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The name Vortigern or Gwrtheyrn, as found in the Historia Brittonum of Nennius, was once held to be a ruling title. It was represented by Gildas' Latin 'superbus tyrannus'. However, we now know that Vortigern was a proper name and not a title. It is found recorded not only in several localities in Wales, but in Ireland as well.
In a previous essay, I briefly discussed the Dark Age Irish Vortigerns or "Fortcherns". To recount these Irish Vortigerns:
1) Fortchern, the smith of St. Patrick (Annals of the Four Masters Year Entry 448); as this Fortchern is paired with another smith, Laebhan, i.e. St. Lomman (?), this Fortchern may be:
2) Foirtchern son of Fedelmid, who was for a short time bishop of St. Lomman's Trim. Fortchern of Trim, who was of mixed Irish and British blood, is said to have later retired to Killoughterane/Cill Fortchern in the parish of Muinebeag, Co. Carlow. However, we are told in the ancient Irish sources that Fortchern the smith is the same as Foirtchern of Rath Seimhne (see below). It may not be a coincidence that there is a Gobbin's Cliff, the Cliffs of the divine smith Goban Saor, in Seimhne/Island Magee.
3) Vortigern of Ballyhank, East Muskerry, Co. Cork (inscribed stone).
4) Vortigern of Knockboy in Decies Without Drum, Co. Waterford (inscribed stone dated c. 700-900 AD).
5) Foirtchern of Monte Cainle (probably the Hill of Conlig/Coinleac in north Co. Down), a contemporary of St. Columba.
6) Foirtchern of Rath Seimhne (Island Magee, south Co. Antrim).
7) Fortchern, brother of Cathchern (a name cognate with British Cattigern, a supposed son of Vortigern in the Historia Brittonum narrative), son of Tigernach of the Meic Carthind of the Lough Foyle region.
8) Fortcheirn son of Mael Rubae of the Ui Dicholla of the Dessi
9) Fortchern son of Iarlaith of the Ui Brigte of the Dessi
10) Fortchern son of Tigernach of the Ui Brigte of the Dessi
11) Clan Foirtchern in the Breadach genealogy on Inishowen, near the Lough Foyle Meic Carthind
These examples, some "in stone", should be sufficient to dispell the notion that Vortigern is merely a title. Instead, Vortigern is a genuine Brythonic personal name.
In Wales, Radnorshire or Maesyfed (the "field of Hyfaidd") was once known as Gwrtheyrnion, i.e. the kingdom of Gwrtheyrn. Gwrtheyrnion, roughly between the Wye and Ithon rivers, was a relatively small kingdom in southwestern Powys. Other places in Wales where Vortigern's name is preserved are Nant Gwrtheyrn in Lleyn, close to Gwyniasa (and surrounding Gwynus placenames), and a Craig Gwrtheyrn on the Teifi.
These three places are mentioned in Nennius's narrative, but only Gwrtheyrnion carries weight. The Lleyn and Teifi sites may represent the presence in these places of other Vortigerns, but in all likelihood it is merely the proximity to them of St. Garmon placenames, which caused Nennius or his source to associate them with Vortigern. In Nennius's story of Vortigern, the poor chieftain is literally harried all over Wales by the saint. Thus wherever there was a known St. Garmon site, Vortigern was placed there. In my opinion, Vortigern was probably not in Lleyn, nor was he on the Teifi. He belonged instead to Gwrtheyrnion, which was merely one of several Welsh Dark Age kingdoms.
I still hold that Vortigern of Wales, who is said to have been the son of Guitaul son of Guitolin son of Gloiu (Gloyw of Caerloyw or Gloucester), is actually the British-Irish Fortchern son of Fedelmid son of Laeghaire. This Fortchern son of Fedelmid was of the right time to be the Vortigern of Nennius. Both Guitaul and Guitolin are substituted for the name Fedel-mid, and Gloyw, meaning "bright, shiny", may be a substitute for Laeghaire, the Loygare in Nennius, a name perhaps wrongly connected with W. llachar, "brilliant, bright, flashing". It is also possible the Welsh placename Caerloyw, i.e. Gloucester, was linked to Loygare.
Fortchern son of Fedelmid's mixed ancestry allows for the possibility that he possessed or inherited lands on both sides of the Irish Sea. We know that there were several Irish-founded kingdoms in Wales at the time: the Deissi established a ruling dynasty in Dyfed, Brycheiniog was of Irish foundation, and Cunedda of Manau Gododdin, founder of Gwynedd, was actually Chuinnedha/MacCuilind of Drum Managh in Ireland. The Irish mercenary Cunorix son of Maquicoline (Cunorix being the Cynric of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Maquicoline being MacCuilind/Chuinnedha, the Ceawlin of the ASC) was buried in the heart of Powys at Viroconium. There is no difficulty, then, in accepting a Gwrtheyrnion as a kingdom named after Fortchern son of Fedelmid.
The only objection to a Gwrtherynion ruled by a chieftain of mixed British-Irish ancestry would be that such a king, with such a small kingdom, could not possibly be the "superbus tyrannus" of Gildas. But I offer this argument to account for how such a confusion could have taken place: any chieftain possessing a name such a Vor-tigern, "the over-/super-/great- lord", could easily have been misinterpreted as an over-king similar to the ardrigh or "high-king" of Ireland. If I am right and Fortchern son of Fedelmid son of Laeghaire the high king is the British Vortigern of Gwrtheyrnion, then this kind of royal descent from an ardrigh could have contributed to Gildas's misinterpretation of Vortigern's status in Britain.
In summary, then, what seems to have happened is this: a chieftain named Vortigern (or Fortchern), who was of mixed Irish-British ancestry, and whose grandfather was the ardrigh of Ireland, had established a small kingdom in southwestern Powys in the 5th century. Gildas, attracted to the name because it seemed to denote a sort of British high king, laid the blame for the Saxon "invitation" in this presumed high king's lap. Further vilification continued after this identification of Vortigern as the offending monarch was made, until by the 9th century we have a fully developed story of Vortigern in the Historia Brittonum of Nennius.
It is probable that the association of St. Germanus of Auxerre with Vortigern of Gwrtheyrnion is fraudulent and that the St. Garmon of Gwrtheyrnion is a different saint altogether. Perhaps it was St. Gorman of the Isle of Man (as has been proposed before) or another Irish saint who left his name scattered about Wales. St. Germanus of Auxerre's activities seem to have been restricted to southeastern Britain and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that he was ever present in Wales.
The Myth of the British Vortigern is Copyright © 2001, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: August Hunt
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