Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, was conspicuous by his absence from my recent series of posts on Arthurian characters in Cumbria. In fact, he’s absent from almost all academic histories and most popular histories because information about him is very thin indeed, and the earliest references, whilst tricky to date, are from hundreds of years after Arthur and Uther supposedly lived.
And yet you don’t have to be in Cumbria for long before you find that Pendragon Castle, Uther’s home, is right here in the Eden Valley. There’s even a little ditty about it:
‘Let Uther do what he can
Eden will run where Eden ran.’
Pendragon Castle is surrounded by a deep ditch and folklore says that Uther planned to divert the nearby River Eden to fill it, but failed, and was immortalised in slightly poor rhyme.
In 1902, the local historical society gathered some traditional stories about Pendragon Castle. The Rev. Wharton said that Uther died at Pendragon castle; it was besieged by Saxons, who, unable to break the defences, poisoned the well. Canon Simpson reported that Uther’s ghost could be seen riding at break-neck speed from the castle, across Orton Scar towards Penrith.2
Uther’s early life is described briefly in the Red Book of Hergest. He was the younger brother of a regional ruler, Custennin the Younger. Vortigern, the southern king who had allied with the Saxons, killed Custennin, seized his territory, and exiled Uther and his other brother, Emrys, to Brittany. The two brothers returned to England in due course and besieged Vortigern’s castle. Vortigern died in a huge fire and the brothers were restored to their lands.
Taliesin’s Death Song of Uthyr Pen describes Uther’s fierceness in battle:
…I broke a hundred forts.
I slew a hundred stewards…
I cut off a hundred heads…
The story of how Uther came to father Arthur is described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (written in 1136, getting on for 700 years after the usual dates ascribed to Arthur). Uther was smitten by Igraine, the young wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. Merlin created a spell which turned Uther into the image of Gorlois, under which guise Igraine was seduced and Arthur conceived. Uther arranged for Gorlois to be murdered that same night. This story is also mentioned briefly in the Welsh Triads.
So these are the stories. But is there any truth in them?
There are problems with Uther’s link to Pendragon Castle. For a start, it’s not called ‘Pendragon’ until 1309; before that, it was known as Mallerstang Castle for more than two hundred years. And there we see another problem. The earliest buildings at Mallerstang/Pendragon Castle were erected in 1173, a good seven hundred years after Arthur and his contemporaries. And the well-known ditty? First recorded in 1837.
What we often don’t realise from our 21st-century viewpoint is that a passion for Hollywood-style stories of romance and adventure is nothing new. People of the 12th-14th centuries were particularly mad for Arthur; some monks at Glastonbury ‘found’ Arthur’s grave; English kings claimed to be descended from him; and Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain almost entirely so he could glamorise Arthur.
This applied to Cumbria, too. If you can trace your family back that far, you’ll find it thrumming with Gawains, Percivals and Lancelots. ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’ (which is a prehistoric henge and nothing to do with the early medieval period or Arthur) was christened, and may have been used for jousting tournaments. And Robert de Clifford, who owned Mallerstang Castle when it was re-named Pendragon, sent his own copy of Arthurian tales to the author of the German Lancelot tales.
Some people would love to think that the raised ground on which Pendragon Castle stands is the site of an earlier, dark age, fort. Certainly, that dream came true at Tintagel in Cornwall (the site of Uther’s seduction of Arthur’s mother); archaeology revealed evidence of 5th/6th-century settlement pre-dating the medieval castle. Sadly, that’s not the case at Pendragon, where the sum total of older remains is a single Roman coin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which is the source of so many of our ideas about Arthur, was considered a bit fanciful even when it was written in the 12th century, seven hundred years after Arthur’s death. Over the centuries, historians have picked it apart and worked out that some sections have their roots in earlier records that may well have historical accuracy. But what about the rest – did he make it up, as contemporaries thought, or did he have sources now lost?
The Red Book Of Hergest was considered factual when it was written. The earliest copy only dates to c.1400, but it has 11th-century elements and probably drew from the Welsh Triads. The Triads may have been written down as early as the 8th or 9th century; they seem to have been aide-memoires for oral storytellers, which suggests that they might be much earlier in original. We do, however, have to consider that there’s a lot of room for story invention and common-or-garden Chinese whispers in sources written down 3-400 years after the events they claim to describe. But did Cumbria figure?
Our one hope here is Taliesin, who wrote The Death Song of Uthyr Pen. It doesn’t mention Cumbria or Arthur, but Taliesin was Urien of Rheged’s bard, and he wrote about people in Cumbria in the few decades after Arthur’s supposed life and death.
Perhaps Taliesin knew that Uther lived in Cumbria. I just wish he’d written it down.
- These dates are a HUGE guess based on the popularly-accepted date of the historical Arthur’s birth, c. 465CE.
- The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1972) and the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society, 1902.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History is widely available. There is a good post about him and his motivations here.
- Different, older translations of the Welsh Triads and Red Book are widely available online; for an up to date translation, you’ll need a new book (with a watertight copyright!).
Further reading: there’s a very informative blog post here. Keep reading: the detail’s on the second page.