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Gildas and Vortigern
Robert Vermaat

Was Gildas the first to mention Vortigern by name or not? This article means to clear the picture by looking at the text of Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and attempting an interpretation.

A transcript of the relevant chapters can be found at this site.

It is difficult to get a clear picture about Vortigern from Gildas. There may be more to the DEB, for is very difficult when it comes to extracting information from it. Apart from mentioning only a handful of names, Gildas has a tendency to use aliases for several persons and ethnic groups, obviously to conceal any direct criticism and thus to avoid repercussions. He may even have used an alias himself! On a still deeper level, Gildas uses imagery drawn e.g. from Biblical texts or from the natural world. When dealing with Vortigern, it is necessary to dig through these three levels to get at information that seems not to be there at first sight.

The superbus tyrannus

At a first glance, Gildas does not mention Vortigern, only the probable pun on his name. This phrase, together with the occurrence of the name twice in Bede and once in manuscript (MS) A of Gildas but not in the oldest manuscript, MS C, has led to needless speculation among historians. The first time we come across this superbus tyrannus is in chapter 23:

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXIII

tum omnes consiliarii una cum superbo tyranno caecantur, adinuenintes tale praesidium, immo excidium patriae ut ferocissimi illi nefandi nominis saxones deo hominibusque inuisi, quasi in caulas lupi, in insulam ad retundendas aquilonales gentes intromitterentur Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nation

This superbus tyrannus is almost certainly an alias for someone else. In fact, it seems most likely that it was a pun on someone’s name, something Gildas does to the names of the kings of his own day as well. And when one realises that this the superbus tyrannus means almost exactly the same (it is usually translated with ’proud usurper’) as ‘Vortigern’ (which is a name –not a title- meaning ‘foremost ruler’), it is hard to defend the opinion that Gildas had anyone else. But can we be sure that Gildas never mentioned him?

Gildas and Vortigern

The textual history of Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is by no means established. The text which is used today, the last one edited by Winterbottom in 1978, all go back onto the version published by Mommsen in 1894. Mommsen used MS C, which was written at Canterbury in the 10th century, and which seemed not only the oldest copy, but the best kept as well. It does not contain Vortigern’s name, which has stuck in the minds of readers for the next century. However, this particular text may have been heavily edited, and therefore looks may betray, and the best quality may not be the most authenticity. In fact, there are a few later MSS that does give the name of Vortigern: MS A (Avranches MS 162, 12th C.), MS X (13th C.) and MS Cambridge Ff. I.27 (13th C.).

Here follows a historical oversight of texts of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and the use of the name of Vortigern in them:

  • Bibliothèque Nationale de Reims MS. 414 (probably 9th c.). This manuscript, unknown to Mommsen, has chapters 27 and 63, but also parts of 31, 42, 43, 46, 50 and 59. However, it contains no chapter 23. Dumville considers it the earliest manuscript-witness, which agrees in almost all but blunders with the Avrenches text (MS A).
  • Bede - De temporum ratione (725) and Historia Ecclesiastica (731). Strangely enough, our oldest witness for the probable use of Vortigern by Gildas is therefore Bede, who copied and sometimes paraphrased whole passages of DEB into his works. With the exception of a possible quote from c. 37, all quotes come from cc. 1-26. Bede used the name Vortigern twice: Vertigernus in his De Tempore Ratione (c.66), and Vurtigern/Uurtigern in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (1.14/2.5).
  • Corpus Glossary (770-800) and Leyden Glossary (790-800). These lists, which were in essence early Anglo-Saxon dictionaries of Latin, contain ‘Excidian’ words that were derived from the DEB. Vortigern is not mentioned, but the excerpts agree rather better with the Avranches text (MS A), which mentions Vortigern, against the Canterbury MS, which does not.
  • British Library MS. Cotton Vitellius A. vi (11th c.) – Mommsen’s MS. C. This text, created at St Augustine’s in Canterbury, was damaged in a fire in 1731 which destroyed much of the text. It formed the basis for Josselin’s edition of 1568 though, and Mommsen considered it the best one to use as a basis for his edition as well.
  • Avranches public library MS. 162 (12th c.) – Codex Abrincencsis, or Mommsen’s MS. A. It was in a very poor textual condition, which is why it was not used by Mommsen. However, it uses the phrase superbo tyranno Vortigerno.
  • Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27 (13th c.) – Mommsen’s MS. X. This manuscript, also called the ‘Cormac recension’, differs sharply from the others in that it has a shortened form of chapter 1, but also that it breaks off after chapter 26 and differs in many readings. This MS uses the term Gurthigerno Brittanorum duce.

To be completely honest, most of these above manuscripts are later and less complete as the MS mostly used as the basic form of the DEB, so that there remains a slight possibility of a later interpolation. But only a very slight one. Dumville is inclined to rely on the continental manuscripts, instead of relying solely on the Canterbury one, which Mommsen and his followers have done. He sees the strong possibility that we should in future reconstruct the text with the admission of Uortigerno (a perfectly acceptable 6th-century form) into it.

In any case Bede, who relied very much on Gildas, actually did use Vortigern at that point in the text, using the even older forms of Vortigern, Uertigernus and Uurtigernus (the primitive English form), which must also come from a written source. In an old chronicle-fragment which dates from 750-850 and continues a chronicle from Bede, the even older form of Uuertigernus is used. This may even be contemporary with Vortigern, which indicates that one of these authors (Gildas, Bede or this anonymous one) had access to written sources of the 5th century.

No other author has uttered any doubt about the identity of the ruler behind the Adventus Saxonum. The best interpretation seems to be that British *Wortigernos was the man's name, and only the fact that Mommsen's popular edition was based on manuscript C, which lacked it, gave rise to these speculations of interpolation by Bede or others in the first place. We have seen that Gildas may have written superbo tyranno Uortigerno after all, and that this may well be why it appeared in Bede. In any case, the point is that in calling him 'arrogant usurper' he was characteristically playing on the meaning of the British *Wortigernos in exactly the same way as he did with that of Aurelius Caninus, Vortiporius, Cuneglasus and Maglocunus.

Though I believe that this solution may be arguable, I think that there is enough proof (albeit circumstantial) to assume with a high degree of probability that Gildas, if not actually mentioning Vortigern by name, clearly had him in mind when writing his book. Strangely enough, it is not scholarly arguments that work most against the bastion of Mommsen’, but the internet! The most widely circulating edition of Gildas’ DEB, thanks to the public domain and Mommsen’s inaccessibility (he published in elitist Latin), is that from the mid-19th century scholar J.A. Giles. Giles did not accept the exclusion from Gildas’ work on different grounds, and included it in his edition. However, a word of warning must be added: Giles’s edition is badly translated, the Winterbottom edition of 1978 (though not online) is to be preferred above Giles’ one.

The ‘Pharaoh’ and the ‘princes’

Apart from the very name, Vortigern can also be deduced as being mentioned by Gildas. On the next, deeper level of his imagery, Gildas speaks about Vortigern through an alias. This alias is probably the Pharaoh, a term possibly used in allusion to the actions of Vortigern. There are three occasions where Gildas makes use of this word.

The first one is the most clear, as it describes the circumstances of the adventus Saxonum, where Gildas seems to indicate that the princes are the members of the Council which prompted Vortigern to invite the Saxons into Britain:

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXIII

quos propensius morte, cum abessent, tremebant, sponte, ut ita dicam, sub unius tecti culmini inuitabant: ‘stulti principes’, ut dictum est, ‘taneos dantes pharaoni consilium insipiens’. tum erumpens grex catulorum de cubili laeanae barbarae, tribus, ut lingua eius exprimitur, cyulis, nostra longis nauibus, secundis uelis omine auguriisque, quibus uaticinabatur, certo apud eum praesagio, quod ter centum annis patriam, cui proras librabat, insideret, centum uero qunquaginta, hoc est dimidio temporis, saepius uastaret, euectus, primum in orientali parte insulae iubente infausto tyranno terribiles infixit ungues, quasi pro patria pugnaturus sed eam certius impugnaturus Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof. Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh. A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in three ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favourable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same. They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky tyrant, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but alas! more truly against it

This is very much clear, the ‘unwise pharaoh’ is Vortigern, by which Gildas sets Vortigern on a higher level as the princes at the same time. Also, the ‘unwise’ Pharaoh is perfectly counterbalanced by the ‘unlucky’ tyrant, adding to Gildas' opinion about Vortigern, not as an evil usurper, but sooner a misguided and unfit king.

The second time the title is used is somewhat more obscure. Again, the Pharaoh is misguided, as his army is wilfully urged into the Red Sea (destruction) by the ‘five horses’, the frantic followers of Pharaoh.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXXVII
And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, "Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; "I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses [kings], the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon. Let, therefore, God's holy prophets, who are to mortal men the mouth of God, and the organ of the Holy Ghost, forbidding evils, and favouring goodness, answer for us as well now as formerly, against the stubborn and proud princes of this our age, that they may not say we menace them with such threats, and such great terrors of our own invention only, and with rash and over-zealous meddling.

As these ‘horses’ can hardly be anyone else as the kings that Gildas has admonished before (DEB 37 follows the attack on Maglocunus), can we possibly identify this Pharaoh with Vortigern? I think we can, barring that Gildas' attack on the five contemporary kings should be seen as a comparison to earlier times. Gildas denunciation the kings is based on their (in his eyes stupid) repeating the mistakes of their forefathers, who had unwisely counselled Vortigern. To that end, Gildas explicitly uses the phrases 'the miseries of our time' and 'the stubborn and proud princes of this our age' to make that clear. In other words, Gildas might say here that the five kings are continuing the detestable politics of their ancestors and Vortigern, to the demise of the British.

The third time that ‘Pharaoh’ is used in a Biblical quote, which does not refer to anyone specifically.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae LXXVI
Thus saith our Lord; I have manifestly showed myself unto the house of thy father, when they were the servants of Pharaoh in Egypt, and have chosen the house of thy father out of all the tribes of Israel, for a priesthood unto me.

Concluding, if we read ‘Vortigern’ for ‘Pharaoh’ in two of the three times Gildas uses the title, we can deduce a little bit more from the text. The unwise councillors to Pharaoh almost certainly point to the Council and Vortigern! If correct, we might propose that this Council consisted of ‘princes’, by which Gildas means the political leadership of his day. In Vortigern’s time, these people were still the leaders of the Roman civitates, who themselves were a Roman continuation of the prehistoric British tribal society.  By Gildas’ day, these civitates were evolving rapidly into sub-kingdoms, with kings or tyrants (usurpers) like Vortigern exerting power over most or all of them.

The exactness of this information is debatable because of the vagueness of the language (probably the reason why Gildas, afraid of persecution, used it in the first place!), and therefore subject to interpretation. But on the ground presented above, I choose for the interpretation in which Gildas hides far more information about Vortigern through his frequent use of imagery.

The ‘unworthy king’: Saul and the Gibeonites

On a third level, Vortigern appears in a direct comparison with the ancient Israelites. Gildas did not use this comparison between the Israelites and the Britons by chance. The parallels are obvious and meant to be just that. Like the Israelites, Gildas tells the Britons that they were chosen by God, but had trespassed and were punished in the same way. The current predicament of Britain was modelled upon that of Israel during the time of Jeremiah, whose laments are the single most used source for Gildas’ quotes. Like Israel, Gildas tells his audience, the Britons must suffer death and destruction, because of the sins they committed.

The first quote and the most important is the comparison of a treaty (foedus) between the Israelites and the Gibeonites:

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae I
and again the breach of their treaty with the Gibeonites, though that treaty had been obtained by fraud, brought destruction upon many, and I took warning from the sins of the people which called down upon then the reprehensions of the prophets and also of Jeremiah, with his fourfold Lamentations written in alphabetic order.

In this model, Gildas used Saul as a role-model for Vortigern. Saul was the first king of the Israelites after their subjugation by the Egyptians, as Vortigern was to the Britons after their domination by Rome ended. Israel was tricked into a treaty (foedus) with the Gibeonites, as the British were ‘tricked’ into a foedus with the Saxons. Like Saul tried to exterminate the Gibeonites afterwards, so did Vortigern and his sons make war on the Saxons (though Gildas does not mention that).

The opinions about this identification differ amongst scholars. Higham does not see a comparison between Gildas and Saul, whereas Sims-Williams does, largely on the basis of Gildas’ comparison of the treaties with the Gibeonites and the Saxons. Higham believed that the treaty was different from that with the Saxons, as it was the Israelites that broke the treaty. However, Gildas seems to indicate that it were the Britons who refused the Saxons, thereby in effect breaking the foedus. This was also the opinion in the middle ages, when Vortigern's son Vortimer was held responsible for attacking the Saxons first. Higham did notice the comparison of the ‘unworthy king’, whose transgressions would prove disastrous for his entire dynasty, but he looked to David rather than to Saul (I will return to this later). Sims-Williams based his opinion on the adversity between Israel and the Gibeonites, Higham on the threat of the Philistines.

In a second quote, the unworthiness of Saul and the unlawfulness of his first kingdom is accentuated:

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXXVIII
And first of all appears before us, Samuel, by God's commandment, the establisher of a lawful kingdom, dedicated to God before his birth, undoubtedly known by marvellous signs, to be a true prophet unto all the people, from Dan even to Beersheba, out of whose mouth the Holy Ghost thundereth to all the potentates of the world, denouncing Saul the first king of the Hebrews, only because he did not accomplish some matters commanded him of our Lord, in these words which follow: "Thou hast done foolishly: neither yet hast thou kept the commandments of our Lord thy God, that he hath given thee in charge; which if thou hadst not committed, even now had our Lord prepared thy reign over Israel for ever, but thy kingdom shall no farther arise.

This makes again clear how Gildas thought of Vortigern: he was the first king of a free Britain, but he committed sins against God by not following certain commandments. In other words, Vortigern had sinned against the church, at least in Gildas’ eyes, rather than occupied a throne that was not his to take. Only the exact nature of these sins are withheld by Gildas, but it is clear that his kingdom was over, like that of Saul, which agrees with later sources. If we were to compare Saul’s eldest son Jonathan with Vortigern’s eldest son Vortimer, we notice that both are looked upon favourably (Vortimer was ‘blessed’ by Germanus), but neither may rule after their father, for the kingdom is given to a new favourite. In the Bible this is David, in Gildas’ case it is Ambrosius Aurelianus.

In the light of this reasoning, we can make a better judgement about the imagery that Gildas used: were the Saxons based on the Gibeonites or the Philistines, and was Vortigern based on David rather than Saul? In this I tend to follow the reasoning of Sims-Williams, rather than that of Higham. Both see Gildas’ comparison of Britain with Israel, but differ in the person of the ‘unworthy king’. Though Higham opts for David, he recognizes the condemnation of Saul by Samuel as minimal, compared to the crimes committed by Gildas‘ five kings. However, the identification of the ‘first king’ could hardly be any other than Vortigern, even more so because the rest of the comparison fits as well. David was chosen over Saul, disinheriting Jonathan. This does not compare to anything we know of Vortigern, but would fit Ambrosius Aurelianus.

The question is rather theoretical, but interesting nonetheless; if David rather than Saul was the ‘unworthy king’, who then was Solomon – could Vortimer have been held in such high regard? And what does that make Ambrosius Aurelianus? I think that this comparison, if meant to be taken literally, would fit much better if we compare Saul-Jonathan-David-Solomon to Vortigern-Vortimer-Ambrosius-(dare I say it) Arthur. Therefore, I would identify the ‘unworthy king’ Saul with the ‘unworthy king’ Vortigern.

What was Vortigern’s position in matters of power? How does Gildas present Vortigern to us? What Gildas does not do is describe Vortigern as a sole ruler, or a ‘High King’ if you will. He rules as a king, but together with a Council, the members of which are rulers of their own territory. Gildas sees this as a logical but reprehensible evolution from the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, which has seen the progressive disintegration of the British territory from one single state (diocese) into several smaller kingdoms without overlord in Gildas’ day.

Though in the days of Vortigern this was clearly not the case, and Vortigern’s decisions seem to be obeyed in the whole diocese. Dumville has proposed that there is nothing to suggest that Vortigern’s rule did not encompass the whole diocese. But Vortigern is not ruling alone, as observed above. He has power over magistrates, who later evolve into sub-kings or provincial rulers, but that power may have been wielded by the Council as a whole, for Gildas puts the blame with all of them. Gildas does not mention the Council in this function elsewhere, or so it seems. Gildas does seem to indicate, however, that the members of the council in the days of Vortigern had become the warring princes of his own days (see quote DEB 37, above).

What does Gildas mean when he describes Vortigern as a tyrant? The usual explanation is that Vortigern was an illegitimate ruler, a usurper. This seems confirmed by Gildas’ use of tyrannus where Magnus Maximus is concerned, who indeed usurped the imperial throne. But Gildas uses the same word with Diocletian, who never was a usurper. What did this word mean to Gildas? Brooks thinks that Gildas used the word also when he described activities against the church, as Diocletian engaged in a ‘nine-year persecution’ of the Christian church. And since Vortigern’s rule with the council seems legitimate, at least temporarily, Brooks believes that Gildas meant that Vortigern had engaged in such activity as well. This might be the undisclosed ‘sin’ that Gildas mentions when he compares Vortigern to Saul (above).

When we take into account all the possible references about the tyrannus, the Pharaoh or Saul, we may find that his view of the superbus tyrannus is not negative, but almost positive. Though he is judged for being careless and lacking foresight, he is labelled infaustus (unlucky) only. Though he is judged ‘unworthy’, this is only because he neglected some of God’s commandments. This is all very mild, considering Gildas’ views on the Saxons and the hindsight Gildas had on the disaster that resulted from the tyrannus’ policies. But Gildas does not mention any vices, nor any other lacking in character, nor crimes that he does accuse the contemporary rulers of! Neither does he accuse Vortigern of paganism, or worse, heresy.

What can we deduce from this? Vortigern seems to be balanced between the person of Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is praised almost into heaven by Gildas, and the five kings of his day, who are generally vilified for their vices. Later authors were not so kind. Later Welsh sources, following tradition or just the Historia Brittonum, had much worse things to say. Either Gildas did indeed have little information at all, or we may safely accept that Vortigern was neither a pagan, nor a heretic, nor too bad a person.


  • Bachrach, Bernard S. (1988): Gildas, Vortigern and Constitutionality in Sub-Roman Britain, in: Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 32, 1988, pp. 126-140.*
  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (Cardiff).*
  • Dark, Kenneth R. (1994): Civitas to Kingdom, British Political Continuity 300-800, Studies in the Early History of Britain, (Leicester).*
  • Dumville, David N. (1995): The Idea of Government in Sub-Roman Britain, in: Ausenda, After Empire, pp. 177-217.*
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, Latin and trans. M. Winterbottom, History from the Sources 7, (Old Woking 1978).*
  • Gildas: De Excidio Brittonum, trans. John Allan Giles, in: Six Old English Chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals (London, George Bell and Sons, 1891), full text (English) at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/gildas-full.html.
  • Gildas: The de excidio Britonum (The Ruin of Britain): ed. and Latin Keith Matthews (2000), based on Mommsen's version, at: http://www.kmatthews.org.uk/history/gildas/frames.html.
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain &c., ed. and trans Hugh Williams, in: Cymmrodorion Record Series, No. 3. (1899), at: http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/gildas_02_ruin_of_britain.htm
  • Higham, Nicholas J. (1994): The English Conquest, Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century, (Manchester).*
  • Jackson, Kenneth H. (1982): Varia: 2. Gildas and the Names of the British Princes, in: Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 3, pp. 30-40.*
  • Jones, Michael E. (1996): The End of Roman Britain, (Cornell).*
  • Miller, Molly (1976-7): Shorter Article: starting to write History - Gildas, Bede and 'Nennius', in: The Welsh History Review 8, pp. 456-465.*
  • O'Sullivan, Thomas D. (1978): The De Excidio of Gildas, its Authenticity and Date, Columba studies in the Classical Tradition 7, (Leiden).*
  • Sims-Williams, P. (1983): Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons, in: Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 6, pp. 1-30.*
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*
  • Thompson, E.A. (1979): Gildas and the History of Britain, in: Britannia 10, pp. 203-226.*

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