Was Guinevere really an adulteress?
Explorations in Arthurian History
This tradition is to be found entirely in the Legends. The story of Arthur’s queen, whom Geoffrey of Monmouth calls Ganhumara, goes back a long way. The Triads refer to Arthur’s three queens, all named Gwenhwyfar, the Welsh spelling. Welsh tradition also has the story of Gwenhwyfar’s abduction by Melwas. Two versions of the end of this episode exist: The first has Arthur riding to her rescue and killing Melwas; the second has Gildas, a 6th-century monk who wrote in Arthur’s time and who mentioned Badon Hill but did not mention Arthur, as the mediator in the dispute.
The legends, of course, would change this rescuer to Lancelot and would incorporate this story into the Love Triangle aspect of the relationship between Arthur’s best knight and his queen. But Lancelot is entirely the creation of Chretien de Troyes and is as such no part of historical investigation. As for Mordred, whom Geoffrey calls Modred and whom scholars think was also called Medraut, the tale of his seizing the throne with the help of the queen is to be found in Geoffrey. Later writers would hold Guinevere blameless in this, but Geoffrey says she broke her marriage vows to Arthur and settled in as Modred’s queen. When Arthur returned to fight his nephew, Guinevere fled to a nunnery (Geoffrey doesn’t say which) and lived out her days there in penitance.
Explorations in Arthurian Legend
We can point to one man to give us the Lancelot-Guinevere adultery story: Chretien de Troyes. He it was who invented Lancelot and added him to Arthur’s court as a Knight of the Round Table. He it was who said the queen so loved Arthur’s First Knight that she gave herself to him willingly. He it was who said the two were so ashamed and yet not shameful.
Other writers would build on this theme. Sir Thomas Malory put forward the idea that Arthur’s continuing to turn a blind eye (or not knowing at all) would serve as a measure of mistrust of his authority by his knights; they also would doubt his ability to rule if he couldn’t see or admit such an obvious thing. Malory would add the story of how Arthur found his queen guilty of treason and sentenced her to death by being burned at the stake and how Lancelot rescued her and carried her off. Arthur and Lancelot fought, of course, and Malory follows Geoffrey in placing Guinevere in a nunnery.
Tennyson finds the adultery to be the cause of all that is wrong with Arthur’s court. Because of his sin, Lancelot cannot behold the full glory of the Holy Grail. Because of the sin’s being known, Balin and Pelleas go mad. Modern writers would treat the adultery as a matter of course and even suggest that it was inevitable becaue Guinevere didn’t really love Arthur.
© DW, King Arthur: A Man for the Ages