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King Arthur
The The Rise of Vortigern
by Steve Haas

Skipping 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Rome 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.

All 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Bede, 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.

Finally, 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.

There 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.

Vortigern

We 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 maelstrom.

We 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.

Who is Vortigern, you might ask?

I don't know, is the answer I might give.

There 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.

We 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 power.

We 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.

We 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.

We also know a son of Vortgern bore the impressive title of Brutus Catellus Durnolucius. Thus, Vortigern's name was possibly Gerontius Catellus Durnolucius.

In 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 political skill.

At 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 certain areas.

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.

Using 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.

The 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.

Vortigern's 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.

This 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.

With 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.

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King Arthur written by Steve Haas.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Haas
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