Vortigern

Latin: Uurtigernus
Welsh: Gwrtheyrn
Fortager, Fortagere, Fortageres, Fortages, Fortiger, Fortigers, Gurthrigern, Gwrteym, Uertiger, Vertaggiere, Vertiger, Vertigier, Vitiglier, Vortiger

A British king who ruled several generations before Arthur, famed for bringing misery to Britain by welcoming the Saxons. Bede is the first to mention Vortigern by name, but the figure first appears in Gilda’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae as the superbus tyrannus (generally translated as “proud tyrant,” but likely indicating the less pejorative “supreme soveregin”) who employed the Saxons against the barbarian Picts and nearly lost the island as a result.

Vortigern is almost certainly a historical figure, though his name seems to be a title, meaning “overlord,” or “high king,” rather than a personal name. Unfortunately, the earliest source to recount his story in any detail – Nennius’s Historia Brittonum – is so tainted with legend as to be void of most historical value. A compilation of references from less questionable sources suggests an anti-Roman ruler who came to power in the second quarter of the fifth century, during the chaos that befell Britain after the Roman withdrawal. He seems to have been married to Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig). During his reign, he conflicted with St. Germanus (whose first journey to Britain seems to have been in 429) and with Ambrosius Aurelianus, an apparently pro-Roman general.

This period of British history is characterized by a weak British army facing increasing Pictish raids, and Vortigern evidently decided to bolster his military strength by hiring Saxon mercenaries. His plan backfired when the Saxons grew in numbers and power, and began eyeing Britain for themselves. Vortigern’s enemy, Ambrosius, began the resistance against the Saxons, and it may have been members of Ambrosius’s faction who deposed and killed Vortigern, probably around 450. (This summary is indebted to Jack Lindsay’s Arthur and His Times.)

Vortigern was connected with central Wales, South Wales and possibly Gloucester, from whose alleged founder he was thought to be descended. It cannot be stated with certainty over how much of Britain his sway extended, but he is generally regarded as historical, though H. Butler thinks it quite possible he is purely legendary.


We find the following legendary account of Vortigern’s life in the chronicles of Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and thier successors:

The son of a man named Fernvail, Vortigern was seneschal to King Constantine (Arthur’s grandfather), became the Earl of Gwent and had sons named Vortimer, Catigern, Pascentius, and Faustas.

Upon the death of King Constantine of Britain, Vortigern urged the appointment of Constans (called Maine in the Vulgate Merlin), Constantine’s eldest son, as king, even though Constans was a monk and was ill-suited to the position. After forcing the abbot of Constans’s monastery to release him, Vortigern elevated Constans to the throne. Constans became a puppet king under Vortigern’s hand. In time, Vortigern became weary of ruling Britain by proxy, and he crafted to have some Saxons (led by Gille Callaet) assassinate Constans. Vortigern then put the British crown on his own head and established his court in Canterbury. Constantine’s other sons, Ambrosius and Uther, both infants, fled Britain for Brittany.

Vortigern was under constant strain for fear of barbarian (Pict and Irish) incursions, a second Roman attack, or an invasion by the sons of Constantine, who were rumored to be building an army in Brittany. To beef up his armies, he welcomed the Saxons, led by Horsa and Hengist, to Britain and employed their services in exchange for land. He married Rowena, Hengist’s daughter (in one source called Sardoine), and made Hengist the ruler of Kent. Nennius states that he also took his own daughter as a second wife, and had two children with her, leading the British clergy (and St. Germanus) to condemn him.

Hengist continued ferrying more and more warriors from Saxony to Britain, and by the time Vortigern realized that the Saxons were planning to usurp him, the British had become disgusted with his policies and had replaced him with Vortimer, his son, who began a war against the Saxons. Within a brief time, however, Rowena poisoned Vortimer and Vortigern reclaimed the crown. The Saxons called for a peace treaty to be signed on the plain of Ealing, but they betrayed the Britons, slaughtered Vortigern’s army, and took Vortigern captive, ransoming his life for more territories.

Upon acquiring his freedom, Vortigern fled to Wales and laid plans to build a great fortress on Mount Snowdon to defend himself against his numerous enemies. The construction of the fortress hit a snag: each night, all work completed during the previous day disappeared. Vortigern’s advisor, Joram, suggested that he find a fatherless child, kill him, and sprinkle his blood over the foundation of the castle. The king’s envoys found such a child – Ambrosius (in Nennius) or Merlin (in Geoffrey) – in South Wales.

The child scoffed at Joram’s suggestion and showed Vortigern the true reason for his fortress’s failure: a lake hidden beneath the foundation. Within the lake, the child revealed a pair of dragons, one white and one red. The dragons fought, and the white overcame the red, which, the child’s prophesied, indicated Vortigern’s imminent destruction. Vortigern abandoned Snowdon and fled to his fortress, also called Vortigern (Ganarew). Vortigern and his fortress were either destroyed by a holy pillar of fire (in Nennius) or by the Greek fire of Ambrosius, who had invaded Britain (in Geoffrey).

The only significant variations to this character are in the Short Metrical Chronicle and in Thelwall’s The Fairy of the Lake. In the former, he rules in Britain after Uther Pendragon and he ravages his own land. Arthur, a prince of Wales, drives Vortigern out of Britain and becomes king himself. In Thelwall, he is the father of Guinevere. As in Nennius, he had an incestuous lust for his daughter, but his designs were thwarted by the Lady of the Lake. He was eventually murdered by his own wife, Rowena, who loved Arthur.


See also
Amphibalus | The Legend of King Arthur
Britu | The Legend of King Arthur
Cadal | The Legend of King Arthur
Vortigern’s Prophet | The Legend of King Arthur


Sources
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum | Bede, 731
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
Prose Merlin | Early 13th century
Arthour and Merlin | Late 13th century
Short Metrical Chronicle | 1307
The Fairy of the Lake | John Thelwall, 1801