by Ginger Wages, aka DragonHawk
Most people know that King Arthur had a son named Mordred or Medraut. However, it is little known that Arthur, in fact, had other sons that were undoubtedly older and at least one was hailed as a great hero. Where were they? How come it's not a commonly known fact that Arthur had, most likely, three sons? It is the Welsh Triads and other Welsh writings that tell us the most about these two elder sons, and it's really not a secret or mystery at all. Mordred makes a better drama and a better tale, so he's gotten the "spotlight" for centuries while Amhir and Loholt have, except by Arthurian scholars, been forgotten. Yet, their tales are fascinating, full of emotion and tragedy even while the "tales" in and of themselves don't quite exist. In other words, no one has written novels, plays, or made movies of Amhir and Loholt's lives, but what we do know about them has just as much "bardic" flavor to it as does Mordred's story.
And perhaps that is all it is: Bardic Tale. It is up to the reader to decide if Arthur had sons other than Mordred, but then, it's also up to the reader to decide if there was an Arthur; if there was a Mordred; indeed, if all of this isn't just some nicely composed Bardic song.
In the Welsh remembrances, this son is called Llacheu and is actually mentioned quite a few times in the early Welsh poetry:
I have been where was slain Llacheu, son of Arthur marvellous in song, when ravens croaked over his blood. (Rachel Bromwich (ed. and trans.) Trioedd Ynys Prydein. The Welsh Triads (University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1961 p.416)
It is Llacheu, not Arthur, that is "marvellous in song" so he must have had courageous and noteworthy deeds for the bards to remember him this way. This comes from the Black Book of Carmarthen, 10th or 11th century, and the poem Mi a Wum or The Dialogue of Gwyddneu Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd. It is a listing of warrior heroes, and the poet claims to have been at each of their deaths. What deeds did Llacheu perform? We can piece together a bit more by referencing a few other Welsh poems.
For instance, In the poem Pa gur yv y porthaur?, we get a hint into Llacheu's life, and ultimately, his death:
Cai the fair and Llachau, / they performed battles / before the pain of of blue spears (ended the conflict). (Lines 76-8; Sims-Williams 1991, p.43)
This reference does fall, I believe, into the mysterious realm, due to the reference to "blue spears". We can tell this: Cai and Llachau were in a battle; but, were they allies or enemies? "Ended the conflict" could be read either way.
Because of the later Medieval tale of Perlesvaus, where Kay murders a son of Arthur called Loholt, one is tempted to believe that Loholt and Llachau are one and the same; and, thus, Cai must have killed Llachau.
If that is the case, what would provoke Cai to fight Llachau? The Cai of the Welsh writings is not quite the same as the Kay of the later Medieval period, so perhaps it's worth a quick look at Cai to try and piece this mystery together.
In the Welsh writings, Cai is one of Arthur's greatest champions. He is said to be the eldest son of Cynyr Ceinfarfog, Lord of Caer Goch, and is frequently called Cai the Tall. He appears in the Mabinogion tale of "Culhwch and Olwen" as the foremost warrior at the Court of the High-King Arthur and legend says they grew up together as foster-brothers. Cai apparently had mystical powers and was called one of the "Three Enchanter Knights of Britain" for
"nine nights and nine days his breath lasted under water, nine nights and nine days would he be without sleep. A wound from Cai's sword no physician might heal. When it pleased him, he would be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest. When the rain was heaviest, whatever he held in his hand would be dry for a handbreadth before and behind, because of the greatness of his heat, and, when his companions were coldest, he would be as fuel for them to light a fire".
In the Mabinogion, Cai was the constant companion of Bedwyr Bedrydant (of the Perfect Sinews) and a slayer of giants. However, Arthur made light and even, at times, made a joke of Cai's feats of bravery, and the stubbornness, that became the bad-nature of the Sir Kay of later Arthurian romance, was born. Perhaps, even, we see the beginnings of the reasons for a resentment between Cai and Arthur's son(s). One could not attack the King without risking one's life, but one could hurt the King by attacking his son and heir.
Cai is also in the ancient Welsh poem, Pa Gur, as the main hero in the Battle of Tryfrwyd fought against a foe named Garwlwyd. IHe is also found in the Dream of Rhonabwy and the Life of St.Cadog and was one of the warriors who helped rescue Queen Gwenhwyfar from the clutches of King Melwas of Glastening, as depicted on the Modena Archivolt. Geoffrey of Monmouth implies that Cai was King Arthur's steward and also makes him Count of Anjou. In Perlesvaus,Cai's demise in character is complete: He murders Arthur's son, here called Loholt. It is also interesting to note that in Perlesvaus, Loholt is not Gwenhwyfar's son; he is the son of Lysanor. We will discuss her shortly.
So, perhaps Cai resented Arthur's mocking of him and his deeds, and in spite and revenge, he kills Llachau. We do not know if it was honourable battle or outright murder, for we have hints of both.
The "blue spears" is intriguing, "before the pain of blue spears (ended the conflict)". Does the poet mean actual blue-coloured spears? Or is this a reference to a particular type of spear or battle? Spears and javelins were important weapons to the Celts, perhaps the most famous spear being the Gae Bulga of the Irish Hero Cuchulainn, or the trident used by Finn MacCool. The Celtic spear was a formidable weapon, and used frequently, so the use of it between two warriors is completely believable. But, how could it be a blue spear, for the quote clearly has "blue" referring to the spear, not the warriors. Could it be that the spears had carved stone for their tips? Could it have been blue stone from Preseli Hills in Wales? Yet, this seems absurd as metals were now used for weaponry by the Celts, so unless this was some sort of special type of battle spear, it is highly unlikely that the spears had any blue stone in them.
Perhaps the spears were decorated with woad, the blue dye that the Celts were so fond of using for decoration in battle. There is evidence for the Celts decorating their weaponry with colours, primarily red, yellow, blue, and green, "These elements were combined in dynamic yet balanced, intricate geometrical patterns carried out in relief engraving, or red, yellow, blue, and green champleve enamel on shields, swords, sheaths, helmets, bowls, and jewelry."
It could be construed, then, that Cai and Llachau were battling with decorated spears in a duel to the death. The pain of "spears" ended the battle, so either Cai used multiple spears to kill Llachau, or Llachau was able to wound Cai as well. It seems more plausible, though, that the two warriors were in chariots or horseback and were using multiple spears to throw and lunge at the other. Cai, evidently, struck Llachau multiple times and ultimately, the conflict was ended. Presumably, this ending was Llachau's death.
That seems a case worth pondering, until one reads another translation of the Black Book of Carmarthen:
Unmerited was the death of Cai.
Cai the fair and Llachau,
Battles did they sustain,
Before the pang of blue shafts.
Now, looking at the line before the stanza with Llachau mentioned, we are now reading of Cai's death, and perhaps Llachau's, but this is not clear. We have "spear" replaced with "shafts", which still sounds like spears, but it could even be arrows. Now, it sounds like Cai and Llachau died together, honourably, in a battle as Arthur's warriors.
That is, until you read this translation:
Ceiís death could not be achieved.
Cei the Fair and Llachau,
they made slaughter
before the pain of the blue-tipped spears.
This translation sounds as if Cai could NOT be killed and that together, Cai and Llachau, did great deeds before they were struck down. "Blue-tipped spears"....does this refer to some sort of poison?
What about Loholt? In that tale, Kay is painted, quite clearly, as a murderer. Yet, are Llachau and Loholt one and the same? I think not. Loholt is a Breton-French name, he first appears in Chretien's Erec, and we have no reason to believe, at this point, that they are the same son. Perlesvaus is very specific in indicting Kay with Loholt's murder, and it IS murder. The quote from the Black Book of Carmarthen has no hint of murder or foul play at all, "Cai the fair and Llachau, / they performed battles / before the pain of of blue spears (ended the conflict)". In fact, Cai is called the "fair" and the tone of the line is one of camaraderie and of "performing" in battle together.
Whatever the case, Llachau persevered in Welsh folklore as one of the great warriors of Arthur's band, as likewise, did Cai. In the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (the Welsh Triads), Llachau has great prominence:
Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain:
Gwalchmai son of Gwyar,
and Llachau son of Arthur,
and Rhiwallawn Broom-Hair.
**"Well-Endowed" is thought to mean "men of substance" in this case.
So we have a son, Llachau, that is indeed a great man and warrior, one of Arthur's band and a Welsh folk hero. We have no reason to believe that he was murdered by Cai or anyone, for it's a far stretch, I think, to call Loholt and Llachau one and the same. In my mind, Loholt is an attempt by the Medieval writers to "romanticise" a Welsh son, (Llachau), and give him a tragic end.
Why murder him when there is no evidence for this in the Welsh writings? That, I think, is clear: Because, according to the Welsh Triads, Llachau was slain: "I have been where was slain Llacheu, son of Arthur, marvellous in song, when ravens croaked over his blood." Was he killed alongside Cai at this battle being told about in the Black Book dialogue? We simply don't know.
Perhaps just as mysterious is the question of who is Llachau's mother? Lady Charlotte Guest, whose translation of The Mabinogion is perhaps the most read, has Lisanor as Llachau's mother. Well, then, who is Lisanor? According to the Vulgate VII, she is the daughter of Sanam and Chatelaine of Karadigan Castle. The only reference to Sanam that I can find is in Malory and that has him as an Earl.
Does this make Llachau illegitimate? Well, we have substantial evidence that Gwenhwyfar is the wife of Arthur, so if Lisanor is Llachaur's mother, then the answer must be "yes", Llachau is a bastard son of Arthur's.
There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng (Ercing). There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr (Licat Amr); the name of the man who was buried in the tomb was Amr. He was the son of the warrior Arthur, and he killed him there and buried him. Men come to measure the tomb, and it is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever measure you measure it on one occasion, you never find it again of the same measure, and I have tried it myself. (John Morris (ed. and trans.) Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals (Arthurian Period Sources vol. 8, Phillimore 1980) p.42, marvel no. 13)
Nennius, in fact, claims to have seen the grave and witnessed this oddity himself. Amr is called Amhar in The Mabinogion and is described as one of Arthur's four "chamberlains". Beyond this, almost unbelievably, we know next to nothing of Amr. Yet, there are some clues...
Arthur is said to have slain Amr at Archenfield; so, let's start there. Archenfield is also known as "The Kingdom of the Hedgehog", in Welsh, Erging. The Romans called this ancient British kingdom, Ariconium. Archen and Erging are forms of the word "urchin", which is another name for hedgehog or hedge pig. It has been suggested that Archenfield, then, is actually a gateway to the Otherworld, reminescent of Ceridwen Herself. Archenfield certainly has its claims to fame, sans Amr's resting place: Henry V was born there in 1387, and the Saxons captured a bishop named Camlac wherein King Edward had to get involved to get the chap released. There are no great battles recorded in Archenfield during Arthur's time; in fact, we don't get the first mention of a notable battle until 915 AD where a battle is fought between the Saxons and the Danes.
The grave is next to a stream, which is not the best place to bury someone if you wish their cairn to remain undisturbed by time and nature. Is this some sort of hint of magickal influence? And why would Arthur kill his son? There is ineed a barrow near the river Gamber Head in Llanwarne, though the barrow is considered "prehistoric" and has been destroyed. Perhaps a hasty burial? One without honour?
Could this be what the tragic tale of Mordred and Arthur is based upon? Granted, the only common factor is that Arthur kills his son, and indeed, we are missing many other elements of the Mordred tale: Arthur's wounding, Mordred's supposed treachery, the "last battle", and the end of the Round Table. Still, it's something to ponder.
The end of Amr is indeed a mystery!
Mordred, or Medraut, is perhaps the most well known villain of the Arthuriana, (though he probably runs neck-in-neck with Morgan Le Fay). Some tales have him as the horrid, bastard son of Arthur who has nothing but revenge and the throne on his twisted mind. Other tales, (Rosalynd Miles and Mary Stewart come to mind), have him as an eager and loving son, but eventually, he cannot understand why Arthur will not name him as heir, and he turns upon his father.
Let us go back, though, to the Welsh tales again and look at Medraut, who here, is Arthur's nephew. Our first mention of Medraut is in the Annales Cambriae, around 950 AD, and whose author is anonymous. He writes, "In the year 537 occured 'The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell; and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.'" There is no more for us in this writing, so we must look elsewhere.
In Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain, we get a closer look at Medraut. According to this, Medraut was a trusted commander of Arthur's. Gwenhwyfar, for reasons not stated, takes Medraut as her consort while Arthur is out of the country fighting on the European continent. Gwenhwyfar continues to call herself Queen and names Medraut as King. Upon Arthur's return, battle ensues as Arthur is not willing to give up his title (or his wife!) Notably, Gwenhwyfar is NOT a victim; she is not a weak woman who is "taken" by Medraut and used as a pawn. Far from it, in fact, for she is a strong woman, very Celtic in that she knows her rights as a woman and especially as Queen. Why did she take Medraut and abandon Arthur? For that, we have to speculate. Taking Medraut as a lover would have been well within Gwenhwyfar's rights, but making him King and replacing Arthur with him is indeed a powerful move on Gwenhwyfar's part. Was Arthur weakened? Did he give her no heir? Was it not her duty, as Queen and representative of the Sovereign Land, to ensure an heir for the land and the fruitful bounty of the land? Had Arthur failed her somehow in that respect?
From another aspect, why DIDN'T Arthur acknowledge Mordred as heir? If Mordred was truly the son of Arthur and Morgan/Morgaine of Avalon, who BETTER to take the Pendragon throne than a combination of the Avalonian bloodlines and Pendragon bloodlines?
Because he was a bastard, conceived out of wedlock and, some tales say, with trickery. Well, so was Arthur.
Because he was the son of an incestuous joining. Well, many of the most powerful royal bloodlines in history were made and "kept pure" by cousin/brother/sister marriages.
Because his mother was an evil villain who wanted Arthur dead. Was she? Did she? When did Morgan becoming a villainess? Wasn't it after the Christians began to re-write the tales? If she wanted him dead and hated him so much, why did she take Arthur to Avalon and tend him, preparing him for his return?
Perhaps more importantly, why didn't she take Mordred to Avalon as well? Or, perhaps she did...
Still, you might think, the Welsh Medraut was Arthur's nephew, not his son. Ponder this: If Medraut was the son of Arthur and his half-sister's coupling, then he was both nephew and son. Okay, but he was still not an heir to the throne. Why not? Arthur had no (living) son or daughter to take the throne and the bloodline passed through the female side per Celtic Law, Medraut/Mordred was INDEED the rightful heir.
Yet, Arthur killed him in battle, so there must have been something evil or sinister about Mordred. Or, perhaps Arthur simply did not want to give up his throne. Mordred was raised by an Avalonian Priestess, perhaps even the Lady of the Lake Herself (in some tales), and undoubtedly, he was well versed in the Old Ways and the Celtic Laws. He KNEW when his time had come and when Arthur's was fading. It was his duty to challenge Arthur if Arthur would not willingly pass the throne to the stronger warrior king. It is the age old scenario of the Spring overcoming the Winter. And don't forget, Gwenhwyfar, in one of our oldest versions of the Arthuriana, CHOOSES Medraut to be her consort.
From the available Arthurian texts, we know that Arthur had at least two, perhaps three sons: Llachau, (later made into Loholt by the French romantic writers), Amr, and Medraut. All of them, in the end, we are told, died. Llachau, according to the Welsh tales, died in battle, either because of or while standing shoulder to shoulder with Cai. Amr is killed by Arthur, but we know not why, only that he is buried in Wales in a strange barrow that "grows". Finally, the infamous Mordred or Medraut, who supposedly usurps Arthur's throne and then later dies in battle against his father.
Interesting to note, as far as we know, none of these sons were borne by Gwenhwyfar, lest it be Amr. Both Mordred and Llachau were bastard sons, though it seems that both were acknowledged by Arthur AS his sons, just not as his heir. If Amr was the son of Gwenhwyfar and Arthur, then he was killed by his father, and we can only guess as to why; what is more, we have no idea, beyond speculation, of how Gwenhwyfar reacted to Amr's death.
The sons of Arthur are, if nothing else, intriguing almost to the point of maddening! I shall continue to search for information and any comments are always welcome!
Ginger Wages lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia, and has had fiction published under the pen name of Virginia Chandler in Lost Realms, Ibn Qirtaiba, Mystic Journeys, and Planet magazine. She is a Pagan and co-founder of The Magickal Cauldron website and workshops. She received her BS from the University of Georgia in 1993 after spending two sessions studying Medieval Literature and History at Jesus College, Oxford University in Oxford, England. She can be reached at DragnHawk@aol.com