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A Clerical Portrait of Vortigern?

Michael Veprauskas

first published on
Early British Kingdoms

From the beginning of the world to Constantinus and Rufus, are found to be five thousand, six hundred, and fifty-eight years.

Also from the two consuls, Rufus and Rubelius, to the consul Stilicho, are three hundred and seventy-three years.

Also from Stilicho to Valentinian, son of Placida, and the reign of Vortigern, are twenty-eight years.

And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitolinus and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guoloppum, that is Catgwaloph. Vortigern reigned in Britain when Theodosius and Valentinian were consuls, and in the fourth year of his reign the Saxons came to Britain, in the consulship of Felix and Taurus, in the four hundredth year from the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

From the year in which the Saxons came into Britain, and were received by Vortigern, to the time of Decius and Valerian, are sixty-nine years.[1]

So reads section 66 of Nennius' Historia Brittonum.

In the preceding quote from Nennius, the most important item is section four, and concerns both the beginning of Vortigern's reign and the arrival of the Saxons. The other four sections are peripheral to these two events.  Here, the beginning of Vortigern's reign is linked with the consulship of Theodosius II and Valentinian III, which occurred in 425. The fourth year of his reign would have been 428, the year of the consulship of Felix and Taurus. The four hundredth year from the "Incarnation" is a misnomer, as 428 was actually the four hundredth year from the "Passion" of Christ. Confusion in dating from the Incarnation and the Passion occurs elsewhere in the Historia Brittonum.[2]

The first section "From the beginning of the world to Constantinus and Rufus..." brings us to the year 458/59 A.D.. The chronology of Eusebius is utilized here, where our year 1 A.D. is the year 5,200 A.M. (Anno Mundi). Anno Mundi derives from a Hebraic system of dating which commences at the creation of the world. The 5,658 years that Nennius gives us would normally be 458/59 A.D., but this date does not correlate with the individuals named in the text. David Dumville has theorized that the Historia "must have used the rare, but by no means unknown, form .dc. = 500"[3] in some instances. In going through both the Harleian and Vatican Latin versions of  the Historia Brittonum, there appear to be at least three instances where this system is used. The first is the dating to the reign of Edmund I, as noted by David Dumville. Next we have a dating of Magnus Maximus by Anno Mundi, where this form (dc=500) is used. And lastly, from this section 66 of Nennius.

Using a corrected date of 358/59 brings us to the reign of Constantius II, third son of Constantine the Great and Fausta. Though a Christian, he was a fervent adherent to the Arian heresy. Of him, Bede says:

The Arian heresy, sustained by the leadership of the emperor Constantius, persecuted Athanasius first of all, then all bishops not of its party with exile, imprisonment, and various types of affliction.

Maximinus bishop of the Treveri was outstanding; he received bishop Athanasius of Alexandria with honour at the time that Constantius wished to punish him.[4]

An influential anti-Arian bishop, Athanasius was driven into exile by Constantius II  in 356, where he remained until the death of Constantius II in 361. The Arian heresy denied the divinity of Christ, stating that he is not truly divine, but a created being. The scribe who wrote this section of Nennius, appears to have deliberately chosen the Anno Mundi form of dating here; for the Gospel of St. John clearly states "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God...".[5] Thus, by using an Anno Mundi dating scheme, the divinity of Christ "one with the Father" from before the creation of the world, is sharply contrasted with the Arian belief that he was merely a created being, inside datable history.

Both Gildas and Bede record that the Arian heresy gained root in Britain:

This poisonous error after corrupting the whole world, at length crossed the sea and infected even this remote island...[6]

The second section "from the two consuls, Rufus (read Fufius) and Rubelius, to the consul Stilicho..." would bring us to the year 401/402, when Stilicho was regent to the young Honorius. His actual consulship was in the year 400. The Roman consulship was such an honor, that once an individual held this office, he generally continued to be referred by the title of "consul" for the rest of his life. In the following year, 403, we find the bishop of Rouen, Victricius, visiting Britain "for the purpose of bringing peace to the island's clergy, who were in the midst of a dispute...".[7] It is commonly believed that this concerned the Pelagian heresy.

Pelagius, a monk, and founder of the Pelagian heresy, was either Irish or a native Briton. He is generally ascribed a Briton by his contemporaries, and the Pelagian heresy itself was considered "British". Pelagius was well educated and fluent in the use of both Latin and Greek. By 398-401, or perhaps earlier, he established himself in the environs of Rome to propagate his beliefs.[8] In brief, his teachings denied "Original Sin" and the necessity of Christ's Passion and death. The latter served to instruct and to act as an exemplar, but, "nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace."[9] In short, mankind could save itself through its own efforts. The method of dating here, again, does not appear to be chance. It appears that our monastic writer deliberately chose to date from the Passion of Christ, i.e. Anno Passio, thus starkly confronting the offending heresy itself. Yet another scourge that had infested the island.

Also from Stilicho to Valentinian, son of Placida, and the reign of Vortigern, are twenty-eight years.

Here, Nennius' source takes us from Stilicho and the rise of the Pelagian heresy, to the reigns of Valentinian III and Vortigern. Stilicho became regent to the young Honorius in 395 and held consulship in 400. It is thought that Vortigern and his party favored the Pelagian heresy. It promoted self-reliance, was native born, and had an appeal to those who favored British nationalism and independence from Rome; both in a political and religious sense. Faustus, Vortigern's son through incestuous relations with his daughter, later preached a form of semi-Pelagianism in Gaul.[10] This further indicates Vortigern's probable sympathies with Pelagianism. Throughout the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern's dealings with St. Germanus; who was sent twice to combat Pelagianism in Britain, are confrontational. Again, our clerics choice of "28 years" alludes to the orthodox view of the importance of the Passion as opposed to the Pelagian beliefs.

And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitolinus and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guoloppum, that is Catgwaloph.

The year is 437. Here, Ambrosius is set in opposition to one whom many feel is either Vortigern, or a close family member. Did our clerical friend recount this incident, with the additional underlying motive of starkly contrasting Vortigern's Pelagianism with Ambrosius' orthodoxy?

From the year in which the Saxons came into Britain, and were received by Vortigern, to the time of Decius and Valerian, are sixty-nine years.

This fifth and last section, comes after the central events in section four - Vortigern and the arrival of  the Saxons. It starts from the beginning of an event (arrival of the Saxons) and moves backwards in time. The 69 years takes us back to the time of Constantius II. We would then have gone full circle to the first part of this section of Nennius. A later copyist might have felt this is what the original author had intended when he saw "169 years" before him. However, by amending "69" years to "169" year we arrive at the end of the reign of Valerian, 259/60 A.D., who is referred to in the text. Valerian vigorously renewed the persecutions first set in motion by the Emperor Decius a few years before. Hence the linking of the two names. One wonders, if the author was also dating the persecutions of St. Albans, Aaron and Julius to this era, rather than during the more widely believed reign of Diocletion?

In the eyes of fifth century clerics, the aftermath of the Saxon revolt must have seemed markedly similar to the persecution of Christians under the pagan emperors. Priests and bishops were slaughtered, churches destroyed, people were scattered and went into hiding. Some of the vivid imagery in Gildas' writing attests to this.[11]

To the old monastics, Vortigern and his Saxons were viewed as yet another scourge inflicted upon Britain. Worse than Arianism, Pelagianism, and persecuting pagan emperors, his reign was the crowning point of the ultimate evil let loose upon the Britons, i.e. the Saxons. These Saxons persecuted the people and devastated the church, far more thoroughly than any previous Roman Emperor! Ironically enough, it was the very offensiveness of his crimes that caused the old chronologers to record and preserve records of his rise to power and the coming of his Saxon mercenaries!

Had our author's intent been solely to date the rise of Vortigern and the arrival of the Saxons, he could have simply done so by any of the methods of dating available to him. E.g., from the creation of the world to Vortigern (A.M.); from the passion of Christ to Vortigern; by Consular year; etc. Instead, he elected to proceed in stages to these two events, with each intermediary step containing its own message! In our scribe's eye, Vortigern and his Saxons represented the ultimate evil unleashed in Britain.

It is interesting to speculate on the age of these traditions.They certainly seem older than the mission of St. Augustine, to Kent, in 597, for the Saxons are obviously viewed here as totally pagan. The imagery that is evoked; the heresies of Arian, Pelagius; the foolishness of Vortigern; the ruthlessness of his Saxons; closely parallel that of Gildas, whose writings are dated c.540. It is also interesting to note that in the earlier sections of the Historia Brittonum[12], dealing in depth with Vortigern and his policies, there is not a single positive statement regarding either! No pretense is made to give a balanced account, which would have addressed Vortigern's point of view to some extent. The account is retrospective, ascribed to "the will of God" - pure clerical rancor! Even Gildas, on one occasion, refers to Vortigern as "the unlucky king"[13], which is charitable by comparison with his treatment in the Historia Brittonum. Was there, in addition, a real need for the apparent veiled language of this account in section 66 of the Historia Brittonum? Were some of Vortigern's immediate descendants still in positions of authority, still to be reckoned with? Presumably, the records were composed near enough in time to the peripheral themes, that there was no need to spell them out to the reader.

These concerns make a 6th century compilation for these documents (which John Morris refers to as the Kentish Chronicle[14]) likely to be accomplished during the rise of monasticism in the west of Britain. Gildas' De Excidio Brittaniae may have sparked some interest in collecting and preserving accounts of these events. The documents and/or traditions upon which they were based, must have been in circulation long enough for a considered opinion to be made of them. Certain portions are reflected and confirmed by other old traditions deriving from Kent. They could be very old indeed.

A Clerical Portrait of Vortigern? is Copyright 1998, Michael Veprauskas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Michael Veprauskas


[1] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #66.
[2] Michael Veprauskas, "Adventus Saxonum".
[3] David Dumville, The Historia Brittonum, #3 Vatican Recension,  p. 46.
[4] Bede, The Greater Chronicle, entry for year 4314.
[5] Gospel of St John 1:1-2.
[6] Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 1, chapter 8.
[7] Britannia Internet Magazine, "Timeline of Arthurian Britain", entry for year 403.
[8] The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Pelagius and Pelagianism", electronic version.
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid.
[11] Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, sections #19 and #24.
[12] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, sections #31 and 36-49.
[13] Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, section #23.
[14] John Morris, The Age of Arthur, especially chapters 4 and 5.

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