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The Realm of Vortigern
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Gwrtheyrnion / Powys
Robert Vermaat
 

Vortigern seems to have ruled most of Britain, but where was his 'own' territory? It seems likely to suppose that his family came from the civitas of the Dobunni, in which western extremeties we find Gwrtheyrnion, the 'land of Vortigern'.

Gwrtheyrnion

Gwerthrynion is the modern name of a commote between the Wye and the Ithan rivers in modern Powys. Once this area was called Guorthigirniaun and formed a part of southern Powys, or Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’) as was a more common name. Gwrtheyrnion was larger than the modern cantref, but it remains unclear how large. We do know that together with Built it formed the kingdom of Vortigern’s son Pascent, as claimed by the 9th-century Historia Brittonum:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 47

St. Germanus admonished Vortigern to turn to the true God, and abstain from all unlawful intercourse with his daughter; but the unhappy wretch fled for refuge to the province Guorthegirnaim, so called from his own name, where he concealed himself with his wives: but St. Germanus followed him with all the British clergy, and upon a rock prayed for his sins during forty days and forty nights.

 

uero germanus guorthigirno praedicabat, ut ad dominum suum conuerteret et ab illicita coniunctione se separaret; et ille usque ad regionem, quae a nomine suo accepit nomen guorthigirniaun, miserabiliter effugit, ut ibi cum uxoribus suis lateret. et sanctus germanus post illum secutus est cum omni clero brittonum et ibi quadraginta diebus et quadraginta noctibus mansit et super petram orabat et die noctuque stabat.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 48

He had three sons: the eldest was Vortimer, who, as we have seen, fought four times against the Saxons, and put them to flight; the second Categirn, who was slain in the same battle with Horsa; the third was Pascent, who reigned in the two provinces Builth and Guorthegirnaim, after the death of his father.

 

tres filios habuit, quorum nomina sunt guorthemir, qui pugnabat contra barbaros, ut supra diximus; secundo categirn; tertius pascent, qui regnauit in duabus regionibus buelt et guorthegirniaun post mortem patris

Historia Brittonum, chapter 49

This is the genealogy of Vortigern, which goes back to Fernvail who reigned in the kingdom of Guorthegirnaim, and was the son of Teudor; Teudor was the son of Pascent; Pascent of Guoidcant; Guoidcant of Moriud; Moriud of Eltat; Eltat of Eldoc; Eldoc of Paul; Paul of Meuprit; Meuprit of Braciat; Braciat of Pascent; Pascent of Guorthegirn (Vortigern); Guorthegirn of Guortheneu; Guortheneu of Guitaul; Guitaul of Guitolion; Guitolion of Gloui. Bonus, Paul, Mauron, Guotelin, were four brothers, who built Gloiuda, a great city upon the banks of the river Severn, and in British is called Cair Gloui, in Saxon, Gloucester.

 

haec est genealogia illius, quae ad initium retro recurrit. fernmail ipse est, qui regit modo in regionibus duabus buelt et guorthigirniaun, filius teudubir. teudubir ipse est rex bueltiae regionis, filius pascent, filii guoidcant, filii moriud, filii eldat, filii eldoc, filii paul, filii mepurit, filii briacat, filii pascent, filii guorthigirn guortheneu, filii guitaul, filii guitolin, filii gloui. bonus, paul, mauron tres fratres fuerunt filii gloui, qui aedificauit urbem magnam super ripam fluminis sabrinae, quae uocatur brittannico sermone cair gloiu, saxonice autem gloecester.

Unclear is what other commotes were included, areas too small to be named by the Historia Brittonum, such as Elfael. It remains far from clear how certain kingdoms and cantrefs came to be named after rulers. Other examples are of course the cantrefs of Gwynedd, who were named after the 'sons' of Cunedda, or Brecheiniauc (named after Brychan). We can’t be certain these recieved their names within the lifetime of these persons, or that a dynasty might re-name the land in its control after the founder of their dynasty at some stage in the development.

In this case, Gwrtheyrnion may have been named thus because the ruling dynasty claimed descent from Vortigern, not because Vortigern necessarily ruled there. But at least in the ninth century it was believed th have been named after Vortigern. The name is not a clue to the core of Vortigern’s kingdom, nor to the centre of his power. We know that his family probably stemmed from Gloucester and that he acquired Gwent through marriage. His power-base stretched probably from Wiltshire to Powys, from Dyfed to Oxfordshire. His seat of power was probably the capital of the Roman diocese of Britannia Prima, Cirencester. Yet Gwrtheyrnion could have been his personal estate. It lies just across the river Ithan from Llandrindod Common, one of the principal training grounds of the Roman Army, and without doubt an imperial estate. Some of these estates may well have fallen into the hands of those dynasties in power at the end of Roman rule. Gwrtheyrnion have thus have been the legal property of Vortigern and his family, even though they were based at Gloucester themselves. He does therefore not have to be seen as a highland chief.

A different explanation may be that the dynastic descendants in Gloucester moved into the Welsh mountains before or after the fall of Gloucester in 577 as a result of the British defeat at Dyrham at the hands of the West Saxons of Ceawlin. In that way the dynasty so to speak 'moved house' and moved their claims with them. If they were able to establish themselves, the genealogical claims may not have been disputed, as they never were. But which son of Vortigern ruled in Gloucester? We know of three kings in the area lost at Dyrham; Conmail, Farinmail and Condidan (Constantine), who ruled in Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester. None of these kings has any known genealogical connection with Vortigern. All of these cities once belonged to the 'heartland' of Vortigern's family, but we don't know what they were able to hold on to in the sixth century.

Even so, the family was able to hold on to Gwrtheyrnion. Either one of the kings at Dyrham was part of a lost branch of the family, or (I think more likely) another part of the family, descending from Pascent, later (re-)gained Gwrtheyrnion. Possible proof may come from the probable insertion that Pascent received Gwrtheyrnion largiente Ambrosio (that is, legitimally). It would thus explain how the son of Vortigern managed to regain power of his inheritance.

The dynasty of Powys
HB 49

(c. 825)

Jesus College MS 20.14 & 15

(c. 1375)

Gloiu Gloyw g.
Guitolin Gwdoloeu
Guitaul Gwidawl
Guorthigirn Gwrtheyrn
Pascent Pascen
Briacat Riagath
Mepurtit Idnerth
Paul Pawl
Eldoc  
Eldat Elaed
Moriud Morvo
Guoidcant Gwedgad
   
Pascent Pascen Buellt
  Gloud
Teudubir Vraustud
Fernmail  
  Rees
  Howel
  Ewein
  Morgant

Slander retorted?

There is an explanation that differed from the usual etymological explanation of Gwrtheyrn + territorial suffix. In discussing the possibility of Vortigern's Castle having been built in Rhayader, it was William Camden who in 1607 identified the remains of the medieval castle with that of Vortigern's stronghold, and of Radnorshire with Gwrtheyrnion:

William Camden, Britannia, Radnor-Shire:
Moreover, this part of the Country was in old time called Guarthenion, as Ninnius tesifieth, who wrote, that the said wicked Vortigern, when he was plainely and sharply reprooved by the godly Saint German, did not onely not turne from his lewd and licentious life to the worship and service of God, but also let flie slanderous speeches against that most holy man: Wherefore, Vortimer the sonne of Vortigern, as Ninnius saith, for the slander which his Father had raised of Saint German, decreed, that he should have the land as his owne for ever, wherein he had suffered so reproachfull an abuse: whereupon, and to the end that Saint German might be had in memory, it was called Guarthenion, which signifieth in English, A slander justly retorted.

This was probably based on a late gloss (c. 1200) in the Historia Brittonum, in which the author mentioned a different origin of the name. In this version, Vortigern's eldest son Vortimer visits St Germanus and his synod somewhere in wales, who are persuing Vortigern after denouncing him having committed incest with his daughter. In MS CCCC 139, fo 175r, mentiones in the right-hand margin (continuing into lower margin under righthand column), another story about Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn:

This Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, in a synod held at Guartherniaun (after the wicked king, on account of the incest committed with his daughter, fled from the face of Germanus and the British clergy), would not consent to his father's wickedness; but returning to St. Germanus, and falling down at his feet, he sued for pardon; and in atonement for the calumny brought upon Germanus by his father and sister, gave him the land, in which the forementioned bishop had endured such abuse, to be his for ever. Whence, in memory of St. Germanus, it received the name Guarenniaun (Guartherniaun, Gurthrenion, Gwarth Ennian) which signifies, a calumny justly retorted, since, when he thought to reproach the bishop, he covered himself with reproach.

 

Iste Guortemir filius Gorthegirni in sinodo habita apud Guartherniaun (postquam nefandus rex, ob incestum quem cum filia commiserat, a facie Germani et clericorum Britannie in fugam iret) patris nequitie consentire noluit, sed rediens ad sanctum Germanum ad pedes eius cecidit, ueniam postulans. Atque pro illata a patre suo et sorore sancto Germano calumpnia, terram ipsam in qua predictus episcopus obprobrium tale sustinuit in eternum suam fieri sanxiuit: unde et in memoriam sancti Germani Guarenniaun nomen accepit quod latine sonat 'calumpnia iuste retorta' quoniam, cum episcopum uituperare putauerat, semetipsum uituperio afficit. Guortemir uero, accepto regno, uiriliter hostibus obsistit.

This version appears to explain Gwrtheyrnion with "gwarth a yr yn iawn", a translation of the Latin "calumpnia iuste retorta". The phrase would indeed mean 'a slander justly retorted'. However, to me it seems that this explanation falls far short of the etymological one, which is to be preferred. The second occurrence of the name, after Guartherniaun (which is Old Welsh) as Guarenniaun, is already corrupt.

The episode could be derived from the lost 'Life of Germanus', which may have been a source of the Historia Brittonum, but as 'Nennius' made no use of this part we may doubt that.

Bibliography

  • Chadwick, Henry Munro: Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, Nora K. (et al): Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).
  • Dumville, David N. (1977b): Celtic-Latin texts in northern England, c.1150-1250, in: Celtica 12, pp. 19-49.*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Kirby, D.P.: Vortigern, in: The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XXIII, 1970, pp. 37-59.*
  • Miller, M.: Date-Guessing and Dyfed, in: Studia Celtica XII/XIII, 1977- 1978, pp. 33-61.*
  • Miller, M.: Consular Years in the Historia Brittonum, in: Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XXIX, part I november 1980, pp. 17-34.*

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