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Saints on the Move

Robert Vermaat

This article tries to shed some light on how the saga of Vortigern may have been spread among the Celtic-speaking regions. There are some striking similarities in stories featuring Vortigern (or a relative) in equally striking different positions. Thus the famous story of Vortigern and Emrys seems very similar to that of the defeat of the druids by St Patrick at the court of Loguire. The High King of the Irish entertains magicians as well as the saint, but gets cursed in return. It also seems reflected in the dispute involving Foirtgirn, involving a sorcerer and St Columba. In that story Foirtchernn also ends up with a curse by the church. Another defeat of Vortigern by a Saint is in the story of St Germanus and his hunt and ultimate defeat of Vortigern. This is strangely reflected by the Breton Life of St Gurthiern, where Vortigern is made the Saint and is hunted by the King!

The Irish connection

Dinas Emrys: Collapsing castles and Human Sacrifice
The Historia Brittonum relates how Vortigern has done a great sin and is hunted down for it by St Germanus. Though according to his biographer
Constantius of Lyon the original Germanus of Auxerre visited Britain to combat the Pelagian heresy and never met Vortigern, the folk-tale has him accuse Vortigern of incest. The evil king is then haunted into Wales and killed by a ‘flaming miracle’ from the saint. Very closely connected with this flight is the legend of Dinas Emrys . This is the well-know story of the Collapsing Castle and the confrontation between Emrys (or later Merlin) and the druids of Vortigern (who now suddenly becomes a pagan), who are demanding a human sacrifice so that the tower may stand. We see some very similar elements of two other, indeed related stories from Ireland.

Tolstoy has suggested that there are several similarities at work. One was that of the 'Collapsing castle' and the human sacrifice needed to sustain it. Tolstoy saw a direct comparison with the pagan god Cenn Cróich, who demamded human sacrifice at the place called Mag Slécht, until St patrick came and destroyed the cult. Of course, Mag Slécht is a megalithic monument, and Tolstoy very correctly assumes that the story was conjured up to explain the stones, the tale of Dinas Emrys being an analogy.

Another similarity couls be about Stonehenge. Geoffrey of Monmouth had Merlin transport the stones from Mount Killarous in Ireland to Britain, at the orders of Ambrosius. However, Dinas Emrys was given to Ambrosius (in the Historia Brittonum) or rather, Merlin (Geoffrey's version), who was responsible for the success of this erection as well. Both have been claimed to be the place of the 'Collapsing Castle'.

The closest resemblence with the Dinas Emrys story comes from the contest between St Patrick and the two druids of Loguire, High King of Ireland. In this contest, the saint defeats and destroys the druids, after which Loguire is converted to Christianity, though it is prophesied that his descendants will not rule after him (Book of Armagh, lxvii). This story was very poular in Ireland and must have been circulating widely, including among those Irish in Britain.

A Vortigern, sorcerers and a cursing saint
Another resemblance comes from the story of
Foirtgirn, who entertains St Columba and has magicians holding a contest, only to be defeated by the saint.The elements are strikingly similar: a hero/saint, magicians/sorcerers (to be defeated) and the related trio of a ruling king (Vortigern), another ruling king (Loguire) and a landowner (Foirtchirnn, another ‘Vortigern’, with family-ties to Loguire and possibly to Vortigern). All three stories are connected with a cursing saint: Vortigern is running from St Germanus, who curses him and prohibits his offspring from ruling; Loguire is cursed by St Patrick who prophesies the same thing; Foirtchirnn is cursed as well, when he himself denounces his ‘inheritance’.

Coincidence? The three stories may all be linked, they may even be original themselves. Another explanation though is that the elements of the stories featuring Vortigern were all constructed later, reflecting the famous original of St Patrick. This would fit with the theory that the story did not come out by chance; it was written down by Adamnan and Ferdomnach, who both were very adament in establishing the superiority of the See of Armagh and its saint (St patrick) as the patron saint of Ireland. Viewed thus, the story had a political role for the church. I think that it is reasonable to suppose that these documents formed a part of the lterary propaganda which preceded "Adamnan's" Synod of Birr in 697 which meant to and succeeded in transferring the Celtic church to the Anglo-Roman church.

The British connection

The Pillar of EliseBut what about the British story? We have seen that the story featuring St Germanus in the Historia Brittonum is very likely to have been a later one, promoting the local saint of the house of Powys and the current king Cyngen, who was intent to slur the name of Votigern in his efforts to disprove the claim as formulated on the Pillar of Elise by the rival Powysian dynasty that descended from Vortigern. The Historia Brittonum seems to have been written with that target in mind, forming part of a campaign of Damnatio Memoriae, damning Vortigern as responsible for the Saxon invasion as well. This slur seems to extend itself to the claim of the base birth of Foirtgirn (who is called a plebeius), but who, if identified with Foirtchirnn, was in any case the grandson of the Irish High King and maybe of the British as well! We may find here that an interpolation from the Historia Brittonum has entered the story.

The death of Vortigern at the hands of St Germanus is easily refuted on chronological grounds alone. The real Germanus visited Britain in 439 and possibly in 447, after which he soon died on the continent. This would mean that Vortigern would have been dead by 447 (which would be possible), but even before the traditional date of the Adventus Saxonum! St Germanus may never have met Vortigern, and it is next to certain that the visit of St Germanus was originally wholly unconnected with that of Vortigern. This may help to account for the fact that Gildas, writing his account only about a century later than the lifetime of Vortigern, has no word of St Germanus. Also Constantine in Gaul, writing his Life of St Germanus only about thirty years after the saint's lifetime, has no hint of Vortigern.

Not only did St Germanus not kill Vortigern, neither did he hunt down him for incest or any other crime. The real Germanus oficially came to hunt Pelagians, or possibly with a political message concerning the Bacaudae in Aremorica. But at Dinas Emrys, Vortigern turns suddenly into a pagan who entertains druids at his court! This is too similar to the story of St Patrick to ignore. Now it is known that the early writers of the Lives of saints to practise the transpondence of incidents from other sources, and particularly other Lives, and to insert them in the one they were writing. As we shall see, this might have been the case here. The events may have come from a much later Life of St Germanus, written in Wales.

Vortigern and the two dragons at Dinas EmrysNot only St Germanus may not have been original to the story, the person of Emrys may be redundant as well. The ‘inheritance’ of the fort by Emrys is clearly eponymous. It is not clear at all who this Emrys may have been, though later commentators made a strong link with Ambrosius Aurelianus. This is again disproved when the story of Vortigern’s defeat by that same Ambrosius Aurelianus is added, for that defeat comes directly after the Emrys part, making it impossible for both Ambrosii to be the same because of the obvious age difference. This confusion laid the foundations for the shift in the person of Emrys via a ‘Merlin Emrys’ interpolation to the famous magician himself! When we add that another explanation of the word emrys might be ‘enclosure’, the ground becomes shaky. Lastly, the legend in itself - the necessary human sacrifice for the steadfastness of a fortress - is an old Celtic one, which may have been popular (again) in Ireland. I go deeper into this in 'Vortigern and Ambrosius'.

Considering these elements, we might conclude that this famous story, that ironically is responsible for the survival of ANY MEMORY about Vortigern at all, was probably one of those wandering legends that aquired non-related ‘famous’ names when they were spread. We can relatively safe discard the connection between St Germanus and Vortigern, who has many different stories attatched concerning his end. We could however accept that Vortigern may have been active in the Dinas Emrys region, for the hill-fort was once called Dinas Ffaraon, which may have been an allusion to the Pharao as used by Gildas as an eponym for Vortigern. An alternative name was Dinas Ffaraon Dandde (the fort of the ‘Fiery Pharao'), possibly alluding to one version of Vortigern’s death, when is burned together with his ‘tower’.

We should not reject all elements as a result of this. It is perfectly possible that some parts of the story were true enough, only ‘transported’ into the form of an otherwise well-known and popular story. Foirtchernn for one seems to have a firm base trough his other source. Neither would I reject out of hand the meeting between Vortigern and a young Ambrosius Aurelianus. This would fit the chronology whether you would have Vortigern fight an Ambrosius in 437 or later, for the flourishing of Ambrosius Aurelianus is during the 460s. This would mean a meeting in the 440s, which would fit my idea of a waning Vortigern, or that of a meeting in the late 450s, which would fit an adult Ambrosius, possibly even with Vortimer. Though both are possible, I favour the first one. I would reject the Merlin connection for the reasons presented above. This might fit though with the Stonehenge-version of this tale.. What we are left with is an Irish tale that travelled eastwards.

The Breton connection

Which leads us to the other story linked with the Historia Brittonum. As we have seen, St Germanus hunted Vortigern down (according to the Historia Brittonum) into Wales for a vague ‘sin’ committed when he was king. In Brittany, Vortigern is known as Gurthiern, a saint that occurs in hagiographical records. This saint though is hunted down by a king (his father), when he has fled himself for some equally vague 'sin'. He has slain his sister's son without knowing who he was, and his guilt drives him into exile and penance in a northern British valley. A hunter find him and tells his father where he is, who tries to convince him to return and take the crown. But he refuses the king, and is commanded by an angel to go, first to the river Tamar in Cornwall, then to Brittany. This Life is closely connected with that of St Ninnoc, which also presents a link with Vortigern and south Wales.

Nothing historical should be looked for in either two lives, but the elements are interesting in itself, known as they are from the Historia Brittonum, the Bonedd y Saint, De Situ Brechiniauc, or from the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth. We have the (very rare) name of Vortigern, a British king from the fifth century, the same family of Brachan (Brychan), the eponym of a small kingdom in south central Wales, whose kingdom marched with that of Vortigern's in early historical times, and whose Irish wife and large family of sons and daughters, all saints, appear in in both Welsh and Breton traditions. The story travelled the same way as the saint in the story.

The flight of Gurthiern after he killed a kinsman may not be original. We get the same story with one of the prototypes for Merlin, namely Lailoken, who becomes a hermit in a northern valley after the slaying of a sister's son. Gurthiern's story is even more parallelled in the story of the Irish king Suibhne, who goes geilt in battle as a result of a curse. He then flees into solitude until discovered by his subjects who want to make him king, wherupon he flees west and joins a christian hermit. And there are also similarities with the actions of St Germanus of course, though his position is taken up by the angel, but with the same result. The conclusion may be that these elements are common Celtic literary stuff and bear no relationship with any real events. But though the story-elements might not be real, names and places might just be those elements that made this story different from others, and thus possibly real after all.

The possible objection to the identification of both the stories of Gurthiern and Vortigern as referring to one person may be argued against as follows. There are more than a few similarities between them. Their names are identical, both belong to ruling houses of Britain, both dwell in about the same area in about the same period. Both are guilty of a sin and are hunted in the mountains of Wales. When they are found they both go first northwards, and then to the outer limits; Vortigern westwards and Gurthiern southwards. So, does the Breton variant offer a parallel version for the story in the Historia Brittonum? I have discussed elsewhere that the 'sin' of Vortigern might not have been incest at all, so it might be a possibility this 'sin' mounted to family business only!

We may be convinced that the readers of the Historia Brittonum may have felt the same bewilderment over the grievous sin that the fugitive seemed to have committed. Vortigern a saint? How did he become that? The fact that in the Breton story it is the saint who has committed the sin instead of the king may be proof that neither story has that much truth in it, but the contents served only as a means to an end. In the case of the Historia Brittonum it was the political goal of the Powysian dynasts, in that of Gurthiern maybe only to find an explanation for his sainthood. For we may be assured of the fact that Gurthiern's hagiographer had found no knowledge of any sin of incest, or else he would have written his Life differently. So how did the saint aquire his sanctity?

To the readers, the same actions as those of the Irish king Suibhne (above) may have been enough to explain the elevated status of their saint. But this was explained only long afterwards, and we have just seen that these elements can be disregarded as truth. Gurthiern had already been a saint for so long before his hagiography was written that no-one remembered why, hence the invention. Instead, we should look to the historical origin of the stories of both St Gurthiern and St Ninnoc, and the route travelled. Both Lives are strongly connected in Brittany, both relate about Vortigern and his family, both come from central and south Wales through Cornwall. And this sums up the link as well between Brittany and the area of Dyfed, Glamorgan and Brecon/Gwrtheyrnion - the principal area for the Breton saints. It is not by coincidence that Gurthiern stops at the Tamar in Cornwall before travelling to Brittany, for this is the same route taken by many colonists from that region. The evidence suggests that the Lives of St Gurthiern and St Ninnos travelled hand in hand from the traditional homes of Ninnoc and Vortigern via Cornwall to Brittany, where they became associated directly with the church of Bro Weroc (Vannes) and that of Quimperlé.


The evidence as prensented suggests that a saga of Vortigern did circulate in the Celtic world, and at least a century before Nennius wrote his version of the Historia Brittonum. A version of this saga was known to Adamnan at the end of the 7th century, though we have to wait for Ferdomnach and the latest redactor of the Historia Brittonum before the actual names occur in Irish and Welsh sources. In Brittany our earliest record is much later. So what was the reason for this widespread interest in Vortigern and his relations with the church after more than two and a half centuries?

As we have seen above, the Irish connection used the saga in establishing a transfer from the Celtic to the Anglo-Roman church. And Vortigern may have been the prototype for illustrating that, though at this time still as a person of regal status. Though there is a hint of a curse and a slur already present (in Foirtchernn’s refusal of his inheritance), it seems equally important that Trim was founded by someone with high social status on both sides of the family.

Like the Irish, the Breton sources still use his memory as a king in a positive way, which may proves their more ancient origin. Though there is a hint of a curse, the nature of it has been forgotten. But the memory of Vortigern which must have been present even at the late date of this Life did not hinder his identification with a saintly status.

It becomes clear that by the 8th century the curse upon Vortigern and his ancestors had gained ground, and especially within Britain. Vortigern is used as a prototype, but now strictly a negative one, both in his background and in his character. By this time the English colonization was at its peak, and Vortigern becomes the accursed hero of the saga in which the hated Vortigern, detested by all concerned to uphold the Roman order (political and ecclesiastical), invites these cursed English. 'Nennius', writing after 820 at the request of Elvodug, bishop of North Wales and in support of the transference of the British church to Rome, must have felt some awkwardness that the Welsh king Cyngen, fiercely fighting the English (and their Roman church), traced his ancestry directly to Vortigern himself. As a result, 'Nennius' denies this ancestry, inventing a slave instead, which could only have been seen as a slur on the house of Cyngen.

How does this relate to the reality in these saints 'on the move'? It makes it fairly possible that Vortigern and his family indeed ruled over a region in central and south Wales, and that their praises were sung for quite some time in the Celtic world, which had no problem accepting Vortigern and his descendants as holier than other people. Therefore we can conclude that the curse for which he is hunted originated as something quite different from the later slur as presented by Nennius. It might equally have been because he was infaustus (unlucky), as Gildas called him, and thus ‘cursed by fate’ so to speak. This might even be reflected in the theme of St Gurthiern, who was cursed because of an accident. It was only later, when time the Damnatio Memoriae had been in full swing, that the sin in question was elaborated as a foul crime for which he had to die.


  • Chadwick, H.M.: The End of Roman Britain, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 9-20.*
  • Chadwick, H.M.: Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, N.K. et al: Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).*
  • Chadwick, N.K.: A Note on the Name Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 34-46.*
  • Chadwick, N.K.: Intellectual Contacts between Britain and Gaul in the Fifth Century, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 189-253.*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Tanguy, B.: De la Vie de Saint Cadoc à Celle de Saint Gurtiern, in: Études Celtiques XXVI, 1989, pp. 159-185.*
  • Tolstoy, Nikolai (1985): The Quest for Merlin, (Little & Brown)*

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