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The Family of Vortigern
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Vortimer, son of Vortigern
Robert Vermaat & Annemarie Speetjens

Vortimer is always presented as Vortigern's eldest son and the commander of the army. he fought with the enemies of Britain on four occasions, but later legend has it that he lost his life through treachery by his step-mother, the daughter of Hengist.

Name

Vortimer, Guorthemir, Gwrthefyr Vendigeit: Vortimer the Blessed; his name, when derived from *Vortamorix, means ‘Highest King’, thus possibly claiming a higher authority than Vortigern. This may be plausible in the light of the stories of a rebellion against his father (though a possibility remains that he was not a son at all, but a relative or a commander). Though phonetically resembling the possible title "Vortigern," Vortimer is actually a Welsh name, also spelled Gwrthefyr, often found in royal Welsh families, but also in Ireland. The name of Gwrthefyr/Vortipor, tyrant of Dyfed, is in essence the same name. Whether this was the name given at birth may be doubted - like his father Vortigern he may have taken a different name when he moved into a powerful position. I will deal with some possibilities for that name below.

Who was Vortimer

Vortimer, the eldest son of Vortigern and Sevira, was probably born around 400 and said to have taken over the kingdom when his father was driven out. He then fought four battles against the Saxons but died post modicum intervallum, after which Vortigern returned (Historia Brittonum, C.43,44 & 48, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae 6.13 ff.). Vortimer is said to have died from poison (HRB), admonished by Rowena, daughter of Hengist (or sister, according to the Vita Merlini) and Vortigern’s second wife. The second battle against the Saxons is called Episford, ∆gelesthrep in the ASC, where both Horsa (Hengist's brother) and Vortimer's brother Catigern fell. According to P.C. Bartrum, another lost source lies behind this information, possibly a Triad. Vortimer was the father of Madrun (Modrun), a character relevant to the traditions of northern Wales and St Asaph's, through her daughter Tegiwg, who had the legend of St Winefrede attributed to her. Vortimer had a region named after him; Gwrthebiriuc ('land of Vortimer'), which reflects the Gwrtheyrnion named after his father. It probably consisted of his personal estate.

Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum describes Vortimer with these words:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 43


43. At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and thrice enclosed them within it, and beset them on the western side.

 

intera guorthemir filius guorthigirn cum hengisto et horso et cum gente illorum petulanter pugnabant et eos usque ad supradictam insulam, quae uocatur tanet, expulit et eos ibi tribus uicibus conclusit obsedit percussit comminuit terruit.


The Saxons now despatched deputies to Germany to solicit large reinforcements, and an additional number of ships: having obtained these, they fought against the kings and princes of Britain, and sometimes extended their boundaries by victory, and sometimes were conquered and driven back.

 

et ipsi legatos ultra mare usque in germaniam transmittebant uocando ciulas cum ingenti numero bellatorum uirorum. et postea pugnabant contra reges nostrae gentis: aliquando uincebantur et expellebantur.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 44

44. Four times did Vortimer valorously encounter the enemy; the first has been mentioned, the second was upon the river Darent, the third at the Ford, in their language called Epsford, though in ours Set thirgabail, there Horsa fell, and Catigern, the son of Vortigern; the fourth battle he fought, was near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea, where the Saxons being defeated, fled to their ships.

 

et guorthemir contra illos quattuor bella auide gessit. primum bellum super flumen derguentid; secundum bellum super uadum, quod dicitur in lingua eorum episford, in nostra autem lingua rithergabail, et ibi cecidit hors cum filio guorthigirni, cuius nomen erat categirn. tertium bellum in campo iuxta lapidem tituli, qui est super ripam gallici maris, commisit et barbari uicti sunt et ille uictor fuit et ipsi in fugam uersi usque ad ciulas suas mersi sunt in eas muliebriter intrantes.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 48

He had three sons: the eldest was Vortimer, who, as we have seen, fought four times against the Saxons, and put them to flight; the second Categirn, who was slain in the same battle with Horsa; the third was Pascent, who reigned in the two provinces Builth and Guorthegirnaim, after the death of his father. These were granted him by Ambrosius, who was the great king among the kings of Britain. The fourth was Faustus, born of an incestuous marriage with his daughter, who was brought up and educated by St. Germanus. He built a large monastery on the banks of the river Renis, called after his name, and which remains to the present period.

 

tres filios habuit, quorum nomina sunt guorthemir, qui pugnabat contra barbaros, ut supra diximus; secundo categirn; tertius pascent, qui regnauit in duabus regionibus buelt et guorthegirniaun post mortem patris sui largiente ambrosio illi, qui fuit rex inter omnes reges brittannicae gentis. quartus fuit faustus, qui a filia sua genitus est illi, et sanctus germanus baptizauit illum et nutriuit et docuit et condidit locum magnum super ripam fluminis, quod uocatur renis, et manet usque hodie. et unam filiam habuit, quae fuit mater fausti sancti.

Vortimer is supposed to have fought the Saxons after the disgrace of Vortigern by Germanus. But we cannot be sure about the date in which he supposedly deposed his father after the latter's marriage to Rowena, daughter of Hengist (see below).

Vortimer the Blessed

In the *Life of St. Garmon (not to be confused with the fifth-century saint), Vortimer was blessed by the saint for his opposition to Vortigern and his restauration of the churches, but this is not mentioned in the official Life of St Germanus by Constantius, Germanus’ contemporary biographer. Neither is Vortimer connected in any way to Germanus in the Historia Brittonum. However, a much later (c. 1200) gloss in MS CCCC 139, fo 175r, mentiones in the right-hand margin (continuing into lower margin under righthand column), another story about Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn (translated by Annemarie Speetjens):

This Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, in a synod held at Guartherniaun (after the wicked king, on account of the incest committed with his daughter, fled from the face of Germanus and the British clergy), would not consent to his father's wickedness; but returning to St. Germanus, and falling down at his feet, he sued for pardon; and in atonement for the calumny brought upon Germanus by his father and sister, gave him the land, in which the forementioned bishop had endured such abuse, to be his for ever. Whence, in memory of St. Germanus, it received the name Guarenniaun (Guartherniaun, Gurthrenion, Gwarth Ennian) which signifies, a calumny justly retorted, since, when he thought to reproach the bishop, he covered himself with reproach. It is said that he was so big and strong, that he, when fought a war in anger, lifted up a tree, which he had felled and uprooted with its branches, and destroyed his enemies with it. Because with this tree he felled Horsa, a bellicose fellow, after he was almost robbed of his strenght, had broken his weapons, and threw the others who had fled to the ground and chased them from the corners of Britain. And for five years they dared not enter the island until the death of Vortimer.

 

Iste Guortemir filius Gorthegirni in sinodo habita apud Guartherniaun (postquam nefandus rex, ob incestum quem cum filia commiserat, a facie Germani et clericorum Britannie in fugam iret) patris nequitie consentire noluit, sed rediens ad sanctum Germanum ad pedes eius cecidit, ueniam postulans. Atque pro illata a patre suo et sorore sancto Germano calumpnia, terram ipsam in qua predictus episcopus obprobrium tale sustinuit in eternum suam fieri sanxiuit: unde et in memoriam sancti Germani Guarenniaun nomen accepit quod latine sonat 'calumpnia iuste retorta' quoniam, cum episcopum uituperare putauerat, semetipsum uituperio afficit. Guortemir uero, accepto regno, uiriliter hostibus obsistit. Qui tante magnitudinis esse et uirtutis dicebatur ut si, quando iratus in bello dimicaret, accepta arbore cum frondibus funditus extirparet et cum ea solotenus aduersarios prosterneret. Cum tali enim arbore Horsam satelitem bellicosum, confractis in alterutrum armis pene defectis uiribus, prostrauit ceterosque in fugam uersos ut stipulas terre allidit et ex omnibus finibus Britannie expulit; et per quinquennium postea insulam intrare non audebant usque ad obitum Guortemir.

This episode takes place during Vortigern's flight for Germanus and his synod, after the accusation of incest. Vortimer, seeking forgiveness from St Germanus, after he was unwilling to agree to Vortigern's excesses, was bestowed with the kingdom by Germanus. This story may have been only an alternative to the origin of the name of Gwrtheyrnion, or it may have been a belated explanation of how Vortimer came to be blessed. The episode could be derived from the lost 'Life of Germanus', which may have been a source of the Historia Brittonum, but as 'Nennius' made no use of this part we may doubt that. Geoffrey of Monmouth (below) mentioned only that Vortimer was blessed for rebuilding the churches, which makes this tale late, but original.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth relates in his Historia regum Britanniae that Vortimer rebelled against his father after Vortigern married Rowena, but whether he put aside his first wife is not known.

Historia Regum Britanniae, Book VI, chapter 12.
Vortigern marries Rowen, the daughter of Hengist....The king the same night married the pagan lady, and became extremely delighted with her; by which he quickly brought upon himself the hatred of the nobility, and of his own sons. For he had already three sons, whose names were Vortimer, Catigern, and Pascentius.

Historia Regum Britanniae, Book VI, chapter 13.
These things they [the Britons] represented to the king, and endeavoured to dissuade him from entertaining them [the Saxons], lest they might, by some treacherous conspiracy, prove an overmatch for the native inhabitants. But Vortigern , who loved them above all other nations on account of his wife, was deaf to their advice. For this reason the Britons quickly desert him, and unanimously set up Vortimer his son for their king; who at their instigation began to drive out the barbarians, and to make dreadful incursions upon them. Four battles he fought with them, and was victorious in all: the first upon the river Dereuent; the second upon the ford of Epsford, where Horsa and Catigern, another son of Vortigern , met and, after a sharp encounter, killed each other; the third upon the sea-shore, where the enemies fled shamefully to their ships, and betook themselves for refuge to the Isle of Thanet. But Vortimer besieged them there, and daily distressed them with his fleet. And when they were no longer able to bear the assaults of the Britons, they sent king Vortigern , who was present with them in all those wars, to his son Vortimer, to desire leave to depart, and return back safe to Germany. And while a conference upon this subject was being held, they in the meantime went on board their long galleys, and, leaving their wives and children behind them, returned back to Germany.

Historia Regum Britanniae, Book VI, chapter 14
Vortimer, after this great success, began to restore his subjects to their possessions which had been taken from them, and to show them all marks of his affection and esteem, and at the instance of St. Germanus to rebuild their churches. But his goodness quickly stirred up the enmity of the devil against him, who entering into the heart of his stepmother Rowen, excited her to contrive his death. For this purpose she consulted with the poisoners, and procured one who was intimate with him, whom she corrupted with large and numerous presents, to give him a poisonous draught; so that this brave soldier, as soon as he had taken it, was seized with a sudden illness, that deprived him of all hopes of life. Hereupon he forthwith ordered all his men to come to him, and having shown them how near he was to his end, distributed among them all the treasure his predecessors had heaped up, and endeavoured to comfort them in their sorrow and lamentation for him, telling them, he was only going the way of all flesh. But he exhorted those brave and warlike young men, who had attended him in all his victories, to persist courageously in the defence of their country against all hostile invasion; and with wonderful greatness of mind, commanded a brazen pyramid to be placed in the port where the Saxons used to land, and his body when dead to be buried on the top of it, that the sight of his tomb might frighten back the barbarians to Germany. For he said none of them would dare approach the country, that should but get a sight of his tomb. Such was the admirable bravery of this great man, who, as he had been a terror to them while living, endeavoured to be no less so when dead. Notwithstanding which, he was no sooner dead, than the Britons had no regard to his orders, but buried him at London.

In the Vita Merlini however, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells a different story, that Vortigern was pursued by the Saxons (not Germanus) into Wales and that Vortimer only took the power because of the danger to the country in absence of his father. Both the Historia Regum Britanniae and the Vita Merlini say that Vortimer was poisoned by his step-mother. William of Malmesbury claimed that it was Vortimer who broke the foedus and attacked the Saxons in the first place:

The Chronicle of the Kings of England, book 1, chapter 1
Vortimer, the son of Vortigern thinking it unnecessary longer to dissemble that he saw himself and his Briton circumvented by the craft of the Angles, turned his thoughts to their expulsion, and stimulated his father to the same attempt. At his suggestion, the truce was broken seven years after their arrival; and during the ensuing twenty, they frequently fought partial battles, and, as the [Anglo-Saxon] chronicle relates, four general actions. From the first conflict they parted on equal terms: one party lamenting the loss of Horsa, the brother of Hengist; the other, that of Katigis, another of Vortigern's sons. The Angles, having the advantage in all the succeeding encounters, peace was concluded; Vortimer, who had been the instigator of the war, and differed far from the indolence of his father, perished prematurely, or he would have governed the kingdom in a noble manner, had God permitted. When he died, the British strength decayed, and all hope fled from them;

Duplications?

Some have suggested that Vortimer was, in fact, the 'second Vortigern'. There may have been some duplications in the stories about Vortigern and Vortimer. Early chronicle entries show us a Vortigern who favors the English; later, Vortigern becomes opposed to the English. It is possible that this change of attitude may in fact reflect a change of identity. This may have been the point when Vortimer indeed assumed this name, thereby making a political statement which seems to indicate that he wanted to claim a postion above his father's. His original name would then be unknown, though (very speculatively), it may have been Theodosius (Teithfallt or Tudwal). 'Britu' might be a candidate, but that elusive personality can also be claimed for the original name of Faustus, and he also figures in the descent from Catigern. Maybe 'Britu' was a name common to the family, or maybe we are watching the effects of simple duplications.

When did Vortimer originally depose or succeed his father, or; when did Vortigern die? Vortimer originally fought for his father in the battles after the Saxon revolt. But after Vortimer's death Vortigern returns, suffers a final humiliation and disappears again. This might of course be nothing more than a duplication of Vortigern's actions or even mistaking Vortigern for Vortimer. In the legends, Vortimer rebels after his father marries Rowena, Hengist’s daughter. Vortigern must then return after Vortimers death for the betrayal at Amesbury and disappear again. I consider it far more plausible that Vortigern reigned from 425 to a short time after 441, when a growing British resentment gave the federates cause to rebel and devastate Britain. Thus Vortigern is disgraced, after which Vortimer takes his place (sorry, no romantic stuff!). After several battles he dies, probably in 455 or 456, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentiones a great defeat of the Britons, who 'fled in great terror to London'. If this date is correct, it would unnecessarily contract the episode (in which Vortigern returns to power, takes his daughter to wife, gets besieged by Germanus and dies in Wales), to an unacceptable short timeframe. It is more likely that Vortimer reigned after his father, which means it was him and not his father Vortigern that actually invited Hengist as a counterforce against the rebellious federates. In this case the legend is true, but Vortigern was mistaken for Vortimer. If correct, Vortigern died shortly after 441 and Vortimer around 455.

A Hero?

There are few Welsh references to Vortimer, which may indicate that he never was a major national hero. He is sometimes seen as a candidate for the person behind the historical Riothamus, who crossed over to Gaul during the reign of Leo (460s). Riothamus, who fought against Saxons and Visigoths, likewise vanishes without a trace from the historical records after a battle (defeat near Bourge-des-Deols against Euric and the Visigoths). The name 'Riothamus' means 'most kingly', which could be equated to the 'highest king' that is the translation of 'Vortimer'. There is, however, no firm evidence for this supposition.

Vortimer may have become holy enough to enter sainthood, for he seems to have been remembered as being 'blessed' by St Germanus for restoring Christian churches and property. There was a church in Monmouth in his service. His end is very obscure as well, for he is reported to have been buried in all the major ports of Britain, 'to ward off all enemies'. His friends diobeyed him, though, and buried him in London. Richborough is also a major candidate. After Vortimer's death his father Vortigern was seduced by Rowena to reveal that burying-place to the Saxons. This 'legendary-only' is very typical for the legacy of Vortimer, who otherwise seems to disappear from historic record. He has no sons to follow him (at least none that show up in any later pedigree), only a daughter, whereby the land of Gwent slips from the grasp of Vortigern's family.

Bibliography

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. and trans. M. Swanton, (London 1996).*
  • Bartrum, P.C. (1966): Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, (Cardiff).*
  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (Cardiff).*
  • Chadwick, H.M.: The End of Roman Britain, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 9-20.*
  • Chadwick, H.M.: Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, N.K. et al: Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).*
  • Dumville, David N. (1977b): Celtic-Latin texts in northern England, c.1150-1250, in: Celtica 12, pp. 19-49.*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, trans.R. Ellis Jones, ed. A.Griscom, (London 1929, repr. 1977).*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Gilbert, Adrian, A. Wilson & B. Blackett: The Holy Kingdom, (Bantam 1998).*
  • Godesky, Jason: The Vortigern Dynasty, (The Saxon Shore 1998) : now at this site.
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Kirby, D.P.: Vortigern, in: The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XXIII, 1970, pp. 37-59.*
  • Ralegh Radford, C.A.: Vortigern, in: Antiquity XXXII, 1958, pp. 19-24.*
  • Tatlock, John S.P.: The Legendary History of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and its early Vernacular versions, (Berkeley 1950).
  • Ward, J.H.: Vortigern and the End of Roman Britain, in: Britannia III, 1972, pp. 277-289.*
  • William of Malmesbury: William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England, from the earliest period to the reign of king Stephen, trans John Sharpe, ed. J.A. Giles, (London 1911) at http://www.gorddcymru.com/william_malmesbury/index.htm.

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