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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > Who was Vortigern > Vitalinus

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Who was Vortigern?
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Robert Vermaat

The career of Vortigern before he usurped the throne has always eluded us. Was he the last Roman governor of Britannia Prima, the last Vicarius of Britain or just some upstart highland chief? Simultaneously, we have been looking for the real name of Vortigern. Though it has been established that ‘Vortigern’ is a name, not a title, he has always been linked with the name of Vitalinus, which may or may not have been the name of his family. The purpose of this paper is to establish the connection between Vortigern and the person or persons with the name of Vitalinus, and one such person in particular and to propose that Vortigern was in fact the same as this 'Vitalinus'.

Vitalinus - Guitolinus

The name Vitalinus appears in several versions, who differ quite a lot through regional evolution: Guitolin, Guithelin, Guethelinus, Guizelin, Gutthelino, or Kyhylyn. The first of these we encounter in the Historia Brittonum, where it occurs both in Vortigern’s pedigree and in a note concerning the battle of Guoloph.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 49

49. This is the genealogy of Vortigern, which goes back to Fernvail, who reigned in the kingdom of Guorthegirnaim, and was the son of Teudor; Teudor was the son of Pascent; Pascent of Guoidcant; Guoidcant of Moriud; Moriud of Eltat; Eltat of Eldoc; Eldoc of Paul; Paul of Meuprit; Meuprit of Braciat; Braciat of Pascent; Pascent of Guorthegirn (Vortigern); Guorthegirn of Guortheneu; Guortheneu of Guitaul; Guitaul of Guitolion; Guitolion of Gloui. Bonus, Paul, Mauron, Guotelin, were four brothers, who built Gloiuda, a great city upon the banks of the river Severn, and in British is called Cair Gloui, in Saxon, Gloucester.


haec est genealogia illius, quae ad initium retro recurrit. fernmail ipse est, qui regit modo in regionibus duabus buelt et guorthigirniaun, filius teudubir. teudubir ipse est rex bueltiae regionis, filius pascent, filii guoidcant, filii moriud, filii eldat, filii eldoc, filii paul, filii mepurit, filii briacat, filii pascent, filii guorthigirn guortheneu, filii guitaul, filii guitolin, filii gloui. bonus, paul, mauron tres fratres fuerunt filii gloui, qui aedificauit urbem magnam super ripam fluminis sabrinae, quae uocatur brittannico sermone cair gloiu, saxonice autem gloecester.

In this pedigree, both Vortigern's father and grandfather are called Vital(in)us, which may point to a family-name. This is a normal, though somewhat rare Latin name. It is also connected to Vortigern in chapter 66, where (a) Vitalinus is one of the parties fighting at Guoloph, probably in Hampshire:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 66

And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitolinus and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guolopum, that is Catgwaloph. Vortigern reigned in Britain when Theodosius and Valentinian were consuls, and in the fourth year of his reign the Saxons came to Britain, in the consulship of Feliz and Taurus, in the four hundredth year from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.


et a regno guorthigirni usque ad discordiam guitolini et ambrosii anni sunt duodecim, quod est guoloppum; id est catguoloph. guorthigirnus autem tenuit imperium in brittannia theodosio et ualentiniano consulibus et in quarto anno regni sui saxones ad brittanniam uenerunt felice et tauro consulibus quadringentesimo anno ab incarnatione domini nostri iesu christi.

Though this passage is much more famous for its mentioning of the Adventus Saxonum, it is also very interesting because of the dating and the suggestion of a possible underlying source, as I have proposed elsewhere. The mentioning of a first, fourth and twelfth year points to a set of annals that deals with events in the reign of Vortigern. It is clear that Guoloph was a battle that involved Vortigern. The date of this battle is the year 437, and though it is not absolutely clear that Vitalinus was the opponent of Ambrosius, the latter's dealings with Vortigern as an enemy in other stories has given many commentators cause to believe that he was. Some historians have made Vitalinus into a 'kinsman' of Vortigern, others into a successor, but all have recognised the connection between both names. Added to the family name in his pedigree I believe I can propose that both names related to the same man, as I have proposed in my article about the name of Vortigern.

Vitalinus - Guithelin

These persons are all connected to a person named Guithelin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. This Guethelin(us) is archbishop of London, and when the Romans leave Britain he is invested with the responcibility for the British defence at a meeting of the British representatives. Guithelinus (L. Vitalinus) is commanded by the departing Romans to make speech to encourage the Britons (but since Geoffrey loves speeches one should probably nor look too much for any real historicity here):

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 2
As soon as they (the Romans) had given them this exhortation, they commanded all the men of the island that were fit for war, to appear together at London, because the Romans were about to return home. When, therefore, they were all assembled, Guethelin, the metropolitan of London, had orders to make a speech to them, which he did in these words:--

This is followed by material directly from Gildas and Bede, about the Romans leaving aid for the British defence:

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 3
After this the Romans encouraged the timorous people as much as they could, and left them patterns of their arms. They likewise commanded towers, having a prospect towards the sea, to be placed at proper distances along the all the south coast, where their ships were, and from whence they feared the invasions of the barbarians.

Then the Romans leave forever, and the barbarians invade Britain. The British seek Roman help:

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 3
Again, therefore, the wretched remainder send letters to Agitius, a man of great power among the Romans, to this effect. "To Agitius, thrice consul, the groans of the Britons." And after some few other complaints they add: "The sea drives us to the barbarians, and the barbarians drive us back to the sea: thus we are tossed to and fro between two kinds of death, being either drowned or put to the sword." Notwithstanding this most moving address, they procured no relief, and the ambassadors returning back in great heaviness, declared to their countrymen the repulse which they had suffered.

But the Romans send no more help (this is of course exactly as Gildas and Bede describe events), and the British 'government' must look for aid elsewhere. At this point the story becomes totally original and leaves Gildas' as a source. Guithelin is commanded to seek military support abroad. He goes to Brittany, where the reigning king Aldroenus is himself a Briton:

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 4
Hereupon, after a consultation together, Guethelin, archbishop of London, passed over into Lesser Britain, called then Aremorica... At that time Aldroen reigned there, being the fourth king from Conan, to whom, as has been already related, Maximian had given that kingdom. …(followed by a speech from Guethelin)…
To this Aldroen made answer:.."I have a brother called by that name, who is an expert soldier, and in all other respects an accomplished man. If you please to accept of him, I will not refuse to send him with you, together with the said number of men; for indeed a larger number I do not mention to you, because I am daily threatened with disturbance from the Gauls." … In short, the ships being got ready, the men who were chosen out from all parts of the kingdom, were delivered to Guethelin.

Adventus Saxonum

Before we follow the story any further, we should look closely at the events described by Geoffrey, for they hold the key to any link between Vortigern and this Guithelin. When compared to Gildas and Bede, these events seem uncannily like those of the original Adventus Saxonum (the ‘Coming of the Saxons’). Gildas relates (and Bede repeats) that the Romans leave Britain, but that invaders return and devastate Britain. The British seek aid from ‘Agitius’, but to no avail. At this point, Gildas and Bede place the actions of Vortigern and the Council, who agree to hire three boatloads of Germanic mercenaries. Later legend makes Hengist, Horsa and the Saxons of them, but both Gildas and Bede stick to these basics, basics that are uncannily like those in the story of Guithelin - a Council calls for a 'strong man, who invites soldiers from abroad! This is even more surprising when we find that Geoffrey follows the whole history about Guithelin and Constantine with another one; this time the more traditional legend of Vortigern and Hengist!

Geoffrey might thus have written about the Adventus Saxonum twice. Close examination of the elements of the narrative reveal several similarities between Gildas’ version of the Adventus Saxonum and Geoffrey’s relief expedition from Armorica. Do we have here a warped duplication of the Adventus Saxonum as described by Gildas? Or might it even be a shadow of the real historic event where the British, rebuffed by Honorius, managed to drive off or defeat the invaders of 409-410?

I will propose here that the bare elements of Geoffrey’s narrative seem to be echoed in Gildas’ description of the events. The elements of the Adventus as related by Gildas consist of a string of invasions, followed by Roman military rescue, after which some defensive structure is built (two walls and signal towers) Then the Romans depart for the last time, after which a further disaster makes foreign forces neccessary, which are invited by the superbus tyrannus, acting together with the leaders of Britain. The invited foreigners then fight and defeat the enemy. Yet this is almost mirrored in Geoffrey’s account:

  • A man of stature is elected to organise the defence of Britain (I will discuss Guithelin in more detail below).
  • He invites foreign soldiers that fight and defeat the enemy.

The troops invited seem British though (whereas Hengist is a Saxon) and the enemy are Picts as well as Saxons (where Gildas has only Saxons), but these differences are no problem. They can be explained by Gildas' fixation on the Saxons as the prime enemy and oppressors of his country, whereas the Picts were far away and not a threat. Explaining the ethnicity of the soldiers coming to the aid of the British is a little more difficult. We should keep in mind that Armorica was still a part of the Roman Empire in the first decades of the fifth century. No tribal forces have ever been claimed to have existed there before the late fifth century, which makes it impossible for any troops other than Imperial forces to be at the disposal of any Armorican ruler. The discussion about the ethnicity of the late Roman forces is still not concluded, bit it remains safe to say that a very large part (if not all) of the late Roman army consisted of soldiers of Germanic descent. So when we can’t envisage a Breton militia at such an early date, we can accept that any military force from Armorica was for the largest part a Germanic one, which seems to be confirmed by archaeology both on the continent as well as in Britain.

That Geoffrey mentions Picts as well as Saxons as the enemy does in fact speak in favor of him, for these are the enemies mentioned in all attacks on Britain from the late fourth century into the fifth. The Gallic Chronicles speak of Saxons in the attack of 409-410, where Gildas only mentions Picts. Yet I do not necessarily argue for any historical relevance here. Gildas probably only invented the so-called ‘Pictish Wars’ as a means to an end, namely in the first place as his warning sermon to the Britons not to trust in a foreign power but in God alone, mirroring the biblical events of Jeremiah. In the second as an explanation for the defensive structures in the north of Britain (The walls of Antoninus and Hadrian, as well as the signal stations on the Yorkshire coast), whose origin had slipped from the collective memory by the sixth century. Geoffrey may have known of the foreign attack around 410, which the British were able to defeat, and therefore he needed an explanation of how this was accomplished.

But I do argue here that Geoffrey did not invent all this by himself just to accomplish that explanation. The elements of this seemingly fantastic story are too much like that of Gildas, and as have shown not necessarily in conflict with his De Excidio. Therefore, I think it very well possible that different narratives existed of the events which led to foreign troops being invited to Britain . Gildas’ account may therefore very well have been a different account of the same event. Geoffrey did not recognize this and included both events in his story.

Guithelin AND Vortigern?

Proof of this theory comes from Geoffrey himself; he immediately follows this part of his narrative with the traditional story of Vortigern and the Adventus Saxonum - ALL OVER AGAIN! Geoffrey did not see both stories as two versions of the same event, let alone that he knew Vortigern and Guithelin as the same person. he had two events, one the classical legend of Vortigern and Hengist, which was known to and expected by his audience. The other was the Guithelin's mission, which he used to plug the gap between the Romans and Vortigern. This gave him some problems he couldn’t solve, as it becomes clear from the text that Geoffrey’s inserted this part between the departure of the Romans and the rise to power of Vortigern. These problems included:

  • an upset timeframe
  • the disappearance of Guithelin and
  • the disappearance of the Breton relief troops.

The first problem is that of the timeframe. The real Constantine III ruled AD 406-411, during which period the Britons threw out the (his?) Roman administration in 410, which leaves a gap of fifteen years to (an early) Vortigern. Geoffrey filled this gap by extending the rule of his Constantine, after which his Constans succeeded him (the real Constantine and Constans were both killed in 411).

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 5
They also married him to a lady … by whom the king had afterwards three sons, Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther Pendragon. … At last, after ten years were expired, there came a certain Pict, who had entered in his service, and under pretence of holding some private discourse with him, in a nursery of young trees where nobody was present, stabbed him with a dagger.)

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 7
And as for his two brothers, Uther Pendragon and Aurelius Ambrosius, they were only children in their cradles, and therefore incapable of the government.

This is a clear contradiction, for the brothers had been educated by Guethelin and at least ten years had passed, but they still seem to be infants. This does obviously not fit, but seems to have been necessary to fill the historic gap between Constantine III and Vortigern. Either Geoffrey failed to solve this by other means (leaving him with this contradiction), or it should be considered that he somehow couldn’t alter the story as available to him. This would mean that the figure of Guithelin and his role in the events around the 'End of Roman Britain' were possibly known to Geoffrey’s audience.

All authors who favour an early Vortigern have to fill the gap that falls between him and the next known person, that of Ambrosius Aurelianus. This problem has been solved in different ways and Geoffrey did it in part by extending the reign of (his version of) Constantine III and his son Constans.

Of course Ambrosius Aurelianus would still have been very young, but this solution would fit with the opinion that Geoffrey’s Arthur was modelled on the historical person of Riothamus. Ambrosius’ floruit would thus have been during the first half of the fifth century, while Geoffrey’s early Arthur succeeded him in the second half. Though this goes beyond this article, I would like to note that this solution would also support the Saxon revolt by 440x441 as presented in the Gallic Chronicle of 452.

The second tell-tale problem is the disappearance of Guithelin when Vortigern enters the scene.

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 6
Vortigern , consul of the Gewisseans, who was himself very ambitious of the crown, went to Constans … Archbishop Guithelin was then dead.

This is also very significant. Apparently Vortigern only enters the stage when Guithelin has left. Guithelin had to disappear as logical candidate for the throne, both as a rival of Vortigern or simply his adversary. Yet it seems strange that Geoffrey does not make more of this, given the traditional opinion among most historians that this is all his invention in the first place. To stress Vortigern’s reviled character even more, Geoffrey could easily have made him assassinate the archbishop as well as both Constantine and Constans, a storyline that would have appealed to his audience very much. The fact that Geoffrey did not do so might be considered as very telling, as does the different version of Guithelin’s disappearance that exists in other, admittedly even later versions, where he flees to Kent, Gaul or Wales. This obvious discrepancy tells us that it was not known how Guithelin died or how he disappeared from the scene. Could Guithelin and Vortigern have been the same personalities, duplicated by Geoffrey? Unwittingly of course, for it is clear that Geoffrey did not recognise the similarities between them.

And third, the Breton troops, so invaluable for the defence of Britain, are never seen again. Did they return home after the death of Constans? Hardly, for as we've seen above, they were almost certainly just Germanic mercenaries, without tribal ties to Brittany. It is as if it never happened.

Vitalinus - superbus tyrannus

Now we return to the person of Guithelin himself. Comparing the elements behind the actions of Guithelinus as presented to us by Geoffrey with those of the traditional Vortigern seems to uncover the same parallel as found above. As the invitation to Armorica seems to fit with Gildas' account, Gildas’ superbus tyrannus identification with Vortigern indeed may well act in the same manner as Geoffrey’s Guithelinus. Both are not acting alone, but through a mandate from the Britons. Guithelinus is elected by the 'warhost' and the superbus tyrannus rules with a council, both of whom might represent the same sub-Roman authorities.

One might argue of course that both accounts differ immensely, for the archbishop is nearly a saint (where the superbus tyrannus traditionally is a tyrant). But Gildas never relates the social position of his superbus tyrannus, who has alternatively been seen as the last British governor, a local ruler or a military commander. He could therefore have been a powerful ecclesiastic as well, which the example of Constans (the real son of Constantine III) supports. Neither does Gildas judge the character of his superbus tyrannus, calling him infaustus only. Though Vortigern was reviled by later (Welsh) sources, it seems to have been equally possible for medieval readers to accept him as a (Breton) saint! When this is compared to the possible identification of Vortigern with Guithelin, the same conclusion might be reached as with the elements of the Adventus Saxonum; that Geoffrey related the same story twice.

The person of Guithelin has a very interesting role in this story. Though nothing solid can be found about him, he may at least have been the same person as the one known in one (or several) traditions, appearing eventually in Vortigern’s pedigree, a tradition about a conflict with (an) Ambrosius and possibly even (a) version of the Adventus Saxonum. This person may have become entangled with the role assigned to Vortigern, or Vortigern may have usurped the role Guithelin once had. Geoffrey might only have borrowed the name of this person from the Historia Brittonum or possibly even had access to more solid material about him. However, the fact remains that the role of Guithelin is too much alike that of Vortigern to simply state Guithelin was invented by Geoffrey. I propose therefore that in his day some sort of tradition existed about a Guithelin who got military help from Armorica. I would not go so far as to say that this was the only story circulating, let alone that this was neccessarily the original Adventus Saxonum. What I do propose is that somehow Guithelin’s role was so much fixed that Geoffrey had to accept some difficulties that he could not alter.

The Vitalianus Stone in Nevern, dated to the 5th Century. It bears the inscription "Vitalianus Emereto", meaning: 'to the memory of Vitalinus'.Hardly any scholar nowadays has seemed prepared to air an opinion about Guithelin, apart from John Tatlock, who completely denied the veracity of this part of the text. He and others have noticed the similarity in names between the archbishop and a Guitolin in the Historia Brittonum (above). Tatlock pointed to the possibility that Geoffrey 'just borrowed' the name for his archbishop from there. I feel this remains unconvincing, for it is only tenable because the name occurs nowhere else. To the contrary, the rarity of the name should encourage us to look for a link between these persons!

The Historia Brittonum supports an unknown connection between Vortigern, Guitolin and Ambrosius. In chapter 66, the Calculi or Chronography, ‘Guitolin’ seems to be fighting Ambrosius at Guoloph. Yet this Vitalinus has in his turn been identified with Vortigern himself by equating him with at least a relative, based on the latter’s pedigree in the Historia Brittonum where the name appears as his paternal grandfather. Vitalinus might thus have been the name of Vortigern’s family, or even his own name. ‘Vortigern’ has a clear political meaning and might have been taken by him on the occasion of his accession with such a political goal in mind, as I have proposed elsewhere. We might compare Vortigern to modern examples such as Stalin and Atatürk, who held different names before their rise to a powerful dominating position as well, but changed it for the purpose of clear political messages. Lastly, it is possible that in Nevern, Dyfed (left), a 5th-century Early Christian Inscribed Memorial Stone with the the name of Vitalinus signifies the grave of this man.


To sum up, we have a list of elements that supports an identification of the archbishop Guithelin with Vortigern himself:

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth almost certainly duplicated the story of the Adventus Saxonum.
  • The main differing element from versions by Gildas and Bede is the person of Guithelin.
  • Guithelin and his actions compare very much to those of Vortigern.
  • Guithelin, like Vortigern, is entrusted with the defence of Britain.
  • Guithelin, like Vortigern, receives his mandate from a group that represents Britain.
  • Guithelin, like Vortigern, invites Germanic soldiers to accomplish this task.
  • Guithelin, like Vortigern, is in conflict with (an) Ambrosius.
  • Guithelin, like Vortigern, is set in the period shortly, yet not immediately after the Romans are gone.
  • The story as related by Geoffrey of Monmouth does not clash with the scant picture of Gildas.
  • Guithelin is suddenly gone from the scene when Vortigern arrives.

It must be stressed here that my proposals can’t be proven by hard facts. But I would also like to stress that my proposals would present a good solution to several problems with the traditional view of the events of the first half of the fifth century.

If Geoffrey did indeed present to us, as I believe unknowingly, a genuine source about these events, it would mean that the (first) Adventus Saxonum did occur far earlier than previously thought. This solution would also support the case for an early Vortigern as proposed by the author of the Historia Brittonum, which would in turn support the case for the last British entries in the Gallic Chronicles.

It would mean that Gildas’ view of events, though possibly correct, were based more on a distorted view looking back from the sixth century than on a sharp knowledge of the confused times more than a century earlier. If correct, we should therefore depart from the ‘three keels’-legend, which might very well be just folklore or a misguided detail of a larger history. The Adventus has been too long connected with this Gildesian view of events and with the Hengist & Horsa legend that was so closely associated with it since Bede.

It would also provide a positive answer to the questions about the enigmatic grave-goods as presented by Hawkes, Evison and in particular Böhme, which seemed to make a case, in my opinion strongly, for the presence of military forces that were equipped by the late Roman army long after the year 410. Instead of inventing difficult solutions (such as civilians wearing military insignia) we should accept the continental explanation, that certain grave goods point to late Roman soldiers, either in service of the Roman Empire, local or federate authorities, whether soldier or settler, mercenary or pirate.

It would also mean that Vortigern was a historical character named Vitalinus.


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