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Vortigern was a fifth century warlord, traditionally said to have invited the Anglo-Saxons to settle in Britain as mercenaries, who later revolted and established their own kingdoms. The details of his story have varied over the years as his story was retold.
The Tales of Vortigern
The first writer to tell the story of Vortigern was the sixth century historian Gildas. He tells us (chapter 23) how "all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant" made the mistake of inviting "the fierce and impious Saxons" to settle in Britain and serve as soldiers of the local Romano-British aristocrats (for there was no longer an imperial government in Britain) to fight against the Picts. A small group came at first, and was settled "on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king". This small group invited more of their countrymen to join them, and the colony grew. Eventually the Saxons demanded that "their monthly allotments" should be increased, and when their demands were eventually refused, broke their treaty and plundered the lands of the Romano-British.
Gildas adds two 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.
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? 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' account was Bede, who is highly praised by modern scholars for his scholarship and analysis. Bede adds several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", Vortigern (Latin Uurtigernus, Old English Wyrtgern). Bede also supplies a date (which has been traditionally accepted, but was considered suspect since the late 20th century) of AD 449, "Marcian being made emperor with Valentinian, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years." Bede also adds more information about these savages that Vortigern invited into Britain: he gives a name to their leaders, Hengest and Horsa; and specifically identifies their tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. (H.E., 1.14,15)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
When we reach the accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we are regarded with a great amount of detail. The Chronicle provides the dates & 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 Historia Britonum recounts the same four battles, also in Kent, only its author claims that Vortigern's son Vortimer won all four battles and 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. Because the date of the material underlying the compilation of the Historia Britonum 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.
The Historia Britonum provides more information on Vortigern than an account of these four battles, which conflict in several points. These conflicts can be understood if we sort the passages into groups reflecting their possible origins. Excluding what is taken from Gildas, there are five groupings of traditions:
- Material quoted from a Life of Saint Germanus. These excerpts describe Saint Germanus' incident with one Benlli, an inhospitable host, who comes to a 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.
- 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.
- The magical tale of Ambrosius and the two dragons found beneath Dinas Emrys.
- The dates of 425 for when Vortigern came to power and 437 for his defeat of the first Ambrosius at the Battle of Wallop (in Hampshire).
- A number of calculations attempting to fix the year Vortigern invited the Saxons into Britain (none as convincing as the entry Hingest and Orsa in the Irish Annal of Clonmacnoise for 447).
- Genealogical material about Vortigern's ancestry, the names of his four sons (Vortimer, Pascent, Catigern, Faustus), and which associate him with Gloucester.
The stories preserved in the Historia Britonum 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.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
It was with the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth that the story of Vortigern adopted its best-known form. Geoffrey — or the oral tradition he may have drawn upon — attempted to harmonize the conflicting materials of the Historia Britonum into a coherent narrative. Two of the new elements he introduces may come from contemporary oral tradition: the site of the banquet where the Saxons slew the British, located in modern Wiltshire, and the figure of Eldol, Count 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). However, the numerous battles with hundreds of thousands of soldiers who savagely annihilate each other are clearly creations of Geoffrey's own unimaginative brain. In addition, Monmouth 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. Like Gildas, Monmouth adds that Vortigern was succeeded briefly by his son Vortimer.
After Geoffrey, only Wace adds any more material to the tale of Vortigern, and scholars consider him a more reliable reporter of the oral tradition than Geoffrey of Monmouth. 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 would be easy to dismiss Vortigern as a fictional character, invented to explain how the Saxons came to dwell on in Britain and control much of the eastern part of the island. And yet 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 Myth?
Having waded through all of these versions, 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, an mid-9th Century stone cross, gives the Brythonic variant of Vortigern: Guarthigern. This is the same Vortigern as 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 seems certain that there existed a person called Vortigern, or at least, a person who held the title of Vortigern. The stories surrounding him may have been based in 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.
See also: the Matter of Britain
|Mythical British Kings|
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.
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