The Rise of Vortigern
by Steve Haas
ahead a couple of decades, in 382 A.D., another Roman general in Britain,
Maximus Magnus, seizing the opportunity of disorder in the Empire, declared
himself Ceasar and invaded Gaul, taking with him two Legions in Britain, which
never returned. The current Roman Emperor, Theodosius, was willing to accept a
join regentship with Maximus, but this was not good enough for Maximus. In 387,
Maximus invaded Italy, taking Milan, was defeated by Theodosius in two battles
and was beheaded. The memory of Magnus Maximus was retained by the people of
Britain, later to become the Welsh, in the Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic
stories first written down in 1300. The relevant story is entitled, "The Dream
of Macsen Wledig," and is the only one of the Mabinogion which bears any
relevance to history.
troops lost by Britain in Magnus' aborted attempt to seize the throne of Rome
affected Britain deeply. The Picts and the Scotii again invaded Britain. Two
distinct invasions are recorded, both of which were repelled only by the
intervention of Roman troops from the continent.
the early years of the 5th century, in 401 and 403, the Visigoths, under Alaric
invaded Italy, and were defeated, but only by calling in as many Legions as
could be called, further weakening Britain. The instability caused by THIS
brought the rise of even another Imperial pretender in Britain, a common soldier
named Constantine (no relationship to the others). The time seemed propitious,
due to the instability. Constantine crossed into Gaul and seized the province,
The current Roman Emperor, Honorious, was forced to recognize Constantine as
co-regent in the West.
was sacked by Alaric in 410. The Emperor, Honorious, moved the capital to Milan
and then Ravena. By this time, there was no effective Roman help for Britain. In
410, Honorious wrote to a British high council of some sort stating this very
fact, telling Britain that Rome could not help them. They were on their own.
I have written up to this point is history. From now on, we venture into
scholarly speculation. We know that some sort of British council existed,
because they sent an appeal to Honorious, and he replied to them. We know that,
in 425, a leader arose named Vortigern. In the next letter, I shall go into the
history of Vortigern, the man who saved Britain and ultimately doomed it to
Anglo-Saxon conquest due to passion and poor judgement…but you must understand
that all of what I say is my own interpretation of the works I have read. It
should be right…but it could be all wrong.
first history of Britain that we are aware of was written in 540, A.D. by a mad
monk called Gildas. Unfortunately, it is much more concerned with the moral
failings of the British kings than with any particular detail. Besides providing
a framework within which to work, Gildas has caused more problems than he has
solved by writing his work. He doesn't mention Arthur.
next history, though, was written in 731 A.D. by a monk named Nennius. Nennius
is considered to be one of the genius' of the age. He lists his sources, and
provides good detail; unfortunately, his sources have not been found, and the
details he describes are often obscure. For instance, he is the first to list
the twelve battles of Arthur, and the first to mention Arthur…but he doesn't
say where the battles were fought and we cannot identify the sites even now. He
probably never visited Britain, and was only working from sources.
writing about the same time as Nennius, uses the same sources but organizes them
better; many phrases of Bede's are exactly the same as in Nennius, suggesting
they are using the same work.
we come to Geoffrey of Monmouth.Written in the 12th century, Geoffrey's book
is the origin of the Arthur legend as we know now. Claiming to have used
‘ancient sources' for his book, he makes claims that are wild and strange;
in this we see the legend of Merlin arising, the Sword in the Stone, the legend
of Arthur's birth by Uther….Geoffrey is probably the least realiable author,
since he is so far removed from the events, but we can't reject what he says
out of hand.
are other sources, snippets of information here, linguistic studies,
archaeological studies and anthropological studies, all of which go into
deciding who Arthur really was. Over all of this is the notion that maybe there
WAS no Arthur…and that possibility exists, also.
are currently in the year 410 A.D. Rome has told Britain that Britain cannot
expect help from Rome to stave off the attacks of the Picts, from the North, the
Scotii (Irish) from the West and the Anglo-Saxsons from the East. Arthur is not
even a twinkle in his father's eye at the moment, but events are shaping
Arthur's world so that when that twinkle occurs, Arthur will be thrust into a
start now with Vortigern, and I shall spend a bit of time on this gentleman,
partially because he is so interesting, and because he has such a strong
influence on future events.
is Vortigern, you might ask?
don't know, is the answer I might give.
is no real history on this person. We know someone by that name appeared in some
events at this time, but we know nothing, really, about who he was or what his
life was like.
CAN infer certain things, though. His age, for one. He came to prominence in 425
A.D., by seizing power in Britain. He died in 468 or so; he couldn't have been
much younger or older than 20 years old in 425; at the age of 20 in 425, in 468
he would have been 63, a ripe old age for the time. It is not likely he was much
older than that, and not likely he was younger than 20 in 425 when he seized
know his name was not Vortigern. Vortigern is derived from the Celtic words vor,
meaning "over", and gern, meaning "chieftan." His correct Latin title
probably meant superbus tyrranus, which is how Gildas describes him in de
Excidio Brtannia. The translation of this would be tyrant; it must be understood
that this was not a pejorative word at the time. A tyrant was someone who
wielded power without real authority to do so. Vortigern assumed the kingship of
Britain without any legitimate authority.
can also infer his name. Geoffrey of Monmouth refers to him, wrongly, as the
betrayer of Constans, the son of Emperor Constantine III. Constantine's
betrayer bore the name Gerontius (Geraint, or Gerient in Welsh). In addition,
the surviving fragment of a lost Welsh poem alludes to a Saint Germanus
receiving command of a Briton army from a ruler called Gereint. This incident
occurred when Vortigern governed in Britain, so the Gereint from whom Saint
Germanus received command must have been Vortigern. Finally, a hillfort on
Deeside by Llangollen in Clwyd (Northeastern Wales), which was recaptured by the
Britons from the Irish during Vortigern's reign is calld "Fort of
Geraint." This fort was probably reconquered and renamed for Vortigern.
also know a son of Vortgern bore the impressive title of Brutus Catellus
Durnolucius. Thus, Vortigern's name was possibly Gerontius Catellus
425, as was said before, Vortigern assumed power of the British Council. He did
this by the simple means of marrying the daughter of the former emperor Maximus;
her name was Severa, and she came with a large dowery of land and money. The
influence of Maxiums' name, plus the wealth of the dowery ensured Vortigern
the opportunity to claim a piece of British politics. The force of his
personality must have been the rest of what Vortigern needed to claim ultimate
authority over the British Council. Note that there was still no legitimacy to
his claim; anyone else could have made the same claim. The fact that Vortigern
was able to maintain this position for over 25 years is a tribute to his
this time the biggest threat to the Britons were the Picts. The Picts, at this
time, were led by Drust macErp, who reigned from A.D. 414 to A.D. 458, and was
said to have participated in over a hundred battles. Most of these were with the
Britains. Also, the Irish were raiding the Welsh Coast, and even settling in
428 A.D., Vortigern made the momentous decision to invite three shiploads (about
200 men) of Anglo-Saxons to settle in Britain, in exchange for the use of their
swords. The agreement was that the Anglo-Saxons would settle on Thanet Island,
off the coast of the province of Kent. This was a good agreement, and not
terribly original, as the Romans had often used barbarian mercenaries to fight
other barbarians. Giving them Thanet Island was a risk, but they were not on the
mainland, and could still be contained. However, it was a precedent.
these Anglo-Saxons, as well as former Roman Legion members who had settled in
Britain around the towns that had been the base of those legions as well as
native soldiers, Vortigern met and fought the Picts somewhere in the vicinity of
Hadrian's Wall, in and about A.D. 431. We know nothing about this battle, but
after it, the Picts never troubled the British again. It must have been a great
victory. Now Vortigern was free to deal with the Irish.
Irish had, by this time, settled extensively in Wales. The principal Irish
kingdom in Britain was Demetia, in southeaster Wales (essentially the southern
part of modern-day Dyfed). The Irish settlement in Demetia was extensive,
involving a major tribal relocation.
solution to this was simple; he decided, again, to pitch one barbarian tribe
against another. To do this, he relocated many of the unreliable Votadini from
far north Britain to north Wales. These Votadini had allied themselves with the
Picts during the recent wars. Rather than destroying them, Vortigern made very
good use of them in this manner.
solution was brilliant. The Votadini, led by Cunedda and his sons, carved out a
new kingdom for themselves, which they called Gwynedd (Latinized as "Venedotia")
meaning ‘desirable land." The war between the Votadini and the Irish lasted
at least three generations, in Wales, and while these two fractious peoples were
fighting against each other, they were no trouble to the rest of Britain.
northern Wales out of his problem area, Vortigern was able to turn his attention
to other areas in Wales…capturing Devon and Cornwall and making them a part of
Britain again. Now, his only real problem was the Anglo-Saxons, who were still
raiding his Eastern Coast.
King Arthur written by
Copyright © 2001 Steve Haas