Merlin: Warrior & Poet. Two Historical Figures that Inspired the Legend
It’s only a few weeks now until the movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword hits the big screen. It will be particularly interesting to see how it portrays Merlin, the royal puppet master in the Arthurian tales. The stories we know today derive from the romantic fiction of the Middle Ages, first composed during the twelfth century, beginning with the work of the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth around 1135.
The modern legend of Merlin was born out of the Middle Ages. (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Here, Merlin is depicted as the real power behind the throne: he is King Arthur’s mentor, his royal advisor, and he manipulates affairs of state with magical powers. The action is set during the sixth century, shortly after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Historically, during this period Britain became divided into many feuding kingdoms—the nation’s plight made worse by the Anglo-Saxons who were invading from their homeland in northern Germany. The invaders eventually conquered much of Britain, driving the inhabitants west. Ultimately, southern Britain became two separate countries: England, founded by the Anglo-Saxons, and Wales, the region of the Welsh, the English name for the native Britons.
Map showing sites associated with Merlin and the Arthurian legend. (Graham Phillips)
Arthur and Merlin in the Dark Ages
This period of conflict and uncertainty is popularly known as the Dark Ages, an era from which few written records survive, and it was during this turbulent time that Arthur is said to have lived. He united the British kingdoms to halt the Anglo-Saxons, we are told, establishing a brief age of peace and prosperity. It ends tragically, however, when Arthur dies in battle, drawn into civil conflict with his own family. Having failed to secure the Britons’ future, Merlin is sent mad with grief and ends his days as a crazed, forest-dwelling hermit.
Merlin, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. (Public Domain)
Although this story is embroiled with medieval fantasy, earlier Dark Age works do exist to suggest that the Arthur of fiction may have been based on a genuine historical figure; more remarkably, Merlin too. In these accounts Merlin appears under the original Welsh rendering of the name, Myrddin, and is said to have been a royal advisor and a poet who possessed the gift of prophecy. Such people—poets attributed with second sight—did exist during the post-Roman era, and were retained by various chieftains to act as both councilors and chroniclers, composing poems to record the exploits of their king. They were known as “bards,” and Myrddin is said to have been one of them; works dating from the sixth century are even attributed to him.
The Black Book of Carmarthen
Now preserved in the National Library of Wales, a manuscript called The Black Book of Carmarthen contains two poems, The Greetings and The Apple Trees, both involving a battle at a place called Arfderydd in northern Britain, after which the author claims to been driven out of his mind and forced to live alone in a nearby forest. Another seemingly contemporary poem in the manuscript, titled The Conversation of Myrddin and Taliesin, concerns Myrddin and another bard discussing this same battle.
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These works all imply that the romance Merlin was based in part on the Myrddin of the poems: he is living a reclusive forest existence, having lost his wits, exactly like Merlin in the Arthurian tales.
A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen, thought to be the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh. (Public Domain)
Evidence that this Myrddin historically existed can be found in the Welsh Annals, a tenth-century chronicle preserved in the British Library in London. It records the very battle referenced in The Black Book of Carmarthen poems, specifically naming the bard. An entry for the year 573 reads: “The Battle of Arfderydd in which… Myrddin went mad.”
A Real, Historical Man?
So Merlin the magician does seem to have been based in part on a real-life sixth-century bard. Unfortunately, however, he cannot have been a contemporary of a historical King Arthur. One of the earliest surviving works to reference Arthur is the History of the Britons by a monk named Nennius, who wrote around the year 830. Unlike the medieval romancers writing over three centuries later, who elaborated their accounts with fanciful themes, Nennius merely relates Arthur’s purported military achievements. His most decisive battle, we are told, was the Battle of Badon, seemingly fought near the city of Bath.
Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century minature from Robert de Boron's Merlin en prose (written ca 1200). (Public Domain)
Another monk, Gildas, who wrote within living memory of the event, records the battle as a historical event that occurred around the year 500. Although Gildas neglects to name the British leader at the time, his work does help to date the period in which Arthur was originally thought to have lived. If Merlin was present at the much later Battle of Arfderydd in 573, then he would have to have been well over a hundred years of age. Okay for a fabled wizard perhaps, but most unlikely in reality, especially at a time when the average life expectancy was very much lower than today. There was, however, another historical figure upon whom the story of Merlin appears to have been based, and he did live at the right time.
Merlin and The Dragons
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, first introduces Merlin as a boy. A British king called Vortigern captures the young Merlin and takes him to his fortress, said to be on a hill now called Dinas Emrys in North Wales. The king had been having trouble constructing the fort: the foundations kept collapsing, and his magicians had told him that to put things right he must sacrifice a child. But just as Merlin is about to be killed he has a vision of two dragons, one red, the other white, that fight each other in a pool in a cavern below the fort. This, he tells Vortigern, is why the building keeps collapsing. He shows Vortigern where to dig; the pool is found and the dragons are released. The king is so impressed that he spares Merlin’s life, appointing him as one of his advisors and rewarding him with land.
Illustration from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, depicting the young Merlin revealing the two dragons to King Vortigern. (Public Domain)
Although the story is clearly a legend rather than a historical event, Geoffrey did not invent it. Exactly the same account appears almost verbatim in Nennius’ History of the Britons, written 300 years earlier. Except here, however, the boy is not called Merlin but Ambrosius. Nennius refers to the same character later in his work, as becoming an important British leader after Vortigern’s demise. Even though the story of the two dragons is fable or anecdotal, Ambrosius was a historical figure. He is referenced in the work of Gildas as a warrior leader of the Britons in the late fifth century. Interestingly, he disappears from history at the very time that Arthur is said to have become king. From this it is clear that, as far as Geoffrey of Monmouth was concerned, Merlin and Ambrosius were one and the same. There survives no record of how, where, or when Ambrosius died, so it is just possible that, as he grew older, he retired from military life to act as advisor to the British kings. Unlike the Merlin recorded in the Welsh Annals, Ambrosius certainly did live at the right time, and would have been of the right age to have become the Merlin connected with King Arthur.
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It’s reasonable to infer that the legend of Merlin, as it developed during the Middle Ages, was inspired by two separate figures that lived decades apart. Although the character’s name seems to have been derived from the second of them, only the first could have had genuine associations with a historical Arthur.
Ambrosius, whose full name was Ambrosius Aurelianus, is thought to have come from Amesbury in southern England, a town that bears his name. Linguists believe that the name Amesbury derives from the early English Ambrose Bury, meaning “Ambrosius’ Fort.” And it is here he is said to have been buried, in a crypt that still lies beneath the medieval abbey later built on the site. Hidden away in a corner of Amesbury Abbey, there is even an ancient stone bust, said to be an effigy of Ambrosius. If true, it might just be the only representation of the historical Merlin to still survive.
Amesbury Abbey in the English County of Wiltshire, said to be the burial place of Ambrosius, a historical figure upon whom the legend of Merlin seems to have been based. (Graham Phillips)
The ancient stone bust from Amesbury Abbey, thought to depict Ambrosius Aurelianus. This may be the only representation of the historical Merlin to still survive. (Graham Phillips)
The Man, or the Legend?
Interestingly, the famous Stonehenge stands just two miles away, a monument which Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed was built by Merlin himself. It will be fascinating to see which Merlin the new movie portrays: the mad old bard, the retired warrior, a combination of both, or something altogether new. Or perhaps they’ve omitted him altogether. I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
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Top Image: Cloaked man; Deriv (CC BY 2.0)