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Discussion of the Sub-Roman Character of Vortigern, Part 1
by David H.R. Sims

One Man, Two or Just a Title?

Britain entered the Dark Ages as a Romano-Celtic satellite of a decaying empire; it emerged, two centuries later as the harassed periphery of a Germanic proto-England. Yet despite the magnitude of this cultural and political hiatus, few details of the mechanisms of change have survived. Extant literary sources are sparse, often ambiguous and frequently contradicted by archaeological evidence. Consequently a mass of speculation and conjecture has grown up around the events of the period. Typical of these uncertainties is the case of Vortigern, who, despite having an exposure equal to any figure of the period, remains a totally enigmatic personality. In the words of Alcock1 - 'each learned article only makes the subject more intractable'. This essay is therefore an attempt to critically re-examine these issues.

Vortigern appears in some guise in all the early manuscripts. In Gildas, he is the 'Tyrannus Superbus' who, with his council, invited the Saxons to Britain as mercenaries. Bede used this account in a slightly expanded form - he supplied the names of Hengist and Horsa and also identified the tyrant as Vertigenus, points repeated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But it is in the Historia Brittonum where the greatest detail can be found. Originally compiled about AD 830 by a monk who might have been called Nennius, the work seeks to narrate the history of the Britons from the earliest times. The section covering the 5th and 6th centuries (chapters 31-56) is, in essence, a description of the establishment of Saxondom in mainland Britain, and the first part of this (chaps. 31-49), is dominated by the presence of Vortigern and his generally unhappy relationships with Germanus, Ambrosius and the Saxons. The piece is permeated by a strong sense of chronological organisation with the result that it is subject to abrupt changes of textual content. But the most striking point to emerge is the apparent duplication of matters concerning him. Thus he would seem to have two homes, at least two wives, and rather more oddly, two deaths. This has prompted theories2 that the accounts of two separate people have been conflated, and further, the relatively wide range of his apparent influence has led to speculation that Vortigern was a title of some import, perhaps equivalent to a High King or similar rank.

Before embarking on any further discussion, it would be wise to consider what sources concerning the period were available to Nennius. It is clear that he made use of Gildas, and probably Bede as well. But it is also clear that his (two?) major sources are no longer available. There was a life of Germanus, which differed drastically from the official version of Constantius. According to Morris3, 'the substance of this life was communicated by a British Bishop Marcus to Heiric before the end of the 8th century'. Apparently, the events of the Alleluia battle were expanded considerably, and significantly, it was regarded as having a considerable influence on the history of Powys. The second lost work was a Kentish chronicle. This work, or its substance, was apparently available to both Bede and the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and might be regarded as a major loss as it would have, presumably, detailed not only the invasion of Kent but that of Sussex as well. That it was preserved as an early written record is supported by the extraordinary precision with which the eclipses of AD 538 and 540 are reported: they are not recorded in the Irish or Welsh annals but are exactly confirmed by NASA calculations4. Apparently, Augustine was aware that Christianity had been established at Canterbury5, but perhaps he was unaware how recently it had succumbed. In addition, it must be assumed that Nennius had access to a number of chronicles and annals.

It is now possible to understand Nennius's dilemma. He knew that Vortigern came to power three years before the coming of the Saxons, but he had two dates (428, Bede, and 449, Kent) for this. He also possessed accounts concerning a Vortigern, but in seemingly different contexts and locations. What ensued was therefore an attempt to weld disparate material into a coherent whole. The success of this is the bafflement of historians; the failure is the loose ends and ambiguities that remain. In particular, the dates, employing Consular, AD, Passionist and World Age conventions, are a source of potential confusion, not wholly assisted by inaccurate calculation and (probably) later miscopying. From this emerges a split personality, with two lives, families and deaths.

Historically, it seems reasonable to assume that the Kentish material is of some reliability despite its oversimplifications and allegories, and indeed, much can be confirmed from other sources. In brief, Hengist and Horsa were recruited as mercenaries to defend Kent against the incursions of Pictish (and other) raiders. They were originally settled in Thanet, but with time, their numbers increased and they were allocated land in Kent proper. This contract appears to have been sealed by the marriage of Vortigern to Rowena. However, the land set aside and the provisions promised were inadequate for the burgeoning Saxon population. Perceiving the British military weakness, they rebelled. After a series of engagements, it appears that Vortimer, his son6, contained the Saxons to the Kent region, and indeed, there is evidence that many may have been forced to return to the continent. A second pulse of migration began some (5?) years later, and after the "night of the long knives", the British, i.e. Vortigern, ceded Sussex, Essex and Middlesex7. Broadly, this sequence is consistent with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are gaps, e.g. between 465 and 473, and 473 and 477, which could be due to a British resurgence, the latter being the more likely as it ends with the arrival of Aelle in Sussex. The narrative continues with Vortigern being shunned as a traitor and his death of a broken spirit.

The first point to consider here is why the events described attained such an importance. It is abundantly clear that the events described were initially of only local relevance and even the occupation of Sussex etc. was at best limited to a relatively small area. There is evidence of a Saxon presence in AD 428 (and before) and by AD 441, the Gallic chronicle could report that a significant part of the country was under Saxon control, not to mention any settlement in Bernicia or Deira. Perhaps the major reason for this is the fact that the events were noted in a cosmopolitan area with some sort of literary tradition and therefore the Kentish invasion came to be regarded as the single adventus. As a record was made, it must be assumed that the date of Vortigern's assumption of power refers to the Saxon influx of c.AD 450. In this context, another explanation of the confusion of dates is possible. The sources indicate that the Saxons arrived at some time during the consulate of Marcian and Valentianus, i.e. between AD 450-456 (the exact date is not given). Now the difference between 428 and 456 is twenty-eight years, the standard offset between Passionist and AD dating, and as the Historia is littered with dates confused in this way, such an assumption might prove a simpler solution to the problem.

Therefore, from the information, it can be seen that, in Kent, Vortigern was a leader whose influence probably extended over much of South-East England; he assumed power at some time between AD 445 and 450 and ruled with reference to a council of some description. There is little reason to assume that he was ransomed8, but his ostracism seems all too likely. If the Historia is taken at face value, he would have died about AD 480, but the dates are unclear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and this would seem 10-15 years too late9.

By contrast, the activities of Vortigern in Welsh tradition are far more complex. In the Historia, he is portrayed as ' the baddie' in counterpoint to the saintliness of the blessed Germanus, who is in fact, as much the subject of the section as Vortigern. The section opens with a piece of hagiography in which Germanus destroys a giant called Benlli using heavenly fire and raises Cadell to the crown of Powys. Then follows a strange tale of pagan origin where Germanus, hearing of Vortigern's incest with his daughter, rushes with the British clergy to confront him. The child, now able to speak10, identifies him as his father, and Vortigern departs in a state of high dudgeon. This leads directly into the well-known collapsing castle episode. In brief, Vortigern tries to build a stronghold in Snowdonia, but the materials disappear. Consulting with his magi, he is told that the blood of a fatherless boy is required. Eventually one is discovered in the Maes Elleti area of Glywysing. On the day of the sacrifice, the boy turns the tables on the assembly by having them dig into the foundation of the castle where a pool containing two fighting snakes is found. The boy interprets their conflict as equivalent to that current between the Welsh and the Saxons and prophesises that although the advantage currently lies with the Saxons, a time will come when the Welsh will prevail. The boy then identifies himself as Ambrosius, and explains that his father is a Roman consul. Vortigern gives him the castle and lands in the western part of Britain. Eventually cornered by Germanus, Vortigern and his wives are destroyed by another blast of fire from heaven11. Ambrosius then allows Pascent to remain in the Buellt/Gwerthrynion area, and, having quoted his pedigree, Nennius concludes by noting that this is enough of Vortigern and his family.

It is clear that this is not history but the stuff of myth and legend, and it is therefore necessary to examine the passage more closely to establish its significance or indeed, its relevance to the period. As was noted previously, much of the material appears to emanate from a variant life of Germanus completed towards the end of the 8th century and thus it must be treated with the caution reserved for all such works. The text was strongly pro-Powysian, and indeed it may well be the inspiration behind the numerous churches in North-East Wales dedicated to St. Garmon. It also included an expanded version of the Alleluia battle, which curiously, is only present as a truncated interpolation in some Historia manuscripts. Now it is known that Germanus was invited to Britain to combat the evils of Pelagianism. In keeping with the genre, his Vita, compiled by Constantius12, not long after his death, contains the requisite number of miracles and supernatural happenings, but nothing of the sort presented in the later life where Vortigern is obviously an unbeliever given to highly unchristian practices. This is not a question of heresy, Pelagian or otherwise, Vortigern is presented as a pagan, pure and simple. However, the work tells another story, independent of any religious overtones. Cadell is raised to the kingship of Powys; evil Vortigern is confounded; the Saxons are to be defeated; Vortigern bestows Ambrosius with the rule of western Britain, and Pascent, the son of Vortigern, is allowed to rule in the reduced area of Buellt. Now from a number of sources13, it appears that the rule of Powys was not a simple succession of related kings. Ford14 has suggested that after the death of Selyf at Chester, the Pengwern dynasty assumed the kingdom only to be removed after the defeat of Cynddylan about AD 650. However, the Harleian pedigrees15 suggest that the break was somewhat more extensive as four names are said to cover about 150 years, and this would suggest a hiatus of some 60-70 years, probably between Guilloc and Eliseg. The inscription of the enigmatic Pillar of Eliseg16 might provide some confirmation of this, as it states that Eliseg had annexed Powys from the power of the English. Further, Offa's Dyke dates from this period17, and it would appear that there was a pulse of warfare around that time with Eliseg expelling the English and possibly taking the vacant throne. But one might assume the presence of rival claimants; for example, the Vortigern Dynasty still held Buellt, and it would be in his interest to denigrate them while enhancing the importance of the Cadell line. Further, the passage includes an encitment to continue fighting the Saxons, as, eventually, the Welsh will prevail. In other words, the life was a political creation, and as such cannot be regarded as having any relevance to the earlier period except in the most general way. Indeed, in this context, the choice of Vortigern as a known failure in his dealings with the Saxons might even be deliberate.

Unfortunately, similar suspicions have been raised concerning the Pillar of Eliseg. The inscription, now illegible, is said to tell of how Eliseg, the great-grandfather of Cyngen, regained Powys; the later part of the text concerns genealogical matters and shows that the dynasty was derived from the Vortigern family. The first point of interest is why Cyngen should have been moved to erect a monument to his great-grandfather, however important and a second complication is that the pillar is said to be of late 10th century Mercian design18. Basically, the motives behind the erection remain somewhat enigmatic, although, as the Buellt dynasty disappeared about this time, it is possible that the monument represents a post hoc justification of a Powysian take-over. Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently improbable in the genealogy; many kingdoms traced their descent from Macsen, or other Roman officials. However, if Severa was his full daughter and not a granddaughter, nor the offspring of Roman family (or more contentiously, a metaphoric connection with the Severn) then this has to date Vortigern to the early part of the 5th century.

Next: Part 2

Notes and References

  1. Alcock.
  2. e.g. Alcock, Phillips and Keatman etc.
  3. Morris. Historia Brittonum, introduction.
  4. Eclipse data from site
  5. Bede
  6. In context, it should be noted that son could mean kinsman or similar.
  7. While the description fits the broad facts, the detail is surely allegory.
  8. Realistically, there is no reason to believe that Vortigern had the power to ransom himself at this stage. Further, it is difficult to think that the British would want anything other than to let him rot. Allegory strikes again.
  9. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates are often regarded as arbitrary (see Campbell or Alcock). On the basis of the text Aelle's invasion might be better dated to about AD 470.
  10. As the child was speaking, the incest could hardly be exactly up-to-the-minute news. Yet another inconsistency.
  11. Note that Benlli met a similar fate. Were Vortigern and Benlli identical or was there a lot of it about.
  12. Wiseman.
  13. See, for instance the Powys biographies, this site.
  14. Ford.
  15. Harleian MS 3859.
  16. Pillar of Eliseg. See on line, or Laing.
  17. Campbell.
  18. Laing.    Copyright 1998, LLC