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This 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 Vortigerns death he is killed within a wooden fortress, Caer Guorthigirn on the Teifi, located at in Dyfed:
Historia Brittonum , chapter 47
This event is recalled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, though he locates the scene at the hillfort of Little Doward:
Regum Britanniae, Book VIII, chapter 2
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.
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
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.
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, Hengists 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 fathers 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).
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