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David Nash FordVisit David Nash Ford's website: Early british Kingdoms

David Nash Ford David holds an honours degree in History and Archaeology from The University of Reading (Berkshire) and has a comprehensive knowledge of significant sites across Britain, some of it gained from his time spent on archaeological digs. He travels extensively both to experience and to document the full wealth of Britain's heritage. He has completed major studies on 'Roman Mosaics in Britain' and 'The Family in the Early Modern Period', although his main field of interest remains Medieval History.
As from 1998, David is the editor of the History Department of the impressive Britannia website, where he is also responsible for the
Arthurian section. David has also re- vamped his website, Early British Kingdoms, which boasts an exhaustive oversight of the Arthurian Period.

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Vortigern and his Family

David Nash Ford

The Saxon Shore
first published on
The Saxon Shore

Vortigern Vorteneu (W. Gwrtheyrn Gwrtheneu) was the British High-King notorious for allowing the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes to overrun his country, having initially employed them to defend its shores (See Early British Kingdoms' Vortigern the Thin). The man's story attracts much discussion amongst Arthurian scholars.

Vortigern's name has been taken to be a title, Gwrth-teyrn, literally meaning "Most Above Prince": Over-King is the usual interpretation. Though similar names were used for other monarchs[1] and the addition of an epithet to a title[2] seems unlikely, "Over-King" does describe exactly Vortigern's traditional position in British Society. There is further evidence to support the theory. Vertigernus was the title first used by Bede in his "Chronica Majora" (725), though his basic information came from Gildas who used the alternative term of 'Superbo Tyranno' (Supreme Tyrant) in his "De Excidio Britannić" (c.545). The term Gwrtheyrn appears to have been extensively used in Wales and spread, via Bede's anglicized Vortigern, throughout both the British and Saxon parts of the Island. In his "Historia Brittonum" (c.830), Nennius records that "From the reign of Vortigern to the discord between Guitolinus and Ambrosius are twelve years". But should this be interpreted as twelve years from the beginning or the end of Vortigern's reign? A modern reader might instantly take this to mean from the end of the reign. However, it seems that 9th century readers thought differently. It was therefore not until twelve years into Vortigern's reign that Guidolinus and Ambrosius had their falling out. Nennius specifically recorded, and it has generally been accepted since, that Ambrosius was Vortigern's major adversary. It would therefore seem logical to identify Guidolinus (L. Vitalinus) as Vortigern's real name. Moreover, Guitaul (L. Vitalis) and Guitolin (L. Vitalinus) are given in Nennius and the Jesus College MS 20[3] as the father and grandfather respectively of Vortigern. It has been suggested by John Morris[4] that "Vortigern son of Vitalis son of Vitalinus" may have been a mistranscription of something like "Vortigern that is Vitalinus son of Vitalis".

Vortigern usurped power over the whole of the Island of Britain as High-King, apparently setting up a system of strongholds across the country, stretching, at least, from Caer-Ligualid (Carlisle)[5] to Caer-Baddan (Bath)[6]. Though those that remain are all in the west (See The Problem of Caer-Guorthigirn), the memory of others in the east was probably obliterated by the Saxon take-over. Vortigern, however, is also specifically recorded, by Nennius, as a ruler of the Regio Guunnessi (Gwent[7]). This was his original kingdom, probably inherited through his first wife Severa's[8] ancestry, as shown by her mother's supposed descent from the legendary Kings of Siluria[9]. His own family appear to have originated in neighbouring Caer-Gloiu (E. Gloucester) which, according to Nennius, was named after his great grandfather, Gloiu[10] (though the reverse seems more likely).

Nennius mentions only four sons who could have inherited Vortigern's kingdom: Guorthemir (E. Vortimer/W. Gwerthefyr), Categirn (W. Cadeyrn), Pascent (W. Pasgen) and the incestuously begotten Faustus by an unnamed daughter. However, we know from other sources that there were further sons including Brydw and St.Edeyrn of Llanedeyrn, and a possible daughter, Scothnoe.

It has been suggested by Jason Godesky in his "The Vortigern Dynasty" that part of Vortigern's story, in reality, belongs to his eldest son, Vortimer. Vortimer is thus interpreted, alongside Vortigern, as a title, which he assigns to Vortigern's son, Brydw, prior to his inheriting the "Vortigern-ship" from his father. This leads to Jason's assertion that it was this second Vortigern who treacherously married the Jutish Rhonwen of popular legend. However, Vortimer is the not uncommon Royal Welsh name Gwerthefyr, as also used by Gildas' tyrannical King of Dyfed[11]. Vortimer could not possibly have married Rhonwen. Besides his being portrayed as completely anti-Germanic, Vortimer was poisoned by Rhonwen[12] who then persuaded his father to reveal where the body lay hidden[13]. This would clearly preclude any succession from Vortigern to Vortimer. Vortimer had, in fact, been buried at Caer-Reputi (E. Richborough) beneath the Roman Triumphal Arch, as a talisman to keep the Saxons away[14]. Having discovered his resting-place however, the invaders dug him up and re-interred his body in Caer-Lundein (E. London)[15].

Vortimer cannot have been Brydw either. Brydw, probably a younger brother, is recorded in the Harleian MS 3859[16] as heading an obscure Princely family of an unknown territory (possibly Maelienydd & Elfael or Outer Powys); whereas Vortimer, as Vortigern's eldest son, ruled (during his father's High-Kingship) in the inherited power-base of the Vorteneu dynasty in Gwent. This was then known as Gwerthefyriwg, as recorded in the Book of Llandaff. It was eventually inherited by his only child, St.Madrun, and her husband the eponymous Ynyr Gwent[17] (a prince of controversial origins: possibly a cousin and member of the family of Magnus Maximus[18]).

Cadeyrn, as Vortigern's second son, deputised in the extensive region which Vortigern appears to have developed as his personal power-base: Powys (probably larger than modern Powys, encompassing a capital at Caer-Guricon (E. Wroxeter)). The Kings of Powys asserted their descent from Cadeyrn in the genealogies recorded in the Harleian MS 3859 & Jesus College MS 20. Though the known parts of the Royal Powysian genealogical inscription upon the 9th century "Eliseg's Pillar"[19] do not mention him, reference is made to his brothers Pasgen and Brydw. "Britu, moreover, (was) a son of Guorthigirn whom Germanus blessed..." implies that further sons of Vortigern had already been mentioned in the preceding, and now lost section, of the inscription and that they too may have been blessed by St. Germanus of Auxerre. Hence the epithet of Fendigaid (the Blessed) used for both Vortimer and Cadeyrn. In fact, it is likely that the inscription's list of Britons in which Pasgen was included were in fact those baptized together by the saint, perhaps in the Severn in a similar manner to the evangelical methods of St. Paulinus and St. Birinus.

After Vortigern's dramatic demise at the hands of his old enemy, Ambrosius, it was his son Pasgen who, according to Nennius, was allowed to rule the Powysian sub-Kingdom of Buellt and Gwerthrynion (named after Vortigern), due to the magnanimous generosity of the new High-King. It is likely that a similar attitude was taken towards the rest of the Vorteneu family in Gwent, the unknown principality of Brydw's descendants and Powys itself. It showed Ambrosius in a benevolent light, in sharp contrast to the previous reign, and created a sense of stability in the country. After all, Vortigern's sons had shown little agreement with their father's pro-Saxon policies and, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, had even rebelled against him.

So, although Vortigern's reign has been remembered in history and legend as the most disastrous to have ever befallen the British Nation, he did manage to leave a powerful legacy to his sons. He established them so well in the rich kingdoms in the heart of Britain that his family ruled there for the next eight hundred years[20].

Vortigern and his Family is Copyright © 1998, David Nash Ford. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: David Nash Ford


[1] The common Welsh name, Cadwaladr (Cad-gwaladr), for example, means "Battle Chief".
[2] Vortigern's epithet of Vorteneu, W. Gwrtheneu (Gor-Teneu) means "Very Thin".
[3] A 14th century collection of British Royal genealogies from Jesus College, Oxford.
[4] Morris, John (1973) The Age of Arthur. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
[5] A Roman Station at Old Carlisle, just south of Wigton, is said, in a Cambridge manuscript of the "Historia Brittonum" to have been refortified by Vortigern and named Guasmoic (E. Palme-Castre).
[6] Wirtgenesburg near Bradford-upon-Avon was recorded by the early 12th century historian William of Malmesbury.
[7] Gwent, of course, takes its name from the old Romano-British City of Caer-Guent (E. Caerwent/L. Venta Silurum).
[8] Severa was the daughter of the Emperor Magnus Maximus (W. Macsen Wledig).
[9] Severa's mother was Elen Luyddog, the daughter of Eudaf Hen. Eudaf was particularly associated with Ewyias in Northern Gwent and his legendary ancestors (among them the mortalized Celtic God, Bran Fendigaid) were the supposed Kings of the Silures Tribe of Britons whose capital was Venta Silurum (E. Caerwent/W. Caer-Guent).
[10] The Jesus College MS 20 calls him Gloyw Gwalltir meaning "Gloyw the Long Haired".
[11] Vortiporius , King or "Protector" of Dyfed in the early 6th century.
[12] According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannić (c.1139).
[13] According to Triad 37 of the Trioedd Ynys Prydain (pre-13th century).
[14] This is the mostly likely identification of Nennius' "port from which (the English) had departed", the Triad's "Chief Port of this Island" and Geoffrey of Monmouth's "port where the Saxons usually landed" where Vortimer "ordered a bronze pyramid to be constructed for him". Richborough (L. Rutupić) was certainly the major Roman Port into Britain and the Triumphal Arch there was adorned with many bronze statues. The idea of a hero's dead body protecting a country from invaders is an old Celtic theme best shown in the Mabinogion story of the burial of Bran Fendigaid's head on Tower Hill (London).
[15] JAccording to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannić (c.1139). The Historia Brittonum (c.830) says Lincoln (W. Caer-Lind-Coln).
[16] A late 10th century collection of British Royal genealogies from the Harleian Collection at the British Library.
[17] Madrun is recorded as Vortimer's daughter and the wife of Ynyr Gwent in the 13th century Bonedd Y Saint.
[18] See Early British Kingdoms' Pedigree of the Kings of Glywysing & Gwent, Ergyng & Dyfed at: http://www.britannia.com/history/ebk/gene/anwnped.html.
[19] Eliseg's Pillar is the base of a monumental stone cross erected to the memory of the early 8th century King Elisedd (or Eliseg) of Powys by his great grandson, King Cyngen. It still stands in Llantysilio-yn-Ial, near Llangollen, but the inscription is no longer legible. A large part of it was still decipherable in 1696 however, when it was recorded by the antiquarian, Edward Llwyd.
[20] The last Prince of Powys Fadog, Vortigern's direct descendant, Gryffydd Maelor II, died in 1269. (His 3x great grandson was the last Prince of an independent Wales, Owain Glyndwr.)

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