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Post-Roman Britain


by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 7 July 2017



The most hated man in Britain, as he later became known, was Vortigern Vorteneu. The Welsh form of this is Gwrtheyrn Gwrtheneu (the Thin).

Despite the name being synonymous with the man, Vortigern has long been accepted as only a title by some scholars, with Pictish, or perhaps Northern British overtones. It means literally 'over-king', although this is no bar to it still being a personal name. Celts were typically flashy and humorous, and there are many punning names and grandiose names in Celtic and early Welsh tribes and kingdoms. An opposing argument is that there are some indications that, like his semi-legendary forebears, his real name was Vitalis (Gwidol in Welsh, assumed to be his father) or Vitalinus (Gwidolin, his grandfather), though his origins are obscure.

His name would almost certainly have been Roman in influence, although he was probably aware of its Celtic version.

The north and west of Britannia was only ever under Roman military rule, so Celtic traditions were still very strong there. The other possibility, equally strong, put forward by Charles Thomas, is that Bede knew of Vortigern as Vertigernus or Uuertigernus, representing a British name Wortigernos (see the introduction on Gildas for a fuller explanation).

His power-base was always the area along the Welsh border, and while he was High King, his eldest son Vortimer set up a thriving kingdom in Gwent. Vortigern himself appears to have spent more of his time, and exercised more direct control in Caer Gloui (Gloucester) in his early years.

His great grandfather is said to have been Gloyw Gwallthir (Long-Hair), one of the city's supposed founders (Gloyw = Glou-, and Latin castrum (fort) = British caer or Saxon cester). This name is still linked to the place itself in its nickname of "Gloucester Long-Wall", but the appendage to Gloyw's name indicates he was a long-haired Pict.

This is also born out to an extent in the name Vortigern itself. "gern" was a Pictish (or pre-Pictish) word for leader.

Despite this Pictish link, the "Life of St Cadog" gives Vortigern an alternative and very typically Celtic ancestry descending from the Celtic gods, Beli Mawr, Lludd Llaw Ereint & Afallach.

Pictish descent was always measured through the female side, so perhaps this explains the apparent conflict. Vortigern could have possessed a Pictish female in his ancestry, a possible wife of Gloyw's, not unlikely if she was from the Southern Picts around Manau Guotodin or the Clyde.

The St Cadog ancestry shows too few generations to be complete, but it is replicated in the King List for Vortigern's Powys, as similar ancestries are for other kings, such as Gwent, Dyfed, and Gwynedd. The ancestry of Celtic kings was very important to their prestige and their clan name, so even minor kings (who were usually descended from greater royal houses anyway) would find an ancestry that linked them to their royal title.

Vortigern became High King of Britain around 425, after years of building up his power and position. It's entirely possible that, given the fact that the Romano-Britons at this time were still very much following standard Roman policies on defence and their way of life, that he adjusted the title to become Emperor of Britain.

The precedence would have been his own father-in-law, Magnus Maximus, and the more recent claimant to Rome, Constantine III, who left Britain in 407. There was no possibility of following these two overseas to claim a now much reduced Rome, even if the manpower was available, which it was not.

The title of emperor would bear much more meaning to the Romanised Britons who were in command of Britannia, before the mid-century Celtic resurgence began to take hold.

Between AD 380-400 Vortigern married Severa ferch Macsen (daughter of Magnus Maximus, the Roman general proclaimed emperor in Britain in 383, and responsible for large scale changes in the way Britain defended itself before he left to pursue his claim to the purple). Later, he married again. His children were:


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b c370 First marriage to Severa ferch Macsen.
b.c400 (Unknown daughter) ferch Gwrtheyrn
b c402 - c.460 Vortimer (Gwerthefyr) Fendigaid (the Blessed) King of Gwerthefyriwg (Gwent).
b c440 St Madrun ferch Gwerthefyr m Ynyr Gwent, king of Gwent (b c430).
b c404 - 447 Cadeyrn Fendigaid (the Blessed) King of Powys.
b c406 Pasgen ap Gwrtheyrn King of Buellt & Gwrtheyrnion.
b c408 Brydw ap Gwrtheyrn
b c410 St Edeyrn ap Gwrtheyrn
b c405 Second marriage to Rowena of Kent.
b c400 (Unknown daughter) ferch Gwrtheyrn
b c416 Faustus ap Gwrtheyrn


Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.