Given that lovely unhistorical-but-charming BBC series, Merlin, is back on the telly this weekend I pulled this number out of my archives. I’d like to claim at least one Merlin for Cumbria, please.
Six hundred years after the death of a wild man in the woods of southern Scotland, Geoffrey of Monmouth assembled some scraps of poetry written in the intervening years and added him to his History of the Kings of Britainas King Arthur’s right-hand man, Merlin.
There are several different sources in old Welsh literature for Myrddin, or as we usually spell it, Merlin. Some, referring to events in Wales itself, mention Merlin Ambrosius or Merlin Emrys, and these took place at the end of the Roman era. Others were linked to the Cymry of northern Cumbria, entangled as a by-line in the story of the Battle of Arthuret, which took place a couple of hundred years later. This Merlin was Merlin Wyllt, or Merlin Silvestris, or Merlin ap (son of) Madog Morfryn. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s response was to combine them all, and this has led to confusion ever since1.It’s possible that the reason that there are a number of ‘Merlins’ in this period is that it was a job title for a top-class bard, or that it was nickname given to men in this position, or just a name common in families that produced many bards. We can certainly be confident that there were at least two separate men with this appellation in the early medieval period.
There are two Welsh Triads which list three bards. Those bards are Taliesin (who was Urien of Rheged’s bard), Merlin Emrys and Merlin, son of Madog Morfryn. The latter, like Taliesin, was from the town of Caerleon-upon-Usk in Wales; Taliesin was the court bard of Urien of Rheged, and Merlin ap Madog Morfryn had the same role at the neighbouring court, ruled by Gwenddoleu, in northwest Cumbria.
Merlin ap Madog Morfryn, like Urien and Gwenddoleu, was believed to be a descendant of the heroic Coel Hen (‘Old King Cole’). Madog ap Morfryn, Merlin’s father, is said to have fought with Arthur at the Battle of Camlann, and Merlin’s sister, Gwenddydd was the wife of Rhydderch Hael, King of Strathclyde.
The job of bard was not, as popularly imagined, to sing a lot whilst waving bells on a stick. A bard of this era was an educated poet, a journalist, part cheerleader, part PR man, a little bit prophet and a hint of priest. The poems of the Welsh bards are not just works of literature, but records of contemporary life. When Merlin worked with Gwenddoleu, he was in a highly-honoured position. He enjoyed ‘goodly possessions and pleasing minstrels and wore a torque of gold’2.
Merlin’s fortunes changed at the Battle of Arthuret in 573CE. His king, Gwenddoleu, lost this conflict against Rhydderch of Strathclyde and other northern Britons. Merlin fought in this battle and later says he killed his own niece and nephew, who were the children of his sister and King Rhydderch.
Two different sources tell us what happened next3 and here we also get a clue to Merlin’s personal name, if we believe that ‘Merlin’ was a job title or nickname: the Scotichronon calls him ‘Lailoken’. We’re confident that this is the same man described in the Red Book of Hergest and the Black Book of Carmarthen, because there is a very accurate description of the Battle of Arthuret. This Merlin says that ‘my reason is gone with ghosts of the mountain’4 and that he has lived for fifty years as a wild man in the Forest of Celedon (Caledonia). Here, he laments his losses and is pursued, understandably, by Rhydderch Hael’s men. He prophesies many events, including the death of Rhydderch Hael and his own demise by the ‘triple death’.
Merlin is assumed to have been pagan and not just because of the colloquial link between druids and bards. He worked for Gwenddoleu, a king said5 to keep man-eating eagles and to have a sacred fire, implying pre-christian fire worship, or sun worship. And yet Merlin is said to have asked St. Kentigern for absolution when he foresaw his death, which Kentigern reluctantly granted.
Back in the forest, Rhydderch’s men had caught up with Merlin. He was stoned, and, backing away, fell over a cliff into a shallow river. Here he was impaled on a fisherman’s stake, and finally drowned. The triple death had claimed its victim.
- To be fair to Geoffrey of Monmouth, he also wrote the Vita Merlini, which describes a Merlin far more like the Cumbrian Merlin. Unfortunately, this failed to counter the Arthurian Merlin described in the History.
- From the old Welsh poem, Afallenau (‘apple trees’) in the Black Book of Carmarthen.
- From the Scotichronon (based on the 14thc Chronica Gentis Scottorum and earlier sources) and The Conversation of Merlin and Gwendydd his sister from The Red Book of Hergest.
- The Conversation of Merlin and Gwendydd his sister from The Red Book of Hergest.
- Welsh Triads: Three Horses, Three Men who Wore Beards and Three Good Assassinations.
The following is the historian, Tom Clarkson’s take on Merlin. http://senchus.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/did-merlin-really-exist/