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The Historical Origins of the Wizard Merlin

The legendary wizard in King Arthur's court has a surprisingly complex backstory.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There have been countless books, film, and television iterations of King Arthur and his medieval court. The characters involved in the retelling have varied, but one figure that’s a constant fixture is his trusted advisor: the wizard Merlin. But as historians speculate about the accomplishments of King Arthur—or whether he even existed at all—they have also debated the identity of the mystic in his court. Is the legend of Merlin based on a real person, and if so, who?

As it turns out, Merlin, who has also been called Myrddin Wyllt, Merlinus, and Merlin Caledonis, was not always connected to Arthurian legend. He first appears in various sixth-century Welsh poems as a "wild man" and prophet who lives in the forest. Alternatively, he was also said to have originated from the Lowlands of Scotland, although his exact place of origin in Scotland is contested; some stories depict him living in the Caledonian Forest; others, in the forests of Tweeddale. It’s also believed that Merlin was partially based on Ambrosius or Emrys, two prophetic figures that appear in historical texts from the ninth century.

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Geoffrey of Monmouth, an English bishop and chronicler of history, wrote one of the earliest sources on Merlin. His earliest work, Prophetia Merlini, or The Prophecies of Merlin, was published in the early 1130s. This book was the first to portray Merlin in the form that most people recognize today. 

Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, was published later in the 12th century, featuring Merlin as a prophet who gives forth predictions about England’s political future. Monmouth also wrote the Vita Merlini, a poem which depicts several of Merlin’s adventures. This work interwove Merlin's gifts of divination with commonly known Celtic works of that period. 

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Merlin’s image would evolve as his story was retold throughout the Middle Ages. Sir Thomas Mallory would be the first to place Merlin in proximity to King Arthur and his court with his work Le Morte d’Arthur, which was completed around 1470.

It seems that the Merlin we're familiar with today is an amalgamation of several different stories. In his book Scotland’s Merlin, medieval historian Tim Clarkson explores the origins and evolution of the legendary wizard, as well as the influence that his story held over real political events.

Read on for an excerpt of Scotland’s Merlin, then download the book.




Scotland's Merlin

By Tim Clarkson

Merlin, Arthur and Anglo-Scottish relations

From the fourteenth century onwards, the Merlin of Arthuriana began to appear as a character in Scottish pseudo-histories. These blended real history with myth to present an imaginative version of the story of Scotland. They usually depicted Arthur in his familiar guise as a mighty king, with Merlin cast as a prophet and sorcerer at the royal court. Both characters were often treated unfavourably, chiefly because of the political implications of Merlin’s prophecies. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Merlin prophesied that Arthur would one day return to regain his authority over the whole of Britain. To many Scots in the Middle Ages, this was a profoundly unsettling prospect. They did not welcome the idea of being conquered – or reconquered – by an ambitious southern king, whether legendary or otherwise. Moreover, HRB had not only shown Arthur as conquering Scotland but had also depicted his treacherous nephew Modred as a Scottish king. This, too, made Arthur seem like an enemy of the Scots. His negative image north of the Border was strengthened by the attitudes of contemporary English writers, many of whom saw Arthur as a model for their own kings. Arthur’s supposed domination of Britain provided a template for English territorial ambitions in the 1300s and 1400s, with Merlin duly portrayed as the prophet of England’s future greatness. Moreover, Merlin’s prophecy about Arthur’s triumphal return to resume the overkingship of Britain appeared to legitimise English claims of sovereignty over the Scots. Scottish writers responded by promoting Modred, not Arthur, as the legitimate overlord of ancient Britain. Modred’s Scottishness was well established in HRB so he was an obvious choice. Merlin could then be dismissed as a charlatan, a false prophet, or used as a mouthpiece for Scottish political prophecy. In the fourteenth century, John of Fordun’s Chronicles of the Scottish People included the following lines of verse, which had supposedly been uttered by the British cleric Gildas in the sixth century:

Scotia shall mourn her famous kings of old –

Her kings so just, rich, bountiful, and bold.

For an unkingly king – so Merlin sings –

Shall wield the sceptre of victorious kings.

Fordun does not say who this ‘unkingly’ monarch is but presumably had a candidate in mind. It hardly needs stating that the prophecy has no real connection with Gildas and is nothing more than medieval invention. It is nevertheless interesting for its reference to Merlin’s prophetic ‘song’ about Scottish kings. Another curious item comes from the fifteenth century when Walter Bower reported a tradition that the eagles of Loch Lomond were able to foresee the future. The tradition itself is obscure and otherwise unknown but Bower credited Merlin as the source. Other Scottish writers were reluctant to say anything positive about Merlin, regarding him as tainted by association with Arthur whose legendary subjugation of Scotland was strongly resented. Hector Boece, writing in the sixteenth century, rejected the romanticised account of Arthur’s conception in HRB, seeing Uther’s trickery of Igerna as an evil deed facilitated by the ‘necromancy of Merlyne’. Boece asserted that Arthur (‘gottin in adultery’) had not conquered Scotland – as the English claimed – but had been slain by the Scottish king Lothus. This type of ill-feeling towards Arthur and Merlin was a characteristic of Scottish historical writing in the late medieval period and continued through the arguments over political union during the sixteenth century. At its heart was a broader opposition to the perceived ‘Englishness’ of Arthur and to the idea of a single, pan-British kingdom ruled by a southern monarch. Its clearest expression came as the medieval era was drawing to a close, in The Complaynt of Scotland, a document examined below.

Merlin and the Union of the Crowns

In the sixteenth century, the English king Henry VIII sought a dynastic marriage between his son Edward and Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was only a baby at the time, having succeeded to the Scottish throne on the death of her father James V in December 1542. The effective ruler of Scotland during her infancy was the Earl of Arran who held the role of regent. Scottish resentment at the prospect of this marriage led to the plan being rejected by the country’s parliament, whose members saw it as another lever for English political ambitions. Henry responded by declaring war on the Scots. Known in later times as ‘The Rough Wooing’, the conflict lasted from 1543 to 1551. Hostilities on the battlefield were accompanied by propaganda campaigns, with both sides producing printed works for mass distribution. One pamphlet vigorously opposed the view that the two countries should be united under a single monarch. Written anonymously, but perhaps by the Dundee minister Robert Wedderburn, it appeared in 1549 under the title The Complaynt of Scotland. It denounced a number of English propagandist texts and saw Merlin’s prophecies as giving the English an excuse for making war:

the prophesies of Merlyne, to the quhilk the Inglishmen giffs more confidens nor thai gif to the evangel, by cause that there ald prophane prophesis sais, that Ingland and Scotland sal be baitht undir ane prince, on this misteous prophesis, thai have intendit weyris contrar Scotland.

(‘The prophecies of Merlin, to which the Englishmen give more confidence than they give to the Gospel, because an old profane prophecy says that England and Scotland shall be both under one prince. On this obscure prophecy, they have intended wars against Scotland.’)

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This was a response to the way in which contemporary English writers – and some Scottish ones – employed Merlin as an advocate for the union of the crowns. It illustrates the extent to which attitudes towards Merlin had hardened among those Scots who strongly opposed the union. The Complaynt was specifically aimed at those Scottish writers who had used Merlin as a conduit for prounionist prophecies. It not only dismissed these prophecies as nonsense but countered them with a bold prediction that England would one day be conquered by the Scots. An even more disparaging assessement of Merlin appeared in George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia, published in 1582. Buchanan pulled no punches, describing Merlin as ‘audacious and wicked’ and as ‘an egregious imposter, and cunning pretender, rather than a prophet’. The pro-unionist side were eventually able to claim victory when, in 1603, James VI of Scotland succeeded the childless Elizabeth I on the English throne. Merlin, whose prophecies had supposedly foretold the event, could thus be seen as vindicated. The path was now clear for his rehabilitation north of the Border. He was even promoted by Scottish writers such as Thomas Craig and Thomas Dempster as a true native of Scotland. It is a strange irony that the wheel had thus come full circle, bringing the wizard of Arthurian romance back to the land where his legend had started a thousand years earlier.

merlin the wizard
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  • Merlin and King Arthur retrieving the sword Excalibur.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Modern Scottish Merlins

In the post-medieval era, Scottish writers continued to highlight Merlin’s connection with their country. Antiquarians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with a keen interest in relics of the ancient past, reported snippets of folklore from places associated with Merlin. George Chalmers, in the first volume of his Caledonia (1807), was familiar with the Welsh poems attributed to Myrddin Wyllt, deducing from these that Merlin’s homeland was ‘Caledonia, the land of the Picts’. Later in the same volume he followed a description of prehistoric burial mounds in Peeblesshire with the words ‘But, what are the barrows of the warriors to the grave of Merlin!’ For, although he believed that a historical figure of the sixth century lay behind the Merlin legend, he seems to have been less trusting of the folklore surrounding the alleged grave-site at Drumelzier. He dismissed any notion that the prophecy attributed to Thomas the Rhymer was genuine, still less that it had been fulfilled by the union of the crowns in 1603. He observed that Drumelzier did not lie close to the heartland of the kingdom of Strathclyde, which is where he placed the Merlin legend’s origins:

It is, indeed, curious to remark, that the Merddin of the Cambro-British, the Merlin of the Scoto-Saxons, who was undoubtedly a Strathclyde Briton of the sixth century, should have been buried, according to the popular tradition, in the remotest part of the Strathclyde kingdom, at the junction of the Tweed and Powsail.

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Chalmers was not only sceptical of the Drumelzier tradition but also of the notion that the battle of Arfderydd had been fought near the Solway Firth. As we noted in Chapter 4, he suggested Airdrie in Clydesdale as a better location. The matter was eventually settled later in the nineteenth century, in Skene’s perceptive exploration of the history behind the Merlin legend. His famous paper on Arfderydd finally pinpointed the place where both Lailoken and Myrddin were said to have gone mad. In the same paper, Skene suggested that the battle was a contest between pagan and Christian forces, the former being led by Merlin and his patron Gwenddolau. To support this idea, Skene drew on his extensive knowledge of ancient Welsh literature, in particular the poems, genealogies and triads relating to the Old North. Crucially, in reference to a triad relating to Arfderydd, his translation of the term mygedorth as ‘sacred fire’ rather than as ‘battle fog’ formed a key plank of his belief that the real Merlin was a pagan sorcerer or druid. In Chapter 5 we saw how this became an influential theory that has coloured subsequent discussion of Merlin’s origins.

Skene was familiar with the Myrddin poetry but apparently saw its Christian allusions as forming no great obstacle to his theory. He seems to have regarded the poems as originally having a pagan aspect that was hidden beneath a later Christian overlay during a long process of composition and transmission in Wales. Skene’s reputation as a major scholar of ancient Celtic literature undoubtedly helped his theory to become widely known and accepted. Its repetition by later writers kept it alive into the twentieth century, ensuring that its popularity remained undimmed long after he himself had passed away. Today, at the beginning of the third millennium, the idea that the Merlin legend originated among sixth-century North British paganism continues to hold a special allure. However, as we have already seen, it relies on little more than a single inference deduced from an erroneous translation of one line of Welsh poetry.

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