Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vortigern

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VORTIGERN (fl. 450), though the subject of many weird legends, may safely be regarded as an historical figure, the ruler of South-eastern Britain at the time of the first English settlement. According to Gildas, the piteous appeal to Ætius in 446 was followed by a British victory over the barbarians of the north; soon, however, it was rumoured that the latter were again about to attack the province, and the Britons were in despair. It was then decided by the ‘haughty tyrant’ and his ‘counsellors’ to invite the aid of the Saxons, who came in three keels and, ‘iubente infausto tyranno,’ settled in the eastern part of the island. The Picts and Scots defeated, the newcomers turned upon the Britons and devastated the whole country. In this account, the earliest extant, of the circumstances which led to the English settlement, the name of the British ‘tyrant’ is withheld (though two of the manuscripts repair the omission), after a fashion not uncommon in Gildas. Nevertheless there seems no reason to doubt that the narrative, written within a century after the supposed date of the landing, is on the whole trustworthy, and, further, that Bede is right in giving the name as ‘Uurtigernus.’ This form, denoting in the British tongue ‘supreme lord’ (Rhys, Celtic Heathendom, pp. 154, 650), and having an Irish representative, ‘Fortchernn’ (Rhys, Celtic Philology, 2nd ed. p. 33), presents no difficulties on the score of philology, and must indeed have come down to Bede's time from an earlier age, possibly as an early addition to the text of Gildas. In old Welsh it soon became ‘Guorthigirn,’ the form found in Nennius (Harleian MS.), which in turn yielded the mediæval and modern Gwrtheyrn. In English it was altered to ‘Wyrtgeorn,’ as found in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ until Geoffrey of Monmouth and his contemporaries revived the older form as ‘Vortegirnus’ and ‘Vortigernus.’

Bede has nothing beyond the name to add to the account which Gildas gives of Vortigern. In the ‘Historia Britonum’ ascribed to Nennius there are, on the other hand, much legendary detail and an evident intention to represent Vortigern as the villain in the tragedy of British ruin. He receives the Saxons, who are exiles from their country, with favour, gives them Thanet to settle in, promises them food and clothes if they will fight his foes for him, and, when they are already a greater burden than the country can sustain, encourages them to bring over more of their kinsmen. He falls violently in love with Hengist's daughter, who comes over with the second detachment, and, in order to win her hand, gives the Saxons the kingdom of Kent. Next is interposed the story of Vortigern's incestuous marriage, the fruit of which he seeks to father upon Germanus. He is then driven from his kingdom and seeks to build himself a fortress in the wilds of Eryri in North Wales. The ‘magi’ of his court say the walls must be sprinkled with the blood of a child without a father; such a one is found, but proves to be Ambrosius or Emrys Wledig, who deprives Vortigern of the kingdom of the west and forces him to take refuge in the north. Meanwhile his son Guorthemir holds the east and wages war successfully against the English, who leave the island. On the death of Guorthemir Vortigern invites them to return, and soon after, by treacherously arming themselves for a peaceful conference, they obtain complete mastery of the country. The king then flees with his wives to the west and there perishes miserably, consumed by fire from heaven.

The next to deal with the story of Vortigern was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who manipulates it with his customary skill. The British king is identified with the Gerontius who figures in the history of Britain about 409, and Bede's brief notice of this man is expanded into a narrative which tells how Vortigern, at first simple earl of Wessex (‘consul Gewisseorum’), raises to the throne and then supplants Constans, once a monk and the son of Constantine of Brittany. In the story of the English conquest Geoffrey, in the main, follows Nennius (ascribing the work, however, to Gildas), but is more circumstantial. He supplies the name of Hengist's daughter, Rowen being, no doubt, as Professor Rhys points out (Celtic Heathendom, p. 154), a misreading of the traditional Welsh name ‘Rhonwen,’ i.e. white mane. ‘Vortimerus’ is represented as dying by poison, the victim of Rowen's hate; the ‘treachery of the long knives’ is located at Amesbury; Ambrosius Aurelius, who finally overwhelms Vortigern, is brother to Constans, and thus his triumph restores the former line of princes. Thus told, the story became extremely popular, appearing in the Welsh Triads (where Vortigern is ‘Gwrtheyrn Gwrthenau,’ i.e. of repelling lips), Roger of Wendover's ‘Chronicle,’ and many other works.

The story of Vortigern consists in part of mere folk-fables; a continental parallel to the ‘long knives’ incident is, for instance, to be found in Widukind, and Vortigern and Ambrosius have been treated as the Cronus and Zeus of British mythology (Celtic Heathendom, p. 152). It also owes its form in part to the desire to explain place-names. Thus there was in Northern Britain a ‘Cair Guorthigirn,’ whither accordingly Vortigern is taken by Nennius after his discomfiture in Eryri. There was also a ‘Guorthigirniaun,’ in later Welsh Gwerthrynion, a region in our Radnorshire of which the princes in the eighth century traced descent to Pasgen, son of Vortigern, and hither also Nennius brings the king in his last ignominious retreat. Finally he makes him die at ‘arcem Guorthigirni,’ an unidentified ‘Dinas Gwrtheyrn’ on the banks of the Teifi. It was no doubt a local tradition, interpreting a place-name, which led Geoffrey to fix the scene of Vortigern's death at Gannerew, near Monmouth; and Pennant, on similar grounds, makes a case in favour of Nant Gwrtheyrn, at the foot of the Rivals (Tours, 1810 edit. ii. 391). Yet, when these deductions have been made, there may still be an historical residuum in the story, apart from the facts given by Gildas. The antagonism of Vortigern and Ambrosius, though not referred to in Gildas's narrative, is quite consistent with his account of the two princes, and there is much that is plausible in the view, first put forward by Guest (Origines Celticæ, ii. 172–3) and adopted by Green (Making of England, p. 37), that they were the leaders of a native and a Roman party respectively among the Britons. The successes of Guorthemir, Geoffrey's ‘Vortimerus’ and the ‘Gwerthefyr Fendigaid’ (i.e. blessed) of the Welsh Triads, also wear, as recited by Nennius, an historical aspect, though the battles do not appear to tally with those of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ and the relations of Guorthemir and Ambrosius are somewhat perplexing.

[A very early history of Vortigern, written in monkish Latin, has recently been discovered in the College of Arms, MS. Philpot, Pb f. 47, and Vincent [fc], p. 33. See also Gildas et Nennius, ed. Mommsen; Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. San Marte; Bede, ed. Plummer; Guest's Origines Celticæ, ii. 147–78.]

J. E. L.