Life of Uther Pendragon

Completed 8 February 2004.
Last modified .
© Text Copyright 2004 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at',uk


King Arthur's father! Yet apart from the trickery that led to him sleeping with Ygerne, wife of Gorlois Duke of Cornwall, and thereby fathering Arthur you discover little about his life in Malory. Except that Merlin made the Round Table for him and Uther gave it to King Leodegrance of Cameliard. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth, that pioneer who made Arthur famous throughout the mediaeval world, does give a fuller biography of Uther Pendragon. This is summarised below. This account does contain a good deal of background material about Uther and his brother Ambrosius Aurelius, whose stories are inseparable.

The story of Uther Pendragon begins with his father Constantine II, brother of Aldroenus the King of Brittany. Britain was suffering an invasion from a myriad of peoples; Picts, Scots Huns, Norwegians and Danes. So the British sought help from their brethren in Brittany. They sent to France Guithelinus, Archbishop of London, to plead with Aldroenus to take the British crown and to protect the Britons. Aldroenus refused this honour, but allowed Guithelinus the services of his brother, Constantine, with two thousand soldiers.

Constantine was successful in ousting the invaders and was raised to the kingship of Britain at Silchester. He was also given as a wife a fosterling of Guithelinus. By her Constantine had three sons, Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther. Constans, the first born, was given to the church so that he might become a monk, while Aurelius and Uther were given in fosterage to Archbishop Guithelinus. Ten years after this gift Constantine was murdered by a Pict whom he had trusted.

After this assassination, there were quarrels between the supporters of the various claimants to the kingship of Britain. Not only were there those who supported either the claims of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, but other close relatives of the royal family had their supporters. These quarrels became irrelevent when the ambitious leader of the Gewissae, Vortigern, persuaded Constans to abandon the cloister and to take up the crown.

Knowing nothing of kingship, Constans was forced to act under Vortigern's direction. Yet Vortigern was ambitious, despite being the ruler of Britain in all but name, he wished to wear the crown himself and devised a treacherous plan to obtain it. Vortigern surrounded Constans with Picts, to whom he gave generous gifts. In fact he was so generous that the Picts said openly that Vortigern ought to be King. Then Vortigern said, regretfully, that his wealth was exhausted and he could no longer maintain his generosity towards his Pictish associates. The Picts immediately reacted as Vortigern had expected and concluded that if Vortigern were King he would have the wealth to maintain his generosity towards them. This thought led the Picts, inevitably, to plot to murder Constans so that Vortigern could then be the King. After they had assassinated Constans, the Picts told Vortigern of their deed. He pretended to be horrified, despite his secret delight at the success of his plan, and had the Pictish assassins executed. Then he assumed the crown himself, so filling the power vacuum left by the death of Constans.

Those who were in charge of Aurelius and Uther, Archbishop Guithelinus having died, fearfully took their charges to Brittany. Where the two brothers were welcomed by Budicus, the current King. It was in Brittany that they grew to manhood, fostering a desire to be avenged upon Vortigern.

Now Merlin entered the story, having told Vortigern why the walls of a fortress he was building in the Snowdon region, at Dinas Emrys, would not stand, he predicted that Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther will shortly invade Britain, landing at Totnes. This prediction came true and immediately upon landing in Britain Aurelius was crowned King. His frist action was to pursue Vortigern, who he accused of complicity in the murders of his father and his brother. He besieged Vortigern in his castle called Genoreu on the hill known as Cloartius (Little Doward). When the castle was burnt down, Vortigern perished in the flames.

Aurelius now defeated the Saxons, who Vortigern had brought to Britain as his allies against the Picts. The Picts had attacked Vortigern because they were incensed at Vortigern's execution of Pictish assassins of Constans .

After suffering a military defeat the Saxons surrendered to Aurelius, with whom they signed a treaty. As a part of this treaty, Aurelius generously gave the Saxons land near Scotland to live in. Having brought peace to Britain, Aurelius now wished to erect a novel building to commemorate those Britons who had been treacherously killed by the Saxons at a peace conference on Mount Ambrius during Vortigern's reign. Tremorinus, Archbishop of the City of the Legions, suggested to the King that Merlin was just the person to devise an unusual building.

Merlin was duly sent for and proposed that an appropriate memorial for the dead Britons would be the ring of stones known as the Giants' Ring that was situated at Mount Killaraus in Ireland. Aurelius now sent Merlin to Ireland to fetch the stones back, in the company of Uther with fifteen thousand troops. Not unaturally, the King of Ireland, Gillomanius, objected to this high-handed attempt to steal a part of his heritage and attacked the Britons. Sadly his forces were routed by those of Uther.

Merlin now invited Uther's soldiers to try and move the Giants' Ring and laughed when they failed. Then, using his skills, Merlin moved the stones and had them put aboard the ships of Uther's fleet. When the fleet reached Britain, the stones were unloaded and transported across land to Mount Ambrius (Amesbury) where they were erected around the cemetery of those Britons who had been perfidiously killed by the Saxons.

Now Paschent, a son of Vortigern, enters the story. He had fled to Germany where he had promised warriors untold wealth if they would help him to conquer Britain. He succeeded in raising an army and invaded Britain, but was defeated and escaped to Ireland. Here he found support from Gillomanius, who is still annoyed over the defeat he had suffered at the hands of Uther and who invaded Wales with Paschent. They landed near Menevia (St. Davids), and Uther rushed to meet their army as Aurelius was too ill to command forces in the field.

Aurelius was now poisoned at Winchester by a Saxon named Eopa who disguised himself as a Christian and a doctor. Meanwhile a brilliant 'star' with a single beam shining from it appeared in the sky on three separate occasions. At the end of the beam was a ball of fire in the shape of a dragon. From the dragon's mouth issued two beams of light, an undivided beam pointed in the direction of Gaul, while the other, which divided into seven subsiduary beams, was turned towards the Irish Sea.

Frighened by this portent, Uther asked Merlin what it meant. After summoning up his familiar spirit, Merlin regretfully announced the murder of Aurelius and told Uther that he would be victorious over the army of Paschent and Gillomanius. Then he revealed the significance of the portentous star, which signified Uther himself. The beam of light that stretched towards Gaul signified the power of Uther's son (Arthur). While that which reached towards Ireland and split into seven represented Uther's daughter (Anna) whose sons and grandsons would hold the kingship of Britain.

Though doubtful about Merlin's prophecy, Uther advanced against Paschent and Gillomanius, both of whom he killed in the rout of their army. Uther now hastened to Winchester and was met by messengers who told him that Aurelius was to be buried in the Giants' Ring. With the agreement of the clergy and people of Britain, Uther was appointed King of Britain. Remembering Merlin's prediction about the star, Uther has two golden dragons made in the shape of the dragon that he saw in the head of the star. One was given to the cathedral church in Winchester and the other Uther had carried around with his army. Uther now adopted the glorious name by which he became known, Uther Pendragon, as Pendragon meant dragon's head.

Now the Saxon leaders, Octa and Eossa, considered themselves no longer bound by the peace treaty they signed with Aurelius Ambrosius and attempted to over-run Uther's kingdom. Octa destroyed towns in the North of Britain and besieged York. Here Uther attacked him but was defeated and force to retreat to a steep hill, Mount Damen, where his force took refuge among the rocks that littered the side of the hill and in the hazel wood that surmounted it. At night, 'as the Plough began to revolve upon its pole', Uther held a strategic conference with his leaders and princes. One Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, recommended surprising their enemy with a night-time attack. Uther followed this advice and succeeded, not only in routing the Saxons, but also captured their leaders Octa and Eossa. Now Uther consolidated his rule in the lowlands of Scotland by visiting Alclud (Dumbarton) and by administering justice through the lands of the Scots.

Uther next moved to London where he had Octa and Eossa imprisoned. At Eastertide, he ordered all the nobles of his kingdom to assemble in London where they would see Uther wear his crown and joyfully celebrate Easter. Among those present at this event were Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his beautiful wife, Ygerne. Uther was smitten with desire for Ygerne and showed her such attention that Gorlois noticed and took her away from the court without asking Uther's permission to leave. Uther was outraged at this insult to his authority, for it was a grave insult to a king to leave his court without asking permission. He ordered Gorlois back to court so that he could 'seek satisfaction'. Gorlois refused to return and Uther swore that he would ravage Gorlois' lands.

Uther raised a large army and fired towns and castles in Cornwall. As Gorlois army was smaller than Uther's, his forces retreated to his castles where his intention was to stay until he received assistance form Ireland. As he was more worried about Ygerne than he was about himself, Gorlois left her in the practically impregnable castle of Tintagel, while he took refuge in a fortified camp known as Dimilioc (Tregeare Rounds). Here Uther besieged him for a week.

By now Uther's passion for Ygerne has become unbearable and he summoned a friend, Ulfin of Ridcaradoch (Rescraddeck) to whom he revealed his desire for Ygerne. Ulfin advised that Tintagel is impregnable, being separated from the mainland by a narrow isthmus of land, and suggested that Uther to seek Merlin's assistance to obtain Ygerne.

When Merlin appeared, he said that he would give Uther drugs that would alter his appearance to that of Gorlois. While he would use the same drugs to alter the appearance of Ulfin to that of Jordan of Tintagel, Gorlois' companion, and would change his own appearance to resemble a third man of Gorlois', Britaelis.

This was done and the three set out from the siege at Dimilioc and reach Tintagel at twilight. Being recognised as Gorlois, Uther, and his companions, were admitted and Uther spent the night making love with Ygerne. While this was happening, a battle had taken place at Dimilioc in which Gorlois was killed and the camp was captured. After the camp had been pillaged, messengers came to Tintagel to tell Ygerne that Gorlois was dead. They are astounded to see the man who they had thought dead with Ygerne. Now Uther, in the role of Gorlois, said that he would go and make peace with the King. On leaving the castle Uther then assumed his own form.

Though Uther mourned the death of Gorlois, he was happy to see Ygerne free of her marriage. He now returned to Tintagel, captured it and took Ygerne as his wife. From this time she and Uther lived together as equals, united by their great love. From their marriage came two children, Arthur and Anna.

With the passage of the years Uther developed a long-term illness. During this period those guarding Octa and Eossa grew weary of their duties and decamped with their prisoners to Germany. Here Octa and Eossa raised an army and invaded Albany (Scotland) with it. To defend his realm, Uther appointed Loth of Lodensis (Lothian). Loth was already Uther's son-in-law, having been married to Anna because of his prowess and wisdom and had also been ruling the kingdom during Uther's illness.

The struggle against Octa and Eossa was indecisive, with both sides winning battles. However the British were unable to fight effectively because their arrogance prevented them from obeying their leaders. Angry at the indiscipline of his forces, Uther swore that he would lead his army and had a litter constructed so that he could be carried into battle. Uther and his army advanced to St. Albans, where the Saxons under Octa and Eossa were oppressing the population. Octa and Eossa, too proud to fight an army led by a King in a litter, retreated into St. Albans and contemptuously left the gates of the city open. On hearing of this Uther ordered his forces to attack. In this unexpected assault the Saxons suffered initial reverses, but then fought back and a stalemate was reached that was ended by nightfall led to all fighting ceasing. The following morning the Saxons marched out of St. Albans and did battle in the open. After they have been defeated and Octa and Eossa have been killed, they retreated to the north which they ravaged.

Overjoyed at his victory, Uther is able to sit up in his litter without any assistance. He was keen to pursue the Saxons to the north, but was dissuaded from doing this by his princes. However the Saxons were seeking revenge for their defeat at St. Albans and sent spies, disguised as beggers to St. Albans. In addition to the information they gathered, they found out that Uther was in the habit of drinking from a certain spring, when his illness prevented him from keeping down other liquids. The spies then poisoned this spring, killing Uther and several of his men. After his death, the body of Uther was taken to the monastry of Ambrius where it was buried by that of Aurelius Ambrosius in the Giants' Ring.

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