Today I would like to look at the figure of Igraine, who was the mother of Arthur in the legends. She is an important figure, being the mother of the great king, however many tales tend to gloss over her entirely. She is the archetypal mother queen who bore the Once and Future King. We need to understand her as both an archetype, and a character to know the full scope of the legends.
Igraine began as the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, Gorlois. When the Duke partnered with Uther, who had become high king, Igraine met Uther for the first time. Uther was immediately taken with her beauty, and became obsessed with bedding, and stealing the wife of Gorlois. This was something that was rejected by Igraine initially because she was already married, and was a loyal wife and mother.
Eventually this would lead to a war between Gorlois and Uther. Uther famously had the aid of Merlin to cast a glamour that would cause Uther to look like Gorlois when he entered Tintagel (the palace stronghold Igraine was staying at). At the same time the real Gorlois was still on the battlefield, where he would actually die! Uther bedded Igraine that night, begetting upon her Arthur! So Igraine was tricked into sleeping with Uther, thinking him to be her husband, and got pregnant with a future King, who was a prophecy.
That is really terrible for Igraine, who then had to marry Uther, as she was widowed and carrying a baby that was not her dead husband’s. Now we can only guess if she ever grew to love Uther or not, but it is doubtful she loved him in the beginning. When her son is born, Merlin took the babe and placed him in the care of foster parents (for safe keeping until his destiny was ready to come about). Not only was she forced into a marriage she had no say in, she also had her newborn taken from her! Her older children by Gorlois, her daughters, were married off to powerful kings in other lands by Uther. In versions where her youngest daughter is Morgan Le Fay, while her elder sisters are married off, Morgan is sent to a nunnery by Uther. It is there that Morgan was educated in magic and necromancy, and she would eventually be married off into a union she did not want same as her elder sisters.
Igraine is an archetypal queen mother in that she persisted and persevered in all the things that were thrown at her. She seemed in most versions of the legends to be incredibly resilient, ruling beside Uther, no matter the horrors he put her through. Some, more modern, tellings state that she was a sibling of the Lady of the Lake (like in The Mists of Avalon) making her of faerie origins. This would also explain her daughter inheriting magic, and further connect to the sovereignty aspect that each queen in the Arthurian legends brought with them! Igraine’s marriage to Uther, even if it was forced, was what truly secured Uther’s rule. It also served to create the next king, who would be even greater than his father before him. I honestly feel bad for Igraine, and how her life turned out. She was a pawn in most every version of the legends, and yet she is usually shown as loving and supportive, hence why I think she had great resilience!
Besides Mists of Avalon,the other modern telling (that comes to mind) featuring Igraine as a character (and not someone on the sidelines the whole time, or just talked about) is the 2011 Camelot Starz television series. While this series is largely reviled by many Arthurian lovers, I feel it was fun to watch, and well done. I appreciated Claire Forlani’s performance of Igraine, and the fact that they included the character regularly at all! My opinion is that the interpretation of the female characters is the best part of this show. It is a non-traditional take on the legends, however there is no one set version of the tales. The Arthurian legends adapt and change with time!
I hope that you have enjoyed learning a bit about Arthur’s mother Igraine. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Claire Forlani as Igriane in Camelot. I found the image on medievalists.net.
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
- The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
- The Mists of Avalon (2001)
- Camelot (2011)