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Vortigern (known in Welsh as Gwrtheyrn and in some French sources as Vertigier), is the King of Britain who in story first settled the Saxons in Britain who afterwards conquered most of southern Britain.

Vortigern’s GenealogyEdit

HauerVortigern

Rutger Hauer as Vortigern in Merlin (1998)

From the Historia BrittonumEdit

Here is the genealogy of Vortigern from the Historia Brittonum, section 49, as translated by J. A. Giles with additional material in square brackets:

This is the genealogy of Vortigern, which goes back to Fernvail, who reigned in the kingdom of Guorthegirnaim, and was the son of Teudor; Teudor was the son of Pascent; Pascent of Guoidcant; Guoidcant of Moriud; Moriud of Eltat; Eltate of Eldoc; Eldoc of Paul; Paul of Meuprit; Meuprit of Braciat; Braciat of Pascent; Pascent of Guorthegirn [=Vortigern]; Guorthegirn of Guortheneu; Guortheneu of Guitaul; Guitaul of Guitolion; Guitolion of Gloui. Bonus, Paul, Mauron, Guotelin, were four brothers, who built Gloiuda, a great city upon the banks of the river Severn, and in British is called Cair Gloui, in Saxon, Gloucester. Enough has been said of Vortigern.

From the Pillar of ElisegEdit

The Pillar of Eliseg stands near Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire, Wales, at grid reference SJ204442.

It was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell (died 855), king of Powys in honour of his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog. The form Eliseg found on the pillar is thought to be a mistake by the carver of the inscription.

The inscription is in memory of King Concenn’s great-grandfather Eliseg/Elisedd and provides his genealogy, tracing his lineage up to Britu son of Vortigern by Vortigern’s wife, here named Sevira daughter of Maximus.

The recorded marriage between Vortigern and Sevira may be fictitious, but it is not impossible. Sevira may have been older than Vortigern and the marriage may have occurred after Maximus’ death.

Vortigern in Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu BritanniaeEdit

According to Giles’ translation of GildasDe Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae:

Then all the councilors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel! Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof. Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh.
The name Gurthrigern is not found in the best manuscripts and may have been added as a gloss at some stage during copying. This name appears to be a translation of “superbus tyrannus”, here rendered as “proud tyrant”. The name appears in Avranches public library MS. 162 (12th c.) – Codex Abrincencsis, or Mommsen’s MS. A: superbo tyranno Vortigerno, and Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27 (13th c.) – Mommsen’s MS. X: Gurthigerno Brittanorum duce.

Vortigern in Bede’s WritingEdit

In the Chronica MaioraEdit

Bede’s Chronica Maiora has the sentence:

Quos illi unanimo consilio cum rege suo Vertigerno [sic] quasi defensores patriae ad se invitandos elegerunt. Those whom the council with their king Vertigernus unanimously chose to invite as defenders of their fatherland.

This is the first surviving text to say that Vortigern was a king and may be the earliest to provide his name.

In the Ecclesiastical HistoryEdit

In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, chapter XV, Bede relates (as translated by L. C. Jane):

IN the year of our Lord 449, Martian being made emperor with Valentinian, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years. Then the nation of the Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king, arrived in Britain with three long ships, and had a place assigned them to reside in by the same king, in the eastern part of the island, that they might thus appear to be fighting for their country, whilst their real intentions were to enslave it. Accordingly they engaged with the enemy, who were come from the north to give battle, and obtained the victory; which, being known at home in their own country, as also the fertility of the country, and the cowardice of the Britons, a more considerable fleet was quickly sent over, bringing a still greater number of men, which, being added to the former, made up an invincible army.
Bede’s account appears to be almost entirely taken from Gildas. He adds the date 449 for the coming of the Angles and Saxons. In fact, Marcian and Valentinian ruled in Rome from 450 to 455. There is an error of one year.

Bede names these first Angle leaders as Hengist and his brother Horsa.

Bede later relates:

In a short time, swarms of the aforesaid nations came over into the island, and they began to increase so much, that they became terrible to the natives themselves who had invited them. Then, having on a sudden entered into league with the Picts, whom they had by this time repelled by the force of their arms, they began to turn their weapons against their confederates. At first, they obliged them to furnish a greater quantity of provisions; and, seeking an occasion to quarrel, protested, that unless more plentiful supplies were brought them, they would break the confederacy, and ravage all the island; nor were they backward in putting their threats in execution. In short, the fire kindled by the hands of these pagans proved God’s just revenge for the crimes of the people; not unlike that which, being once lighted by the Chaldeans, consumed the walls and city of Jerusalem. For the barbarous conquerors acting here in the same manner, or rather the just Judge ordaining that they should so act, they plundered all the neighbouring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and covered almost every part of the devoted island. Public as well as private structures were overturned; the priests were everywhere slain before the altars; the prelates and the people, without any respect of persons, were destroyed with fire and sword; nor was there any to bury those who had been thus cruelly slaughtered. Some of the miserable remainder, being taken in the mountains, were butchered in heaps; others, spent with hunger, came forth and submitted themselves to the enemy for food, being destined to undergo perpetual servitude, if they were not killed even upon the spot some, with sorrowful hearts, fled beyond the seas. Others, continuing in their own country, led a miserable life among the woods, rocks, and mountains, with scarcely enough food to support life, and expecting every moment to be their last.
After continuing with history taken from Gildas, in chapter XVII–XX Bede backtracks to before the coming of the Saxons and relates events of a visit of St. Germanus to Britain, and then details of a second visit, taken from the Life of St. Germanus by Germanus’ contemporary Constantius.

In the Historia BrittonumEdit

Vortigern is said to have received the Saxons Hengist and Horsa as friends and to have given them the Island of Thanet. The text says later on that Vortigern reigned in Britain when Theodosius and Valentinian were consuls which was 425 CE, and in the fourth year of his reign the Saxons came to Britain, in the consulship of Feliz and Taurus, in the 400th year from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is quite different from Bede’s date of 449. Probably “incarnation” is an error for “passion”.

Thereafter the author tells some tales of St. Germanus who was visiting Britain, and then returns to Hengist and Horsa whose people have so increased in number that the Britons no longer wish to pay them. Hengist puts forth a counter-proposal that he bring even more people to Britain from his homeland and they will undertake to fight even more for the Britons. Vortigern accepts this.

Messengers are sent to “Scythia” and 16 vessels return, along with Hengist’s daughter. Hengist hosts a lavish banquet, along with Ceretic, his interpreter. They get Vortigern and the Britons drunk and Vortigern so taken by Hengist’s daughter, that he offers Hengist anything he wants for her hand in marriage. Hengist has already taken council with the elders of the Angul and asks for the province of Kent. The current king of Kent, Guoyrancgonus is deposed and Vortigern gives Kent to Hengist. Then Vortigern sleeps with Hengist’s daughter and continues to be in love with her.

With Vortigern’s agreement, Hengist invites over his sons Oisc and Ebissa to fight against the Scots in return for land in the north near the wall named Gual. The two sons do well, conquering the Orkney islands and other northern regions. More and more people come from the European homeland to live in Britain, especially in Kent.

Meanwhile Vortigern takes his own daughter as a wife and fathers a son on her. St. Germanus calls a council to reprove Vortigern. But Vortigern has his daughter present the son to St. Germanus and claim that, in fact, Germanus is the father of her son. Germanus says that he will accept the boy as his son until the boy gives razor, scissors, and comb to his true father. They boy immediately takes razor, scissors, and comb to Vortigern and asks him to cut and trim his hair, showing that the boy well knows his true father. Vortigern is embarrassed and flees from the assembly. Later the boy is given the name Faustus.

Then follows the tale of the “Fatherless Boy”, in this version identified as Ambrosius.

Then follows the reign of Vortimer, discussed in his own article.

Upon Vortimer’s death, Hengist attempts to make peace with Vortigern, and arranges a council to take place at which 300 of the chief Britons and 300 of the chief Saxons will meet. But the Saxons each has a knife hidden under his garment. They are to get the Britons drunk and then knife them when “Nimed eure Saxes” (“Take out your knives”) is called out. Only Vortigern is to be spared. The plot goes off without a hitch. Vortigern is spared on condition that he grants the Saxons lordship over Norfolk, Essex, and Sussex and other regions, which he does.

St. Germanus upbraids Vortigern about his daughter. Vortigern flees to Gwothegirnaim where he hides with his wives, St. Germanus pursues him, followed by the British clergy, and upon a rock prays for him for forty days and forty nights.

In some manuscripts, St. Germanus then leads the Britons against the Saxons and a shout by Germanus' forces of the word “Hallelujah!” puts the Saxons to flight so that they are driven to the sea.

Three versions of Vortigern’s death follow. According to the first version, Vortigern flees from St. Germanus to Dyved where he builds the fortress on the River Towey named Caer Guorthegirn. But the saint follows him and with his clergy fasts and prays for three days. On the third day fire from heaven falls on the castle and burns all within:Vortigern and all his wives including Hengist’s daughter. According to the second version, Vortigern, fleeing alone from St. Germanus, broken-hearted, eventually meets a sad end in some solitary place. The third version tells that when Vortigern’s castle was burned, the earth opens beneath him and swallows him and all with him so that no bodies are found.

Vortigern’s sons Vortimer and Catigern had died previously. Aurelius therefore appointed Vortigern’s third son Pascent as king of [Builth] and Guorthegirnaim and himself brought up the young son Faustus.

We are also told:

And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitholin and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guolopum, that is Catgwaloph.
Some think Guitolinus is an alternate name for Vortigern.

In the Anglo-Saxon ChronicleEdit

The information in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle largely appears to come from Bede, but other traditions are found similar to those in the Historia Brittonum where they are ascribed to the reign of Vortimer and are discussed under his article.

In Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia anglorumEdit

Henry of Huntington merges the account of Bede with that of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and that of the Historia Brittonum. He mostly abridges Vortigern material. The main difference is that he places Vortimer’s rulership entirely after Vortigern’s reign instead of during it. See Historia anglorum.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum BritanniaeEdit

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae appears to draw mainly from the Historia Brittonum.

But Geoffrey introduces Vortigern as the leader of the Gewissi who desires the crown for himself and who persuades the young heir to the throne, Constans, then a monk, to leave the monastery to become king. Since Archbishop Guithelin is dead by this time and others present refuse to crown the young oath-breaker, Vortigern does so himself.

Constans, having little idea of how to be a king, gives almost all his authority to Vortigern. Then Vortigern takes a hundred Picts into his service, supposedly to provide intelligence of hostile Pictish activity, but in fact to encourage them take arms against King Constans. Eventually Vortigern feigns that his wealth has been used up in serving his country and he must now leave Britain to renew his wealth and must dismiss his Picts. Believing all this, the Picts decide to kill Constans, and burst into Constans’ chamber and do so.

Vortigern pretends to be shocked, and turns over the Picts to the citizens of London to be executed. But some suspect that Vortigern is behind the slaying and the guardians of Constans’ infant brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther spirit the children away to Little Britain. Vortigern, being now the only obvious candidate to become king, has himself crowned. But the Picts, suspecting his treachery, makes war on him. Also, news comes from Little Britain that Ambrosius and Uther have grown up and are preparing to attack Vortigern.

At that time, when Vortigern happens to be in Canterbury, three longships under the command of Hengist and his brother Horsa arrive in Kent. They claim to be exiles from their homeland seeking service in foreign lands. Although they are pagans, Vortigern is impressed by them. Hengist explains that the worship Mercury, whom they call Woden after whom Wednesday is named, and other gods such as Saturn and Jove. Next after Woden they worship Freia, after whom Friday is named. Despite this pagan worship, Vortigern takes them into his service. When the Picts attack, they are defeated, largely through the aid of these Saxons. Vortigern gives them lands in Lindsey and Hengist asks that he be allowed to bring over more of his fellow-countrymen to aid Vortigern in need. Vortigern agrees to this but refuses to give Hengist control over a city or to give him a title, at least not yet. He does allow Hengist to build a citadel on ground that can be enclosed by a single thong.

Hengist’s reinforcements arrive, including Hengist’s daughter who is named Renwein or Rowena in different manuscripts of Geoffrey. Vortigern falls in love with her and arranges with Hengist and the other Saxons to take her as his wife. In return, Vortigern gives to Hengist the province of Kent, deposing its king, Guoyrancgonus. But most of the people are opposed, including Vortigern’s three sons by a previous marriage.

Geoffrey then introduces the mission of St. Germanus to Britain, but gives almost no details about this saint who is so prominent in the Historia Brittonum.

By agreement between Vortigern and Hengist, Hengist’s sons Oisc and Ebissa are invited to Britain and settled north of Deira near to the wall. A man named Cherdic accompanies them. Perhaps this Cherdic is Ceretic the Interpreter from the Historia Brittonum, somewhat misplaced in the tale. These new Saxons originally bring 300 ships with them and with their aid, Vortigern wins all his battles.

But many Britons are terrified by the increasing number of pagan Saxons, who are intermarrying with Britons and urge that they be expelled. Then Vortigern refuses to give in at all, the people abandon him and make his son Vortimer their king. For details of his reign, see the article on him.

When Vortimer dies, Vortigern sends to Hengist to return to Britain, and a counsel is held, almost exactly as told in the Historia Brittonum. Geoffrey only adds that the council took place at the Cloister of Ambrius and that those slain were buried there under the auspices of the monk Eldad. Geoffrey also introduces Eldad’s brother Eldol, Count of Gloucester, as a survivor of the massacre.

The Saxons demand that all Vortigern’s cities and fortresses be turned over to them in return for Vortigern’s life. The Saxons then conquer London, York, Lincoln, and Winchester. Vortigern flees to Wales.

At this point Geoffrey places the story of the “Fatherless Boy” as in the Historia Brittonum, save that the boy is here named Merlin (although also called Ambrosius), and in no way identified with Ambrosius Aurelianus. Geoffrey also gives a book of prophecies told by Merlin to Vortigern.

Merlin warns Vortigern that Ambrosius and Uther are at that point making for Britain and that they will burn Vortigern alive, shut up in his tower, and Ambrosius will be made king. When Ambrosius is slain with poison, Uther will become king but will also die of poison, in part through Vortigern’s descendants. Then the Boar of Cornwall will eat them up.

Ambrosius lands in Britain the following day and the clergy appoint him king. Ambrosius desires to deal with Vortigern before going after the Saxons. Ambrosius marches on Vortigern who is in the castle of Genoreu on Doward hill on the River Wye in Erging. Ambrosius’ men are unable to break down the wall immediately by siege engines, and so they try fire. The fire catches at once, the tower is set ablaze, and Vortigern dies in the conflagration.

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From the Story of MerlinEdit

The Story of Merlin greatly simplifies the tale with no St. Germanus and no Vortimer involved.

Voritgern is the Seneschal of a king known as King Moine, that is to say, King Monk, but nothing in the tale indicates the this king ever was a monk. When the Saxons and men of Rome attack the Christians in Britain, it is though Vortigern’s power and skill that the Britons are victorious. Picts are not mentioned and their role is taken by unnamed barons.

Vortigern, at the height of his power and prestige, claims he has done enough and will no longer fight for King Moine. King Moine is defeated by the Saxons and many of his followers begin to look down on him. They beg Vortigern to rebel and make himelf king in his place, but Vortigern pretends to refuse to think of being a king, as long as Moine is alive.

The barons who have been talking to Vortigern now join with a larger group and all decide to kill King Moine and make Vortigern king, thinking that they, themselves, will then be ultimately in control. Twelve men are chosen for the assassination and the quick kill the young King Moines. But when the barons tell Vortigern what they have done, he pretends to be shocked and advises them to flee for the good men of the land will kill them if they catch them.

So, as in previous accounts, the apparently innocent Vortigern is made king.

But the two guardians of Moine’s infant brothers, here named Pendragon and Uther, suspecting Vortigern, flee with their charges to “foreign parts to the East from which their ancestors had come”.

The twelve men who had killed King Moines, come before Vortigern and say that it is thanks to them that he is king. Vortigern the finds them guilty from the words of their own mouths, and executes them by having them dragged behind horses. But their kinfolk blame Vortigern and rebel against him.

For a time there is civil war, until Vortigern's own people have also had enough of him. Vortigern then sends to the Saxons who come to his aid, especially Hengist. Eventually, with the aid of Hengist and his men, Vortigern is victorious over the rebels. Vortigern then marries one of Hengist’s daughters. The British Christians dislike Vortigern even more after that, since she is a pagan and expect that Vortigern has largely abandoned his faith.

Then comes the story of the Fatherless Boy, here again the boy being identified with Merlin. Merlin announces that the white dragon represents Pendragon and Uther defeating Vortigern, and that Pendragon and Uther will land in three months at the port of Winchester and that they will burn Vortigern with fire.

Vortigern therefore summons his people to Winchester, not telling them why. But when they see Pendragon’s navy coming and realize who it is, most of them defect. Vortigern flees to another castle with those of his followers who would not desert him. But the two sons of Constantine (Constans) follow after, besiege the castle, and burn it with fire, and in that fire Vortigern dies. Then Pendragon is made king.

ReferencesEdit

Some Name VariationsEdit

LATIN: Vertigernus, Vortigernus, Vurtigernus, Guorthigirnus, Gurthrigernus; FRENCH: Vortiger, Vertigier(s), Vertigerius, -rium, Viertigers, Vortigers; ENGLISH: Uurtigerno, Vortigern, Wyrtgeorn, Vortiger, Vortigerne, Uortiger, Uortigerne, Fortiger, Fortigere, Fortagers, Vortyger, Vortigene, Vortigere; SPANISH: Verenguer; WELSH: Gwertheryn, Gỽertheryn; BRETON: Gurthiern; IRISH: Foirtchern(n).