The Arthurian Realm: Morgan le Fay – Healer, Witch and the Woman Question.

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans

Introducing  Morgan

In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.

As Ruler of Avalon

Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.

It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.

Morgan’s Early Life

In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.

While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.

Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.

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The Murderous Plot of Albina and her Sisters and the Origin of Albion

Image 1 Slider
Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion – The William Blake Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped and digitally altered)
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com February 22, 2018 as British Legends: The Origin of Albion and the Bloodlust of Albina and her Sisters written by zteve t evans

Of the Great Giants

According to British medieval legend and myth, the island now known as Britain was once named Albion after an exiled queen named Albina.   She was the eldest of a family of sisters who had been exiled from their homeland in Greece, though some versions of the story say Syria.   How this came to be is an outlandish and in many ways disturbing story, found in the 14th century poem, Des Grantz Geanz (“Of the Great Giants”) which was popular in its time and probably best read as an allegorical work.  British traditions of the Middle Ages were heavily influenced by the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae  (The History of the Kings of Britain) written about 1136 that tells that when Brutus of Troy arrived on the island that that been revealed to him in the Prophecy of Diana, he found it was just as she had described, being a green and fertile land populated by only a few giants.  Brutus and his Trojans fought the giants until at last the biggest and strongest of them was  the only one left alive. His name was Gogmagog and Brutus had deliberately saved him to fight his own champion Corineus who thrilled at such challenge.

Geoffrey of Monmouth never said where the giants had come from or why the island was called Albion.  This perplexed medieval scholars and a story evolved that attempted to explain this discrepancy. According to medieval tradition, before the fight began Brutus was said to have asked Gogmagog who he was and of the origin of his people.  Gogmagog was said to have given the Trojan a fantastic tale revealing the origin of the giants and how the island had been named, “Albion”.  Presented next is a retelling of the story Gogmagog allegedly told Brutus and has been sourced from several medieval and Anglo-Norman accounts and more recent works.

Albina and her Sisters

According to Gogmagog the story of the origin of the giants of Albion began 3,970 years after the world began.  In a country now called Greece there ruled a very powerful king.  This king was very noble and very righteous and the head of a strict patriarchal state and society.  His queen was a very beautiful woman and they had a very happy marriage and were blessed with thirty beautiful daughters who were said to be very tall in some accounts.  The giant confessed he did not know all their names but knew the eldest, tallest and most influential of these was named Albina.

He told Brutus, that in accordance with the custom of the time and of their society the king decided that their daughters had come of sufficient age to marry. He then decided without consulting his daughters which daughter would marry which of the many kings, princes and rulers that would be a good political match for his realm.  All thirty of the daughters were then married to their allotted husbands with much ceremony and fanfare.

However, his daughters were said to be very proud and strong-willed women who wanted their own well-being and desires met. They were fiercely independent and hated the idea of being married to men who were not of their own choosing and did not love. To them it was an indignity and an insult to have to be subjugated in any way to any man regardless of how rich and powerful he was or whatever benefits it might bring for their father’s kingdom.

A Murderous Plot

They vowed they would be no man’s possession and instead would be the rulers of all men regardless of their status.  To further these vows they plotted together in secret and hatched a most extreme plan.

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The Legend of Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion

This article was originally posted on #FolkloreThursday.com called British Legends: Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion by zteve t evans on 25 January 2018.

According to British legend, Gogmagog was the last survivor of a mythical race of giants that ruled the island of Albion before the arrival of Brutus of Troy and his Trojan followers. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in The Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) written about 1136, tells the story of how the Trojans came into conflict with Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. 

Although Geoffrey made it clear where Brutus and the Trojans originated, he revealed nothing of the history of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. Later writers promoted several versions of a story of the origin of the giants. One tells more about Gogmagog and how he returned to haunt the descendants of the Trojans, taking over a ruined hilltop fortress in Wales now known as Dinas Brân. 

This article attempts to tie the threads together to reveal more of the story of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. It begins by briefly recalling the voyage of Brutus of Troy and the prophecy of the goddess Diana, and then the conflict between the Trojans and the giants of Albion. We then move forward in time to later centuries to the time of William the Conqueror, when a Norman knight by the name of Payn Peverel confronts the demonically possessed Gogmagog on Dinas Brân, forcing him to reveal his history and purpose and foretelling the future of Peverel and his descendants. 

Brutus of Troy

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the fall of Troy some of the survivors of the sack of the city, led by the Trojan hero Aeneas, fled to Italy and settled there. Their descendants began building a new civilization. One of the descendants of Aeneas in Italy was a young man who became known as Brutus of Troy. After killing his father in a hunting accident, Brutus was punished by being exiled. He left Italy and making his way to Greece, where he found many descendants of the survivors of Troy still held in slavery by a Greek king. Leading the Trojans in revolt, he won their release and led them on an epic sea voyage searching for new land to settle and rebuild their lives.

While at sea, Brutus came to an abandoned island named Leogecia and found a temple dedicated to Diana, Jupiter, and Mercury, and after performing the appropriate rites he asked the goddess for guidance. Diana appeared to him in a dream and told him of a rich and fertile island populated only by a few giants. She prophesied that he would be the first of a long line of kings that would rule the island and spread across the world. When Brutus finally arrived on the island it was called Albion, and he found it was as Diana had told him. The giants were few in number, and the tallest and most powerful was named Gogmagog.

Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion

After Brutus and the Trojans, arrived they explored the island and found it very much to their liking. Individually, the giants were much bigger and for the most part stronger than the Trojans. Only Corineus, one of the Trojan captains, could match them. However, there were only twenty-four of them and they could not match the Trojan weaponry, armour, and numbers, and the Trojans battled the giants seeking to claim Albion as their own.

One day, Brutus decided to hold a festival of thanksgiving to the gods. During the festival, with many games and events underway, Gogmagog and the giants launched an attack hoping to take the Trojans by surprise. Although the giants at first had the upper hand killing many, Brutus rallied his men and in the battle all of the giants, except their leader Gogmagog, were killed. He was spared by Brutus specifically to fight Corineus, who defeated him. With Albion now free of giants, Brutus shared out the land among his captains and followers as he saw fit. In legend, Brutus became the founder and first king of Britain and Corineus became the founder and first ruler of Cornwall.

Although Gogmagog was killed, he was to return centuries later during the Norman Conquest of Britain by King William the Conqueror. This story is told in the medieval legends or “ancestral romance” of The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, a mixture of legend, romance, and imagination by an unknown author or compiler in about 1325-40.

Dinas Brân

According to this text, Gogmagog reappeared when William the Conqueror was travelling around Britain surveying his new domain. As he travelled in the wild hills and valleys, he came across a prominent hill that was crowned by a ruined town enclosed in wide stone walls that for a long time had lain desolate and empty. Today, the hill is called Dinas Brân and overlooks Llangollen in Wales, but the ruins that crown its top are those of a later castle and not those that intrigued William which had been built many centuries before his arrival.

As the day was drawing to a close, he decided to pitch his tents on a level plain that lay below the imposing ruins. Curious and not a little awed, he asked about the place from a local Briton and was told the following story:

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Vortigern’s Rule: Rowena’s Poison

Rowena was the legendary Anglo-Saxon temptress who captivated Vortigern, King of the Britons.  Her father was the Anglo-Saxon chief Hengist and she was mentioned in the Matter of Britain.  She is often seen as a femme fatale who deliberately set out to seduce and captivate the King of the Britons to gain influence for her father and her people.  She is mentioned by Nennius in Historia Brittonum (History of Britain) in the 9th century and Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) written about 1136 and by Wace in Roman de Brut between 1150 – 1155. Although she is not a well known figure she played an important role in the fate of Vortigern and Britain in the years before the birth of King Arthur.   She played a large part in manipulating and undermining Vortigern for the benefit of her father Hengist and her Anglo-Saxon people.  Presented below is a retelling  of the story of Rowena according to Wace.

Hengist

Vortigern the  King of the Britons had employed the Saxon warlord Hengist to aid his defense of his realm and had been well pleased by the fighting prowess he and his warriors had shown in his service. Hengist, thinking that his service was worthy of reward went to him and requested a portion of land that could be encircled by the thong of a bull.  Within this circle he proposed to build himself a stronghold he could use as a base to serve the King of the Britons better and Vortigern had agreed. Hengist built his stronghold which became known as Thong Castle or Vancaster and asked permission of Vortigern to bring more warriors over from Germany to serve the King under his direction. In due time there came from Germany to the shores of Britain eighteen war galleys each filled with fighting men at arms but also carrying a rarer and more valuable cargo.   With them they had brought Rowena, the fair and beautiful unwed daughter of Hengist.

Rowena

To celebrate the building of his stronghold and the arrival of the ships Hengist invited Vortigern to a banquet in his new hall.  Hengist wanted to show off his new stronghold and for him to see the warriors who would man it, but there was also another reason. Vortigern was duly impressed by the stronghold and by the warriors who he accepted into his service. As the banquet progressed and as the wine flowed, from her chamber appeared the beautiful Rowena, dressed in the finest of clothes and bearing a golden cup overflowing with wine.

Walking gracefully up to Vortigern she knelt before him and offered him the cup saying,

 “Washael, lord king!”

Although Vortigern was most enthralled by this vision of loveliness kneeling before him and offering him a brimming cup of wine he did not understand her language.  Therefore he turned to Redic a Breton who understood the Saxon tongue for interpretation. Redric told him,

“The maiden saluted thee courteously, calling thee lord. It is the want of her people, sire, that when friend drinks with friend, he who proffers the cup cries, ‘Washael,’ and that he who receives answers in turn, ‘Drinkhael’. Then drinks he the half of this loving cup, and for joy and for friendship of him who set it in his hand, kisses the giver with all fair fellowship.” (1)

Therefore, Vortigern smiling at Rowena took the cup saying,

“Drinkhael”

and drank half the cup returning it to drink and kissed her. This Saxon custom of toasting would eventually become popular throughout the land.  A cup would be offered saying “Washael,” with the receiver saying “Drinkhael,” and the two sharing a kiss.

Vortigern had been drinking heavily and Rowena was an exceptionally beautiful women. She was also one of the most most sort after princesses in Europe. Now she stood before Vortigern finely and elegantly dressed and he feasted his eyes upon her and he was smitten. He was in a most merry and sociable mood and because of the wine his wits were dulled and as she knelt smiling before him offering him the golden cup, Vortigern, the King of the Britons fell under the spell of Rowena, the daughter of Hengist the Saxon.  Vortigern was a Christian and Rowena a pagan and any such thoughts of lust or marriage should have been strictly taboo but he was well and truly hooked.

Vortigern and the Devil

It was said the devil entered into him that night.  Vortigern could see no shame or wrong in her and lust burned hot in him.  He wanted her more than anything else and he begged Hengist for her hand in marriage.  After consultation with his brother Horsa and his other chieftains Hengist agreed on condition that Vortigern give to him the province of Kent as her dowry.

Without hesitation or consulting with his own advisers and nobles Vortigern readily agreed. Hengist was not slow in claiming Kent and forced out the incumbent lord named Garagon who Vortigern had neglected to inform of his loss creating much resentment among his nobles.

They now saw their King married to a pagan and showing a greater liking to them and their pagan ways than to his own countrymen who were Christians.  With Rowena as his wife and Hengist his father-in-law, Vortigern did indeed begin to give more favor and preference to the pagan Saxons causing great concern among the nobles of the Britons.

Saxon Reinforcements

Hengist was quick to take advantage of the the hatred the Britons now held against Vortigern and himself and went to him seeking to bring in reinforcements from Germany telling him,

“… men hold thee in hatred by reason of me, and because of thy love they bear me malice also. I am thy father, and thou my son, since thou wert pleased to ask my daughter for thy wife. It is my privilege to counsel my king, and he should hearken to my counsel, and aid me to his power. If thou wilt make sure thy throne, and grieve those who use thee despitefully, send now for Octa my son, and for my cousin Ebissa. There are not two more cunning captains than these, nor two champions to excel them in battle. Give these captains of thy land towards Scotland, for from thence comes all the mischief. They will deal with thy foes in such fashion that never more shall they take of thy realm, but for the rest of thy days we shall live in peace beyond the Humber.”  (2)

Vortigern agreed giving his permission to invite as men men as would fight for him. Hengist duly summoned his kinsmen to bring all who would follow them and they brought with them a fleet of three hundred ships filled with Saxon men-at-arms.  So many came that the Britons became concerned that a takeover by stealth was happening and when Vortigern dismissed their concern they went to his son Vortimer.

This new influx of Saxon warriors enraged the British nobles who began to talk darkly about their king.  Soon their anger and resentment turned to open revolt. Vortimer, Vortigern’s eldest son from his first wife,  took the leadership of the rebels and was joined by his younger brothers Caligern and Pascentius. The rebels made Vortimer, King of the Britons and he led them in a series of four battles eventually forcing the Saxons from the mainland. Vortigern chose to stay with his new wife Rowena and his father-in-law throughout the fighting and would not disown Rowena and her father Hengist or speak against the Saxons. As far as he was concerned they had served him bravely and faithfully and he stayed among them while his sons and the Britons led by Vortimer attacked and harassed them.

The Battles of Vortimer

Vortimer was a brave and skilful general and  drove the Saxons from the fortified towns, defeating them in four battles. In the first battle he defeated them on the banks of the Darent.  The second was fought at the ford near Aylesford. In the third battle Catigurn and Horsa dueled killing each other and in the fourth Vortimer pushed the Saxons back to the sea confining them to the isle of Thanet. There he harried them daily from his ships cutting off all supplies and exit.

Hengist, knowing they were trapped, sent Vortigern to his son to negotiate a safe passage from the island back to Germany for him and his Saxons.  While the negotiations were ongoing and with the Britons distracted Hengist and his Saxon warriors took to their ships in haste, leaving the women and children behind and escaping back to Germany.

With the Saxons gone the realm of the Britons was now at peace and Vortimer set about rebuilding the damage to the churches and the cities that the Saxons had been responsible for.  He rewarded those who had fought for him and restored Christianity and the laws of the Britons.

Rowena’s Poison

Rowena hated Vortimer for driving out her father and restoring Christianity.   She kept in touch with him while he was in Germany,and treacherously instigated the poisoning of Vortimer.   Realizing he was dying Vortimer called his barons together and shared out the treasures he had won and then with his last words said,

“take into your service warriors not a few, and grudge not the sergeant his wages. Hold one to another, and maintain the land against these Saxons. That my work may not be wasted, and avenged upon those who live, do this thing for their terror. Take my body, and bury it upon the shore. Raise above me such a tomb, so large and lasting, that it may be seen from far by all who voyage on the sea. To that coast where my body is buried, living or dead, they shall not dare to come.”  (3)

After this he died but the barons, perhaps foolishly ignored his burial wish and buried him in London.  Although this was the end of Vortimer it was not the end of the Saxon wars.

Once again Vortigern was made King of the Britons with Rowena one of his queens. She persuaded him to invite her father back bringing with him a small personal guard. Instead, Hengist on hearing his arch foe Vortimer was dead, raised an army of three hundred thousand warriors and built a fleet of ships in preparation for the invasion of Britain.

As soon as news of this development reached Vortigern and his barons they vowed they would meet the invaders in battle and drive them from their shores.  Through Rowena, Hengist learned of this intent and rather than risk open battle he decided to try a more devious approach that involved making a great show of supposedly peaceful intentions.  He sent ambassadors to Vortigern explaining that he had only raised such a vast army because he feared attack from his son Vortimer who he thought was still alive.  Since then he had now received news confirming his death and proposed to leave it up to Vortigern’s discretion who and how many should be returned home to Germany.   He then proposed that if Vortigern was in agreement that he should choose a time and place where they could meet together unarmed and in friendship to discuss any problems and make a peace treaty together.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

This suited Vortigern and he agreed and a peace conference was organised between the two parties scheduled for the kalends of May at at the monastery of Ambrius on Salisbury Plain.  The two sides were supposed to meet unarmed and in good faith to work out a peaceful solution to their problems. Maybe Vortigern was still under the spell of Rowena but he trusted Hengist completely and the Britons arrived unarmed.  Hengist was not so trusting of the Britons and had other designs in his mind. He  ordered that all of his followers should conceal in their clothing a long knife with which they were to attack the Britons with at his signal. As the conference got underway the wine and beer began to flow and the Saxons acted in a friendly and sociable way towards the Britons encouraging them to drink.  When Hengist deemed the time was right he gave the order for his Saxons to attack the nearest Briton. He spared Vortigern but the only other British noble to escape death was Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, who in a mighty effort fought his way to a horse and escaped.  This treacherous event had a profound effect on the Britons who called it The Treachery of the Long Knives because  it left them virtually leaderless in the face of the Saxon takeover.

Hengist had spared Vortigern because of his marriage to Rowena but also because he wanted to extract ransom, forcing  him to give him all of the fortified towns and places in Britain in exchange for his life. With the most part of the nobles of the Britons massacred the country was now controlled by the Saxons.  With all of the fortified places in the hands of Hengist, Vortigern was forced to seek somewhere to make a refuge for himself and Rowena and those few who still followed him.

The Death of Vortigern and Rowena

The world had turned against him and soon he was to hear news of the arrival in Britain of an invasion force led by Aurelius Ambrosius, the rightful heir to the throne of Britain and his brother Uther.  They were determined to regain the crown of Britain that Vortigern had usurped and joined by Eldol and the remaining Britons they besieged him in his hastily built stronghold and finally burnt it to the ground killing him and Rowena.

© 26/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2018 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

The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons

vortigern-dragons

Vortigern and Merlin and the Two Dragons – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Arthurian realm of legend and romance destiny and fate play essential parts in many of the legends and stories.  The practice of some writers from the Romances back to Geoffrey of Monmouth to link to earlier works and legends often gives a sense that the main characters and events are governed by some supernatural force that shapes destiny and fate. Events that happened many years and sometimes centuries earlier, become linked to important events in later legends and stories returning to the fore after lying dormant. One of these events involved two important players in the Arthurian world, both having played a part in shaping the destiny of Britain before Arthur was even born.  These two were Vortigern who usurped the throne of Britain and a young Myrddin Emrys, also known as Myrddin Ambrosius or Merlin.  Vortigern gained infamy and a reputation for treachery and weakness and Merlin became the sorcerer, counselor and soothsayer of the kings of Britain in his time.

Fate and destiny combine in strange ways and an event from the distant past resurfaced to cause King Vortigern a problem he could not have foreseen and the only person who could solve this was the then young and unknown Merlin.  The two were brought together on Dinas Emrys where Merlin was inspired to make one of his most famous prophecies on the fate of Britain.  Sometimes  called the Prophecy of the Two Dragons or  The Prophecy of Merlin, it reveals the coming of Arthur and the future of Britain, making  him the leading soothsayer and sorcerer of his time.

Vortigern’s Fortress

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the Treachery of the Long Knives, when the greater part of the nobility and leadership of the Britons had been brutally and treacherously murdered by Hengist and his Saxons, the wise men of King Vortigern, advised him to seek out a place where he might build a fortress as a place of safety to retreat to.

After searching what remained of his realm for a safe and suitable site he finally chose a rocky, wooded, hill about one mile from what is now called Beddgelert in Gwynedd, Wales, that rises to a height of about 250 feet above the valley of the River Glaslyn.  This hill was once called Dinas Ffaraon Dandde or fortress of Fiery Pharaoh, and later became known as Dinas Emrys which means fortress of Ambrosius.

Thinking he has found a good site Vortigern gave the command for the work on building the walls of the fortress to commence.   His builders worked hard building walls and towers in the daytime but no matter how far they progressed in a day, when they came back the next morning, they would find the previous day’s work in a heap on the ground.  Although the builders used all their skills and knowledge and worked as hard as they possibly could during the day, each morning they would return to find the previous day’s work once again in a pile on the ground. This went on for many days until Vortigern was obliged to seek help from his wise men. According to Nennius, a 9th century monk and writer, his wise men informed him that that he would have to seek out a young boy. “not conceived by a mortal man”. who would be sacrificed and his blood sprinkled in the mortar of the stonework in the hope of appeasing what ever dark power was hindering the construction of the fortress.

Myrddin Emrys

Vortigern sent his messengers out across the land seeking out such a boy.  After many days and much searching, one of the messengers returned with a boy named Myrddin Emrys or Merlin Ambrosius, who was the only boy they could find “not conceived by a mortal man”.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, 1137) says that Merlin was believed to have been the the son of an incubus, or demon and his mother was mortal and was a nun.   With the incubus representing Satan and the nun representing Jesus Christ, or God, he had been born from two opposing powers.  As such he was said to have inherited the wisdom, knowledge and powers of both of these forces.  He was brought before Vortigern who told him the fate he intended to inflict upon him.  Geoffrey says,

“A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?” “That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”

However, according to Geoffrey, Merlin was not intimidated by Vortigern.  Instead, he spoke with power and authority, demanding to know where he had got this idea from. He then declared to Vortigern he would reveal the real reason why the construction of the fortress was unsuccessful.

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Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern – By Unknown illustrator. Per Nigel Morgan Survey, probably London, 1250 or earlier. Style of Matthew Paris, but not him. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Prophecy of the Two Dragons

Geoffrey of Monmouth then gives the following account of Merlin’s interview with Vorigern and his wise men,

“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?” “My wise men,” answered the king. “Order them hither,” returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;” then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement:” they acknowledging their ignorance, “there is,” said he, “a pool; come and dig:” they did so, and found the pool. “Now,” continued he, “tell me what is in it;” but they were ashamed, and made no reply. “I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;” they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions,” What is in the vases?” they were silent: “there is a tent in them,” said the boy; “separate them, and you shall find it so;” this being done by the king’s command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;” they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; “consider attentively,” said the boy, “what they are doing.” The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king,”

The wise men of Vortigern had no idea of what any these signs meant and could not hide their ignorance.  With growing confidence Merlin told them their meaning and then made a famous prophecy about the fate of Britain,

“I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.”

Merlin then explained that the problems with the construction were actually caused by the two sleeping dragons waking up and fighting each other.  He explained the Red Dragon represented the defenders of Britain which although exhausted and appearing defeated would eventually rise up and repulse  the White Dragon of the invading Anglo-Saxons.   He told of the coming of Arthur who he referred to as the Boar of Cornwall which would be the emblem on his banner and prophesied that six kings descended from Arthur would rule before the Anglo-Saxons returned to rule over Britain.

Then Merlin told Vortigern that he was not destined to build his fortress on this site.  He told him that fate had given the ownership of the hill to himself and told Vortigern he must seek elsewhere for a suitable site.  Vortigern followed Merlin’s advice and eventually settled on Cair Guorthegirn whom some scholars think may be Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed, but it is not proven and there are several other candidates. This was to be the place Vortigern met his death when it was burned down by Ambrosius and Uther, two brothers who attacked him out of revenge for killing another of their brothers who had been king.

For the defenders of Britain the prophecy of the two dragons was a momentous event, giving hope and inspiration for those who lived in those times to carry on the fight and was an important moment in the destiny of Britain and he went on to make further prophecies concerning the future of Britain beyond Arthur’s time. However, as with many other important events in the Arthurian world the seeds of this event were sown may centuries earlier before even the Romans ruled by a King of Britain named Lludd Llaw Eraint in the Mabinogion who in Geoffrey’s work is believed to be King Lud.

Lludd Llaw Eraint

The tale of Lludd and Llevelys from the Mabinogion reveals how these two dragons came to be placed in the pool on Dinas Emrys centuries earlier to be found later in Vorigern’s time and inspire the prophecy of Merlin.  In this tale Lludd and Llevelys are two brothers.  Lludd ruled Britain while Llevelys ruled Gaul.   There came a time when Britain was afflicted by three terrible plagues.  The first plague was that of the Coraniaid. The second was the plague of the two dragons.  The third was caused by a giant who would keep stealing the provisions from the royal stores.  It is the second plague that explains how the two dragons came to be entombed in the pool on Dinas Emrys.

The Plague of the Two Dragons

According to the tale they were placed there by Lludd acting on the advice of his brother, because they had caused Britain great fear and anxiety.   The story goes that every year on the eve of May Day a terrible shrieking scream was heard throughout the length and breadth of the realm which was caused by two dragons fighting each other.   One of the dragons was red and the other was white.   When the White Dragon fought the Red Dragon it caused it to make the fearful, shrieking cry.  It was this terrible scream that was heard throughout the country searing into the very hearts of the people causing great fear and anxiety among them.  The scream was so awful it caused strong men to wax pale and fall weak, women would lose their babies, and young men and maidens would become bereft of their senses. Furthermore, all creatures, plants and trees, waters and the earth itself became barren and infertile.  The plague was finally defeated when Lludd following the advice of his brother Llevelys set a trap for the dragons capturing and containing them.  He then buried them under the pool on Dinas Emrys which at the time was deemed to be the safest part of his kingdom.

His brother had advised Lludd that to capture the dragons he would need to dig a pit in the exact center of his kingdom.  After taking measurements from all corners of his realm Lludd determined that the center lay in a place now called Oxford.  He placed a cauldron of mead in the bottom of the pit and covered it with a sheet of satin.  To begin with the dragons took on the shape of terrifying animals and fell about fighting each other by the side of the pit. Then they transformed into huge winged beast and fought each other in the air.  Finally they exhausted themselves and transforming into pigs fell from the air landing on the covering of a satin sheet which gave way and they fell into the cauldron of mead.  Drinking the mead they fell into a stupor and fell asleep. Lludd then wrapped them up in the satin sheet and placed them in a stone coffin and took them to Dinas Emrys where they were placed under the pool on the hill.

Destiny and Fate

Centuries later Vortigern, seeking out a site to build a fortress, chose Dinas Emrys. There he encountered problems securing the foundations and sought to remedy this. According to his wise men he needed to sacrifice a boy “not conceived by a mortal man” and sprinkle his blood in the foundations.   Vortigern found such a being named Myrddin Emrys who made his famous prophecy and was to prove instrumental in ensuring the destiny of Britain unfolded.  This is how destiny and fate often come together to work in strange, unforeseen ways in the legends and romances of King Arthur.

© 05/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright July 5th, 2017 zteve t evans