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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Cities of Vortigern > Foel Fenlli

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The 'Cities' of Vortigern
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Caer Guorthegirn
Robert Vermaat

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Foel Fenlli

Foel Fenlli
Bad access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Nearest town: Denbigh
Nearest village: Llanbedr Dyffryn
Map reference:
SJ 163601
Location of Foel Fenlli by UK Streetmap

Foel Fenlli or Moel Fenlli is rather a dubious candidate for a 'Caer Guorthigirn', but as the hillfort is very often associated with Vortigern (at this site in a guest-article by Michael Veprauskas), I'll try and dig into those connections to see what remains. The story, as related by the Historia Brittonum, goes like this:

Foel fenlli from the air'Nennius', the supposed author, related much about Vortigern, from his rise to power, his disastrous dealing with the Saxons, his moral disqualification by St Germanus, his flight across Wales and his death in various ways. Famous is the story of how Vortigern, in vain attempting to build a tower when beset by his enemies, sends for a boy whose blood must strengthen it. That boy is the later Merlin, who finds two dragons of which the red one is still the symbol of Wales.

Benlli the tyrant

However, there is another story, very similar to elements in those told about Vortigern, which lies at the base of a probable misidentification of Foel Fenlli with a stronghold of Vortigern. This is how the Historia Brittonum relates the story:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 32-5

32. At that time St. Germanus, distinguished for his numerous virtues, came to preach in Britain: by his ministry many were saved; but many likewise died unconverted. Of the various miracles which God enabled him to perform, I shall here mention only a few: I shall first advert to that concerning an iniquitous and tyrannical king, named Benlli. The holy man, informed of his wicked conduct, hastened to visit him, for the purpose of remonstrating him. When the man of God, with his attendants, arrived at the gate of the city, they were respectfully received by the keeper of it, who came out and saluted them. Him they commissioned to communicate their intention to the king, who returned a harsh answer, declaring, with an oath, that although they remained there a year, they should not enter the city. While waiting for an answer, the evening came on, and they knew not where to go. At length, came one of the king's servants, who bowing himself before the man of God, announced the words of the tyrant, inviting them, at the same time, to his own house, to which they went, and were kindly received. It happened, however, that he had no cattle, except one cow and a calf, the latter of which, urged by generous hospitality to his guests, he killed, dressed and set before them. But holy St. Germanus ordered his companions not to break a bone of the calf; and, the next morning, it was found alive uninjured, and standing by its mother.

  in tempore illius uenit sanctus germanus ad praedicandum in brittannia et claruit apud illos in multis uirtutibus et multi per eum salui facti sunt et plurimi perierunt. aliquanta miracula, quae per illum fecit deus, scribenda decreuei. primum miraculum de miraculis eis. erat quidam rex iniquus atque tyrannus ualde, cui nomen erat benli. illum uir sanctus uoluit uisitare et properare ad iniquum regem, ut praedicaret illi. at cum ipse homo dei uenisset ad ostium urbis cum comitibus suis, uenit portarius et salutauit eos qui miserunt eum ad regem et rex durum responsum dedit illis et cum iuramento dixit: si fuerint uel si manserint usque ad caput anni, non uenient umquam in medio urbis meae. dum ipsi expectarent ianuatorem, ut nuntiaret illis sermonem tyranni, dies declinabat ad uesperum et nox appropinquabat et nescierunt quo irent. inter ea uenit unus de seruis regis e medio urbis et inclinauit se ante uirum dei et nuntiauit illis omnia uerba tyranni et inuitauit illos ad casam suam et exierunt cum eo et benigne suscepit eos. et ille nihil habebat de omnibus generibus iumentorum excepta una uacca cum uitulo, et occidit uitulum et coxit et posuit ante illos. et praecepit sanctus germanus, ut non confringeretur os de ossibus uituli et sic factum est et in crastino uitulus inuentus est ante matrem suam sanus et uiuus incolumisque.

33. Early the same day, they again went to the gate of the city, to solicit audience of the wicked king; and, whilst engaged in fervent prayer they were waiting for admission, a man, covered with sweat, came out, and prostrated himself before them. Then St. Germanus, addressing him, said "Dost thou believe in the Holy Trinity?" To which the man having replied, "I do believe," he baptized, and kissed him, saying, "Go in peace; within this hour thou shalt die: the angels of God are waiting for thee in the air; with them thou shalt ascent to that God in whom thou has believed." He, overjoyed, entered the city, and being met by the prefect, was seized, bound, and conducted before the tyrant, who having passed sentence upon him, he was immediately put to death; for it was a law of this wicked king, that whoever was not at his labour before sun-rising should be beheaded in the citadel. In the meantime, St. Germanus, with his attendants, waited the whole day before the gate, without obtaining admission to the tyrant.


iterum de mane surrexerunt, ut impetrarent salutationem tyranni. at ipsi, cum orarent et exspectarent iuxta portam arcis, et ecce uir unus currebat et sudor illius a uertice usque ad plantas pedum distillabat. inclinabat se ante illos et dixit sanctus germanus: credis in sanctam trinitatem? et respondit ille: credo, et baptizatus est et osculatus est et dixit illi: uade in pace: in ista hora morieris et angeli dei in aere expectant te, ut gradieris cum illis ad deum, cui credidisti. et ipse laetus intrauit in arcem et praefectus tenuit illum et alligauit et ante tyrannum ductus et interfectus est, quia mos erat apud nequissimum tyrannum, nisi quis ante solis ortum peruenisset ad seruitutem in arce, interficiebatur. et manserunt tota die iuxta portam ciuitatis et non impetrauerunt, ut salutarent tyrannum.

34. The man above-mentioned, however, remained with them. "Take care," said St. Germanus to him, "that none of your friends remain this night within these walls. Upon this he hastily entered the city, brought out his nine sons, and with them retired to the house where he had exercised such generous hospitality. Here St. Germanus ordered them to continue, fasting; and when the gates were shut, "Watch," said he, "and whatever shall happen in the citadel, turn not thither your eyes; but pray without ceasing, and invoke the protection of the true God." And, behold, early in the night, fire fell from heaven, and burned the city, together with all those who were with the tyrant, so that not one escaped; and that citadel has never been rebuilt even to this day.


solito ex more supradictus adfuit seruus et dixit illi sanctus germanus: caue, ne unus homo maneat de hominibus tuis in ista nocte in arce. et ipse reuersus est in arcem et deduxit filios suos, quorum numerus erat nouem, et ipsi ad supra dictum hospitium cum ipso reuersi sunt. et praecepit sanctus germanus manere eos ieiunos et clausis ianuis dixit: uigilantes estote et si quid euenerit in arce, nolite aspicere, sed orate indesinenter et ad deum uestrum clamate. et post modicum interuallum noctis ignis de caelo cecidit et combussit arcem et omnes homines, qui cum tyranno erant, et nusquam apparuerunt usque in hodiernum diem, et arx non aedificata est usque hodie.

35. The following day, the hospitable man who had been converted by the preaching of St. Germanus, was baptized, with his sons, and all the inhabitants of that part of the country; and St. Germanus blessed him, saying, "a king shall not be wanting of thy seed for ever." The name of this person is Catel Drunlue: "from hence- forward thou shalt be a king all the days of thy life." Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the Psalmist: "He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy out of the dunghill." And agreeably to the prediction of St. Germanus, from a servant he became a king: all his sons were kings, and from their offspring the whole country of Powys has been governed to this day.


in crastino die ille uir, qui hospitalis fuit illis, credidit et baptizatus est cum omnibus filiis suis et omnis regio cum eis, cui nomen erat catel. et bendixit ei et addidit et dixit: non deficiet rex de semino tuo. ipse est catell durnluc, et tu rex eris ab hodierna die. et sic euenit; et impletum est, quod dictum est per prophetam dicentem: ‘suscitans de puluere egenum, et de stercore erigens pauperem, ut sedeat cum principibus et solium gloriae teneat.’ iuxta uerba sancti germani rex de seruo facti sunt, et a semine illorum omnis regio pouisorum regitur usque in hodiernum diem.

This is, no less, a foundation-legend of the Cadelling dynasty which ruled Powys in the ninth century, the time when the Historia Brittonum was written down. This and other clues make a very good case for supposing that 'Nennius', who wrote from Gwynedd, supported this dynasty against the descendants of Vortigern, whose claim to these parts of Powys are stated on the Pillar of Elise, which stands at Valle Crucis near Llangollen.

Germanus and Benlli

This is not far south of Foel Fenlli, which in any case is the most probable candidate of being the 'citadel of Benlli'. Though such a bias (which was very common in those days) would explain the style of writing when portraying Vortigern as a bad character (like the claim of incest made against him), it does not explain the persons and elements in this tale, not to mention the apparent similarities between Vortigern and Benlli.

A late gloss in the Historia Brittonum adds a localization for Benlli: in regione Iāl. The commote of Iāl is indeed a prime region for the worship of Germanus, or rather the local saint St Harmon or Garmon. Garmon place-names are clustered in Denbighshire, but can also be found in Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Carnarvonshire, and even in south Wales. It may not cause wonder that a Garmon place-name accompanies almost every candidate for the elusive Caer Guorthegirn. It seems therefore likely that the story of Germanus and Bennli was intended to explain the place-name of Foel Fenlli, not far distant from Llanarmon-yn-Iāl. But is it also meant to denote that Benlli IS Vortigern?


There are many similarities between the stories of Vortigern and Benlli that have caused beople to believe that Germanus is after one and the same person here. St Germanus hunts Vortigern, he hunts Benlli as well. Benlli is called a tyrant, so is Vortigern. The dynasty of Cadell, which comes to power over those of Benlli in this tale, claimed overlordship in northern Powys over the dynasty of Vortigern. Benlli dies in his burning castle, which is also the most famous death of Vortigern when Geoffrey of Monmouth is done with the legend. So, is Benlli therefore the same as Vortigern?

Not necessarily. As we have seen above, the dynastic rivalry could be stripped from the tale immediately, since the tale is a foundation-legend; the claim is made over all of Wales, which we know was never true. Furthermore, Vortigern shows a very different attitude towards St Germanus (we cowers and runs from the saint), while Benlli is rude and steadfast - the saint is excluded from the fort for a year, and accepts that. Also, Benlli dies in the flames, while 'Nennius' tells at least two different versions of Vortigern's death. Benlli has his own legends, being a 'hoary giant' called Enlli Gawr in one, attempting to drown himself in the river Alun in another. In this tale (a Cywydd to St Cynhafal by Grufydd ap Ieuan ap Llywelyn Fychan), the river refused him three times, after which his bones burned up on the banks. Such a tale is not known of Vortigern.

More so, the exact manner of his death through the prayers of St Germanus are related in the Historia Brittonum separately:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 47

Again Vortigern ignominiously flew from St. Germanus to the kingdom of the Dimetę, where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guothergirn. The saint, as usual, followed him there, and with his clergy fasted and prayed to the Lord three days, and as many nights. On the third night, at the third hour, fire fell suddenly from heaven, and totally burned the castle. Vortigern, the daughter of Hengist, his other wives, and all the inhabitants, both men and women, miserably perished: such was the end of this unhappy king [Vortigern], as we find written in the life of St. Germanus.


et iterum guorthigirnus usque ad arcem guorthigirni, quae est in regione demetorum iuxta flumen teibi, ignominiose abscessit. et solito more sanctus germanus eum secutus est et ibi ieiunus cum omni clero tribus diebus totidemque noctibus causaliter mansit et in quarta nocte arx tota mediae circa noctis horam per ignem missum de caelo ex improuiso cecidit ardente igne caelesti; et guorthigirnus cum omnibus, qui cum eo erant, et cum uxoribus suis defecit. hic est finis guorthigirni, ut in libro beati germani repperi.

Was 'Nennius' that forgetful, that he spoke of St Germanus and Benlli before the dealings of Vortigern with the Saxons, and then again of that same story, but now between St Germanus and Vortigern? I think not.

It looks like we have a few separate intentions here. The support of Gwynedd for the Cadellings I have mentioned above. Another may be a support for the 'home'-saint Germanus, whose ecclesiastical foundations litter northern Wales. Of course, this was never St Germanus of Auxerre, no matter what the Historia Brittonum wants us to believe, for that saints biographer, Constantius of Lyon, would certainly have included that kind of success-stories in his book. It is far more likely that 'Nennius' sings the praises of the regional St Garmon, whose name one comes across very often in the region. Apparently, this was another, or maybe the success-story of the saint, so it probably made the books twice.

Concluding, I would propose that the Benlli-version is the original one, as Cadell's dynasty could very well have originated here, while Vortigern's is usually located to the south, in Gwent, Built and Gwrtheyrnion. His death was probably different, but the duplication of Benlli's demise onto him has really stuck, certainly after Geoffrey of Monmouth made Ambrosius and Uther the persecutors, locating the burning fortress at Ganarew, north of Monmouth, Geoffrey's home-town.

However, can I be absolutely sure that the hillfort of Foel Fenlli belongs to the tale of Benlli instead of Vortigern? No, that I cannot. The claim on the Pillar of Eliseg shows that both dynasties, that of Cadell as well as that of Vortigern, could make a claim for Flintshire. Therefore I have included Foel Fenlli, just for the sake of theoretical possibility, in the list of 'Cities of Vortigern'.

The burning fortress

A last note on the historicity of this tale, and another comparison to Vortigern. Another indicator is the part of the story where Vortigern perishes because of an immense blaze, started by fire from heaven. This fate is shared by Craig Gwrtheyrn in South Wales, which included in the legends about St Germanus, describing Vortigern as a similar tyrant who died by a heavenly ordeal which was instigated by the saint. The elements of this story as told by Nennius are very similar to this version of Benlli’s fate, so that a link may be found here (there’s also a Finnon Yarmon close to Craig Gwrtheyrn).

But there is more to link the two in ordeal and in time. Curiously, the Annales Cambriae tell us of the destruction by lightning of the hillfort of Degannwy in 812:

812   The fortress of Degannwy is struck by lightning and burnt. an. Decantorum arx ictu fulminis comburit.

Is this a mere coincidence? Nennius wrote the Historia Brittonum around that time, and he probably lived close enough to have heard of it from witnesses. Did this catastrophe influence his writing enough for him to use it for his dramatisation of the Vortigern legend – twice? Maybe the hillfort discussed here did also burn to the ground (hence maybe the lack of finds) and so acquired its connection to Vortigern and St Garmon, and even its name! Of course, the name could have been original and the legend travelled there afterwards. The burning of Degannwy is also a late one, and Nennius is most probably not the one responsible for the naming of Craig Gwrtheyrn or Foel Fenlli. After all, Nennius is honest enough to tell us of other versions of Vortigern’s death, and his grave is also claimed elsewhere in Wales.

Foel Fenlli today

Along the crest of the Clwydian hills are a chain of Iron Age hillforts which can be approached by public footpaths. Some lie within the Moel Famau Country Park. Foel Fenlli lies towards the southern end of the Clwydians and its peak is 1676 ft high. The car park below the hillfort makes this a good starting point for exploring a number of the hillforts.

Foel Fenlli hillfort is defended by a series of banks and ditches enclosing an area of ca 9.7 hectares, which in places measure 35 ft from bank top to ditch bottom. The fort has strong ramparts on all sides, double or treble as the nature of the (more gradual eastern) hillside requires. The ramparts may have originally been more simple and rebuilt several times. The only entrance is on the western side of the fort, the gap on the south is likely to be modern. The western entrance has an inturned bank to give added protection to the defenders. Excavations in 1879 revealed a road surface running through the west gate. The interior of the fort has two dozen round hut platforms on which wooden or stone houses would have been built. these platforms are not easily seen because of the heather. There is also a spring near the centre of the fort (around which was an embankment) and a cairn of pre-Iron Age date in the eastern end. Moel Fenlli continued to be occupied during the Romano-British period. Roman finds consist of coins and pottery from as late as the 5th century AD were found during the excavations of 1879. In 1816, a hoard of 1500 Roman coins dating between 250 and 307 AD were found within the inner Northeastern rampart. There has been no modern excavation, but a modern survey identified up to 40 roundhut platforms.

A map of Foel Fenlli, on Offa's Dyke Path.Access to Foel Fenlli is on a minor road between Llanbedr-Dyffryn-Clwyd and Tafarn-y-Gelyn.
From Llanbedr-Dyffryn-Clwyd, turn off the A494 just after the church and climb steeply to Moel Famau country park. There are two car parks, one on each side of the road, just below Foel Fenlli hillfort. The hillfort lies to the south of the road. Access is also possible by turning north off the A494 at Tafarn-y-Gelyn and approaching the car parks from the east. This route is less steep. Car parks/road suitable for minibuses/cars, but not for coaches. The footpath to Foel Fenlli is clearly signposted from the end of the easternmost carpark. The path is obvious although steep. The footpath northwards along the Clwydians is signposted on the other side of the road. Time required for climb to Foel Fenlli hillfort approximately 20 to 30 minutes each way. Distance between Foel Fenlli and Pen-y-Cloddau about 6 km. Good shoes or boots required.


  • Berresford Ellis, Peter: A guide to early Celtic Remains in Britain, (Constable 1991).*
  • Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust: A short guide to Moel Fenlli and other Clwydian hillforts, at: http://www.cpat.demon.co.uk/educate/guides/clwydhil/clwydhil.htm
  • Dumville, David N. (1977b): Celtic-Latin texts in northern England, c.1150-1250, in: Celtica 12, pp. 19-49.*
  • Dyer, James (1981): The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England and Wales, (Penguin).*
  • Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Wright, Christopher John (1989): A Guide to Offa's Dyke Path, (London 1989).*

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