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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Cities of Vortigern > Rhaeadr

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The 'Cities' of Vortigern
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Castell Gwerthrynion
Robert Vermaat

old maps
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maps of

Rhaeadr Gwy/Rhayader
Very good access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Nearest town: Rhayader
Map reference: SN 970680
Location of Rhaeadr Gwy by UK Streetmap

The Historia Brittonum tells us how Vortigern fled from St Germanus into Wales, and into Gwrtheyrnion:

Historia Brittonum, Chapter 47

St. Germanus admonished Vortigern to turn to the true God, and abstain from all unlawful intercourse with his daughter; but the unhappy wretch fled for refuge to the province Guorthegirnaim, so called from his own name, where he concealed himself with his wives: but St. Germanus followed him with all the British clergy, and upon a rock prayed for his sins during forty days and forty nights.


uero germanus guorthigirno praedicabat, ut ad dominum suum conuerteret et ab illicita coniunctione se separaret; et ille usque ad regionem, quae a nomine suo accepit nomen guorthigirniaun, miserabiliter effugit, ut ibi cum uxoribus suis lateret. et sanctus germanus post illum secutus est cum omni clero brittonum et ibi quadraginta diebus et quadraginta noctibus mansit et super petram orabat et die noctuque stabat.

Rayader Gowy on a 1607 mapWas there a Caer Guorthigirn in Gwrthernion as well? There is one near the Wye, which is also the best candidate for his demise, which is Little Doward at Ganarew, Herefordshire. But in a guest-article at this site, Michael Veprauskas identified this particular part of the flight with a royal center in Gwrtheyrnion with Caer Beris, after David Nash Ford's identification of Caer Guorthigirn from the list of Civitates in the Historia Brittonum. However, another identification (by J.E. Lloyd after William Camden) was made in favour of Rhaeadr Gwy/Rhayader in Gwrtheyrnion (modern spelling Gwerthrynion) in Powys.

Castell Gwerthrynion

Here in Rhaeadr Gwy was a Castell Gwerthrynion, which belonged to Roger Mortimer in 1202. Of the castle, the mound only remains, but there are no visible traces except ditches.

An old postcard showing the site of the castle
(All images of the castle by kind permission of mr. Collard of Rhaeadr)

It was William Camden, who in 1607 identified the remains of the medieval castle with that of Vortigern's stronghold:

William Camden, Britannia, Radnor-Shire:
This Melienith reacheth as farre as to the River Wy, which cutteth overthwart the Weft corner of this fhire, and being hindered in his ftreame with ftones lying in his way, upon a fuddaine for want of ground to glide on, hath a mighty and violent downefall: whereupon the place tearmed, Raihader Gowy, that is, The fall or Fludgates of Wy: And I cannot tell, whether thereupon that Britifh word Raihader, the Englifh men forged this name firft for the whole fhire, and afterwards for the chiefe Towne. By this Floudgate or fall of the water there was a Caftle which Rhefe Prince of Southwales (as we reade) repaired under King Richard the Firft. Hard by, there is in fome fort a vaft and wide wilderneffe, hideous after a fort to behold, by reafon of the turning and crooked by-waies and craggie Mountaines, into which as the fafeft place of refuge, Vortigern that peftilent wretch and bane of his native Country, odious both to God and man, and (whofe memory the Britains may wifh damned) withdrew himfefle, when after he had called the Saxons into this Iland, and in horrible inceft married his owne daughter. And heere he fell at length too too late into ferious confideration of the greatneffe of his vile and wicked acts. But by revenging fire from Heaven, the flying dart of God above, he was burnt with his Citie Caer Guortigern,which he had heere built for his refuge. And not farre from hence, as if the place had been fatall, not onely this Vortigern the last Monarch of Britifh bloud, but alfo Lhewellin the laft Prince of Wales of the Britifh race being forelaid, was flaine by Adam Francton in the yeere of our Redemption I282. Of the faid Vortigern, Ninnius nameth a little Country heere Guortiger-maur: neither is that name as yet altogether loft: but of the Citie, there remaineth no memory at all, but out of writers. Some are of opinion, that Guthremion Castle arofe out of the ruins and rubbifh thereof, which in the yeere I20I. the Welfh for malice they bare to Roger Lord Mortimer and in fpight of him laid even with the ground.

A modern comment on the site: "Rhayader Castle exploits a strong natural crag overlooking the Wye, and is defended on the north and east by rock-cut ditches with a causeway on the north-east which still provides access today. The northern ditch is the most readily visible, from the riverside path below, while that on the east is partly followed by a footpath. The summit of the siteThe modern remains of the castle mound is undulating, and may contain the remains of buildings; a slight bank on the side away from the river may be part of a rampart above the eastern ditch. Any trace of a bailey has been lost below housing.

The castle was built by the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1177, at the fringes of his kingdom, and was rebuilt by him in 1194. This later work may have been reinforcement in the face of a threat, since shortly afterwards the castle fell to Maelgwn and Hywel, sons of Cadwallon ap Madog of Maelienydd, the adjoining kingdom to the east. They almost immediately lost it to English Mortimer forces, but it was soon regained by the Lord Rhys. "The castle of Gwrtheyrnion" (the Rhayader area) was again regained by the Welsh in 1202, although it is not clear how they had lost it. The site was probably disused by the early 14th century; by the 16th Leland was unaware of any castle here.

There is another motte among the houses at Llansantffraed across the river, although the relationship between the two sites is unknown. They lay in separate administrative areas and may not have been in use at the same time" (Text by Helen Burnham).

Rhayader town clockRhaeadr Gwy

Rhayader or Rhaeadr Gwy - Welsh for 'Waterfall on the Wye' - is situated in the heart of mid-Wales, at the cross-roads between the main east to west route - A44 from England to Cardigan Bay and the south to north A470. It is a buDam above Rhayadersy Radnorshire livestock market town, with a population of 2,000, surrounded on all sides by the finest scenery: dramatic wooded valleys with swift mountain streams and waterfalls giving way to heather-topped hills and open moorland, contoured by glaciation alternating with natural lakes and rock formation, ancient oak woods rich in bird and wildlife, and the dams and reservoirs of the Elan and Claerwen valleys, draining into the beautiful River Wye.

Rhayader in the Wye valleyCaer Guorthegirn?

Was Rhaedr Gwy the site of a Caer Guorthegirn? I would not dare to say no, though it is at least less likely that it is the one meant in chapter 47. Rhaeadr is very close to a Roman road, and Roman camps show on the map both to the east and west of the town, which shows its importance. Another one is a few miles to the north at St Harmon, which name (Harmon is the Welsh derivate of Germanus) strengthens the identification with Caer Guorthegirn. However, Little Doward is far more known, and it lies on top of the Wye as well. But, Ganarew is not in Gwerthrynion proper, which might mean that Rhaeadr Gwy is not such a bad candidate after all.

(I would like to thank mr. Collard of Rhayader for his support in providing me with several images and the text of William Camden.)


  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000, (The National Library of Wales, Cardiff).*
  • Burnham, Helen: Rhayader Castle, at: http://www.castlewales.com/rhayader.html
  • Camden, William (1586): Britannia, Sive Florentissimorum Regnorum, Anglić, Scotić, Hiberniae, et Insularum Adiacentium ex intima antiquitate Chorographica descriptio. London: Radulphum Newbery.
  • Camden, William (1637): Britain, or, A chorographicall description of the most flourishing kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the islands adjoyning, out of the depth of antiquitie : beautified with mappes of the severall shires of England / written first in Latine by William Camden … ; translated newly into English by Phil‚mon Holland … ; finally, revised, amended, and enlarged with sundry additions by the said author. London: Printed by F.K.R.Y. and I.L. for Ioyce Norton, and Richard Whitaker.
  • Collard, Stephen: Rhayader and the Elan Valley - Rhayader Castle, at: http://history.powys.org.uk/history/rhaeadr/castle.html
  • Fenn, R.W.D. (1966-7): Who was St. Harmon?, in: The Radnorshire Transactions, pp 50-55.*
  • Ford, David Nash: "Nennius' List of the Twenty-Eight Cities of Britain".
  • Lloyd, John Edward (1911): A History of Wales, from the earliest times to the Edwardian conquest, vol. 1, (Longmans, London 1948).
  • Rhayader & District History Archives
  • Veprauskas, Michael: The Problem of Caer Guorthigirn.

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