Discussion of the Sub-Roman
Character of Vortigern, Part 2
by David H.R. Sims
From the previous
section, it can
be seen that what is usually regarded as the primary
evidence for the period is actually far more relevant
to the study of 8th century Powysian politics. However,
two other pieces of evidence remain. Nennius gives a genealogy
for the family beginning with Gloiu, through
Vitolinus to Vitalis to Vortigern and
notes that Vitolinus was one of four brothers who
founded the city known as Gloucester. Obviously this
is incorrect, as it was established as a Roman Colonia
about AD 96 for retirees of the 2nd Legion based at
However, there is, perhaps, another explanation. Even
before the departure of Rome, the Irish subjected
coastal and other areas of western Britain to raiding
and settlement. Thus the foundation as reported by
might refer to that of an Irish colony. Now this leads
to a highly conjectural argument. It has long been
argued that the Annals and the Historia passed through
both Welsh and English hands - the confusion of the
Welsh words for shield and shoulder is most often
cited in support of this21.
However, it is curious that this is almost the sole
example. Now, reading the genealogy, it would appear
that Vortigern was the son of a family having a
surname of Vitalis or similar. Indeed Morris22
suggested that the original text read Vortigern who is
Vitalis. But this would seem unlikely, if only because
the copyist would surely have been experienced enough
to recognise the difference. But how would a later
scribe deal with Gwyddyl, an Irishman. With uncertain
and erratic orthography, it is not difficult to
latinize this as Vitalis or similar23.
In this case, the pedigree might read: - Vortigern the
thin, Irishman, son of Irishman, son of Gloiu; or
Vortigern the thin, son of Irish, son of Irish. In the
former, the copyist seeing the unfamiliar
automatically assumes that it is a part of the name
sequence and applies the relevant filii. In passing,
it should be noted that two Vortigerns are known to be
buried in Ireland24.
Finally, there is the
evidence of the Harleian (MS 3859) genealogies - not
that they immediately add to the sum of knowledge, as
they do not mention him at all (although in the later
Jesus College MS 20, he is credited as being an
ancestor of the Powys dynasty). But the names of
people generally accepted as his sons are present,
thus Cyngen map Morgan map Pascent map Categirn map
Cadell, and Millo map Brittu map Categirn map Cadell.
At first sight, the sequence seems odd, as there is
little or no evidence to connect Brittu, Millo,
Pascent and Categirn
with Cadell. However, it should be recalled that the
period was marred by continual internal strife, a
point stressed by Fatalis25
and Gildas. With this in mind, the genealogies begin
to take on the character of Regnal Lists. Therefore
the sequence might be interpreted as: - Cadell takes
Powys, but is overthrown by Categirn, but he is killed
and the rule devolves to Pascent who is himself
defeated and he and Brittu are banished to small
outlying areas. The relationship between Maun, Pascent
and Cyngen is not clear, but eventually Cyngen takes
Powys. Such a scenario would imply that Pascent
flourished in the middle of the second half of the 5th
century, and this seriously undermines the credibility
of a Severa/Vortigern union, but is still consistent
with a family interest in Gloucester about AD 410.
But what can be deduced
concerning the Ambrosius/Vortigern relationship. As
was argued earlier, the Germanus material appears to
be a later political concoction and within this, the
passage where the child identifies himself as
Ambrosius is so at variance with the previous text
that it is usually regarded as a later interpolation26
of even less historical validity. Historically, this
encounter may be discarded27.
While noting that the fear of Ambrosius quoted in
chapter 31 actually presages what is to come, there is
also no reason to suppose that it did not represent a
generally held belief, if not concerning Vortigern
himself, then perhaps his family. As there are reasons
to believe that Ambrosius held sway on the Welsh
borders about this time28,
the two points of later fear and Ambrosian power would
seem to accurately reflect the existing circumstances.
While not directly concerned with Vortigern29,
the chronographer's statement that Ambrosius had been
involved with Vitalinus at the Battle of Wallop30
fits well enough, but at a somewhat later date. Based
on the Vortigern accession about AD 450, the action
would date to AD 460-46531.
This (if the Gwyddyl/Vitalinus theory holds) would be
consistent with a Salopian action as part of the
sporadic ethnic cleansing of Irish elements - cf. the
activities of the Cunedda clan in North and West
From the above, it
appears that the comment by Alcock quoted previously
is something of an understatement. Yet if the Germanus
material is rejected as invalid, the situation is
clarified dramatically and many, if not all the
inherent ambiguities simply disappear. However, in
effecting this, it must be appreciated that any and
every scenario based on this passage (and there are
many) cannot be sustained unless it is supported
independently. This applies as much to the Pillar off
Eliseg and Geoffrey
of Monmouth as to modern interpretations invoking
conflict of political or religious interests.
To conclude this
article, it is necessary to restate the status of
Vortigern in the light of the arguments presented
Vortigern or two?
There is little reason
to doubt the historical existence of the Kentish
Vortigern. But with the removal of the Welsh material,
the status of the Welsh figure becomes much less
solid, and in essence relies on the credibility of the
pedigree given by Nennius. Since it is by no means
impossible that a family could be customised to
support the Germanus tale, the issue cannot be
regarded as clear-cut. It is perhaps significant that
only appears in Kent, and while some of his supposed
offspring are included in the Harleian manuscript,
Vortigern himself is missing. Generation counts and
calculations of the likely dates when the sons
flourished might support a view that the Kentish
figure was perhaps a generation older, but the data is
insufficient to state this with any confidence. On
balance however, the weight of evidence does not
categorically deny a Welsh Vortigern, who might even
be identifiable with the tyrant, Benlli.
Vortigern a title?
Many names were in use
at the time which indicated high status without any
titular connotation. The use of an epithet, the thin,
would tend to suggest that Vortigern was purely a name
e.g. Charles the Simple, not King the simple.
Conversely, that it was necessary to distinguish
between two near contemporary figures is an argument
in favour of the existence of separate personalities.
King or Local Tyrant?
With the removal of the
Germanus material, it becomes difficult to accept that
either Vortigern possessed power beyond their
immediate localities. Yet this point masks an
important general question concerning the political
institutions of Post - Roman Britain. It is clear that
under the Roman policy of 'Divisum et Imperium',
the existence of any native figurehead would have been
an anathema. Further, it is to be noted that Honorius
wrote to the civitates to advise them to take up their
defence. While accounts of the Alleluia battle
obviously exaggerate the part played by Germanus, it
is also clear that no assistance was received from
outside the district and that the army was purely the
responsibility of a weak, disorganised and
inexperienced local authority. Similarly, in Kent and
Sussex, there is no evidence of any central control
directing a resistance to the invasions. In short, if
such a body existed, it lacked resources and was
politically impotent. With the possible exception of
the kingdoms of the North, there is little to suggest
that any coherent authority existed, and in a period
of extensive civil strife, Britain dissolved into a
mass of squabbling city-states. That this occurred
should not be a cause of any surprise, such phenomena
have been regularly observed upon the disintegration
of empires or the removal of strong central authority33.
And that was the
sadness and tragedy of Britain. Gildas fully
understood this point, and in the Excidio, he used it
as his major political theme in a vain attempt to
prevent its recurrence. Divided, fractious, and
indifferent to the fate of their neighbours, the
remnant civitates were easy prey to piecemeal
assimilation by the Saxons. Concentrated effort or
even mutual support could have reduced or perhaps
eliminated the Saxon menace, but it never materialised.
By the time any resistance was organised, it saved
Wales, but it came too late for Greater Britannia.
and throughout, use of the name, Nennius refers to
the Author of the Historia. The doubts concerning
the authorship are known but the terms Nennius or
Nennian etc. are employed to avoid problems with
- Age of Arthur.
is understood that a Gwyddyl/Vitalis theory has
been proposed by Barber and Pykitt (Jounrey
to Avalon: The Final Discovery of King Arthur
1993). Further, it should be noted that similar
interpretative problems dog the study of Semitic
languages where only the consonant clusters are
- Age of Arthur.
There is however, a nasty little side issue here.
A libel, dating from at least 150AD, states that
Jesus was actually the illegitimate offspring of
Mary and a Roman centurion (Harris). There appears
to be a parallel here, but one best left to far
more qualified interpretation.
is often supposed to be a Vortigern kinsman. This
can only be sustained on the basis of the
grandfather's name, and as such, this is hardly a
is actually an English name Wael-hop, the valley
of a stream. It is assumed that during the
invasion of Greater Powys , a number of places
were renamed. Given an Irish dimension, the
Salopian Wallop would seem a more probable
identification than the
Chronographer raises a number of problems. However
the indirect calculations are regarded here as not
having the weight of the arrival of the Saxons in
Kent, which is thus taken throughout the article
as the primary date.
is of course noted as being killed in Kent. A
solution to this apparent anomaly is to assume
that Nennius knew that he had been killed in
battle, but not exactly where. Since the only
information he had concerned Kent , that is where
he placed his death.
for instance the postcolonial history of South
America or Africa or recent developments in the
Balkans. Indeed, it should be noted that Wales was
only unified for very short periods before the Act
- Alcock, L., Arthur's
Britain. Penguin, 1971.
- Anon., Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle, Trans. Giles.
- Anon., Harleian
- Anon., Historia
Brittonum. Trans. Giles.
- Anon., Historia
Brittonum. Trans. Morris, Phillimore, 1980.
- Bede., History
of the English Church and People. Trans. L.
- Campbell, J.(ed.), The
Anglo-Saxons. Penguin. 1982.
- Chadwick, N., The
Celts. Penguin. 1975.
- Espenak, F., Catalogue
of Solar Eclipses 501 - 600AD. Goddard Space Centre.
- Dudley, D., Roman
Society. Penguin, 1975.
- Ford, D., Dynastic
Origins: Glastening, Dogfeiling, and Pengwern.
- Gildas., De
Exidio et Conquestu Brittaniae. Trans. Giles.
- Harris, A., The Sacred
Virgin and the Holy Whore. Sphere. 1988
- Laing, L., Celtic
Britain. Grenada, 1982.
- Morris, J., The
Age of Arthur. Phillimore. 1973.
- Phillips and Keatman., King
Arthur: The True Story. Century House. 1992.
- Sims, D., Battling
with Arthur, in Preparation.
- Tolstoy, N., The
Quest for Merlin. Sceptre, 1986.
- Wiseman. H., On
the Destruction of Britain.
The author would like
to extend his grateful appreciation to David
Nash Ford for his assistance and advice in the
preparation of this article.