Vortigern’s Rule: The Assassination of King Constans

Image by by Matthew Paris – Public Domain

Vortigern and the Chaos  of Britain

According to the Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and  Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.

This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars.  Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans.  It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.

The  Assassination of  King Constantine

After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back.  After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery.  Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king.  The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther.  Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther.  It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.  

Vortigern Becomes Ambitious

Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life.  Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself.  To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser. 

Constans: The Puppet King

Constans agreed and left the monastery and  Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king.  The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony. 

Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people.  He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name.  With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.  

The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means.  At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent.  As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.

Vortigern’s Treachery

He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination.  Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard.  This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting.  Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.

Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control.  He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.

To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard.  When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome.  He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard.  So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.

Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans.  In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them.  Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.

The Killing of King Constans

He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain.  Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them.  They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,

“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1) 

After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber.  They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.

Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown.  In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica.    The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.

As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country.  Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay. 

The Threat of Aurelius

Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother.  Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain.  He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.

Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning.  With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance.  Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.  

With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had  his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret.   As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.

To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.

© 12/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

The Rule of Vortigern, Legendary King of the Britons

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 18th March, 2018, titled, British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena – The Rule of Vortigern

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Rowena and Vortigern By William Hamilton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena – The Rule of Vortigern

Vortigern was legendary 5th century King of the Britons featured in the work of early British writers such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others. There is a debate over whether Vortigern was a term for a high king who was chosen by a form of consensus to rule or whether it was the name of a person such as a warlord, lesser king, or political leader. This work takes it as the name of a person of high status who through his ruthless cunning and experience took over the rule of the Britons during dangerous times. 

Vortigern is usually presented in a bad light, as a man of immoral and selfish character who used duplicity and deception to rise to the top of the British establishment of his day. He is usually blamed for encouraging the arrival of the Saxon and Germanic invaders to Britain. At first, these were employed as his mercenaries to support his own power and to fight against the Picts and Scots but later he was to find he could not control them. Some scholars say the ruling elite of the Britons may deserve at least an equal share of the blame through their own weakness and disarray in facing their enemies. It may be that as far as the defense of realm was concerned, he did the best he could with the resources he had available to him which had been seriously depleted by the actions of earlier rulers. Yet questions are posed by some of the early writers about his morality and behaviour. Indeed, acts of lust, intrigue, murder, duplicity, and treachery are usually seen to be the hallmarks of his reign. This work presents a brief overview of the rule of Vortigern, looking at some of these alleged acts and incidents some of which resonate through the ages to the present and are the very stuff of legends.

Vortigern Takes the Crown

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern set up Constans, the eldest of the sons of King Constantine II who had been assassinated, to rule the Britons because he rightly believed he could control him and eventually take over the crown. After arranging for his murder, he usurps the crown to find that one day a cleverer and more ruthless man would appear on the scene. That man was Hengist, the leader of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes in Britain.

After the assassination of Constans by Pict mercenaries controlled by Vortigern, there was no one of suitable status, experience or age to take his place. The rightful heirs to the throne of the Briton were Aurelius Ambrosius and his younger brother Uther, who were the sons of King Constantine II and the younger brothers of Constans, but they were just children and deemed too young to take the throne. Vortigern was the most experienced political figure of the Britons at the time and very ambitious. Insidiously, he had wormed his way into becoming the chief advisor of Constans, while all the time working secretly to promote his own ambitions and quietly gaining power, authority, and the king’s trust.

With the murder of Constans that he carefully and covertly set up, he stepped forward and seized the crown for himself. Not all of the British lords were friends of Vortigern, and some of these, fearing for the safety of the two young heirs, sent them into exile to Armorica for their own safekeeping. There they grew up safely and were taught the arts of royalty and leadership while all the time preparing to return one day and claim back the crown of the Britons.

Having seized the throne, Vortigern would find the rule of the kingdom was far from an easy task. In the north, Picts and Scots made frequent raids into his realm, but there was also another impending and growing threat that he feared. As the years passed by, he was aware of the maturing and coming of age of the royal brothers. He received reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army, and his spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their rightful inheritance. Taking stock of the situation, he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom.

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Eldol the Mighty, Duke of Gloucester

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James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Three Vigorous Ones of Britain

One of the lesser known and unsung heroes of the legend and mythology of the Britons was Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester.  Although mentioned in History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth he is largely unknown but his story tells of treachery and revenge in wild, wild times.  He was also known as Eldol the Mighty and was also mentioned in the Triads of Britain by Iolo Morganwg, as one of the Three Vigorous Ones of Britain.  The other two were  Gwrnerth of the sharp shot, who shot and killed the greatest bear that had ever lived using a straw arrow and Gwgawn of the mighty hand.   Gwgawn alone rolled the Stone of Maenarch, which normally needed sixty of the strongest oxen to move it, from the bottom of the valley to the top of the mountain.

Eldol gained his place as one of the vigorous three because he survived the terrible event in the history of the Britons known as the Treachery of the Long Knives by fighting his way free.   He also joined with the new King of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius and burnt the traitor King Vortigern in his tower.  Then he fought for Aurelius against the Saxons dueling with and capturing alive their warlord Hengist bringing him to face the justice of the King of the Britons.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

The event that became known as the Treachery of the Long Knives happened when Vortigern, the King of the Britons invited the Saxon warlord, Hengist to a peace conference at a monastery on the mythical Mount Ambrius on Salisbury Plain.  All participants were supposed to attend unarmed and this rule was strictly followed by the Britons.  However, Hengist had ordered his chieftains to conceal a long knife in their clothing to use at his command.  They were to act in  a peaceable and friendly manner and socialize with the Britons putting them at ease.  When Hengist gave the agreed  signal the Saxons stabbed the nearest Briton to them.  This act of treachery resulted in the deaths of most of the leading Britons.  Only Eldol and Vortigern of the Britons survived the attack. Eldol found a wooden stave which he used with deadly effect to kill six hundred and sixty Saxons in a desperate  fight between the setting of the sun and darkness before fighting his way to a horse and escaping to his home town of Gloucester.

Vortigern was purposely spared on the orders of Hengist because he was married to his daughter, Rowena, but also to draw ransom from and to manipulate further.  In return for his life Hengist demanded all of the fortified towns and places of the Britons be handed to him. With no other choice Vortigern agreed virtually handing over the rule of Britain to him.   This event profoundly affect the ability of the Britons to resist the Saxons as they were now virtually bereft of experienced leadership and no strong places. Vortigern, in an attempt to keep himself safe, looked for a site where he could build a place of strong refuge now that Hengist had all the fortified places of the Britons.

Merlin and the Two Dragons

At one site he made continued attempts to build a tower but the works would keep falling down overnight.  He was advised by Merlin that underground was a pool of water and that was what was making the walls fall down.  In the water there were two dragons; one red and one white that had been imprisoned there many, many, years ago in another age by KIng Lludd.

Merlin advised Vortigern to drain the pool and the dragons were revealed and set about fighting each other.  The red dragon drove out the white after a long and violent struggle. Merlin told him this represented the victory of the Britons over the Saxons and advised him that he saw two deaths for him.  One from the Saxons and one from the Britons but he could not say which would come first. He also prophesied the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius who would unite the Britons and be crowned their king.  He would drive out the Saxons and come looking to avenge his father and elder brother who had been murdered by Vortigern when he usurped the throne. He made it clear his fate was sealed and the only question was who would get to him first.

Aurelius Ambrosius

Eldol and the few nobles who were left who had not been present at the massacre of the Britons by Hengist stepped up to take the leadership of the Britons and now joined forces with Aurelius recognising him as the rightful heir to the throne and making him their King.   They wanted him to drive out the Saxons first and then bring Vortigern to justice for bringing them in in the first place but Aurelius refused insisting Vortigern would be dealt with first. Eldol paid homage to him and told him how he had survived the Saxon treachery and of those who had fallen.

The Burning of Vortigern

Aurelius listened sympathetically but made it clear he wanted to defeat Vortigern first saying,

“See, most noble duke, whether the walls of this city are able to protect Vortigern against my sheathing this sword in his bowels. He deserves to die, and you cannot, I suppose, be ignorant of his desert. Oh most villainous of men, whose crimes deserve inexpressible tortures!  First he betrayed my father Constantine, who had delivered him and his country from the inroads of the Picts; afterwards my brother Constans whom he made king on purpose to destroy him. Again, when by his craft he had usurped the crown, he introduced pagans among the natives, in order to abuse those who continued steadfast in their loyalty to me: … Now, therefore, my countrymen, show yourselves men, first revenge yourselves upon him that was the occasion of all these disasters; then let us turn our arms against our enemies, and free our country from their brutish tyranny.” (1)

Wasting no more time, Aurelius and Eldol then put on their armour together intent on the destruction of Vortigern.   Aurelius set siege engines to work to break down the walls of the defenses but these failed. Determined to waste no more time he ordered the moat be drained and  filled with wood and combustible material and set ablaze. He commanded his archers to let fly burning arrows into the stronghold that found plenty of fuel. Vortigern was burnt to death in the tower of his last refuge along with his wives.

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James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Defeating  the Saxons

With Vortigern defeated the King of the Britons turned his attention to Hengist and the Saxons and moved his army northwards to confront him.   Hengist realised he had to fight the Britons head on or risk becoming trapped. To motivate his men he pointed out that they had the advantage in numbers telling them this would ensure victory.   Then he moved his army to a place where he knew the Britons would have to pass through hoping to take them by surprise. However, Aurelius had anticipated this and quick marched his men to confront the Saxons before they were ready.   He had given each regiment strict instructions and would himself lead the cavalry in a charge on the Saxon positions.

This had been the moment that a Eldol the Duke of Gloucester had been yearning for ever since the Treachery of the Long Knives.  His big hope was to find Hengist on the battlefield and engage in single combat to the death with him.   Many of the Britons also had old scores to settle against the Saxons and were determined to avenge the crimes they had committed against them.  Even so, the Saxons were still a powerful army and to defeat them would require a massive effort by the Britons.

With the arrival of the Britons the battle was quick to flare up and raged with unrestrained ferocity from both sides.   Eldol scoured the field searching out Hengist but the fighting was to thick and fierce and in the fray it was impossible to find him.   Despite urging his men on and presenting a fine example of bravery and leadership Hengist realised the Britons had gained the advantage and led his men in a retreat to the town of what is now Conisburgh.

Again Hengist resisted taking his army into the city fearing Aurelius would lay siege to it preventing escape.  He knew his Saxons were still a powerful force and he marshalled them and regrouped outside the town and prepared them to face the Britons outside the town.  His thinking was that he would rather defeat them in outright battle of force a way through and escape heading for Scotland, or to their ships on the coast.

Aurelius wasted no time and attacked the Saxons on arrival and there began a most terrible and bloody battle.   The Britons attacked with all their might hoping to overpower the Saxons who fought back courageously. Seeing the ferocity of the Saxon defense Aurelius sent in cavalry against them breaking their ranks and preventing them from regrouping and  causing confusion. This disarray encouraged the Britons who attacked now with greater ferocity.

Aurelius again urged the cavalry against the Saxons driving them before him.  Eldol fighting on foot leading the infantry took the fight to the Saxons killing all in his path but always seeking out his deadly archenemy, Hengist.   Eventually the two met face to face and a deadly duel followed. Hengist was a skilled swordsman and as ferocious as any warrior and Eldol the champion of the Britons now had his wish come true and while the battle raged all around them the two fought one another in a ferocious duel.

At times Hengist drove forward against his opponent but Eldol parried blow after blow and through the power in his arms and body and the steel of his will fought back. Hengist recovered and again with his swordsmanship began to take the advantage but at that moment the arrival of a fresh contingent of cavalry led by Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall gave renewed energy to the Britons and Eldol surged forward and managed to take a strong grip on the war helmet of Hengist and catching him off balance pulled him into the ranks of the Britons.

A clamour rose among the Britons for Hengist to be killed immediately.  Eldol refused telling them that Hengist would face the justice of Aurelius Ambrosius, the King of the Britons.   He had him bound in chains and taken from the battlefield to await the justice of the king. With Hengist now in their hands the Britons gained great heart and fought harder.  Although the Saxons had lost their general and great inspirational leader they continued to fight on but gradually, lacking his direction they were steadily and surely pushed back until they were forced to flee for their lives.

The Vengeance of Eldol

With the Britons victorious Aurelius decided to rest his army in Conan driving out any remaining Saxons.  Then he gave orders for the dead to be given a proper burial and tended the wounded of his own army and rested his troops.   To help him decide the fate of Hengist he called a council of his lords and bishops and had Hengist brought before him. Eldad the bishop of Gloucester and the brother of Eldol stood up and said,

“Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.” (2)

Aurelius and all those present unanimously agreed that this would.  Therefore, Eldol led Hengist from the council and executed him as had been decided.   King Aurelius Ambrosius who always showed respect to others ordered that earth should be raised over the body of Hengist as was the traditional burial practice of the Saxons in their homeland.  So it was that Eldol who had survived that terrible night of Saxon treachery came at last to wreak his vengeance on his archenemy, Hengist and become one of the mightiest heroes of the Britons.

© 12/07/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans

Merlin and the Giant’s Dance: The Victory of Art over Strength

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By Blaeu, J (Atlas van Loon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in History of the Kings of Britain  Merlin was an advisor, prophet and magician of kings.  One of his greatest feats was to dismantle a huge stone circle known as the Giant’s Dance situated on Mount Killaraus in Ireland and bring it across the Irish Sea to Britain where he installed it for King Aurelius Ambrosius as a monument to the victims of a Saxon massacre of leading Britons.  What follows is a retelling of the story of how and why Merlin brought the Giant’s Dance from Ireland to Britain beginning with the return of Aurelius and his brother, Uther.

The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius

While the usurper King Vortigern had been misruling Britain in violent times, the true heirs to the throne, Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther had been sent to  Armorica by opponents of the king being too young to rule and to protect them from him.As Aurelius grew up  he entered many of the royal tournaments around Europe and fought for Armorica in many of their battles. He gained a fearsome reputation as a formidable warrior and leader of men.

As he and Uther had come of age, with the help of the King of Armorica, they prepared for their return to Britain.  They intended to, wreak vengeance on Vortigern and defeat Hengist and the Saxons and reclaim their rightful inheritance.   They built a great fleet of ships and filled them with warriors and sailed across the sea to disembark their troops at Totnes.  News of their arrival spread like wildfire.  The remaining warlords of the Briton flocked to their cause making Aurelius the King of Britain.  After a series of battles they defeated their enemies killing Vortigern and Hengist and succeeded in driving out the Saxons.

As he had marched to battle King Aurelius had been appalled at the damage and suffering the Saxons had caused.  Now victorious, he called a council of his lords and clergy to discuss and plan the rebuilding of war-ravaged Britain.  He brought back the old laws and returned lands to those that had lost them to the Saxons.  Where there was no living heir he divided these lands among his loyal followers.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

He travelled through many towns and cities and eventually arrived in Winchester. Then he traveled to Kaercaradduc, now known as Salisbury and at the instigation of Bishop Eldad visited the monastery of Ambrius.  This was the place where the murder of the British lords and nobles took place at the instigation of Hengist.  This event had scarred the psyche of the Britons and became known as The Treachery of the Long Knives. Aurelius visited the burial place of the victims and was overcome with emotion with the terrible event that happened there.  He began to think about an appropriate monument to remember and honour the victims by so that Britons should never forget the treachery wrought by Hengist and the Saxons

Seeking inspiration he brought together the best masons, carpenters and artisans in Britain  telling them to design and build a fitting monument.   After much deliberation these worthy men went to King Aurelius and told him despite their skills and craftsmanship they could not between them come up with a fitting design.  Then the archbishop of the City of the Legions, stood up and said,

“If any one living is able to execute your commands, Merlin, the prophet of Vortigern, is the man. In my opinion there is not in all your kingdom a person of a brighter genius, either in predicting future events, or in mechanical contrivances. Order him to come to you, and exercise his skill in the work which you design.” (1)

Merlin had gained fame when he had revealed to Vortigern the  two hidden dragons that  were hidden in a pool that caused building work on a new stronghold to collapse.  He also predicted the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther with an invasion force to take back the crown of Britain.  Merlin also forewarned Vortigern that he saw two deaths for him: one by Aurelius and the other by the Anglo-Saxons.  It so happened that Aurelius reached him first and burnt him to death in his stronghold.  Merlin also predicted there would come a king who would drive out the Anglo-Saxons from Briton and create an empire in Europe and that would be Arthur.

Merlin’s Advice

Hearing what was said, Aurelius sent messengers to find and bring back Merlin.  The messengers traveled to all parts of the country and eventually found him.  The message was given and Merlin was escorted to the court of King Aurelius Ambrosius.  Aurelius welcomed Merlin warmly and made it clear he was very pleased to see him.  He was genuinely curious about him and his prophecies asking many questions concerning them. Then he requested that he make a prophecy there and then.  Merlin declined saying,

“Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it.” (2)

Others present urged and encouraged him but he flatly refused. Aurelius, respecting Merlin’s answer changed the subject and told him of his idea to built a fitting monument to those who died during The Treachery of the Long Knives.   He explained how the best craftsmen and masons in Britain could not think of a suitable design and requested his opinion  on the matter.  Merlin replied,

“If you are desirous,to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.” (3)

King Aurelius Ambrosius was bemused and laughed out loud thinking he was not serious saying,

“How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?”  (4)

However, Merlin was very serious and told him sternly,

“I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness.

For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.” (5)

Then Aurelius and all those present fell silent at the words of Merlin.  Aurelius discussed the proposal with those present and it was agreed that such a monument to the dead would be fitting.  The king’s younger brother, Uther was appointed command of an army fifteen thousand strong.  He was to travel to Ireland to Mount Killaraus and bring the stones back to Britain using any means necessary including force.   Merlin was also sent with him as his advisor and to direct the work in uprooting and transporting thèm from the legendary mountain back across the sea to Britain and then to their final destination at Ambrius.  Once there, he would set them up exactly as they had been in Ireland.   A suitable fleet of ships was built to carry the stones and the army under the leadership of Uther, with Merlin as his advisor, set sail for Ireland.

The Taking of the Giant’s Dance

The King of Ireland was a young man named Gillomanius.  When he heard of the landing of an army of Britons  upon the shores of his kingdom be wasted no time in mustering his own warriors to counter the threat.  On being told the motive for their presence he laughed long and loudly.  He poured scorn and derision on them saying,

No wonder a cowardly race of people were able to make so great a devastation in the island of Britain, when the Britons are such brutes and fools. Was ever the like folly heard of? What are the stones of Ireland better than those of Britain, that our kingdom must be put to this disturbance for them? To arms, soldiers, and defend your country; while I have life they shall not take from us the least stone of the Giant’s Dance.” (6)

Gillomanius ordered his army into defensive positions around the stones.  Uther, seeing the Irish intent to defend the Giant’s Dance and with his mission and goal clear commanded the army of the Britons to attack.   The Britons forced the Irish to scatter preventing them from uniting. Gillomanius was routed and forced off Mount Killaraus leaving the stones to the Britons.

When at last they stood on Mount Killaraus before the Giant’s Dance, Uther and the Britons were full of admiration for what they saw and stood in awe looking at them.  Then Merlin came among the army of the Britons and challenged them saying,

“Now try your forces, young men, and see whether strength or art can do the most towards taking down these stones.” (7)

Taking up the challenge the soldiers went to work work trying all sorts of levers and pulleys with great lengths of ropes and cables.  They pulled, pushed and sweated and strained  but no matter how hard they tried they could not move a single stone one inch.

After watching their efforts for some time in quiet amusement Merlin then took command of the project.   He showed them how to construct engines he had designed and under his watchful eye and supervision the stones were taken easily from the ground and transported to the ships and placed safely on board.  When all the stones were loaded the fleet set off under a fair wind to Britain where Merlin supervised their transport to the site prepared at Ambrius.

When messengers brought the news of their arrival in Britain to King Aurelius Ambrosius he was overjoyed.  He summoned all of Britain’s noblemen and clergy to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost at the monastery of Ambrius to formally dedicate the monument to those fallen in The Treachery of the Long Knives.   The celebrations lasted for three days and in front of the whole assembly and with respect to all royal protocol, Aurelius placed the crown of Britain on his head.  Then he sent for his servants and insisted they join with the nobles and clergy in feasting as thanks for their excellent and loyal service.

The Victory of Art over Strength

He then attended to all necessary business matters and appointed bishops to the vacant sees of York and the City of Legions, known today as Caerleon.  He gave York to Sanxo and the City  of Legions to Dubricius.  After he had settled other affairs of his realm he commanded Merlin to reconstruct the Giant’s Dance around the graves of the victims of the Saxon treachery.   Merlin used the same arts and techniques he had used on Mount Killaraus to quickly install the Giant’s Dance on their new site exactly as they had been in Ireland.   Once erected the Giant’s Dance proved to be a most fitting and enduring monument as King Aurelius had intended and answered Merlin’s challenge proving “the victory of art over strength” 

When King Aurelius Ambrosius died he was buried in the Giant’s Dance and his younger brother Uther became King of Britain.  When Uther died through treachery he too was buried there and today the Giant’s Dance still stands as a monument to the victims of treachery and betrayal.

© 21/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 22st, 2017 zteve t evans