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The Problem of Caer Guorthigirn

Michael Veprauskas

first published on
Early British Kingdoms

In section 40[1] of Nennius' "Historia Brittonum", we read of Vortigern's attempt to "build and fortify a city to defend" himself against his enemies, and his inability to do so at what is now called Dinas Emrys. In the Mabinogion tale "Lludd and Llevelys", this same "Dinas Emreis, though before it had been Dinas Ffaraon Dandde" is mentioned. Ffaraon Dandde is translated as "flaming pharaoh" and cited as a possible ''reference to Vortigern". Indeed, this statement recalls both the legend of High King Vortigern's demise in his city of Caer Guorthigirn as told by Nennius and the Gildas' reference to "the proud tyrants" council, "giving foolish advice to Pharaoh". At root here is an old Celtic Church tradition that Vortigern, like the Pharaoh of Exodus, were both chastised by God for their foolish behaviour. Indeed, Vortigern was viewed as merely the instrument of God's will by both Nennius and Gildas.

"And let him that reads understand, that the Saxons were victorious, and ruled Britain, not from their superior prowess, but on account of the great sins of the Britons: God so permitting it."

"For what wise man will resist the wholesome counsel of God? The Almighty is the King of Kings, and the Lord of lords, ruling and judging every one, according to his own pleasure."[2]

Later, we have Vortigern assigning Ambrosius "that city, with all the western provinces of Britain, and departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a city which, according to his name, was called Cair Guorthigirn." The Latin text here has "Guuennessi" (people of Gwent) as the area were Vortigern built his city, i.e. Gwent. The similarity of Guuennessi with Gewissei later led Geoffrey[3] to imply kinship of Cerdic of the West Saxons with Vortigern or his Title.[4] It is also at the basis of the tradition, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, for the identification of the Little Doward hill fort of "Genoreu" (Ganarew) as the scene of High King Vortigern's demise, at the city of Vortigern.

After the slaughter of the British elite by the treachery of Hengist (chapter 47), Vortigern flees "for refuge to the province Guorthegirnaim, so called from his own name..." pursued by St. Germanus. It is quite likely that a Royal Center at Caer Beris is referred to here, recently identified as the "Caer Peris" of the Nennius manuscript by David Nash Ford.[5]

That is, the seat of the Royal Houses of Buelt and Guorthegirniaun. That the manuscript records the city as "(P)eris" instead of "(B)eris" speaks for its antiquity through use of an ancient form.

Vortigern, however, after a stay of some 40 days and nights (clearly a biblical allusion here!), flees again "to the Kingdom of the Dimetę, where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guorthigirn." Obviously, the city referred to had been in existence for some time, and Vortigern merely fled to it for safety or other reasons.[6]

This Caer Guorthigirn may be identified with Caer Merddyn, at a crossing of the river Towy and the terminus of a major Roman road from the Caerwent and Gloucester areas; possibly Kidwelly, or most likely refers to both. Nennius, in section 14 of his work, states that the "Cetgueli" region of south-west Wales (Kidwelly) had been cleared of the Irish by Cunedda and his followers.

Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd, Little Doward (Ganarew) in Gwent, Caer Beris in Buelt, Caer Merddyn and Kidwelly on or near the river Towy in the Kingdom of the Dimetę? What we appear to be dealing with here is nothing less than a series of Royal Residences and Strongholds of High-King Vortigern! Any of which can accurately be labelled "Caer Guorthigirn"! Caer Merddyn, modern Carmarthen, most closely matches the Nennius' site as the scene of Vortigern's demise.

It is interesting to note, that most or all of these sites were actually refortified strongholds, and not built completely anew. Nennius, or his source material, was taking some liberty in stating that Vortigern "built a city".

These sections of the "History" have survived only in the form of folk memory, and are highly symbolic of greater events. The events in these chapters deal with Vortigern's attempt at providing for the security of the western areas of his kingdom. In Nennius' tale of the red and white serpents, the red one (symbol of Britain) eventually wins, and so presumably derives from an age in which the outcome of the struggle with the Anglo-Saxons was not irreversibly lost.

In what historical sequence was Dinas Emrys, and all the western provinces of Britain, turned over to Ambrosius? There were at least three time frames in which this was possible:

  1. Prior to c. 437/38 and the battle of Guoloppum, between Vitalinus and Ambrosius.
  2. After and as a consequence of this battle.
  3. Perhaps some 20 years after these events, in which case it would have been Ambrosius Aurelianus (son of Ambrosius the elder), who is referred to here. This is implied by the text of Nennius, where the fatherless boy is obviously Ambrosius the younger.

I personally favour the first choice. The genealogy lists of the Cunedda family, favours this setting. It denotes a time in which some discussion and compromise between Ambrosius and Vortigern was still possible. The picture that emerges here is that of Vortigern presiding over his council, probably derived from the old "concilium provincię", at which the means for providing for the defence of Britain was frequently discussed. Both Gildas and Nennius attest to the existence of such a council. Here Ambrosius the elder, a prominent member of the council, rises and states his factions objections to Vortigern's proposal of stationing German foederati in western Wales as a defence against Irish intrusions. He is perhaps speaking here as an appointed patron of the council, "patronus provincię Britannię." Others join in support, citing their objections to the movement of large bodies of German mercenaries through their domains en route to Wales. Also mentioned is the fact that western Wales, thinly garrisoned by native British troops (recall legends of St. Germanus in Wales) and far removed from any major British centre, would be ill equipped to assure foederati loyalty. Heretofore, in the eastern parts of the isle, the foederati had been placed in proximity to major British centres, e.g. York, Caister, and London.

In the face of this opposition to his plan, Vortigern withdraws his proposal and assigns the task of providing for the defence of western Britain to Ambrosius and the Council. "The King assigned him (Ambrosius) that city (Dinas Emrys), with all the western provinces of Britain...". Ambrosius' solution, in collaboration with the council and the tacit approval of Vortigern, was to transfer Cunedda and his sons and followers to north-west Wales, where over generations, they expelled the Irish and carved out kingdoms for themselves.

Dinas Emrys is probably a memorial to these events. Vortigern's inability "to build a city" actually represents a policy reversal in this part of Britain as well as possible military defeat at the hand of local Irish chiefs.

Several objectives were thus achieved through the transfer of Cunedda and the refortification of the various "Caer Guorthigirn's":

  1. The Irish were expelled or contained.
  2. Vortigern consolidated his power by establishing various Royal Residences and strongholds throughout Wales.
  3. Cunedda and/or Ambrosius were not permitted to extend their influence over all of western Wales, thus becoming too large a threat to Vortigern's sovereignty. Cunedda was employed to clear the Kidwelly area of the Irish, thus creating a buffer zone in south-west Wales, but not allowed to settle there.
  4. A possible recruitment area for Irish mercenaries was preserved (Dimetę), and at the same time -
  5. All of south Wales from the Towy to the Severn and beyond was secured, an area important to Vortigern as a power base, through ancestral ties (Gloucester) and a dynastic marriage (Severa).[7]

Caer Merddyn, on the west bank of the Towy in Dimetae, provided an ideal forward post for these last two objectives.

The Problem of Caer Guorthigirn is Copyright © 1998, Michael Veprauskas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Michael Veprauskas


[1] The following is based on Nennius' "Historia Brittonum" (History of the Britons) unless stated otherwise, sections 40-42 and 47.
[2] Nennius, section 45.
[3] Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Geoffrey Ashe.
[4] Ashe, see both his "Mythology of the British Isles" and "Kings and Queens of Early Britain".
[5] David Nash Ford's "Nennius' List of the Twenty-Eight Cities of Britain".
[6] As this episode is preceded by the revolt of Vortigern's Saxon foederati in the East and the collapse of his authority in much of his Kingdom, he may have been at Caer Merddyn to attempt recruitment of Irish mercenaries.
[7] See David Nash Ford's "The Ancestry of Vortigern Vorteneu" as well as section 49 of Nennius.

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