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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Cities of Vortigern > Bradford-on-Avon

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The 'Cities' of Vortigern
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Wirtgernesburh
Robert Vermaat

old maps
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maps of
Wirtgernesburh

Bradford-on-Avon
Earthwork
Wiltshire
reasonable access for the disabledfree access to the monument
Nearest town: Bradford-on-Avon
Nearest village: Staverton
Map reference: St 846605
Location of Wirtgernesburh by UK Streetmap
 

Bradford-on-Avon in western Wiltshire was once called Wirtgernesburh, which means ‘Vortigern’s Stronghold’. Though this might simply indicate that Vortigern’s name was attached to a wandering Bradford - on - Avonfolk-tale old enough to become attached to Bradford (‘Broad Ford’) before the Saxons came there in the second half of the 7th century. Otherwise, we might consider a duplication of Vortigern and his tales, is more likely that a genuine memory of his involvement in the area lingered on. The name is related to us by William of Malmesbury:

De Gestis Regum Anglorum book I, chapter 23
He (i.e. Cenwalh, king of Wessex) defeated in two actions the Britons, furious with the recollection of their ancient liberty, and in consequence perpetually meditating resistance; first, at aplace called Wirtgernesburg, and then at a mountain named Pene..

Though corroborative evidence is absent, we must consider that William lived nearby and must have known the region well.

When we consider the location in a geographical context it can be noticed that Brabford is not far from what once was the southern border of the Dobunnic tribal lands and later Roman province. This border is also marked by Wansdyke, a possibly early 5th century earthwork, linked to the 5th century refurbishment of South Cadbury Castle. Wansdyke is constructed as a border (not as a fortification), primarily occupied with blocking the lines of communication (i.e. the rivers and the roads) from the north.

I have tried to link this activity with the civil war between Vortigern and Ambrosius which culminated in the battle of Guoloph in 437. Since Bradford-on-Avon lies directly on the line of the Wansdyke, as it sits right in the middle of the so-called 'gap' between East and West Wansdyke. Here the river Avon is fordeble, making it very attractive to see here a fortification of Vortigern, guarding the riverline of this artificial border built by Ambrosius to control all approaches from the north.

Where was Wirtgernesburh?

The exact location of the fortification is not clear. Either its remains are buried under the modern town, possibly on or near the site where Roman coins were dug up in the nineteenth century.

The best candidate is the former Iron Age promontory fort called Budbury, north of Tory. Parts of its earthen ramparts have been found, although the site is today totally built over. This site continued in use during the Roman period, and Roman finds as well as burials have turned up in the area. There were also Roman buildings on the hill to the north and west of the town. It is possible to see the inhabitants turning to the old fort during sub-Roman times. The latest interpretations show this area as British until the mid-7th century or after. Cenwalh's name is still partly British ('walh' meaning 'Welshman'), and the names of his predecessors are even more British (Cerdic-Ceredig, Cynric-Cunorix, Ceawlin-Coline). The area of the Gewissae, later known as the West Saxons, may have been far more British than assumed, and the area of Bradford was without doubt in british hands. Vortigern may well have had a stronhold here, controlling the southern bend of the Avon.

A less obvious but still possible other candidate for this possible stronghold of Vortigern may be the unnamed small earthwork in Great Bradford Wood. However, as the 1891 map shows, the site was by then either hidden in Great Bradford Wood (private land, and therefore maybe missed by the surveyors), or it is really to be found elsewhere.

Bibliography

  • Chadwick, Henry Munro: Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, Nora K. (et al): Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).
  • Fox, Cyril and A. Fox: Wansdyke reconsidered, in: Archaeological Journal CXV, 1960, pp. 1-48.*
  • Kirby, D.P.: Vortigern, in: The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XXIII, 1970, pp. 37-59.*
  • William of Malmesbury: The Kings before the Norman Conquest, trans. Joseph Stevenson, (Lampeter 1989).

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