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Why Vortigern?

David White

Suite 101
first published on
Suite 101

Before we can answer the question of Why Vortigern? we need to understand a little about who Vortigern was. Not surprisingly, not much is really known about the man himself. Tradition has him ruling a large part of what was Roman Britain. Was he a military leader or an administrative leader who liked to be called High-King? Scholars disagree. One thing that is certain is that he was in a position, as the head of the strongest military presence on the Island at the time, to attempt to fight off Pictish attacks from the north. Another thing that is certain is that he was in a position to ask the Saxons to help him in his fight.

Before this, not a whole lot is known about Vortigern. The popular story of Merlin interpreting the story of the red and white dragons near Dinas Emrys has come to include Vortigern. The historical figure Vitalinus has been identified with Vortigern. Some even argue that Vitalinus took the name Vortigern to symbolize his title as “highest ruler among other rulers.” Indeed, studies of the period have revealed that Vortigern, whoever he was, did not act alone in inviting the Saxons to settle in Britain; rather, he was the highest-ranking official on a sort of council that made such decisions. (Still, the names of the rest of the council members are not commonly among us.) However, his historical identity - like that of Arthur - eludes us. Vortigern was certainly skilled in the Roman ways of battle, negotiation, and civil government--all of which are evident from a study of his accomplishments. This would certainly point to his being a Roman or, at the very least, a Romano-British. We know had a son, Vortimer, who succeeded him to the position.

Given all this, it is tempting to throw up one’s hands and say, “Enough!” However, we know so much about this “Vortigern” character that not knowing his identity should not be an obstacle to understanding the answer to the question “Why Vortigern?” It is a good question, one that needs to be asked, for it is at the feet of this man that historians and traditionalists alike prefer to lay the blame for the Saxon occupation of England.

The custom of inviting insiders into Britain was not new. The Belgae certainly made themselves at home when they were thrown out of Gaul, most likely because their fellow Celts had sent reinforcements for the battle with Rome and felt obligated to provide shelter for the fleeing defeated. The Romans certainly did not ask permission to inhabit, subdue, and conquer large portions of the Island. The same can be said of the Picts. Yet the Saxons, Germanic to the core, were invited in. Vortigern and his council seem to have chosen the lesser of two evils, not knowing the extent of deception practiced on them by the devious Hengist and his clans. The British undoubtedly thought to inject new blood into the campaign against the Picts. In terms of military superiority, they chose correctly; in terms of political shrewdness and foresight, they chose dead wrong. Yet choose they did. Vortigern, as the leader of the leaders, was the one to make the contacts, arrange for the occupation of the Isle of Thanet, see to the Saxons’ needs. Such was his responsibility; such, however, was not his burden alone. He might very well have been the most powerful man in Britain at the time, but he did not have unilateral control over his subjects. He ruled as a member of the council, subject to the whims of those who had chosen that council’s members. He was not acting alone. Yet leader he was and so bore some responsibility.

The questions, then, are these:

Why did Vortigern do what he did? He chose what he thought was the less dangerous path, seeking to end an immediate threat but not looking ahead to what could have been a tremendous long-term threat. Further, he was desperate. The Saxons offered immediate help.

Why was Vortigern the one to do the deed? He was the leader of the council, the “high ruler among other rulers,” the one who did such things. Military or civil authority, he had the job of implementing the council’s decisions.

Why is Vortigern held up for blame? His name survives, mainly through the writings of the historians who wrote about the period: Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Historians all too often look for one target on which to affix blame. Vortigern is all too convenient for this purpose.


  • Ashe, Geoffrey, "The Landscape of King Arthur," 1987, Webb & Bower, London
  • Barber, Richard, "King Arthur: Hero and Legend," 1986, Dorset Press, New York.
  • Day, David, "The Search for King Arthur," 1990, Facts on File, New York.
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth, "The Mystery of King Arthur," 1990, Dorset Press, New York.
  • Nennius, "The History of the Britons."
  • Phillips, Graham and Keatman, Martin, "King Arthur: The True Story," 1992, Arrow, London.

More about Vortigern
Single best link for info about Vortigern
Biography from Britannia.com
Short bio from Mystical A-Z

Why Vortigern is Copyright 2000, David White. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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