Uther Pendragon

Uter Pandragon, Utherpendragon, Uverian

Constans, King of Britain, had three sons: MainesPandragon, and Uther. After Constans’ death, a number of barons murdered Maines in order to put Constans’ seneschal Vortigern on the throne. Pandragon and Uther dispatched Vortigern and Pandragon became king, but was killed in battle with the Saxons. Uther took the kingship in his turn, adopting his elder brother’s name and having Merlin bring the stones of Stonehenge to serve as Pandragon’s memorial. Here Malory takes up Uther’s story.

It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time ... And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady.

It is not clear to me whether Uther’s summons was meant, at least ostensibly, to patch up a truce, or whether the war of this paragraph refers to what happens next. Duke Gorloïs and his wife Igraine departed suddenly and secretly when she learned that Uther had amorous intentions on her.

By the advice of his privy council, Uther tried summoning them back and, when they refused, gave Gorloïs plain, fair warning,

and bade him be ready and stuff him and garnish him, for within forty days he would fetch him out of the biggest castle that he hath.

This, at least, seems open and honest. Gorloïs apparently put up a good fight, holding the siege at a standstill. “Then for pure anger and for great love of fair Igraine the king Uther fell sick.” (It sounds like a fit of pouting impatience.)

Uther’s knight Ulfius fetched Merlin, who worked his magic to enable Uther to have his way with Igraine, she believing him her husband. That same knight Gorloïs was killed in a sortie, after which the barons sued for peace, and Ulfius proposed that Uther wed Igraine. “And anon, like a lusty knight”, which he was, Uther assented and, having made an unintentionally dishonest woman of Igraine, proceeded to make an honest one of her, doubtless leaving her very little choice in the matter.

It hardly seems farfetched to suppose that Uther had a hand in arranging the marriages of Igraine’s daughters also, Margawse to King LotElaine of Tintagil to King Nentres, and Morgan le Fay (after a nunner education) to King Uriens.

Meanwhile, apparently a bit of a joker, Uther was saving up the good news of who was the father of Igraine’s next child. She, poor lady, having learned that her first husband was killed before the hour when she had thought he had come to her, “waxed daily greater and greater”, all the while “marvell(ing) who that might be that lay with her in likeness of her lord” but saying nothing – very likely supposing it to have been a demon, like the one that had fathered Merlin. After about half a year, Uther finally sprang his littel surprise, asking her to tell him “by the faith she owed him”, whose child was growing within her. She was “soe abashed”, as well she might be – she must have hoped he would accept it as Gorloïs child, or perhaps his own – and now his question showed he suspected something. At last, on his promise of loving her better for knowing the truth, she confessed all that she knew. Having dragged it from her, he graciously revealed his side of the incident, and that he himself, disguised by Merlin, had fathered the child.

Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child.

(A human seducer, however treacherous, must have seemed preferable to a demon.) Uther did not leave her long to rejoice, however: at the child Arthur’s birth, he delivered it unchristened to Merlin, as per the mage’s instructions; and, although Uther knew where Merlin was taking the child, he neglected to tell Igraine – it is not recorded that he consulted her at all before taking her son.

Within two years Uther fell seriously ill. His enemies were making inroads on his kingdom, so he took Merlin’s advice and had himself carried to battle in a horse-litter to Saint Albans, where his army met a “great host of the North”. Whether inspired by the great deeds of Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias, or by the presence of their king with the army, Uther’s men prevailed. The king returned to London with great rejoicing, but soon fell so sick that he lay speechless for three days and nights. At last Merlin promised the barons he would make the king to speak.

So on the morn all the barons with Merlin came to-fore the king; then Merlin said aloud unto King Uther, Sir shall your son Arthur be king after your days...? Then Uther Pendragon turned him, and said in hearing of them all, I give him God's blessing and mine, and bid him pray for my soul, and righteously and worshipfully that he claim the crown, upon forfeiture of my blessing; and therwith he yielded up the ghost, and then was he interred as longed to a king. Wherefore the queen, fair Igraine, made great sorrow, and all the barons.

Other records just say:

I give him God's blessing and my own,
and bid him pray for my soul and claim the crown!

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Arthur was 15 when Uther Pendragon died and was buried at Stonehenge. There was nobody to succeed Pendragon, and various great barons struggled for the throne. Uther’s knights had never heard of Arthur and they refused to accept an unknown youth as king, especially since many of them also laid claim to the crown.

Uther seems to have been a strong and brave king and, not impossibly, a decent administrator of the public weal. Chrétien de Troyes shows Arthur referring to his father Pendragon as a just emperor and king.

Spence tentatively identifies Uther with the Celtic god Beli; both were said to have been buried at Salisbury Plain.

The brother of Ambrosius Aurelianus whom he succeeded as High King of Britain. He was the father of Arthur, by Igraine.


Uther Pendragon’s Family and Retainers

Father
King Constans of England

Brothers
Pandragon (both killed before Arthur’s conception)

Paramour
Igraine


See also
Menw | The Legend of King Arthur