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Who was Vortigern?
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The Name of Vortigern
Robert Vermaat

In all the articles of Vortigern Studies, I have opted for the more popular form of 'Vortigern'. Though I realize this is in fact the modern English form and I will most likely offend those of you who stick to Welsh and/or the more Celtic form of 'Gwrtheyrn', I believe it lies closer to the probably most original British form. Gwrtheyrn may be the modern Welsh form, but I believe it too difficult for those new to this subject and too far removed from the Late British *Wortigernos. As described below, the first known written forms of the name, possibly going back on a contemporary original, are Vortigern(o) and Vertigern(us). Consequently, I find 'Vortigern' a much better form to use.


The first to mention Vortigern is probably the sixth-century monk Gildas:

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXIII
Tum omnes consililiarii una cum superbo tyranno caecantur (then all the councillors, together with the arrogant usurper, became blind)

This is the reading from the oldest, most popularly used version of Gildas, the 10th century Canterbury MS C, used by Mommsen. Some of his manuscripts that do use the name are using later versions of it (below). The earliest form of the name that we know of is Uuertigernus, which comes from the Bern Codex 178, a short British chronicle, probably produced in France during the 9th century. This form is very archaic and must have come from sources contemporary with Vortigern himself, meaning sources older than Gildas! Isidore of Seville (fl. 620) shows some interpolations using the very old Vertigernus in his Chronica Maiora (sub anno passione 348), though this manuscript dates back only to the 15th century. Bede, who drew largely from Gildas, used Vertigernus in his Chronica Majora (De Tempore Ratione, III), a form which he also must have obtained from an early British source, whether this was a version of Gildas or some other, lost source. Bede also uses in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (I.14) the pre-literary English form of Uurtigerno, which must have been copied from a document written in the early 7th century.

At this point, the names begin to diverge into Welsh, Irish and English forms. The literary (Anglo-Saxon) form of the name is Wyrtgeorn. In English, Vorti- had become Uurt- due to sound-substitution of the unfamiliar vowel sequence o-i (in Vortigernus) by the familiar AS. u-i. This became *Wurtigern by the 7th century and finally Wyrtgeorn. The OW. Guorthigirn, as used in the Historia Brittonum, developed regularly from Vortigernus, wich later became MW. Gwrtheyrn. This is the form mostly used today. The Irish form of the name is Foirtchern(n), a name that also appears in Scotland. In Brittany the name is Gurthiern, a form related to the Welsh Gwrtheyrn.

5th C.




6th C.


Uertigernus or Uorthigernus




















Gildas, 6th C.: DEB, MS Avranches A 162, (later 12th C.): superbo tyranno Vortigerno.
Gildas, 6th C.: DEB, MS Cambridge X (13th C.): Gurthigerno Brittanorum duce.
Gildas, 6th C.: DEB, MS Rheims 414 (9th C.): agrees with A, but has no chapter 23.
Isidoris Hispalensis, 7th C.: CM (15th C.): Vertigernus.
Bede, 8th C.: DTR, 66: Vertigernus.
Bede, 8th C.: EH, 1.14/2.5: Vurtigern/Uurtigern.
'Nennius', 9th C.: HB 31 ff: Guorthigirnus.
French Annals, 9th C.: Bern Codex 178: Uuertigerno.
Pillar of Elise, 9th C.: Guarthi(girn).
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 9th C., sub anno 449: Wyrtgeorn.

Superbus Tyrannus?

As described elsewhere, Gildas does not seem to mention the name of Vortigern, only the probable pun on his name, superbus tyrannus, though some MSS of Gildas actually do mention him directly. This phrase, together with the occurrence of the name twice in Bede and once in manuscript A of Gildas but not in the oldest manuscript, C, had led to needless speculation among historians. The best interpretation seems to be that British *Wortigernos was the man's name, and only the fact that Mommsens'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 Vortigerno 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 Maelgwn.

Superbus tyrannus does not mean 'outstanding ruler' or 'high king' and is not the Latin translation of *Wortigernos. Latin superbus means 'arrogant', 'haughty' or 'proud', and most certainly not 'superior'. Latin tyrannos was borrowed from Greek and had always a nagative meaning of unconstitutionality or despotism.

The name Vertigernus or Vortigern means overlord or high lord (below). Gildas was punning it in his usual way, and getting an offensive meaning out of it, by rendering *wor not by Latin super but by superbus 'arrogant, proud', and *tigernos not by dominus 'lord' but by tyrannus 'despot, usurper'. But Gildas may have had yet more in mind with choosing this pun. To the latin reader, superbus had another meaning, namely that of the name of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the last (non-Roman) ruler of Rome before the Romans overthrew the hated monarchy. Afterwards their republic went on to dominate the world, and kings were never again allowed. Gildas might have indicated with this pun that he saw Vortigern not only as equally proud, but also as the first (non-Roman) king after the Romans!

Meaning: title or name?

Several authors (the Chadwicks, Frere, Alcock) have in the past expressed their views that *Wortigernos was a title of someone with a different name, or that it was a personal name but based upon a former title. These articles were the chief sources for popularizing the idea, which has since become a dogma and repeated. Various other mistaken rendering occurs elsewhere, such as 'high-king' and 'supreme ruler'. *Wortigernos is a compound of the British *wor, older *wer, a preposition meaning 'on, over'. Ver is identical with ‘over’ (AS. Ofer / EW. Guar / I. For / Gaulish Ver-). The part of -tigern is believed to be derived from the word for ‘house’ (W. ty, I. tech), though it is better know as the word for ‘king’. The most popular theories are that *Wortigernos was a title of rank similar to the Irish ard-ri 'high-king' (or more broadly, 'archduke' or 'generalissimo') and not a name at all, or that superbus tyrannus was Gildas' Latin translation of this elusive title.

Now it seems certain that *Wortigernos means 'overlord' and that translations such as high-chief, high-king, supreme ruler or chief ruler are quite mistaken, to assert that there ever was such a Celtic rank is pure fantasy! We know a good deal of Celtic law, the social system and the terminology, and nowhere in the Irish, Welsh or Gaulish systems is there anywhere such an actual rank as a *Wortigernos. No other Vortigern of his social status is mentioned in Welsh records, which also speaks strongly against its use as a title. On the other hand, though very rare it is a completely characteristic name of the Celtic vocabulary of personal names. Even more so, Welsh sources added an epithet (Gwrtheyrn Gwrteneu - Vortigern the Thin) which makes it clear they treated it as a personal name.

Other examples are St Kentigern (Cunotigernos 'Hound-like Lord'), Catigern (Catutigernos 'Battle Lord'), Tigernmaglus (Tigernomaglos 'Lordly Prince'), or Ritigern (Rotigernos 'Great Lord'). Other known personal names formed on other words for 'ranks' are also familiar, such as Vortimer (*Wortamorix 'Highest King') and the Anglized Tudor (the family of Henry the VIII), which stemmed from Tudyr (Teutorix 'King of the Tribe')! None of these or other name compounds in *tigernos or *rix or the like expressed social ranks as common-nouns. Aristocratic names in -rix are common in early Celtic without any implication that any of the holders of them were kings. Are we to believe then that such names, and *Wortigernos with them, did once express this? Or should we make an exception just for *Wortigernos? These names were given to children of members of royalty and the aristocracy purely as names to express their status as infants, not as grown-up titles.

His real name - Vitalinus?

But to muddle the waters a bit further, these names could also have been taken at a later stage in life. Names like Riothamus (Rigothamos: 'Most Kingly') and the (tribe of the) Bituriges (Biturigos: 'King of the World') express a desired status, though they are still names and not titles. The very well known modern equivalents are Stalin ('Of Steel') and Atatürk ('Father of the Turks'), which were both taken by political usurpers who wanted a new political identity. Stalin needed to obscure his Georgian background, Atatürk wanted to express his political goal. Likewise, Vortigern may have chosen his name himself at a certain point in his career (probably at his accession), to express such a political point.

Why did he choose a Celtic name? This may say a lot about the people he tried to woo with his choice. Vortigern's background was completely Roman, and though his parents may of course have given him this name, it is unlikely that they had their eyes already on the throne at such an early point in history. Vortigern's policies however were anti-Roman, in the sense that he acted to strengthen an independent Britain; he did not call for help from the continent as his predecessors did, but developed a British policy for a British defence. The later conflict with Ambrosius has been interpreted as a conflict between a pro- and an anti-Roman party, and this interpretation may be correct. Vortigern's quarrels with St Germanus, though mostly legendary, might also have stemmed from the conflict between an insular and a continental Catholic church.

Apart from that, we should not forget that the mass of the Romano-British population did not speak Latin, but mostly British with Latin at best as a second language. Had Vortigern wanted to appeal to them instead of the pro-Roman landowning class, he could hardly have taken a better name. Most of the wealthiest landowners were absentees, meaning that the richest only had enormous estates in Britain, but did not live or spend money there. The middle class and small landowners may have taken a totally different view of the ties between Rome and Britain (a feeling of independence, like we see developing in Gaul during the fifth century). Vortigern may have been the new 'local' man that succesfully cut the ties between Britain and Rome.

The only question then remains: what was his original name? I truly think that the best candidate is Vitalinus. This Vitalinus is a name well known from his family pedigree as given by the Historia Brittonum. Vortigern's father is called Vitalis, his grandfather Vitalinus: both may point to a Gens-name of Vitalinus. A Vitalinus is also mentioned by the Historia Brittonum in the context of Vortigern's reign, as one of two people fighting a battle at Guoloph, probably Wallop in hamshire. One of these is Vitalinus, the other is Ambrosius. Since the latter is also the opponent of Vortigern in later legend (the story of Dinas Emrys), the conclusion may be that this Vitalinus is none other than Vortigern. Geoffrey of Monmouth, though a very late and difficult source, has a bishop with that name play a very similar part in the years after the Roman occupation. I will elaborate this theory in the article about Vitalinus.


  • Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. L. Shirley-Price, (St Ives 1990).*
  • Chadwick, H.M.: The End of Roman Britain, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 9-20.*
  • Chadwick, H.M.: Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, N.K. et al: Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).*
  • Chadwick, N.K.: A Note on the Name Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 34-46.*
  • Chadwick, N.K.: Bretwalda-Gwledig-Vortigern, in: The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XIX, 1962, pp. 225-230.*
  • Dumville, D.N.: A new chronicle-fragment of early British history, in: English Historical Review LXXXVII, 1973, pp. 312-314.*
  • Dumville, D.N.: Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, in: History CXII, 1977, pp. 173-192.*
  • Frere, S.S.: Britannia, a History of Roman Britain, (Chatham 1967, repr. 1992).*
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, Latin and trans. M. Winterbottom, in: History from the Sources VII, (Old Woking 1978).*
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Jackson, K.: Language and History in Early Britain, (Edinburgh 1953).
  • Jackson, K.: Gildas and the Names of the British Princes, in: Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies III, 1982, pp. 30-40.*
  • Ralegh Radford, C.A.: Vortigern, in: Antiquity XXXII, 1958, pp. 19-24.*

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