Welsh Celtic Lore: The Mabinogi of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr Retold

Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”).  The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty.  He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter.  These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children of LlŷrThey are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brân was a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him. 

 One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan  on  high cliff looking out over the sea.   They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces.  Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles of Brân’s court.  As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast.  One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace

Matholwch, King of Ireland

Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.  This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.  

Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses.  The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen.  Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.

The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast.  There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.  At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other.   It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship.  At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.

The Insult

Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage.  In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.  Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it.  Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law? 

After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people.  He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all.  The more he thought about it the worse it seemed.  His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.

Compensation

Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place.  He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after.  Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was  true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.

Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages.  At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds.  In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.

The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors.  Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.

The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content.  Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life.  At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.

Branwen’s Welcome

The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride.   When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved.  The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much.   To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past.  The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened.  Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.  

The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds.  They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting.  Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them.  She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court.  For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity.  To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.

Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain.  This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister.  To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm

Branwen and the Starling

For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery.  In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.

Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight.  Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message.  Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it.  In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her. 

Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him.  He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.

Bran goes to War

The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish.  Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen.  Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.  

Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him.  She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.

“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.

“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.

“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.

“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.

“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.

“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland.  The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.

The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer.  Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice.  They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them.   There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.

Brân the Bridge

Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed.  The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles.  What would you have us do?”

Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body.  In this way his host passed over to the other side.  

Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him.  He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.

Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel.  Until I have considered it no other answer will you get.  Go tell your king.”

“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”

“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.

House of Betrayal

His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army.  Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self.   It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage.  They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals.  They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.  

Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals.  Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery.  After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals.  Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice.  Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.

Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket.  Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior.  At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons

Efnissyen

The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast.  Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress.  Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside.  He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head.  He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle.  He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.

The Killing of Gwern

The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him.  Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection.  From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.

Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying,  “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle?  He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”

“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.

Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son.  Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.

Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another.  All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.  

The Cauldron of Rebirth

The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses.  They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.

Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain.  However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage.   Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors.  Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in.  As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process.  With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.

The Seven Survivors

Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear.  Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear.  Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.  Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived. 

Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves.  They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.

The Assembly of the Wondrous Head

Bran the Blessed – by zteve t evans

Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France.  He advised them this task would take many years.  In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”.  All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed.  They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed.  He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân. 

However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish.  Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain.  The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment. 

The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper.   Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France.  Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 2nd, 2021 zteve t evans

Vortigern’s Rule: The Treachery of the Long Knives

The_murder_of_Raymond_Trencavel

By Noel Sylvestre (1847-1915) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Treachery and Betrayal

The Treachery of the Long Knives was a legendary event that was allegedly inflicted upon the unsuspecting British King Vortigern and his chieftains by the Saxon mercenary leader Hengist in the 5th century.  It was seen as a supreme act of treachery and betrayal by the Britons and is mentioned in the 6th-century work Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius.   Later Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century in his work Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) presents a slightly different version.  The work presented here is drawn from both versions.

Hengist and Horsa

The legend tells how after Vortigern had usurped the crown of Britain he turned to the Saxons led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa for help in fighting the Picts and Gaels who were ravaging his kingdom. The Saxons proved an effective fighting force driving out his enemies.  As a reward for their services he gave them the Isle of Thanet, Kent, as well provisions and gifts in gratitude.

Despite being richly rewarded the Saxons were not satisfied with the land and gifts and had a bigger game plan in their minds which they kept secret from Vortigern. They wanted Britain to rule for themselves and had a plan to get their way.  Hengist and Horsa cleverly manipulated Vortigern into allowing them to bring in more of their people from overseas in the pretense of helping to secure Britain from its enemies. They were hugely successful in battle and in return for their services in securing his kingdom they successfully persuaded Vortigern to grant more land and let them bring in more of their people.

Vortigern had become infatuated with the daughter of Hengist whose name was Rowena. Hengist gave her to him in marriage to curry favor, reinforce his web of deception and to have another hold over Vortigern.  All along he had loftier designs and all the time was planning and plotting to overthrow Vortigern and take control of Britain.  Vortigern allowed more and more Saxons into Britain giving them land in the north of the country to protect the rest of Britain from raids from Scotland, but as their numbers grew so did their power. The growing power of the Saxons and the increasing dependence of Vortigern on them and the favor he showed to them began to concern some of his own warlords including Vortimer his son. With backing from other British nobles and barons, he took the crown and attacked the Saxons finally defeating them after four battles.

Vortimer’s Successes

Vortimer fought the Saxons courageously and successfully while his father remained with Hengist. During one of the battles, Horsa was killed and some accounts say it was by Catigern, another of Vortigern’s sons. Some accounts say they met in battle and fought in a duel killing each other, though it cannot be verified. After Vortimer had successfully driven out Hengist and the Saxon, he was poisoned, allegedly by Rowena, who was now his step-mother, being the wife of Vortigern and the daughter of Hengist. After the death of his son, Vortigern retook the crown of Britain and at Rowena’s request invited her father back to Britain in a private capacity. He gave permission for him to bring a small and limited armed entourage to provide protection for him and his servants. Hengist had feared Vortimer but hearing that he was dead instead of bringing a small entourage assembled an army of three hundred thousand warriors and built a fleet of ships to carry them to Britain.

When the news of such a vast warlike army reached Vortigern and his princes and barons they were angry and vowed to fight and drive them from Britain. Rowena sent a message warning her father that the Briton’s intended to fight and Hengist set about making a new plan. He considered several different approaches and in the end settled for a great show of peace towards Vortigern and the Britons.

He sent envoys to Vortigern with a message of lies claiming that he had not raised such a great army to stay with him or threaten Britain. The reason he claimed to have brought them was that he believed Vortimer still lived and he feared he would be attacked by him. However, now he had received news confirming his death and therefore he proposed that he put himself and his army to the judgment of Vortigern. It would be up to him to decide who and how many should stay and who and how many should return home. He further proposed that if this plan was agreeable to Vortigern that he should decide a time and place where they could meet and discuss the details together.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

Vortigern was pleased with the proposal and accepted. He had been unhappy that Hengist and his people had been driven out by his son and sent a message back with the envoys saying they would meet at the monastery of Ambrius on the kalends of May which were near.  The peace discussions would take place at a banquet where the matters would be discussed peacefully no weapons were to be carried.

With these matters agreed, Hengist invented a new more villainous plan and ordered that all his men were to conceal a long knife in their clothes at the banquet. When the wine was flowing and the Britons suitably relaxed he would shout, “Nemet oure Saxas”. His men would then stab the nearest Briton to them. With this villainy in mind, Hengist and his Saxons attended the conference at the appointed time and place. When he deemed it an appropriate time he shouted his command which the Britons not knowing their language did not understand. His Saxons took out their long knives and stabbed the nearest unarmed and unsuspecting Briton. While this was taking place Hengist took Vortigern prisoner.

Eldol Escapes

The Saxons killed all except one of the unsuspecting and unarmed Britons who had come expecting to talk peace. Nevertheless, although surprised and unarmed they fought bravely and ferociously and succeeded in killing a great number of Saxons before the fell.  Only Eldol, Earl of Gloucester got away having found a wooden stake which he used with deadly effect as a weapon fighting his way to a horse and escaping.  He would later join up with Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther to take revenge on both Vortigern and Hengist. He held Vortigern responsible for bringing in the Saxons and whose foolishness had allowed the massacre.  He hated Hengist the Saxon leader and perpetrator of the bloodbath as enemy of Britain and betrayer of good faith.

According to Nennius three hundred were killed but Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed as many as four hundred and sixty of the ruling barons and nobility of Britain had been killed and these were buried by bishop Eldad who gave them a Christian burial near the monastery of Ambrius near Salisbury. This had been a disaster for the Britons and had a profound effect on the British psyche. It derived them from many of their barons and war leaders making it possible for Hengist to effectively take control of the country virtually unopposed.

Hengist

Hengist now with Vortigern at his mercy demanded that he give to him the strongholds and fortified cities of Britain or be killed. With no other choice, Vortigern gave Hengist everything he demanded. With Britain effectively bereft of leadership, Hengist marched his army to London laying waste the countryside along the way and occupying that city. With London secure, he then took Winchester, York, and Lincoln burning and raising towns and villages along the way.

Vortigern Flees

When Vortigern saw the destruction the Saxons wreaked upon Britain he fled to Cambria having no other idea of what to do knowing he could not stand against them. Calling together his wise men he asks their advice. After consulting together they agreed he should find some strategically defensive place where a strongly fortified tower could be built that would offer him safety, for now, he had no safe place to stay anywhere in Britain. The place he chose was believed to have been Dinas Emrys but it did not prove to be a good choice as the building works kept tumbling down.

The Prophecy of Merlin

It was here Merlin comes to play an important role in the affairs of Britain. Merlin prophesied that there were two dragons, one red and one white, buried in a pool under the foundations which was the reason why the walls fell down. Furthermore, it was here that he prophesied the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther the rightful heirs to the crown of Britain with an invasion force to reclaim the throne from him. With news of their arrival, the surviving war leaders flocked to his banner and Aurelius was made the king.

Significantly, Merlin also prophesied the defeat of the Saxons by the Boar of Cornwall, the symbol of Arthur Pendragon, who would eventually be king. He told Vortigern he needed to find another site for his fort and that he faced two deaths. One from Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther when they caught up with him.  The from the Saxons and Merlin told him he did not know which it would be.  It so happened that Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, with the help of Eldol, caught up with him first burning him and his wives to death in their stronghold. They would then turn their attention on Hengist and succeeded in defeating the Saxons.

Once Britain was at peace, King Aurelius instructed his brother Uther and his adviser, Merlin to bring him the Giant’s Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland. After Uther had defeated the Irish king Merlin transported the Giant’s Dance to Britain and installed it at Ambrius. There it made a fitting monument to the victims of the Treachery of the Long Knives. Both he and Uther were buried there when their time came both and both were killed by treachery and the term became synonymous with betrayal and deceit through the ages.

Nazi Germany

The term was believed to have been adapted to describe a purge that took place in Nazi Germany from 30 June to 2nd July, 1934 and called The Night of the Long Knives. This was a series of extrajudicial killings of leading members of the Nazi’s own paramilitary organization, the Sturmabteilung but also known as the Brownshirts, because of the color of the clothes they wore. Hitler believed the Brownshirts had become a threat to his political power and the purpose of the murders was to strengthen his grip on power in Germany. Such was its power that variations of the term are still used to describe sudden political purges around the world yet there is no proof that the event ever took place.

© 15/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 15th, 2017 zteve t evans

Merlin and the Prophecy of the Star and the Fiery Dragon

waldemar_flaig_stern_von_bethlehem_1920

Waldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Aurelius Ambrosius

The legendary Merlin is one of the best known characters in Arthurian legend and romance and many remarkable feats are attributed to him.  In The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae) written about 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth he was an advisor, magician and prophet of kings.  Presented here is a retelling of one of his prophecies inspired by a comet that reveals the death of the King  of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius.   He predicts his younger brother Uther would take the crown and from him would come a king who would be the hope and inspiration of the Britons and a daughter who would beget a line of kings.  The story begins after Ambrosius had driven out the Saxons and pacified the Picts on the borderlands to establish himself as undisputed King of the Britons after a long hard fight against powerful enemies.

Uther

Even the great and the good can fall sick and Aurelius Ambrosius, the King of the Britons  fell seriously ill.   At this time,  Pascentius, a son of his old enemy Vortigern and Gillomanius the King of Ireland both bore him a grudge and plotted together against him.  Gillomanius hated him for commanding his younger brother Uther and Merlin to bring back the Giant’s Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland at any cost.  Consequently Uther fought the Irish king in battle over the stones and defeated.  Then Merlin used his arts to uproot them and transport them to a new site in Britain. Pascentius hated him for killing his father the former king and defeating him in an earlier battle and because he believed he should be king.  They  joined forces and landed with a powerful army at Menevia.  With the king lying in his sick bed, Uther, the younger brother of Aurelius, took it upon himself to defend the kingdom against the invaders and with Merlin to advise him led his troops to meet the foe.

The Star and the Fiery Dragon

On their march to battle, Uther and his army were amazed to see in the heavens a star of such brilliance it not only lit up the night sky, but could be seen plainly in daylight. Never had Uther or any of his men seen anything like it before.  They were astounded by it and also frightened.  From the star there sprang a single ray of light that formed into a shape like that of a fiery dragon. From the dragon’s mouth two rays were emitted.  One stretched out reaching across Britain and across the sea and into Gaul. The other stretched across the Irish Sea and divided into seven smaller rays of equal length.  The whole display could be seen across all of Britain and beyond.  The people were filled with fear and awe not knowing of its meaning and fearing it portended some terrible event and Uther called upon Merlin for an explanation.  Merlin, who had foretold the death of Vortigern the previous king and made the Prophesy of the Two Dragons and other predictions looked upon the spectacle and then cried out,

“O irreparable loss! O distressed people of Britain! Alas! The illustrious prince is departed! The renowned king of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius, is dead! whose death will prove fatal to us all, unless God be our helper. Make haste, therefore, most noble Uther, make haste to engage the enemy: the victory will be yours, and you shall be king of all Britain, For the star, and the fiery dragon under it, signifies yourself, and the ray extending towards the Gallic coast, portends that you shall have a most potent son, to whose power all those kingdoms shall be subject over which the ray reaches. But the other ray signifies a daughter, whose sons and grandsons shall successively enjoy the kingdom of Britain.” (1)

Although Uther was also in awe of the spectacle he doubted Merlin.  He was now within half a day’s march of Menevia and Pascentius and Gillomius and knew he could not return to Winchester and allow them to move inland with such a great army.  Therefore, he decided to confront them as quickly as possible and pressed on.

Uther’s Victory

Pascentius and Gillomanius soon became aware of the approach of Uther and ordered their own troops into battle formation and moved to meet the Britons.  As soon as the two sides met battle commenced. No quarter was asked and none given by the Irish or the Britons and the fighting was bloody and fierce with much loss of life on both sides.  As the day wore on the Britons gained the upper hand killing both Pascentius and Gillomanius.  With the deaths of their leaders the enemy broke and scattered giving Uther absolute victory.  He chased and harried the enemy back to their ships killing any that that were caught.

The Death of Aurelius

With the enemy flying before him Uther rested and savoured his victory but soon there came a messenger from Winchester that brought the sad news of the death of King Aurelius Ambrosius of the Britons.   The messenger told him Aurelius had received a fitting funeral conducted by the most celebrated clergy in the land.  They had deemed it proper that he be buried with all royal ceremony inside the Giant’s Dance.  This had seemed the most fitting burial place for him having been obtained and built at his instigation as an everlasting memorial to commemorate the victims of the The Night of the Long Knives.

Uther is Crowned King

Although Uther had enjoyed his victory, the death of his elder brother grieved him greatly.  This made him more determined to see through the great events they had been through together.  With his brother dead, Uther was now the rightful heir to the kingdom of Britain.  Calling together all the clergy and nobles in the land with their unanimous agreement and support he was crowned King of Britain.

Uther Pendragon

Taking inspiration from the rayed star and the fiery dragon he had seen before the battle and from Merlin’s prophecy he commanded two statuettes of solid gold to be made.  One he gave to Winchester Cathedral, but the second he kept for himself. From that time onward it was carried with him in all of his battles and this is how he came to be called Uther Pendragon, meaning head of the dragon.   From Uther Pendragon would come a son named Arthur Pendragon, who was destined to be the great hope of the Britons and a daughter named Anna.

 

© 08/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 8th, 2017 zteve t evans

(1)  [PDF] History of the Kings of Britain – York University – Page 138

Waldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWaldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Arthur and the Legend of the Ermine of Our Lady

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KIng Arthur and Flolo – Public Domain

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Brittany

The former Duchy of Brittany was a small feudal state in medieval times before it became part of France.  Like most other such states it had its own Coat of Arms.   Curiously, the Duchy’s featured the white winter coat of the stoat which was often known as  ermine. There are at least two legends as to how this came about.  The first concerns Anne de Bretagne the last independent ruler of the duchy and the other King Arthur, the King of Britain. This work deals with the Arthurian version.

This legend goes back to the time King Arthur ruled Britain.  As well as being a mighty warrior and leader of men he was also a good and wise king who was devoted to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Hugh O’Reilly tells the The Legend of the Ermine of Our Lady which explains how this came to be.

The Loss of Gaul

The story takes place during the time when the Emperor of Rome was Leo I and Gaul was ruled by Flolo, a Tribune of Rome.  It tells how Flolo was an unjust and cruel ruler who persecuted Christians and frequently blasphemed against the Virgin Mary ordering the desecration and destruction of her statues, shrines and relics.

During this period Arthur had lost control of Gaul and was back in Britain at his court.  It was said to be towards the end of summer when a knight stood up in his court and called Arthur a coward because he had lost Gaul to his enemies.  He told Arthur that he would now die without being King of the fair and that beautiful land that the Pope himself had given him.

Arthur’s vow

Angry and embarrassed Arthur swore before God and the Virgin Mary that he would retake Gaul and be its King once again.  He vowed that within twelve months he would challenge Flolo man to man. Arthur set about planning and preparing his army for the invasion of Gaul.  By the  time Spring came Arthur had assembled a mighty invasion force and moved it across the sea into Gaul.

In Spring-time the land of Gaul was a marvelous place with oceans of sunshine and lush greenery and it was indeed a most beautiful land.  Arthur was expecting fierce resistance in its defense but no army appeared to confront him.  Bemused, Arthur sent five hundred of his warriors and two thousand archers to seek out the defending army but all they could report was that everywhere they went people fled from them.  Now unlike Flolo, Arthur was not a cruel man and he began to regret that his arrival with such a huge and warlike host of armed men had frightened the local people. They were simple peasants who worked the land for their living and they themselves were victims of the cruelty of Flolo and he felt sorry for them.  Just as he was pondering what he should do he heard the sound of trumpets and a party of messengers rode into his camp.

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King Arthur – Public Domain

Flolo’s challenge

They were the heralds of Flolo who he had sent to lay down a challenge.  The herald announced that his master proposed that to save needless bloodshed,  instead of the two armies meeting in open battle Arthur should appoint a champion who would fight him man to man to the death.  The winner would rule Gaul.

Flolo was a giant of a man with incredible strength and endurance and was completely fearless in battle.  As a sleight to Arthur he had challenged him to pick his bravest, strongest and best warrior to fight for him, rather than face him himself.  The herald was carrying Floro’s gauntlet and threw it contemptuously at Arthur’s feet.

Arthur accepts

Arthur’s knights clamoured to be his champion but Arthur silenced them.  He told them that he would fight Flolo and it was he alone who could be King of Gaul. Arthur told the herald to go back to Flolo and tell him that he himself would fight him to the death.  There would be no quarter asked and none would be given and that God alone would grant the most righteous victory.  So with the terms agreed the place of the combat was to be the Island of Notre Dame of Paris.

In the morning Arthur knelt in prayer to God and the Holy Virgin Mary that he may acquit himself with honour and courage and for protection.  Flolo appealed to the god Bacchus for strength and courage and the death of Arthur. Both men then mounted their warhorses and faced each other waiting for the signal from the herald.  The herald stood in the middle of the field waiting for the two to be ready and then blew on a trumpet to let the fight begin.

Fight to the death

Flolo spurred his horse forward and Arthur did the same.  The points of both men’s lances crashed against their shields as they met head on knocking both from their horses.  With lance and shield splintered to shards  both men scrambled to their feet and began raining sword blows at each other.  Both managed to deflect the deadly blows until the height and strength of Flolo gained a brief advantage and blow to Arthur’s head split his iron helmet and brought him to his knees knocking the senses from him.

Appearance of the Holy Mother

Arthur’s followers groaned thinking their King must surely die.  Flolo raised his sword for the final blow but that blow never came.  To the astonishment of all the Holy Mother Mary appeared with a cloak of ermine around her shoulders which she quickly threw over Arthur’s shield.  So pure and white was the ermine cloak that Flolo was temporarily blinded and stunned with terror.  Arthur, although wounded seized his chance and with his last strength took off the head of his enemy with his sword, Excalibur.

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Coat of Arms of the former Duchy of Brittany – Public Domain

Ermine

Not until the fight was over did Arthur learn from his knights of the apparition of the Virgin Mary.  To give thanks and to honor her he ordered that a Church be built on the island. Today the Church of Notre Dame of Paris is said to stand on that same spot.  Arthur then ordered that his nephew, Hoel, the sixth Duke of Brittany should incorporate the cloak of ermine on his Coat of Arms also.  According to legend from that day on ermine was always borne on the  Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Brittany.

© 17/02/2016 zteve t evans

 References and Attributions

Copyright February 17th, 2016 zteve t evans

 

The legendary Brutus of Troy, first king of Britain

According to medieval legend the founder and first king of Britain was the Trojan exile known as Brutus of Troy, who was said to be the descendant of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. This claim was first documented in a ninth century text the Historia Britonum attributed to Nennius, followed by an account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Histori Regum Britanniae, in the 12th century. Brutus does not appear in classical works and is not regarded as being a historical figure by most historians.

In a hunting accident when Brutus was in his teens he killed his father with an arrow and was punished by being exiled from Italy. Brutus left Italy and traveled among the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea and spent time in Gaul, founding the city of Tours. Eventually with a band of followers he arrived in Britain defeating the few giants that populated the country. Naming the country after himself and reigning over it until his death. His sons were to split Britain into three parts to rule over. Read more Continue reading