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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Gurthiern

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The Sources
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St Gurthiern

Robert Vermaat

In Brittany, Vortigern is known as Gurthiern, a saint that occurs in hagiographical records. The earliest form of the Life of St Gurthiern is found in the MS of the cartulary of Quimperlé and it dates probably from the 12th century in its present form. The writer, a certain Gurheden, claims an earlier source and the saint himself seems to come from the 6th century.

Read the full text of the Life of Saint Gurthiern here

Promises ..

St Gurthiern apparently comes from a noble family, and his genealogy seems at first sight to harbour some surprises. The one from his father’s side is surprisingly similar to the one given to Vortigern in the Historia Brittonum. His father is Bonus, who is the son of Vortigern’s paternal great-grandfather Gloiu ! In the Vita, Glou is Gurthiern’s grandfather, but undoubtedly that same eponym of Gloucester. Glou’s ancestor Beli has a brother called Kenan who is to be identified with Conan Meriadoc, who was said to have begun the first colonization of Brittany during the reign of Magnus Maximus in the late 4th century. Maximus is also presenting the Vita as their father. St Gurthiern’s maternal grandfather is Lidinin. Some identify this with Lludd of the Breton version of the Life of St Cybi. I would, at face value at least, suggest another eponym, this one meaning London (Londinium) or Lincoln (Colonia Lindum), which could possibly explain why Gurthiern is erronously called ‘Rex Anglorum’ (King of the Anglians). This is usually translated with 'King of the Britons', although I fail to see why. However, 'Lidinin' could mean London (as Tanguy suggests), and this could be a piece of real information, which gives us information about Vortigern’s mother (or her family), which is not related to any other source. Sadly though, this is not the case.

.. promises. The value of the Vita sancta Gurthierni

Taking information at face value can be deceiving, and deceiving it is! The Vita, which seems to promise a lot, is actually worthless. No refuge for Vortigern, no hidden information about his ancestry, nothing of the sort. A closer inspection reveals that all material of this Life was stolen from other sources! As remarked above, the paternal genealogy was indeed taken from the Historia Brittonum, though altered slightly. The maternal genealogy does not even belong to Vortigern – it was taken from St Kentigern! This is a generalised description:

The story of the Life goes that the young Gurthiern went to war with his father the King of Britain, and not knowing his identity, Gurthiern slew his sister’s son. When he realized what had happened he was struck with grief and fled into the wilderness to lament, do penance and pray for a year, dwelling alone in a valley between two mountains in the northern part of Britain. One day a huntsman found him, and though Gurthiern made him swear not to reveal his whereabouts, the hunter immediately told the king, who went to find his son to make him accept the kingdom. But Gurthiern would not comply, and after yet another year in pious retirement he was commanded by an angel (at the river Tamar in Cornwall) to make his way to Brittany. There he did a great miracle, by restoring the head to a dead young man.

All parts of this tale were taken rather indiscriminately from other material. There are of course close connections between the parts, which all can be explained – apparently Gurheden took all he could find and constructed a rather shaky story from it. As we shall see, the parts are Vortigern, Gurthiern, the discovery of Merlin in the Vita Merlini (stories about Lailoken, one of the components for the figure of Merlin) and the related St Kentigern.

The royalty is of course connected to Vortigern, but the shameful act of killing a relative belongs to Lailoken, the proto-Merlin, who did also slay his sister's son by mistake in battle and also retired to do penance. Of course, this act would have been enough to make a connection between the two stories, but how did Gurheden make the decision to use the Lailoken material? I think it was because there are more connections between Vortigern and Lailoken than just the obvious Vortigern-Merlin confrontation at Dinas Emrys. Like with Vortigern, there is also an element of a satan-inspired birth (Faustus) present in the demon-born Merlin.

But there is more, which we can deduce from the actions during the ‘hunt’. We see the saint fleeing into the wilderness, hunted by angels. Lailoken also regularly bathed in a river and prayed in distress on a large rock as well. But this element was probably lifted from the Historia Brittonum, where it was also done in that same manner by St Germanus. But that saint (not the real St Germanus as well) was not an angel of mercy, but rather a revenging one, persecuting the fleeing Vortigern! So we have three characters here, all fleeing into the wilderness for an act against a family member, and all being pursued. But I’d rather see the material of the Historia Brittonum as the direct source for that of the Vita, because the geographical information of these two match each other.

A last connection comes from the material about St Kentigern, who of course is the original saint that re-attaches lost heads to poor dead souls. He also supplied the genealogical material for St Gurthiern’s maternal ancestors, as we have seen above. Of course, St Kentigern also closes the circle to Lailoken again, so we may deduce that Gurheden looked for material about Vortigern, but also took related material home, after which he constructed a whole new story from the snips he took from all these sources. I have attempted to deal some more with these connections between Gurthiern and Vortigern, St Kentigern, Lailoken/Merlin and others in some more detail in Saints on the move and More saints on the move.

Another link to northern Gaul and St. kentigern was recently shown by Gough-Cooper, who showed that a 6th-century bishop by the name of Gonothigernus could also be considered a source for the legendary saint. While by no means conclusive to show a link between Kentigern and Gaul, it does show that cultural contact between Britain and Gaul in the early Middle Ages provided ample room for tales to be exchanged freely. Could it even be possible that the material about Gurthiern's maternal ancestry, which seems to have been stolen from the Life of Kentigern, did in fact belong to the historical 6th century bishop?

Creation of a forgery

Why was the Life composed in this way? To answer that question, we have to do some digging into the medieval history of Brittany. For the survivors of the Viking raids, the history of Brittany had changed beyond recognition. Unlike in Britain, the 11th-century social, ecclesiastical and political structure was very different from that of the 9th century and all affected had to struggle to re-establish themselves. The Breton kings had no surviving dynasty, and new nobles struggled for the supreme position. Their claim had to be advanced, and it was not uncommon to do this by founding an abbey.

No ‘real’ history of the principalities of Cornouaille or Dumnonée was left outside that what was written in the Frankish kingdoms, not even in the form of pseudo-history such as the Historia Brittonum. Remaining legends were dominated by St Guénolé and king Grallon, who had very high status during the middle ages, although this status only started in the post-Viking period through a Life written in the 11th century! This then set the tone for our ‘creation’ history: if you could find a saint or a king of sufficient stature, this might give you enough of an argument to claim higher rights through a more ‘ancient’ foundation.

This is what seems to have happened here, according to Karen Jankulak. During the early 11th century, the new dynasty of Budic replaced that of the counts of Poher (who were relegated to Rennes), which had very faint connections to the last Breton prince. The new counts of Cornouaille became dukes of Brittany within 60 years only, Budic having died by 1019 at the latest and his great-grandson replacing the Rennes dynasty by 1066. Their intended main ecclesiastical seat was the abbey of Sainte-Croix de Quimperlé, which was founded between 1046 and 1050 by Alain Cianhart, grandson to Budic by the latter’s son Benoît.

War between the abbeys

However, the Benedictine abbey was not without rivals: especially the abbey of Landévennec (associated with Grallon, see above) and the cathedral of Quimper were tough rivals for the dynasties’ attention. In fact, none of the ruling dynasty of Budic was buried there, possibly because the attention shifted from the southwest to the east. Though still generously endowed by the ruling dynasty, Sainte-Croix had to fight for their donations. History was a powerful tool, and an abbey not ‘in control’ of its own founding history could lose lands to others, or even face dissolution!

A good example for this danger was the conflict between Sainte-Croix and Redon over the estate of Belle-Isle, which was quite legitimately received by the latter from the Rennes ducal family. It was during this conflict that Gurheden compiled the Cartulary (between 1124 and 1127), and probably the reason that Gurheden did not hesitate to include forged, chronologically contradictory documents in it. Had Redon fought this false claim in the court it would probably have won. However, it called for armed support from the ducal army, against which Sainte-Croix managed to get papal support, and in 1148 Belle-Isle was ceded to Gurheden’s abbey.

In a similar conflict, the church of Quimper claimed the estates and the church of St Ronan through a Life of St Ronan compiled by them of course. The focus of this argument was the lacking of a founding saint for saint-Croix. Their founder, Alain Cianhart, was actually buried at Quimper, which must have been very hard to swallow. Although Quimper did not actually claim Saint-Croix, it severely weakened the latter’s position during conflicts such as that over St Ronan, whose relics were at Quimper, but the lands were held by Sainte-Croix.

The search for a founding saint

The abbey of Sainte-Croix was of course very much aware that they needed a clear founder, around which a cult could be created. Their first attempt failed: the first abbot (died 1057) was denied sainthood by pope Urban II on the grounds of failing miracles - that’s what you get for living a dull life! I think that it set the tone for future developments as well, the abbey would not let that happen twice. If no miracles happened, they would have to be created! A saint was needed, preferably one such as in the possession of Landévennec (St Guénolé, mentioned above). Such a saint was found in the person of Gurthiern, some 40 years after the first attempt and rejection.

The including of the Life of St Gurthiern as only vita among the opening documents signals its primacy over other saints ( such as St Ninnoc, below), though its origin is murky. From all we kno, it seems very likely that Gurheden created all the saints connections with Sainte-Croix. The Life remains a curious combination of unintegrated and sometimes contradictory pieces of information, like the Cartulary itself. We can be sure that Gurheden created it, and we must ask the question why he chose Vortigern for his saint.

As we have seen above, the elements of the Life all go back to Vortigern, whether through a direct account (such as the Historia Brittonum), indirect connections (such as Lailoken, the proto-Merlin) and even further removed connections (St Kentigern, with only a similar name, but in turn connected to Lailoken). Though St Ninnoc was not included, her ancestry dating back to Vortigern would have made her a likely candidate for inclusion in the story. It never happened, which leads to the question: why use a very dubious saint who seems to have been created for the purpose, and not use the possible link to a respected saint?

Vortigern had a bad reputation, which by the 11th and 12th centuries was only growing. Why use Vortigern in the first place? Karen Jankulak has argued that Gurheden was only after an ancient name, which would lend sufficient status to the founding of the abbey. Vortigern lived at the time of or even before Grallon the Great and St Guénolé (mentioned above), which would be perfect for the cause. However, I cannot imagine that Vortigern’s bad rep would have been of no issue here. The elements of the Life are so very clearly ‘borrowed’ from the legend of Vortigern (though ‘cleaned up’ by adding those of St Kentigern) that I find it hard to swallow that Gurheden would have gotten away with it. Apparently, Gurheden was not laughed out of court by his colleagues for using an incestuous traitor for his founding saint.

Both Jankulak and Tanguy have solved this by opting for an original minor Breton saint with the name Gurthiern, that should in their opinion be separated from Vortigern and his pseudo-historical origin. Tanguy has remarked that this saint did exist as a minor local saint, who would have been forgotten had not Sainte-Croix honoured him by writing a completely new legend about him. Though neither author says much about the original legends attached to this ‘original’ saint, I have no doubt that Gurheden had nothing to work with and therefore had to use the pseudo-history of the namesake.

But does that solve the problem of Vortigern’s bad reputation? I’d say no. Furthermore, as Sainte-Croix was looking for a founder saint who had the appropriate age, a minor local saint would not do for that purpose at all! Therefore, an original minor local saint called Gurthiern would not have been likely as the motive for this choice. Apart, that is, from the possibility that this saint was originally seen as the former British king! Only then could we reason why Gurheden simply had to use the material that was known from the British Vortigern, and feel that he could embellish that with (vaguely) related material from the legends of Lailoken and St Kentigern. An original saint, whether minor or not, but identified with the 5th-century Vortigern, would indeed do for a founder saint, and all kind of material could safely be added. The reputation of the king may indeed have been bad, but that would have been cancelled out with the reputation of the ‘St Vortigern’ that lay beneath it.

It would also solve the apparently mysterious dedication of the parish church of Langolen (Finistère) to St Gurthiern. Langolen is the virtual namesake of Llangollen in Wales, where in the Valle Crucis stands the Pillar of Elise, commemorating the ancestors of the local dynasty up to Vortigern! Might this be an indication of how a cult around a ‘St Vortigern’ could end up in Brittany? After all, it has been supposed that Broerec or Weroch (Vannes) was named after Wroxeter, not far from Llangollen and in Powys as well. Maybe some settlers of Brittany rived from Powys, where Vortigern was held in high repute, as the Pillar of Elise testifies. Such a favoured ancestor could very well become a saint if detached from his historical context. The details of this saint may have been lost during the time of the Viking raids, like so much else was lost during that period of devastation. It does not sound very unreasonable that Gurthiern’s relics were discovered in a sack containing the bones of several saints, which was probably ‘saved’ from the heathen and hidden on the island of Groix, where Sainte-Croix had possessions. The context of the past, however, had become irrevocably lost.

Even if the Life of St Gurthiern as a whole is useless to the study of a historic Vortigern, it might, after all, give us a hint of a different tradition about Vortigern that did not suffer from the Damnatio Memoriae which turned him into a traitor everywhere else.


Closely associated with the Life of St Gurthiern is the Life of St Ninnoc. Ninnoc or Ninnocha means 'nun'. St Ninnoc was the youngest daughter of an Irish mother and the rich Christian Brochan (Brychan), ex genere Gurthirni, rex honorabilis valde in totam Britanniam(!). Brychan was also the founder of Brycheinog, a kingdom with a strong Irish influence, but also related to Gwrtheyrnion. Brycheinog (modern Brecknock) and Gwrtheyrnion (Vortigerniana/'Land of Vortigern') were the traditional homes of St Ninnoc and St Gurthiern. So, Vortigern again! We have a connection here between Ireland, the kingdoms related to Vortigern and a wandering tradition from Wales through Cornwall down to Brittany. St Gurthiern also came from this area, as did a lot of saints from Brittany, amongst whom were all the relatives from Brychan's family (see Saints on the move). Strangely enough, though the complete Life of Ninnoc is attached to the Gurthiern material, she is nowhere to be found in the story of the foundation of Sainte-Croix.

Both of the Life of St Gurthiern and the Life of St Ninnoc are connected to the ancient place of Bro Weroch (Vannes), capital of early Brittany. When we see that Bro Weroch is derived from the area (Bro or district) of the eponymous founder Weroch (which is very likely to have been derived from Viroconium or Wroxeter, capital of early Powys (and thus of Vortigern?), we might conclude that there was a not unimportant connection between the kingdom(s) of Vortigern’s dynasty (Powys, Gwrteyrnion, Built and Bryceinog) and Brittany, where the saints migrated together with a strong influx of migrants from southern Wales. This might also be the reason why Vortigern is presented as a saint at all!

Strangely enough the Life of St Ninnoc is present among the documents in the Cartulary, but it was never used for the strengthening of the abbey’s claims. Clearly, it was only of limited interest to Gurheden as she could not have acted as founding saint or any previous church on that spot. It is therefore clear as well that Gurheden had no knowledge of the Irish the Book of Armagh, where it is written in the Additamenta to Tirechán’s Memoir, and where an Irish Vortigern (Foirtchernn son of Fedelmid son of Loguire, who was High King of Ireland throughout the period of the mission of St Patrick) had a mother who was called Scotnoe or Scotnoc. This very rare name bears everal similarities. Scot- may mean Irish, while noc may possibly be the dimunitive form which also occurs in Ninnoc. Ninnoc or Ninnocha means 'nun'. If we consider the link to Vortigern made in the Life of St Ninnoc, Gurheden would surely have exploited this other link as well.

The Life of St Gurthiern

The relics of Gurthiern seem to have turned up between 1066 and 1079, after which he became important to Sainte-Croix. However, within ten years another church was dedicated to him, all before in the 12th century Gurheden began writing the Vita. Therefore, earlier material was present. It has been supposed that Gurheden worked from two manuscripts, of which that from Vannes may be the older. It would explain why Gurthiern is connected with the unlocated Anaurot (Quimperlé) as well as Kervignac, which was the primary cult site and place of his death in the Vannes traditions. The Quimperlé traditions were either later or invented.

Section I

The Life begins with several genealogical tracts (Jankulak’s Section 1). Such tracts are not uncommon in Lives of Celtic saints, but these are very lengthy and not incorporated into the narrative structure. Though Gurheden tells us that these were taken from a document (cartula) found with the relics in the sack, the fact that one is only slightly different from the Historia Brittonum and the other taken from St Kentigern (above) calls for great doubt. He probably invented them himself, indeed the only other such ‘found’ genealogy (St Jacut) is a mere summary from the Life of St Guénolé. The fact that the genealogist that Gurheden puts forward bears an Irish name (Juthael filius Aidan) may indicate that the original source, at least for the part drawn from the Historia Brittonum, was Irish.

Section II

The Life now described the saint’s conversatio, the story of his life, but without any topographical details. As we have seen above, the route taken resembles that of Vortigern’s flight for Germanus, and may be ignored. He then sails to an unnamed island, before ending up in Anaurot, which is unknown outside the Cartulary.

Section III

This section starts with the statement that Gurthiern’s relics were found on the island of Groix, and Gurheden may have been quoting this from a relic label, or he might pretend to. It fills in a void of the former section, with naming the unnamed island as Groix, and the surrounding seigneurie as Kemenet-Heboe. We are told that Anaurot was given to Gurthiern by the famous king Gradlon Magnus, and that it lies between the rivers Ellé and Isole, that is at Quimperlé, present Sainte-Croix! Another donation is noted, that of Baye. Another legendary Breton ruler is now mentioned, Guerech, eponym of Vannes. This ruler, an eponym that became a person, supposedly donated Kervignac to Gurthiern. This site was very close to Hennebont and Groix, where the relics were found. The statement that the saint lived and died at Kervignac is a contradiction with section 2! A bizarre note must be mentioned about the foundation charter which, while recognizing Anaurot as Sainte-Croix, completely fails to mention either Gurthiern, Grallon, or Weroch. Which is susicious to say the least.

Section IV

The last section is no less strange. It lists all relics of saints found with that of Gurthiern at Groix. While it does claim the bones of very important saints (Guénolé, Idunet and Guénaël), it does not claim those of the founding saint of Quimper (Corentin), nor those of Ronan, whose disputed church (above) was so important to the abbey! Nor are the relics of Ninnoc claimed.

The overall view of the Life of St Gurthiern is, then, that although it might be postulated that an original saint lay beneath the later cult, maybe even one that was identified with the British king Vortigern before Gurheden’s time, but that the overall value of the document is nil. Most of it was evidently borrowed, while charters, claims and pseudo-history are so obviously contradictory, that we can only wonder why a) the abbey did not ask this task from a better writer-cum-historian and b) why this document would have convinced anyone at all. The Vita is as strange as the rest of the Cartulary, and although Gurheden may not have invented all, he surely did a bad job sticking it all together. The whole document is described as a pancart, a cumulative series of elements such as saints’ lives, donation and charters. It is eccentric but not unique; Jankulak compares it to the south Welsh Book of Llandav (Liber Landavensis), which is also a very miscellaneous collection with very ancient claims. The best description is from Jankulak:

“Somewhat perversely, Gurheden has produced a Cartulary which is unlike a cartulary, which includes a Vita which is more like a charter, or pancart, than a Vita.”

For the complete text of the Vita sancta Gurthierni, with the English translation of the Life of St Gurthiern, click here.


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  • Chadwick, N.K. et al: Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).*
  • Chadwick, N.K.: Early Brittany, (Cardiff 1969).
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  • Gough-Cooper, Henry (2003): Kentigern and Gonothigernus, A Scottish saint and a Gaulish bishop identified, in: The Heroic Age 6 (spring 2003), at: http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/6/gough-cooper.html
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