Agyana, Arnive, Egerne, Eigyr, Hierna, Igerne, Igrayne, Igern, Igerna, Igerne, Izerla, Izerna, Ugerne, Ygerne, Ygraine, Ygrayne, Ygrine, Yguerne
Dutchess of Tintagil and later Queen of England. Arthur’s mother, she “was called a fair lady, and a passing wise”.
She has her roots in the Welsh character Eigyr in Culhwch and Olwen, in which she is the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, a prince. In Welsh texts, she has a son named Gormant. Her seven brothers include Gwrvoddw (Gwrfoddu Hên), Llygadrudd Emys, and five warriors named Gweir. She also has a sister called Goleuddydd and another named Gwyar, the mother (or in some sources, the father) of Gawain (Gwalchmai).
The English Arthour and Merlin gives her three husbands before Uther: Harinan, Hoel and the Duke of Tintagel. With her various husbands, she had between one and five daughters – variously named Anna, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Elaine, Blasine, Belisant and Brimesent – who were Arthur’s sisters or half-sisters. She was the daughter of Amlawdd (Anlawdd) and she married Gorlois (sometimes called Hoel and Tintagel), by whom she had a number of daughters.
King Uther Pendragon fell in love with her when she and her husband attended a feast at Uther’s court. The first part of her story is basic: how she repulsed Uther Pendragon’s advances, telling her husband Duke Gorloïs,
I suppose that we were sent for that I should be dishonoured; wherefore, husband, I counsel you, that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night into our own castle.
Her husband took his wife back to Cornwall and this action enraged Uther, prompting him to invade Cornwall and besiege the duke’s castles. On the night of her husband’s death at Castle Terrabil Merlin introduced Uther into her bed at Tintagil disguised as her Duke, how that night Arthur was engendered, and how afterward Uther swiftly married Igraine (who was confused about the identity of Arthur’s father), urged thereto by Sir Ulfius and others as well as by his own desire. Uther did not tell her who had lain with her on the night of her husband’s death, however, until half a year after the marriage, when at last, as she waxed larger,
he asked her, by the faith she owed to him, whose was the child within her body, then [was] she sore abashed to give answer. Dismay you not said the king, but tell me the truth, and I shall love you the better by the faith of my body.
After making her tell her story, he told her his.
Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of the child.
Malory does not record Igraine’s sentiments when Uther took away her son to give him over to Merlin, nor is it clear from this account why Merlin demanded secrecy in the matter, when one might have expected that Uther’s barons had wished him to marry precisely in order to produce an heir – although later interpretations have made the spiriting away of the child seem a political necessity. She didn’t meet Arthur until his coronation many years later.
What seems often overlooked is that Igraine was still around during at least the first part of Arthur’s reign. After Uther’s death, which happened within two years after the marriage, she would presumably have been Queen Dowager, and later she would have been recognized as Queen Mother, though Merlin appears to have arranged a sort of practical joke in bringing about this recognition. Arthur had Merlin send for Igraine so that he could talk to her himself and learn the truth of his birth.
In all haste, the queen was sent for, and she came and brought with her Morgan le Fay her daughter, that was as fair a lady as any might be, and the king welcomed Igraine in the best manner.
But Sir Ulfius came in and approached Igraine of treason,
For an she would have uttered it in the life of King Uther Pendragon of the birth of you ... ye had never had the mortal wars that ye have had; for the most part of your barons ... knew never whose son ye were ... and she that bare you of her body should have made it known openly in excusing of her worship and yours, and in like wise to all the realm, wherefore I prove her false to God and to you and to all your realm, and who will say the contrary I will prove it on his body.
Then spake Igraine and said, I am a woman and i may not fight, but rather than I should be dishonoured, there would some good man take my quarrel. More, she said, Merlin knoweth well, and ye Sir Ulfius, who King Uther came to me in the Castle of Tintagil in the likneness of my lord, that was dead three hours to-fore, and ... after the thirteenth day King Uther wedded me, and by his commandment when the child was born it was delivered unto Merlin and nourished by him, and so I saw the child never after nor wit not what is his name, for I knew him never yet. And there, Ulfius said to the queen, Merlin is more to blame than ye.
Well I wot, said the queen, I bare a child ... but I wot not where he is become. Then Merlin took the king by the hand, saying, This is your mother. And therewith Sir Ector bare witness how he nourished him by Uther's commandment. And therewith King Arthur took his mother, Queen Igraine, in his arms and kissed her, and either wept upon other. And then the king let make a feast that lasted eight days.
Nothing more was said about trial by combat or treason; Ulfius’ accusation seems to have been staged to make the revelation more dramatic.
What happened to Igraine after that? Centuries before Malory, Chrétien de Troyes had provided an answer I find pleasant to recap. After the burial of Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s mother Ygerne (Igraine) came with all her stock of treasure to the Rock of Canguin (somewhere near the Galloway border), where she had a fine and beautiful castle built.
Igraine’s daughter – unnamed by Chrétien, but Lot’s widow and Gawaine’s mother, which would make her Margawse according to later chroniclers – joined Igraine at Canguin, and there gave birth to Igraine’s granddaughter, Clarissant. Orphaned young ladies and widowed old princess in Canguin.
They also had five hundred squires in the palace: a hundred old and white-haired, a hundred graying middle-agers, a hundred younger ones who shaved weekly, a hundred whose beards had just begun to grow, and a hundred still too young for facial hair; all, it seems, were good archers in addition to their other martial training, but they awaited a lord to knight them. This lord must needs be sufficiently perfect to survive the ordeal of the Wondrous Bed: no knight tainted with cowardice, flattery, avarice, or any other sin could survive an hour inside the palace.
Eventually, Igraine’s illustrious grandson Gawaine arrived, unrecognized and unrecognizing, to survive the Wondrous Bed and be greeted at Canguin’s long-awaited lord; but Chrétien did not live to complete the tale. By the time of Gawaine’s arrival, the outside world had considered Igraine dead for at least sixty years, her daughter for more than twenty. This and other details suggested the possibility that the Rock of Canguin forms part of the eschatological Otherworld.
Heinrich von dem Türlin tells a similar story, having Igerne marry an enchanter named Gansguoter and retire to his castle of Salie with her maiden daughters. In the Vulgate romances, she dies of unknown causes shortly before Uther Pendragon’s death, or shortly after Arthur’s coronation. Her counterpart in Wolfram’s Parzival is named Arnive.
Husbands and children
Igraine’s children by Duke Gorloïs were Morgawse (Geoffrey of Monmouth calls her Anna), Elaine, and Morgan le Fay. In Robert de Boron’s Merlin we find Igraine’s previous husband, the Duke of Tintagel. She conceives unnamed daughters by him and they were married to King Lot (father of Mordred, Gawain, Gaheriet and Guerrehet) and King Nentres respectively, and the last, who is an illegitimate daughter of the duke, is put into a nunnery at the time of Igraine’s marriage to Uther. In the nunnery/school she learns so much she eventually becomes the powerful sorceress Morgan Le Fay.
The Vulgate Merlin provides us with two earlier husbands: Hoel, who is the father of two daughters (Gawain’s mother and Blasine, who marries King Nentres of Garlot). Ygraine marries the Duke of Tintagel after Hoel’s death and begets three more daughters. One of the unnamed daughters marries King Briadas and they are parents of King Angusel of Scotland; another daughter, Hermesent, marries King Urien and they are parents of Ywain the Great; a fifth daughter is Morgan Le Fay.
Igraine’s Family and Retainers
Son (by Uther Pendragon)
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Diu Crône | Heinrich von dem Türlin, c. 1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Arthour and Merlin | Late 13th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470