Uther Pendragon is a major figure in the Arthurian legends. Although he mostly belongs to the era before Arthur’s generation, he is fundamental to the story of Arthur.
In this article, you will learn:
- Who Uther Pendragon was
- What his relation to Arthur was
- What he did
- Whether he may have been a real person
Who Was Uther Pendragon?
Uther Pendragon was the father of King Arthur. As such, he is vitally important to the legends of Arthur. Without him, there would be no Arthur at all!
He ruled as king prior to Arthur’s reign. According to the legends, he was a powerful war leader who fought successfully against the Saxons, although not with the same level of success as Arthur.
He was the successor of a king named Ambrosius, allegedly his brother.
When he was a child, Uther was taken away to Brittany in France to protect him from evil King Vortigern. When he became an adult, he returned to Britain with his brother Ambrosius and helped the Britons fight back against their enemies there.
What Does Uther Pendragon’s Name Mean?
According to most versions of the legend, Uther Pendragon’s birth name was simply ‘Uther’. The second part of his name, ‘Pendragon’, is actually an epithet.
This epithet is composed of two words: ‘pen’ and ‘dragon’.
The word ‘pen’ is Welsh for ‘head’, which can be used in the sense of ‘chief’, just like in English. The Welsh word ‘dragon’ has the same meaning as in English, but with the added poetic meaning of ‘warrior’. For example, the Welsh poem Y Gododdin calls certain warriors ‘dragons’.
Therefore, the epithet ‘pendragon’ means ‘head warrior’ or ‘chief warrior’.
According to the first record which tells the story of Uther’s life, the Historia Regum Britanniae, Uther took on this epithet when he became the supreme leader of the Britons after his brother’s death.
Regarding his birth name, some researchers believe that ‘Uther’ is a form of the name ‘Gwythyr’, which is the Welsh rendering of ‘Victor’.
Another suggestion is that ‘Uther’ comes from the Welsh word ‘uthr’, which formerly had the meaning of ‘lofty’ or ‘fearsome’.
This would mean that ‘Uther Pendragon’ is entirely a title, and his birth name was actually something else entirely.
A medieval suggestion is found in a version of the Historia Brittonum, which mentions that Arthur was ‘mab uter’. The writer of this document states: ‘that is in Latin terrible son, because from his youth he was cruel.’
According to this idea, the name ‘Uther’ simply comes from a misunderstanding of Arthur being called ‘terrible son’ (‘mab’ means ‘son’ or ‘son of’ and ‘uter’ is a form of the word ‘uthr’ mentioned earlier, which could also mean ‘terrible’ as well as ‘fearsome’).
However, most scholars reject this idea.
Uther was a mighty king, similar to his son Arthur. He was an effective war leader in battle against the Saxons.
Even when old and decrepit, he was able to lead the Britons to victory against their enemies. It is clear that his skills on the battlefield and as a commander of troops were excellent.
Regarding his personality, Uther is presented as being the kind of king who took what he wanted and did not accept rejection. When he saw the wife of one of his subject governors, he became impassioned with her and wanted her for himself.
He even went to war against this governor to take his wife. As well as showing his greed, this account also reveals Uther’s cunning, for he used a potion to make himself look like the governor, so that he could gain access to and sleep with the governor’s wife.
Uther’s use of magic is not something which the legends speak of very much. It is mainly just in this account in which it appears.
However, there is one obscure Welsh record which indicates that Uther may have been more strongly associated with magic in some lost records.
In the Welsh Triads, Uther is said to have taught one of the ‘three great enchantments of the Isle of Britain’ to a man named Menw. Another legend tells us that Menw was a shape-shifter.
Putting the two together, this may mean that Uther’s enchantment (which he taught to Menw) was the ability to shape-shift.
Uther came from a royal family of great importance. He was the brother of the rightful heir of Britain. His main familial relationships are listed here:
- Constantine (father)
- Aldroenus (uncle)
- Constans (oldest brother)
- Aurelius Ambrosius (older brother)
- Igerna (wife)
- Arthur (eldest son)
- Anna (daughter)
- Madoc (son)
- Gwyar (daughter)
Constantine was the brother of Aldroenus, king of Brittany. Constantine had been sent to rule as king of the Britons after they requested for Aldroenus to become their king.
This Constantine might be a legendary version of the historical Constantine III, emperor of Britain in the early fifth century.
If so, then this would mean that Uther was of imperial lineage. However, the standard conclusion that this legendary Constantine was the same as Constantine III is highly questionable, since the legendary figure bears virtually no similarities to the historical emperor.
The Story of Uther Pendragon
The story of Uther Pendragon is first found in the Historia Regum Britanniae. While numerous versions of his life story exist, this summary draws primarily from the earliest account:
Uther is born to Constantine, the king of Britain. He is raised in the royal court, along with his two older brothers, Constans (the heir) and Aurelius Ambrosius.
One day, a Pict assassinates Constantine. His son Constans then succeeds to the throne. His advisor is Vortigern. This advisor desires the throne for himself, so he arranges for some Picts to assassinate Constans.
The assassination occurs as planned, and Vortigern becomes king. Aurelius and Uther are taken away to Brittany for their protection, out of fear that Vortigern will try to have them killed as well. They are taken to be brought up in the royal court of their relative, King Budic.
Return To Britain
Very little is said in the legends about Uther’s time in Brittany. The focus is more on what was happening in Britain during that time.
Vortigern forms an alliance with Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to protect Britain from the Picts and the Scots, but this alliance eventually backfires. The Anglo-Saxons begin conquering Britain.
Things come to a head when the Saxons treacherously murder several hundred British leaders. At this point, Uther and his older brother Ambrosius decide to return to Britain.
They fight powerfully against the Saxons, who have devastated much of Britain by this point. Vortigern flees to his castle, but Ambrosius and Uther catch up to him there and burn his castle to the ground with Vortigern still inside.
Campaign in Ireland
After killing Vortigern, Ambrosius becomes the new king of the Britons. He desires to set up a memorial monument over the mass grave of the British chieftains killed by the Saxons. There is a monument in Ireland called the Giant’s Dance which he wants to use, so he sends Uther to Ireland to take it.
With an army of 15,000 men (according to the Historia Regum Britanniae), Uther sets out on a campaign to Ireland. Merlin accompanies him.
The king of Ireland is said to be a certain Gillomanius. Understandably, he raises an army of his own when he sees Uther coming. The two armies clash in battle and Uther comes off victorious.
The Britons then march to the mountain of Killaraus, where the giant stone monument stands. It is a large circle of upright stones.
Using his magical powers, Merlin is able to remove the stones from their place and help the Britons transport them back to Britain, where they are constructed over the mass graves of the slain British chieftains. It is strongly implied that this is Stonehenge.
War in Dyfed
One of Vortigern’s sons is named Pascent. He had fled from Ambrosius and Uther when they returned to Britain. At this point, he goes to Ireland and forms an alliance with the king whom Uther had defeated, Gillomanius.
Together, they sail from Ireland and arrive at Menevia, an important city in the region of Dyfed in south west Wales. They begin plundering the region.
Although Ambrosius is still the king at this point, he is sick, so he sends his brother Uther to deal with the invasion. At this point, Ambrosius is treacherously poisoned and killed.
While on the march to Dyfed, a star with a ray extending out of it (probably referring to a comet) appeared in the sky. At the end of the ray of light was the form of a dragon, out of whose mouth came two more rays.
Merlin informs Uther that this is a portent signifying that Ambrosius has died and that Uther will succeed him as king. The two rays spreading out from the dragon’s mouth signifies that Uther will have a son who will rule over Gaul (which is where one ray is pointing) and a daughter whose descendants will rule over Britain.
Uther continues on his march to Dyfed and engages the Saxons and Irish in battle there. He defeats them, killing both Gillomanius and Pascent.
Uther then returns to his capital, Winchester, and is crowned king by mutual consent of his subjects. Based on the portent that had been seen in the sky, he commissions two gold dragon statues to be made.
One of the dragon statues is placed at the church of Winchester, while the other functions as a battle standard, which Uther takes with him during warfare.
It is from this point onwards (according to the Historia Regum Britanniae) that Uther came to be known as Uther Pendragon.
Establishing Peace in The North
At this point, Octa the son of Hengest (the original leader of the Saxons in Britain) sets off on a devastating campaign in the north of Britain. He ravages the country from Scotland to York.
Uther leads an army to meet Octa at York, which he is currently besieging. The Britons fight against the Saxons, but they are overpowered and are forced to temporarily flee.
But during the night, they attack the Saxon camp and defeat them. Octa is taken prisoner, along with Eosa, another Saxon ruler.
After this victory, Uther travels to Alclud in Scotland. He establishes peace there, as well as in the territory of the Scots (presumably meaning the Irish-held parts of Scotland, since the Scots were the Irish tribes).
War Against Gorlois
At a banquet held after this victory, Uther sees Igerna, the wife of Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall. He immediately becomes infatuated with her.
Gorlois discovers the king’s feelings, and he becomes enraged. He offends Uther by his reaction and leaves Uther’s court, which infuriates Uther even further. Uther decides to declare war on Gorlois.
Gorlois places his wife, Igerna, in the castle at Tintagel, while Gorlois himself goes to a castle at a place called Dimilioc. Uther besieges Gorlois’s town, while he devises a cunning way to get access to Igerna.
He gets Merlin to give him a magic potion which will make him look exactly like Gorlois. Using this, Uther walks right into Tintagel and has relations with Igerna. From this, Arthur is conceived.
While Uther is away, his army attacks and enters Dimilioc, killing Gorlois and the main part of his army. The British army then arrives at Tintagel. Uther takes his own form again and leads the army into the town, killing the rest of Gorlois’s men.
Uther then takes Igerna as his wife and, according to the Historia Regum Britanniae, they both lived with much affection for each other.
After some time, Uther becomes sick and is bedbound. He must also be quite old by this point. He leaves the kingdom in the care of his son in law, Lot of Lothian (the husband of Uther’s daughter Anna).
Octa and Eosa manage to escape from their prison and flee to Germany. They raise a large army and bring over many of their countrymen to Britain, where they continue waging war.
Lot leads the Britons into battle against them, but he is not as effective a war leader as Uther was. He is successful in some battles, but the Saxons beat them in other battles.
Due to the dire situation that the Britons find themselves in, Uther is compelled to return to the battlefield. He is carried in a cart and leads an army of Britons against the Saxons during their siege of a certain city.
The Britons are eventually victorious, but Uther’s condition suddenly deteriorates after the battle. Hearing of this, the Saxons decide that there is still hope for them to win against the Britons.
They secretly poison a spring which they know Uther regularly drinks from. The next time he drinks from it, not long after the battle, he is poisoned and dies.
The Britons take Uther’s body to the stone circle (Stonehenge) and buries him alongside the other British chieftains, including his own brother, Ambrosius.
Sources For the Legend Of Uther Pendragon
The main source for the legend of Uther Pendragon is the Historia Regum Britanniae, written in 1137 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This purports to be a translation of a much older book written in ‘the British tongue’ (either Welsh, Cornish, or Breton), but most scholars do not believe this claim.
There are some earlier sources which mention Uther, although they do not provide much information about him.
One example is the Welsh poem ‘The Elegy of Uthyr Pendragon’, which supposedly was recorded to mourn his death.
Another example is Pa Gur, which may date from the ninth or tenth century. It mentions a certain figure being the servant of Arthur and also of Uthyr Pendragon.
Although these earliest Welsh sources do not provide much information about Uther, they do prove that he was not invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth, as is sometimes claimed.
After the Historia Regum Britanniae, Uther appears in the majority of later Arthurian sources to some degree or another, such as Robert de Boron’s Merlin and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Uther In Modern Media
Since the Arthurian legends themselves are still very popular, it is no surprise that Uther Pendragon has been featured in numerous modern works. Some of the main examples include:
- The Once and Future King: Written in 1958 by T. H. White, this book presents Uther as an Anglo-Norman king of Britain.
- The Crystal Cave: Written in 1970 by Mary Stewart, this book focuses on Merlin and presents him as the nephew of Uther.
- Excalibur: This 1981 movie by John Boorman presents a retelling of the legend of Arthur which, naturally, features Uther.
- The Mists of Avalon: Written in 1983 by Marion Zimmer Bradley, this book presents Uther as Ambrosius’ nephew, rather than his brother.
- The Last Legion: This 2007 movie by Doug Lefler presents a rather different version of Uther. He is presented as being identical to Romulus Augustulus, the historical final emperor of the Western Roman Emperor, who (in the movie) is shown to have fled to Britain.
- Merlin: This BBC series, first released in 2007, presents an Uther who bears very few similarities to the Uther of the legends, beyond his familial relationships.
Frequently Asked Questions About Uther Pendragon
Did Uther Pendragon really exist?
Uther is generally held to be a fictional character. However, his life story bears some very strong similarities to what is known of Tewdrig, a king of Gwent in the early post-Roman era. Therefore, some researchers have suggested that ‘Uther Pendragon’ was a title used by Tewdrig.
Was ‘Uther Pendragon’ his real name?
The second part, ‘Pendragon’, is universally understood to be an epithet, meaning ‘chief warrior’.
But there is disagreement over the first part of this name, ‘Uther’. Some researchers view this as a form of the Welsh name ‘Gwythyr’ (from the Latin ‘Victor). Others view it as part of the ‘Pendragon’ title, saying that it comes from the word ‘uthr’, meaning ‘fearsome’.
Was Uther Pendragon really the brother of Ambrosius?
Ambrosius is known to have been a real person, because he is mentioned by Gildas (as ‘Ambrosius Aurelianus’). But Gildas specifically calls him the last of the Romans and describes him as being alone, so he cannot have had a warrior-brother who fought alongside him.
However, Gildas does tell us that Ambrosius had descendants, so Uther could have been Ambrosius’ son (which would match the fact that Uther was said to have succeeded Ambrosius).
When did Uther Pendragon live?
Uther lived in the fifth century until the early sixth century. He likely became king in about the year 500.