Uther Pendragon, the Prophecy of Merlin and the Making of a King

The legendary Uther Pendragon was the father of Arthur Pendragon, who was destined to become the greatest King of the Britons. Arthur would drive out the invading Saxons, bring peace to the country and build an empire in Europe. Uther was usually seen as a strong king and a great warrior but could also be vain, quick tempered, impulsive and ungrateful at times. This impulsiveness and ingratitude came to the fore when he fell passionately in love with Igraine, the young wife of one of his oldest and most loyal nobles, Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall. Gorlois had served the king bravely and faithfully and through his wisdom had turned a likely defeat into a resounding victory for Uther, who may have been expected to show his thanks and gratitude. Nevertheless, when love strikes as it struck Uther, the result can be devastating. Uther’s burning passion for Igraine unleashed a violent and bloody war to win the object of his lust, aided by the subtle arts and magic of Merlin. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gildas and Wace, and brings together the elements of lust, violence, deception and the magic of Merlin. It was from this mix that King Arthur, the great defender and savior of the Britons from the Saxons, would be conceived, and eventually come to power to save his people.

The Prophecy of Merlin

Uther became King of the Britons of the island of Britain after the death of his brother King Aurelius Ambrosius from poisoning. As Aurelius lay seriously ill in Winchester, word came that Pascentius, the son of Vortigern, and Gillomanius the King of Ireland had landed with an invading army. With Aurelius incapacitated, Uther, accompanied by Merlin, led the army of the Britons to meet the invaders, having no idea of the treachery that would befall his brother.

On his way to the battle, Uther saw a most remarkable spectacle in the skies. There appeared a star of such magnitude and brilliance that it was seen both day and night. The star emitted a single ray of light that created a fiery mass resembling the body and head of a dragon. Shining from the mouth of the dragon came two rays of light. One extended out across the skies of Britain and over Gaul. The other extended out over the Irish Sea culminating in seven lesser beams of light. Such was its magnitude, it could be seen all across Britain and beyond, and filled the people with fear and dread not knowing what it might portend.

On seeing it, Uther called Merlin to him and asked its meaning. Merlin looked up at the sky and cried out in sorrow,

“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)

Uther, although undoubtedly impressed by the heavenly display, doubted Merlin’s interpretation. Maybe he did not want to believe his brother was dead and maybe he did not want to be distracted by thoughts of taking the crown. Maybe the prophecy that his son would build a great empire and from his daughter would come the future Kings of the Britons was too much of a distraction. Whatever the future might bring, the immediate peril lay before him and he was determined not to fail. He was now less than half a day’s march from Pascentius and Gillomanius who presented a real threat that could not be ignored or postponed. Therefore, with great determination, he pushed on to meet them head to head in battle.

The two sides attacked each other on sight, and a furious and bloody fight ensued that raged unchecked throughout the day. Eventually, Uther and the Britons gained the advantage and when Pascentius and Gillomanius were killed, the Irish and Saxons fled the field, making for their ships. Uther gained a stunning victory, confirming the accuracy of the first part of Merlin’s prophecy. The next day, as Uther and his troops were savouring their victory, a messenger arrived from Winchester with the grievous news of the death of his brother, King Aurelius Ambrosius. The messenger told how he had been buried in the Giant’s Dance, the monument he had caused Uther and Merlin to bring to Britain, thus, sadly confirming another part of the prophecy.

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Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 18th April 2018 titled, British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons

 British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons

This is the story of the legendary Aurelius Ambrosius, a King of the Britons in the 5th century AD.  According to some medieval writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the uncle of the famous King Arthur, who would later take the crown.  Most accounts say he was a modest, just, and determined man who exercised self-discipline in all of his ways.  He was a skilled warrior both on horseback and on the ground; an inspiring leader of men and an outstanding military tactician and general. Aurelius harbored a burning hatred for King Vortigern, who had usurped the crown of the Britons from his family.  Vortigern had, however, been betrayed by his Saxon allies, resulting in the deaths of many of the ruling Britons in an incident known as “The Treachery of the Long Knives.”  With the Britons defeated and under Saxon tyranny, Aurelius Ambrosius with his brother Uther returned to free their countrymen and reclaim the crown of the Britons.  Presented here and drawn from several sources listed below is the story of how Aurelius defeated Vortigern and the Saxons led by Hengist to become King of the Britons, restore law and order, and begin the process of rebuilding a wounded and shattered nation.

The Burning of Vortigern

While the Saxon takeover of Britain was unfolding, in exile, Aurelius Ambrosius was making a name for himself in the battles of Armorica, and his fame spread across Europe.  Finally, after meticulous preparation, he arrived on the shores of Britain at Totnes with his younger brother Uther, at the head of a powerful invasion force of Armorican cavalry and footmen.  Word of the coming of Aurelius and his brother spread rapidly across Britain.   The few war leaders and nobles that were left after ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives had been scattered and leaderless, but were now united under the banner of Aurelius, burning for vengeance.  They came together from all parts of Britain to join with him and brought together the clergy, who anointed him the King of the Britons.

The Britons wanted to attack Hengist immediately but Aurelius overruled them.  Instead he was intent on first wreaking vengeance on Vortigern, and led the Britons to his last stronghold. Aurelius was joined by Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, the only British noble of those present, apart from Vortigern, to have survived ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives.  Once his army had taken up their positions, Aurelius gave the command for the great siege engines to set to work.  Though these laboured long and hard, they could not break through the walls.  After all attempts had failed, Aurelius gave the order to burn the tower. Ordering wood to be piled around it and set on fire,  his archers fired burning arrows into the stronghold, where they found plenty of fuel.  There was no escape for Vortigern: along with his wives and followers, he perished in the flames.

The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius

The arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius to take the throne of the King of the Britons put fear into the hearts of Hengist and his Saxons, who was well aware of his reputation.   Hengist knew full well that, being the rightful heir to the throne of Britain, Aurelius had right on his side. He also knew all about his prowess as a warrior and military strategist and he feared Aurelius above all his other enemies.

As Aurelius made his way north, Hengist realised he had to fight.  He urged his warriors not to fear Aurelius,  telling them his Armorican horsemen were few and that the army of the Britons numbered less than ten thousand, while pointing to their own superiority in numbers. Having greatly motivated his men,  Hengist set them in battle formation at a place he knew Aurelius would have to pass through, thinking to catch him by surprise and unprepared.  Aurelius anticipated this however, and instead of being caught out,  marched his men with more vigour to meet the Saxons and provoke open conflict. He gave each regiment their orders and would himself lead the Armorican cavalry into a frontal attack on the Saxon line.

For Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, this was the moment he had been waiting for. Ever since the mass murder of the British nobility, he had been hoping to engage Hengist in single combat where there would only be one winner.  All of the Britons in that battle had scores to settle. They were determined to avenge the wrongs done to their homeland by the Saxons — who were still a formidable and dangerous fighting force — and drive them out of their country.  The scene was set for a grim and bloody battle for supremacy, with the prize being the control of the island of Britain.

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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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Vortigern’s Rule: The Battles of Vortimer

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[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vortimer

Vortimer was the eldest son of Vortigern, King of the Britons of the island of Britain and his mother was believed to be Sevira, daughter of the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus, or Macsen Wledig as carved on the Pillar of Elise.   He had watched with growing concern as his father had brought in Germanic mercenaries to fight in the defense of his realm against Pict and Irish enemies.   These mercenaries were pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes and were led by two Hengist and his brother Horsa. The fighting skills of the pagan mercenaries was formidable and Vortigern brought in more and more under the persuasion of the wily Hengist to defend the realm.  However, the British nobles who were staunchly Christian, became increasingly concerned at their growing numbers power and raised objection to Vortigern’s policy of using mercenaries.

Vortigern saw Hengist and Horsa and their warriors as valuable assets in defending his kingdom and also himself and had served him faithfully in his eyes but the Saxon warlords had secret plans to take over the kingdom.  The first part of their plan was to impress Vortigern with their military skills and the second part was to control Vortigern. To do this Hengist brought over his beautiful daughter, Rowena.

As soon as Vortigern set eyes upon her he fell in love with her and begged Hengist for her hand in marriage.  Hengist agreed but drove a hard bargain and asked for the British province of Kent as dowry for her. Vortigern readily agreed and married Rowena while Hengist received Kent which would make an invaluable foothold for him to expand Saxon presence and influence throughout Britain.

The marriage if a pagan princess to a Christian King was seen as strictly taboo by the British nobles, but the increasing Germanic presence and their King’s favouring if them caused increasing alarm and resentment.  They went to him expressing their concerns but he would not listen and the scene was set for open rebellion.

The Battles of Vortimer

Therefore, as Vortigern would not listen to his nobles and war leaders they made his son Vortimer the King of Britain and deposed Vortigern.   Vortimer with the backing of the British nobility began to attack the Saxons with great success. He fought four great battles against them and was victorious in each.

The first battle was fought upon the banks of the river Darent.  The second battle was fought upon the ford of Aylesford where Vortimer brother, Catigurn and Horsa fought together man to man each killing the other. The third battle took place on the sea shore where Vortimer drove them to their ships forcing them to seek refuge on the isle of Thanet.

Finally, Vortimer then besieged them on the isle of Thanet with his fleet continuously harrying them and in control of the seas.  Hengist knew he was trapped and faced slow starvation therefore he sent Vortigern who had remained with them, to talk to his son to sue for peace, but while the meeting was still ongoing they boarded their long ships and returned to Germany leaving the women and children behind and alone to face the Britons.

After these successes Vortimer set about restoring the possessions of his subjects that had been given to the Saxons and at the instigation of St. Germanus to restore the churches many of which had been robbed and ruined by the pagans.  Although he showed his great respect and affection to his people and they returned this, there were those who were not happy with the banishment of the Saxons and one of those was his stepmother Rowena who was still much loved by his father.

Rowena the Poisoner

Above everything else Rowena was loyal to her own father, Hengist and her people.  She was believed to have and she now went and consulted with poisoners and arranged for Vortimer to be poisoned in such a way that it looked like he had been taken by some quick and severe illness.

As the poison took effect Vortimer called his men to him showing them he was near death.  Though they were devastated at the loss of their king and great captain in war he distributed his treasure to them and in a bid to comfort them told them it was just the way of the flesh.  He asked of his followers that when he was dead a pyramid should be built in the port looking out to sea where the Saxons had been accustomed to land and to place his body on top so that the sight of him and his tomb might deter any future incursions by them.  He told them that as the Saxons had feared to face him while alive so they would fear him in death. Sadly, and to their folly, the Britons ignored them King’s wishes and he was buried in London.

© 13/06/2108 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 6th, 2018  zteve t evans

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

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

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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

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Copyright November 22st, 2017 zteve t evans