Early Arthurian Britain – The House of Pendragon

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“The race that is oppressed shall prevail in the end, for it will resist the savagery of the invaders … The Red One will grieve for what has happened, but after an immense effort it will regain its strength … Then the Red Dragon will revert to its true habits and struggle to tear itself to pieces.”

In The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth recounted a long list of prophecies Merlin made for Vortigern. The above phrases from the prophecies trace the fortunes of the Britons through the rise and fall of the House of Pendragon.

In Geoffrey’s narrative, Aurelius Ambrosius defeated the high king, Vortigern, and began the long campaign to drive the Saxons out of Britain. He and his brother Uther were the younger sons of Constantine. They were exiled to the Breton court until they were able to raise enough of an army to return and gain control of Britain. Aurelius captured the Saxon (Jutish) leader, Hengist, and executed him, then began to rebuild Britain. He commissioned Merlin to magically bring a megalithic circle called the Giants’ Ring from Ireland and set it up on Salisbury Plain as a monument to massacred British nobles. According to Geoffrey, this is the origin of Stonehenge.

Aurelius is based on the historical Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom Gildas mentioned merely as a warleader. By comparison, Nennius called him a king. Geoffrey’s dating of his reign appears too early, placing him in the 430’s. It seems more likely his defeat of Vortigern happened in the 460’s.

Apparently, however, if Geoffrey can be believed, Aurelius Ambrosius/Ambrosius Aurelianus did not have a long reign. Within a couple of years, one of Vortigern’s vengeful sons, Paschent, hired a Saxon to pose as a physician and give the king poison. Uther became king upon his brother’s demise. At this time Merlin again prophesied, forecasting Uther’s future successes and that of his yet unborn children. The image of a dragon again appeared, and its ideal became attached to Uther through the epithet, “Pendragon,” roughly meaning “head dragon,” in the sense of being the highest chieftain. Uther does not appear to be based on any historical figure, although he is mentioned in an early Welsh poem.

Continuing with Geoffrey’s story, upon Uther’s rise to kingship, he became enamored of Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Gorlois was angered and took Ygerna home to Tintagel. Thoroughly insulted, Uther demanded Gorlois’ return to court—of course bringing Ygerna with him—and threatened to war on Cornwall if the demands were not met. Gorlois refused and Uther besieged him at a fortified camp near Tintagel. During the siege, Uther decided he must have Ygerna. Enlisting Merlin’s magic arts, he was disguised to look exactly like Gorlois, then entered Tintagel and seduced Ygerna. When he returned to the siege, he found his army had killed Gorlois when it acted “without instructions.” He returned to Tintagel with the “bad news” that Ygerna’s husband was dead. He married her, and they quickly learned that the night of her seduction resulted in the conception of their son, Arthur.

Uther’s remaining life of about sixteen more years was fraught with illness and battling Saxons. He and Ygerna also had a daughter, Anna. Like his brother, Uther succumbed to Saxon poison.