The Once and Future Queen

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The Once and Future Queen


Copyright Kathleen Herbert; used by permission of Connie Jensen, Trifolium Books UK


INTRODUCTION
by
Connie Jensen
 
 
This little tale is a modern version of Guinevere’s story, told by respected author and Arthurian scholar, Kathleen Herbert. In her notes Kathleen says: ‘… most Arthurian material is fiction. Each age tailors the myth to its own period.’
 
I found the story while searching through Kathleen’s unpublished manuscripts. It is part of the material she gathered and wrote for a much bigger (unfinished) book- Arcturus, which we hope to publish in a restored form in 2013. It moved me and rang bells:
 
I thought Kathleen’s fans might like a foretaste of the riches to come: this Guinevere decides her own destiny; she is a strong woman; a woman for our age.
A key grating as it turned in a heavy lock. A door opening, footsteps coming slowly nearer. The queen moved her hand across the open book on her lap to keep the draught from fluttering its pages. She did not look round; she knew who her visitor was.
 
“I am sorry, madam, to break in on your devotions at a time like this.”
 
Guinevere smiled, without shifting her gaze from the turret window.
 
“I wasn’t praying -just idling, watching them at work down in the tournament field. They’ve almost finished setting up the stands. I suppose they’ll wait till tomorrow to bring out the faggots, in case it rains overnight. It would be a pity to spoil the show.”
 
“How can you joke about it? Haven’t you any sense of the agony it’s costing me - having to declare my own wife guilty of adultery and speak the death sentence?”
 
“But you’re going to be very brave about it, aren’t you, Arthur? You’re going to force yourself to bear the agony.”
 
“I have no choice. I’m the king; the common people expect justice from me. How could I sentence them for crimes I condone in my queen? “
 
“By the way, have you ever burned a peasant wife for adultery?”
 
“That’s beside the point. You’re the queen. If you take the highest place, you should give the best example. Couldn’t you even be discreet? God knows, I’ve been as patient as any man could be - the years I’ve turned my head away and shut my eyes so I wouldn’t see you were being unfaithful. But to send for Lancelot to come to our bedroom and then get caught there with him; To have a vicious brawl fought over you, here in the palace, that cost fourteen lives including my own nephew Agravain. Anyone would think you wanted a public scandal. Did you expect me to overlook it?”
 
“Perhaps I thought it was time for you to turn your head this way, open your eyes and look at me for once.”
 
“Are you saying you willed all this to happen for your own gratification? Haven’ t you any idea at all what it means to be Queen of Britain?”
 
“Oh, yes, I have an idea. I think that if the King is the Sun of the land, the Queen is the Moon. If the King is God’s viceroy on earth, the Queen represents Our Lady. So - where is the child I should have in my arms?”
 
“And that’s why you committed adultery. Jealousy of poor Elaine. You wanted to bear Galahad to Lancelot.”
 
“No. I wanted to bear Galahad to you. That’s what should have happened. My son would have brought the Grail down to earth here in Britain, so that the whole land overflowed with life: a son wouldn’t have let it go drifting off into dreams and visions and gone drifting off after it.”
 
“Are you blaming me because you’ve failed to give me a son and left my kingdom without an heir?”
 
“At least you’ve got no cause for complaint against me on that score, Arthur. You’ve already got a fine son, Mordred. It’s your choice he isn’t your heir. If you’d had your way, you’d have been his murderer, like that shipload of poor babes you meant to drown with him. Is it any wonder you were never allowed to beget another child?”
 
“Who told you Mordred was my son?”
 
“He tells me himself, every time he comes into a room, every time he looks at me or speaks to me. He’s the image of what you were when you were young.”
 
“He’s my sister’s son - it’s natural there should be a resemblance. Morgawse is very like me.”
 
“Only he’s not Morgawse’s son, is he? And Morgan’s not in the least like you.”
 
“Are you fool enough to believe anything that witch says? She only lives to make mischief - and she’s your enemy as much as mine, remember.”
 
“Morgan and I understand each other. She’s trusted me enough to let her son live at my court since he came of age, instead of keeping him in her own stronghold. And I can sympathise with her bitterness and anger that he should be outcast from his rightful place.”
 
“He should never have been born. I never meant - I didn’t know what I was doing. His begetting was the vilest sin - it should have been blotted out.”
 
“You’re a poor theologian, Arthur. If you didn’t know or intend what you were doing, there was no sin. And if you did know what you were doing - you begot a son on the body of a royal priestess, your sister, the last Queen’s daughter. Mordred has the Queen’s blood twice over. He’s the rightful heir of Britain and you’ve deprived him of his rights.”
 
“I’ve done everything I could for Mordred. Did you expect me to let him grow up at my own hearth as my acknowledged son in a Christian kingdom? But I had him fostered like a prince at my elder sister’s court. He passes as her child. Since you’ve not borne me a son, Morgawse’s children are my heirs.”
 
“And Mordred is the youngest, with four elder brothers - well, three now. A pity about Agravain, but he would come looking for trouble - and folk who look for trouble along Lancelot’s sword-blade always find it. That still leaves Gareth and Gaheris, to say nothing of Gawain. Gawain expects to succeed you now - do you think he’d ever stand aside in favour of a younger brother?”
 
“I’m perfectly content that Gawain should succeed me. He’s been like a son to me - and he’s the greatest champion in Britain.”
 
“Except one. But for all that, Gawain hasn’t got the Pendragon blood - and he’s not your son. He has less right to the kingdom than Mordred.”
 
“And you have even less right to lecture me about my choice of an heir. The succession to this kingdom is no longer any concern of yours.”
 
“It never was. Morgan had taken my place in the royal bed long before Lancelot took yours.”
 
Arthur looked at Guinevere with loathing. He saw her as a whore, adulterous and insolent with it.
 
“I’d meant to give you mercy as well as justice. If you’d shown the least sign of shame or regret for your sin, I would have sent you to a convent. But you’ve condemned yourself out of your own mouth -believe me, you’ve got no hope of a pardon now. “
 
She smiled. “I believe you. I’ve destroyed any chance that you might send me to a convent.”
 
Footsteps retreating, a door slamming, a key grating as it turned in a heavy lock.
 
 
 
The buzz of a crowd clambering and packing into the stands: excitement, pity, pleasurable horror. They shuddered at the thought of seeing a Queen of Britain burn. They all hoped for a last minute pardon; if the burning was to happen, they didn’t want to miss it.
 
The Queen’s procession entered the arena and moved towards the stake and the piled faggots. The excited buzzing grew louder at the sight of Guinevere stripped to her smock, bare-armed and bare-legged, her red-gold hair unbound. She kept her face expressionless but her eyes were busy checking that everything was as it should be. Arthur on a dais at the far end of the enclosure with the wind behind him to keep the smoke and screams at a distance, his household knights around him. Good: he would be well out of danger. Lancelot would never go out of his way to attack Arthur; anyway, it wasn’t his privilege to kill the King. A few men-at-arms on duty at the stake with the king’s nephews Gareth and Gaheris in attendance. Gawain was visiting his mother’s court in Orkney, so they were representing Arthur to see justice done. They were unarmed and wearing plain black clothes to show their sympathy with the Queen. She was sorry they had to die; she rather liked them, especially Gareth, but kingship demands blood sacrifices in times of need.
 
The Bishop met her and said the required words about repentance; she made the required answers. One should always show courtesy to other people’s religions. Then she climbed up to the wooden platform fixed over the pile of faggots; the men-at-arms bound her to the stake. Up there, she had a good view of Lancelot’s war-band on its way. She was the only one who saw them coming; everybody else was looking at her. Fixed to her stake, she was the only one who stood quietly and watched everything that happened next: the sudden charge, the barricades smashed, the panic in the stands, the men-at-arms trying to bolt, Gareth and Gaheris cut down and trampled as Lancelot hacked his way towards her.
 
Lancelot looked at Guinevere with pity. He saw her as his pathetic lover, a wretched helpless woman brought to the edge of death by her passion for him, one whom he was honour-bound to rescue and protect. He cut her bonds and lifted her on to his horse.
 
“Don’t be frightened, sweetheart.”
 
She put her arms round his neck. “I knew you would come for me.”
 
 
 
The sound of waves breaking on the rocks under the walls of Joyous Garde; the mournful crying of the gulls.
 
When Lancelot came into the Queen’s room, he found Guinevere alone.
 
“Have you spoken to the Pope’s envoy, my lady?”
 
“Yes. The Holy Father has persuaded Arthur to lift the siege. He’s willing to have me back and make peace with you, if you can swear that you’ve only kept me here to save my life, and that you’ve never betrayed him. I told the papal envoy that of course you could take that oath and I would confirm it. You’ve never had a disloyal thought about Arthur in your life.”
 
“Never. God knows, in my heart I’ve always been true to him.”
 
Lancelot looked at Guinevere with grateful admiration. He saw her as his noble-hearted mistress, generously taking the decent course, sacrificing her own love and her life-time’s happiness for the sake of a man’s reputation and his military career.
 
He bowed. “Farewell, madam. Whatever fortune the rest of my life may bring me, these days and nights that you blessed with your presence will always be my greatest treasure.”
 
She held out her hand. “May victory always be your fortune. But remember, though Arthur may forgive you, Gawain never will. He’ll try to kill you, to avenge his brothers.”
 
Lancelot looked stern. “I should be sorry to use my sword against Gawain; we’ve been good comrades. But if he attacks me, he attacks your honour too. I’ll defend that to the death.”
 
She smiled. “I know you will.”
 
 
 
The clang of armour in the courtyard below the White Tower; the clatter of hoofs on cobble- stones.
 
Arthur came into the audience chamber, dressed for a journey. Guinevere rose from her chair of state and made a formal reverence.
 
“I’ve come to take my leave, madam. We sail from Dover in a day or two.”
 
“Good fortune go with you, sire. I’m sure you’ll give the French rebels the beating they deserve.”
 
Arthur looked at Guinevere with approval. He saw her as his dignified and obedient consort. Apart from that one regrettable lapse, she made an admirable public figure at his court, gracious and popular. Even the lapse, he now realised, had been due to foolishness rather than sin. Women were weak; he had forgiven her. He kissed her forehead.
 
“I’ve made Mordred regent while I’m abroad: he’ll take care of all state business. You’ll give audience, of course, and preside formally at the Councils, but I’m trusting you not to make any difficulties for him.”
 
She curtseyed meekly. “I shall carry out all his wishes, sire, as if they were your own commands.”
 
 
 
Water falling softly, the coo of doves, now and then a harsh croak from one of the ravens. Guinevere was sitting by the fountain in the Tower garden. A shadow fell across the grass; she glanced up. Mordred looked like Arthur in his youth but he moved as lightly as Morgan and he had her eyes. Guinevere reached out her arms to him and drew him close.
 
After a while he held out the letter he had brought, but she clasped her hand over his, crumpling the parchment inside his palm.
 
“I can guess what it says. Arthur’s heard about us.”
 
“He’s on his way back to Britain. I shall have him opposed at Dover, to weaken his forces and break his confidence. But I won’t engage my main troops, I’ll make him march across Britain after me, from east to west, losing strength all the way. And there in the west, at sunset, I’ll kill him.”
 
“Be careful, my love. He’ll have the Knights of the Round Table with him, battle-hardened old warriors with years of experience.”
 
“He won’t have Lancelot, thanks to you. And now he won’t have Gawain, thanks to Lancelot - he’s dead of the wounds he got in their last fight. My knights are young and vigorous - and the common people are with us. They know who you are, what you are.”
 
“Do you want me to ride with you, to join my strength to yours?”
 
“No, my lady. I haven’t earned that honour yet.”
 
Mordred looked at Guinevere with adoration. He saw her as the Queen, the Lady of Britain, the heart of the land.
 
“Stay here to hold the Tower and get ready for our wedding. When I’m King, I’ll come to claim you.”
 
“When Arthur’s dead, I’ll come to meet you. We’ll hold our wedding on the Great Plain, in the Giants’ Dance. You’ll give me a son, a true prince of the blood to bring the Grail back to Britain.”
 
Mordred knelt to her and she gave him her blessing.
 
 
 
A door closing, footsteps retreating down a long cloister; in a while, the clop of a horse’s hoofs, ridden slowly away. Silence.
 
The Abbess came in softly. Guinevere was sitting back in her great carved chair spread with furs and cushions. The rich black velvet of her robes and the cobweb fineness of her mourning veils set off her glowing beauty.
 
“Don’t get up, daughter, You must be worn out after the painful scene you’ve just endured.”
 
“Oh - yes. Poor Lancelot. He pleaded so hard for me to marry him. But it was quite impossible. He could never take the King’s place.”
 
The Abbess looked at Guinevere with great tenderness. She saw her as a penitent, the prodigal daughter whose return caused more joy in heaven than the ninety-nine virtuous wives who need no repentance.
 
“I’ll leave you to rest now. I’m sure you’ll find comfort in your own holy thoughts and your books of devotion:,
 
“I’m sure I shall, mother.”
 
When the Abbess had gone, Guinevere did open her book chest, pick up a volume or two and turn their pages - the Aeneid, the Romance of Troy, Ovid’s Letters of the Heroines. All stories of frail, tender-hearted women betrayed and broken by love, told by men in splendid poetry. One day there would be an Arthuriad - probably some bard was at work on it at that moment, just as the minstrels were already singing “The Ballad of Camlan” in the ale-houses.
 
For the first time in months, she let herself laugh aloud. She was alone - if the nuns heard her talking to herself they’d think she was at her prayers.
 
“No need to wonder what figure I’ll make in the epic of Arthur. I’ll be the woman who was never truly worthy of him as wife or queen. I’ll be treated quite kindly, because I was beautiful and good-humoured, because I chose the best knight in the world as my lover and was faithful to him, because I repented. But I’ll still be the woman who failed to give Arthur a son, who betrayed Arthur with his best friend, who broke Arthur’s Round Table and brought him to his death. Arthur - who got a son on a princess of the Royal House and tried to drown him at birth. The Old King who failed to fertilise the Queen and killed the Young King before he could do it instead. The Old Year that destroyed the New Year and stopped the seed from sprouting.
 
“Will anyone ever know the truth about me? Some poets may guess it - true artists have to have something of woman in them before they can create. The country folk, in their songs and games - as long as they’re allowed to keep them- they may remember that I was the Lady of the May and should have been the Harvest Queen if I’d had my rights. And women, listening as a minstrel recites his tales or a clerk reads to them while they get on with their embroidery - in the silences between the words they may hear an echo of my real story. But when every woman is a clerk herself, like Morgan and me - when they can all read and write and have the keys of knowledge hanging from their belts - then Guinevere will wake up from her long sleep and come back again to save Britain.”
 
 
She yawned, leaning back among her furs and cushions and closed her eyes. The warm autumn sun was making her sleepy. A bell rang softly in the chapel.
 
 
HIC IACET GUINEVERA, REGINA QUONDAM, REGINAQUE FUTURA.