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Post-Roman Britain

Vortigern

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 later Welsh form of this name 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 states.

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), although 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, which has been 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. While he was in charge of post-Roman Britain, ostensibly as 'High King' in later tradition but more probably along the lines of civilian council leader, or even emperor along Roman lines, his eldest son Vortimer set up a thriving state 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 (the name is analysed folly on the page for Caer Gloui - see sidebar links). This name is still linked to the place itself in its nickname of 'Gloucester Long Wall', but the appendage to Gloyw's name indicates that he was a long-haired Pict.

This is also born out to an extent in the name 'Vortigern' itself. The second part, '-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 which has him descending from the Celtic gods, Beli Mawr, Lludd Llaw Ereint, and 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 ancestry for Vortigern's Pagenses territory, as similar ancestries are for other rulers such as Gwent, Dyfed, and Gwynedd.

The ancestry of Celtic kings was very important to their prestige and their clan name, so even minor rulers (who were usually descended from greater royal houses anyway) would find an ancestry which linked them to their royal title.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa
Vortigern's policy of hiring mercenaries to help with Britain's defences was entirely in line with those of the late Roman period, but the chaos in the country - plague, mercenary revolt, civil war, frequent pirate raids - probably convinced Hengist and Horsa (shown here being greeted by Vortigern) that land was ripe for the taking


Vortigern became Britain's leading political figure around 425 (whether high king or high council leader or emperor), after years of building up his power and position. It's entirely possible that, as he went down the well-trodden road in terms of standard Roman policy for defence, he also followed the tradition of declaring himself 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.

Even at home, however, 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, even if he may have been a key player in that resurgence (see The End of Roman Britain via the sidebar links).

Between about AD 380-400 Vortigern married Severa ferch Macsen (daughter of Magnus Maximus, the Roman general who was proclaimed emperor in Britain in 383, and who is claimed as being 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:

 

Sorry, the table is not available for this display width. Please try viewing the page in landscape.

b c370 First marriage to Severa ferch Macsen.
b.c400 (Unknown daughter) ferch Gwrtheyrn
b c402 - c.460 Vortimer (Gwerthefyr) Fendigaid ('the Blessed') Ruler of Gwerthefyriwg (Gwent).
b c440 St Madrun ferch Gwerthefyr m Ynyr Gwent, ruler of Gwent (b c430).
b c404 - 447 Cadeyrn Fendigaid ('the Blessed') Ruler in Paganes.
b c406 Pasgen ap Gwrtheyrn Ruler 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.