Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Wizard's Prophecy

Rome, AD 595. It is one hundred and nineteen years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Much of Europe is in turmoil, overrun by barbarian tribes. Nevertheless, life continues in the Eternal City. Market day arrives, and His Holiness Pope Gregory the Great and his entourage came to admire the array of produce as eagerly as anyone, for in these days the Pope of Rome lived simply, favouring a monastic life. Among the fine crops and exotic fruits on sale that day was the slave market, always the talk of trade. Then something caught the eye of the Pope. A group of young boys, fair haired and skinned, chained together in slavery, awaiting their fate. A strange feeling gripped Gregory, wonder fused with pity...

"Not Angles, but Angels..."
Image taken from a mosaic of Westminster Cathedral,
"From what country or nation were they brought?", he asked a companion. Upon enquiring with the slave dealer in a strange foreign tongue, he replied. "They are from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants are of such personal appearance". Pope Gregory, entranced, asked, "are those islanders Christians, or still pagans?". When he discovered that they were pagans, he voiced his anguish, "Alas! What a pity", said he, "that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances". "What is the name of that nation?", he asked, more keenly still. "They are called Angles", came the reply, for the land of Britain was at that time overrun with the tribe of the Angles. "Right", said he, "for they have an angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the Angels in Heaven. They are not Angles, but Angels". Sensing Divine Providence that day, Pope Gregory turned to a nearby Prior, Augustine was his name, and commanded him to lead a mission to this far away land, and spread the word of Christ, with half a mind to undertake the task himself. The British Isles would never be the same again. But what of the people of Britain, and the destiny of that race? The story begins almost two hundred years earlier...

As the fifth century dawned, much of the known world was plunged into turmoil. For the lives of many, and of their ancestors for many hundreds of years too, the mighty Empire of the Romans was not only the world's greatest power, but civilisation itself. So much so that millions of people who had never even seen the Eternal City, would not have been able to locate the City on a map, who had not a drop of Roman blood in their bodies, called themselves Romans. Now, Rome, which had once seemed a power that would know no end, was on its knees. Plague, Famine, War, Strife and Economic crisis have each destroyed nations. It took all of them combined to bring about the final destruction of the Roman Empire. Yet from the ashes of Rome, her former provinces would arise as new nations, one of them an island far on the boundaries of the Empire - Britannia.

On New Year's Eve AD 406, at a rupture in the frontier of the Western Roman Empire on the River Rhine, a horde of barbarian tribes poured across the border. Vandals, Alans, Alemanni, and a formidable array of tribesman swept into Roman provinces, and the struggling Western Empire desperately tried to stem the inexorable advance. City after city was burned and pillaged, and areas the size of modern countries were laid waste. It was at this time that the Roman province of Britannia was in revolution. As the Romans in Italy were reeling from another invasion of the Visigothic tribes, Northern Europe seemed defenceless, and the people of Britain feared that they would be next. Longing for order, in a world now seemingly in the brink of the Apocalypse, the Britons threw their support behind the Roman general Constantine, thinking with melancholy of the days of Constantine the Great some one hundred years earlier. Constantine moved quickly. Landing on the beaches of northern France, called Gaul in ancient times, Constantine brought with him all the garrisons of Britain. Not one Roman soldier was left behind in Britannia, it was all or nothing for Constantine now. Setting himself up as the new Western Roman Emperor Constantine III, in direct opposition to the true Emperor Honorius, Western Europe rose in all out war. Roman marched on Roman, and Roman blood flowed by the hand of other Romans, and all the while, people died in their thousands, slaughtered by vengeful barbarians. Constantine pushed back the troops loyal to Honorius at first, seizing the province of Hispania (the future Spain), being recognised as joint Emperor with Honorius. But the barbarian advance was relentless. Ravaging the entirety of Gaul, they reached the Pyrenees. At this time, the Saxons landed on the East coast of Britannia. The British people, feeling betrayed by Constantine, abandoned him to his fate, as his eldest son Constans was elevated to power. Constans, who had before taken the life of the cloth, a pious man, was ill-prepared for secular rule. Naive, his brief reign was dominated by the schemings of his chief advisor, Vortigern, who one day overthrew his master and seized the throne of Britain for his own. The surviving brothers of Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther Pendragon, fled to Brittany to escape Vortigern's wrath.

Merlin and Vortigern
Image taken from a 13th century Illuminated
Manuscript, now in the British Library
Great was Vortigern's fear of Ambrosius, and Uther in particular, but so too was his fear of the Picts, a fearsome tribe that lurked in the Highlands of Scotland. The fledgling Britain was ill able to repel the Picts alone, and Vortigern turned abroad for aid. Readily answering the usurper's call, a force of Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on England's eastern shores, under two brothers, Hengest and Horsa. With his new allies, Vortigern triumphed over the Picts time and again. Though elated at the throwing back of the Picts, more than a few among the Britons began to question the ambitions of these new 'allies'. The King's son, Vortimer, aghast at his father's submissiveness, urged him to restrain the Saxons before the hour grew too late. But Vortigern refused counsel on such matters. So when, one day, cunning Hengest asked the King for permission to invite over to these shores more of his countrymen, to strengthen Vortigern's position further, the naive King eagerly agreed. As Saxons landed in Britain in their thousands, the enraged Vortimer, with the support of the Britons, overthrew his father and determined to rid Britannia forever of foreign invaders. Upon the Saxons he fell, and terrible was his attack. Four times the Saxons stood, and four times they were broken, and even Horsa was slain, yet so too was Vortimer's brother, Catigern. Victory seemed near, but tragedy struck, when Vortimer was slain too. Such woe fell upon Britannia as never before, as the vengeance of the Saxons was terrible indeed. Vortigern, seizing back his throne once more, fled to Cambria, Wales of old, desperate now, for the fate of Britain, and his own, hung in the balance. It was then that his followers urged him to raise a mighty castle, so magnificent that no foe could storm it, so majestic that no eye could behold it without awe. Upon Mount Eryri the first stone was laid, as the King of the Britons summoned to him all the finest craftsman and masons in Britannia. Despair soon fell upon the Britons however, for when they awoke upon the second day, all their hard work had vanished, and the stones had sunk into the land. Once again they tried, and once again all was lost. Vortigern turned to his sages once more, and asked what may be done. The soothsayers and mages present their bade the King seek out a boy who had no father, and that his blood shouls be sprinkled upon the mortar and stones, so that the great citadel should never fall.

All through the land the messengers of the King searched for such a boy, and for an age it seemed a fruitless quest. Then one day horsemen came to the city known as Carmarthen, and saw a young lad playing at the gates. A fight broke out between the lad and another boy over some petty quarrel. "None knoweth what thou art, for never a father hadst thou!", the other boy shouted. At these words, the King's heralds were filled with hope. "What is thy name?" one asked the first boy. "Merlin", replied the lad. It transpired that indeed the boy had a father unknown by all, and his mother, a nun in St. Peter's Church, spoke of a vision she once had before she gave birth to the unfathered boy. Such a thing could only mean a supernatural prodigy of this boy, and when Vortigern heard this, he at once ordered Merlin brought before him without delay.

As he was thrown at the feet of Vortigern, young Merlin asked the King why he had been brought here. "My wizards have declared it unto me as their counsel that I should seek out one that had never a father, that when I shall have sprinkled his blood upon the foundation of the tower my work should stand firm". To which the young lad replied "Bid thy wizards come before me, and I will convict them of having devised a lie". Amazed at the boy's audacity, Vortigern summoned his mages. Merlin denounced them all, mocking their foolish ways. Turning to the King, he urged him to summon his workmen and dig below the tower, and there he would find a great pool of water, the source of such woe. So dig they did, and found the pool, they did. The mages were dumbfounded, and Vortigern impressed. But Merlin was not finished. "Command, O King, that the pool be drained by conduits, and in the bottom thereof shalt thou behold two hollow stones and therein two dragons asleep". When it was found to be thus, all around marvelled greatly at the gift of foresight this young boy had been blessed with, and even then there some who said that Merlin possessed some of the spirit of God.

The Dragon Struggle
Image taken from a 15th century Illuminated Manuscript,
now at Lambeth Palace, London
It was then, as Vortigern looked on, that the two dragons, one red and one white, clambered out of the pool, and when they met, with a terrible roar they fell upon each other. The Earth shuddered and the cavern rang, and fire spouted forth from their jaws, and it seemed the White Dragon would prevail, as the Red Dragon was cast to very shore of the lake. But then, the Scarlet Wyrm turned in defiance, and with renewed vigour threw itself upon the White, forcing him back. King Vortigern, turning to Merlin, enquired as to the meaning of this peculiar spectacle now played out before them. The power of prophecy filled the great wizard, and tears his eyes, as the awesome power of foresight was his once more:

        " Woe unto the Red Dragon, for his extermination draweth nigh; and his caverns
          shall be occupied of the White Dragon that betokeneth the Saxons
          whom thou hast invited hither. But the Red signifieth the race of Britain
          that shall be oppressed of the White. Therefore shall the mountains
          and the valleys thereof be made level plain and the streams of the valleys
          shall flow with blood. The rites of religion shall be done away and the ruin
          of the churches be made manifest. At the last, she that is oppressed shall prevail
          and resist the cruelty of them that come from without. For the Boar of Cornwall
          shall bring succour and shall trample their necks beneath his feet.
          The islands of the Ocean shall be subdued unto his power, and the forests of Gaul
          shall he possess. The house of Romulus shall dread the fierceness of his prowess
          and doubtful shall be his end. Renowned shall he be in the mouth of the peoples... "
                   - THE PROPHECY OF MERLIN

At the sound of these words, a remarkable feeling swept over all who heard it. Heads weary with despair lifted with the fire of fresh hope. The pure of heart were warmed with faith, and the impure with fear. Who was this great saviour, this Boar of Cornwall, who was coming? Word spread throughout the realms of England. Hope came in its stead. Their champion was coming. Alas that not one there knew his name, when all the world does today...

United Kingdom

The Legends of the Kings of Britain
The History of the Kings of Britain (Classics)
(A history of Britain written in the Middle Ages, including the days of King Arthur)

The Ecclesiastical History of the English
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford World's Classics)
(The story of Saxon England, written by the Venerable Bede)

United States

The Legends of the Kings of Britain
The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classics)
(A history of Britain written in the Middle Ages, including the days of King Arthur)

The Ecclesiastical History of the English
Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics)
(The story of Saxon England, written by the Venerable Bede)

No comments:

Post a Comment