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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Realm of Vortigern > Nevern

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The Realm of Vortigern
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The Grave of Vortigern
Robert Vermaat
Early Christian Inscribed Stone
Pembrokeshire (Dyfed)
Good access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Nearest town: Newport
Nearest village: Nevern
Map reference: SN 083400
Location of Nevern by UK Streetmap

The parish Church of St. Brynach, NevernOn the west coast of Wales, in the old kindom of Dyfed (now northern Pembrokeshire) lies the tiny village of Nanhyfer, or Nevern in English. Just off the main A487 between Fishguard and Cardigan, Nevern has ancient origins and is best known for its impressive church (left, click here to enlarge), whose churchyard is the site of an enormous Celtic cross and a legendary 'bleeding' yew tree. The parish Church of St. Brynach traces its origins back to the early Celtic Christians and contains several 5th-6th century engraved stones. In both church and the churchyard there are five of these stones. One of them is a pillar-stone that is inscribed both with Ogam and Latin script.

Three views of the Vitalinus stone:

The Vitalinus Stone, S.
Click to enlarge

  The Vitalinus Stone, NW.
Click to enlarge

The Vitalinus Stone, SE.
Click to enlarge

Discovery and history

The Vitalinus stone was first mentioned in 1695 by Gibson, who mentioned that it was recorded in Camden, but he was unable to find it. This may have been because the stone was no longer in it's original position on the north side of the church of Nevern. Only in 1873 is was (re-)discovered by Rhys, who recounted in his books how he rediscovered this stone whilst on his epigraphic tour of the region:

`Mr. Jones and I have rediscovered the stone of Vitalianus in the neighbourhood of Nevern'.
`Acting on a suggestion of Professor Westwood's...we made inquiries at Cwm Gloyn, near Nevern, and accidentally discovered the stone of Vitalianus used as a gate-post as you turn from Cardigan road to go to Cwm Gloyn Farm...This is about two miles from Nevern, and I doubt very much that the stone has ever stood in Nevern churchyard. Its exact position seems to have been unknown since the date of Gough's Camden'.

Westwood, who had previously searched in vain for this stone as stated in the Archaeologia Cambrensis (1860), where it was described as standing on the north side of the church of Nevern. However,

'it was added that some years previously a cross had been moved from Nevern to Cwm Gloyn, a farm two miles distant, by a Mr. Owen. Here ten years later it was discovered by Prof. Rhys, who has placed in my hands the rubbing from which my figure is drawn...The stone is now used a gate-post as you turn from the Cardigan road to go to Cwm Gloyn farm, and I respectfully submit that it ought to be restored to Nevern churchyard, from which it had been sacrilegiously stolen, notwithstanding Prof. Rhys's doubt that the stone had ever stood in Nevern churchyard'.

The Vitalinus Stone.Westwood's assertions that the stone originally was taken from the Nevern churchyard and used as a gate-post were challenged by Rhys, but the latter's views eventually succumbed. Macalister, in 1945, had the final word:

`In Gibson's time this stone stood in the churchyard on the north side of the Parish Church. It had disappeared in Gough's time, presumably because it had already been removed to the farm called Cwm Gloyn, about two miles away, where it served as a gatepost. It was then lost to sight, and in 1860 its whereabouts was apparently unknown. It was re-discovered by Rhys, and deciphered by him; and has now been restored to the churchyard where it now stands on the south side, just to the east of the porch'.

The exact description of the stone is:
Churchyard, 6 SW. Rough Pillar-stone, 76" h.x24" w.x20"t (1.93 x 0.61 x 0.51). Standing outside the church (above, click
here to enlarge) against the south wall of the nave on the east side of the porch.

The inscription

The inscription is incised (cut, not pocked) high along the l. angle of the face reading upwards:

'of Vitalinus'

Dr. Ferguson, who had also visited the stone, stated in 1874 that the VITALIANI of the Latin text is certainly echoed by an Oghamic FITALIANI. Westwood, in 1879, noted that an Ogham inscription most accurately cut and spaced, reading VITALIANI, exists on the angle on the right, near the top of the stone. However, in 1884 Westwoodwent on with a more fanciful reading:

`Along the upper angle of the stone runs an ogham inscription, for the first time represented in the accompanying Plate...The inscription occupies 21 inches, and is composed as follows, reading from below, as usual. First are three short strokes to the right (T), then four dots on the angle of the stone (E), then three short strokes to the left (F), then an obscure dot on the angle (A), and two straight strokes to the right (D), then five marginal dots with about three-quarters of an inch between them (I), followed at a little distance (1 1/4) by a single dot (A), then five straight strokes to the right (Q), and at the top are five dots (I) on the angle of the stone, which is somewhat obliquely truncated. The three terminal letters, AQI, would seem to imply the previous M to make the word (M)AQ(U)I=MAC of the usual formula; but although there is a space between the last of the five dots=I, and the dot representing the second A (which should be a single oblique stroke crossing the angle of the stone, and extending on both the right and left sides of the angle), yet our various rubbings and drawings, as well as in Mr. Brash's notice, there is no trace of such a stroke. The oblique fracture at the top of the stone may have possibly broken off some more of the ogham characters, which might have been the letters of the father's name'.

Rhys, in 1918, harshly criticised Westwood's reporting of the Ogham in as a `marvellous muddle' and stating that Mr. Allen's sketch (now lost) is better and more correct.'

Macalister observed the distance between both inscriptions:

'The scribe has, with apparent perversity, chosen the roughest part of the angle to receive the Ogham scores: was this in the hope that these would escape the attention of possible destroyers -- or if they should be noticed by them, that the Roman inscription might be at a safe distance away?'.

Inscription on the Vitalianus StoneLatin:
The inscription is in two lines reading horizontally:


which means: 'of Vitalinus Emereto(s)'.

Most translations are: the stone or the monument of Vitalinus. Some translations have: 'To the well-earned honour of Vitalianus'. The interpretation of the RCAWM is 'To the memory of Vitalinus'.

The Roman capitals are of uneven height, but neatly incised in a good style with one ligature (A-L). The N is reversed, betraying a less than perfect command of the Latin script. The stone is dated to the later fifth century or the early sixth century.

'Emereto' is presumably a Celticized form (according to Nash-Williams) of the Latin Emeritus, but he was unsure whether it was used here as a name or an epithet. Macalister noted: `the second word...[is] unexplained. We may compare Ilvveto (342) at Trallwng; it is possibly a territorial adjective, like Saliciduni at Llywell'. Such an epithet might mean that the deceased 'finished his service' here on earth, like a veteran or like a very old man. The word was also used as an epithet, of one who had `finished his service here on earth (cf. ibid. i, no. 435---Fortunatus in pace bene emeritus vet(e)ranus)''. Charles Thomas: `The name [VITALIANI] is continuing-Roman, probably of an early sixth-century cleric, emeritus implying 'having deserved (his eternal reward)'. It might also have been a not uncommon early Christian name: the single-name epitaph, suggestive of a priest and from a very early Christian location. Likewise, Vitalinus is a name of Roman derivation.

Detail of the Vitalianus Stone Dating:
400 - 533 (Nash-Williams/1950)
400 - 499 (Jackson/1953)
466 - 533 (Thomas/1994).


The stone has long been used as a gatepost of a farm in Cwm Gloyne. Could this stone have been the memorial stone of Vitalinus, i.e. Vortigern? The critics, who will immediately jump up and call that this does not mean in the least that this memorial stone should therefore represent the grave of Vortigern, are of course correct. I have defended the identification of Vortigern with Vitalinus elsewhere), but we do not know for sure that Vortigern was buried in Nevern. But there is circumstantial evidence that may point in that direction.

Who was the person commemorated here? Vitalianus may seem different from Vitalinus, but it is exactly that name in the genitive. Even if one would presume that this stone represents the name of Vitalianus, this is no real problem. Vitalinus was a fairly rare name, even in the rest of the empire, but I know of no other British example from this period apart from that of the family of Vortigern. (There are a few later stones with this name in Ireland). The names derive from the same Latin root, and the letter A was dropped or added in other cases. An example is the sixth-century Vitalianus (fl. 503x520), who was adressed in a letter from the Burgundian king Sigismund as Vitalinus. Vitalianus was very famous (he marched on Constantinople no less than three times) and held high positions. Such mistakes apparently happened.

The Vitalinus Stone.
Plate from Nash-Williams 1950 (ECMW), Click to enlarge

We should also remember that the Irish of Dyfed that did not speak Latin as a second language like the Britons. As we see in the inverted N, this was certainly the case here. Another example from Dyfed is the sixth-century memorial stone of the king of Dyfed, Vortiporix, called both Votecorigis and Voteporigis on the same stone (and just Vortipor by Gildas), though he probably had a very good command of Latin. I think we should be overly critical when judging the name in this context. Likewise, Emereto is incorrect, but very close to the Latin original. Similarly, commentators had difficulties with the name Maximus, which was often replaced with Maximianus. But we can be very content that the name Vitalianus is very correctly explained with Vitalinus in the genetive form. This was in fact proposed by John Rhys in 1908, though he believed this Vitalinus to have been the grandfather of Vortigern.

The Vitalinus Stone.
Image from Macalister 1945 (CIIC vol. 1), Click to enlarge

Secondly, the geographical route of his flight as expressed in the sources becomes even more obvious:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 42

.. and departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a city which, according to his name, was called Cair Guorthegirn.


.. et ipse cum magis suis ad sinistralem plagam peruenit et usque ad regionem, qua uocatur guunnessi, adfuit et urbem ibi, quae uocatur suo nomine cair guorthigirn, aedificauit.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 47

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..


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 ..

.. 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.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 48

48. Others assure us, that being hated by all the people of Britain, for having received the Saxons, and being publicly charged by St. Germanus and the clergy in the sight of God, he betook himself to flight; and, that deserted and a wanderer, he sought a place of refuge, till broken hearted, he made an ignominious end.


alii autem aliter dixerunt. postquam exosi fuerunt illi omnes homines gentis suae pro piaculo suo inter potentes et impotentes, inter seruum et liberum, inter monachos et laicos, inter paruum et magnum, et ipse dum de loco ad locum uagus errat, tandem cor eius crepuit et defunctus est, non cum laude.

Some accounts state, that the earth opened and swallowed him up, on the night his castle was burned; as no remains were discovered the following morning, either of him, or of those who were burned with him.


alii dixerunt: terra aperta est et deglutiuit cum in nocte, in qua combusta est arx circa eum, quia non inuentae sunt ullae reliquiae illorum, qui combusti sunt cum eo in arce.

We see Vortigern running, driven from London and the east of the province, first to his own hills west of Gloucester (Little Doward, Ganarew), then even further west to his own estates (Gwrtheyrnion), and at last to the territory of the Irish in Dyfed (Craig Gwrtheyrn on the river Teifi). If we continue this westward-bound course, keeping in mind that not one account of his final demise was completely sure about the manner of his death, we arrive at the coast of Ceredigion, and then at Nevern.

The Stanzas of the Graves from the Black Book of Carmarthen (c. 1200) speak of Vortigern’s grave in the unlocated Ystyvacheu, though the poet comments that everyone doubts this:

Stanza 40
The Grave in Ystyvacheu,
on which all look askance,
the grave of Gwrtheyrn Gwrtheneu

The region where this Ystyvacheu may have been located would possibly be found in West Wales, possibly Carmarthenshire or Ceredigion. Could this be in the Nevern area?

Was Nevern the final resting-place of Vortigern? One can almost envisage the old man, left by all but a small retinue or just a handful of loyal retainers, worn out by grief and having fled yet another violent destruction of a hiding place. We won’t know if he died alone, surrounded by only friendly yet uncaring Irish immigrants, or that any of his family were there.

It would certainly explain why he was not buried under his acquired name of Vortigern, but under his family name of Vitalinus. The ‘chief lord’ had laid his office to rest, and maybe that name would have attracted vandalism by those seeking his destruction even after his death. The Emereto seems also very apt for an old man, that had seen his country change from a fairly prosperous Roman province to an independent nation and finally into a war-torn battlefield. He had indeed ‘finished his service' on earth.

Several pictures used with kind permission of Chris Tolley.


  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (Cardiff).*
  • CISP (Celtic Inscribed Stones Project): NEVRN1/2, at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/cisp/database/stone/nevrn_2.html
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Laing, Lloyd Robert and Jennifer Laing: A Guide to Dark Age Remains in Britain, (London 1979a).
  • Martindale, J.R., A.H.M. Jones and John Morris (eds.): The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (PLRE).Vol. 1, A.D. 260-395, (Cambridge1971).
  • Martindale, J.R. (ed.): The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (PLRE). Vol. 2, A.D. 395-527, (Cambridge1980).
  • Nash-Williams, V.E.: Early Christian Monuments of Wales, (Cardiff, 1950).*
  • Rhys, John (1908): in: Y Cymmrodor 21 , pp. 48-50.
  • Thomas, Charles: Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, (London 1981, repr. 1993).*
  • Tolley, Christopher J.: Crossing the Millennia - Nevern (Pembrokeshire) Nanhyfer (Sir Penfro), at: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/cj.tolley/ctm/ctm-nevern.htm (retrieved May 2002).

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