Monday, November 28, 2016

Uther Pendragon: Man, Myth or Legend

by C.M. Grey

The Dark Ages of ancient Britain is an incredibly interesting period of time. We know so much about other times in history, but the Dark Ages is an era where we find few facts handed down to us. There are many stories, poems and myths, and many of these refer to the shadowy figures of Uther Pendragon and his far more infamous son Arthur. There are many people that would love to find proof of King Arthur’s existence; he is a figure that looms large in the imagination, and yet that proof continues to remain elusive. Uther, however, appears more often in the few written accounts that have survived as a man that actually lived, a man who may possibly have drawn the tribes of Britain together when it was needed most.

To set the scene for when the Pendragons may… or may not have existed, we have to take into account that the term Dark Ages refers to the long period of time which started several decades before the Western Roman Empire fell in AD 476 and lasted to the beginning of the Renaissance period, which was around AD1300.

These dark ages were a time of little or no law and order, when civilisation, the written word and record keeping were at a very low point. Britain and most of Europe was in turmoil as the rule of Rome dissolved, all of which leaves modern scholars somewhat ‘in the dark’ as they search for their solid facts. Many of these ‘almost’ facts, these stories and tales of battles, the struggles of leaders and kings, were handed down verbally through generations as people sat around their fires and entertained each other with tales during the cold British nights. As they repeated them they changed, so many facts turned into myths.

To begin with, we know that the Romans conquered the Celtic tribes on their third attempt in AD43 and then ruled and subjugated them for nearly four hundred years. The tribes of Britain were much restricted during this occupation and, of course, were allowed no defences or army of their own. The aggressiveness and fighting spirit that so impressed Cesar when he arrived had been beaten out of them, so that when the Roman legions, the governors and their families began packing their possessions and gradually leaving the shores of Britain from around 410AD, the tribes were left almost defenceless. It must have looked incredibly tempting for other, more warlike groups to slip in during this slow Roman withdrawal and attempt to stake claim to the lands of Briton as their own.

Roman Legionary by Carole Raddato
from Frankfurt, Germany
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The empire had been slowly crumbling for a number of years; at first it was only the better connected that had been leaving the shores of Britain as they realised their empire was weakening. In the late third century, as the Romans governors still struggled to maintain some control, they built a chain of forts along the eastern coast of Britain in an effort to deter the increasing numbers of Saxon invaders, but when reinforcements and pay didn’t arrive from the empire the troops began to desert in earnest, and knowing this the Saxons came in even greater numbers. Irish tribes from the West also began arriving, and raiding Picts became more frequent visitors from across the Northern border of Hadrian’s Wall; the tribes of Britain were in a desperate state. They had gone from being a heavily governed, conquered and yet a protected people, segregated by their tribal identities into small communities, into easy pickings, victims to the invaders - they needed to unite and defend themselves, to become once again the tribes of old.

There have been numerous written accounts of the man that eventually united the tribes and came to rule the Britons. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (1136) we learn that the old king under the Romans, Constantine II had three sons. Constans, the eldest, was murdered, possibly by Vortigern, an advisor to Constantine before he assumed the throne upon the King’s death. The other two sons were Ambrosious and Uther, who was the youngest. Both younger sons had been sent into hiding during their early years, and while we know that Ambrosious grew up in Gaul under the tutelage of Roman teachers, we know little of where his younger brother Uther was brought up. It could also have been Gaul alongside his brother, however, I think it equally likely that it was among the tribes in his native Britain.

When the Romans left, the new King, Vortigern was in a difficult position. With his lands being attacked from all sides he decided to form an alliance with two Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa who, while agreeing to defend the kingdom from invading Irish and Picts, brought more and more of their own people in to populate the ravaged land.

By Sir Edward Parrott - The Pageant of British History
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

Vortigern was not a popular King amongst the tribes. When the young Ambrosious returned from exile in Gaul to claim his father’s throne he sent out envoys and messengers and gathered the warriors under his banner with the promise that he would reclaim his father’s lands and defend the tribes from the invaders.

Pendragon Castle by George Robinson [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Wikimedia Commons

When the call went out, Uther joined his brother and then suddenly had to take command when Ambrosious was tragically killed in a battle against the forces of Vortigern.

Uther went on, so the stories, poems and legends say, to keep the tribes united as they fought the Saxons. The stories and legends only tantalise us further when they tell that he was advised throughout his time by a Druid named Merlyn and that it was with Merlyn that he travelled to Ireland to gather the standing stones there known as the ‘Giants Dance.’ Together they transported them back to Stanenges, to form the monument that we now know as Stonehenge.



When the call went out from, Uther joined his brother and then suddenly had to take command when Ambrosious was tragically killed in a battle against the forces of Vortigern.

Uther went on, so the stories, poems and legends say, to keep the tribes united as they fought the Saxons. The stories and legends only tantalise us further when they tell that he was advised throughout his time by a Druid named Merlyn, and that it was with Merlyn that he travelled to Ireland to gather the standing stones that were known there as the ‘Giants Dance.’ Together they transported them back to Stanenges, to form the monument that we now know as Stonehenge.

We are told by Geoffrey of Monmouth that on returning from Ireland Uther attacked his closest ally, Gerlois Duc of Cornwall and stole away with his wife Igraine to father the son who legends tell us was known as Arthur. Yet all of these stories are just the ‘almost-facts’ that come from the poems and stories of the time, because the Dark Ages was the time we know so little about. What little history there really is of this era allows our imagination the license to believe that legends did walk our earth, and because ‘something’ happened way back then, authors will piece these little truths together to tell a tale that ‘could’ have happened.

So, if you get a chance to sit by a fire this winter and stare into its dancing flames, spare a thought to the men and women who lived through those Dark Times, think about what it must have been like to live back then. Dark nights when spirits and Gods stared out from the shadows and when a peaceful night might be broken by the cry of alarm, that ‘the Saxons are coming!’

References:

Wikipedia: Uther Pendragon  


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C.M.Gray is an Englishman living in the hills outside Barcelona in Spain, yet has lived in many parts of the world from the clamour of Hong Kong to the vineyards of Burgundy France. An author, whose primary interest has been the Dark Ages of Britain, he has written two books about the life and adventures of Uther Pendragon. He loves finding a good story and enjoys writing one even more!

Find C.M.Gray on:
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3 comments:

  1. Interesting,but surely you mean Arthur was famous, not infamous? And I do think it is important to point out Geoffrey of Monmouth should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. The man knew how to spin a story, but little of what he wrote is considered factually correct.

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  2. How on earth can you state that the Dark Ages lasted from a few decades before the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476 CE until 1300 CE. This is nonsense. The Dark Ages lasted roughly from about 400 or so when the last Roman troops left Rome till about 600 when the Saxons started being converted to Christianity and started becoming literate. From this period on we begin to know a lot more,

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  3. The main problem with the 200 years between 400 to 600+ is the paucity of written documents. Post 600 we start getting Saxon charters, the Anglo Saxon chronicle etc. And modern archaeology is also beginning to shed a lot of new light on this whole period. But I agree with you that it is fascinating.

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