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Matter of Britain character
Based onAnna, possibly Gwyar
In-universe information
OccupationPrincess, queen
Significant otherLamorak
ChildrenGawain, Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, Mordred
RelativesIgraine and Gorlois (parents), Arthur, Morgan, Elaine (siblings)

The Queen of Orkney, today best known as Morgause /mɔːrˈɡz/ and also known as Morgawse and other spellings and names, is a character in later Arthurian traditions. In some versions of the legend, including the seminal text Le Morte d'Arthur, she is the mother of Gawain and Mordred, both key players in the story of King Arthur and his downfall. Mordred is the offspring of Arthur's accidental incest with Morgause, the king's estranged half-sister.[Notes 1] She is furthermore a sister of Morgan le Fay and the wife of King Lot of Orkney, as well as the mother of Gareth, Agravain, and Gaheris, the last of whom murders her.

Earlier counterparts[edit]

The corresponding character of Arthur's sister in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae is named Anna, and is depicted as a daughter of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, Anna is replaced by Sangive, whom the poet Der Pleier calls Seife. They are usually cast in the role of Lot's wife and Gawain's mother. Gawain is usually given various sisters, and in Parzival he also has a brother named Beacurs.

The mother of Gawain's Welsh forerunner, Gwalchmei ap Gwyar, is thought to be Gwyar. In later Welsh Arthurian literature, Gawain is considered synonymous with the native champion Gwalchmei; Gwyar (meaning "gore"[2] or "spilled blood/bloodshed"[3]) is likely the name of Gwalchmei's mother, rather than his father as is the standard in the Welsh Triads.[4] (Matronyms were sometimes used in Wales, as in the case of Math fab Mathonwy and Gwydion fab Dôn, and were also fairly common in early Ireland.[4]) Gwyar is named as a female, a daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, in one version of the hagiographical genealogy Bonedd y Saint, while the 14th-century Birth of Arthur substitutes Gwyar for Geoffrey's Anna as Gwalchmei/Gawain's mother.[5] Other sources do not follow this substitution, however, indicating that Gwyar and Anna/Morgause originated independently.[6]

Medieval literature[edit]

The earliest known form of a Morgause-type name is Orcades, given to her in the First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval (the former of which was once attributed to Wauchier de Denain and dated c. 1200). In the works by Chrétien and his continuators, she features as the mother of her sons Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth and Mordred, and her daughters include Clarissant and Soredamor. As Morcades she also appears in Les Enfances Gauvain (early 13th century) and again in Heinrich von dem Türlin's Diu Crône (c. 1230). It is likely that her name was originally a place name, as "Orcades" coincides with the Latin name for the Orkney Islands, the land traditionally ruled by Gawain's parents. Medievalist Roger Sherman Loomis suggests that this toponym was corrupted into "Morcades" (or Morchades, Morcads) and finally "Morgause" due to the influence of the name "Morgan".[7]

Her parallel in the late 13th-century Arthour and Merlin is named Belisent and the 15th-century Italian compilation La Tavola Ritonda calls her Albagia. Der Pleier's 13th-century German Meleranz named the parents of Gaheris (but not Gawain, whose mother is Seife) as the King of Gritenland and Arthur's sister Anthonje.

Le Morte d'Arthur and its sources[edit]

In Thomas Malory's 1485 compilation of Arthurian legends Le Morte d'Arthur, Morgause (Margawse) is one of three daughters born to Gorlois of Tintagel, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Lady Igraine. According to Malory (following the French prose cycles), her mother is widowed by, and then remarried to, the high king Uther Pendragon (Arthur's father). Afterwards, she and her sisters, Elaine and Morgan ("le Fay", later the mother of Yvain), are married off to allies or vassals of their stepfather. The young Morgause is wed to the Orcadian King Lot and bears him four sons, all of whom go on to serve Arthur as Knights of the Round Table: Gawain, one of his greatest knights; Agravain, a wretched and twisted traitor; Gaheris; and Gareth, a gentle and loving young knight.

Years later, her spouse joins the failed rebellions against Arthur that follow in the wake of King Uther's death and the subsequent discovery and coronation of his heir. Acting as a spy during the war, Morgause comes to Carleon where she visits the young King Arthur, ignorant of their familial relationship, in his bedchamber and they conceive Mordred. Her husband, who has unsuspectingly raised Mordred as his own son, is later slain in battle by King Pellinore. All of her sons depart their father's court to take service at Camelot, where Gawain and Gaheris avenge Lot's death by killing Pellinore, thereby launching a long blood feud between the two families.

Nevertheless, Morgause has an affair with Sir Lamorak, a son of Pellinore and one of Arthur's best knights. One time, Lancelot and Bleoberis find Lamorak and Meleagant fighting over which queen is more beautiful, Morgause or Guinevere. Eventually, her son Gaheris discovers them in flagrante at castle Rethename. Enraged, he grabs Morgause by her hair and swiftly beheads her, but spares her unarmed lover (who is left naked in bed covered in her blood, and is killed later by four Orkney brothers in an unequal fight). Gaheris is consequently banished from court of Arthur (though he reappears later in the narrative, eventually being slain by Lancelot). In the Post-Vulgate Cycle, Gaheris' brothers Gawain and Agravain initially plot to kill him in revenge for Morgause's death until they are persuaded by Gareth and Bors to end the bloodshed in the family. In Malory's telling, however, Lancelot calls the slaying of Morgause "shameful" but Gawain seems to be angry at Gaheris only for leaving Lamorak alive at the spot.[8] Her death was first included in the Post-Vulgate Queste;[9] Malory used the variant from the Second Version of the Prose Tristan.

The act of Mordred's conception is described variably in the different works of Arthurian romance. In the Vulgate Merlin, the episode takes place earlier, back when Arthur was only Kay's mere squire (prior to the drawing of Excalibur) and completely oblivious about his true heritage. During a meeting of the lords of Britain, when King Lot is out hunting, Arthur sneaks into the queen's chamber and pretends to be her husband; she eventually discovers the deception, but forgives him the next morning. Conversely, a flashback scene in the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation portrays the Queen of Orkney as aware and willing in her incestous tryst with Arthur.

Modern fiction[edit]

Young Gareth appealing to his mother Morgause (Queen Bellicent) to let him go serve King Arthur in Tales from Tennyson, 1902

In modern Arthuriana, the character of Morgause is often conflated with that of Morgan le Fay; in John Boorman's film Excalibur (1981), for instance, Morgause's role as the mother of Mordred is transferred to "Morgana". According to E. R. Huber, "What becomes clear on reading Le Morte d'Arthur and its medieval predecessors is that Morgause was not a villain until the modern period."[10] Some modern authors such as Alfred Tennyson or Howard Pyle use the name Bellicent.

  • Morgause is the title character of T.H. White's novel The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), the second of four books in his series The Once and Future King. She hates Arthur due to his father killing her father and raping her mother and raises her children, known as the Orkney clan, to hate the Pendragons. She seduces Arthur through magic, siring Mordred. As in Malory, she is found in bed with Lamorak, but here it is Agravaine who kills her. Due to Mordred being raised by her alone, he is left damaged and hateful, blaming Arthur for his mother's death.
  • In her Merlin novels (1970-1983), Mary Stewart characterizes Morgause unflatteringly as an ambitious and resentful young princess who wants to learn magic from Merlin, but he refuses her. She seduces Arthur in the hope that she can later use it against him.
  • A sorceress with authority over dark powers, Morgawse is a central figure in Hawk of May (1980) and its sequel, Kingdom of Summer (1982), the first two novels in Gillian Bradshaw's Down the Long Wind series. In Kingdom of Summer, she and her husband ("King Lot of The Orcades") intrigue with King Maelgwn of Gwynedd, whom she takes as a lover.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley in her influential novel The Mists of Avalon (1983) makes Morgause a younger sister of Igraine and Viviane and aunt of Morgaine. After her niece gives birth to Mordred, Morgause adopts the newborn and rears him for Morgaine, his birth mother. In the novel's film adaptation (2001), Morgause tricks Morgaine into revealing her son's paternity, then decides to raise him as her own, thus assuming her traditional role of mother to Mordred.
  • She appears in The Keltiad series (1984-1998) by American neopagan Patricia Kennealy-Morrison as the evil Marguessan, would-be usurper of the Throne of Scone and an evil twin sister of Morgan.
  • Morgause is the main antagonist in The Squire's Tales series (1998-2010) by Gerald Morris. She is portrayed as the latest version of "the enchantress", an evil sorceress who wishes to destroy the kings of men. She plots numerous times to kill King Arthur but is foiled in multiple books, however, she successfully seduces Arthur (who does not realize she is his half-sister) and births Mordred. In the final book she is killed by her son Gaheris, which undoes her evil spells.
  • A main antagonist in the BBC television series Merlin (2008–2012), Morgause is portrayed by actress Emilia Fox as a powerful, Lady Macbeth-like sorceress. She is fiercely loyal to her half-sister Morgana, whom she seeks to make queen of Camelot.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dr Caitlin R. Green of notes: "In the later Vulgate Mort Artu, Morguase – Arthur's supposed half-sister – is made to be Medraut [Mordred]'s mother and this incest motif is preserved in the romances based upon the Mort Artu (for example, Malory's Morte Darthur). Both this parentage and the incest motif are, however, clearly inventions of the Mort Artu, despite their modern popularity, and in all unrelated accounts the portrayal of Medraut is solidly Galfridian."[1]


  1. ^ Green, Caitlin. "Pre-Galfridian Arthurian Characters". Retrieved 29 November 2012.
  2. ^ Pughe (1832), p. 195.
  3. ^ Rhys (2004), p. 169.
  4. ^ a b Bromwich (2006), p. 369.
  5. ^ Bromwich (2006), pp. 369–370.
  6. ^ Bromwich (2006), p. 370.
  7. ^ R. S. Loomis, Scotland and the Arthurian Legend. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
  8. ^ Clark, David; McClune, Kate (12 August 2011). Blood, Sex, Malory: Essays on the Morte Darthur. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 9781843842811 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ Bogdanow, Fanni (1966). "The Romance of the Grail: A Study of the Structure and Genesis of a Thirteenth-century Arthurian Prose Romance".
  10. ^ Huber, Emily Rebekah. "Morgause: Background". The Camelot Project at The University of Rochester. Retrieved 3 December 2012.


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