Vortigern also spelled Vortiger and Vortigen, was a 5th-century warlord in Britain
Sub-Roman Britain
Sub-Roman Britain is a term derived from an archaeological label for the material culture of Britain in Late Antiquity: the term "Sub-Roman" was invented to describe the potsherds in sites of the 5th century and the 6th century, initially with an implication of decay of locally-made wares from a...

, a leading ruler among the Britons
King of the Britons
The Britons or Brythons were the Celtic-speaking people of what is now England, Wales and southern Scotland, whose ethnic identity is today maintained by the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons...

. His existence is considered likely, though information about him is shrouded in legend. He is said to have invited the Saxons
Anglo-Saxon is a term used by historians to designate the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled the south and east of Great Britain beginning in the early 5th century AD, and the period from their creation of the English nation to the Norman conquest. The Anglo-Saxon Era denotes the period of...

 to settle in Kent
Kent is a county in southeast England, and is one of the home counties. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the Thames Estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of...

 as mercenaries
A mercenary, is a person who takes part in an armed conflict based on the promise of material compensation rather than having a direct interest in, or a legal obligation to, the conflict itself. A non-conscript professional member of a regular army is not considered to be a mercenary although he...

 to aid him in fighting the Picts
The Picts were a group of Late Iron Age and Early Mediaeval people living in what is now eastern and northern Scotland. There is an association with the distribution of brochs, place names beginning 'Pit-', for instance Pitlochry, and Pictish stones. They are recorded from before the Roman conquest...

 and the Scots
Scottish people
The Scottish people , or Scots, are a nation and ethnic group native to Scotland. Historically they emerged from an amalgamation of the Picts and Gaels, incorporating neighbouring Britons to the south as well as invading Germanic peoples such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse.In modern use,...

 beyond Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain. Begun in AD 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian, it was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today.The...

. But they revolted, killing his son in the process and adding Sussex
Sussex , from the Old English Sūþsēaxe , is an historic county in South East England corresponding roughly in area to the ancient Kingdom of Sussex. It is bounded on the north by Surrey, east by Kent, south by the English Channel, and west by Hampshire, and is divided for local government into West...

 and Essex
Essex is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in the East region of England, and one of the home counties. It is located to the northeast of Greater London. It borders with Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to the north, Hertfordshire to the west, Kent to the South and London to the south west...

 to their own kingdom. It is said that he took refuge in north Wales, and that his grave is in Dyfed or the Lleyn Peninsula.


The 6th-century historian Gildas
Gildas was a 6th-century British cleric. He is one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during this period. His renowned learning and literary style earned him the designation Gildas Sapiens...

 wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is a work by the 6th-century British cleric Gildas. It is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of Gildas' contemporaries, both secular and religious, whom he blames for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain...

 (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in the first decades of the sixth century. In Chapter 23, he tells 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. 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
Romano-British culture describes the culture that arose in Britain under the Roman Empire following the Roman conquest of AD 43 and the creation of the province of Britannia. It arose as a fusion of the imported Roman culture with that of the indigenous Britons, a people of Celtic language and...


It is not clear whether Gildas used the name Vortigern. Most editions published today omit the name. Two manuscripts name him: MS. A (Avranches MS
A manuscript or handwrite is written information that has been manually created by someone or some people, such as a hand-written letter, as opposed to being printed or reproduced some other way...

 162, 12th-century), refers to Uortigerno; and Mommsen's MS. X (Cambridge University Library
Cambridge University Library
The Cambridge University Library is the centrally-administered library of Cambridge University in England. It comprises five separate libraries:* the University Library main building * the Medical Library...

 MS. Ff. I.27) (13th-century) calls him Gurthigerno.
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." Both of these details are unlikely to have been invented by a Roman or Celt
The Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Roman-era Europe who spoke Celtic languages.The earliest archaeological culture commonly accepted as Celtic, or rather Proto-Celtic, was the central European Hallstatt culture , named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria....

ic 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
Foederatus is a Latin term whose definition and usage drifted in the time between the early Roman Republic and the end of the Western Roman Empire...

, a late Roman
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 political practice of settling allied barbarian peoples within the boundaries of the Empire to furnish troops to aid in the defence of the Empire. It is not known whether private individuals imitated this practice. It is also not known whether Gildas' reference to "the eastern side of the island" refers to Kent
Kent is a county in southeast England, and is one of the home counties. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the Thames Estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of...

, East Anglia
East Anglia
East Anglia is a traditional name for a region of eastern England, named after an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Kingdom of the East Angles. The Angles took their name from their homeland Angeln, in northern Germany. East Anglia initially consisted of Norfolk and Suffolk, but upon the marriage of...

, Northumbria
Northumbria was a medieval kingdom of the Angles, in what is now Northern England and South-East Scotland, becoming subsequently an earldom in a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. The name reflects the approximate southern limit to the kingdom's territory, the Humber Estuary.Northumbria was...

, or the entire east coast of Britain. Gildas describes how 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 extant text that considers Gildas's account is Bede
Bede , also referred to as Saint Bede or the Venerable Bede , was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, today part of Sunderland, England, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow , both in the Kingdom of Northumbria...

's. Writing in the early- to mid-8th century, he mostly paraphrases Gildas's writings in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is a work in Latin by Bede on the history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between Roman and Celtic Christianity.It is considered to be one of the most important original references on...

 and De Temporum Ratione
De temporum ratione
The Reckoning of Time is an Anglo-Saxon era treatise written in Latin by the Northumbrian monk Bede in 725. The treatise includes an introduction to the traditional ancient and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth influenced the changing length of...

. Bede only adds several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", whom he first calls Vertigernus in his Chronica Maiora and later in his Historia Vurtigernus. The Vertigernus form may reflect an earlier Celtic source or a lost version of Gildas. He also gives names in the Historia to the leaders of the Saxons, Hengest and Horsa; and specifically identifying their tribes, the Saxons, Angles
The Angles is a modern English term for a Germanic people who took their name from the ancestral cultural region of Angeln, a district located in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany...

, and Jutes
The Jutes, Iuti, or Iutæ were a Germanic people who, according to Bede, were one of the three most powerful Germanic peoples of their time, the other two being the Saxons and the Angles...

 (H.E., 1.14,15). 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 was traditionally accepted, but has been considered suspect since the late 20th century) of AD 446, "Marcian
Marcian was Byzantine Emperor from 450 to 457. Marcian's rule marked a recovery of the Eastern Empire, which the Emperor protected from external menaces and reformed economically and financially...

 being made emperor with Valentinian
Valentinian III
-Family:Valentinian was born in the western capital of Ravenna, the only son of Galla Placidia and Flavius Constantius. The former was the younger half-sister of the western emperor Honorius, and the latter was at the time Patrician and the power behind the throne....

, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years." Michael Jones notes "There are in fact several adventus dates in Bede. In H.E. 1.15 the adventus occurs within the period 449–55. In 1.23 and 5.23 another date (c. 446) is given. In 2.14 the same event is dated 446 or 447. Obviously these dates are calculated approximations.

Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), until recently attributed to a Nennius
Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century.He has traditionally been attributed with the authorship of the Historia Brittonum, based on the prologue affixed to that work, This attribution is widely considered a secondary tradition....

, a monk
A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose...

 from Bangor
Bangor, Wales
Bangor is a city in Gwynedd, north west Wales, and one of the smallest cities in Britain. It is a university city with a population of 13,725 at the 2001 census, not including around 10,000 students at Bangor University. Including nearby Menai Bridge on Anglesey, which does not however form part of...

, Gwynedd
Kingdom of Gwynedd
Gwynedd was one petty kingdom of several Welsh successor states which emerged in 5th-century post-Roman Britain in the Early Middle Ages, and later evolved into a principality during the High Middle Ages. It was based on the former Brythonic tribal lands of the Ordovices, Gangani, and the...

 in Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

, 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. Vortigern is accused of incest
Incest is sexual intercourse between close relatives that is usually illegal in the jurisdiction where it takes place and/or is conventionally considered a taboo. The term may apply to sexual activities between: individuals of close "blood relationship"; members of the same household; step...

 (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 Saint Germanus of Auxerre.
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
    Germanus of Auxerre
    Germanus of Auxerre was a bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. He is a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, commemorated on July 31. He visited Britain in around 429 and the records of this visit provide valuable information on the state of post-Roman British society...

    ' incident with one Benlli
    King Benlli was a British king who ruled part of what is now Wales in the early 5th century. He is notorious for opposing Saint Germanus and was probably a heretical follower of Arianism. The story of his admonishment by the saint and eventual demise by "fire from heaven" is recorded in Historia...

    , 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
    Constantius of Lyon
    Constantius of Lyon was a priest from what is Auvergne in modern-day France, who wrote a hagiography of Saint Germanus of Auxerre....

    ' 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
    Isle of Man
    The Isle of Man , otherwise known simply as Mann , is a self-governing British Crown Dependency, located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, within the British Isles. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who holds the title of Lord of Mann. The Lord of Mann is...

     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
    Thanet is a local government district of Kent, England which was formed under the Local Government Act 1972, and came into being on 1 April 1974...

    , in exchange for service as foederati troops; then the rest of Kent, in exchange for the hand of Hengest's daughter; then Essex
    Kingdom of Essex
    The Kingdom of Essex or Kingdom of the East Saxons was one of the seven traditional kingdoms of the so-called Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. It was founded in the 6th century and covered the territory later occupied by the counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Kent. Kings of Essex were...

     and Sussex
    Kingdom of Sussex
    The Kingdom of Sussex or Kingdom of the South Saxons was a Saxon colony and later independent kingdom of the Saxons, on the south coast of England. Its boundaries coincided in general with those of the earlier kingdom of the Regnenses and the later county of Sussex. A large part of its territory...

    , 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
    European dragon
    European dragons are legendary creatures in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe.In European folklore, a dragon is a serpentine legendary creature. The Latin word draco, as in constellation Draco, comes directly from Greek δράκων,...

     found beneath Dinas Emrys
    Dinas Emrys
    Dinas Emrys is a rocky and wooded hillock near Beddgelert in Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Rising some 250 ft above the floor of the Glaslyn river valley, it overlooks the southern end of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia. Little remains of the castle structures that once stood here, save its stone...

    . This origin of the later legend of Merlin
    Merlin is a legendary figure best known as the wizard featured in the Arthurian legend. The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written c. 1136, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures...

     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.
  • 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
    Catigern is a figure of Welsh tradition, said to be a son of Vortigern, the tyrannical King of the Britons, and the brother of Vortimer. A figure of this name also appears in the Welsh genealogies, though he is given different parentage...

    , Faustus), a father (Vitalis), a grandfather (Vitalinus) and a great-grandfather who is probably just an eponym (Gloui) which associates Vortigern with Glevum
    Glevum was a Roman fort in Roman Britain that become "colonia" of retired legionaries in AD 97. Today it is known as Gloucester, located in the English county of Gloucestershire...

    , the civitas of Gloucester
    Gloucester is a city, district and county town of Gloucestershire in the South West region of England. Gloucester lies close to the Welsh border, and on the River Severn, approximately north-east of Bristol, and south-southwest of Birmingham....


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
Vortimer is a figure in British tradition, a son of the 5th-century Britonnic ruler Vortigern. He is remembered for his fierce opposition to his father's Saxon allies...

, 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.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great...

  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
Welsh people
The Welsh people are an ethnic group and nation associated with Wales and the Welsh language.John Davies argues that the origin of the "Welsh nation" can be traced to the late 4th and early 5th centuries, following the Roman departure from Britain, although Brythonic Celtic languages seem to have...

"—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
Battle of Wippedesfleot
The Battle of Wippedesfleot in c. 466 was a battle between the Saxons led by Hengest and the post-Roman Britons. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thus:-...

, dated to 465 in Wippedsfleot, the place where the Saxons first landed, thought to be Ebbsfleet
Ebbsfleet, Thanet
Ebbsfleet is a hamlet near Ramsgate, Kent, at the head of Pegwell Bay. Historically it was a peninsula on the south coast of the Isle of Thanet, marking the eastern end of the Wantsum Channel that separated Thanet from the rest of Kent....

 near Ramsgate
Ramsgate is a seaside town in the district of Thanet in east Kent, England. It was one of the great English seaside towns of the 19th century and is a member of the ancient confederation of Cinque Ports. It has a population of around 40,000. Ramsgate's main attraction is its coastline and its main...

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 Chronicles annals for the 5th century were only put into their current form in the 9th century, probably during the reign of Alfred the Great.

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
Damnatio memoriae
Damnatio memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning "condemnation of memory" in the sense of a judgment that a person must not be remembered. It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman Senate upon traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State...

 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, 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 borne 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:
Wirtgernesburg means "Vortigern’s Stronghold" and it has been identified with Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon is a town in west Wiltshire, England with a population of about 9,326. The town's canal, historic buildings, shops, pubs and restaurants make it popular with tourists....

 in western Wiltshire.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

The story of Vortigern adopted its best-known form in the Historia Regum Britanniae
Historia Regum Britanniae
The Historia Regum Britanniae is a pseudohistorical account of British history, written c. 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It chronicles the lives of the kings of the Britons in a chronological narrative spanning a time of two thousand years, beginning with the Trojans founding the British nation...

  of Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric and one of the major figures in the development of British historiography and the popularity of tales of King Arthur...

. Geoffrey states that Vortigern was the successor to Constans, the son of the usurping emperor Constantine III
Constantine III (usurper)
Flavius Claudius Constantinus, known in English as Constantine III was a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor in Britannia in 407 and established himself in Gaul. Recognised by the Emperor Honorius in 409, collapsing support and military setbacks saw him abdicate in 411...

. 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
The Picts were a group of Late Iron Age and Early Mediaeval people living in what is now eastern and northern Scotland. There is an association with the distribution of brochs, place names beginning 'Pit-', for instance Pitlochry, and Pictish stones. They are recorded from before the Roman conquest...


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 Hengest de Cantia Regnum and the name of Hengest's daughter, who seduces Vortigern to marry her, after which his sons rebel, as a certain Ronwen recorded Rowena
Rowena is a figure in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, the daughter of the Saxon king Hengest and wife of Vortigern.Rowena can also refer to:* Rowena Cortes, Hong Kong singer during 1980s...

, also called Renwein, neither of which is a Germanic. Like the Historia Brittonum, Geoffrey adds that Vortigern was succeeded briefly by his son Vortimer, only to take the throne again when Vortimer is killed.


After William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury was the foremost English historian of the 12th century. C. Warren Hollister so ranks him among the most talented generation of writers of history since Bede, "a gifted historical scholar and an omnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical,...

, Wace
Wace was a Norman poet, who was born in Jersey and brought up in mainland Normandy , ending his career as Canon of Bayeux.-Life:...

 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
King Arthur
King Arthur is a legendary British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, who, according to Medieval histories and romances, led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the early 6th century. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, and...

, but when he does he is usually the figure as described by either Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace.

Pillar of Eliseg

The inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg
Pillar of Eliseg
The Pillar of Eliseg also known as Elise's Pillar or Croes Elisedd in Welsh, stands near Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire, Wales, at . It was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell , king of Powys in honour of his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog...

, a mid-9th-century stone cross in North Wales
North Wales
North Wales is the northernmost unofficial region of Wales. It is bordered to the south by the counties of Ceredigion and Powys in Mid Wales and to the east by the counties of Shropshire in the West Midlands and Cheshire in North West England...

, gives the Brythonic
Brythonic languages
The Brythonic or Brittonic languages form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family, the other being Goidelic. The name Brythonic was derived by Welsh Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning an indigenous Briton as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael...

 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
Powys is a local-government county and preserved county in Wales.-Geography:Powys covers the historic counties of Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire, most of Brecknockshire , and a small part of Denbighshire — an area of 5,179 km², making it the largest county in Wales by land area.It is...

, who erected the cross.

Vortigern as title rather than personal name

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
Catigern is a figure of Welsh tradition, said to be a son of Vortigern, the tyrannical King of the Britons, and the brother of Vortimer. A figure of this name also appears in the Welsh genealogies, though he is given different parentage...

, Ritigern or Tigernmaglus) are ranked as kings, which makes this suggestion unlikely. And although there are more persons named Vortigern (nine persons in Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 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
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was an Ottoman and Turkish army officer, revolutionary statesman, writer, and the first President of Turkey. He is credited with being the founder of the Republic of Turkey....

, or Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

. 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.

Local legends

A valley on the north coast of the Lleyn Peninsula, known as Nant Gwrtheyrn
Nant Gwrtheyrn
Nant Gwrtheyrn is a Welsh Language and Heritage Centre, located near near the village of Llithfaen on the northern coast of the Llŷn Peninsula, Gwynedd, in northwest Wales....

 or "Vortigern's Gorge", is named after Vortigern, and until modern times held a small barrow known locally as "Vortigern's Grave", along with a ruin known as "Vortigern's Fort" (this conflicts with doubtful reports that he died in his castle on the river Teifi in Dyfed ("Nennius") or his tower at Little Doward in Herefordshire (Geoffrey of Monmouth). Other fortifications associated with Vortigern are at Arfon in Gwynedd, Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, Carn Fadrun in Gwynedd, Clwyd in Powys, Llandysul in Dyfed, Old Carlisle in Cumberland, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, Rhaeadr Gwy in Powys, Snowdon, and Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Later appearances

Vortigern's story remained well known after the Middle Ages, especially in Great Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

. He is a major character in two Jacobean plays, the anonymous The Birth of Merlin
The Birth of Merlin
The Birth of Merlin, or, The Child Hath Found his Father is a Jacobean play, first performed in 1622 at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch. It contains a comic depiction of the birth of the fully grown Merlin to a country girl, and also features figures from Arthurian legend, including Uther...

 and Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights who wrote their best plays during the Jacobean period. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in...

's Hengist, King of Kent
Hengist, King of Kent
Hengist, King of Kent, or The Mayor of Quinborough is a Jacobean stage play by Thomas Middleton, first published in 1661.-Date:The date of authorship of the play is uncertain, though it is usually dated to c. 1615–20...

, first published in 1661. His meeting with Rowena became a popular subject in 17th-century engraving and painting, for example William Hamilton
William Hamilton (painter)
William Hamilton was an English painter and illustrator.Hamiliton was born in Chelsea, London, but travelled and worked in Italy with Antonio Zucchi for several years. He trained first as an architectural draftsman, but soon moved to theatrical portraits and scenes from plays...

's 1793 work Vortigern and Rowena. He also appeared in literature, such as John Leslie Hall's poems about the foundations of England.

One of Vortigern's most notorious literary appearances is in the play Vortigern and Rowena
Vortigern and Rowena
Vortigern and Rowena, or Vortigern, an Historical Play is a play that was touted as a newly discovered work by William Shakespeare when it first appeared in 1796. It was eventually revealed to be a Shakespeare hoax, the product of prominent forger William Henry Ireland. Its first and only...

, which was promoted as a lost work of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 when it first emerged in 1796. However, it was soon revealed as a hoax
A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.-Definition:The British...

 written by the play's purported discoverer, William Henry Ireland
William Henry Ireland
William Henry Ireland was an English forger of would-be Shakespearean documents and plays. He is less well-known as a poet, writer of gothic novels and histories...

, who had previously forged a number of other Shakespearean manuscripts. The play was at first accepted as Shakespeare's by some in the literary community, and received a performance at London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

's Drury Lane Theatre
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is a West End theatre in Covent Garden, in the City of Westminster, a borough of London. The building faces Catherine Street and backs onto Drury Lane. The building standing today is the most recent in a line of four theatres at the same location dating back to 1663,...

 on April 2, 1796. The play's crude writing, however, exposed it as a forgery, and it was laughed off stage and was never performed again. Ireland eventually admitted to the hoax and tried to publish the play under his own name, but met with little success.

Vortigern often appears in modern Arthurian fiction. In the miniseries Merlin
Merlin (film)
Merlin is a television miniseries which originally aired in 1998 that retells the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of the wizard Merlin...

 (1998) which uses the legend of Merlin and the dragons, Vortigern is played by Rutger Hauer. The film The Last Legion
The Last Legion
The Last Legion is a 2007 film directed by Doug Lefler. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and others, it is based on a 2003 Italian novel of the same name written by Valerio Massimo Manfredi...

 (2007), based in part on the novel L'ultima legione (2002) by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Valerio Massimo Manfredi is an Italian historian, writer, archaeologist and journalist.-Biography:He was born in Piumazzo di Castelfranco Emilia, province of Modena and is married to Christine Fedderson Manfredi, who translates his published works from Italian to English...

, features a highly fictionalized portrayal of Vortigern under the pseudo-authentic name Vortgyn.

External links

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