Vortigern (pronEng|ˈvɔrtɨɡɝːn; also spelled Vortiger and Vortigen, and in Welsh Gwrtheyrn), was a 5th century warlord in Britain, a leading ruler among the Britons (Brythons). His existence is considered likely, though information about him is shrouded in legend. He is said to have invited the Saxons to settle in Britain as mercenaries, only to see them revolt and establish their own kingdoms. This earned him a poor reputation; he was eventually remembered as one of the worst Kings of the Britons in later legend.

The stories of Vortigern


The first writer to tell the story of Vortigern was the 6th century historian Gildas, writing his "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae" (Latin: "On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain") in the first decades of the 6th century. He tells us (chapter 23) 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.Fact|date=February 2008 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 of Vortigern. Most editions published today omit the name, but there are at least two manuscripts that mention it: Avranches public library MS. 162 (12th c.) – Codex Abrincencsis, or Mommsen’s MS. A: "superbo tyranno Vortigerno", andCambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27 (13th c.) – Mommsen’s MS. X: "Gurthigerno Brittanorum duce". The fact that Bede also used the name makes it likely that Gildas did so as well.

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."Fact|date=February 2008 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 supported/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. Further, it is not known if private individuals imitated this practice. Another point of debate has been exactly where in Britain Gildas meant with his words "on the eastern side of the island": could it be Kent, East Anglia, or the coast of Northumbria? Or were they simply spread over 'the eastern side'? But Gildas also describes that 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 to consider Gildas's account was Bede, who is highly praised by modern scholars for his scholarship and analysis. This, however, has hardly any bearing on his description of the 5th and 6th centuries, because Bede, writing in the early- to mid-8th century, mostly paraphrases Gildas's writings in his "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum" and "De Temporum Ratione". Bede only adds several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", Vortigern (Latin "Uurtigernus"/"Uuertigernus"/"Vertigernus", from the Old Welsh "Gwrtheyrn". The Old English version was "Wyrtgeorn"). Since Bede heavily leaned on Gildas, this may simply be a confirmation that Gildas indeed used the name of Vortigern, too. Another significant detail which Bede added to Gildas' account is to call Vortigern the king of the British people.

Bede also supplies a date (which has been traditionally accepted, but has been considered suspect since the late 20th century) of AD 446, "Marcian being made emperor with Valentinian, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years." However, he also provides dates such as 449-455 and 446-447, which does not add to his credibility. It will be obvious that these dates do not represent a single source, but are the result of calculated approximations, and therefore useless as hard facts. Bede seems to have used a period of 40 years, which he added to the end of Roman Britain, which he reasonably calculated at AD 409 or 406, when the first usurper may have attempted to rise against the regular Roman government. Where this vague period of 40 years originated is unknown to us, other than that the Historia Brittonum mentions a similar period, which its author uses for a calculation of a similar period, which he placed between the death of the usurper Magnus Maximus (388) and the adventus (428).

Bede gives names to the leaders of the Saxons, Hengest and Horsa; and specifically identifies their tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. ("H.E.", 1.14,15).

"Historia Brittonum"

The "Historia Brittonum" (History of the Britons), usually attributed to a certain 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, who nonetheless figures heavily in genealogies of many Welsh royal houses. 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 St. Germanus. Chapters 50-55 deal with St. Patrick ; Chapters 56 tells us about King Arthur and his battles; Chapters 57-65 mention English genealogies, mingled with English and Welsh history; Chapter 66 give 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' 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 Thanet, in exchange for service as "foederati" troops; then the rest of Kent, in exchange for the hand of Hengest's daughter; then 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 even Kent - Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxford) is a far more likely candidate of that, 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.
* The dates of 425 for when Vortigern came to power, the date of 428 of the arrival of the Saxons ("Adventus Saxonum") and 437 for the battle between a certain Vitalinus with Ambrosius at the Battle of Wallop (probably in Hampshire). These may be the best candidates for a contemporary source. As both dates are derived from a source that mentioned "the "x"th year of Vortigern", there is a possibility of an underlying chronicle here.
* 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.

An early British chronicle fragment

The earliest form of the name of Vortigern that we know of is Uuertigernus, which comes from a manuscript bound at the end of the Bern Codex 178. This is a short British chronicle-fragment, based on a text of Bede and probably produced in France during the 9th century. The Bern Codex 178 chronicle-fragment consists of 116 folios and was probably written after c. AD 850, possibly in France. The chronicle is the last in a collection of short, often grammatical tracts that follow a Latin glossary. The main purpose of this MS therefore probably was of a grammatical nature, with no interest in history intended. If so, we may probably be grateful for Bede's fine Latin.

Our main interest in this altered copy of Bede's recapitulation is the name "Uuertigerno". This form of the name Vortigern is unique, although for all we know the annalist might have drawn it also from Bede, as the rest of the text. Bede, who drew largely from Gildas, used Vertigernus in his "De Temporum Ratione" (III, 66), 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. The earliest version of Gildas' manuscript (MS Avranches A 162) has Uur- and Uor-. However, most of Bede's MSS write it with -e-, which probably means this annal used a different source. Bede's usual form is the pre-literary English form Uur-, which he uses in his "Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum" (I.14), which must have been copied from a document written in the early 7th century.

A similar annal to this one, containing the form Vertigerno, was found by H. M. Chadwick in another copy of Bede's chronicle, this time interpolated "sub anno passionis" 348 in Isidore of Seville's "Chronica Maiora", though this manuscript dates back only to the 15th century. This also shows that by the 7th century, the form Uer- began to separate into Welsh, Irish and English forms. The post-Roman Uor- was developed from the Celtic preposition ver, and that this was replaced by the former.

The earliest form of Vortigern would be the reconstructed Brythonic Celtic *Wortigernos. This form regularly developed into Old Welsh "Guorthigirn", as used in the Historia Brittonum, and that in turn became Middle Welsh "Gwrtheyrn", the form mostly used today. The Irish form of the name, also found in Scotland, is "Foirtchern(n)". In Brittany the name is "Gurthiern", a form related to the Welsh Gwrtheyrn. In Old English, wor- had become wur- due to sound-substitution of the unfamiliar vowel sequence o-i (in Vortigernus) by the familiar AS. u-i. Thus *Wortigernos became *Wurtigern by the 7th century and finally "Wyrtgeorn" in literary Anglo-Saxon.

The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle"

When we reach the accounts in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", we are presented with a great amount of information and seemingly great detail. The "Chronicle" provides dates and locations of four battles 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 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 to 465 in "Wippedsfleot", the place where the Saxons first landed.The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" presents the year 455 as the last date when Vortigern is mentioned. However, the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" is not a single document but the end result of combining several sources, combined over a period of time. The Chronicle's annals for the fifth century were only put into the form in which we now have them in the ninth century, probably during the reign of Alfred the Great.cite book |last= Swanton|first= Michael|title= The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle|pages=xxi-xxviii|year= 1998|publisher= Routledge|isbn=0-415-92129-5] Therefore, the dates as presented by this "Chronicle" cannot be considered original as they cannot be compared to dates from contemporary sources.

Because the date of the material underlying the compilation of the "Historia Brittonum" is disputed, and could be later than the "Chronicle", some argue that the "Historia Britonum" 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

Writing shortly before Geoffrey of Monmouth, William added much to the damnatio memoriae of Vortigern: "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, as we read in the History of the Britons, 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 born 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 however does add some detail, no doubt because of a good local knowledge.In "De Gestis Regum Anglorum book I, chapter 23 he relates:"He (i.e. Cenwalh, king of Wessex) defeated in two actions the Britons, furious with the recollection of their ancient liberty, and in consequence perpetually meditating resistance; first, at a place called Wirtgernesburg, and then at a mountain named Pene..". Wirtgernesburg means "Vortigern’s Stronghold" and it has been identified with Bradford on Avon in western Wiltshire. Though this might simply indicate that Vortigern’s name was attached to a wandering folk-tale old enough to become attached to Bradford ("Broad Ford") before the Saxons came there in the second half of the 7th century, we must consider that William lived nearby and must have known the region well.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

It was with the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth that the story of Vortigern adopted its best-known form in the fictional "Historia Regum Britanniae" ("History of the Kings of Britain"). Geoffrey — or the oral tradition he may have drawn upon — attempted to harmonize the conflicting materials of the "Historia Brittonum" and many other traditions into a coherent narrative, that combined insular with continental material. Geoffrey claimed that his source was (or had access to) a "certain book in the British language". Modern historians agree that it seems impossible to maintain that sources like the Welsh Bruts are the Welsh originals, instead of Welsh copies of Geoffrey's work. Whereas some have seen an underlying Welsh tradition, other have pointed to the possibility that this was a Breton tradition instead. According to some Geoffrey was a foreigner from France, bringing his Breton background with him. His work shows many Breton influences and continental sources. This argument points out Geoffrey's Bretons are also always more noble than the treacherous Welsh, who to the new elite must have ranked one step below the vanquished English. Geoffrey may then have been attempting to Normandise the British history, but whatever his aims, which ultimately are in dispute, he created a history equally popular in Wales, England and Normandy and indeed all of Europe.

Some of the new elements he introduces may however come from contemporary oral tradition: for instance the site of the banquet where the Saxons slew the British, located in modern Wiltshire (suggested by the construction of Stonehenge in their honour), and the figure of Eldol, Consul of Gloucester, who fights his way out of the Saxon trap to serve as a loyal retainer to Aurelius Ambrosius (Geoffrey's form of the name of the aristocrat Gildas calls Ambrosius Aurelianus). With his version of Amesbury ("Mons Ambrius"), Geoffrey betrays a complete lack of local knowledge. Likewise, the numerous battles with hundreds of thousands of soldiers who savagely annihilate each other are clearly creations of Geoffrey's own imaginative brain, as are the many speeches from the mouth of many kings and generals.

In addition, 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. However, Geoffrey mentions a similar tale just before that episode, 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. Besides that, more reminds us 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 who is said to have fought with an Ambrosius at Guoploph/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 the name of Hengest's daughter, who seduces Vortigern to marry her, after which his sons rebel, as a certain Rowen, also called Ronwen, Renwein or Rowena, none of which is a Germanic name.Like the "Historia Brittonum", Geoffrey adds that Vortigern was succeeded briefly by his son Vortimer.


After William of Malmesbury, Wace adds any more material to the tale of Vortigern, and scholars consider him a more reliable reporter of the oral tradition than Geoffrey. Vortigern rarely appears in the later stories of King Arthur, but when he does he is usually the figure as described by either Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace.

It is not easy to dismiss Vortigern as a fictional character, invented to explain how the Saxons came to dwell in Britain and control much of the eastern part of the island. History (not only of the 5th and 6th centuries, but over the longer span of record) tells of countless times when a ruler hired mercenaries to fight for him, only to have them turn on him and carve their own kingdom out of his.

Vortigern: history or apocrypha?

Having waded through all of these stories, one probably wants to know if there was a real human being behind it all: was there a magistrate or aristocrat in post-Roman Britain who actually negotiated a treaty with a number of Saxons to serve as mercenaries?

The inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg, a mid-9th-century stone cross in North Wales, gives the Brythonic variant of Vortigern: Guorthigern, a name similar to Vortigern, or Gildas' "superbus tyrannus". The pillar also states that he was married to Sevira, and gave a line of descent leading to the royal family of Powys, who erected the cross.

It has been suggested that Vortigern is a title rather than a name. The Brythonic word "tigern" (kingly) would seem to be etymologically related, thus "Vor-tigern" would mean something like "high lord", which looks suspiciously alike to "overlord". However, none of the contemporary persons bearing similar names containing -tigern (St. Kentigern, Catigern, Ritigern or Tigernmaglus) are ranked as kings, which makes this suggestion unlikely. And although there are more persons named Vortigern (nine persons in Ireland named Vortigern, Fortchern or Foirtchern are known), all but one are commoners. Further, the office of High King was not established outside Ireland for this time. That makes it extremely unlikely that Vortigern is a title. However, it is possible that he assumed a meaningful name late in life that was intended to signal a new career: compare Augustus, Atatürk, or Stalin. A last possibility is that "tigern" had the connotation of 'leader', 'important person' or 'chairman', without a compelling relation to aristocracy. This would fit the names mentioned above. Vortigern then would be the indication of his position in the council. The members of the council would be considered 'tigern' (high ranking persons) and their chairman would be called 'upper tigern' or Vortigern.

It seems certain that there existed a person called Vortigern. The stories surrounding him may have been based on the facts of his life, and may also have been based on events not directly related to him. Either way, the legendary Vortigern is of more impact than the real Vortigern, in much the same manner as the legendary Greek king Theseus.

Vortigern in literature

William Henry Ireland, a notorious forger of Shakespearean manuscripts, claimed to have found a lost play of Shakespeare entitled Vortigern and Rowena, which was presented in Drury Lane on April 2, 1796. As was clear from its crude writing, it was not the work of the famous playwright, and the play elicited ridicule and laughter from both cast and audience at its opening performance. [ [http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/ireland.html William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare Forgeries] ] This incident was fictionalized in "The Lambs of London", a 2004 novel by Peter Ackroyd.


ee also

* Matter of Britain
* Kings of the Britons
* Stanage Park - possible burial site

External links

* [http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk Vortigern Studies website]

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