Castellum Puellarum, Castle aux Pucelles, Chastel des Puceles, the Maydens Castell
A ubiquitous but mysterious location in Arthurian romances, featured earliest by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who says that the fortress of Mount Agned was also called the Castle of Maidens. By Agned, Geoffrey seems to mean Edinburgh in Scotland, which was known as castellum puellarum in the Middle Ages. It was built by King Ebraucus, who ruled in the time of David in Israel. Geoffrey does not account for the name of the castle, but in French romance it is explained by its large number of maiden inhabitants, either – depending on the tale – willing residents or prisoners. There may well have been two or more Castles of Maidens, and it or they are not quite like the “Castle Anthrax” which Galahad finds so full of choice damsels in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Perhaps the most notable account in Malory of a Castle of Maidens is; seven years before the Grail Quest, Duke Lianour had held this castle. Seven wicked brothers moved in, raped his elder daughter, and murdered him and his son. When the daughter predicted the brothers would all be defeated by one knight, they decided to hold prisoner all knights and ladies who passed by.
“[A]nd therefore is it called the Maidens’ Castle, for they have devoured many maidens.“
(A “maiden”, in older and broader usage, can be a virgin of either sex.) Galahad arrived and defeated all seven brothers in battle, but did not kill them. Fleeing, they ran by chance into Gawaine, Gareth, and Ywaine, who did kill them. The elder sister was dead by now, but the Duke’s younger daughter was made mistress of the castle and lands.
The spiritual significance (hardly anything happens during the Adventures of the Grail which is not a parable) is that the prisoners represent the good souls that were in prison (Hell or Limbo) before the time of Christ, and the seven brothers represent the seven deadly sins. This Castle of Maidens was “a strong castle with deep ditches, and there ran beside it a fair river that hight Severn”. It might be near the source of the Severn, at Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, Wales.
Sir, said Palomides (to Tristram, as they approached Castle Lonazep and saw the tournament set up there), meseemeth that there was as great an ordinance at the Castle of Maidens upon the rock, where ye won the prize.
This may be the same castle as that of XIII, 15-16; the tournament could have been held before the seven wicked brothers moved in. By the account of the old religious man who explained its history to Galahad, though, there would have been no reason to call it the Castle of Maidens before the time of the seven brothers.
Glennie identifies the Castle of Maidens with Edinburgh, speculating that the name may come from a house of nuns. This contradicts both Malory’s placement of the stronghold on the Severn and his tale of the seven brothers. If, however, the Castle of Maidens of the tournament is considered to be a different fortress than Duke Lianour’s, then Edinburgh could accomodate it nicely, especially with Malory naming Carados of Scotland as one of the tournament’s promoters and Glennie mentioning the “fortified rock” of Edinburgh.
John W. Donaldson briefly identifies the Castle of Maidens as “near Dorchester”, for no reason that I can see.
With regard to its origin, Geoffrey said that Ebraucus, King of Britain, founded the Castle of Mount Agned which later became known as the Castle of Maidens. As to its location, it may have been identified with Edinburgh which, in the Middle Ages, was known as Castellum (or Castra) Puellarum, but some of the tales place it in the vicinity of Gloucester.
In the Second Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval, the Castle of Maidens is inhabited by a lady and 100 maidens who test the worthiness of visiting knights. Perceval stops by during his quest for the Grail and is richly received. When he awakens the next morning, he is asleep in the forest and the castle has disappeared. In the Third Continuation, it is besieged by Tallidés of the Marsh, who wants to marry one of its maidens against the will of the castle’s mistress. Arthur’s Sir Sagremor champions the castle and defeats Tallidés, who is eventually allowed to marry his paramour. In the Fourth Continuation, it is ruled by Lady Ysabel, a relative of Perceval. The castle serves as the site of tournaments in Renaut’s Le Bel Inconnu, the Vulgate Lancelot – in which it is said to lie opposite a river from the Castle of Ladies – and Malory.
Its most important appearance arrives in the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, which tells us that it was once ruled by a duke named Lynors until seven brothers, lodging at the castle, became lustful for his daughter. They killed the duke and his son, and then made it their custom to capture every maiden that passed by the castle and add her to their harem. Galahad ended this wicked custom during the Grail Quest, when he came upon the castle and liberated it. Gawain, Gareth, and Yvain arrived soon after and killed the seven brothers. Rule of the castle was given to Duke Lynors’ surviving daughter.
In the Vulgate Merlin it is said to be ruled by a lord named Belias the Amorous. In the romance of Yder, it is besieged by a Black Knight. (When Arthur refuses to assist the castle, Yder leaves his court in disgust.) In De Ortu Waluuanii, it is besieged by a pagan lord, and Arthur saves it with the assistance of a young Gawain. The Livre d’Artus gives its ruler as the Queen of Denmark.
In Palamedes, it is ruled by a maiden cousin of Guiron the Courteous who is besieged by Sir Golistant but is rescued by Guiron. Following this, the maiden converts the castle to a nunnery. In the Prose Tristan, it is the site of a great tournament, and its location is given as a dozen leagues from London. Malory, who repeats the story found in the Vulgate Queste, also names it as the home of Arthur’s Sir Moryans. There may be more than one castle intended in these varied appearances.