Vortigern (//; Welsh: Gwrtheyrn; Old English: Wyrtgeorn; Breton: Guorthigern; Irish: Foirtchern), also spelled Vortiger and Vortigen, was a 5th-century warlord in Britain, a leading ruler among the Britons. His existence is considered likely, but information about him is shrouded in legend.
He may have been the "superbus tyrannus" said to have invited Hengist and Horsa to aid him in fighting the Picts and the Scots. However, they revolted, killing his son in the process and adding Sussex and Essex to their own kingdom. It is said that he took refuge in North Wales, and that his grave was in Dyfed or the Llŷn Peninsula. He is cited at the head of the genealogy of the early Kings of Powys.
The 6th century historian Gildas wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (English: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in the first decades of the 6th century. In Chapter 23, he tells how "all the councillors, together with that proud usurper" [omnes consiliarii una cum superbo tyranno] made the mistake of inviting "the fierce and impious Saxons" to settle in Britain. According to Gildas, apparently, a small group came at first and was settled "on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky [infaustus] usurper". This small group invited more of their countrymen to join them, and the colony grew. Eventually the Saxons demanded that "their monthly allotments" be increased and, when their demands were eventually refused, broke their treaty and plundered the lands of the Romano-British.
It is not clear whether Gildas used the name Vortigern. Most editions published today omit the name. Two manuscripts name him: MS. A (Avranches MS 162, 12th century), refers to Uortigerno; and Mommsen's MS. X (Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27) (13th century) calls him Gurthigerno. Gildas adds several small details that suggest either he or his source received at least part of the story from the Anglo-Saxons. The first is when he describes the size of the initial party of Saxons, he states that they came in three cyulis (or "keels"), "as they call ships of war". This may be the earliest recovered word of English. The second detail is that he repeats that the visiting Saxons were "foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same." Both of these details are unlikely to have been invented by a Roman or Celtic source.
Gildas never addresses Vortigern as the king of Britain. He is termed an usurper (tyrannus), but not solely responsible for inviting the Saxons. To the contrary, he is portrayed as being supported by or supporting a "Council", which may be a government based on the representatives of all the "cities" (civitates) or a part thereof. Gildas also does not see Vortigern as bad; he just qualifies him as "unlucky" (infaustus) and lacking judgement, which is understandable, as these mercenaries proved to be faithless.
Modern scholars have debated the various details of Gildas' story, and attempted to pry open his language after more information. One point of discussion has been over the words Gildas uses to describe the Saxon's subsidies (annonas, epimenia) and whether they are legal terms used in a treaty of foederati, a late Roman political practice of settling allied barbarian peoples within the boundaries of the empire to furnish troops to aid in the defence of the empire. It is not known whether private individuals imitated this practice. It is also not known whether Gildas' reference to "the eastern side of the island" refers to Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria or the entire east coast of Britain. Gildas describes how their raids took them "sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue" (chapter 24).
The only certainty one gets, after reading much of the secondary literature, is that even the writers close to Gildas in time struggled with the gaps in his account, which they filled with either their own research or imagination.
The first extant text considering Gildas' account is Bede, writing in the early- to mid-8th century. He mostly paraphrases Gildas in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum and De Temporum Ratione, adding several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", whom he first calls Vertigernus in his Chronica Maiora and later in his Historia Vurtigernus. The Vertigernus form may reflect an earlier Celtic source or a lost version of Gildas. Bede also gives names in the Historia to the leaders of the Saxons, Hengest and Horsa, specifically identifying their tribes as the Saxons, Angles and Jutes (H.E., 1.14,15). Another significant detail that Bede adds to Gildas' account is calling Vortigern the king of the British people.
Bede also supplies the date, AD 449, which was traditionally accepted but has been considered suspect since the late 20th century: "Marcian being made emperor with Valentinian, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years." Michael Jones notes that there are several adventus dates in Bede. In H.E. 1.15 the adventus occurs within the period 449–55; in 1.23 and 5.23 another date, c. 446, is given; in 2.14 the same event is dated 446 or 447. Obviously these dates are calculated approximations.
The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons)—until recently attributed to a Nennius, a monk from Bangor, Gwynedd in Wales—was probably compiled during the early 9th century. The writer mentions a great number of sources, ranging from dry chronicles to tasty slander. "Nennius" was the first to blacken the name of Vortigern. Vortigern is accused of incest (a possible or perhaps intentional mistake of Vortigern for Vortipor, accused by Gildas of the same crime), oath-breaking, treason, love for a pagan woman, and lesser vices such as pride.
The Historia Brittonum recounts many details about Vortigern and his sons. Chapters 31–49 tell how Vortigern (Guorthigirn) deals with the Saxons and Saint Germanus of Auxerre; Chapters 50–55 deal with St. Patrick; Chapter 56 tells us about King Arthur and his battles; Chapters 57–65 mention English genealogies, mingled with English and Welsh history; Chapter 66 gives important chronological calculations, mostly on Vortigern and the Adventus Saxonum.
Excluding what is taken from Gildas, there are six groupings of traditions:
- Material quoted from a Life of Saint Germanus. These excerpts describe Saint Germanus' incident with one Benlli, an inhospitable host seemingly unrelated to Vortigern, who comes to an untimely end, but his servant, who provides hospitality, is made the progenitor of kings of Powys; Vortigern's son by his own daughter, whom Germanus in the end raises; and Vortigern's own end caused by fire brought from heaven by Germanus' prayers. Comparing this material with Constantius of Lyon's Life of St. Germanus of Auxerre, it suggests that the two are not the same person. It has been suggested that the saint mentioned here may be no more than a local saint or a tale that had to explain all the holy places dedicated to a St. Germanus or a 'Garmon', who may have been a Powys saint or even a bishop from the Isle of Man around the time of writing the Historia Britonum. The side-step to Benlli seems only to be explained as a jab towards the rival dynasty of Powys, suggesting they did not descend from Vortigern, but from a mere slave.
- Stories that explain why Vortigern granted land in Britain to the Saxons — first to Thanet, in exchange for service as foederati troops; then to the rest of Kent, in exchange for the hand of Hengest's daughter; then to Essex and Sussex, after a banquet where the Saxons treacherously slew all of the leaders of the British but saved Vortigern to extract this ransom. This is no more than an explanatory legend. No finds suggest the origin of Anglo-Saxon occupation in Thanet or Kent - Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxford) is a far more likely candidate, as is East Anglia.
- The magical tale of Ambrosius Aurelianus and the two dragons found beneath Dinas Emrys. This origin of the later legend of Merlin is clearly a local tale that had attracted the names of Vortigern and Ambrosius to usurp the roles of earlier characters. While neither of them has any connection with that remote part of Wales, the personage of Vortigern is best known to us because of this tale.
- A number of calculations attempting to fix the year Vortigern invited the Saxons into Britain. These are several calculations made by the writer, dropping interesting names and calculating their dates, making several mistakes in the process.
- Genealogical material about Vortigern's ancestry, the names of his four sons (Vortimer, Pascent, Catigern, Faustus), a father (Vitalis), a grandfather (Vitalinus) and a great-grandfather who is probably just an eponym (Gloui) which associates Vortigern with Glevum, the civitas of Gloucester.
The Historia Brittonum relates four battles taking place in Kent, obviously related to material in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (see below). In the Historia Brittonum it is claimed that Vortigern's son Vortimer led the Britons against Hengest's Saxons. Moreover, it is claimed that the Saxons were driven out of Britain, only to return at Vortigern's re-invitation a few years later, following the death of Vortimer.
The stories preserved in the Historia Brittonum reveal an attempt by one or more anonymous British scholars to provide more detail to this story, while struggling to accommodate the facts of the British tradition. This is an important point, as it indicates that either at the time, or near that time, there were one or more Welsh kings who traced their genealogy back to Vortigern.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides dates and locations of four battles that Hengest and his brother Horsa fought against the British in southeast Britain in the historic county of Kent. Vortigern is said to have been the leader of the British in only the first battle; the opponents in the next three battles are variously called "British" and "Welsh", which is not unusual for this part of the Chronicle. No Saxon defeat is acknowledged, but the geographical sequence of the battles suggests a Saxon retreat, and the Chronicle locates the last battle, dated 465 in Wippedsfleot, as the place where the Saxons first landed, thought to be Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle presents the year 455 as the last date when Vortigern is mentioned. However, the Chronicle is not a single document but the end result of combining several sources over a period of time. The annals for the 5th century in the Chronicle were put into their current form in the 9th century, probably during the reign of Alfred the Great. The sources for the fifth century annals are obscure, however an analysis of the text demonstrates some poetic conventions, so it is probable that they were derived from an oral tradition, such as sagas in the form of epic poems.
Because the date of the material underlying the compilation of the Historia Brittonum is disputed, and could be later than the Chronicle, some historians argue that the Historia Brittonum took its material from a source close to the Chronicle; but after reading both accounts side by side, one has to wonder at their similarities and differences, and wonder if both do not draw upon an earlier tradition.
William of Malmesbury
At this time Vortigern was King of Britain; a man calculated neither for the field nor the council, but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lusts. To complete the picture, he had defiled his own daughter, who was lured to the participation of such a crime by the hope of sharing his kingdom, and she had borne him a son. Regardless of his treasures at this dreadful juncture, and wasting the resources of the kingdom in riotous living, he was awake only to the blandishments of abandoned women.
No other sources confirm this very evil image, and it seems safe to assume that this is a groundless exaggeration of accusations made by earlier writers.
William does, however, add some detail, no doubt because of a good local knowledge. In De Gestis Regum Anglorum book I, chapter 23.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
The story of Vortigern adopted its best-known form in the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey states that Vortigern was the successor to Constans, the son of the usurping emperor Constantine III. Further, Vortigern used Constans as a puppet king and ruled the nation through him until he finally managed to kill him through the use of insurgent Picts.
Geoffrey mentions a similar tale just before that episode, however, which may be an unintentional duplication. Just after the Romans leave, the archbishop of London is put forward by the representatives of Britain to organise the island's defences. To do so, he arranges for continental soldiers to come to Britain. Beyond that, more reminds one of Vortigern: the name of the bishop is Guitelin, a name similar to the Vitalinus mentioned in the ancestry of Vortigern and to the Vitalinus said to have fought with an Ambrosius at the Battle of Guoloph (Battle of Wallop). This Guithelin/Vitalinus disappears without a trace from the story as soon as Vortigern arrives. All these coincidences add up to the assumption that Geoffrey duplicated the story of the invitation of the Saxons, and that the tale of Guithelinus the archbishop might possibly give us some insight into the background of Vortigern before his rise to power.
Geoffrey is also the first to mention Hengest de Cantia Regnum and the name of Hengest's daughter, who seduces Vortigern to marry her, after which his sons rebel, as a certain Ronwen recorded Rowena, also called Renwein, neither of which is a Germanic name. Like the Historia Brittonum, Geoffrey adds that Vortigern was succeeded briefly by his son Vortimer, only to take the throne again when Vortimer is killed.
Scholars[who?] consider Wace a more reliable reporter of the oral tradition than Geoffrey. While Vortigern rarely appears in the later stories of King Arthur, when he does he is usually the figure as described by either Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace.
Pillar of Eliseg
The inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg, a mid-9th century stone cross in North Wales, gives the Old Welsh spelling of Vortigern: Guarthi[gern] (the inscription is now damaged and the final letters of the name are missing), believed to be the same person as Gildas' "superbus tyrannus", Vortigern. The pillar also states that he was married to Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus, and gave a line of descent leading to the royal family of Powys, who erected the cross.
Vortigern as title rather than personal name
It is occasionally suggested by scholars that Vortigern could be a title rather than a personal name. The name in Brittonic literally means "Great King" or "Overlord", composed of the elements *wor- "over-, super" and *tigerno- "king, lord, chief, ruler" (compare Old Breton machtiern, Cornish myghtygern a type of local ruler (literally "pledge chief") in medieval Brittany and Cornwall.
However, the element *tigerno- was a regular one in Brittonic personal names (compare St. Kentigern, Catigern, Ritigern, Tigernmaglus, et al.) and, as *wortigernos (or derivatives of it) is not attested as a common noun, there is no reason to suppose that it was used as anything other than a personal name (in fact, an Old Irish cognate of it, Foirtchern was a fairly common personal name in medieval Ireland, further lending credence to the notion that Vortigern was a personal name and not a title).
A valley on the north coast of the Lleyn Peninsula, known as Nant Gwrtheyrn or "Vortigern's Gorge", is named after Vortigern, and until modern times held a small barrow known locally as "Vortigern's Grave", along with a ruin known as "Vortigern's Fort". However, this conflicts with doubtful reports that he died in his castle on the river Teifi in Dyfed ("Nennius") or his tower at Little Doward in Herefordshire (Geoffrey of Monmouth).
Other fortifications associated with Vortigern are at Arfon in Gwynedd, Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, Carn Fadrun in Gwynedd, Clwyd in Powys, Llandysul in Dyfed, Old Carlisle in Cumberland, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, Rhaeadr Gwy in Powys, Snowdon and Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
Vortigern's story remained well known after the Middle Ages, especially in Great Britain. He is a major character in two Jacobean plays, the anonymous The Birth of Merlin and Thomas Middleton's Hengist, King of Kent, first published in 1661. His meeting with Rowena became a popular subject in 17th century engraving and painting, for example William Hamilton's 1793 work Vortigern and Rowena. He also appeared in literature, such as John Lesslie Hall's poems about the foundations of England.
One of Vortigern's most notorious literary appearances is in the play Vortigern and Rowena, which was promoted as a lost work of William Shakespeare when it first emerged in 1796. However, it was soon revealed as a hoax written by the play's purported discoverer, William Henry Ireland, who had previously forged a number of other Shakespearean manuscripts. The play was at first accepted as Shakespeare's by some in the literary community, and received a performance at London's Drury Lane Theatre on 2 April 1796. The play's crude writing, however, exposed it as a forgery, and it was laughed off stage and not performed again. Ireland eventually admitted to the hoax and tried to publish the play under his own name, but met with little success.
Vortigern often appears in modern Arthurian fiction. In the miniseries Merlin (1998) which uses the legend of Merlin and the dragons, Vortigern is played by Rutger Hauer. The film The Last Legion (2007), based in part on the novel of the same name (2002) by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, features a highly fictionalized portrayal of Vortigern under the pseudo-authentic name Vortgyn. Jude Law plays Vortigen in the film Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur (2016). Vortigern appears in Season 5 of the ABC series Once Upon a Time (2011), under the name Vortigan.
- Spiers, A (1892). "Vortigern". Spiers and Surenne's English and French Pronouncing Dictionary. New York: D. Appleton & Co.
- Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chapter XXIII, text and translation of the quoted passage in Vermaat, Robert. "Gildas and Vortigern". Vortigern Studies. Vortigernstudies.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-01-28.
- Snyder, Christopher A. (1998). An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 305. ISBN 0-271-01780-5.
- Jones, Michael E. (1996). The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-8014-2789-3. OCLC 34029750.
- Swanton, Michael (1998). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New York; London: Routledge. pp. xxi–xxviii. ISBN 0-415-92129-5.
- Jones, Michael E. (1988). The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 71. ISBN 0-8014-8530-4.
- Gransden, Antonia (1974). Historical Writing in England c.550-c1307. London: Routledge and Kegan Paull. pp. 36–39. ISBN 0-7100-7476-X.
- John Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and the Modern History of William of Malmsbury, London: W. Bulmer & Co., 1815.
- Morton Nance, Robert (1991). A New Cornish–English English Cornish Dictionary. Redruth: Agan Tavas. ISBN 1-901409-03-1.
- Snyder, Christopher A., The Britons, John Wiley & Sons, Apr 15, 2008, p. 155
- Vermaat, Robert (2002). "Art and Literature". Vortigern Studies. Retrieved 2009-05-28.
- Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "(Samuel) William Henry Ireland". In Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. p. 244. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Boese, Alex (2002). "William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare Forgeries". Museum of Hoaxes. Retrieved July 28, 2010.
- Vortigern Studies website
- "Vortigern" on National Library of Wales Dictionary of Welsh Biography
- Cunliffe, Barry (15 October 2012). "Anglo-Saxon Portraits: Vortigern". BBC Radio 3.
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