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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Cities of Vortigern > Arx Guorthigirn

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The 'Cities' of Vortigern
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Arx Guorthegirn
Robert Vermaat

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Craig Gwrtheyrn

Craig Gwrtheyrn
No access for the disabledPrivate land, ask for permission
Nearest town: Lampeter
Nearest village: Llandysul
Map reference: SN 433402
Location of Craig Gwrtheyrn by UK Streetmap

Of all the variant versions Caer Guorthigirn, of 'Vortigern's City', this the only one really bearing Vortigern’s name. It is found deep inside the West Welsh countryside, on a spot overlooking the river Teifi. It is sometimes called Arx Guorthigirn (the Citadel of Vortigern), but also Craig Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern’s rock), which may refer to the situation on a detached hill, which makes in it fact ‘Vortigern’s Rock’.

Could this have been the legendary castle of Vortigern? The story about Vortigern and the fort is related by the 'Historia Brittonum' and leaves very little room for doubt. The fort still bears the name of Vortigern (we don’t know what it was originally named) and is situated on the Teifi. This is how Nennius tells it:

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, 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.

It is now called Craig Gwrtheyrn, as it is also known from the Exerpts of the Historia Brittonum. In some MSS, a later gloss is added: id est Din Gurtigirn.

Craig Gwrtheyrn (Click to enlarge)The hillfort

First, a look at the ruins as they appear today. On the Landranger map we can detect a small, circular fortification, enclosed in a small wood within the loop of the river Teifi. It sits on a detached rocky hill, rising 300 feet above the river, which makes the position a commanding and strong one. Even though there is slightly higher ground within half a mile both to the south-west and south-east.

As one of the major hill-forts of the region, it belong to the so-called 'South Cardigan Group' of hill-forts. It encloses 1,5 ha and lies just south of the river Teifi to the east of Llandysul, although it is now unnamed on the Ordnance Survey map. The steep-sided hillfort is covered by trees, that hide the strong walls from view. The artificial defences consist of multiple ramparts, consisting of a multivallate rampart and a ditch.

The primary defences which ringed the plateau originally consisted of dry masonry stone walling, sadly now robbed and demolished. The remaining rubble has mostly has fallen down the slope, some large boulders are still in place. The original measurements of this wall is now impossible to ascertain, but once it was 7-10 feet thick. Outside the main rampart and around most of the fort (save for the NE side, which is very steep) runs a ditch, which is however filled in with stones and rubble from the main rampart. Furthermore, beyond the ditch on the W and SW sides of the fort there were obstacle rampart with ditches. Lastly, on the SW side are the remains of an unexpected chevaux-de-frise (sharp stones, some 2 ft. long, set on end in the form of ramparts to act as an added defence). There are still about thirty of these spike stones left, but presumably there were ones many more, making the approach to the fort a difficult one. The stone ramparts had only one entrance on the SW with two barbicans (in turned passage to a hill-fort with gates at either end and guarded from the rampart above). There are springs within the interior area and around the foot of the hill.

Plan of the fort (Click to enlarge)Dating

Although there has been ploughing in the main inhabited area, this did not turn up any finds. There has been no archaeological research to this date. Therefore a secure dating is not possible, so the possibility of Vortigern's presence here remains. Normally, the fort would be ascribed to the Pre-Roman Iron Age, and if the connection to Vortigern would be historical we should therefore assume that he did not build the fort, but re-fortified it. There are no historical sources to give us any further information. Nennius, usually held to be the author of the Historia Brittonum, is our first witness of the events, writing most probably in the early 9th century. But tying in his account to what scarce information we have of the 5th century provides us with many problems. It is almost certain that Germanus of Auxerre never visited these parts, and convincing arguments have been made about Germanus, bishop of Man, to have been the inspiration of the legend. Curiously, almost all the Caer Guorthigirns have a in their close neighbourhood a place-name linked to a cult of St Garmon. No exception here – just about 500 ft. to the SW lies Fynnon Yarmon. What came first is now impossible to say, but there seems to have been an 8th-century cult linking sites associated to Vortigern with Germanus, or rather Garmon. This would mean that the name of the fort at least predates that cult.

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 Foel Fenlli, which was in the first place not associated with Vortigern, but included in the legends about St Germanus, and ruled by 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 Vortigern’s fate, so that a link may be found here (there’s also a Llanarmon-in-Ial close to Foel Fenlli).

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. 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.

Concluding, we may therefore never be sure of the true connection of Craig Gwrtheyrn to Vortigern, but neither can we rule it out completely.


  • Berresford Ellis, Peter (1991): A guide to early Celtic Remains in Britain, (Constable).*
  • Davies, J. and A.H.A. Hogg (1994): The Iron Age, in: I. Gwynedd Jones (ed.): Cardiganshire County History, pp. 237, 240, 249.
  • 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).*
  • Gardner, Willoughby (1932): Craig Gwrtheyrn Hill Fort, Llanfihangel ar Arth, Caermarthenshire, in: Archaeologia Cambrensis 87, pp. 144-150.*
  • Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*

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