Skimble-skamble stuff

Merlinus, from the Nuremburg Chronicles (the same woodcut was used for other prophets)

The dreamer Merlin

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I Hotspur refers irritably to Owen Glendower’s tales “of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies … and such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff”. He leaves us in no doubt that Welsh divination is all “rambling” and “worthless” nonsense (as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable interprets it). Prophecies attributed to Merlin have had mixed reviews over the centuries, largely depending on the mindset of the audience. Have they any relevance now?

Trying to divine the future has been a human activity that long predates press horoscopes. The Old Testament had its prophets and its interpreters of dreams such as Joseph, and Insular Celts were no less keen on divination than other cultures. However, unlike the personal divination familiar to folk practices, most foretelling that has been recorded historically relates to the political fates of societies, peoples and their rulers. To this latter class belongs the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.

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King Arthur’s Tintagel

Engraving of Tintagel by Samuel Buck, 1734

Tintagel has been associated with King Arthur for a millennium, particularly after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote and published his History of the Kings of Britain in the early 12th century. Though now often claimed as the site of Arthur’s court or castle, Geoffrey cited Tintagel merely as the site of Arthur’s conception.


Uthr, Uthyr, Uther

Uther Pendragon, whose last name derives from a Welsh title pen dragon or pen draig (‘head dragon’ or ‘chief warrior’), is a rather strange and shadowy figure. His chief claims to fame are his sobriquet Pendragon and his being the father of King Arthur. In the 11th-century Welsh poem numbered 31 in the Black Book of CarmarthenPa Gur (‘Which man?’) — he appears as uthir pen dragon, a warrior whose servant is in Arthur’s retinue: uthr in modern Welsh means wonderful or terrible, perhaps even awesome in the sense of ‘producing awe’. [1]

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c 1095-1155) the name Pendragon came from a comet which supposedly gave Uther victory over the Saxons. [2] Geoffrey may have had in mind a comet of 508 with several tails, or may even himself have remembered a spectacularly brilliant comet of 1106, noted in a Welsh chronicle as “a star wonderful to behold, throwing out behind it a beam of light of the thickness of a pillar in size and of exceeding brightness, foreboding what would come to pass in the future”. [3]

The word dragon in Welsh seems to have been a customary title for a warrior, however, as Maelgwn of Gwynedd (d 547) was called by his contemporary Gildas ‘the dragon of the island’, insularis draco (possibly Gildas meant the isle of Anglesey). [4] A plausible suggestion has been that Uther is therefore a ‘ghost’ and that the person in Arthur’s retinue mentioned in Pa Gur is merely the servant of uthir pen dragon, the ‘fierce chief warrior’.

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Changing History?

The ‘Arthur Stone’, a drain cover from Tintagel Island with 7th-century inscriptions

Slap-bang in the the middle of the silly season in 1998 Tintagel became a focus of interest with news of its so-called ‘Arthur Stone’. As the dust settled it became time to see what the fuss was about, examine its significance and assess the reaction.

A team from the Archaeology Department of Glasgow University, led by Professor Christopher Morris, had been re-evaluating Ralegh Radford’s pre-war excavations at Tintagel Island, Cornwall; the project was commissioned by English Heritage who are guardians of the site, itself owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Radford’s Site C is a terrace situated between the sea and the main plateau, on the north-eastern side of the promontory. On a nearby terrace Morris’ team had already discovered occupation from the late Roman to the 7th century, with evidence of cremation and sherds of imported East Mediterranean ware. Undisturbed, under Radford’s Site C, were further deposits, including drains running around the southwest corner. Re-used as a cover to the later of two drains was a piece of slate.

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Arthur’s cross?

Detail from The last sleep of Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones (1898): Wikimedia Commons

A discussion centred on the Glastonbury Cross, an object claimed by the 12th-century monks of Glastonbury Abbey to have been excavated from above a Dark Age grave in their cemetery and inscribed with the name Arturius or Arthur. The text is substantially that of an article written for Pendragon, the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in late 1997.

Cross purposes

On April Fool’s Day, 1982, an extraordinary story broke nationally in the UK. Back in November 1981 Derek Mahoney, while searching through mud excavated from an Essex lake, found a small lead cross. At the British Museum the Keeper of Medieval and Later antiquities noted that the cross was within an eighth of an inch of the size of the cross alleged to have been found above King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury in 1191. But, following on from his family’s dispute with solicitors over a house sale, Mahoney said he had subsequently buried the cross in a “completely waterproof” container “well down in the ground” because possession of the cross gave him “power and authority”.

Where exactly had he got this cross? Dredging operations at the lake at Forty Hall, Enfield in Essex had revealed, he said, some old Elizabethan bricks in a wall, and later a knife — and the cross. These were all photographed. When the foreman involved in the pond-clearing apparently raised no objections,¹ Derek Mahoney took the objects home. Enfield Council, after hearing of the cross from a report in The Enfield Advertiser, successfully prosecuted him for retaining an object discovered on their land. He was jailed for contempt of court.

After nine months, Mahoney was brought before a High Court judge to reconsider. He refused. With remission his sentence would have ended in July 1983. But then, on March 21st 1983 , he was released. The judge said there was “no point” in his serving any more of his sentence as he was prepared to stay in prison “until doomsday” rather than give up the cross. A curious legal decision!

Suspicions were aroused, however, when it emerged that Mahoney was once employed by Lesney Toys as a mould maker. Geoffrey Ashe considered the whole affair to be “a false alarm”. And yet there were attenuating circumstances.

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Something rotten

Henry Irving as Hamlet: Edwin Longsden Long (1829-1891)

If the Morte d’Arthur was ever played on the Victorian stage we all know at whom we would have hissed. If Judas is the villain of the New Testament, who betrays his lord and causes the break-up of the fellowship of the Last Supper, then Mordred is clearly the villain in Malory who betrays his lord and causes the break-up of the fellowship of the Round Table. if Judas dies on a tree like his lord, Mordred dies by the sword like his lord too.

Let’s take a closer look at this well-known rotter! He’s the nephew of King Arthur, some say his illegitimate son; he covets the throne and the power. The picture drawn by Malory [in Book One of the Winchester manuscript] seems to be borne out by the earlier Welsh Triads in which Medrawd came to Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall: there he ‘left neither food nor drink but, worst of all, dragged Gwenhwyfar from the royal chair and struck her a blow’. This was one of the Three Unrestrained Ravagings of Britain; the second was when Arthur did tit-for-tat at Medrawd’s court.

If Mordred is black through and through he strangely reminds us of another Dark Age figure who is traditionally associated with black. This one too has claims on the throne, plots against the king through what he regards as the queen’s infidelity and would strike the queen (through someone does try to restrain him). He too is a prince, a nephew of a king, but also a king’s son; and he kills, and is killed by, the king. If this too sounds like melodrama, it is; it’s part of the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But the difference is this: Hamlet is the hero, but Mordred the villain.

One might raise objections, of course. The blood relationships, though ambiguously described above, are different. Hamlet was possibly an historical Danish prince called Amleth, Mordred [Medraut in the earliest form of the name] a character in British legend. Moreover, history is full of royal intrigues, and to say that Mordred is like Hamlet in this respect is not a very profound conclusion. In other words, the differences are greater than the superficial similarities.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment.

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Arthur-types

10C warrior burial sculpted in stone, Middleton, Yorkshire

Amateur historians often like to take traditional tales of semi- or pseudohistorical figures as sources for the details of their heroes’ biographies.

This is especially the case with King Arthur where legendary and folkloric tales are presented as evidence for this or that campaign or as proof that Arthur should be identified with a known historical personage.

In this essay I want to suggest that the exploits of legendary heroes in other contexts parallel some of those of Arthur’s, rendering them suspect as historical facts and thus no basis for concocting a presumed biography.


In his youth the hero does menial tasks, but displays great strength and courage despite his humble upbringing. He defends the honour of women, but his beloved is much abducted. He gains possession of a magnificent steed, and discovers an almost supernatural sword under a stone. After a lifetime of great feats with a band of followers he is mortally wounded by treachery, though his renown protects his people from harm.

Sounds familiar? Of course it does — you knew I was outlining the romance of ‘Antar (also known as ‘Antara), a folk hero from the Abs tribe of central Arabia, whose exploits also ranged across Iraq, Persia and Syria. He died at a great age in a raid around 600CE, but already by the 8th century stories of his life and deeds were being developed (Ranelagh 1979).

The point is surely this: here we have a folk-hero who flourished not long after King Arthur is alleged to have existed but who also shares some similarities with the British hero as described in Arthurian epic and saga. Is there a direct relationship between them? Before we tackle this question, it might be instructive to look at another near-contemporary hero, but from a little closer to home.

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Construct

Pendragonry will feature my musings on Arthurian matters from the late 1960s onwards, mostly in an amateur British magazine called Pendragon but also supplemented by commentary elsewhere and by my current thoughts.

Half a century and more of reflection on obsessions — mine and others — with ‘King Arthur’ have led me to the inevitable conclusion that Arthur, his Round Table and associated paraphernalia are all wonderful constructs, existing in as many different forms as there are individuals to consider them.

The Pendragon Society was originally founded in 1959 in Winchester, Hampshire, with the following aims:

    1. To stimulate interest in King Arthur and his contemporaries.
    2. To investigate the history and archaeology of the Matter of Britain.
    3. To study the significance — past, present and future — of the Arthurian legends. (This further clause was added later, when the Society was based in Bristol.)

Until it was voluntarily dissolved in 2009 (its golden jubilee year) the Society’s main activities were focused on projects, principally early medieval archaeology — a hillfort, a Roman villa and an Early Christian church site — and contributions to Pendragon, its magazine-style journal. The journal included news, views and reviews as well as articles, often substantial. Its members, many from overseas, included authors, academics and artists among its ranks as well as amateurs. For much of its existence I was contributing editor.

Pendragonry therefore will include many of my contributions to the journal, with additional commentary where necessary. Of course it will, since it’ll represent my opinions, be very opinionated. I do welcome comments, even criticisms (because opinions can change!) but naturally only those conducted politely.