Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Mordred the Traitor

Medraut, Medrawd, Medrawt, Medrod, Modreuant, Modred, Morddrede, Modret, Mordet, Mordarette, Mordered, Mordrech, Mordrés, Mordret

The knight who rebelled against Arthur and caused Arthur’s final downfall. In the earliest legends, he is Arthur’s nephew, but starting with the Vulgate Cycle, he also becomes Arthur’s son, adding an element of incest and sin to the tragic tale.

The first appearance of his name occurs in the Annales Cambriae, which says that both Arthur and “Medraut” died at the battle of Camlann in 537. This is the only information provided about Mordred in the Annales, and the text does not even say that Mordred and Arthur were on opposite sides. In the Welsh Triads, where he is the son of Llew (Lot, Arthur’s brother-in-law), he is one of Arthur’s Royal Knights, described as handsome, wise, and skilled at arms.

In another Triad, we hear how Mordred showed up at Arthur’s court in Celli Wig in Cornwall, ate all of Arthur’s food, drank all of his wine, and dragged Guienevere off her throne and beat her. Arthur repaied Mordred’s insult by visiting his court and similarly taking all the food and mead. This is the first portrayal of Mordred in Welsh as Arthur’s enemy. Though we must consider the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth as a possibility, it seems unlikely since, other than the fact that Arthur and Mordred are antagonists, the accounts found in Geoffrey’s Historia and the Welsh Triads have no common elements. A third Welsh text, The Dream of Rhonabwy, makes Arthur and Mordred opponents at the battle of Camlann, though it was written well after Geoffrey.

It is in Geoffrey of Monmouth, then, that we first find a complete account of Mordred’s life and rebellion. He was the son of Lot and Anna, Arthur’s sister. Gawain was his brother. (One line in Wace, almost certainly an interpolation, makes Mordred Guinevere’s brother.) He became a warrior in Arthur’s court, elevating himself to a position of power by capitalizing on the reputation established by his brother Gawain. When Arthur left Britain to fight the Roman War, he left Mordred as regent. Mordred declared that Arthur was dead, married Arthur’s wife Guinevere (who seems to have been a willing complicitor in the rebellion), and made alliances with the Saxons, Picts, and Scots. When Arthur returned from the Continent, Mordred’s army meet him at Richborough, where Gawain was killed. Mordred and Arthur’s armies battled all the way into Cornwall, where Mordred and Arthur perished at the battle of Camel (Geoffrey’s version of Camlann). Mordred had two sons who plagued King Constantine of Dumnonia, Arthur’s successor, and Layamon calls one of them Melou.

The story outlined by Geoffrey of Monmouth is followed fairly faithfully throughout the chronicles and the prose romances (including Malory), with only slight alterations. His character is ignored in Chrétien de Troyes’s romances (but is echoed in the traitorous Angres of Windsor). He is introduced in the Vulgate Lancelot as the youngest and most evil of Gawain’s brothers, and his first adventure involves sleeping with a married woman and defeating the woman’s husband when he discovers them together. Later, while traveling with Lancelot, he murders an old man who says Mordred is not the son of Lot – the first hint of his true paternity. Now and then there are prophecies and hints of the fate to befall Arthur and Mordred.

Biography of Mordred

Mordred’s biography in the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and Malory can be outlined as follows:

At Carlion, shortly after the battle of Bedegraine and before his marriage with Guenevere, Arthur engendered Mordred in conscious adultery and unconscious incest upon his visiting half-sister, King Lot’s wife, Margawse (or Belisent). The lady, in the Vulgate Merlin, believes she is sleeping with her husband Lot, while in the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin and in Malory, she has uncertain motives for sleeping with Arthur. That same night, Arthur dreamed of a serpent which came forth from his side, destroyed his land and people, and fought with him to their mutual destruction. The nightmare was so vivid that Arthur had it pictured in a painting in Camelot Cathedral.

Some little time later, probably shortly before or shortly after Mordred’s birth in Orkney, Merlin told Arthur that the child who would destroy him would be born on May Day, thus inciting Arthur to send for all noblemen’s sons born about that time, put them into a leaky ship, and send them out to sea. The infant Mordred was among these children, but when the ship went down, he was cast up on shore, where

a good man found him, and nourished him till he was fourteen years old, and then he brought him to court ... toward the end of the Death of Arthur.

A Lord Nabur the Unruly is said to be the person who raised Mordred.

Other evidence, however, suggests that the boy was somehow identified and returned to his mother to be raised and educated by her; certainly he was known to be the youngest brother of Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. Possibly he was identified when the “good man” brought him to court at age fourteen and returned to Margawse at that time for five or six years. Meanwhile, Arthur’s Herod-trick had inspired Lot and other nobles to fresh revolt, in which Lot was killed.

Vulgate IV tells us that Mordred was knighted at the age of twenty. He was tall with fair curly hair, and would have been handsome but for a wicked expression. Only for the first two years of his knighthood did he do any good. He hated all good knights. During those first two years, however, he seems to have been very promising. For a time he traveled adventuring with Lancelot. Together they saw the mystic stag and four lions in Carteloise Forest, and Mordred won praise from the great Du Lac for his manly endavors. All this time, Mordred believed himself the son of King Lot.

Unfortunately, after seeing the stag and lions, Lancelot and Mordred went on toward Peningues Castle to attend a tournament. They stayed with a vavasour near the castle and went into the woods next morning to find a church or chapel at which to hear Mass.

They came upon an old but vigorous priest praying at a magnificent tomb. This priest greeted Lancelot and Mordred as the two most unfortunate knights who ever lived. When they asked why, he began with Mordred. First he stripped away Mordred’s belief about his parentage: Mordred was not Lot’s son, but Arthur’s, the serpent of Arthur’s dream, who would destroy his father and do more harm in his lifetime than all his ancestors had done good, and so on, and so on.

It was rather extreme of Mordred to kill the priest, but then, all this must have been a very traumatic revelation for a young knight (no older than twenty-two) who had been winning praise until that morning. Other knights, like Lionel and Lancelot himself, did as much and more, often on less provocation, when the battle rage took them. The vavasour was greatly perturbed at the priest’s death, but for Lancelot’s sake said nothing. Lancelot would have found a pretext to kill Mordred, but refrained for the sake of Mordred’s brother Gawaine.

(Lancelot was in a shaky position to cast stones at Mordred – among the victims of Lancelot’s battle rages were men whose only offense consisted in Lancelot’s having made free with their pavilions without first apprising them of his presence – but this time Lancelot was annoyed because Mordred had killed the priest before he could get around to predicting Lancelot’s own future. Lancelot should have been greatful for that.)

They went on to hear Mass and then to the tournament. Such was the temper of the times. That day Mordred was left in a pitiable state on the tournament field, for he would have preferred death to surrender.

The old priest’s prophecy formed the turning point of Mordred’s career, for after this episode his evil side took the upper hand. Lancelot, on returning to court, told Guenevere of the prophecy, but did not add that Arthur was Mordred’s father. Guenevere did not believe the prophecy, and so did not mention it to Arthur, who might have banished Mordred had he known of the episode. Mordred conspired with his brothers to murder Lamorat, Drian, and Dinadan. He raped and murdered maidens.

Whether on the strength of his early promise, or because of his family connections, or because he remained a competent fighter “of his hands,” Mordred became a companion of the Round Table. He seems to have retained some sense of humor; once he joined Sir Dinadan and others in playing a joke on a “Cornish knight” (King Mark): Mordred’s shield was silver, with black bends. Dinadan told Mark it was Lancelot carrying this shield, after which Mordred, who was wounded, gave th shield and his armor to Dagonet the Jester, who then gave Mark a merry chase. (This same shield suggests that Mordred may have been allied, at least for a time, with Morgan Le Fay.) Again, one time Mordred came upon Sir Alisander le Orphelin in a state of besottedness upon his lady love, and began leading him mockingly away, apparently for mere sport. When Percivale came to court, Mordred apparently joined Kay in mocking the young man.

More serious, he may well have been party to the scheme which culminated in Gaheris’ murder of Margawse, and when the brothers tracked down Lamorak, it was Mordred who gave that knight his death wound, striking him from behind. Mordred and Agravaine also conceived a dislike for Dinadan because of the latter’s friendship toward Lamorak, and during the Grail Adventures they found an opportunity to kill him.

At last Mordred and Agravaine conspired to corner Lancelot with the Queen. Mordred survived Lancelot’s escape and must have played chief witness against the lovers, thus precipitating the break between Arthur and Lancelot. When Arthur went with Gawaine to attack Lancelot in France, he left Mordred as regent and “chief ruler of all England,” with governance even over Guenevere. Malory says Arthur did this because Mordred was his son, but this would seem to make Arthur surprisingly slow-witted about connected Merlin’s old prophecy and his own nightmare with Mordred, so it is my guess that Arthur may still have been unaware of the relationship and made Mordred his regent because Mordred was the last surviving brother of the King’s favorite nephew Gawaine.

Left in charge, Mordred counterfieted letters telling of Arthur’s death in battle. He then called a parliament to name him king, had himself crowned at Canterbury, and tried to marry Guenevere, but she tricked him and barricaded herself in the Tower of London. Mordred drove the Archbishop of Canterbury into exile for opposing him and besieged Guenvere, but withdrew on recieving word that Arthur was on his way back to Britain. Mordred tried to prevent Arthur’s landing at Dover and retreated to Canterbury. The last battle was fought on Salisbury Plain (Camlann?); Mordred was the last man left alive of all his army and allies who fought there, and at the last he was killed by Arthur – though Mordred did not return Arthur a mortal blow until he felt that he himself had his death wound.

Among Mordred’s allies were the Saxons or Sesnes, who hated Arthur and wanted revenge on him. Mordred also had Irish, Scottish, and Welsh divisions in his army. He left behind two grown sons, one named Melehan and one whose name is not given. They gradually seized England after Mordred’s death, but, on Lancelot’s return, Bors killed Melehan and Lancelot the other son.

Mordred is sometimes associated with his own shield. The design of his shield can differ, but it often incorporates imagery related to his ambition, such as symbols of power or treacherous motifs.

Variations of Mordred’s character

There are numerous variations found in a number of texts. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, Mordred is the son of Arthur and a concubine, while in Pierre de Langtoft’s chronicle, he is only Arthur’s cousin. In La Tavola Ritonda, he survives the final battle with Arthur only to be killed by Lancelot at the castle of Urbano. In Jean D’Outremeuse’s Ly Myreur des histors, Lancelot entombs Mordred, alive, with the body of Guinevere. To survive, Mordred consumes the flesh of the dead queen but eventually starves to death. Tennyson ignores the influence of Malory and returns him to his traditional role as Arthur’s nephew, but not his son.

The most interesting variations to Mordred’s character occur in Scottish chronicle, most notable the Chronica Gentis Scotorum of John of Fordum and the Scotorum Historia of Hector Boece. In these chronicles, Mordred is the rightful heir to Britain, being the son of Arthur’s sister and King Lot of the Picts. Arthur, presented as a lecherous, treacherous king, refuses to honor his pledge to leave his throne to Mordred. Mordred’s rebellion is a righteous attempt to correct this injustice.

Even in the romances in which Mordred is a traitor, he is not always portrayed as vile and corrupt. The Alliterative Morte Arthur, among others, endow him with a certain ruthless dignity, much like King Claudas or the early portrayals of Mark.

Medraut and Medrawt is the Welsh version of Mordred in various sources, such as Annales Cambriae.

Sir Mordred’s Family and Allies


Margawse | Anna | Belisent

Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth

Melehan and one unnamed | Melou

Arcaus and Heliades

Annales Cambriae | c. 960-980
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Mort Artu | 1215-1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Mort Artu | 1230-1240
The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft | Pierre de Langtoft, c. 1300-1307
The Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur | 14th century
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
The Story of England | Robert Mannyng of Brunne, 1338
Ly Myreur des Histors | Jean D’Outremeuse, c. 1350
De Casibus Virorum Illustrium | Giovanni Boccaccio, 1355-1362
Chronica Gentis Scotorum | John of Fordun, c. 1385
Alliterative Morte Arthure | c. 1400
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Scotorum Historiae | Hector Boece, 1527
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886