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Troubles with Vortigerns
David H.R. Sims concludes his discussion of Vortigern: One Man, Two or Just a Title?

From the previous section, it can be seen that what is usually regarded as the primary evidence for the period is actually far more relevant to the study of 8th century Powysian politics. However, two other pieces of evidence remain. Nennius gives a genealogy for the family beginning with Gloiu, through Vitolinus to Vitalis to Vortigern and Pascent. He notes that Vitolinus was one of four brothers who founded the city known as Gloucester. Obviously this is incorrect, as it was established as a Roman Colonia about AD 96 for retirees of the 2nd Legion based at Caerleon19. However, there is, perhaps, another explanation. Even before the departure of Rome, the Irish subjected coastal and other areas of western Britain to raiding and settlement. Thus the foundation as reported by Nennius20 might refer to that of an Irish colony. Now this leads to a highly conjectural argument. It has long been argued that the Annals and the Historia passed through both Welsh and English hands - the confusion of the Welsh words for shield and shoulder is most often cited in support of this21. However, it is curious that this is almost the sole example. Now, reading the genealogy, it would appear that Vortigern was the son of a family having a surname of Vitalis or similar. Indeed Morris22 suggested that the original text read Vortigern who is Vitalis. But this would seem unlikely, if only because the copyist would surely have been experienced enough to recognise the difference. But how would a later scribe deal with Gwyddyl, an Irishman. With uncertain and erratic orthography, it is not difficult to latinize this as Vitalis or similar23. In this case, the pedigree might read: - Vortigern the thin, Irishman, son of Irishman, son of Gloiu; or Vortigern the thin, son of Irish, son of Irish. In the former, the copyist seeing the unfamiliar automatically assumes that it is a part of the name sequence and applies the relevant filii. In passing, it should be noted that two Vortigerns are known to be buried in Ireland24.

Finally, there is the evidence of the Harleian (MS 3859) genealogies - not that they immediately add to the sum of knowledge, as they do not mention him at all (although in the later Jesus College MS 20, he is credited as being an ancestor of the Powys dynasty). But the names of people generally accepted as his sons are present, thus Cyngen map Morgan map Pascent map Categirn map Cadell, and Millo map Brittu map Categirn map Cadell. At first sight, the sequence seems odd, as there is little or no evidence to connect Brittu, Millo, Pascent and Categirn with Cadell. However, it should be recalled that the period was marred by continual internal strife, a point stressed by Fatalis25 and Gildas. With this in mind, the genealogies begin to take on the character of Regnal Lists. Therefore the sequence might be interpreted as: - Cadell takes Powys, but is overthrown by Categirn, but he is killed and the rule devolves to Pascent who is himself defeated and he and Brittu are banished to small outlying areas. The relationship between Maun, Pascent and Cyngen is not clear, but eventually Cyngen takes Powys. Such a scenario would imply that Pascent flourished in the middle of the second half of the 5th century, and this seriously undermines the credibility of a Severa/Vortigern union, but is still consistent with a family interest in Gloucester about AD 410.

But what can be deduced concerning the Ambrosius/Vortigern relationship. As was argued earlier, the Germanus material appears to be a later political concoction and within this, the passage where the child identifies himself as Ambrosius is so at variance with the previous text that it is usually regarded as a later interpolation26 of even less historical validity. Historically, this encounter may be discarded27. While noting that the fear of Ambrosius quoted in chapter 31 actually presages what is to come, there is also no reason to suppose that it did not represent a generally held belief, if not concerning Vortigern himself, then perhaps his family. As there are reasons to believe that Ambrosius held sway on the Welsh borders about this time28, the two points of later fear and Ambrosian power would seem to accurately reflect the existing circumstances. While not directly concerned with Vortigern29, the chronographer's statement that Ambrosius had been involved with Vitalinus at the Battle of Wallop30 fits well enough, but at a somewhat later date. Based on the Vortigern accession about AD 450, the action would date to AD 460-46531. This (if the Gwyddyl/Vitalinus theory holds) would be consistent with a Salopian action as part of the sporadic ethnic cleansing of Irish elements - cf. the activities of the Cunedda clan in North and West Wales.

From the above, it appears that the comment by Alcock quoted previously is something of an understatement. Yet if the Germanus material is rejected as invalid, the situation is clarified dramatically and many, if not all the inherent ambiguities simply disappear. However, in effecting this, it must be appreciated that any and every scenario based on this passage (and there are many) cannot be sustained unless it is supported independently. This applies as much to the Pillar off Eliseg and Geoffrey of Monmouth as to modern interpretations invoking conflict of political or religious interests.

To conclude this article, it is necessary to restate the status of Vortigern in the light of the arguments presented above: -

One Vortigern or two?

There is little reason to doubt the historical existence of the Kentish Vortigern. But with the removal of the Welsh material, the status of the Welsh figure becomes much less solid, and in essence relies on the credibility of the Buellt pedigree given by Nennius. Since it is by no means impossible that a family could be customised to support the Germanus tale, the issue cannot be regarded as clear-cut. It is perhaps significant that Vortimer32 only appears in Kent, and while some of his supposed offspring are included in the Harleian manuscript, Vortigern himself is missing. Generation counts and calculations of the likely dates when the sons flourished might support a view that the Kentish figure was perhaps a generation older, but the data is insufficient to state this with any confidence. On balance however, the weight of evidence does not categorically deny a Welsh Vortigern, who might even be identifiable with the tyrant, Benlli.

Was Vortigern a title?

Many names were in use at the time which indicated high status without any titular connotation. The use of an epithet, the thin, would tend to suggest that Vortigern was purely a name e.g. Charles the Simple, not King the simple. Conversely, that it was necessary to distinguish between two near contemporary figures is an argument in favour of the existence of separate personalities.

High King or Local Tyrant?

With the removal of the Germanus material, it becomes difficult to accept that either Vortigern possessed power beyond their immediate localities. Yet this point masks an important general question concerning the political institutions of Post - Roman Britain. It is clear that under the Roman policy of 'Divisum et Imperium', the existence of any native figurehead would have been an anathema. Further, it is to be noted that Honorius wrote to the civitates to advise them to take up their defence. While accounts of the Alleluia battle obviously exaggerate the part played by Germanus, it is also clear that no assistance was received from outside the district and that the army was purely the responsibility of a weak, disorganised and inexperienced local authority. Similarly, in Kent and Sussex, there is no evidence of any central control directing a resistance to the invasions. In short, if such a body existed, it lacked resources and was politically impotent. With the possible exception of the kingdoms of the North, there is little to suggest that any coherent authority existed, and in a period of extensive civil strife, Britain dissolved into a mass of squabbling city-states. That this occurred should not be a cause of any surprise, such phenomena have been regularly observed upon the disintegration of empires or the removal of strong central authority33.

And that was the sadness and tragedy of Britain. Gildas fully understood this point, and in the Excidio, he used it as his major political theme in a vain attempt to prevent its recurrence. Divided, fractious, and indifferent to the fate of their neighbours, the remnant civitates were easy prey to piecemeal assimilation by the Saxons. Concentrated effort or even mutual support could have reduced or perhaps eliminated the Saxon menace, but it never materialised. By the time any resistance was organised, it saved Wales, but it came too late for Greater Britannia.

Back to: Part 1

Notes and References.

  1. Dudley.
  2. Here and throughout, use of the name, Nennius refers to the Author of the Historia. The doubts concerning the authorship are known but the terms Nennius or Nennian etc. are employed to avoid problems with construction.
  3. Alcock.
  4. Morris - Age of Arthur.
  5. It is understood that a Gwyddyl/Vitalis theory has been proposed by Barber and Pykitt (Jounrey to Avalon: The Final Discovery of King Arthur 1993). Further, it should be noted that similar interpretative problems dog the study of Semitic languages where only the consonant clusters are written.
  6. Alcock.
  7. Morris - Age of Arthur.
  8. Tolstoy. There is however, a nasty little side issue here. A libel, dating from at least 150AD, states that Jesus was actually the illegitimate offspring of Mary and a Roman centurion (Harris). There appears to be a parallel here, but one best left to far more qualified interpretation.
  9. Chadwick
  10. Sims. In prep.
  11. Vitalinus is often supposed to be a Vortigern kinsman. This can only be sustained on the basis of the grandfather's name, and as such, this is hardly a conclusive argument.
  12. Wallop is actually an English name Wael-hop, the valley of a stream. It is assumed that during the invasion of Greater Powys , a number of places were renamed. Given an Irish dimension, the Salopian Wallop would seem a more probable identification than the Hampshire one.
  13. The Chronographer raises a number of problems. However the indirect calculations are regarded here as not having the weight of the arrival of the Saxons in Kent, which is thus taken throughout the article as the primary date.
  14. Categirn is of course noted as being killed in Kent. A solution to this apparent anomaly is to assume that Nennius knew that he had been killed in battle, but not exactly where. Since the only information he had concerned Kent , that is where he placed his death.
  15. See for instance the postcolonial history of South America or Africa or recent developments in the Balkans. Indeed, it should be noted that Wales was only unified for very short periods before the Act of Union.


  • Alcock, L., Arthur's Britain. Penguin, 1971.
  • Anon., Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Trans. Giles.
  • Anon., Harleian Genealogies MS3859
  • Anon., Historia Brittonum. Trans. Giles.
  • Anon., Historia Brittonum. Trans. Morris, Phillimore, 1980.
  • Bede., History of the English Church and People. Trans. L. Sherley-Price. Penguin.
  • Campbell, J.(ed.), The Anglo-Saxons. Penguin. 1982.
  • Chadwick, N., The Celts. Penguin. 1975.
  • Espenak, F., Catalogue of Solar Eclipses 501 - 600AD. Goddard Space Centre.
  • Dudley, D., Roman Society. Penguin, 1975.
  • Ford, D., Dynastic Origins: Glastening, Dogfeiling, and Pengwern. 1998.
  • Gildas., De Exidio et Conquestu Brittaniae. Trans. Giles.
  • Harris, A., The Sacred Virgin and the Holy Whore. Sphere. 1988
  • Laing, L., Celtic Britain. Grenada, 1982.
  • Morris, J., The Age of Arthur. Phillimore. 1973.
  • Phillips and Keatman., King Arthur: The True Story. Century House. 1992.
  • Sims, D., Battling with Arthur, in Preparation.
  • Tolstoy, N., The Quest for Merlin. Sceptre, 1986.
  • Wiseman. H., On the Destruction of Britain.


The author would like to extend his grateful appreciation to David Nash Ford for his assistance and advice in the preparation of this article.


    David H.R. Sims 2001. All Rights Reserved.