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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Pillar of Eliseg

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The Sources
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The Pillar of Eliseg / Llangollen, Clywd
(mid- 9th Century)
Robert Vermaat

The Colofon Eliseg or Pillar of Eliseg (or Elise or Eliset) is of very great interest to the study of Vortigern. Although none of its inscription can now be read, the possibility exists that this monument contains unique information about Vortigern and his family.

Elisegs Pillar today. (Click to enlarge)This so-called fragmentary free-standing pillar-cross stands in a field overlooking the ruined Valle Crucis Abbey (SJ 2142), a few miles from Llangollen in Clywd (former Denbighshire), en route to Horse-Shoe Pass. It is visible (left, click the picture to enlarge) from the road just East of the A542, about 2 miles North of Llangollen. The Pillar inspired the name Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross). It was once erected by Cyngen, Prince of Powys for his great-grandfather Elise or Eliseg. The cross was defaced, thrown down and broken by Cromwell's troops in the 17th century, hence the 'pillar-shape' now. This pillar stands on a large artificial mound where it was re-erected in 1779. At that time the mound was re-opened. Inside was a skeleton, buried inside a blue stone cist, along with a silver coin. Could it have been Cyngen or Eliseg? The skull was guilded and re-buried (as it was done in those days!). The shaft bears an elaborate Latin inscription, which has weathered away and is now illegible to an unpractised eye. On the opposing face is a later inscription, also in Latin, recording the restoration of the monument in 1779.

Reconstruction of the Pillar of EliseLuckily, considerable portions of the original inscription were read in 1696 by Edward Llwyd, the antiquarian, lexiographer and Celtic scholar; his transcript seems to have been remarkably accurate. With the help of this, much of the surviving 15 of the original 31 lines is recoverable (see the Text of Eliseg's Pillar).

History and Research

The first mentioning is an indirect one: the Brut y Tywysogion mentions that the Abbey of Valle Crucis was founded in A.D. 1200 'near the old cross in Yale'.

Westwood, in 1879, refers to a cast that was made of the stone in 1848, and states, 'Where is this cast, which would be interesting to have deposited in some accessible situation?'.

Sayce, in 1909, mentions that: 'Archbishop Usher seems to have been the first to notice the pillar, and he sent an account of it to Dr. Gerard Langbaine. It was thrown down during the Civil War and broken in two pieces, in which state it was seen by Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in 1662. Vaughan copied the inscription, and it was his copy which was transcribed by Edward Llwyd and transmitted in 1692 to Dr Mill, the principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 1779 Mr Lloyd of Trevor Hall erected the upper part of the pillar...upon the original base, and set it up on the tumulus where it now stands...The lower part of the pillar had disappeared before 1779.'

Click to enlargeMacalister, in 1949, wrote: 'There can be hardly any doubt that it terminated upward in a cross: a suggestion has been made, that it was originally a pillar in some Roman building; but on architectural grounds this need not be considered'. 'Its upper surface is much weathered...five feet have been lost from the lower end...the surface is so friable that it powders away under the least pressure'.

Only a year later Nash-Williams, in 1950, described the Pillar as a: 'Fragmentary free-standing pillar-cross...of so-called `staff-rood' or `round-shaft' type, comprising part of the lower slightly tapering rounded shaft...defined at a height of 74'' (2.41) by a narrow collar-moulding, 2'' W[ide] (1.7), above which is a `capital' formed of four moulded swag-like curves, also 2'' W[ide]., marking the transition to the quadrangular upper shaft (mostly wanting)'. The pillar stands to-day … on the top of a large artificial mound'. he described the insription as: 'fragmentary...now mostly weathered away'. Nothing is legible today (left, click the image to enlarge)


How far can this inscription be trusted? The inscription seems to state that the monument was set up by Concenn (or Cyngen), the last native king of Powys, in memory of his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the English from his kingdom. However, it was extremely unuasual for a man to set up a monument for the honouring of his great-grandfather. But the cross may also be a possible reference to a success gained by Cyngen himself. According to the Annales Cambriae, Cyngen died in Rome in 854. But he had had a long reign; his father Cattell died in 808. This monument may have been erected some twenty or twenty-five years earlier, soon after the downfall of the Mercian kingdom. Another point of doubt is the term Angli, which is at best unusual for the time - ninth-century Welsmen would have been more likely to have called them Saxons.

More controversy surrounds this monument, the major problem being the cross itself. The type of the cross is late tenth or even eleventh-century, but even at that date it would have been surprising to find a Mercian monument in Powys. It is believed by some that this inscription was designed to decieve, perhaps copied from older soureces, perhaps made up entirely in the eleventh century. Against this it might be stressed that the formula inviting a blessing for the soul of Eliseg recurs in a variant form on the Berechtuire cross-slab at Tullylease, co. Cork (Ireland), which is dated AD 839. Alternative views on the style of the cross, on ground of a different interpretation of the evolution of the shape, allow the cross to fall in place exactly where it claims. The form may be unusual, but is not beyond explanation. The consequences of a later date would be: in the eleventh century, it could only have been an obscure family which would have been helped to power by the Mercians. Since this would hardly matter to our theory here, I will ignore it.

Vortigern's Family?

Pillar of Eliseg
Magnus Maximus
Much of the inscription seems to have been occupied with genealogical matter. So far as this is preserved, it agrees with the Harleian Genealogies (22, 23, 27), except that at the beginning Britu and perhaps also Pascent are said to be sons, not of Catigern ('son' of Catell Dyrnllwc), but of Vortigern. Of Britu it is said that Germanus blessed him, and that his mother was Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus! It would seem that the royal family of Powys did not accept the story of their origin as given in the Historia Brittonum (chapter 32, ff.), where a slave named Cadell was given the throne by St Germanus. They evidently claimed to be descended from Vortigern, and declared that he was a son-in-law of Maximus. The Pascent from which most kings claimed descent (Harleian 22 & 27) would then be identified with the Pascent, son of Vortigern, whom the Historia Brittonum itself recognises as ancestor of the kings of Builth (C. 31).

Click to enlargeEven more significant is the statement that it was Vortigern who was blessed by Germanus! This is completely opposite to the general storyline from the Historia Brittonum.. A solution might be that it is not Vortigern who is mentioned on the Pillar, but Vortimer! As we can see in the text, only the first part of the name (Guarthi-) survives. And Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Vortimer had been blessed by Germanus for returning looted property of the Church, hence his epithet Bendigeit. Though a remote possibility, I hold this explanation for not too likely, mainly because of the mentioning of Sevira in the same context.

Nor should we prefer Geoffrey's evidence as significant for textual reasons, as his Historia Regum Britanniae is much later than the other sources discussed here. The Historia Brittonum and Cyngen were contemporaries, and it came from Gwynedd, whose king Merfyn was brother-in-law to Cyngen. Though the story of St Germanus might be much older, court tradition of Powys may be far sounder authority than this highly imaginative medieval biography, which is very largely in the nature of a folktale. (left, click the image to enlarge).

Equally, this might very well have been the source for the tale of incest in which Vortigern married his own daughter. The pillar is also the only source for Sevira, Vortigern's (first) wife. We may credit this story, though it is chronologically difficult but not impossible. Maximus is rather prominent in the Welsh traditions, and the marriage may have taken place after his death.

Finally, we should remember (as seen above) that the monument is damaged and that we depend only on a 17th-century reading, which might be imperfect for all we know. E.g. the 'Maun' and 'Annan', that are mentioned nowhere else, might simply be a misreading for Maucant, who is mentioned as Pascent's son in the Harleian (HG) and the Jesus College (JC) Pedigree (see HG 3859.27 and JC 20.16), but seems to be missing from the Pillar. A simple switch might have been the reason for the 'ghost'-persons now listed as descendents of Vortigern.

All images used with kind permission from Chris Tolley.

See as well at this site: Deeds most ancient, an article by Keith Nurse.


  • Bartrum, P.C.: Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, (Cardiff 1966).*
  • Bu'Lock, J.D.: Vortigern and the Pillar of Eliseg, in: Antiquity XXXIV,1960, pp. 49-53.*
  • 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 Faustus and Riocatus, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 254-263.*
  • CISP (Celtic Inscribed Stones Project): LTYSL1, at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/cisp/database/stone/ltysl_1.html
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Laing, Lloyd Robert and Jennifer Laing: A Guide to Dark Age Remains in Britain, (London 1979a).
  • Nash-Williams, V.E.: Nennius's History of the Britons, (London 1938).
  • Nash-Williams, V.E.: Early Christian Monuments of Wales, (Cardiff, 1950).*
  • Tolley, Christopher J.: Crossing the Millennia - Eliseg's Pillar/Piler Eliseg Valle Crucis (Denbighshire) Glyn y Groes (Sir Ddinbych) , at: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/cj.tolley/ctm/ctm-eliseg.htm (retrieved May 2002).

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