Uther Pendragon

Uther Pendragon

Uther Pendragon ( _fr. Uter Pendragon; Welsh: "Wthyr Bendragon", "Uthr Bendragon", "Uthyr Pendraeg") is a legendary king of sub-Roman Britain and the father of King Arthur.

A few minor references to Uther appear in Old Welsh poems, but his biography was first written down by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his "Historia Regum Britanniae" ("History of the Kings of Britain"), and Geoffrey's account of the character was used in most later versions. He is a fairly ambiguous individual throughout the literature; he is described as a strong king and a defender of the people. Uther, through circumstances and Merlin's help tricks the wife of his enemy Gorlois, Lady Igraine and sleeps with her. Thus Arthur, "the once and future king," is an illegitimate child. This act of conception occurs the very night Uther's troops dispatch Gorlois. This theme of illegitimate conception is repeated in Arthur's siring of Mordred on his own sister Morgause in the later prose romances. It is Mordred who will eventually mortally wound King Arthur in the Battle of Camlann.


Uther's epithet "Pendragon" means "Chief Dragon" in a figurative sense, referring to his status as "foremost leader" or "chief of warriors". [Bromwich, "Trioedd Ynys Prydein", p. 512.–513] The name was misinterpreted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the "Historia" to mean "dragon's head". [Bromwich, "Trioedd Ynys Prydein", p. 512.–513] According to Geoffrey and works based on his version, Uther acquires the epithet when he witnesses a portentous dragon-shaped comet, which inspires him to use dragons on his standards. According to the Lancelot-Grail cycle, it was Uther's older brother (elsewhere called Ambrosius Aurelianus) who sees the comet and receives the name "Pendragon"; Uther takes his epithet in his honor after his death.

Early Welsh poetry

Uther is known from earlier Welsh tradition, where he is associated with Arthur and, in some cases, even appears as his father. He is mentioned in the 10th century Arthurian poem "Pa gur yv y porthaur" ("What man is the gatekeeper?"), [ [http://www.mythiccrossroads.com/PaGur.htm "Pa gur yv y porthaur?"] ] and is memorialized with "The Death-song of Uther Pen" from the "Book of Taliesin". [ [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t48.html "The death-song of Uther Pendragon"] ] The latter includes a reference to Arthur, so the marginal addition of "dragon" to Uther's name is probably justified. "The Colloquy of Arthur and the Eagle," a poem contemporary with but independent of Geoffrey, mentions another son of Uther named Madoc, the father of Arthur's nephew Eliwlod. [Bromwich, "Trioedd Ynys Prydein" pp. 512-513.] The Welsh Triads name Uther as the creator of one of the Three Great Enchantments of the Island of Britain, which he taught to the wizard Menw. [Bromwich, "Trioedd Ynys Prydein" p. 61.]

History of the Kings of Britain

Uther is best known from Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" (1136) where he is the youngest son of King of Britannia Constantine II. His eldest brother Constans succeeds to the throne on their father's death, but is murdered at the instigation of his adviser Vortigern, who seizes the throne. Uther and his other brother Aurelius Ambrosius, still children, flee to Brittany. After Vortigern's alliance with the Saxons under Hengist goes disastrously wrong, Aurelius and Uther, now adults, return. Aurelius burns Vortigern in his castle and becomes king.

With Aurelius on the throne, Uther leads his brother's army to Ireland to help Merlin bring the stones of Stonehenge from there to Britain. Later, while Aurelius is ill, Uther leads his army against Vortigern's son Paschent and his Saxon allies. On the way to the battle, he sees a comet in the shape of a dragon, which Merlin interprets as presaging Aurelius's death and Uther's glorious future. Uther wins the battle and takes the epithet "Pendragon", and returns to find that Aurelius has been poisoned by an assassin. He becomes king and orders the construction of two gold dragons, one of which he uses as his standard. He secures Britain's frontiers and quells Saxon uprisings with the aid of his retainers, one of which is Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. At a banquet celebrating their victories, Uther becomes obsessively enamoured of Gorlois' wife, Igerna (Igraine), and a war ensues between Uther and his vassal. Gorlois sends Igerna to the impregnable castle of Tintagel for protection, while he himself is besieged by Uther in another town. Uther consults with Merlin, who uses his magic to transform the king into the likeness of Gorlois and thus gain access to Igerna at Tintagel. He spends the night with her, and they conceive a son, Arthur; but the next morning it is discovered that Gorlois had been killed. Uther marries Igerna, and they have another child, a daughter called Anna. She later marries King Lot and becomes the mother of Gawain and Mordred (in later romances she is called Morgause, and is usually Igerna's daughter by her previous marriage).Uther later falls ill, but when the wars against the Saxons go badly he insists on leading his army himself, 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 soon contrive his death by poisoning a spring he drinks from near Verulamium. [Geoffrey of Monmouth, "Historia Regum Britanniae" , ]

Geoffrey based some members of Uther's family on historical figures. Constantine is based on the historical usurper Constantine III, a claimant to the Roman throne from 407–411; Constans is based on his son. Aurelius Ambrosius is based on the legendary Welsh figure Ambrosius Aurelianus, though his connection to Constantine and Constans is an invention. It is less likely, however, that Uther ever existed outside of Britain's mythical history.

Other medieval literature

In Robert de Boron's "Merlin", Uther Pendragon personally kills Hengest after an assassination attempt by the Saxon leader, and Merlin creates the Round Table for him. In "Prose Lancelot", Uther Pendragon claims to have been born in Bourges. He takes an army to Brittany to fight against King Claudas of Bourges, a situation resembling that of the historical ruler, Riothamus, who went to Brittany to fight ravagers based in Bourges. There is an alternate account of Uther Pendragon's background in Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival". A certain Mazadân went with a Fay named Terdelaschoye to the land of Feimurgân. (This looks like a garbling of some source that told of Mazadân's alliance with the Fay Morgan in Terre de la Joye; the "Land of Joy"). Mazadân becomes father of two sons, Lazaliez and Brickus. Brickus becomes father of Utepandragûn father of Arthur while the elder son Lazaliez becomes father of Gandin of Anjou father of Gahmuret father of Parzival/Perceval. Uther Pendragon and Arthur here appear as the scions of the junior branch of an imagined 5th/6th century House of Anjou.

Modern literature

Uther Pendragon remains a widely used character in modern Arthurian literature. In T.H. White's "The Once and Future King", Uther the Conqueror is the Norman King of England from 1066 to 1216. Mary Stewart's first two books in her Arthurian saga, "The Crystal Cave", "The Hollow Hills", feature Uther Pendragon. Notably, he is Merlin's uncle, since in this version the latter is his brother Ambrosius' illegitimate son. In Bernard Cornwell's "The Warlord Chronicles", Uther is the King of Dumnonia as well as the High King of Britain. In Jack Whyte's "The Camulod Chronicles", Uther is King of the Pendragon, the Celtic people of South Cambria, cousin to Caius Merlyn Britannicus and Ambrose Ambrosianus Britannicus. In contrast to traditional versions, Stephen R. Lawhead's "Pendragon Cycle" makes Uther's brother Aurelius, whose widow (Ygerna) he marries, Arthur's true father. In Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Mists of Avalon", Uther is the nephew of Aurelianus instead of his brother; while Aurelianus is the son of a Roman Emperor, Uther has no Roman blood. In Valerio Massimo Manfredi's "The Last Legion", Uther is himself a Roman Emperor - the last, Romulus Augustus. While the real Romulus Augustus disappeared from history after being deposed by Goths, in the novel he escapes to Britain, where he adopts the name Pendragon and eventually sires Arthur. In the 2000 book by Jack Whyte "Uther" the novel revolves around a fictionalized version of Uther's life.

ee also



*Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.

External links

* [http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/uther.html A more detailed study of Uther Pendragon]

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