Uther Pendragon

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King Uther
Matter of Britain character
Arthur-Pyle Uther-Pendragon.JPG
In-universe information
Title Pendragon
OccupationKing of sub-Roman Britain
Family Constantine III (father)
Aurelius Ambrosius (older brother)
Constans II (older brother)
Moigne (brother)
Spouse Igraine
Children Madoc ap Uthyr, Arthur, Anna, Morgan le Fay (stepdaughter)

Uther Pendragon (Brittonic) ( /ˈjθərpɛnˈdræɡən,ˈθər/ ; [1] Welsh : Ythyr Ben Dragwn, Uthyr Pendragon, Uthyr Bendragon), also known as King Uther, was a legendary King of the Britons and father of King Arthur. [2] :253


A few minor references to Uther appear in Old Welsh poems, but his biography was first written down in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), and Geoffrey's account of the character was used in most later versions. He is a fairly ambiguous individual throughout the literature, but is described as a strong king and a defender of his people.

According to Arthurian legend, Merlin magically disguises Uther to look like his enemy Gorlois, enabling Uther to sleep with Gorlois' wife Lady Igraine. Thus Arthur, "the once and future king", is an illegitimate child (though later legend, as found in Malory, emphasises that the conception occurred after Gorlois's death and that he was legitimated by Uther's subsequent marriage to Igraine [3] ). This act of conception occurs the very night that Uther's troops dispatch Gorlois. The theme of illegitimate conception is repeated in Arthur's siring of Mordred by his own half-sister Morgause in the 13th century French prose cycles, which was invented by them; it is Mordred who mortally wounds King Arthur in the Battle of Camlann.


Uther's epithet Pendragon literally means "head dragon" in its original Brittonic, [2] :249 though it was used figuratively to mean "highest commander; head leader; top of the command chain." [4] Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae [5] misinterpreted it as "the head of a dragon" and invented an origin to explain it away: Uther acquired the epithet when he witnessed a portentous dragon-shaped comet, which inspired him to use dragons on his standards. [6] According to Robert de Boron [7] and the cycles based on his work, it was Uther's older brother (elsewhere called Aurelius Ambrosius and likely based on Ambrosius Aurelianus) who saw the comet and received the name "Pendragon", Uther taking his epithet after his death. An alternative possibility is it stems from adopting the use of the draco military standard of the Roman cavalry, but this is likely a historical conjecture. [4]

The title Pendragon was borrowed into Middle English from Welsh, where it originally indicated a literal dragon of great power or size but was eventually used figuratively to mean "a great leader; the highest commander". It is composed of the Old Welsh prefix pen- "a tall hill; headlands; great heights", [8] which is still used for place names in Wales and Cornwall (as in the famous Cornish town Penzance , or "holy headland" [9] ) combined with the Old English dragoun "dragon" which was borrowed from the Old French dragon (originally the Latin accusative noun draconem "a massive serpent or sea creature", which was itself based on ancient Greek mythological dragons [10] ).

Early Welsh poetry

Though the Welsh tradition of the Arthurian legend is fragmentary, some material exists through the Welsh Triads and various poems. Uther appears in these fragments, where he is associated with Arthur and, in some cases, even appears as his father.

He is mentioned in the circa-10th-century Arthurian poem "Pa gur yv y porthaur?" ("What man is the gatekeeper?"), where it is only said of him that Mabon son of Modron is his servant. He is also memorialised with "The Death-song of Uther Pen" from the Book of Taliesin . [11] The latter includes a reference to Arthur, so the marginal addition of "dragon" to Uther's name is probably justified. "The Colloquy of Arthur and the Eagle", a modern manuscript from the 16th century but believed to have originated from the 13th century, mentions another son of Uther named Madoc, the father of Arthur's nephew Eliwlod. [6]

In Triad 28, Uthyr is named the creator of one of the Three Great Enchantments of the Island of Britain, which he taught to the wizard Menw. [12] Since Menw is a shapeshifter according to Culhwch and Olwen , it might be that Uther was one as well. If this is so, it opens up the possibility that Geoffrey of Monmouth's narrative about Uther impregnating Igerna with Merlin's help (see below) was taken from a Welsh legend where Uthyr changed his own shape, Merlin possibly being added to the story by Geoffrey. [13]

Uthyr's other reference, Triad 51, shows influence from Monmouth's Historia. It follows Geoffrey's description of Uther as brother of both Aurelius Ambrosius ("Emrys Wledig") and Constans II ("Custennin the Younger"). However, its account of Uther's parentage differs; Triad 51 describes Uther's father to be Constantine III ("Custennin the Blessed") son of Elen, [14] while Monmouth describes Uther's father to be Constantine, brother of King Aldroen of Armorica. [15]

Historia Regum Britanniae

Uther Pendragon in a crude illustration from a 15th-century Welsh version of Historia Regum Britanniae History of the Kings (f.72) Uthr Bendragon.jpg
Uther Pendragon in a crude illustration from a 15th-century Welsh version of Historia Regum Britanniae

Uther is best known from Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae (1136) where he is the youngest son of King of Britannia, Constantine. His eldest brother Constans succeeds to the throne on their father's death, but is murdered at the instigation of his adviser Vortigern, who seizes the throne. Uther and his other brother, Aurelius Ambrosius, still children, flee to Brittany. Vortigern makes an alliance with the Saxons under Hengist, but it goes disastrously wrong. Aurelius and Uther return, now adults. Aurelius burns Vortigern in his castle and becomes king.

With Aurelius on the throne, Uther leads his brother in arms to Ireland to help Merlin bring the stones of Stonehenge from there to Britain. Later, while Aurelius is ill, Uther leads his army against Vortigern's son Paschent and his Saxon allies. On the way to the battle, he sees a comet in the shape of a dragon, which Merlin interprets as presaging Aurelius's death and Uther's glorious future. Uther wins the battle and takes the epithet "Pendragon", and returns to find that Aurelius has been poisoned by an assassin. He becomes king and orders the construction of two gold dragons, one of which he uses as his standard.

He secures Britain's frontiers and quells Saxon uprisings with the aids of his retainers, one of whom is Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. At a banquet celebrating their victories, Uther becomes obsessively enamoured of Gorlois' wife Igerna (Igraine), and a war ensues between Uther and his vassal. Gorlois sends Igerna to the impregnable castle of Tintagel for protection while he himself is besieged by Uther in another town. Uther consults with Merlin who uses his magic to transform the king into the likeness of Gorlois and thus gain access to Igerna at Tintagel. He spends the night with her and they conceive Arthur, but the next morning it is discovered that Gorlois had been killed. Uther marries Igerna and they have a daughter called Anna (in later romances she is called Morgause and is usually Igerna's daughter by her previous marriage). Morgause later marries King Lot and becomes the mother of Gawain and Mordred.

Uther later falls ill and the wars against the Saxons begin to go badly. He insists on leading his army himself, propped up on his horse. He defeats Hengist's son Octa at Verulamium (St Albans), despite the Saxons calling him the "Half-Dead King". However, the Saxons soon contrive his death by poisoning a spring which he drinks from near Verulamium. [5]

Uther's family is based on some historical figures; Aurelius Ambrosius is Ambrosius Aurelianus, mentioned by Gildas, though his connection to Constantine and Constans is unrecorded. It is possible that Uther himself is based at least partially on Tewdrig, a historical king of Glywysing in the sixth century, given the strong similarities between their death stories. Depending on the source, Uther may either be the son of Constantine III, as is related in the Welsh Triad 51, [14] or he may be the son of Constantine of Dumnonia, as related in Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. [15]

Other medieval literature

In Robert de Boron's Merlin , Uther Pendragon kills Hengist after an assassination attempt by the Saxon leader and Merlin creates the Round Table for him. In the Prose Lancelot , Uther Pendragon claims to have been born in Bourges. He takes an army to Brittany to fight against King Claudas at Bourges, a situation resembling that of the historical ruler Riothamus who went to Brittany to fight ravagers based in Bourges. Uther also appears in the chivalric romance Sir Cleges as the king to whom Sir Cleges brings the Christmas cherries, obtained by miracle. [16]

There is an alternative account of Uther Pendragon's background in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival . A certain Mazadân went with a fairy named Terdelaschoye to the land of Feimurgân. (This looks like a garbling of some source that told of Mazadân's alliance with the Fay Morgan in Terre de la Joye; the "Land of Joy".) Mazadân becomes father of two sons, Lazaliez and Brickus. Brickus becomes father of Utepandragûn, father of Arthur, while the elder son, Lazaliez, becomes father of Gandin of Anjou, father of Gahmuret, father of Parzival (Percival). Uther Pendragon and Arthur here appear as the scions of the junior branch of an unattested House of Anjou. Early German literature's motif of Uther's descent from fairies, believed to have relied on some now lost Celtic material, may have been meant to explain Arthur's connection with Avalon. Since, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Caliburn was a gift from Avalon, and Arthur was taken to Avalon to be healed. Layamon in his Brut also said that Arthur was given various blessings by fairies.

Richard Carew's Survey of Cornwall (1602) drew on an earlier French writer, Nicholas Gille, who mentions Moigne, brother of Uther and Aurelius, who was duke of Cornwall, and "governor of the Realme" under Emperor Honorius. Carew's brief account of Arthur's birth also mentions a sister, Amy, also born to Uther and Igraine. [17]

Modern works

Uther, on horseback and disguised as Pelleas, watches Igraine picking flowers in Uther and Igraine by Warwick Deeping, illustrated by Wladyslaw T. Benda Pelleas and Igraine.jpg
Uther, on horseback and disguised as Pelleas, watches Igraine picking flowers in Uther and Igraine by Warwick Deeping, illustrated by Wladyslaw T. Benda

Uther Pendragon remains a widely used character in modern Arthurian literature and other fiction.

See also

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  1. Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. "Uther", "Pendragon".
  2. 1 2 Matthaeus (Westmonasteriensis.) (1853). The flowers of history, especially such as relate to the affairs of Britain, tr. by C.D. Yonge.
  3. Malory, Thomas (1997). Le Morte dArthur.
  4. 1 2 ""Pendragon, n.1."". OED Online. September 2021. Retrieved 9 October 2021.
  5. 1 2 Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 6.5–9, 8.1–24.
  6. 1 2 Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 512–513.
  7. de Boron, Robert. Merlin and the Grail. Tr. Nigel Bryant. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001.
  8. "'pen, n. 1' : Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford English Dictionary. September 2021. Retrieved 9 October 2021.
  9. "penzance | Origin and meaning of penzance by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 9 October 2021.
  10. "dragon | Origin and meaning of dragon by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 9 October 2021.
  11. "The death-song of Uther Pendragon".
  12. The Hergest Triads.
  13. Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 56.
  14. 1 2 Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 132–133.
  15. 1 2 Monmouth, Geoffrey (1136). History of the Kings of Britain (PDF). Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses (published 1999). pp. 93–94.
  16. Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England. New York Burt Franklin, 1963. p.79.
  17. Carew, Richard (1769) [1602]. The Survey of Cornwall. And An Epistle concerning the Excellencies of the English Tongue. E. Law and J. Hewett. p. 78.


Legendary titles
Preceded by King of Britain Succeeded by