April is a joyous time of year, a lusty time, a time for action: flowers spring forth in field and meadow, birds sing in the woodland and young men whistle a happy tune and look forward to taking a beautiful wench down the aisle – so to speak. The barons seized their moment and went at once to see Vortigern. They greeted him jovially and told him that England’s sovereignty had been put in danger by wicked men, that is to say, by King Moyne, but that he was now dead and his brothers were too young to assume the throne: ‘And because we know you to be valiant and trusted in battle,’ they said, ‘and of all men the best to protect us from our enemies, as you have done in the past, we have chosen you to be our king. The ring and the crown are yours. Everybody, high and low, rich and poor, is in agreement with this.’
‘Thank you,’ replied Vortigern, and he was crowned king immediately and without dissent. But at his coronation, two barons who knew of the treason that had been committed and who greatly lamented that the rightful king’s blood should have been spilt in this way, spoke together and decided to make sure that the two children were taken overseas, and they arranged for this to happen, and no one knew anything about it except for themselves.
The king held a noble feast and then afterwards presided over a parliament where he commanded that the children should be brought to him at once. They were sought for but could not be found. Vortigern realised that he had been crossed; he understood the danger and grew nearly mad with rage (and no wonder, the children will do him great harm when they get older.)
But Vortigern quickly forgot about it, and so did everybody else; dukes and princes, freemen and servants, knights and men, were soon fully occupied in getting ready to expel King Angys by force of arms. They prepared for war against their enemies, some on fine warhorses, others on smaller steeds and many on foot, but no less useful for that with their crossbows and longbows. They confronted Angys and his heathen followers with many bolts shot, spears broken and shields hacked to pieces, many arrows through the throat and many knights knocked to the ground with their helmet caved in and coat of chainmail ripped apart. A lot of noble horses were killed. But our men performed heroically with their swords of sharpened steel and kicked many a wealthy heathen into the pains of hellfire.
King Angys saw that he was getting the worst of it and fled on horseback. He made it to a castle where a lot of his men had already gathered. Those who were left behind had a hard time of it. A cry of ‘Mercy!’ was no help to them; they were hacked down with axe and spear, knife and sword, and those who were overrun were brought quickly to the ground. There was no escape for anyone, only death. In this way, our folk won the day, and at once began to lay siege to the castle where King Angys was holed up.
When the siege had lasted for quite a while, Angys sent them word that if they would guarantee him safe passage, he would take what remained of his army back to his own country and never threaten England again.
Vortigern took counsel and agreed to these terms, on condition that they swore an oath to adhere to them. He let them depart in safety, and they made their way to the beach and sailed away.
Vortigern and his army celebrated joyously for many days afterwards. When this feast was over, the twelve traitors I mentioned awhile back, those who had killed King Moyne, conceived the curious notion that it might be a good idea to go to Vortigern to ask for a reward for committing this heinous crime.
‘King,’ they said, ’consider how you are now supreme. Show how noble and generous you are to those who, through their love for you, have given you the power that you now hold. We killed our lord. Give us a reward for it.’
Vortigern look sternly at them: ‘By the law that God gave us, you shall have a fitting reward – you shall be hanged and drawn for killing your king. That is the punishment for regicide.’
Horses were fetched at once. The men had their feet tied to these horses and they were pulled apart limb from limb on the pavement, then hanged. Many of the knights and noblemen who were looking on were appalled to see their peers treated in this way and ran at Vortigern as though at a deadly enemy, but Vortgern’s men intervened and steadfastly defended him. Many a head was kicked in, many a throat cut and much blood lost, but Vortigern managed to escape this attack.
The noblemen quickly spread word to their friends and relatives, that very night, how Vortigern had encouraged the murder of their king and then had their fellows executed without trial, and how they must exact revenge for these injustices. Each of them so influenced and persuaded his friends that soon a great weight of indignation had built up; many earls, barons and knights openly rebelled, battles were fought over the months and years that followed and many a lady grieved for her lord.
At last, Vortigern was persuaded that his position was getting hopeless, for the rebels were growing stronger and the men loyal to him were getting fewer and fewer, so he sent letters to young King Angys, asking if he would come and help him against all those who wanted him dead; if he did so, he would give him half his kingdom in return. Angys was very pleased to hear this and sent messengers to every duke, earl, baron and knight in his realm, in fact, every man who could wield a weapon, and soon many thousands of grim and sturdy fellows we embarking with him for England. Vortigern welcomed them with great joy when they arrived.
Vortigern kept to his agreement and gave Angys half the realm of England, or at least, half of that which he still controlled, in return for Angys’s help in defeating his enemies. This arrangement was made binding, and they quickly made preparations for battle. Their adversaries had already assembled just a few miles from Salisbury, waiting for them. Soon, many a colourful banner was torn to the ground, the poles broken and the cloth ripped to shreds, and many powerful lords were killed. Knights slew one another and many horses were disembowelled. I can tell you this for certain: that no pity was felt for the enemy on either side. Swords clashed against helmets, spears and arrows rained down, coats of chainmail were ripped open and many men impaled through the body. There was much slaughter on both sides, in a very short time; headless corpses littered the ground, men with their sides and bellies split open by lances and the bolts from heavy crossbows. Many ladies and damsels would weep floods of tears afterwards.
Vortigern had four men under his command for every one of ours, and soon the barons could not withstand the onslaught and began to flee for their lives, some by sea to their families, others overseas to seek refuge. Those whom Vortigern captured alive he had hanged and drawn, regardless of whether this was just or in accordance with the law. To all the others, he confiscated their lands and possessions, their castles and towers, and gave them all to heathen noblemen. There was much goodwill and affection between Angys and Vortigern.
Angys had a daughter, a very attractive girl (she was a heathen Saracen) and Vortigern fell in love with her and married her, earning himself God’s curse all his life, for he allowed and encouraged Christian men to marry heathen women and so mixed our blood like flesh and maggots. Many thousands were married in this way, as we find it written in the book, and almost all of England was given to the devil.
Feasts were prepared often, great feasts, and Vortigern lived a life of luxury, his thoughts concerned solely with eating, drinking and hunting, and this lasted for many years. But one day, Vortigern sat thinking about the two children who had gone overseas, and of the many noblemen whom he had banished or who had fled abroad, and he was suddenly concerned that there might one day be a danger from this that he should prepare for, so he arranged for the best carpenters and the finest masons to be quickly found. His command was obeyed. Soon thousands had been gathered, their tools at the ready, willing to do the king’s bidding. The king called them all together and said:
‘Listen, all of you, and listen carefully. I have decided that a castle shall be built, a castle of timber and stone, reinforced with lime cement, the strongest fortress that the world has ever seen. If I should ever find myself hard-pressed, I can take refuge in it from those who may claim that I have seized their inheritance from them, hide from them there and defend myself. It shall be located on Salisbury Plain. Make sure that the walls are true, use the finest quality stone and see that the tower is impregnable and that the ditch is as deep as possible. Now that you know what I want, go and do it for me. I will pay you handsomely for this work.’
The workmen went off, three thousand or more of them, took axes to timber and chisels to rock, others dug and consolidated the ground for all they were worth and before the end of the day they had laid the foundations of a fine castle. These craftsmen were swift and sure in their labour, and before evening the stonework was chest high, so the book says. When night fell, they went home to rest, as is a workman’s right. They returned in the morning to a dreadful sight: all the foundation stones were scattered everywhere, lying upside down on the ground. The workmen were very angry indeed, but they cleared everything up and started all over again, and they carried on working until the sun set, achieving as much as they had the day before. But when they came back the next day, their work was all uplifted again and scattered here and there. This went on for months. All that they achieved in a day was destroyed again by the morning of the next.
News of this reached the king and he was puzzled by it, and angry. He tried by every means possible to find out what was hindering the work, but no answers were forthcoming. No craftsman seemed able to explain it, and no clergyman could either.
Vortigern sat in his hall amongst his knights and his barons, banged his fists on the table and commanded angrily that men of religion be brought to him at once, the best in all the land. His command was quickly obeyed. Men of religion were sought for, far and wide, and swiftly brought before him. He put the question to them: why was his castle falling down every night? No one could answer him. He threatened them with death if they couldn’t tell him why his castle wouldn’t stand.
Ten of these men of religion were chosen, the ten deemed to be the wisest, and they were shut in a room so that they wouldn’t be disturbed, and no one was allowed to interrupt them, by the king’s command, except to bring them food, and they spent nine days shut up in that room. They were astronomers and the wisest of the wise, but even so, all that they could determine for certain, when they studied the night sky, was that a child had been conceived on Earth without any man being involved.
They went before the king and told him that a child had been born without any involvement from a man, a child who knew well-nigh everything that there was to know.
‘If you kill him without warning,’ they said, ‘his blood will be worth its weight in gold to you. If the stonework of your castle is smeared with it, it will probably stand forever.’
The king was delighted with this discovery and secretly chose twelve people to scour the land, in four groups of three, to look for this child and to kill him. If they came across him, they should let nothing stop them but without any hesitation they should cut off his head without giving the slightest warning, and without saying anything to him. This was the instruction that these men of religion gave, for they feared that it would be the end of them if the child was allowed to speak.
So these men went off on the king’s business to the four quarters of England, groups of three, in four directions, looking for the child. The ten men of religion were constrained by the king to remain with him until it was clear that they had been telling the truth. If it turned out that they had been lying, their lives would end right there and then.
But let us leave these heathen clergymen for a moment. The twelve went off to search for the child. And before I unveil any more of this romance, I would like you to understand how this child was conceived and what his name was. So please listen to me.
He who was and is and shall be for evermore, chose for himself here on Earth a sweet queen inside whom he could take on the flesh and blood he needed in order to redeem us on the cross; and because of his crucifixion, we have been granted the power to resist the devil, and the chance to go to heaven when we die – blessed be his name, and that of Mary, his sweet mother.
Now listen: of those devils who fell out of heaven with Lucifer, some went straight to hellfire, some fell into water, some onto land, and some remained in the air. They’ve stayed in these places ever since, after Our Lord ejected them, and they retain the power to harm mankind, here as well as there. I won’t go into any more detail than is necessary, but the devils that live above us are constantly lustful and now and again they make a body for themselves out of the air and have the power to descend to the ground and do harm to those who ignore God’s commandments; although it is not so bad now, for through the might of sweet Jesus many of them have already been destroyed, but there is no time now to explain this in any greater detail.
But the devils I’m talking about saw how Jesus, through his mercy, was born of Mary and had redeemed all of mankind as a result, and were so incensed by this that they vowed to emulate it and to bring to ruin as many as Jesus had saved. This was their plan, and it will astonish you but this is what happened: there was at this time a rich man in England who had a wife and four children, a son and three daughters. The devil whom I’m talking about, this fiend who lived in the air, descended to the ground and made the wife do all his bidding and so gained power over them all. They grew angry with one another and squabbled and fought so much that one day, in the evening, through the power of this fiend, the wife cursed her son shamefully and offered his soul to the devil. The fiend was delighted to hear this and quickly plotted the son’s downfall; during the night, he entered the house and strangled him where he lay. The wife arose the next morning, found her son lying dead and quickly went and hanged herself for shame and grief, and when her husband became aware of this he suffered a seizure for sorrow and died without the benefit of any priest.
All the people who lived in this district felt great sadness and sympathy for the man and his wife, for they had been good people. A hermit lived nearby who came to visit the scene of this tragedy; his name was Blaise and he was very upset at what he saw and was convinced that it was the devil’s work. He found the three daughters, eagerly heard their confessions and gave them absolution for all that he could get them to tell him and gave them due penance for their sins. He instructed them in the right way to serve God, and then he went home.
These three maidens served God willingly, with fear and love in due proportion. But the devil who had fallen to Earth, the one whom I told you about, took on the likeness of a man and went to an old woman and offered her money if she would accompany him to these sisters in order to dupe and persuade the eldest to take young lovers. It was the law at this time that any woman caught having sex outside of lawful marriage was buried alive, unless she accepted that she was a prostitute and a common whore, with all that that entailed. Only upon this understanding was she allowed to live. This old wife – may a curse fall on her – visited these three sisters and feigned concern for the girls’ plight, saying to the eldest: ‘What a shame, my sweet maid, when you have such an attractive body, your feet and hands are so beautiful, you have a lovely face and you are so perfectly proportioned, that you have no young man to give you pleasure. Think how lovely that would be.’
‘If I do this,’ replied the maiden, ‘I will be buried alive!’
‘No,’ said this old queen, ‘you can do it discretely and in private, in your own bed, and then you can marry the young man afterwards.’
As a result of this old woman’s persuasion and the fiend’s encouragement, the elder sister let a young man have sex with her. She enjoyed it very much, but she was quickly found out, seized, judged to be guilty and buried alive. Everybody was very upset at her fate, particularly following that of her parents, and tears were shed all round.
But the fiend hadn’t finished yet. He brought a young man to visit the middle sister and she let him have sex with her. This was quickly discovered, justice took its course and she was faced with the same sentence that had been meted out to her sister, but said she would become a prostitute, a common whore to all men. Many wept to hear this, but she had a lot of takers at this news.
Alas, that the fiend has such power to harm those whom Jesus has saved by his suffering!
The third sister was so distraught at the fate of her family that she nearly fell into despair, but through God’s help she remembered the hermit who had come to visit them. She went to see him and confessed her life to him, as well as all the things that had happened to her sisters and parents. The hermit was astonished to learn what had happened, and fervently instructed her to keep Christ always in her mind and to shun the law of the devil, to succumb to neither anger nor gluttony, laziness nor lechery, backbiting nor unfaithfulness, greed nor envy, but to shun all these things and to live a good life, and he taught her how to live such a life, and he also taught her not to be such a fool as to lie down to sleep before blessing the door and the window of her bedroom, and all the corners of the room as well. He instructed her in all of this, and then she went home.
But the fiend was not finished yet. He inspired the girl’s sister, who was under his influence entirely, to visit her. This whore arrived on the doorstep with a gang of harlots and began issuing threats, demanding her inheritance. They ran at the sister and started kicking and punching her, but thankfully she managed to escape into a room. She shut the door against them, neighbours heard the commotion and her screams for help and they came and drove the whores away.
This poor, foolish girl spent the rest of the day wracked with shame and regret, and when darkness fell, she lay fully clothed on her bed and fell asleep without blessing the room as the hermit had taught her.
The fiend quickly came to her. There was nothing to stop him, there was no mark of Our Lord anywhere. He lay beside the maiden and impregnated her.
The maiden woke up, suddenly feeling her legs uncovered. She could feel that she was being made love to! She jumped to her feet and found that the door was still locked. Nothing seemed to be disturbed, but this only served to increase her terror, because she rightly imagined that it must have been the devil. She didn’t know what to do, she tore her fair hair with both hands, beat herself and spent all the rest of the night in tears.
The next morning, she went at once to see the hermit and told him what had happened. He expressed regret that she had not done as he had instructed her, and was very sorry for her.
‘Alas, sir,’ she said. ‘As soon as men see that I am pregnant, I will be killed.’
‘I am sure that this is true, although I marvel at your story,’ he replied. ‘Be assured, daughter, if I see that you are with child, I will do all in my power to help you, until I can see the child. Go home, now, my daughter. Keep Christ in your heart, do penance day and night and serve Jesus with all your strength. He may yet choose to save you.’
The maiden went drearily home and spent her time serving God as best she could, but every day her womb grew bigger. The was no way of hiding it. Her belly became so enormous that it was quickly noticed and she was taken to give an explanation for it. She was terrified as she stood before the judge.
The hermit learned what had happened and went quickly to witness the proceedings. The judge cleared his throat and began to question the girl:
‘Oh maiden, I am inclined to feel great pity for you,’ he said. ‘You must at least have had an inkling that the devil was behind your parents deaths, and the death of one of your sisters also, and your brother, and now you stand before me having brought death upon yourself by having unlawful sex. You shall be taken from here and killed, for this is what the law requires.’
‘Sir,’ she replied, ‘I have never unlawfully lain beside a man, I swear this by Christ.’
‘Then it is a marvel indeed!’ exclaimed the judge. ‘You are lying. You must be lying! You cannot be telling me the truth, for I can plainly see that you are pregnant.’
‘I have become pregnant without having had sex with any man,’ she replied. ‘On that night a strange creature came to me, I have no idea what it was but I swear to God that it was no man.’
The judge swore by Saint Alban that he had never heard anything like it. ‘I don’t believe you,’ he said. ‘Since Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, no child has ever been born without the involvement of a man, except for one, and that was Jesus Christ, through the power of God the Father. But because you claim that you are bearing a child and no man has been involved in its conception, before anyone buries you alive I will get twelve married women to tell me if a child can possibly be conceived without the seed of any man.’
Twelve wives were selected. They came before the judge and swore that no child had ever been born without the involvement of a man, except for Jesus Christ, through God’s grace. To this they gave their oath. Then Blaise the hermit spoke up:
‘Judge, please listen to me,’ he said. ‘This girl has no way of proving her claim, we can all agree to this. I have heard her confession and taught her the law, and I am satisfied that she has no recollection of any man having had sex with her. And although she deserves death, the child is innocent. It would be a great injustice to kill two for the crime of one. So let her be taken into custody, let her bear the child and then suckle and look after it for two and a half years, and when the infant is old enough to walk and speak, then justice can be done.’
‘By God!’ exclaimed the judge. ‘This is excellent advice. We shall do exactly as you say. She will not be killed today.’
They decided to incarcerate her in a tower and to refuse her all visitors except for an old midwife who was to guard her. They quickly took her to this tower and shut her in. It was so high that no one could gain entry, and there was only a single window with a pulley system for drawing up food and everyday provisions.
When it was time for her to give birth, the maiden produced a strange-looking child, the book says. It had the form of a boy, but was blacker than most babies and much hairier. After the child had been born, they lowered the infant down on a rope and Blaise quickly christened the little boy Merlin. The fiend was very angry at this, for it denied them the power that they had hoped to have. After the child had been christened, Blaise put the baby back onto the rope and the wise-woman drew him back up, then walked to the fire and held the child, looking at his face and his demeanour.
‘Away, you foul thing!’ she exclaimed suddenly. ‘Alas that your mother should suffer such an end for your sake. You disgusting creature!’
The child replied loudly: ‘You’re lying, you old hag! No one will kill my mother while I’m alive.’ The old woman was so startled that she nearly dropped the child.
‘In the name of God, you have no power to harm me,’ she muttered.
His mother heard this and implored her child to tell them who he was. But for all their insistence, Merlin remained silent. But I can tell you, they were astonished, and when word of it got out, so was everybody else.
Six months later, Merlin’s mother held him by the fire and wept bitterly to herself: ‘Alas, my sweet son, for your sake I shall be buried alive.’
Merlin spoke: ‘Mother, no. I swear, no judge will ever have you buried while I can walk and talk,’ and from that day onwards, Merlin told her everything she wanted to know.
When the child was old enough to walk, the judge came to visit and summoned the woman to face justice. He swore, in the name of the Virgin Mary, that she should be killed at once. The child Merlin replied mildly to the judge:
‘Any man worth his salt knows that no one can fight against destiny, and it was through destiny and through grace that I was put into her womb. What choice did she have?’
The judge looked angrily at Merlin and insisted that she must he buried alive.
‘You won’t be able to do it, however hard you might try,’ Merlin replied. ‘I’ll tell you why if you like: it was a fiend who brought about my conception and put me into a holy vessel. He imagined that I would be born an evil child, but I have been christened and have chosen to follow the good. But through my father’s parentage I am able to know of things past, as well as everything that exists, why it is and what, and how, and of things to come as well – not everything, but some of it. I know very well who my father is, but you don’t know who yours is. And because of this, I say that your mother is more deserving to be buried alive than mine.’
The child answered so confidently and eloquently that everybody was amazed that a two-year-old could speak with such assurance.
‘You lie!’ the judge exclaimed. ‘My father was a nobleman and my mother a lady. She is still alive, and I know that no man ever went to bed with her improperly, by the Mother of God!’
‘Judge, be silent, or I shall make it known far and wide how many men she’s slept with. Send someone to fetch her and if she doesn’t admit to it, then you can pull me apart with wild horses.’
The judge quickly instructed that his mother be fetched, and she was soon standing before him.
‘Merlin, say again what you just said, in front of my mother – if you dare.’
‘Now I can see that your decisions and judgements are not very wise,’ said Merlin. ‘If I explain everything regarding how you were conceived in front of all these people here, your mother will have to be buried alive and it will be your fault.’
When the judge understood the escalating gravity of the situation, the three of them retired to a private chamber.
‘Now, Merlin, tell me, who was the man who fathered me?’
The child swore by Saint Simon: ‘It was the parson in her town. They played intimately together and, as a result, you were conceived.’
‘You bastard! You’re telling great lies!’ exclaimed the old lady. ‘His father was a baron. The man is a fool who listens to a word you say. You are a nothing but a freak, an ill-conceived freak and you ought to be killed. That will stop you from telling lies and slandering people like this.’
‘Madam, be quiet! No man has any right to kill me. I am a gift to this land, and you deserve to be buried alive. Your son will see the truth of this. Your lord returned unexpectedly from Cardoil, much to your distress. It was night and the parson lay in your arms, in bed. Your lord began knocking on the chamber door and you sprang to your feet in nothing but your smock, well-nigh mad with terror. You shot open a window and let the parson out. Then you shut the window behind him. But the two of you had already conceived this knight here. What do you say, madam? Have you anything to say?’
The lady couldn’t utter a word. The colour drained from her face.
‘What do you say to this?’ asked the judge.
‘Sir, it is the truth, by Jesus Christ! Whatever you might do, I can’t deny it.’
The judge looked mortified. He was beside himself with shame. Merlin took him aside, into a corner of the room:
‘Sir, listen to me. Let your mother go home, and send a young man secretly to follow her. She will quickly go to tell the parson that they have been betrayed by me. When the parson hears this, he will be so distressed, for shame and sorrow, he will go to a bridge and throw himself into the water, taking his own life. Unless things happen in just this way, you can have me killed.’
The judge did as Merlin advised. He sent a spy to follow his mother, and events unfolded exactly as Merlin had said they would. The judge was duly convinced, and allowed Merlin and his mother to go free.
Shortly afterwards, Merlin went to see the hermit, Blaise. Blaise asked Merlin to explain, in God’s name, and without fear of any consequences, how he had come to be conceived and born, and Merlin told him everything. And he said: ‘I will be an advisor to four kings, they are going to receive my counsel, and you shall write a chronicle of their achievements. I will dictate it to you, for the benefit of all those who come after us.’
Merlin told Blaise many things that the hermit has committed to writing, and it is through this book that he made that we can appreciate everything that Merlin did in Britain at this time.
When Merlin was five winters old he had a healthy, outdoor complexion and a natural courage and curiosity. We find it written that he persuaded his mother to become a nun, and she willingly served Jesus Christ forever afterwards, with all her strength and commitment.
So one day, to continue my story, as each of these groups of three searchers scoured the land, looking for this strange child on the instructions of King Vortigern, one of the groups happened to enter the town where Merlin was living. He was playing in the street with some other boys when one of them took exception to him and cried: ‘Go away you fiend! You bastard, you don’t know who your father was, some devil I imagine, sent to harm us.’
The messengers happened to be passing. Immediately, they recognised the significance of this outburst, brought their horses to a halt and drew their swords. Merlin shook his head and laughed. He was only five years old, but he could speak boldly enough:
‘A curse on you, you fool, you shout too loudly. Here come some king’s men who have been looking for me all year. But they’re wasting their effort. They’ll want to kill me quickly, but when they look at me, they’ll lose their nerve, and by the time they depart, we’ll be good friends.’
As the messengers approached, Merlin ran towards them. He laughed at them and said: ‘Welcome, all of you. You have come from Vortigern and you want to kill me. But you won’t do it. If you take my blood to the king, it won’t do him any good. Those who told him this were lying to him, when they said that my blood would make his castle strong again. It won’t. And if you kill me, he’ll only learn the truth of this for himself.’
‘Saint Mary!’ exclaimed one of the messengers. ‘How do you know all this?’
‘I am quite aware of the king’s business, I’m aware of everything that will happen on Earth and all that will be said and done concerning it.’
These men were amazed. It seemed foolish in the extreme to harm the boy.
‘So don’t kill me,’ said Merlin. ‘I’ll shield you from harm, I promise. I’ll demonstrate the truth in front of the king and explain to him why his castle keeps falling down and how those learned men he’s taking advice from have lied about me. The king will see the truth of it. If you’ll let me, I’ll travel back with you.’
All three of the messengers agreed at once. ‘Certainly, child, we agree to this. But tell us your name, or who your mother is, so that we can confirm who you are, you are so young.’
‘Then follow me,’ said Merlin. ‘You shall see my mother and she’ll tell you.’
By midday they arrived at the nunnery where his mother lived, and she confirmed everything that Merlin had told them. She explained how her son had saved her from the judge, from being buried alive, by a wit and wisdom that was far beyond his years. They were all astounded. Then Merlin led them quietly to his teacher, Blaise, who gave similar confirmation. Merlin spoke at length to Blaise, and the hermit wrote it all down afterwards.
That night, the messengers retired to their inn, and the following morning, as we see it written, Merlin and the messengers took their leave and rode contentedly off, towards the place where the king was to be found.
One day, they passed through a market town where many people were buying and selling things. Merlin paused and had a good laugh at some shoe sellers. One of the messengers asked him what he was finding so funny.
‘Can you see the new shoes that that man has just bought, made of strong and durable leather, all waterproofed with dubbin? He intends them to last, but I swear, he won’t see the day out, himself. He’ll die before he reaches his front gate.’
The messengers wondered at this, but soon afterwards they saw the man lying dead.
They found an inn, and set off again next morning, as soon as it was light. They travelled onwards until they came to a town, and as they were passing a churchyard they saw a body on a bier, being taken for burial, with priests and clerics singing in front of it, and many other people accompanying. Merlin looked on and gave out a great belly laugh. The messengers rode up to him and asked why he had laughed so loudly.
‘You would laugh as well, if you knew,’ he replied. ‘Amongst all these folk I can see an old man weeping bitterly. It would be better if he skipped and jumped for joy! And I can see another quite happily singing his psalms who would be better wringing his hands. I’ll tell you why: it will amuse you. The dead body is that of a ten-year-old child. The priest who is singing so joyfully is the child’s father, and if he knew, he would be wringing his hands in sorrow, both in grief and in shame. And can you see the silly husband, wringing his hands in grief? He ought rather to be singing and skipping along instead, for the priest’s son, who would have done him much harm if he had lived, is now dead.’
They approached the mother, and she confessed to the truth, but she pleaded with them not to divulge it, and they agreed not to.
Forth they went, towards the king, and Merlin burst out laughing for a third time. His companions asked him what he was finding so funny.
‘I’ll tell you,’ he said. ‘Vortigern’s wife, the queen, has caused a wrongful judgement to be made. Her chamberlain is a woman who goes in the guise of a man. Because he seemed so good-looking, our faithless queen asked him to be her lover, for she thought he was a man. This chamberlain refused, she said that no amount of gold would persuade her to do it, upon which the queen accused her in front of my lord the king, saying that the man had tried to force himself upon her. The king was understandably very angry and swore that if he could find any witnesses to it, the chamberlain would be hanged and dismembered for it. Now go, one of you, as quickly as you can, find the king and tell him everything I have told you. Advise him to find out the truth out for himself.’
One of the messengers went off, on a swift horse, and didn’t rest until he arrived before the king in his hall.
‘Hail, King Vortigern, may God keep you and maintain you, and preserve your mighty hand!’ he cried. ‘We have scoured the land in order to seek a child, as you instructed, whom men call Merlin. He is now five years old, bold and intelligent, and he knows things which he should not know, and he can predict the future. Your ten learned clerics are lying about him. He will swear to this in front of you when he arrives, and he will explain to you why your castle keeps falling down, so that you can remedy it. And also, he’ll tell you about your wife’s chamberlain, so that you won’t kill or hang this person unjustly, for it is wrong to kill a woman for a man’s misdemeanour, even if she dresses in a man’s clothes. If you find that what I say isn’t true, you can hang him by all means.’
Vortigern was astounded, and so was everybody else. The king sent for the chamberlain, who had already been thrown into prison, and when they stripped him they found him to be a woman, a maiden. The king was beside himself with curiosity; he seized the messenger by the front of his doublet and demanded to know how he had known about this.
‘Merlin told us! As we were making our way here! He knows the truth about many things.’ Then the messenger told the king the story of his conception, what he was like and everything he had said to them as they were riding along.’
‘If you are telling me the truth,’ said Vortigern, ‘I will confer great lands upon you for finding him. I’ll make your companions rich as well.’ At once, he commanded dukes, earls and barons to make themselves ready to ride out with him to meet Merlin.
It was well after nightfall when this welcoming-party intercepted Merlin on the road. The king greeted Merlin with warmth and friendliness, and many words were exchanged that I cannot go into now, it would take too long, I would be all day writing it down, but I will relate everything that is pertinent to the story. They found comfortable lodgings that night and set off early the next morning for the place where the castle was being constructed.
‘Tell me now, my son,’ said Vortigern, ‘why is it that nobody can get a castle to stand here on this ground? Why does every day’s work come crashing down again during the night?
‘Sir, it is no wonder that your castle falls. Beneath here is a deep torrent of water that races over two large stones and deep beneath these stones two dragons are coiled up. One is as white as milk, the other as red as firelight. They are both burning with anger at each other, and when the sun sets every night they try to fight one another, and by the ferocity of their struggles, all your work is toppled over. I advise you to dig down and uncover them, and then your workmen will be able to build a castle just as you desire, one that will stand for a very long time.’
Vortigern didn’t know what to say, and neither did anybody else, so he had an army of workmen fetched to dig into the ground and they soon encountered the water that Merlin had predicted. They dug two deep wells, diverted the water into them and by doing so, laid bare two great stones. Between these stones was a great spread of gravel and earth that the dragons had thrown up. Many men were on hand to raise these two stones, and when they did so, they uncovered the two dragons coiled up with their tails beneath them, just as Merlin had described. One of the dragons was as red as fire with eyes the size of a shining helmet, breathing fire and with a long tail and a body like a whale; a terrifying beast to meet with. The other dragon was not as large but had terrifying claws, a tongue like a burning coal protruding from its gaping mouth, and at the end of his long, ridged and scaly tail was a great barb like a hook.
They both began to rear up. All the people who were looking on cried out in terror. There was no king or earl, baron or knight, freeman or serf who dared to stay a moment longer. Everybody ran for their lives! The dragons rose from their den and took no notice of the men who were fleeing but set upon one another viciously, breathing flames so fiercely that all the vegetation about them was burned to ashes. They bit one another and slashed with claw and tail. The earth shook beneath them, so fierce was the battle, and even the weather changed: storms rolled in as they bit and grappled and clawed and breathed fire at one another; they rose and fell and fought as though they were insane. They fought for almost a day without any rest, until the red dragon began to gain the upper hand and drove the white dragon into a valley, but here they both rested for a while. Then the white dragon reared up and the fight began anew. The white dragon pursued the red back up onto the high ground once more and here he got the better of the red dragon, he threw it to the ground and by the strength of his fiery breath, he burned the red dragon to ashes. There was nothing left of it. Then the white dragon flew away, and no one knows where it went to, no one has ever seen it since.
All those who were watching this were utterly astonished, both at the dragons’ fight and that this child Merlin should have been able to predict it so accurately.
‘Sir, you have witnessed clearly for yourself what I told you would happen,’ said Merlin to the king. ‘Now bring before me those ten clerics who wanted to have me killed and I will ask them why, my lord, they thought that my blood should be of any help to you.’
‘Certainly,’ replied King Vortigern. ‘I will summon them, and have no fear, everything will be done according to your wishes and with your advice.’
The king sent for the ten clerics, and when they came before him, Merlin asked them in Latin how they had come to believe that his blood would make Vortigern’s castle stand solidly upright. The clerics replied, with terror in their eyes:
‘We saw a configuration of stars and planets in the night sky that told how you had been born on Earth and that your blood would make the castle stand upright. We truly believed that this was what we saw. Now do with us what you please.’
‘Ah, you were misled, do you not see? The configuration you saw was the work of my father. He has no power over me now and for this reason he would rather that I was dead. But because you were deceived by him – my lord the king, I ask that you let these men live. I am willing to forgive them all their guilt in this matter.’
The king quickly absolved them of all blame and they thanked him profusely. Then everybody went back to their lodgings. Merlin remained with the king all that year, and by virtue of his wisdom and understanding, the castle was swiftly built. It was built of stone and wood, it was high and strong, and there was no other building like it in the whole land.
When the castle was completed, everybody advised the king that he should find out from Merlin the meaning of why the dragons had fought and what their fight signified. ‘It must prophesy something,’ they said, with conviction.
Merlin came before the king and everybody repeated this request. ‘Why did the dragons fight?’ they asked. ‘What does it all mean?’
Merlin was reluctant to answer them. The king stepped in:
‘Merlin, unless you tell me, I will have you killed,’ he said.
‘That would be very unjust of you,’ Merlin replied. ‘If you were to take it into your hands to kill me or to have me put in chains, you may well fail. Many men don’t achieve what they want to, and certainly, King Vortigern, I’m not afraid of the power that you wield. But if you will produce guarantors to assure me of my safety, I will tell you the truth and explain to you what the dragons signify.’
All who heard this wondered what it might be that Merlin was so reluctant to reveal, and the king did as well; he swore upon a book that he hadn’t the slightest intention of harming Merlin, whatever he might say, and he found two dukes who were willing to stand as guarantors. ‘Then listen,’ said Merlin. ‘The red dragon represents you and all your power, which was able to act from a distance to bring about the death of Moyne, the rightful king. You saw the red dragon drive the white into the valley beside a wood, which signifies you driving the rightful heirs out of this kingdom. The white dragon represents the rightful heir to this land, who is angry that you rule his lands unlawfully. That he flew into the valley and rested, and then recovered his strength and drove the other back, signifies the massive army that he is at this moment gathering, in a land over the sea. That the white dragon drove the red one back onto Salisbury Plain and overcame him there and burnt him to ashes with his fiery breath signifies that the rightful heir of this land will hold you at his mercy and force you to take refuge in your castle, with your wife and your children, and many of your noblemen, and there he will destroy you all with fire.
‘The long tail of the red dragon signifies the long tail of wicked descendants you will leave behind, and those of your wife’s father Angys, who will also be overthrown and killed. His descendants and yours will bring grief to this land. The spiked club at the end of the white dragon’s tail signifies the rightful heirs and descendants who will destroy all of yours. Truly, sir, this is the meaning of the fighting dragons. Make yourself ready, I advise you, A great army is on its way, as I speak.’
The fear could be seen in Vortigern’s eyes, he bit his lip and his face dropped.
‘You must tell me what to do,’ he said. ‘Tell me how I can fight them. Do this or you are a dead man.’
‘Sir, this is what will happen, there is no changing it.’
Vortigern jumped up and tried to seize Merlin, but he had disappeared. The king and all those in the hall tried angrily to find him, but without success. Merlin had whisked himself away, and was soon with his teacher, Blaise, where he related all that had happened concerning the red and white dragons, and its full meaning, and Blaise wrote it all down. The red dragon, Merlin said, stood for all the destruction that the descendants of Vortigern and those of King Angys, would cause, and the great turmoil that England would have to suffer as a result, both shortly and in the distant future. All that Merlin prophesied was written down in a book of scripture, setting out all that will happen in England, but the meaning is so dark and hidden, and hard to decipher, that few can understand it, to be honest, so I won’t dwell on it here. I shall continue, instead, with my tale.