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Vortigern Vorteneu (W. Gwrtheyrn Gwrtheneu) was the British High-King notorious for allowing the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes to overrun his country, having initially employed them to defend its shores (See Early British Kingdoms' Vortigern the Thin). The man's story attracts much discussion amongst Arthurian scholars.
Vortigern's name has been taken to be a title, Gwrth-teyrn, literally meaning "Most Above Prince": Over-King is the usual interpretation. Though similar names were used for other monarchs and the addition of an epithet to a title seems unlikely, "Over-King" does describe exactly Vortigern's traditional position in British Society. There is further evidence to support the theory. Vertigernus was the title first used by Bede in his "Chronica Majora" (725), though his basic information came from Gildas who used the alternative term of 'Superbo Tyranno' (Supreme Tyrant) in his "De Excidio Britannić" (c.545). The term Gwrtheyrn appears to have been extensively used in Wales and spread, via Bede's anglicized Vortigern, throughout both the British and Saxon parts of the Island. In his "Historia Brittonum" (c.830), Nennius records that "From the reign of Vortigern to the discord between Guitolinus and Ambrosius are twelve years". But should this be interpreted as twelve years from the beginning or the end of Vortigern's reign? A modern reader might instantly take this to mean from the end of the reign. However, it seems that 9th century readers thought differently. It was therefore not until twelve years into Vortigern's reign that Guidolinus and Ambrosius had their falling out. Nennius specifically recorded, and it has generally been accepted since, that Ambrosius was Vortigern's major adversary. It would therefore seem logical to identify Guidolinus (L. Vitalinus) as Vortigern's real name. Moreover, Guitaul (L. Vitalis) and Guitolin (L. Vitalinus) are given in Nennius and the Jesus College MS 20 as the father and grandfather respectively of Vortigern. It has been suggested by John Morris that "Vortigern son of Vitalis son of Vitalinus" may have been a mistranscription of something like "Vortigern that is Vitalinus son of Vitalis".
Vortigern usurped power over the whole of the Island of Britain as High-King, apparently setting up a system of strongholds across the country, stretching, at least, from Caer-Ligualid (Carlisle) to Caer-Baddan (Bath). Though those that remain are all in the west (See The Problem of Caer-Guorthigirn), the memory of others in the east was probably obliterated by the Saxon take-over. Vortigern, however, is also specifically recorded, by Nennius, as a ruler of the Regio Guunnessi (Gwent). This was his original kingdom, probably inherited through his first wife Severa's ancestry, as shown by her mother's supposed descent from the legendary Kings of Siluria. His own family appear to have originated in neighbouring Caer-Gloiu (E. Gloucester) which, according to Nennius, was named after his great grandfather, Gloiu (though the reverse seems more likely).
Nennius mentions only four sons who could have inherited Vortigern's kingdom: Guorthemir (E. Vortimer/W. Gwerthefyr), Categirn (W. Cadeyrn), Pascent (W. Pasgen) and the incestuously begotten Faustus by an unnamed daughter. However, we know from other sources that there were further sons including Brydw and St.Edeyrn of Llanedeyrn, and a possible daughter, Scothnoe.
It has been suggested by Jason Godesky in his "The Vortigern Dynasty" that part of Vortigern's story, in reality, belongs to his eldest son, Vortimer. Vortimer is thus interpreted, alongside Vortigern, as a title, which he assigns to Vortigern's son, Brydw, prior to his inheriting the "Vortigern-ship" from his father. This leads to Jason's assertion that it was this second Vortigern who treacherously married the Jutish Rhonwen of popular legend. However, Vortimer is the not uncommon Royal Welsh name Gwerthefyr, as also used by Gildas' tyrannical King of Dyfed. Vortimer could not possibly have married Rhonwen. Besides his being portrayed as completely anti-Germanic, Vortimer was poisoned by Rhonwen who then persuaded his father to reveal where the body lay hidden. This would clearly preclude any succession from Vortigern to Vortimer. Vortimer had, in fact, been buried at Caer-Reputi (E. Richborough) beneath the Roman Triumphal Arch, as a talisman to keep the Saxons away. Having discovered his resting-place however, the invaders dug him up and re-interred his body in Caer-Lundein (E. London).
Vortimer cannot have been Brydw either. Brydw, probably a younger brother, is recorded in the Harleian MS 3859 as heading an obscure Princely family of an unknown territory (possibly Maelienydd & Elfael or Outer Powys); whereas Vortimer, as Vortigern's eldest son, ruled (during his father's High-Kingship) in the inherited power-base of the Vorteneu dynasty in Gwent. This was then known as Gwerthefyriwg, as recorded in the Book of Llandaff. It was eventually inherited by his only child, St.Madrun, and her husband the eponymous Ynyr Gwent (a prince of controversial origins: possibly a cousin and member of the family of Magnus Maximus).
Cadeyrn, as Vortigern's second son, deputised in the extensive region which Vortigern appears to have developed as his personal power-base: Powys (probably larger than modern Powys, encompassing a capital at Caer-Guricon (E. Wroxeter)). The Kings of Powys asserted their descent from Cadeyrn in the genealogies recorded in the Harleian MS 3859 & Jesus College MS 20. Though the known parts of the Royal Powysian genealogical inscription upon the 9th century "Eliseg's Pillar" do not mention him, reference is made to his brothers Pasgen and Brydw. "Britu, moreover, (was) a son of Guorthigirn whom Germanus blessed..." implies that further sons of Vortigern had already been mentioned in the preceding, and now lost section, of the inscription and that they too may have been blessed by St. Germanus of Auxerre. Hence the epithet of Fendigaid (the Blessed) used for both Vortimer and Cadeyrn. In fact, it is likely that the inscription's list of Britons in which Pasgen was included were in fact those baptized together by the saint, perhaps in the Severn in a similar manner to the evangelical methods of St. Paulinus and St. Birinus.
After Vortigern's dramatic demise at the hands of his old enemy, Ambrosius, it was his son Pasgen who, according to Nennius, was allowed to rule the Powysian sub-Kingdom of Buellt and Gwerthrynion (named after Vortigern), due to the magnanimous generosity of the new High-King. It is likely that a similar attitude was taken towards the rest of the Vorteneu family in Gwent, the unknown principality of Brydw's descendants and Powys itself. It showed Ambrosius in a benevolent light, in sharp contrast to the previous reign, and created a sense of stability in the country. After all, Vortigern's sons had shown little agreement with their father's pro-Saxon policies and, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, had even rebelled against him.
So, although Vortigern's reign has been remembered in history and legend as the most disastrous to have ever befallen the British Nation, he did manage to leave a powerful legacy to his sons. He established them so well in the rich kingdoms in the heart of Britain that his family ruled there for the next eight hundred years.
Vortigern and his Family is Copyright © 1998, David Nash Ford. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: David Nash Ford
 The common Welsh name, Cadwaladr (Cad-gwaladr),
for example, means "Battle Chief".
VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2008. All rights reserved