Uther Pendragon(c.AD 410-495) is the legendary father of King Arthur.
But what do we know really know about him and where did he come from?
One of the most famous accounts of Uther is from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”.
Victim of Treason
Last Monday, I discussed how Vortigern manipulated the Picts and was indirectly responsible for the death of Uther’s father, King Constantine. Constantine was killed by a Pictish assassin.
Uther’s eldest brother Constans was still quite young, and in addition, had been given to the church to serve as a monk. The kingdom was in chaos over who was to take over kingship. Vortigern insisted that Constans be put on the throne. This served him well, because as Constans’ advisor, he had full power and control over the kingdom.
Sadly, young Constans was assassinated as well, and Vortigern usurped the throne, taking over as High King of Britain.
Escape to Safety
Constantine’s two youngest children, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, the true heirs to the throne, were taken out of the country for their own protection. They were taken to Brittany, where they were raised at the court of their uncle, King Budic of Brittany.
Revenge and Return to the Throne
When they were old enough, Uther and Ambrosius returned to Britain. They took their revenge against Vortigern, attacking him in his castle called Genoreu on the hill known as Cloartius (Little Doward). The castle burned down and Vortigern perished in the flames.
Ambrosius was crowned high king of Britain, with Uther as his brother’s staunchest ally.
Even after the death of Vortigern, the Saxons continued to be a source of problems for the Britons. Ambrosius, Uther and their men continued to drive them back.
Stealing from Ireland
Merlin proposed a memorial the British victims of the “Treachery of the Long Knives“, a brutal massacre by the Saxons in purported peace ceremony during the time of Vortigern. According to Merlin, a suitable memorial would involve retrieving the stones from Giant’s Ring at Mount Killaraus in Ireland.
Aurelius sends Merlin, Uther and fifteen thousand troops to bring the stones back to Britain. Merlin moves the stones with his amazing skills and has them shipped over and across land to Mount Ambrius (Amesbury) and had them erected around the cemetery.
Quite understandably, King Gillomanius of Ireland was quite peeved at them stealing a part of his heritage. He attacked, but did not succeed in defeating Uther’s men.
Poisoning a King
In then meantime, a Saxon by the name of Eopa managed to disguise himself as a Christian and a doctor and enters the camp of the Britons. He poisons Aurelius at Winchester.
Paschent and Gillomanius
Paschent, Vortigern’s son fled to Germany to raise an army of Saxons. They invaded Britain.With Aurelius ill, Uther fought back, defeating them and forcing their escape to Ireland.
In Ireland, of course, Paschent and his Saxon army gain the support of King Gillomanius, still sore at Uther for stealing the Giant’s Ring and defeating him in battle. The Irish invade Wales with Paschent, landing near Menevia (St. Davids). Uther rushed to meet their army as Aurelius was still too ill to command forces in the field.
The Comet that brought the Pendragon name
On the way to the battle, Uther sees a dragon shaped comet in the night sky. Merlin interprets it as a prediction of both Aurelius’ death and Uther’s glorious future.
Uther wins the battle and takes the name “Pendragon”. With the death of his brother, he becomes king and orders the construction of two gold dragons, one of which he uses as his standard that is carried around with his army, the other was given to the cathedral church in Winchester.
Uther and Gorlois
After crushing the Saxons in the last battle, Uther held a celebration in London and invited all his allies. Among them was Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall. It was Gorlois’ strategy that had ultimately defeated the Saxons.
Gorlois brought his wife, Igraine. She was young and beautiful, and Uther fell instantly in love with her. In fact, his love for her was so obvious that Gorlois and his men packed up early and headed back for Cornwall. Uther was offended by his leaving early, and threatened the duke with war.
Gorlois sends Igraine to Tintagel Castle for protection. The castle is almost impossible to penetrate as it is surrounded by the sea on all sides. The only way into it is via a narrow, rocky passage–and there, three armed warriors forbid all entry.
In the meantime, Gorlois is in a town called Dimilioc (Tregeare Rounds). Here, he is besieged by Uther.
Merlin, Magic and Seduction
Uther consults with Merlin who transforms him to look exactly like Igraine’s husband. So while Gorlois was busy defending his castle against Uther’s men, Uther entered Tintagel as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall.
He seduced Igraine, and it is on that night that Arthur is conceived. It is the next morning when it is discovered that Gorlois had been killed in battle.
The men of Cornwall had no choice but to surrender to Uther who later married Igraine and the future King Arthur was born.
Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” claims that the price for this deception was that Uther’s son Arthur had to be given to Merlin to be brought up as he saw fit.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Igraine also bore him a daughter Anna, sometimes referred to as Morgan in other sources. However, in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, Morgan le Fay is the daughter of Igraine and Gorlois, thereby making her half-sister to Arthur.
As a sidenote, Robert de Boron says Uther was responsible for the founding of the Order of the Round Table. Other stories state that Merlin made the Round Table for him and Uther gave it to King Leodegrance of Cameliard.
Legend records that romantic Pendragon Castle at Mallerstang Dale in Cumbria was founded by Uther Pendragon. There is however, no archaeological evidence to suggest Dark Age settlement at the site, apart from the discovery of a Roman coin.
The castle was not called ‘Pendragon’ until 1309, and before that date , was known as Mallerstang Castle.
According to legend, Uther tried to re-route the River Eden to fill the deep ditch which surrounds the castle to create a moat, but failed, which is alluded to in the local rhyme:-
“Let Uther Pendragon do what he can, Eden will run where Eden ran.”
Saxons and More Poison
Most of Uther’s reign was taken up with campaigning against Saxon and Irish invaders in the North of Britain.
In his old age, the sick and aging Uther later was drawn once again into war with the Northern Angles. He went north to aid King Lot of Lothian in battle and insists on leading his army himself. In some versions of the story, he is so unwell that he goes into battle on a litter. In others, he is propped up on his horse.
He defeats Hengist’s son Octa at Verulamium (St Albans), despite the Saxons calling him the “Half-Dead King.” However, the Saxons poison the spring that they drink from and Uther, along with many of his men died in the days that followed.
He was buried beside his brother Aurelius.
Arthur, who had just turned fifteen, became king of Britain.
Though the History of the Kings of Britain was written in the 12th century, it’s interesting to know that it’s not Uther’s first appearance in legends and stories. He also appeared several times in earlier Welsh tradition.
A poem in the Book of Taliesin (some of which may date back to the 6th century) mentions Arthur and is named after Uther himself as Marvnat Uthyr Pen.
In the 10th century poem, Pa Gur (“Who is the Porter?”), one of Arthur’s companions is given as “Mabon ap Mydron, servant of Uthir Pen Dragon”.
Uther also appears in several early Triads of the Island of Britain and the personal name is known from other pre-Galfridian sources.
Ymiddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr (“The Colloquy of Arthur and the Eagle”), a poem contemporary with Geoffrey yet showing a primitive tradition independent of him, identifies the eagle as Eliwlat mab Madawc mab Uthyr and a nephew of Arthur.