Gwendolen: Legendary Queen of the Britons

438px-gwendolen_gascoyne-cecil_281860-1945292c_by_edward_coley_burne-jones

Artist – Edward Burne-Jones

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legendary Gwendolen, became the first queen regnant, reigning over the Britons in her own right.    The Historia Regum Britanniae (History of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells how Gwendolen is betrayed and humiliated by her husband, King Locrinus, the legendary ruler of Loegria.    His public rejection and humiliation of her in favor of his lover, Estrildis, spurred Gwendolen to take swift and dramatic action. Although Geoffrey’s work was accepted as fact up to the 17th century, today it is largely dismissed as a historical record by historians. Nevertheless, it still has its fascinations and many think he was influenced by older myths and legends. This work introduces the main characters of her story and tells how betrayal and rejection motivated her into wreaking a terrible but calculated revenge on those who had wronged her and put the future peace and stability of Britain at risk.

Locrinus, son of Brutus of Troy

King Locrinus was the eldest son of Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder and the first king of Britain.  Brutus was the descendant of Aeneas, the Trojan commander, who survived the fall of Troy and after escaping went on to found the Aeneads, who were said by Virgil to be the progenitors of the Romans.  It is this hereditary link with Troy and Rome that supposedly provides the ancient authority to rule for the descendants of Brutus and supposedly elevates the historical status of Britain and its rulers in medieval and later times.

Gwendolen, daughter of Corineus

Gwendolen was the daughter of the legendary Corineus, the first ruler of Cornwall, a companion and commander to Brutus of Troy.  Corineus was a towering figure at the time, a mighty warrior and highly respected for his military skill and bravery.  He was commander of his own band of followers who had joined up with Brutus and his army to conquer and settle Britain.   Corineus had killed Gogmagog, the last King of the race of Giants that had ruled Britain before the arrival of the Trojans in a fight to the death.

The death of Brutus

When Brutus died his kingdom fragmented  and was divided into three parts with his three sons, Locrinus,  Albanactus, and Kamber inheriting a share each. The kingdom of Locrinus was known as Loegria which was roughly equivalent to England.  Albanactus ruled Albania ,or Albany, which was roughly equivalent to Scotland and Kamber ruled Cambria or Kambria which was roughly equivalent with Wales.  Corineus still ruled Cornwall which Brutus had given him as his own in reward for help in subduing Britain.

Locrinus inherits Loegria

When Brutus died and Locrinus his eldest son, became ruler of Loegria, Corineus was still alive and as ruler of Cornwall was still a much respected and powerful ruler.  Locrinus now ruled over a powerful kingdom so a marriage with Gwendolen would have made a great deal of political sense for both him and Corineus.  There were still many enemies in the world so an alliance with the powerful Corineus would have been highly desirable and Locrinus made a pact with Corineus to marry his daughter.

One of those enemies were the Norsemen led by Humber the Hun who attacked Albany killing Albanactus in battle and forcing his people to retreat.  Locrinus and Kamber joined forces and met Humber in battle near one of the main  rivers of Britain defeating him.  umber was said to have drowned in the battle in the river which was named the River Humber after him.

After the battle Locrinus captured Humber’s ships and as well as a good deal of treasure found  Estrildis, the daughter of a German king who was being held hostage.  Locrinus  fell in love with her and set her free, but he was betrothed to Gwendolen the daughter of the powerful Corineus who he did not want to upset.

Corinius was not happy that Locrinus had fallen in love with the German princess and made his feelings known in no uncertain terms.  Rather than risk upsetting him  Locrinus married Gwendolen despite his love for Estrildis.  Wanting the best of both worlds he took Estrildis as his mistress, but secretly kept her hidden in a cave below Trinovantum, now London, the city Brutus built as his capital.  There she remained for seven years. She was looked after by her servants and gave birth to his daughter, Habren and stayed there until Corineus died.  

Gwendolen’s revenge

With the death of Corineus, Locrinus promptly divorced Gwendolen and married Estrildis. This proved to be a costly mistake and the old adage of hell knowing no fury like a woman scorned, rang true for him.   Gwendolen, being the daughter of the great warrior Corineus took swift and decisive action.

She returned to Cornwall where the people were still loyal to her and her family and raised an army which she led against Locrinus.  Not only had she inherited her father’s courage but also his decisiveness and skill in war.  The two armies met at the River Stour which in those days was the boundary between Loegria and Cornwall.  Gwendolen was victorious defeating Locrinus who was killed by an arrow. This made her the undisputed ruler and queen of both Loegria and Cornwall, becoming the most powerful ruler in Britain at the time.

She wasted no time in disposing of Elstrildis and Habren having them both drowned in a river which by Gwendolen’s decree was named after Habren.  Habren was also known as Hafren who became the eponym of the river. The latinized form was Sabrina which became Severn and was possibly influenced by earlier gods or spirits and sometimes she was known as Sabre and the river became known as the Severn.

The River Severn was named after Habren, not Elstrida, to emphasize and make known that a heir and potential rival to the British kingdom had been killed just as the River Humber was named after the Hun leader to emphasize his death and the ascendancy  of the British rulers to any potential outside challenge.  Elstrida did not get a river or place named after and was deliberately allowed to die in ignominy.  The killing of  Estrildis and Habren was more than just the revenge of a woman scorned.  It was also a political act that strengthened her power and that of her son by Locrinus,  Maddan, and when she abdicated the throne of Loegria went to him.

The attack on the country by Humber the Hun had been a typical invasion by men at arms who fought to control the land and the people.  The danger from Estrildis was more passive but potentially dangerous and subversive to the ruling order of Britain at the time and in the future.  The infatuation of Locrinus with a foreign princess threatened the future line of Brutus to the undisputed kingship of Britain.  Any possibility of a foreign heir to the throne potentially threatened the stability of Britain with the possibility of further invasions from Germanic rulers who may have believed they had a claim to Britain.

If Habren married outside of the British ruling community then an outsider is brought into future equations about who rules Britain.  With them out of the way Gwendolen reduces considerably the potential for foreign interference in the ruling elite of Britain.  Although other invaders did come after her time her action brought peace and stability during her reign and the reign of her successor.  She ruled her realm wisely and peacefully for 15 years and then abdicated. Her son by Maddan, by Locrinus, became king and she retired to Cornwall.

Legacy of Gwendolen

Gwendolen’s decisive action against Locrinus demonstrated the potential power and influence that women could wield.  It especially demonstrated how her gender was not a disadvantage to her use of power which she used to her advantage and to the benefit of those she ruled.  She was prepared to go to the extreme lengths of war and violence when she believed it necessary to protect her own realm acting and leading with decisiveness, wisdom, courage and military skill and foresight.

© 05/07/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright July 5th, 2016 zteve t evans

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