NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

Uther Pendragon

Outeropantragoras, Utepandragon, Utepantragun, Uter, Uterpandragon, Uter Pandragon, Utherpendragon, Uthir Pen Dragon, Uthur, Uthyr, Utpandragon, Uverian, Vtere, Vther

Father of Arthur and king of Britain before his son. Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to be the first author to make him Arthur’s father. In one Welsh poem, Mabon son of Modron is called Uther’s man, and in another, Uther claims “a ninth part in the prowess of Arthur,” but none of the Welsh texts mentions any relationship between them. One manuscript of Nennius’s Historia refers to Arthur as “mab uter,” which could mean “the terrible,” but may have been interpreted by Geoffrey (or his source) as “son of Uter (Uther).”

As Geoffrey tells it, Uther was the son of King Constantine of Britain, who had previously been a prince in Brittany. His mother is unnamed except by Bauduin Butor, who calls her Ivoine. His older brothers were Constans and Ambrosius. Uther’s father was assassinated by a Pictish agent, and Earl Vortigern of Gwent foisted Constans to the throne.

Uther and Ambrosius were only children at the time, and friends of their father spirited them to safety in the court of King Budec of Brittany. Meanwhile, in Britain, Vortigern arranged Constans’s assissantion and assumed the throne himself. When Ambrosius and Uther came of age, they amassed an army and invaded Britain. Vortigern was embroiled in a war with the Saxons, led by King Hengist, at the time, and the two brothers managed to defeat and slay both Hengist and Vortigern.

Ambrosius became king of Britain. Ambrosius commissioned Merlin to bring the Giant’s Dance from Ireland. In the meantime, Ambrosius was slain by a Saxon, and Britain once again faced a threat from an alliance between King Gilloman of Ireland and Vortigern’s son Pascentius.

Uther, however, destroyed both these men and assumed the crown of Britain in his brother’s place. At his coronation, he was dubbed with the surname “Pendragon” or “dragon’s head” in memory of the comet that Merlin had seen in the sky upon the death of Ambrosius. Uther immediately faced a Saxon threat in the form of Octa, the son of Hengist, and Eosa, Octa’s kinsman. After a series of battles, Uther defeated and imprisoned the Saxon leaders.

At the feast celebrating his victories over the Saxons, Uther fell in love with Igerne, the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Gorlois sensed Uther’s intentions and returned to Cornwall with his wife, who he secured in the castle of Tintagel. Uther declared war on Gorlois and besieged Tintagel and Dimilioc, Gorlois’s own castle, but was unable to break the defenses of either. At the suggestion of Sir Ulfin, Uther sent for the assistance of Merlin. Merlin got Uther into Tintagel by magically changing Uther countenance to match Gorlois.

Uther enjoyed a night of passion with Igerne, and Arthur was conceived. Gorlois was soon killed in battle against Uther’s soldiers, and Uther married Igerne, with whom he also conceived a daughter named Anna. He fell ill, but nevertheless took to the battlefield of St. Albans, in a litter, to fight Octa and Eosa, who had escaped from prison. After the battle, his sickness grew worse, and he had only enough time to proclaim Arthur his heir before he died. He was buried under the Giant’s Dance, next to his brother.

Geoffrey’s version of Uther’s story is followed relatively faithfully in subsequent texts, with a few notable variations. Wolfram von Eschenbach makes him the son of Brickus, a descendant of fairies, the husband of Arnive (rather than Igerne) and the father of Sangive (rather than Anna). The Welsh Triads give him a second son named Madawg. In Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Diu Crône, he has a sister named Enfeidas who is the queen of Avalon. La Tavola Ritonda makes him the father of Morgan le Fay, who is usually given as his daughter-in-law.

The Vulgate Lancelot tells us that Uther was born in Brittany, in the city of Bourges, which would be consistent with Geoffrey’s facts if we assume that Uther was already born when Constantine came to Britain. We learn in the same story that Uther assisted King Aramont of Brittany in the destruction of the lands of the treacherous King Claudas, and that he went to war with King Urien over the land of Gorre.

Robert de Boron’s Merlin and the Vulgate Merlin change the names of his brothers to Maine and Pendragon. In contrast to the chronicles, Robert says that Uther invented the Round Table, inspired by Merlin’s tales of the table of the Last Supper and the Grail Table. Merlin places his death in the midst of a native revolt, not a Saxon invasion.

In the Short Metrical Chronicle, he is not Arthur’s father, but is a king of Britain whose reign lies between Cassibelan and Vortigern. Finally, Malory changes the facts of his relationship with Gorlois, purporting that Uther had been at war with the duke before meeting Igerne, and that Uther fell in love with Igerne at a feast celebrating a peace between Uther and the duke.

The life of Uther

Constans, King of Britain, had three sons: Maines, Pandragon, 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 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 little 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 fifteen years old 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.

Uther Pendragon’s Family and Retainers

King Constans of England

Pandragon (both killed before Arthur’s conception)

Igraine of Tintagil

See also
Fairies | The Legend of King Arthur
Menw | The Legend of King Arthur

Pa gur yv y porthaur | Poem 31 of the Black Book of Carmarthen, probably c. 1100
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Lancelot do Lac | 1215-1220
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Diu Crône | Heinrich von dem Türlin, c. 1230
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Unknown (the pre-Arthurian period) | Baudin Butor, c. 1290
Arthour and Merlin | Late 13th century
Short Metrical Chronicle | 1307
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886