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Who was Vortigern?
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The deaths of Vortigern
Robert Vermaat

Vortigern dies in his flaming CastleThis article is about the death of Vortigern, or rather the problems with his death. In fact, Vortigern either died several deaths, or the exact time and manner of it are unknown. Possible duplications between Vortigern and his eldest son Vortimer could have contributed to this confusion. I will deal first with the way(s) in which he is supposed to have left this earth.


In this first of several versions of Vortigern’s death he is killed within a wooden fortress, Caer Guorthigirn on the Teifi, located at in Dyfed:

Historia Brittonum , chapter 47

Again Vortigern ignominiously flew from St. Germanus to the kingdom of the Dimetę, where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guothergirn. The saint, as usual, followed him there, and with his clergy fasted and prayed to the Lord three days, and as many nights. On the third night, at the third hour, fire fell suddenly from heaven, and totally burned the castle. Vortigern, the daughter of Hengist, his other wives, and all the inhabitants, both men and women, miserably perished: such was the end of this unhappy king, as we find written in the life of St. Germanus.


et iterum guorthigirnus usque ad arcem guorthigirni, quae est in regione demetorum iuxta flumen teibi, ignominiose abscessit. et solito more sanctus germanus eum secutus est et ibi ieiunus cum omni clero tribus diebus totidemque noctibus causaliter mansit et in quarta nocte arx tota mediae circa noctis horam per ignem missum de caelo ex improuiso cecidit ardente igne caelesti; et guorthigirnus cum omnibus, qui cum eo erant, et cum uxoribus suis defecit. hic est finis guorthigirni, ut in libro beati germani repperi.

This event is recalled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, though he locates the scene at the hillfort of Little Doward:

Historia Regum Britanniae, Book VIII, chapter 2
Aurelius Ambrosius, being anointed king of Britain, burns Vortigern besieged in a tower
……………..In pursuance therefore of this design, he marched with his army into Cambria, to the town of Genoreu, whither Vortigern had fled for refuge. That town was in the country of Hergin
(Ercing), upon the river Gania, in the mountain called Cloartius. …………Immediately, therefore, they set their engines to work, and laboured to beat down the walls. But at last, when all other attempts failed, they had recourse to fire, which meeting with proper fuel, ceased not to rage, till it had burned down the tower and Vortigern in it.

Another similar version has him killed within his fort in Nant Gwrtheyrn. Through St Germanus, God sent fire from Heaven to burn him, signified perhaps by a lightning storm. When the lightning struck the hall within the fortress (probably Tre'r Ceiri), Gwrtheyrn and his wives were killed.

Both stories are similar to the story in the Historia Brittonum, in which the tyrant Benlli is killed by fire from heaven through a miracle by St Germanus, probably at the hillfort of Foel Fenli in north Wales. This might very well indicate a common folktale, adapted to different people who had nothing in common, and who are by no means to be identified as one person. The origin of the tale could be the Biblical destruction of the sinners at Sodom and Gomorrha by fire from heaven, a popular theme of course for the devout and righteous.

The wanderer

In the other version, Vortigern broke his heart after opening the door for the Saxons. He lost his mind and roamed the mountains, which is a recurrent theme in Celtic literature:

Historia Brittonum , Chapter 48

48. Others assure us, that being hated by all the people of Britain, for having received the Saxons, and being publicly charged by St. Germanus and the clergy in the sight of God, he betook himself to flight; and, that deserted and a wanderer, he sought a place of refuge, till broken hearted, he made an ignominious end.


alii autem aliter dixerunt. postquam exosi fuerunt illi omnes homines gentis suae pro piaculo suo inter potentes et impotentes, inter seruum et liberum, inter monachos et laicos, inter paruum et magnum, et ipse dum de loco ad locum uagus errat, tandem cor eius crepuit et defunctus est, non cum laude.

Some accounts state, that the earth opened and swallowed him up, on the night his castle was burned; as no remains were discovered the following morning, either of him, or of those who were burned with him.


alii dixerunt: terra aperta est et deglutiuit cum in nocte, in qua combusta est arx circa eum, quia non inuentae sunt ullae reliquiae illorum, qui combusti sunt cum eo in arce.

This story, as 'Nennius' recalled it, may be the only link to a possible grave of Vortigern in Nevern, on the coast of Dyfed. A fifth-century gravestone there might have his real name (Vitalinus) inscribed on it in both Ogam and Latin.

Vortigern and his towerWhen

When did Vortigern die? There may have been some duplications in the stories about Vortigern and Vortimer. Vortimer originally fought beside his father in the battles after the Saxon revolt. But after Vortimer's death Vortigern returns, suffers a final humiliation and disappears again. This might be a duplication of Vortigern's actions or even mistaking Vortigern for Vortimer.

In the legends, Vortimer rebels after his father marries Rowena, Hengist’s daughter. Vortigern must then return after Vortimers death for the betrayal at Amesbury and disappear again. I consider it far more plausible that Vortigern reigned from 425 to a short time after 441, when a growing British resentment gave the federates cause to rebel and devestate Britain. Thus Vortigern is disgraced at Amesbury, after which Vortimer rebels and takes his place (sorry, no romantic stuff!). After several battles he dies, probably in 455 or 456, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentiones a great defeat of the Britons, who 'fled in great terror to London'.

If this date is correct, it would unnecessarily contract the episode (in which Vortigern returns to power and dies in Wales all in the same short time), to an unacceptable short timeframe. It is also possible that Vortimer reigns after his father, and actually invites Hengist as a counterforce against the rebellious federates. In this case the legend is true, but Vortigern was mistaken for Vortimer. If correct, Vortigern dies shortly after 441 and Vortimer around 455.

I think it unlikely though that the Dinas Emrys legend would have been about Vortimer originally. Vortimer might have been mistaken for his father in his conflict with the Saxons, but he has his own set of legends, portraying him quite different; he is a soldier, he is convincingly Christian, he is blessed by Germanus. His death is also quite distinct, in being poisoned by Rowena, his father’s or even his own wife. Vortigern must therefore be considered to have been the prototype for the otherwise legendary story of the confrontation with Merlin at Dinas Emrys (but see Saints on the move and the backgrounds of the Dinas Emrys legends for more on this).


  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. L. Thorpe, (Penguin, St Ives 1966).*
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*

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