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Who was Vortigern?
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Who was Vortigern - an Introduction
Robert Vermaat

Vortigern has had a bad press. This has tended to obscure the part which he played in the history of fifth-century Britain, so that a reassessment is now overdue. The reader must know there are no contemporary records of Vortigern. And so, the history of Vortigern has always been based upon the interpretation of later sources, especially the interpretation of their (lack of) knowledge of the fifth century. This is the reason that even today nothing definite can be said about him; we may have opinions about the truth, but no single truth can be proven. This study does not pretend otherwise.

The nameVortigern hears the prophecy from Emrys/Myrddin

The name, which has been anglicized as Vortigern, appears in the oldest Welsh records as Guorthigirn and later as Gwrtheyrn. Bede, writing in Latin, uses the very early forms Vertigernus and Uurtigernus; in the later Anglo-Saxon transmission these are rendered as Wyrtgeorn. The meaning is explained as ' High Lord' or 'Overlord'. Tigern- does not quite have the meaning of 'King', which is usually represented in names with the form 'Rex', as in Ri(othamus) or (Vortime)Rix, though a more loose translation with 'king' may not be totally incorrect. Incorrect would be a translation of 'Vortigern' with 'High King'.

The sources

Gildas
We come across Vortigern for the first time in the writings of the British monk
Gildas, who wrote his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae around 540. De Excidio is a moral tract, not a work of history ! We may therefore accept the more outstanding features of the DEB: the reception of the Saxons; the subsequent conflict between them and the Britons; the resistance to the Saxons by a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus; and finally the defeat of the Saxons at the Siege of Badonicus Mons in the day of his birth (or so he seems to say).
In C.23 we hear of a meeting of the Proud Tyrant and all the councillors:

Tum omnes consiliarii una cum superbo tyranno caecantur, adinvenientes tale praesidium, immo excidium patriae ut ferocissimi illi nefandi nominis Saxones deo hominibusque invisi, quasi in caulas lupi, in insulam ad retundendas aquilonales gentes intromitterentur. (DEB XXIII.1)

At this meeting, the council invited the Saxons in three keels from Germany, as a counter to the threat from the Picts in the north. This is followed after some time by a conflict over the annona (payment in kind), after which the Saxon federates devastate the country. Vortigern, who may have been named by Gildas, is not portrayed by Gildas as a sole ruler, or a High King if you will. He rules together with a Council, which Gildas blames equally for the disastrous policy concerning the invitation of the Saxons. Maybe looking at him as a 'first among equals' would be more fitting his actual position at that time. In all, Gildas’ view of the Superbus Tyrannus is almost positive; though he is judged careless and lacking foresight, he is called infaustus (unlucky), which is very mild considering Gildas’ views on the Saxons and the hindsight he had on the disaster that resulted from the Tyrannus’ policies.

Bede
Bede, writing in Northumbria at the beginning of the 8th century, hardly gives any information apart from what he has taken from Gildas. He knew Vortigern as the British leader who had authorized the first settlement of the Saxon invaders in eastern Britain, and identified him with the 'proud usurper' of Gildas. Bede uses two early versions of Vortigern’s name, the earliest one is Vertigernus, which Bede uses in his De Tempore Ratione. In his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, which was written rather later than the preceding and is largely paraphrased or summarized from Gildas, the form used is Uurtigerno, which is pre-literary English and must have been copied from a document written early in the 7th century.

Historia Brittonum
The
Historia Brittonum gives us far more information on Vortigern; in fact, the chief part is concerned with him. This probably early 9th century work appears to be based on a genuine historical tradition, but the greater part of this portion of his work is folk tale and legend. Much of his material is drawn from an older work, the *Life of Germanus or Garmon, whose cult was centered in Powys. Vortigern is mentioned as a ruler called Guorthigirn, who seems to have the whole of what had been Roman Britain under his authority in some sense. A ruler in Kent is subject to him, as are rulers in other regions. His wife is not disclosed here, but he has sons: Vortimer, Catigern and Pascent, to which is added Faustus as an afterthought. This Faustus is claimed as offspring from an incestous relation between Vortigern and his daughter. During a peace-conference with the Saxons, they treacherously produce hidden Stilicho, fourth centuryweapons and kill most of the British nobles.

More strange is the story about his dealings with St Germanus which interspace the historical material, and which is hardly more than a folk-tale. Also interspaced is the material about Vortimer, who clearly had his own set of legends. Important as well is the bulky Dinas Emrys legend, in which Vortigern also seems out of place (see Saints on the move), but what in the end has made his name famous because of the Merlin-connection...

The Pillar of Elise
This
pillar was originally a cross and stands in the abbey of Valle Crucis, not far from Llangollen in northern Powys. The inscription states that the monument was set up by Concenn (or Cyngen), the last native king of Powys, in memory of his great-grandfather Eliseg (or Eliset or Elise). This insription is almost certainly contemporary with the Historia Brittonum.

Much of the inscription seems to have been occupied with genealogical matter. So far as this is preserved, it agrees with the Harleian Genealogies (22, 23, 27), except that, at the beginning Britu and perhaps also Pascent are said to be sons, not of Catigern (son of Catell Dyrnllwc), but of Vortigern. Of Britu it is said that Germanus blessed him, and that his mother was Sevira, daughter of Magnus Fifth-century BritonMaximus! It would seem that the royal family of Powys did not accept the story of their origin as given above in the Historia Brittonum where a slave named Cadell was given the throne of Powys by St Germanus. They evidently claimed to be descended from Vortigern, and declared that he was a son-in-law of Maximus. The Pascent from which most kings claimed descent would then be identified with the Pascent, son of Vortigern, whom the Historia Brittonum itself recognises as ancestor of the kings of Builth.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
This chronicle probably dates from a little later than the last two sources; the oldest text ends in 891. Vortigern is mentioned in two entries: AD 449 and AD 455. Much is taken from Bede, which accounts for the traditional dating. For the year 449 it mentions the Adventus Saxonum, with Vortigern as 'king of the Britons' inviting the brothers Hengist and Horsa. Significantly, in the same year there is a second invitation to the Angles. For the year 455 the chronicle mentions a great battle between the Saxons and the Britons under Vortigern, the Saxons are victorious and no more is mentioned of Vortigern or his sons.

Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Historia Regum Britanniae, which was first written down in 1136, is the last source for the stories around Vortigern. Though it clearly borrows from earlier sources, it has been shown that between this material and the doubtless 'modifications' by Geoffrey himself, there is enough material from other, unknown, sources to make a detailed study for the origins of this material.

Geoffrey tells us of the archbishop Guithelinus, who takes the responsibility for the defence of Britain by popular demand after the final departure of the Roman armies. Guithelinus or Vitalinus goes to Brittany to get troops and a king to lead Britain: Constantinus, brother of Aldroenus, the king of Brittany. After some time he is killed, and his son Constans is made king by Vortigern, Duke of Gwent, who now enters the scene. I will defend elsewhere in detail why I believe that Vitalinus and Vortigern are one and the same, and that the story of the troops from Brittany is the same as the Adventus Saxonum as described by Gildas and those following him.

Vortigern has Constans killed and 'reluctantly' accepts the crown, after which Geoffrey follows much of the earlier story. He gets Hengist from Germany to fight the Picts and marries his daughter Renwein for his own purposes and to reward Hengist. Kent is given to Hengist, thereby angering the Britons and Vortigern's own sons. Thy revolt and put Vortimer on the throne, who starts fighting the Saxons. Renwein then poisons him, after which Vortigern returns as king. Then followes the Saxon betrayal at Stonehenge, which Geoffrey calls "the Cloister of Ambrius", clearly after Amesbury. Then Geoffrey Vortigernrelates the Dinas Emrys legend, but calls the boy Merlin. Interspaced are the 'Prophecies of Merlin' as a separate chapter. Vortigern flees to Ercing, where he is killed by Ambrosius, who is called 'Aurelius Ambrosius' here. Vortigern is burned with his fortress.

The date of Vortigern

Two discrepant sources suggest close dates for Vortigern's rule. The Welsh tradition is given in the calculi in the Historia Brittonum, which puts his accession at 425. The author knew of the year of the Adventus Saxonum as being the 40th year since the death of Magnus Maximus (388), and that it was the 4th year of Vortigern's rule. The Saxon tradition is recorded by Bede, who stated Vortigern invited the peoples of Angles and Saxons by the year 449, e.g. 40 years after the abandonment of Britain by Rome in 409. Bede based this part of his narrative on Gildas, but the calculation was his own. We do not know the origin of this '40-year period', but that it played a role somewhere is beyond doubt. However, the lack of knowledge of the early Saxon period argues against their tradition, which could easily have confounded the event of the first settlement and the later organization of their kingdom. I therefore submit that the Welsh tradition deserves the greater credence, in spite of the later date of the surviving record.

The Genealogies

This conclusion is greatly strengthened when the evidence of the Welsh genealogies is considered. VortigernJesus College MS XX, no. 14 and 17 give the descent of the rulers of southern and northern Powys, who both trace the ruling lines back to Vortigern. The latter is also preserved within Harleian MS 3859 and the Pillar of Elise, while the genealogy of southern Powys (Buillt & Gwrtheyrnion) is preserved in chapter 49 of the Historia Brittonum. Though Vortigern is replaced with Cadell as the ancestor for the northern Powys line in the Harleian MS, this might have been deliberate. Against this we must set the older and better authority of the Pillar of Elise, which does acknowledge the connection between northern Powys and Vortigern, which is also repeated in Jesus MS XX. For a complete view, see the pedigrees of eastern, mid- and south Wales.

The Traditional Picture

Modern writers have tended to treat Vortigern as a shadowy or semi-mythical character, and to eliminate him as far as possible from the history of the early fifth century. All we know of him is regarded with scepticism; but it is a scepticism which is based - as usual - upon ignorance, and not upon knowledge of the records. In fact, the the picture which the records give of him is cosistent enough and shows a quite distinctive individuality so as for us to deny any confusion between two or even more different characters (see Duplications). Vortigern, as pictured in the earliest sources, does not conform to the heroic pattern of Celtic leadership. He is never presented as a warrior; negotiations with the enemy, cessions of territory, building of fortresses are not the normal acts of a military leader. If he was a king, what was the nature of the government he established? Irish, later British and English sources describe him as rex Brittonum, but Gildas uses the term tyrannus (below), the term regularly applied to Maximus and apparently to other generals who claimed the imperial title by military revolts. Vortigern seems to have differed from them in the fact that, so far as we know, he made no such claim. The term might point to a (civil) career in the Imperial service though. Indeed he does not figure as a soldier at all, the army is commanded by his son Vortimer. It is to be observed that he is evidently an elderly man when we hear of him, with sons old enough to hold command of the army. Vortigern's character and policy seem to be appropiate rather to a vicarius or civil governor. Another option is that he was in a dominating ecclesiastical position, in which he dominated the council. Vortigern held hostage at Stonehenge

In any case he had power over a wide area, from Kent to Wales. He might have held the former Roman province of Britannia Prima, but his power evidently went beyond that at some stage in his life. As a large landholder, he probably owned personally the territory of Gwrtheyrnion, which had probably been an emperial estate. Genealogies also claim his overlordship over southern Wales, explained through his wife Sevira, whose father Magnus Maximus had supposedly married into the local dynasty. So it could be argued that Vortigern was the natural inheritor of Maximus' claim to Britain in general and large parts of Wales in particular.

Reputation

How did Vortigern earn his evil reputation? His contemporaries knew better than to find his invitation to the Saxons sufficient reason, for the settlement of foederati was commonplace in late Roman policy. He was never charged with cruelty, violence or treachery; he was timorous and haunted by apprehensions about the future. The worst charges brought against him are that he was induced by a beautiful girl to give Kent to the Saxons (which is probably apocrifical at that) and that he later gave them other provinces in order to save his life. But in his ralations with St Germanus he was evidently guilty of some dreadful sin. Finally, he married his own daughter and was very insolent to St Germanus. The charge of incest (which is very probably not true at all) comes after Germanus accuses him of another sin. Is it not likely to have been heresy (such as Pelagianism), as Gildas would surely have mentioned that. The only reasonable explanation must be an orchestrated campaign to slur his him and thus strenghten the claims of a rival dynasty in northern Powys, during the ninth century when Powys began to fall under the sway of Gwynedd.Vortigern the Dark Age warlord

Conclusion

So, who was Vortigern? When we see all this very different material, consisting of historical and legendary stories, how could we possibly draw a clear narrative, describing Vortigern's life? We can't, simply enough. Any 'Life of Vortigern' must be a version, or a personal opinion. My opinion is this:

At the end of the Roman era in Britain, there was a man of high standing, whose family had large posessions in the western Midlands, central and south Wales. This man was called Vitalinus and he had acquired a high position in either the British church or in the Civil Service of the Roman Empire. He was also a rich land-owner, married to a daughter (Sevira) of the late usurper Magnus Maximus. By the year 425 he became the most powerful man in Britain, though he ruled with a Council of representatives (proto-princes) from the Civitates and other emerging centres of regional power. His own power was based largely on the province of Britannia Prima, and a large part of that province later became the kingdom of Powys.

Even before 425, Vitalinus received troops from Aremorica for the defence of Britain and no doubt for his own position. These troops had been serving in the Roman army and were indistinguishable from their Germanic collegues still serving on the continent. The coming of these Germanic forces was later remembered as the Adventus Saxonum, though others arrived at a later date as well.Vortigern, MS from Bologna. c. 1270

When he became the most powerful ruler in Britain, Vitalinus changed his name to Vortigern for political reasons. 'Vortigern' is no title, but has a distinct political claim through the name, a claim of 'highest ruler among other rulers'. Vortigern then went on to suppress the opposition, as the conflict with Ambrosius at Wallop in 437 shows. Vortigern won that battle.

After some years the federates revolted, for the saw that in was in fact they that held supreme power inBritain due to their military supremacy. This revolt happened probably around 441. Vortigern was betrayed and his kingship ended effectively at this point. Whether he disappeared shortly after this, or that his son Vortimer had been king for a brief period is not clear, but I believe he died and Vortimer took over, after which their persons became confused by later authors.

Was Vortigern responsible for the demise of Britain? With the previous summary in mind, I think not. He acted together with other British rulers at the time, and I do not hold him responsible for the revolt. Maybe the British lost at the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus (when we remind ourselves of the continental adventure of Riothamus), or through the civil wars that are mentioned by Gildas. The British had themselves to blame, but Vortigern was an easy scapegoat.

Bibliography

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edited and trans. M. Swanton, (London 1996).*
  • Bachrach, S.: Gildas, Vortigern and Constitutionality in Sub-Roman Britain, in: Nottingham Mediaeval Studies XXXII , 1988, pp. 126-140.*
  • 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.*
  • Dumville, D.N.: Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, in: History CXII, 1977, pp. 173-192.*
  • Dumville, D.N.: The chronology of De Excidio Britanniae, Book I, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 61-84.*
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, Latin and trans. M. Winterbottom, in: History from the Sources VII, (Old Woking 1978).*
  • Higham, N.J.: The English Conquest, Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century, (Manchester, 1994)*
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, trans.R. Ellis Jones, ed. A.Griscom, (London 1929, repr. 1977).*
  • Kirby, D.P.: Vortigern, in: The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XXIII, 1970, pp. 37-59.*
  • Miller, M.: Shorter Article: starting to write History - Gildas, Bede and 'Nennius', in: The Welsh History Review VIII, 1976-1977, pp. 456-465.*
  • Myres, J.N.L.: The English Settlements, (Oxford 1986).*
  • Ralegh Radford, C.A.: Vortigern, in: Antiquity XXXII, 1958, pp. 19-24.*
  • Salway, P.: The Oxford illustrated History of Britain, (Oxford 1993).*
  • Snyder, C.A.: An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud 1998).*
  • Thomas, C.: Celtic Britain, (London 1986).*
  • Thompson, E.A.: Gildas and the History of Britain, in: Britannia X, 1979, pp. 203-226.*
  • Todd, M.: Famosa Pestis and Britain in the Fifth Century, in: Britannia VIII, 1977, pp. 319-325.*
  • Ward, J.H.: Vortigern and the End of Roman Britain, in: Britannia III, 1972, pp. 277-289.*
  • Wood, I.N.: The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 1-26.*

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2008. All rights reserved