Vortigern: Wikis

  
  

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Vortigern (pronounced /ˈvɔrtɨɡɜrn/; Welsh: Gwrtheyrn; Old English: Wyrtgeorn; Breton: Guorthigern; Irish: Foirtchern), also spelled Vortiger and Vortigen, was a 5th-century warlord in Britain, a leading ruler among the Britons. His existence is considered likely, though information about him is shrouded in legend. He is said to have invited the Saxons to settle in Britain as mercenaries, only to see them revolt and establish their own kingdoms. This earned him a poor reputation so that he was eventually remembered as one of the worst kings of the Britons in later legend.

Contents

Accounts

Gildas

The first writer to tell the story of Vortigern was the 6th-century historian Gildas, who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (English: 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.

It is not clear whether Gildas used the name Vortigern. Most editions published today omit the name, but there are at least two manuscripts that mention it: Codex Abrincencsis, also known as Mommsen's MS. A (Avranches Public Library MS. 162) (12th-century), refers to superbo tyranno Vortigerno; and Mommsen's MS. X (Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27) (13th-century) mentions Gurthigerno Brittanorum duce. The fact that Bede also used the name makes it likely that Gildas did so too.

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 Celtic 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, 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? Or were they simply spread over 'the eastern side'? But Gildas also describes that 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.

Bede

The first to consider Gildas's account was Bede, who is highly praised by modern scholars for his scholarship and analysis. This, however, has hardly any bearing on his description of the 5th and 6th centuries, because Bede, writing in the early- to mid-8th century, mostly paraphrases Gildas's writings in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum and De Temporum Ratione. Bede only adds several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", Vortigern (Latin Uurtigernus/Uuertigernus/Vertigernus, from the Old Welsh Gwrtheyrn. The Old English version was Wyrtgeorn). Since Bede leaned heavily on Gildas, this may simply be a confirmation that Gildas indeed used the name of Vortigern, too. 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 has been traditionally accepted, but has been considered suspect since the late 20th century) of AD 446, "Marcian being made emperor with Valentinian, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years." However, he also provides dates such as 449-455 and 446-447, which does not add to his credibility. It will be obvious that these dates do not represent a single source, but are the result of calculated approximations, and therefore useless as hard facts. Bede seems to have used a period of 40 years, which he added to the end of Roman Britain, which he reasonably calculated at AD 409 or 406, when the first usurper may have attempted to rise against the regular Roman government. Where this vague period of 40 years originated is unknown to us, other than that the Historia Brittonum mentions a similar period, which its author uses for a calculation of a similar period, which he placed between the death of the usurper Magnus Maximus (388) and the adventus (428).

Bede gives names to the leaders of the Saxons, Hengest and Horsa; and specifically identifies their tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. (H.E., 1.14,15).

Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), usually attributed to a certain Nennius, a monk from Bangor, Gwynedd in Wales, 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, who nonetheless figures heavily in genealogies of many Welsh royal houses. Vortigern is accused of incest (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' incident with one Benlli, 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' 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 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, 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. 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 found beneath Dinas Emrys. This origin of the later legend of Merlin 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, Faustus), a father (Vitalis), a grandfather (Vitalinus) and a great-grandfather who is probably just an eponym (Gloui) which associates Vortigern with Glevum, the civitas of Gloucester.

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, 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.

An early British chronicle fragment

The earliest form of the name of Vortigern that we know of is Uuertigernus, which comes from a manuscript bound at the end of the Bern Codex 178. This is a short British chronicle-fragment, based on a text of Bede and probably produced in France during the 9th century. The Bern Codex 178 chronicle-fragment consists of 116 folios and was probably written after c. AD 850, possibly in France. The chronicle is the last in a collection of short, often grammatical tracts that follow a Latin glossary. The main purpose of this MS therefore probably was of a grammatical nature, with no interest in history intended. If so, we may probably be grateful for Bede's fine Latin.

Our main interest in this altered copy of Bede's recapitulation is the name "Uuertigerno". This form of the name Vortigern is unique, although for all we know the annalist might have drawn it also from Bede, as the rest of the text. Bede, who drew largely from Gildas, used Vertigernus in his De Temporum Ratione (III, 66), a form which he also must have obtained from an early British source, whether this was a version of Gildas or some other, lost source. The earliest version of Gildas' manuscript (MS Avranches A 162) has Uur- and Uor-. However, most of Bede's MSS write it with -e-, which probably means this annal used a different source. Bede's usual form is the pre-literary English form Uur-, which he uses in his Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (I.14), which must have been copied from a document written in the early 7th century.

A similar annal to this one, containing the form Vertigerno, was found by H. M. Chadwick in another copy of Bede's chronicle, this time interpolated sub anno passionis 348 in Isidore of Seville's Chronica Maiora, though this manuscript dates back only to the 15th century. This also shows that by the 7th century, the form Uer- began to separate into Welsh, Irish and English forms. The post-Roman Uor- was developed from the Celtic preposition ver, and that this was replaced by the former.

The earliest form of Vortigern would be the reconstructed Brythonic Celtic *Wortigernos. This form regularly developed into Old Welsh Guorthigirn, as used in the Historia Brittonum, and that in turn became Middle Welsh Gwrtheyrn, the form mostly used today.

Approach to Nant Gwrtheyrn.

The Irish form of the name, also found in Scotland, is Foirtchern(n). In Brittany the name is Gurthiern, a form related to the Welsh Gwrtheyrn. In Old English, wor- had become wur- due to sound-substitution of the unfamiliar vowel sequence o-i (in Vortigernus) by the familiar AS. u-i. Thus *Wortigernos became *Wurtigern by the 7th century and finally Wyrtgeorn in literary Anglo-Saxon.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

When we reach the accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we are presented with a great amount of information and seemingly great detail. The Chronicle 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" -- 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 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 Chronicle's annals for the 5th century were only put into their current form in the 9th century, probably during the reign of Alfred the Great.[1]

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 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, as we read in the History of the Britons, 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: "He (i.e. Cenwalh, king of Wessex) defeated in two actions the Britons, furious with the recollection of their ancient liberty, and in consequence perpetually meditating resistance; first, at a place called Wirtgernesburg, and then at a mountain named Pene..". Wirtgernesburg means "Vortigern’s Stronghold" and it has been identified with Bradford on Avon in western Wiltshire. Though this might simply indicate that Vortigern’s name was attached to a wandering folk-tale old enough to become attached to Bradford ("Broad Ford") before the Saxons came there in the second half of the 7th century, we must consider that William lived nearby and must have known the region well.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

It was with the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth that the story of Vortigern adopted its best-known form in the fictional Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Geoffrey — or the oral tradition he may have drawn upon — attempted to harmonize the conflicting materials of the Historia Brittonum and many other traditions into a coherent narrative, that combined insular with continental material. Geoffrey claimed that his source was (or had access to) a "certain book in the British language". Modern historians agree that it seems impossible to maintain that sources like the Welsh Bruts are the Welsh originals, instead of Welsh copies of Geoffrey's work. Whereas some have seen an underlying Welsh tradition, other have pointed to the possibility that this was a Breton tradition instead. According to some Geoffrey was a foreigner from France, bringing his Breton background with him. His work shows many Breton influences and continental sources. This argument points out Geoffrey's Bretons are also always more noble than the treacherous Welsh, who to the new elite must have ranked one step below the vanquished English. Geoffrey may then have been attempting to Normandise the British history, but whatever his aims, which ultimately are in dispute, he created a history equally popular in Wales, England and Normandy and indeed all of Europe.

Some of the new elements he introduces may however come from contemporary oral tradition: for instance the site of the banquet where the Saxons slew the British, located in modern Wiltshire (suggested by the construction of Stonehenge in their honour), and the figure of Eldol, Consul 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). With his version of Amesbury ("Mons Ambrius"), Geoffrey betrays a complete lack of local knowledge. Likewise, the numerous battles with hundreds of thousands of soldiers who savagely annihilate each other are clearly creations of Geoffrey's own imaginative brain, as are the many speeches from the mouth of many kings and generals.

In addition, Geoffrey 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. 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, also called Renwein, neither of which is a Germanic. Like the Historia Brittonum, Geoffrey adds that Vortigern was succeeded briefly by his son Vortimer.

Wace

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

History or apocrypha?

Having waded through all of these stories, 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, a mid-9th-century stone cross in North Wales, gives the Brythonic 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, who erected the cross.

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, Ritigern or Tigernmaglus) are ranked as kings, which makes this suggestion unlikely. And although there are more persons named Vortigern (nine persons in Ireland 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, Atatürk, or Stalin. 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.

It seems certain that there existed a person called Vortigern. The stories surrounding him may have been based on 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.

Later appearances

Vortigern's story remained well-known after the Middle Ages, especially in Great Britain. He is a major character in two Jacobean plays, the anonymous The Birth of Merlin and Thomas Middleton's Hengist, King of Kent, first published in 1661. His meeting with Rowena became a popular subject in 17th-century engraving and painting, for example William Hamilton's 1793 work Vortigern and Rowena. He also appeared in literature, such as John Leslie Hall's poems about the foundations of England.[2]

One of Vortigern's most notorious literary appearances is in the play Vortigern and Rowena, which was promoted as a lost work of William Shakespeare when it first emerged in 1796. However, it was soon revealed as a hoax written by the play's purported discoverer, William Henry Ireland, 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's Drury Lane Theatre 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.[3][4]

The film The Last Legion (2007) features a highly-fictionalized portrayal of Vortigern.

Other associations

A valley on the north coast of the Lleyn Peninsula, known as Nant Gwrtheyrn, is named after Vortigern.

References

  1. ^ Swanton, Michael (1998). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Routledge. xxi-xxviii. ISBN 0-415-92129-5.  
  2. ^ Robert Vermaat (2002). "Art and Literature". Vortigern Studies. http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artlit/artlit.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-28.  
  3. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey (1991), "(Samuel) William Henry Ireland", in Lacy, Norris J., The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, New York: Garland, pp. 244  
  4. ^ William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare Forgeries

External links

Preceded by
Constans
Mythical British Kings
First Reign
Succeeded by
Vortimer
Preceded by
Vortimer
Mythical British Kings
Second Reign
Succeeded by
Ambrosius Aurelianus

Vortigern (pronounced /ˈvɔrtɨɡɜrn/;[citation needed] Welsh: Gwrtheyrn; Old English: Wyrtgeorn; Breton: Guorthigern; Irish: Foirtchern), also spelled Vortiger and Vortigen, was a 5th-century warlord in Britain, a leading ruler among the Britons. His existence is considered likely, though information about him is shrouded in legend. He is said to have invited the Saxons to settle in Kent as mercenaries to aid him fight the Picts and the Scots beyond Hadrian's Wall. Unfortunately they revolted, killing his son in the process and adding Sussex and Essex to their own kingdom. This earned him a poor reputation so that he was eventually remembered as one of the worst kings of the Britons in later legend.

Contents

Accounts

Gildas

The 6th-century historian Gildas wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (English: 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.[1] 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.

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 162, 12th-century), refers to Uortigerno; and Mommsen's MS. X (Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27) (13th-century) calls him Gurthigerno.[2] 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."[2] Both of these details are unlikely to have been invented by a Roman or Celtic 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, 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? Or were they simply spread over 'the eastern side'? But Gildas also describes that 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.

Bede

The first extant text that considers Gildas's account is Bede's. Writing in the early- to mid-8th century, he mostly paraphrases Gildas's writings in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum and De Temporum Ratione. 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.[3] He also gives names in the Historia to the leaders of the Saxons, Hengest and Horsa; and specifically identifying their tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes (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 being made emperor with Valentinian, 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.[3]

Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), until recently attributed to a Nennius, a monk from Bangor, Gwynedd in Wales, 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 (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:[citation needed]

  • Material quoted from a Life of Saint Germanus. These excerpts describe Saint Germanus' incident with one Benlli, 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' 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 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, 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. 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 found beneath Dinas Emrys. This origin of the later legend of Merlin 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, Faustus), a father (Vitalis), a grandfather (Vitalinus) and a great-grandfather who is probably just an eponym (Gloui) which associates Vortigern with Glevum, the civitas of Gloucester.

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, 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 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"—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, thought to be Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate. 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 Chronicle's annals for the 5th century were only put into their current form in the 9th century, probably during the reign of Alfred the Great.[4]

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 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:

He (i.e. Cenwalh, king of Wessex) defeated in two actions the Britons, furious with the recollection of their ancient liberty, and in consequence perpetually meditating resistance; first, at a place called Wirtgernesburg, and then at a mountain named Pene...

Wirtgernesburg means "Vortigern’s Stronghold" and it has been identified with Bradford on Avon in western Wiltshire.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

It was with the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth that the story of Vortigern adopted its best-known form in the fictional Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Geoffrey—or the oral tradition he may have drawn upon—attempted to harmonize the conflicting materials of the Historia Brittonum and many other traditions into a coherent narrative, that combined insular with continental material. Geoffrey claimed that his source was (or had access to) a "certain book in the British language". Modern historians agree that it seems impossible to maintain that sources like the Welsh Bruts are the Welsh originals, instead of Welsh copies of Geoffrey's work. Whereas some have seen an underlying Welsh tradition, other have pointed to the possibility that this was a Breton tradition instead. According to some Geoffrey was a foreigner from France, bringing his Breton background with him. His work shows many Breton influences and continental sources. This argument points out Geoffrey's Bretons are also always more noble than the treacherous Welsh, who to the new elite must have ranked one step below the vanquished English. Geoffrey may then have been attempting to Normandise the British history, but whatever his aims, which ultimately are in dispute, he created a history equally popular in Wales, England and Normandy and indeed all of Europe.

Some of the new elements he introduces may however come from contemporary oral tradition: for instance the site of the banquet where the Saxons slew the British, located in modern Wiltshire (suggested by the construction of Stonehenge in their honour), and the figure of Eldol, Consul 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). With his version of Amesbury ("Mons Ambrius"), Geoffrey betrays a complete lack of local knowledge. Likewise, the numerous battles with hundreds of thousands of soldiers who savagely annihilate each other are clearly creations of Geoffrey's own imaginative brain, as are the many speeches from the mouth of many kings and generals.

In addition, Geoffrey 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. 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, also called Renwein, neither of which is a Germanic. Like the Historia Brittonum, Geoffrey adds that Vortigern was succeeded briefly by his son Vortimer.

Wace

After William of Malmesbury, Wace adds any more[clarification needed] 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, 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, a mid-9th-century stone cross in North Wales, gives the Brythonic 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, 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, Ritigern or Tigernmaglus) are ranked as kings, which makes this suggestion unlikely. And although there are more persons named Vortigern (nine persons in Ireland 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, Atatürk, or Stalin. 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.

Later appearances

Vortigern's story remained well-known after the Middle Ages, especially in Great Britain. He is a major character in two Jacobean plays, the anonymous The Birth of Merlin and Thomas Middleton's Hengist, King of Kent, first published in 1661. His meeting with Rowena became a popular subject in 17th-century engraving and painting, for example William Hamilton's 1793 work Vortigern and Rowena. He also appeared in literature, such as John Leslie Hall's poems about the foundations of England.[5]

One of Vortigern's most notorious literary appearances is in the play Vortigern and Rowena, which was promoted as a lost work of William Shakespeare when it first emerged in 1796. However, it was soon revealed as a hoax written by the play's purported discoverer, William Henry Ireland, 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's Drury Lane Theatre 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.[6][7]

The film The Last Legion (2007), based in part on the novel L'ultima legione (2002) by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, features a highly-fictionalized portrayal of Vortigern under the pseudo-authentic name Vortgyn.

Other associations

A valley on the north coast of the Lleyn Peninsula, known as Nant Gwrtheyrn, is named after Vortigern.

References

  1. ^ Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chapter XXIII, text and translation of the quoted passage in "Gildas and Vortigern" by Robert Vermaat, Vortigern Studies. Retrieved 2010-01-28.
  2. ^ a b Snyder, Christopher A. (1998). An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 305. ISBN 0-271-01780-5. http://books.google.com/?id=AFxFkwmnRJMC&lpg=PA305&vq=Gurthigerno&pg=PA305#v=snippet&q=Gurthigerno. 
  3. ^ a b Jones, Michael E. (1996). The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 58. ISBN 9780801427893. OCLC 34029750. 
  4. ^ Swanton, Michael (1998). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New York; London: Routledge. pp. xxi–xxviii. ISBN 0-415-92129-5. http://books.google.com/?id=f8B4NAl2r48C&pg=PR19&q. 
  5. ^ Vermaat, Robert (2002). "Art and Literature". Vortigern Studies. http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artlit/artlit.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  6. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "(Samuel) William Henry Ireland". In Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. p. 244. ISBN 0824043774. 
  7. ^ Boese, Alex (2002). "William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare Forgeries". Museum of Hoaxes. http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/ireland.html. Retrieved July 28, 2010. 

External links

Preceded by
Constans
Mythical British Kings
First Reign
Succeeded by
Vortimer
Preceded by
Vortimer
Mythical British Kings
Second Reign
Succeeded by
Ambrosius Aurelianus

1911 encyclopedia

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