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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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