Uther Pendragon, c. 440CE – c. 500CE

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.

Copyright Martin Hardy

Pendragon Castle, Cumbria

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.

© Diane McIlmoyle 10.06.11

  1. These dates are a HUGE guess based on the popularly-accepted date of  the historical Arthur’s birth, c. 465CE.
  2. The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1972) and the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society, 1902.
  3. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History is widely available. There is a good post about him and his motivations here.
  4. 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.

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17 thoughts on “Uther Pendragon, c. 440CE – c. 500CE

  1. Great post, as ever, Diane. Thank you!

    I haven’t read Geoffrey of Monmouth for some time, but I’m gradually coming to the view that all these songs and ballads, which Geoffrey wrote his ‘history’ from, were in fact olde English magical texts. So then that leaves me with the question, was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s knowing aim to get down in writing all these stories and ballads, which until then, had been transmitted orally, as a means of preserving magical lore, or did he really think these songs, stories and ballads were recording history as we understand history, the literal record of events in chronological order?

    Again, the Red Book of Hergest may have been considered factual when it was written ~ but then how come so many of the tales in it are about the Underworld, the Fae, cauldrons, white hounds, harts and pigs (magical totem creatures of the Celts)? What sort of reality did they live in, in 1400 CE?

    Even one the Arthur stories has him going down into the Underworld. And Morgan le Fay could not be more obvious as the Morrigan, the Queen of the Fae.

    • Hi there and thank you for coming over and posting a lovely long comment :)

      I can think of about thirteen million answers to the questions you raise, depending on which hat I’m wearing! I don’t think people in times past had quite the same take on ‘factual’ as we do. Some would argue that the fantastical elements in medieval records were very much part of their daily life. Others would say that they are metaphor or allegory, although that seems a bit modern to me. I’ve never bought the idea that people have been the same throughout history. They haven’t. They saw the world very differently to most people in the 21st century. How literally is a very good question.

      As for magical roots, of course, Taliesin is associated with arcane knowledge, and he is one of the bards underlying the Welsh Triads, the Mabinogion, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. And, although he was Welsh-born, I think we Cumbrians can claim him for our own :)

      I’ve actually written a post by Morgan le Fay in the past – faery or goddess, that is the question… I usually take the view that they are the same thing, really. Just depends who’s talking!

    • There’s a fascinating study of the Mabinogion, itself contained in both the Red Book and the White Book, which I’ve recently enjoyed. It suggests that, while using mythological elements from Celtic traditions from both sides of the Irish Sea, there was a contemporary political angle in the Four Branches which reflected the views of the 12th-century author: the study identifies her as a certain Gwenllian (my review and details of the study are here: http://wp.me/p2oNj1-4K).

  2. Fascinating article Diane.

    It’s always interesting to ponder whether historians were referring to oral tradition, other sources or even folklore when they recorded their histories. No doubt they were politically/religiously led too.

    The thought of lost sources makes me shiver with displaced regret!

    • Quite. I gather that people who’ve spent their academic lives picking the Mabinogion and the Triads apart can almost ‘see’ the gaps and know that there are missing sources. I must admit, I love Taliesin, the 6thc bard. He was real, and he wrote stuff up here all those ages ago. I just wish he wrote more, and occasionally got off his poetic high-horse and said something more… specific!

      A lot of Arthurian stuff does feel like it has a later religious overlay – all those quests and nobly unfulfilled love – but some of it does vibrate with earlier, oral stuff – back to my mate Taliesin.

      Whenever you trace Arthurian figures – the famous ones, or just the side-players like Urien (Uriens) and Owain (Yvain), you’re piecing together threads and wisps. I wasn’t *allowed* to do that as a history student, and now I’m finding out why…

    • Hi there Mak! Back on your favourite subject…

      Ach… we’ll never know who wrote what, really, will we? But it’s still impressive that we have record of these early bardic works at all.

      That’s a great link – thank you! :)

  3. A very interesting article. I have always wondered who Arthur’s parents were and what they were like. It’s also interesting to see something that was once regarded as fact, now dismissed. If I’m ever in the area I’ll visit Pendragon castle.

    • If you want a really interesting castle belonging to a parent of Arthur, go to Tintagel in Cornwall, the home of his mother, Igraine. It’s the most amazing site hanging over the Atlantic ocean, and, unlike Pendragon Castle, was definitely settled in the right historical period. They’ve even found evidence that they had a shipping trade with the Mediterranean, importing rich and rare goods… now that’s evocative :)

  4. I love how you approach your blog, with an open mind and a willingness to try to see things as ancient people did. I completely agree that people saw things differently back then, especially regarding “real” versus “imaginary.” Even as recently as a hundred years ago, people had a much different view of fact and fiction. My grandmother had no problem being a devout Christian and being highly superstitious at the same time. If you pressed her about why stepping on a crack, or allowing an empty rocking to rock, was bad, she’d wave you off and say, “That’s the way it is. I’ve seen too much proof for you to tell me otherwise.”

    And I like how you pointed out that King Arthur was a fun story even back in the Middle Ages, with fanboys and fangirls galore. Some things change a lot, but basic human behaviors never seem to :)

    • I had to laugh at your gran’s comment – ‘I’ve seen too much proof for you to tell me otherwise’! That’s just it, isn’t it – our fundamental, underlying beliefs are the bedrock of our behaviour, not whatever ‘logical’ overlay we apply. And both those things have varied across the centuries!

      I’m always looking for that wisp of truth in these old stories. There’s almost always something there, if you look hard enough, and cross enough references. I just wish people would do this more often, rather than just look at the face-value, socially and historically pointless, ‘Disney’ view. But that’s my drum, and I’ll bang it how I like ;)

      Thanks for visiting, and the compliment. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do :)

  5. Greetings kind Esmeralda!… This post of yours is awesome and quite accurate…
    I have just shared it on Celtic Sprite too!
    Hope this will attract more visitors to your lovely site…
    Keep on shinining!
    Bliss and blessings ♥

  6. Great post, and fascinating comments. I’m just sorry it’s taken me so long to get round to it. I’ve so many points I’d like to make, but I’m going to have to marshall my thoughts and express them more succinctly!

    • I’d love to hear your views, Ed! To be fair this was one of the first posts on this blog (the date is inaccurate – this post has been taken down and re-instated several times because it’s one of the ones that gets pinched by the unscrupulous). Uther’s links to Cumbria seem to hang entirely on the fact that Taliesin wrote about him, but that’s no guarantee given that he was actually ‘Welsh-Welsh’ and ‘worked’ in ‘Welsh Wales’ as well as Cumbria (and that’s disregarding the reasonable view that there’s no proof that Rheged was Cumbria…). Like you and virtually every other historian in the land, I’ve never seen anything that suggests that the Arthur of popular parlance existed, so perhaps the search for his father is itself spurious. But I’m happy to hear about *any* named protagonist from this period from hereabouts, whoever his relatives are!

      • With regards to Taliasin writing that particular poem, Ifor Williams identified only 12 of his so called works as actually being by him. These are the ones he wrote for three kings. This poem is not thought to be by him and the likes of John Koch certainly agree with Williams’ assesment. Nor does the poem (which had ‘pen’ added to ‘dragon’ in the margin) actually mention Uthyr being Arthur’s father, it just says he had a ninth share of his valour. No one is sure what this refers to. Having said all that, Arthur most certainly had a northern tradition and so to must have Urien.

        • Thanks Mak (I see you still have your email alerts switched on!). No surprises that Uthyr Pen doesn’t mention being Arthur’s father… that would be too much like precision! And if we can remove Taliesin from Uther, maybe Uther can be removed from Cumbria. I’m with Urien. At least we know he existed, and I’m sticking to my theory that he was right here…

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