Without question, King Arthur takes the leading role in British Dark Age legend. Using film (movie) world terminology this would make Merlin the supporting actor. However, there is little we know for sure about either person, real or myth. Chronicles of the time have Arthur as a magnanimous leader who gathered and united the military forces across the kingdoms of Britain to repeatedly fight and repel the Saxons, liberating the country from the control of the brutal German forces.
He was a great warrior. The chronicles say that he fought and won twelve great battles and in the last and most brutal of these, at a place called Badon, he slew 940 of the enemy alone. The ninth of these battles was at a place called the City of Legion, which in old English was called ‘Caerleon’, and it still is a town near Newport in Wales and a place which links together the fables of Merlin and Arthur.
Merlin was said to have been mysteriously conceived, a beautiful young man appeared at night to his mother over a number of nights. They talked together while slowly growing in love, and each time afterwards the man would, in the blink of an eye, disappear. This love grew physically to leave the mother with child and the mysterious figure appeared no more. Merlin, although illegitimate, grew to be a respected prophet of Vortigern, a warlord and self proclaimed King of the Britons during the fifth century.
Merlin prophesied the Red and White dragons of England and Wales (story told here on this site) and many other things near and far of Britain’s future, including the manner of Vortigern’s death. Vortigern invited the Saxons into Britain, but Merlin prophesised that Vortigern could have one of two deaths either he would be killed by the very same Saxons or by Aurelius Ambrosius, who would become king after him. He said of Aurelius, “He shall bring peace to the nation; he shall restore the churches; but shall die of poison. His brother Uther Pendragon shall succeed him, whose days also shall be cut short by poison.”. The very next day, Aurelius Ambrosius arrived with his brother Uther, and ten thousand men, they very predictably burnt Vortigern in his tower and Aurelius was crowned king.
Merlin continued to influence King Aurelius and advised him to build a great monument in the place of the dead near Salisbury using stones from Ireland – which he magically transported.
Aurelius died of poisoning and Uther Pendragon succeeded him and was the father of Arthur – he soon also died of poisoning. Both deaths foreseen by Merlin and King Arthur was crowned at Caerleon. This service was led by the archbishop of Caeleon, a priest called Dubricius (or Dyfrig in Welsh).
Dyfrig was another mysterious character, he was said in chronicles of the time to be a man of great wisdom, prophesy, miracles and influence and power – much like Merlin. He identified St David and promoted him to be archbishop of Wales. After his death, while his body was exhumed people were astonished that his relics made water bubble and became very hot. The Bishop took an arm bone of St Dubricius (who was now made a Saint) and placed it into the water, watching as it began to move for an hour on its own.
The similarities with Merlin don’t end there; his birth was mysterious and illegitimate. Like Merlin he offered counsel to King Arthur. Arthurian scholar Norma Lorre Goodrich, claims that St. Dubricius (or Dyfrig) and Merlin were actually the same person, as Merlin was properly called Merlinus Ambrosius Dubricius.
Remember Dyfrig was the Archbishop of Caerleon. Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century identifies this place, the City of Legion, or Caerleon as the place where King Arthur held court – his Camelot. Where he held court with his friend, man of miracles and trusted adviser, Dyfrig.