• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Vortigern: The British Scapegoat

Vortigern was the most dominant figure in what remained of the Roman administration after the departure of the Roman legions. His invitation to the Saxons would have have been consistent with the Roman practice of hiring barbarian mercenaries. So how, when he almost certainly acted with the best of intentions, did he become an arch-traitor in British tradition?

Gildas’ De Excidio was technically the first text to smear Vortigern as a “proud tyrant” (superbus tyrannus) whose council invited the Saxons in three “keels” (cyulae) and resulted in a mutiny by the arrivals. However, there’s nothing particularly individual about Vortigern’s failings in a text that even Gildas would have admitted was meant to read as a long sermon on British sinfulness. More to the point, the references to Vortigern are all later glosses. He is absent from the earliest version of the text, leaving its first readers guessing (was it common knowledge?) as to the identity of the tyrant.

It was Bede who first associated the superbus tyrannus tag explicitly with Vortigern’s name in the Chronica Maiora of AD 725 and the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum of 731. It was a connection that clearly stuck in the mind Historia Brittonum’s author (a text compiled in Gwynedd c. AD 829) because he lifted parts of a St Germanus’ vita (a folktale concerning Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd) and weaved it into an account of Vortigern, mainly in order to be able to provide the kings of Powys – who traced their ancestry through the previously acceptable Vortigern – with a new progenitor in Cadell Ddrnllug.

On matters concerning Vortigern, the ninth-century text starts with a section derived from a Kentish chronicle that frames the British leader as beleaguered and “impotent” and Hengest as “shrewd and skilful.” The former’s mistakes are many, his character flawed. For instance, despite the Saxons rioting Vortigern proves dense enough to be convinced that he should invite more. And after he falls in love with Hengest’s daughter, a bride-price that amounts to the entire kingdom of Kent (home to the ancient Cantiaci) seems like a good deal to this British bimbo.

Then the narrative returns to St Germanus’ vita. The saint publically shames Vortigern for an incestuous marriage with his own daughter. The king escapes to Gwynned with his “wizards” (magi) and encounters Ambrosius (Emrys). Subsequently, Hengest invites Vortigern and his retinue to a peace council but only to massacre them in the “Treachery of the Long Knives” (a play on saxas [knives] and Saxones?) – all apart from Vortigern who only manages to keep his life by… yes, you guessed it: ceding more territory. The saint then chases this scandalous rogue around Wales until he dies in what amounts to the holy destruction of a morally bankrupt pagan order.

The new Christian order is symbolised most succinctly in the aforementioned figure of Ambrosius (Emrys). When Vortigern is driven half-mad by the disappearance of large parts of his citadel at Eryri each night, his wizards tell him that the only way to stop it is by sprinkling its foundations with the blood of a child without a father. Ambrosius, who Gildas described as winning his battles “with God’s help” i.e. a Christian, mocks the pagan antidote and identifies the true cause as two great worms/dragons buried deep beneath the castle:

“The red worm is your dragon… But the white one is the dragon of the people who have seized many peoples and countries in Britain, and will reach almost from sea to sea, but later our people will arise, and will valiantly throw the English across the sea.”

Thus tying the narrative to unbeiniaeth Prydain, the ancient Welsh/British claim to Britain, and making Vortigern the cause or at least the ultimate expression of British weakness, sinfulness or whichever vice sufficed to explain their defeat. In other words, Vortigern was a scapegoat. And as a scapegoat he needed to arrive at a suitable end. But thanks to the fact he floated around as an oral character long before the Historia was written, he suffered as many death as he had had lives. Even the text refuses to settle on one:

“Hated for his sin, because he received the English people, by all men of his own nation… he wandered from place to place until at last his heart broke, and he died without honour. Others say the earth opened up and swallowed him up on the night his fortress was burned about him.”

Yet evidence of the older, kinder tradition persists in the Valle Crucis Pillar/Pillar of Eliseg erected by Cyngen ap Cadell of Powys (AD 854-5). Commemorating the recovery of Powys from the English, the king claimed a pedigree through Brydw

“Son of Guorthigirn [Vortigern], whom [St] Germanus blessed and whom Severa bore to him, the daughter of Maximus the king who slew the king of the Romans.”

Showing, first, that the rulers of Powys refused to accept Germanus’ alternative royal genealogy (not that it stopped them them from celebrating the saint). Second, that the Roman identity was contested enough for the Welsh/British to celebrate their Roman heritage (though this may have been whitewashed by forging the indigenous Macsen Wledig from the Roman Magnus Maximus) while also praising the fact a Roman “king” (the Emperor Gratian, no doubt) had been killed by his British troops. Third, it clearly honoured Vortigern as the son-in-law of the last Roman Emperor and therefore the inheritor of his authority.

But this positive interpretation of the ruler’s life ran against the grain of prophetic poems, the most famous of which was Armes Prydein, which linked Vortigern’s name to the English “scavengers” and “foreigners,” men who must be

“Driven into exile:

No one will receive them…

They do not know why they wander in every estuary,

When they bought Thanet through false cunning,

With Horst and Hengist…

Their gain was ignoble, and at our cost:

After the secret slaughter, churls now wear a crown.”

A text that cried out for the reverse-Vortigerns of Cynan and Cadwalladr to expel the English from Britain with apocalyptic violence in vengeance for “oppressing us since the time of Gwrtheyrn [Vortigern]”. An account that bewailed how the English “trampled” down their saints and “destroyed the rights of Dewi [St David].” And delivered a stark warning that one day “the Cymry [Welsh/British] will take care” that the English

“Shall not go from the place where they stand

Until they pay sevenfold the value of what they have done,

With certain death in return for their wrong.

The kin of Garmon [Germanus of Powys] will be paid back with vigour

The four hundred and four years.”

In short, the sort of revenge rhetoric needed to stir the embers of Welsh/British hearts long after the relative dormancy that followed the death of Rhodri Mawr in AD 878.

[1] Nigel Hillpaul: “I like the link to Vortigern’s Roman practices. There is enough evidence to show that the Romano-British clung to the form rather than the function of the Roman state. Stele of Voteporix, Gendilius, Cluteporix et al recycled Roman titles in the way a post-apocalyptic society may refer to a local warlord as ‘Town Clerk’”.

[2] Gildas: De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, in T. Mommsen, (ed.) Chronica Minora Saec iv, v, vi, vii, Vol. 3 (Berlin, 1898), 1-85 (pp. 37-9). Trans. M. Winterbottom, Gildas, the Ruin of Britain and Other Works (1978), pp. 25-27.

[3] Nigel Hillpaul: “Gildas; he would have made a great C18th Methodist preacher. He was always more concerned with the shortcomings of his flock than the pressures that drove them.”

[4] M. Miller, “Bede’s use of Gildas,” The English Historical Review 90 (1975), 241-261. Nigel Hillpaul: “Bede, in what was to become a fairly typically English habit, appropriated pre-Anglo-Saxon history in an almost Whiggish cycle of improvement based on Roman Christian rather than pre-Whitby Celtic Christian tradition. The Roman Church became the equivalent of IT support, providing the infrastructure and managing the ability to communicate (and what information was transmitted) on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon and then later the English kings, viz, Arthur becoming a gentil, parfait knight in Malory, rather than the Mabinogion’s dux bellorum and the Outsiders (the Welsh) being marginalised and excluded unless they integrated.”

[5] This section (which involves the demand that Vortigern publically comb and cut his [grand]son’s hair) demonstrates the influence of cyfarwyddyd, the oral legend common to Welsh tradition, as it suggests that haircutting may once have been performed ritually to acknowledge paternity.

[6] R. Fletcher, Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England (1989), pp. 15–16

[7] Nennius: Historia Brittonum, T. Mommsen, (ed.) in Chronica Minora Saec. Iv, v, vi, vii Vol 3 (1898), ch. 42; trans. by J. Morris, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals (1978) pp. 30-1.

[8] Nigel Hillpaul: “The Red and White Dragon have many localised associations. Craig Gwrtheyrn (Virtigern’s Crag) in West Wales is still one of the creepiest most haunted places I have been. Legend had it that Vortigern tried twice to build on the plateau and each time the stones collapsed. A young Merlin was brought to him on account of his magical abilities to be sacrificed to settle whatever Demons were preventing the work from being completed. He told Vortigern to get his workmen to dig down, and when they did they would find a red dragon and a white dragon sleeping. These were released and after a long arduous battle, when it was ruined it and crippled, the red Dragon finally finished off the White.”

[9] Ibid., ch. 48; Morris, p.33.

[10] P. C. Bartrum, ed., Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, pp. 2-3.

[11] I. Williams, ed., Armes Prydein: the Prophecy of Britain. From the Book of Taliesin. English version by R. Bromwich (1972), p.5, lines 26-34.

[12] Cadwallon’s alliance with the Mercian king Penda against the Northumbrians bore an uneasy resemblance to the Vortigern legend. Especially as just as Vortigern’s actions were redeemed/rejected by the valiant deeds of his son Vortimer (Gwerthefyr), so Cadwallon’s activities were eclipsed by his heroic son, Cadwalladr.

[13] I. Williams (ed.), Armes Prydein, pp. 11, 13, lines 137-46.

[14] Nigel Hillpaul: “[Byz Ambo says ‘Dormant.’ Hardly: Llywelyn ap Iorweth, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Owain Glyndŵr, The Lords of Dynevor, Henry VII, The Cecils, Oliver Cromwell, Methodism etc.” After 1,000 years of trying to eradicate the Welsh, the English fooled them into behaving themselves by convincing them that the English Empire was Rome returned. In turn [we Welsh] just started hating them on class grounds rather than ethno-linguistic ones. Deep down, the English, will never forgive the Welsh for not disappearing from history or perhaps for being [here in the British Isles] first. We are the boogey-men under the bed of the English subconscious.

665 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All