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Uther Pendragon
Uther Pendragon by Howard Pyle, 1903.

Uther Pendragon
Uther at Tintagel, illustration by Ivan Lapier.

Uther Pendragon
Uther Pendragon vows to deliver
the child Arthur to Merlin.


Uther Pendragon was a legendary king of sub-Roman Britain and the father of King Arthur. His story is first told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 in his History of the Kings of Britain. As a one of the two younger brothers of the murdered King Constans, he apparently fled, at a young age, to the Royal Court of his cousin, King Budic I of Brittany, and here he was raised. As a young man, Uther returned to Britain with his elder brother, Ambrosius, and together they fought for their ancestral rights, eventually defeating the usurping king Vortigern and placing Ambrosius on the throne.

Throughout Ambrosius' reign, Uther was his brother's staunchest ally. With Aurelius on the throne, Uther led his soldiers to Ireland to help Merlin bring the stones for Stonehenge from there to Britain as a memorial to 460 British nobles who were massacred at a peace conference, as a result of Saxon trickery. Later, while Aurelius was ill, Uther led his army against Vortigern's son Paschent and his Saxon allies. On the way to the battle, he saw a comet in the shape of a dragon, which Merlin interpreted as presaging Aurelius's death and Uther's glorious future. Uther won the battle and adopted the name 'Pendragon', which means 'Head Dragon' in a figurative sense, referring to his status as 'foremost leader and brother' or 'chief of warriors'. Later, it was Uther who was victorious over the rebellious King Pasgen of Buellt and Gwerthrynion at St Davids.

Following his brother's death, Uther took the crown under the title of Uther Pendragon. Most of his reign was taken up with campaigning against Saxon and Irish invaders in the North of Britain, where he held court at Pendragon Castle in Westmorland. He was, at first unsuccessful against the Angles of Bernicia and Osla, allied with the Jutish Octa, defeated Uther's armies at York. However, he soon turned the tables at the ensuing Battle of Mount Damen. Uther later travelled even further north to help the Kings of Strathclyde pacify the Scots.

It is at this point that the most famous episode in Uther's life is related. Returning to London, he met Igraine, the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and fell instantly in love with her. Determined to see her again he invited the Duke to return to the royal court, but Gorlois could see what was happening and refused. The two quarrelled and Gorlois and his wife fled to Cornwall. Uther invaded the Duke's lands, but still impatient to be with Igraine, he persuaded Merlin to use his powers to make him look like her husband so that he could enter Tintagel Castle and seduce her. This he did and their son, the future King Arthur, was conceived. Gorlois was being killed in battle that night and Uther and Igraine were subsequently married.

Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur claims that the price for this deception was that Arthur had to be given to Merlin to be brought up as he saw fit. Merlin chose Sir Ector, a faithful knight of King Uther's, to be King Arthur's foster father when he took the royal baby from his parents in order to supervise his upbringing. King Uther gave Ector great rewards in advance so he would follow all Merlin's instructions, even giving his wife little Arthur to suckle while entrusting his own son, Kay, to a wet nurse.

In old age, the sick and ageing Uther was drawn into a renewed war with the Northern Angles from Germany. When his commander, King Lot of Lothian was unsuccessful, the King was carried to St Albans to besiege the Angles himself. He won through, but the Germans poisoned the water-supply and Uther, along with many of his men, died in the days that followed.
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