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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Cities of Vortigern > Dinas Emrys

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The 'Cities' of Vortigern
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Caer Guorthegirn
Robert Vermaat

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Dinas Emrys

Dinas Emrys
Arfon, Gwynedd
No access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Nearest town: Ffestiniog
Nearest village: Beddgelert
Map reference: SH 606492
Location of Dinas Emrys by UK Streetmap

Dinas Emrys is an ancient hill-fort, located on a knoll not far from the village of Beddgelert. Dinas Emrys in beautiful SnowdoniaThis probably most famous Darg Age site in wales lies just a mile outside of the village, conveniently situated just N of the A 498 to Capel Curig, 7 miles (11,3 km) NW of Portmadoc. It stands in the romantic heart of Snowdonia, close to Yr Wydffa itself. The fortress can be reached (after seeking permission at the nearby farm) through the trees on the NE ridge. The origins of the fortress are ascribed to Vortigern, in his most famous story.

The sources tell us that Vortigern, hard pressed by his enemies, fled westwards into Wales. He stopped at several places, looking for a secure fortress to withstand those seeking him and await better times. The most famous of these castles is Dinas Emrys in the north of Wales. The Historia Brittonum (c.829) tells us how Vortigern went into exile:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 40

40. But soon after, calling together his twelve wise men, to consult what was to be done, they said to him, "Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom; there build and fortify a city to defend yourself, for the people you have received are treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by stratagem, and, even during your life, to seize upon all the countries subject to your power, how much more will they attempt, after your death!" The king, pleased with this advice, departed with his wise men, and travelled through many parts of his territories, in search of a place convenient for the purpose of building a citadel. Having, to no purpose, travelled far and wide, they came at length to a province called Guenet; and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus, they discovered, on the summit of one of them, a situation, adapted to the construction of a citadel. Upon this, the wise men said to the king, "Build here a city; for, in this place, it will ever be secure against the barbarians."  

et postea rex ad se invitavit magos suos, ut quid faceret ab eis interrogaret. at illi dixere: in extremis fines regni tui vade et arcem munitam invenies, ut tu defendes; quia gens, quam suscepisti in regno tuo, invidet tibi et te per dolum occidet et universas regiones, quas amaras, occupabit cum tua universa gente post mortem tuam. et postea ipse cum magis suis arcem adipisci venit et per multas regiones multasque provincias circumdederunt et illis non invenientibus ad regionem, quae vocatur guined, novissime pervenerunt; et illo lustrante in montibus Hereri tandem in uno montium locum, in quo aptum erat arcem condere, adeptus est. et magi ad illum dixere: arcem in isto loco fac, quia tutissima a barbaris gentibus in aeternum erit.

The province of ‘Guenet’ is of course Gwynedd, the mountains of ‘Hereri’ can only be ‘Eryri’, or Snowdon. This is confirmed by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1138):

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 17
At last he had recourse to magicians for their advice, and commanded them to tell him what course to take. They advised him to build a very strong tower for his own safety, since he had lost all his other fortified places. Accordingly he made a progress about the country, to find out a convenient situation, and came at last to Mount Erir, where he assembled workmen from several countries, and ordered them to build the tower.

Then starts the most famous story (elsewhere in full) connected with Vortigern. The King orders his masons to build a fortress (or a tower), but the structure collapses again and again overnight. To enable the building to keep upright, Vortigern’s advisers, druids or magicians advise him to sacrifice a ‘fatherless’ boy, whose blood then needed to be sprinkled over the walls. This boy, when found, proves to be a prophet. The boy is the famous Merlin, whose reputation (and of course that of King Arthur) may very well have been the sole reason that we still remember Vortigern at all! In the earliest version though, Merlin is called Ambrosius or Emrys:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 42

"What is your name?" asked the king: "I am called Ambrose (in British Embresguletic)," returned the boy; and in answer to the king's question, "What is your origin?" he replied, "A Roman consul was my father".


et rex adolescentem dixit: quo nomine uocaris? ille respondit: ambrosius uocor, id est, embreis guletic ipse uidebatur. et rex dixit: de qua progenie ortus es? at ille: unus est pater meus de consulibus romanicae gentis.

Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 17
Merlin, who was also called Ambrose

Vortigern and the Dragons at Dinas EmrysEmrys then declares the origin of the collapsing walls, a pool in which two dragons lie. After much digging, this proves to be true, and a white and red dragon are found. These dragons fight a fierce battle, with the red being victorious in the end. (This is how the Red Dragon supposedly found its way onto 'Y Draig Goch’, the Welsh flag.

Y Draig Goch

Vortigern, impressed with the accuracy of Emrys’ prophecy, assingnes him the fort, which still bears his name.

So how serious should we take all this? I have hinted at some origins of this story elsewhere, especially the travelling of certain themes from Ireland to Britain and back. We should not forget that Gwynedd was in the Irish shere in cultural influence, and pagan themes such as the ‘building sacrifice’ no doubt originated elswhere.


To start with the most fantastic elements in the story, the red and white dragons. Though compared to the ethnic groups of both Britons and Saxons, these dragons have nothing to do with the fifth century. In fact they were already known in ancient Celtic times, when they were buried by the god Lugh. This is described in one of the Welsh Triads;

Three Concealments and Three Disclosures of the Island of Britain:

The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was buried in the White Hill in London. And as long as the Head was there in that position, no Oppression would ever come to this Island;
The second: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, which were buried in the Chief Ports of this Island;
The third: the Dragons which Lludd son of Beli buried in Dinas Emrys in Eryri.

This is also related in later stories, now known as the Mabinogion, who tell us that Dinas Emrys was the place where Lugh ‘of the Silver Hand’, the Celtic god of Health & Healing buried them on the advice of his brother Llefelys. We can also conclude from this Triad that Vortigern’s story was part of a certain literary ‘finish’ to which which also the head of the god Bran belonged. Late-Roman standard or Draco (by David Nash Ford)The latter’s head was dug up by King Arthur, thereby removing the last of the protection of Britain against invaders. We can thus conclude that the dragons in this story have no real bearing on the struggle between Celt & Saxon, they act only as the finish to an ancient tale. Also, the red dragon is probably no source for the Wesh national flag. No doubt a pride to the cultural heritage of Gwynedd, is it however more likely that this dragon originated in the late Roman military ‘windsock’, which had its origin on the steppes of Eurasia.

This practical battlefield-emblem was in wide use throughout the armies of the late Roman and early medieval period. Even the Saxons carried it as late as the battle of Hastings, as the Bayeux Tapestry clearly shows.

Pool and walls

So has this site any connection with Vortigern at all? It certainly does, for archaeology has shown that the site might have originated in the very same period as Vortigern. The original late Roman settlement with just a pallisade was replaced with a native type of stone-walled homestead with circular huts and oubuildings in the sub-Roman period. Imported pottery (Eastern Mediterranean amphorae, Phocaean red slip dishes), some of it bearing the Chi-Rho symbol points to a rich, christian household, dateble to the 5th and 6th century. The drystone rampart, which encloses a ‘citadel’ of only 1 ha., is up to 10 feet (3 m.) thick. Other ramparts further down the hill may have inspired the tales of the walls collapsing again and again (though there are stories in Snowdonia of a ‘city’ sinking in a bog). Even less substantial but enigmatic remains of ruined walling are elsewhere on the hill, which are probably either medieval field revetments or sheep walls.

The mysterious pool can also be found on the summit of the hill. This pool, now little more than a hollow, was once probably a cistern to ensure the water-supply. Broken pottery may have originated the story about the dragon-containing amphorae, vases or eggs. What excavators in 1910 believed to have been the walls of Vortigern’s tower, sadly turned out to be ‘just’ the remains of a 12th-century Norman keep.


What remains is the name of the place, which is not so easy as it seems. The explanation, that Vortigern ‘assinged Emrys the fort’ is only an attempt at explaining the name, pure etymological legend so to speak. For who or what was ‘Emrys’? The name is very rare, as opposed to that of Vortigern, which is not only very strong in Gwynedd, but also in other places in Wales. Vortigern is also the builder of the fort in the legend, which makes it even more strange not to have his name attached to the place. Furthermore, ‘Emrys’ is also ‘Myrddin’ and Merlin - who is so very interwoven into Welsh legend that we would sooner expect a name like ‘Dinas Myrddin’, had this miraculous person actually inherited the fort. The alter ego of ‘Emrys’ is Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Roman praised by Gildas as the one organizing trhe resistance against the encroaching Saxons. He might have originally figured as the ‘boy’ in the Historia Brittonum, but by the timDinas Emrys, a natural fortresse of Geoffrey they were separated into two different persons, Aurelius Ambrosius and Merlin Emrys. Ambrosius, figuring as ‘Emrys Wledig’ in Welsh legend, has no other connections with this part of the world. To the contrary, many place-names that may derive from him are found in south-east Britain, from Kent to Wiltshire (I will deal with the possible explanation of this 'gift' elsewhere). Merlin, on the other hand, is very much connected with the area. Just below the fort lies Llyn Dinas, the lake where not only Vortigern is said to have hidden the throne of Britain, but also where a treasure of Merlin lies on the bottom of the cold lake.. So, the mystery remains.

Visitors climbing this beautiful spot are recommended to start a tour of the site from the very top, from where the lay-out of the drystone walls can be viewed best. The existing remains are slight and difficult to distinguish. The ‘citadel’ is linked to the outcrops by the first rampart wall, which also encloses the Pool. On the highest point of the rock are the foundations of the Norman keep, alas not the ‘tower of Vortigern’ but the same type of keep as in Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. A steep and winding path on the west side leeds to a gap in the wall and the lower part of the fort, ending at the original entrance, which is guarded by a massive, oblique wall.


  • Allcroft, A.H.: Earthwork of England, Prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, and Mediaeval, (London 1908).*
  • Berresford Ellis, Peter: A guide to early Celtic remains in Britain, (London 1991).*
  • Davies, John: The Making of Wales, (CADW, Cardiff 1996).*
  • Dyer, James: The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England and Wales, (Penguin 1981).*
  • Laing, Lloyd Robert and Jennifer Laing: A Guide to Dark Age Remains in Britain, (London 1979a).
  • Matthews, John & Michael J. Stead : King Arthur's Britain, (Blandford 1995)*
  • David Nash Ford's History Home Page: http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2008. All rights reserved