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Vortigern's ancestors are credited with the establishment of Gloucester (hence the name of his great-grandfather, Gloyw, referring to the city's British name, Caer Gloui). This is a bit of medieval etymology mixed with a misconception: Gloucester was established in the first century by the Romans for retirees from the second legion at Caerleon. However, as noted by David H.R. Sims in his "Troubles with Vortigerns",
"Even before the departure of Rome, the Irish subjected coastal and other areas of western Britain to raiding and settlement. Thus the foundation as reported by Nennius might refer to that of an Irish colony. Now this leads to a highly conjectural argument. It has long been argued that the Annals and the Historia passed through both Welsh and English hands - the confusion of the Welsh words for shield and shoulder is most often cited in support of this. However, it is curious that this is almost the sole example. Now, reading the genealogy, it would appear that Vortigern was the son of a family having a surname of Vitalis or similar. Indeed Morris suggested that the original text read 'Vortigern, who is Vitalis.' But this would seem unlikely, if only because the copyist would surely have been experienced enough to recognise the difference. But how would a later scribe deal with 'Gwyddyl,' 'an Irishman?' With uncertain and erratic orthography, it is not difficult to latinize this as 'Vitalis' or similar. In this case, the pedigree might read: - 'Vortigern the thin, Irishman, son of Irishman, son of Gloiu;' or 'Vortigern the thin, son of Irish, son of Irish.' In the former, the copyist, seeing the unfamiliar, automatically assumes that it is a part of the name sequence and applies the relevant filii. In passing, it should be noted that two Vortigerns are known to be buried in Ireland." Vortigern the Irishman? It makes sense; though he most likely hired Cunedda to fend off the Irish raiders, he never faced all-out war with the High King of Ireland, just raiding from petty kings. This would also back up the idea of "Vortigern the Nationalist."
His real name was Magnus Clemens Maximus, or as he was better known, Maximus Caesar. A Spanish soldier stationed in Britain, in 383 he was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers, at which time he crossed the Channel and conquered Gaul. For a time, he was recognized by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius 'the Great' as emperor of the West, save Italy. But in 388, he overstepped his bounds, invading Italy and capturing the rest of the Western Empire. Valentinian, the 'rightful' emperor, escaped to Constantinople, where he acquired Theodosius' aid. The Eastern Emperor thereupon invaded the West and defeated Maximus at Aquilea, restoring Valentinian. Later, Maximus became the legendary Welsh figure Mascen Wledig of Mabinogion fame, whose "daughter," Severa, was married to Vortigern. Several of Maximus' daughters were married to kings seeking to legitimize themselves, as Vortigern no doubt wished to do. However, Severa would have been at least thirty when she married him - middle-aged at that time - if she were Maximus' daughter. If she was related to him, she was most likely his granddaughter.
A great deal of controversy surrounds Vortigern, and very little is known definately. Nennius provides the most complete description of his life, but much of this has a "dual" quality - two wives, two deaths, etc. - that has given rise to the idea that there were actually two Vortigerns. The name seems to be a title; Brythonic for "Over-King." However, he is often also referred to as "Vortigern the Thin." If it is a title, why is there an ephitet? But then, could "the Thin" be in use to distinguish him from another Vortigern? Also, "Vortigern," like "Arthur," may not have been used much in Britain during the Dark Ages, but they are both found in Ireland at the time. Vortigern seems to have risen to prominence among the British kings about 425 CE. From all accounts, it seems he favored the "nationalists," that is, those Britons who favored the Celtic, as opposed to the Roman way of doing things. A long-standing tradition places him in Powys, one of the prime centers of Dark Age nationalism, while stories about his ancestors say he held power in Gloucester. And again, his wife Severa supposedly held claim to lands in southern Wales. If Vortigern actually held all of this - nearly all of Wales - he would indeed have been among Britain's greater kings. But then, all of these put together do bear a striking resemblance to the Roman province of Britannia Secunda. It wouldn't make much sense for our nationalist king to be a former Roman official, but it would make sense for him to have deposed a Roman official and taken control of his former domain. Soon after his ascension to Britain's "High Kingship," whether as head of an alliance of British kingdoms, or as Britain's most powerful ruler, Vortigern set about using the classic Roman strategy of hiring federates to defeat his enemies. He brought Cunedda south from Manau Gododdin to fight the Irish raiders in north Wales, and hired the English to fight the Picts who were planning an invasion of Britain. The plan worked well enough at first, but after the English had defeated the Picts, the British nobles most likely became loathe to pay them the promised amount. Vortigern tried several diplomatic moves in an attempt to maintain the peace, including the ceding of Kent and marriage to Hengest's daughter Rowena, but in the end, it was of no avail. In the first Saxon Revolt, the English ran free, raiding and pillaging Britain at will. The situation was so grim that the Gallic Chronicle recorded that Britain fell to the Saxons. But after a few years, Vortigern's son, Vortimer, rallied the British forces and defeated the English, driving them back into Kent and Thanet. However, Vortimer died before he could crush the English completely - tradition says he was poisoned by his stepmother Rowena. But this was soon after his final battle, in which both Vortigern's son Catigern and Hengest's brother Horsa supposedly died. Both sides would have wanted peace after such a battle, and according to Nennius' sequence of events, a meeting was what followed. But Hengest was a shrewd leader; the meeting ended in the infamous "Night of Long Knives." The old story about two sides coming unarmed, with one treacherously bearing some sort of weapon in secret, is in some way, each time, a retelling of this possibly historical event. Vortigern was spared on account of his marriage to Rowena, so we are told, and surrendered "three provinces of East, South, and Middle Sex" as ransom. There is no evidence for this, however, and most scholars feel it should be disregarded. Vortigern may well have been slaughtered with his followers, or he may have escaped, as Nennius says, "and, that deserted and a wanderer, he sought a place of refuge, till broken hearted, he made an ignominious end." There is a second story of his death, in which St. Germanus takes his child Faustus into his own care - a child Vortigern supposedly had by his own daughter - and with "all the clergy of Britain" pursues Vortigern to Cair Guothergirn. There, they pray for Vortigern's death, and are answered with hellfire from above. This story has all the trappings of classic medieval hagiography, and the part about Vortigern's incest seems to fit more with the demonization of a king whose folly brought about the Britons' destruction than it does with fact. It is interesting to note, however, that a cleric named Faustus was active in the generation following Vortigern's, and although his parentage is unknown, there is no reason why he can't be the infamous son of Vortigern.
Though phonetically resembling the possible title "Vortigern," Vortimer is actually a Welsh name, also spelled Gwerthefyr, often found in royal Welsh families. Nennius describes him with these words: "At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanct, and thrice enclosed them with it, and beset them on the western side. 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 ... 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." Nennius records older traditions, but admits himself that he is no historian. Tradition says that Vortimer was poisoned by his stepmother, Rowena, but it is unknown if this was before or after the Night of Long Knives. Some have suggested that Vortimer was, in fact, the "second Vortigern." This does seem to fit the evidence; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that "Hengist and Horsa fought Vortigern the king, in the place called Aegelesthrep, his brother Horsa was killed..." in the year 455. The dating seems to be off on this, as with many of the entries in the Chronicle, but the fact remains that it is Vortigern, not Vortimer, who leads the battle in which Horsa dies. Early Chronicle entries show us a Vortigern who favors the English; later, Vortigern becomes opposed to the English. It is possible this change of attitude may reflect a change of identity.
When Ambrosius became "High King" of Britain, he divided Vortigern's domain among his sons. This served two purposes: 1.) it divided the power base of a potential enemy, thus weakening his ability to strike, and 2.) at the same time made him out to be magnanimous, showing mercy to the sons of a fallen enemy. Pasgen, also known as Pascent, was given the much reduced kingdom of Buellt, including the sub- kingdom of Gwrtheyrnion, named for his father (Vortigern, in Welsh, is Gwrtheyrn). Tradition states that Pasgen harbored a vandetta against Ambrosius despite his "forgiveness," and later rebelled against him. Ambrosius' stratagem evidently succeeded, however, as the rebellion, if there was one, was readily put down.
Also known as Categirn, this son of Vortigern was slain in the battle of Epsford, alongside Horsa. His son, Cadell Ddyrnllug, was supposedly given the kingship of the much reduced kingdom of Powys after Ambrosius' ascension.
This would seem to be identical to the Britu of the Pillar of Eliseg. It is unknown if he ruled any kingdom in his own right, even though he is claimed at the progenitor of the Powysian ruling family. "Britu, moreover, (was) the son of Guorthigirn [Vortigern], whom Germanus blessed and whom Severa bore to him," the inscription reads. This is the extent of our knowledge of him. It is entirely possible that he was given the kingship of Powys rather than Cadell Ddyrnllug. It has been claimed by those who see "Vortimer" as a title that Britu, being so expounded in the Pillar's inscription, was the honored personage. As shown above, however, Vortimer is a name, not a title, and it is unlikely that Britu was him.
There is probably not a single character who figures more prominently in the early tales of the Anglo-Saxons than Hengest, the son of Wihtgils. Supposedly descended from Woden, the Teutonic form of the Nordic Allfather, Odin, Hengest's career as a Dark Age adventurer and freebooter doesn't seem that different from other barbarian leaders, like Odoacer. He appears in Scandinavian legends as an eorldorman fighting against the Jutes, though when he came to Britain, he was leading three "keels" (ships) of exiled Jutes. These were hired by the British "High King" Vortigern as federates to fight the Picts. During the course of the war, Hengest may well have become, as suggested by some, Vortigern's magister militum, or commander-in-chief, as Nennius' account seems to insinuate. Whether or not this was the case, Hengest seems to have been responsible for persuading Vortigern to hire more and more English mercenaries. In time, these federates triumphed over the Picts, and settled on the isle of Thanet, as promised to them by the agreement with Vortigern. This same agreement bound Vortigern to supply the English with foodstuffs and the like. However, the original agreement had been for three keels, whereas Thanet was now swarming with English. Vortigern was incapable of holding up his end of the bargain, and tensions grew. Vortigern tried to keep the peace by ceding Kent around 435, and marrying Hengest's daughter Rowena (despite Nennius' claim that Vortigern "loved her exceedingly," this would seem to be a political marriage to seal an alliance). But this only increased the tension in Britain, leading to the First Saxon Revolt, which probably began in 435 CE. The English, used more to raiding than to wars of conquest, made no attempt to keep what they plundered; it seems their bands roamed the countryside and wasted the cities, but moved on. According to Gildas, they raided as far west as the Irish Sea; such a range of activities seems to be confirmed by the destruction of Lincoln's gates at the same time. In this First Revolt, Hengest was almost undoubtedly a leading figure. When Vortigern's son, Vortimer, led the Britons against the English, Hengest was in the forefront. In one of the battles, at Epsford, both Hengest's brother Horsa and Vortigern's son Catigern died. Vortimer's campaigns confined the Revolt, but marked only the end of the first phase of a war that would last for centuries. After the death of his brother, Hengest shared the rule of Kent with his son, Aesc. This would make it seem that the dual monarchy was important in the early years of Kent. It seems that Vortimer inflicted a heavy blow against Hengest's Jutes, for the Kentish border remained relatively quiet for some time afterward, and, while Hengest is said to have led a handful of battles against the Britons after this time, they seem to be mostly border skirmishes. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hengest died in 488, when he was succeeded by Aesc.
It would seem that Hengest's daughter Rowena, the namesake of the Ivanhoe character, was quite a vixen. Gildas and Nennius insist that she seduced Vortigern, though their marriage seems to have been a political one to seal the treaty by which Hengest was given Kent. According to tradition, Vortimer, the valiant son of Vortigern who fought against the English, died before he could complete his victory, poisoned by his stepmother. It is unknown what happened to her after Vortigern's fall, though a purge of the old High King's family, including his second wife, does not seem at all implausible.
The Dynasty of Vortigern is Copyright © 1997, Jason Godesky. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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