Mordred: Villain of Arthurian Legend or Misunderstood Figure from History

Few names in the annals of Arthurian legend, indeed in all mediaeval history, invoke as much intrigue and fascination as Mordred. A name often synonymous with treachery and betrayal, was he a murderous villain, thief, and usurper, or was he misunderstood? This is the astonishing story of the legend of Mordred.

6 February 2024

Sir Mordred, a name inextricably linked to deceit and disloyalty in Arthurian legend, remains a figure shrouded in mystery and intrigue. His story, woven into the rich tapestry of mediaeval folklore, has been a subject of fascination and debate for centuries. Known primarily as one of the famous Knights of the Round Table – and the nemesis of the mythical King Arthur – Mordred’s character has been depicted variously as a villainous usurper and a tragic figure.

The question of his existence, whether as a real historical figure or a purely legendary creation, adds another layer of complexity to this incredible story.

Was he the son of King Arthur? Was he his nephew? Did Mordred – often known as Modred – betray and then kill Arthur at the Battle of Camlann, crowning himself as high king of Britain?

This journey back to dark ages Britain will attempt to unravel the complex, interwoven threads of reality and myth surrounding the legend of Mordred.

Who Was Mordred?

The Combat Of Mordred And King Arthur (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

The historical record of Mordred is sparse and often contradictory. The earliest mentions appear in a Welsh text known as Annales Cambriae in an entry for the year 537 AD in which it simply says ‘Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt, which translates to ‘The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.’

It should be noted that the Annales Cambriae were written in the mid to late-tenth century, some 400 years after the events described in their pages, so they can’t be considered a contemporary source of information.

In these Welsh texts his name is written variously as Medraut, Medrawt, or Medrawd, and these sources sometimes portray him in a more positive light, even acting as a loyal lieutenant to Arthur. In the Welsh Triads, a collection of mediaeval manuscripts preserving Welsh mythology and folklore in connected groups of three, Sir Mordred is written as one of the ‘men of such gentle, kindly, and fair words that anyone would be sorry to refuse them anything.

In another though, he’s described as a savage who stormed into King Arthur’s court at Kelliwic – sometimes Celliwig or Gelliwic – in Cornwall, ate and drank everything and beat Arthur’s queen Guinivere (in Welsh, Gwenhwyfar) after physically dragging her from her throne.

As with all historical stories of this nature, what was written at the time suited a particular narrative, making it impossible to disseminate fact from fiction.

As the legend evolved, through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, or the History of the Kings of the Britons – where Modred is first depicted as a traitor – and later in the works of Thomas Malory, Mordred’s character became increasingly vilified. The transformation, from a potentially legitimate ruler to a treacherous usurper reflects the evolving nature of the Arthurian legend over time. However there remains no definitive proof that Mordred existed.

Was Mordred Real?

The Book of Sir Lancelot of the Lake, an Arthurian legend (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector via Getty Images)

There has been considerable speculation regarding the historical roots of Modred.

Various scholars have proposed that he could have been inspired by a real-life individual who stood in opposition to a potential real King Arthur figure, possibly as a leader of a competing faction in the turbulent era of post-Roman Britain.

Despite these theories, definitive proof to support these assertions is lacking. While occasional archaeological discoveries and historical manuscripts offer tantalising hints, they do not conclusively establish Sir Mordred’s status as a figure grounded in historical reality.

Family Ties

King Arthur searching for the sword Excalibur (Credit: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

In the Arthurian legend, Mordred is often portrayed as a central antagonist, whose actions lead to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom.

He’s commonly depicted as Arthur’s illegitimate son, born from a relationship between Arthur and his half-sister, a queen of Lothian or Orkney named Morgause (or, in some versions, Morgan le Fay, Anna, or Orcades). This complex familial relationship adds a dramatic element to the legend, setting the stage for Mordred’s eventual betrayal.

However, in some early versions of the story, Sir Mordred, or Medraut, is instead portrayed as the son of King Lot, and as being Arthur’s traitorous nephew, which still retains the theme of familial conflict. Mordred’s siblings – brothers or half-brothers dependent on the version of the story – including Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravain, also play significant roles in the Arthurian narratives, often serving as Knights of the Round Table.

Mordred the Traitor

How Mordred plotted against Launcelot (Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Did Mordred cause the downfall of Camelot and the death of King Arthur?

Camelot was said to be King Arthur’s legendary castle and the seat of the Knights of the Round Table. The number of knights varies significantly across different tales, from just a dozen to over 1,600, as depicted in Layamon’s ‘Chronicle of Britain’ from the early thirteenth century. This work is believed to be the first text written in English since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The location of Camelot has baffled historians for centuries. Most put it somewhere in Great Britain (some suggest it may have been in France) but the general consensus is that it was fictional.

Mordred is considered a traitor in Arthurian legend primarily due to his betrayal of King Arthur, which ultimately leads to the downfall of Camelot and the death of Arthur himself. The nature of his treachery is multifaceted and varies across different versions of the story, but the central elements generally involve usurping Arthur’s throne and, in some versions, having an illicit relationship with Guinevere, Arthur’s queen.

In the most well-known accounts, such as those by Sir Thomas Malory in ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’ Sir Mordred takes advantage of Arthur’s absence while he is away on a military campaign. Mordred declares himself king and often tries to marry Guinevere, either by force or through her agreement, depending on the version of the story. This act of seizing the throne and violating the sanctity of Arthur’s marriage is seen as the ultimate betrayal, leading Arthur to return to confront his usurper.

The conflict between Arthur and Medraut is finally said to have culminated at the Battle of Camlann.

The Battle of Camlann

King Arthur waiting for Modred at the battle of Camlann (Credit: Bridgeman via Getty Images)

The climax of Mordred’s story, and arguably the most pivotal moment in Arthurian legend, is the Battle of Camlann. This tragic confrontation between Arthur and Mordred is said to have led to the deaths of both men, marking the end of Arthur’s reign and the fall of Camelot.

According to the Annales Cambriae written in the 960s, the battle took place in 537, though more detailed descriptions of the battle didn’t emerge until the twelfth century, some 700 or more years after the supposed event. One of the most popular retellings of the legendary battle comes from Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, written around a thousand years later.

It may well be a metaphor, but the battle symbolises the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s kingdom and is often portrayed as a culmination of the internal strife and betrayal within Arthur’s court. The details and location of the battle vary across different versions of the legend, but it’s universally characterised by its catastrophic nature.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story is that while most historians believe Arthur and Mordred fought against each other, there is no definitive historical evidence confirming they were adversaries in the battle, nor is there clear information on who emerged victorious.

Some versions suggest that the two men – the last standing warriors on opposite sides of a particularly brutal fight – inflicted fatal wounds upon each other. Another tells of Arthur’s survival and escape to the mythical island of Avalon (speculatively identified by twelfth century cleric Gerald of Wales as Glastonbury Tor) where he died and was buried. Another telling suggests that Modred survived and was later slain by Sir Lancelot. Yet, whatever the truth of this legendary battle, the tale of Mordred remains an enigma, wrapped in the obscure mists of time.

The Mysterious Myth of Mordred

Antique painting illustration: Arthur wounded to death by Mordred. (Credit: ilbusca via Getty Images)

The truth about Modred, King Arthur, and the events surrounding them has been lost to history, with the passing centuries distorting any potential reality of these figures and their deeds.

What might have been significant historical events, capable of shaking the foundations of a society, have transformed into blurred myths steeped in legend and folklore.

As time progresses, the line between historical fact and mythological narrative becomes increasingly hazy, leaving us with stories that, while captivating, are far removed from their original context and any possible reality.
Mordred, as a symbol of this transformation, continues to fascinate and intrigue, serving as a reminder of how time can reshape our understanding of the past and the characters who inhabit it.


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