Discussion of the Sub-Roman
Place Caer Guorthigirn
by Michael Veprauskas
THE PROBLEM OF
In section 401
"Historia Brittonum," we read of Vortigern's
attempt to "build and fortify a city to
defend" himself against his enemies, and his
inability to do so at what is now called Dinas
Emrys. In the Mabinogion
tale "Lludd and Llevelys", this same "Dinas
Emreis, though before it had been Dinas Ffaraon Dandde"
is mentioned. Ffaraon Dandde is translated as
"flaming pharaoh" and cited as a possible
''reference to Vortigern". Indeed, this statement
recalls both the legend of High King Vortigern's
demise in his city of Caer Guorthigirn as told by
Nennius and the Gildas'
reference to "the proud tyrants" council,
"giving foolish advice to Pharaoh". At root
here is an old Celtic Church tradition that Vortigern,
like the Pharaoh of Exodus, were both chastised by God
for their foolish behaviour. Indeed, Vortigern was
viewed as merely the instrument of God's will by both
Nennius and Gildas.
"And let him
that reads understand, that the Saxons were
victorious, and ruled Britain, not from their superior
prowess, but on account of the great sins of the
Britons: God so permitting it."
"For what wise
man will resist the wholesome counsel of God? The
Almighty is the King of Kings, and the Lord of lords,
ruling and judging every one, according to his own
Later, we have
Vortigern assigning Ambrosius "that city, with
all the western provinces of Britain, and departing
with his wise men to the sinistral district, he
arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a
city which, according to his name, was called Cair
Guorthigirn." The Latin text here has "Guuennessi"
(people of Gwent) as the area were Vortigern built his
city, i.e. Gwent. The similarity of Guuennessi with
Gewissei later led Geoffrey3
to imply kinship of Cerdic of the West Saxons with
Vortigern or his Title4.
It is also at the basis of the tradition, by Geoffrey
of Monmouth, for the identification of the Little
Doward hill fort of "Genoreu" (Ganarew) as
the scene of High King Vortigern's demise, at the city
After the slaughter of
the British elite by the treachery of Hengist (chapter
47), Vortigern flees "for refuge to the province
Guorthegirnaim, so called from his own name..."
pursued by St. Germanus. It is quite likely that a
Royal Center at Caer Beris is referred to here,
recently identified as the "Caer Peris" of
the Nennius manuscript by David Nash Ford5.
That is, the seat of the Royal Houses of Buelt and
Guorthegirniaun. That the manuscript records the city
as "(P)eris" instead of "(B)eris"
speaks for its antiquity through use of an ancient
after a stay of some 40 days and nights (clearly a
biblical allusion here!), flees again "to the
Kingdom of the Dimetae, where, on the river Towy, he
built a castle, which he named Cair Guorthigirn."
Obviously, the city referred to had been in existence
for some time, and Vortigern merely fled to it for
safety or other reasons6.
This Caer Guorthigirn may be identified with Caer
Myrddin, at a crossing of the river Towy and the
terminus of a major Roman road from the Caerwent and
Gloucester areas; possibly Kidwelly, or most likely
refers to both. Nennius, in section 14 of his work,
states that the "Cetgueli" region of
south-west Wales (Kidwelly) had been cleared of the
Irish by Cunedda and his followers.
Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd,
Little Doward (Ganarew) in Gwent, Caer Beris in Buelt,
Caer Merddyn and Kidwelly on or near the river Towy in
the Kingdom of the Dimetę? What we appear to be
dealing with here is nothing less than a series of
Royal Residences and Strongholds of High-King
Vortigern! Any of which can accurately be labelled
"Caer Guorthigirn"! Caer Myrddin, modern
Carmarthen, most closely matches the Nennius' site as
the scene of Vortigern's demise.
It is interesting to
note, that most or all of these sites were actually
refortified strongholds, and not built completely
anew. Nennius, or his source material, was taking some
liberty in stating that Vortigern "built a
These sections of the
"History" have survived only in the form of
folk memory, and are highly symbolic of greater
events. The events in these chapters deal with
Vortigern's attempt at providing for the security of
the western areas of his kingdom. In Nennius' tale of
the red and white serpents, the red one (symbol of
Britain) eventually wins, and so presumably derives
from an age in which the outcome of the struggle with
the Anglo-Saxons was not irreversibly lost.
In what historical
sequence was Dinas Emrys, and all the western
provinces of Britain, turned over to Ambrosius? There
were at least three time frames in which this was
- Prior to c. 437/38
and the battle of Guoloppum, between Vitalinus and
- After and as a
consequence of this battle.
- Perhaps some 20
years after these events, in which case it would
have been Ambrosius Aurelianus (son of Ambrosius
the elder), who is referred to here. This is
implied by the text of Nennius, where the
fatherless boy is obviously Ambrosius the younger.
I personally favour the
first choice. The genealogy lists of the Cunedda
family, favours this setting. It denotes a time in
which some discussion and compromise between Ambrosius
and Vortigern was still possible. The picture that
emerges here is that of Vortigern presiding over his
council, probably derived from the old "concilium
provincię", at which the means for providing for
the defence of Britain was frequently discussed. Both
Gildas and Nennius attest to the existence of such a
council. Here Ambrosius the elder, a prominent member
of the council, rises and states his factions
objections to Vortigern's proposal of stationing
German foederati in western Wales as a defence against
Irish intrusions. He is perhaps speaking here as an
appointed patron of the council, "patronus
provincię Britannię." Others join in support,
citing their objections to the movement of large
bodies of German mercenaries through their domains en
route to Wales. Also mentioned is the fact that
western Wales, thinly garrisoned by native British
troops (recall legends of St. Germanus in Wales) and
far removed from any major British centre, would be
ill equipped to assure foederati loyalty. Heretofore,
in the eastern parts of the isle, the foederati had
been placed in proximity to major British centres,
e.g. York, Caister, and London.
In the face of this
opposition to his plan, Vortigern withdraws his
proposal and assigns the task of providing for the
defence of western Britain to Ambrosius and the
Council. "The King assigned him (Ambrosius) that
city (Dinas Emrys), with all the western provinces of
Britain...". Ambrosius' solution, in
collaboration with the council and the tacit approval
of Vortigern, was to transfer Cunedda and his sons and
followers to north-west Wales, where over generations,
they expelled the Irish and carved out kingdoms for
Dinas Emrys is probably
a memorial to these events. Vortigern's inability
"to build a city" actually represents a
policy reversal in this part of Britain as well as
possible military defeat at the hand of local Irish
Several objectives were
thus achieved through the transfer of Cunedda and the
refortification of the various "Caer
- The Irish were
expelled or contained.
consolidated his power by establishing various
Royal Residences and strongholds throughout Wales.
- Cunedda and/or
Ambrosius were not permitted to extend their
influence over all of western Wales, thus becoming
too large a threat to Vortigern's sovereignty.
Cunedda was employed to clear the Kidwelly area of
the Irish, thus creating a buffer zone in
south-west Wales, but not allowed to settle there.
- A possible
recruitment area for Irish mercenaries was
preserved (Dimetę), and at the same time -
- All of south Wales
from the Towy to the Severn and beyond was
secured, an area important to Vortigern as a power
base, through ancestral ties (Gloucester) and a
dynastic marriage (Severa)7.
Caer Merddyn, on the
west bank of the Towy in Dimetae, provided an ideal
forward post for these last two objectives.
following is based on Nennius' "Historia
Brittonum" (History of the Britons)
unless stated otherwise, sections 40-42 and 47.
of Monmouth and Geoffrey
see both his "Mythology of the British
Isles" and "Kings and Queens of
Nash Ford's "Nennius'
List of the Twenty-Eight Cities of Britain".
this episode is preceded by the revolt of
Vortigern's Saxon foederati in the East and the
collapse of his authority in much of his Kingdom,
he may have been at Caer Merddyn to attempt
recruitment of Irish mercenaries.
David Nash Ford's "The
Ancestry of Vortigern Vorteneu" as
well as section 49 of Nennius.