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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Realm of Vortigern > Gwent

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The Realm of Vortigern
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Regione Gewissorum
Robert Vermaat

Vortigern , consul of the Gewisseans....

Who were the Gewissae? Where was the Regione Gewissorum? Was it the kingdom of Gwent? Then why speaks Bede of the Gewissae as the origina West Saxons? This name has caused some confusion due to an obvious dual meaning or a later misidentification.


The first of these is the region of Gwent. The name of Gwent stems from the capital of the former Roman province, Venta Silurum or Caerwent today. The Silures were the pre-Roman Celtic tribe that ruled these parts, which probably stretched north of Monmouth, including Ercing (Archenfield) and Euas (Ewias, Herefordshire). The Welsh names for Gwent are both Gwennwys and Gwenhwys, the people being called Gwenwysson, with the local dialect Gwenhwyseg.

Venta Silurum - Caerwent, capital of GwentVortigern is closely connected to this part of southern Wales. He is said to have married Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus, who had in turn been married to Helen, daughter of Eudaf (Octavian), dux Gewissorum. That Vortigern was also mentioned as dux Gewissorum, made him ruler of Gwent, inheriting it from Octavius. Though almost certainly legendary, this is one of the very few indications of the power-base of Vortigern and his family.

Vortigern may also have been connected with Gwent through purely eponymous legend. His ancestor was Gloui (Glevum), meaning probably that his family originated in Gloucester. This Roman Colony was founded by the emperor Claudius, hence the name Claudio-caestre used by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This Claudius was reputed to have married his legendary daughter Gewissa to the British king Arviragus. In short, Gwent probably belonged to the territory of Gloucester, at least it was once claimed to have been.

Otherwise this legend could possibly explain how Venta deferred to Glevum in Roman times. This would give another explanation for the above - maybe Vortigern’s family had a right to Gwent. In a sub-Roman context, the civitas of Glevum could have become the nucleus for a territory based purely on the power of the city, and thus its ruling family. Vortigern's family lost Gwent to the dynasty of Caradoc Vreichvras (Strong-arm), whose son Ynyr (Honorius) married Vortimer's daughter Modrun. Ynyr's brother then ruled after him, and his descendants continued as the ruling family for 700 years, until the country was annexed by the Normans.


The second meaning of the name is strangely connected to the earliest designation of the West Saxons. Bede speaks of the gens Occidentalium Saxonum gui antiquitus Geuissae uocabantur, ‘the people of the West Saxons who in the past were called Gewissans’, (HE 3.7). The ancient core of their territory was Dorchester-on-Thames, south of Oxford.

Here, many finds have proved a large presence of post-Roman soldiers, equipped by the late Roman army, but after the year 410. These were probably federates, Germanic soldiers serving in the Roman army either as individuals or with their whole tribe. Their presence has been challenged by insular scholars (see Cingulae & Fibalae, a discussion), but their explanations are no longer tenable. The same material, found on the continent in much larger quantaties, clearly points to the early decades of the fifth century, i.e. after 410.

They could have been the soldiers invited by Guithelinus from the continent according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Or else, they were part of an equally unattested Roman re-occupation. Either way, they were probably a model for what later was remembered as the Adventus Saxonum, ‘the Coming of the Saxons’.

Soldiers of Gwent

A last, somewhat far-fetched explanation combines the above ones. Vortigern may also have been called dux Gewissorum through a forgotten link with this Germanic group of mercenaries. If I am correct in identifying Vortigern with Guithelinus, he was personally responsible for the invitation of these soldiers and probably for their upkeep as well. Their location was extremely strategic; close to London, controlling the south. Close to Cirencester, defending Vortigern’s territory. Located in the Midlands, controlling any movement from the north and also the territories in the east which were at that time settled by pacified Germanic migrants.

Though the English later explained the name with eponymous Gewis, it is possible that it stemmed from the name of a personal unit, maybe called 'soldiers of Gwent', commanded by Vortigern. It was common practise for late Roman units to be named after persons or regions, so a unit called ‘the Gewissans’ might have been a possiblity. The commander would be a native of that region, but the unit would consist of Germanic soldiers, as was the rule in those days of the late Roman empire.

Dux Gewissorum

There is, however, another option that would explain how Vortigern was made Dux Gewissorum: a confusion of Gwent with Gwynedd. As we have seen, Vortigern was made a Dux Gewissorum by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The origin of this word, as I see it, can only be explained by a reference to either the original name of the later West Saxons, or else a reference to a region, probably that of Gwent. While the first seems a very long shot, the second is hardly any better, due to a lack of references of Vortigern in Gwent. That is, apart from the late connection of Vortigern’s eldest son Vortimer (through his daughter Modrun) with Ynyr Gwent and thus to the genealogy of the ruling dynasty. Gwent was adjacent to Vortigern’s ancestral lands in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, but this does not mean that he ruled Gwent as well. Geoffrey has made the connection, by making Magnus Maximus the son-in-law of a Octavius of Gwent, but that may have been totally apocryphical, and only meant to explain Geoffrey’s notion of such a connection.

Vortigern had a close association with Magnus Maximus, through the marriage of Sevira, shown by the Pillar of Elise as the daughter of Maximus. We know of a strong connection between Magnus Maximus and Gwynedd, from where the unit of the Seguntienses came, who fought for him up to his defeat at Aquileia. Through this marriage, Vortigern ‘inherited’ Maximus’ lands in Wales. Or at least, that was the view later. This connection might have been the cause of all the Vortigern-names and associations on the Lleyn peninsula and in Arfon. Historically, nothing of this is known, and most of Vortigern’s legendary associations are with Gwent and eastern Wales; Gwrtheyrnion and Powys. The latter are easily explained, but the connection with Gwent is more difficult.

In fact, it may be possible that such a connection between Vortigern and Maximus existed originally only for Gwynedd, and travelled only later to Gwent. Though no genealogical links between Vortigern and Gwynedd exist, this would be easily explained by the Cuneddan migration. However, such a connection could explain the apparently strange incident at Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern suddenly ‘gives’ away not only the fort of Dinas Emrys, but the whole of western Wales. There are even theories that explain the ‘Regio Guenessi’ (where Vortigern flees to before the wrath of Germanus, according to the Historia Brittonum) with a district in Lleyn rather than the usual ‘Gueneri’ or Ganarew north of Monmouth. In that case the connection would rest solely upon a tradition built upon a wrong interpretation of a single name.

Llydaw: Gwent or Gwynedd?

Back to Magnus Maximus, who is the connection between Gwent and Gwynedd through a possible confusion about the exact position of the region called Llydaw. As I have explained in Dinas Emrys; Vortigern & Ambrosius, Magnus Maximus was probably called 'Emyr Llydaw', the 'emperor of Brittany'. However, the name Llydaw also occurs in Wales, as Llyn Llydaw in Snowdonia, close to Dinas Emrys. It has been suggested that Llydaw in Gwynedd gave its name to Brittany, as did Cornwall to Cornouaille and Devon to Dumnonée. There is even a connection to Gwent, because Llydaw has also been associated with Brycheiniog, supposedly where the gwyr Llydaw (‘men of Llydaw) came from (in the tale of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’). The Life of St Padarn mentions that Caradog Freichfras (son of Ynyr Gwent) extended the borders of his kingdom (usually said to have incorporated parts of Gwent, Archenfield and Radnorshire) into Letavia. This would correspond much better with the neighbouring Brycheiniog that with Brittany!


Again, we are thrown back on a seemingly unsolvable riddle that seems to connect Vortigern both to Gwent and Gwynedd. The vague region of the Guenessi can be situated both in Gwent and Gwynedd, so can the equally vague region of Llydaw. Like Vortigern, his father-in-law Magnus Maximus was connected to Gwynedd, but also to Gwent: his (semi-)legendary offspring appears in both areas. So does Vortigern, whose descendants are in Gwent, but not in Gwynedd, which however has many places associated with his name. And when he starts to flee across Wales, the stories have him run from the one Regione Gewissorum to the other.

Maybe we ought to conclude that both are correct, or maybe that by the time these stories were first put to paper, both regions had become so entangled that no-one knew which had been the original.


  • Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Shirley-Price, (St Ives 1990).*
  • Chadwick, Henry Munro: The Foundation of the Early British Kingdoms, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 47-56.*
  • Chadwick, Nora K. (et al): Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).
  • Elton, Hugh: Warfare in Roman Europe AD 350-425, (Oxford 1996).*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Shadrake, Dan, Susanna Shadrake and Richard Hook (ill.).: Barbarian Warriors, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Brassey's History of Uniforms VII, (London 1997).*

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