Mordred, Sir (Medraut, Medrawd) A historical figure who, according to tradition, was the youngest son of Queen Morgause of Orkney and was raised as the son of her husband, King Lot. Mordred plays an important role in the King Arthur legend.
According to that legend, he was the son of King Arthur, who had always assumed he was Mordred’s uncle. When the monarch learns the truth, he attempts to kill Mordred by setting him and all of the children who are born on his birthday adrift in a large boat. The boat finally sinks, but Mordred survives and is washed up on an island, where he is cared for by Lord Nabur the Unruly.
When Mordred becomes an adult, he makes his way to King Arthur’s court and is thus reunited with his real parents and his brother Sir Gwain and becomes a Knight of the Round Table. In time, Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinever, is accused of adultery with the knight Sir Lancelot, who leaves for Brittany. Arthur pursues Lancelot, leaving Guinever in Mordred’s care, and Mordred takes advantage of Arthur’s absence to seize the throne, claiming that Arthur has been killed. He then tries to force Guinever to marry him. At first she refuses, but then consents, fearing for her life. Mordred grants her permission to go to London to buy some wedding garments, and there Guinever is able to send word to Arthur of what has happened. Arthur abandons the siege of Lancelot’s castle and, crossing the Channel, encounters Mordred’s army and defeats him near Richborough (Dover) and then later at Winchester (Barham Down). Mordred is then pursued west into Cornwall. Negotiations take place at Camlann, and it is agreed that Arthur and a certain number of knights should meet Mordred with an equal number to discuss terms of peace. No weapons are to be drawn. A serpent, however, is lurking in the grass when the knights meet, and one of the knights draws his sword to kill it. His drawn sword is taken as a signal to begin the battle.
On both sides the slaughter is terrible, and nearly all of the knights are slain. Arthur then encounters Mordred. Summoning all of his strength, the exhausted king finally slays the usurper, but not before Mordred deals Arthur a mortal blow. A more morbid variant suggests that Sir Mordred survives the battle at Camlann. Afterward, Sir Lancelot executes Guinever for her alleged participation in the plot against King Arthur and incarcerates Mordred in the queen’s tomb. Mordred is forced to cannibalize his former lover, but dies nevertheless of starvation.
Mordred’s story is told in Layamon’s Brut and in works by Geoffrey of Monmouth, by the anonymous French author of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and by Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte D’Arthur.
From the Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante