to the references to Mordred in the Welsh Triads.
Therefore, it is evident that there was an understanding that although Mordred was a traitor, he could also be renowned for his good nature (evidently during his service to Arthur prior to his rebellion). Given that he did serve Arthur and was evidently impressive enough to be entrusted with the position of regent, this is hardly surprising. Thus, there is no good reason for claiming that Mordred was not originally conceived of as a traitor to Arthur (or that he did not historically have that role).
Usurper or Rightful Heir?
Another issue regarding Mordred, this one actually going back hundreds of years, is the question of whether or not he should actually be classed as a usurper. It appears to have been John of Fordun, a Scottish chronicler of the 14th century, who first raised this issue. He claimed that Mordred was not a usurper but was actually the legitimate heir to the throne of Britain.
The logic was that Arthur was illegitimate, due to having been conceived by Uther and Igerna while the latter was still married to Gorlois. On the other hand, Mordred was legitimate due to being the son of King Lot of Lothian and Anna, the sister of Uther Pendragon (though described as his daughter in most other sources). On this basis, John of Fordun argued that Mordred was truly the one with the right to the throne. Later historians, such as Walter Bower and Hector Boece, followed this thought. Boece even described Arthur as usurping the throne from Mordred.
All three of those historians were Scottish, so their conclusions are not surprising. As the son of Lot of Lothian, Mordred was half Scottish. Nonetheless, what these historians failed to take into account was the fact that Mordred’s mother Anna was not described as the sister of Uther in the earliest source, the HRB (as well as most sources), but as Uther’s daughter. The wording of Geoffrey’s HRB is ambiguous, but it could easily be taken to suggest that both Arthur and Anna were the result of Uther’s rape of Igerna, not just Arthur. Here is the passage as translated by J. A. Giles:
“Then he returned to the town of Tintagel, which he took, and in it, what he impatiently wished for, Igerna herself. After this they continued to live together with much affection for each other, and had a son and daughter, whose names were Arthur and Anne.”
As shown in the article ‘King Arthur’, Arthur had other siblings, including an unnamed sister mentioned in the HRB itself. Therefore, the fact that Geoffrey here just mentions Arthur and Anna, and not any of the other siblings, quite possibly indicates that they were both the fruitage of this first night between Uther and Igerna, and not just Arthur alone.
This being the case, Anna was just as illegitimate as Arthur, so Mordred would not have had any greater claim to the throne than the one he was rebelling against. In addition, there is no guarantee that Mordred was the eldest among his siblings, nor that any of the sons of Uther’s other children (such as the unnamed daughter in the HRB who married Budic of Brittany) were not older than Mordred. In any of these scenarios, Mordred would still have been a usurper.
In conclusion, we can see that Mordred is an important character to the Arthurian world. He was Arthur’s nephew and greatest enemy. He was also likely historical, based on his appearance in the Annales Cambriae and the probable reference to him and his civil war in Gildas’s contemporary writings.
We have also seen that many people have tried to see another side to Mordred to the usual villain that he is normally conceived as being. In particular, Scottish historians have attempted to portray him not as a usurper, but as the rightful ruler of Britain. In addition, more modern researchers have argued that he was originally conceived of as a virtuous character, but this is based on references that are probably nothing more than references to what he was like while in Arthur’s service.
Along with Arthur himself, he is one of the constants of the Arthurian legends, virtually always there as Arthur’s final enemy.