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It is almost fifteen years after the Roman withdrawal before the first distinguishable character arises from the Dark Age turmoil they left behind. His name is called "Vortigern," and he is the first of three rulers who will keep back the Saxons before they finally overrun the island. Ironically, he's also the one who invited them to Britain.
From the evidence available, it seems that Vortigern ruled over the Powys region (he may even have been the founder of his kingdom). Due to the extensive rebuilding of Wroxeter (called Viroconium by the Romans) correlating to Vortigern's rise, it has been suggested that the city was his capital.
By 425, Vortigern was wielding significant power throughout the isle of Britain. While he claimed to be married to the daughter of Maximus Caesar (called Mascen Wledig in the Welsh tales), it seems that Vortigern was the champion of the "nationalist party" who wished to restore the ancient Celtic ways. Due to his incessant fighting with St. Germanus, it is reasonable to conclude that he was a Pelagian, a heretic, validating the suspicion that he was a nationalist leader.
However Celtic his customs may have been, his strategies in war remained Roman. The enlistment of federates was still considered a good way to go, even though the system had already helped to bring the mighty Roman Empire to its knees. First, Vortigern worked with native Celts as federates, things like bringing down a large group of Votadini from the kingdom of Gododdin under Cunedda Wledig to fight against the Scots in Wales, and then giving them the Gwynedd region in return for their services. But the act Vortigern is infamous for is his hiring of foreign federates: the Saxons.
It seems that, at the time, Vortigern was under attack from the Picts. In desperation, he hired three keels (boatloads) of Saxon warriors who had been exiled from their homeland for some unknown reason (meaning they weren't exactly the savory type) and led by two brothers, Horsa and Hengest who claimed descent from the king of the Teutonic gods, Wotan (Odin in Norse). They were given the isle of Thanet (not a very large piece of land) in return for their aid against the Picts, and all of their supplies - food, clothing, etc. - were provided for.
At first, all went well. According to John Morris, most of the fighting occurred near the northern borders of what is now Norfolk, showing just how desperate Vortigern's position had been. But, with the Saxons' aid, the Picts were driven back in short order. And, for a time, there was peace.
But then, the war began.
Ironically, it was over goods, the goods which Vortigern had promised to supply. Gildas and Nennius agree that Hengist was looking for an excuse to start a fight, but during the years since the Saxon Advent, Hengist had been filling Thanet with reinforcements from Denmark, making it nearly impossible now to feed them all. But, it was a task Vortigern had promised to undertake, and when he refused, fighting broke out.
The Saxons ran wild, but in four battles were pushed back by Vortimer, Vortigern's son. In the final battle at Epsford, Horsa was slain, as well as Vortigerns own son, Categrin. This forced Hengist to parley, and it was agreed that he would be given the land of Kent. To seal the agreement, Vortigern married Hengist's daughter, Rowena.
It is also around this time that St. Germanus makes his second visit to Britain. He had come once before, and then had led an army against the Saxons in the "Hallelujah Battle," in which he lined up his troops and had them all shout "hallelujah" at the top of their lungs, at his command. This huge sound scared off the Saxons, and they were beaten back without any violence, or so the story's told. But in this second visit, he commanded Vortigern, who had taken his daughter as a mistress, to dismiss her. Vortigern refused, so the saint pursued him to his fortress, and outside of it, prayed for three days and three nights for Vortigern's destruction. On the third night, it is said, fire came down from heaven and consumed the fortress, while the earth opened up and swallowed it. However, Vortigern's role in history had scarcely begun. We'll return to this point later, but first, let me finish my short history of Vortigern's long reign.
Later, the Saxons revolted again, and again, Vortigern convinced them to parley. This time, they were to meet at Stonehenge, unarmed. But Hengist had other plans. He had each Saxon carry a long knife in his boot, and at Hengist's command, they drew them out and slew all the British nobility, sparing only Vortigern, on account of his marriage to Hengist's daughter. He was captured and held prisoner, released only after many years. After his release, he wandered Britain, and died in the end "an ignominious death."
But there is much about his reign that doesn't make sense. It lasts for over thirty years, and much of it is in double. He has two wives, there are two accounts of his death, both at very different times. The Vortimer referred to winning the battle of Epsford is called Vortigern in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. And then there's the mystery as to what exactly "Vortigern" means. The leading opinion today is that it means only "chieftain." If this is so, then is it so outrageous to suggest that more than one man bore the title? Could "Vortigern" be a term more aptly applied to a dynasty than a man?
The first Vortigern may have been named Vitalinus. Him I credit with the marriage to Mascen Wledigs daughter (called Severa in the Welsh geneaologies), the enlistment of Cuneddas Votadini, the migration of the Cornovii to Dumnonia, and the hiring of the Saxons. The Pillar of Eliseg, in Wales, calls Vortigerns successor Britu. It is likely that "Vortimer" was a title, much like Vortigern, and meant something like "prince" or "heir apparent." That would make Britu the Vortimer who fought back the Saxons, and the second Vortigern. Britu, it seems, was responsible for the Night of the Long Knives, and the slaughtering of the British nobility. It was he who died "an ignominious death." There is a tale which says of this Vortigerns instructions to his soldiers, telling them to bury him overlooking the coast, with a statue of himself over it. This act, he said, would frighten the Saxons from ever taking that place. But, his instructions were ignored, and he was interred elsewhere.
So, this is the picture which emerges: following the end of Roman rule, the Comes Britannorum comes around long enough to set up "the Council," composed of the leaders of the civitates and other men of note. This "British Senate" is overthrown, Julius Caesar style, by an ambitious Welsh king named Vitalinus, who calls himself Vortigern, meaning "overlord." Enlisting federates, he drives back his enemies, until the federates rebel. His son, Britu, successfully fights them back. Not long after, Vitalinus dies during the visit of St. Germanus, and Britu is named Vortigern. He rules for a few years, until being captured after the Night of Long Knives. Another Vitalinus tries to assume the title, but is too incompetent, and is quickly overthrown by a Gallic army led by Ambrosius Aurelianus.
But, then again, I could be wrong (*).
The Vortigern Dynasty is Copyright © 1997, Jason Godesky. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: Jason Godesky
(*): The author has informed me that his views on this subject have changed since the writing of this article.
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