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Who was Vortigern?
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Vortigern and the incest-slur
Robert Vermaat

One of the sins that Vortigern was accused of was having a child with his own daughter, which was seemingly the reason why St Germanus chased him all over Britain. Though this story is a cornerstone beneath the image of the supposedly 'bad & evil' Vortigern, it seems to have been created out of thin air..

The story, as we have it from 'Nennius', is as follows:

Historia Brittonum, chapter 39

39. In the meantime, Vortigern, as if desirous of adding to the evils he had already occasioned, married his own daughter, by whom he had a son. When this was made known to St. Germanus, he came, with all the British clergy, to reprove him: and whilst a numerous assembly of the ecclesiastics and laity were in consultation, the weak king ordered his daughter to appear before them, and in the presence of all to present her son to St. Germanus, and declare that he was the father of the child. The immodest woman obeyed; and St. Germanus, taking the child, said, "I will be a father to you, my son; nor will I dismiss you till a razor, scissors, and comb, are given to me, and it is allowed you to give them to your carnal father[25]." The child obeyed St. Germanus, and, going to his father Vortigern, said to him, "Thou art my father; shave and cut the hair of my head." The king blushed, and was silent; and, without replying to the child, arose in great anger, and fled from the presence of St. Germanus, execrated and condemned by the whole synod.  

nam super omnia mala adiciens guorthigirnus accepit filiam sui uxorem sibi, et peperit ei filium. et hoc cum compertum esset a sancto germano, eum corripere venit cum omni clero brittonum. et dum conventa esset magna synodus clericorum ac laicorum in uno concilio, ipse rex praemonuit filiam suam, ut exiret ad conventum et ut daret filium suum in sinum germani et ut diceret, quod ipse erat pater filii, et mulier fecit sicut erat edocta. germanus atuem eum benigne accepit et dicere coepit: pater tibi ero nec te permittam, nisi mihi novacula cum forcipe pectineque detur et ad patrem tuum carnalem tibi dare licetur. et obaudivit puer et usque ad avum suum patrem carnalem guorthigirnum perrexit et puer illi dixit: pater meus es, caput meum tonde et comam capitis mei. et ille siluit et tacuit et puero respondere noluit, sed surrexit et iratus est valde, ut a facie sancti germani fugeret, et maledictus est et damnatus a sancto germano et omni brittonum concilio.

Historia Brittonum, chapter 47

47. St. Germanus admonished Vortigern to turn to the true God, and abstain from all unlawful intercourse with his daughter;

 

uero germanus guorthigirno praedicabat, ut ad dominum suum conuerteret et ab illicita coniunctione se separaret;

Historia Brittonum, chapter 48

He had three sons: the eldest was Vortimer, who, as we have seen, fought four times against the Saxons, and put them to flight; the second Categirn, who was slain in the same battle with Horsa; the third was Pascent, who reigned in the two provinces Builth and Guorthegirnaim, after the death of his father. These were granted him by Ambrosius, who was the great king among the kings of Britain. The fourth was Faustus, born of an incestuous marriage with his daughter, who was brought up and educated by St. Germanus. He built a large monastery on the banks of the river Renis, called after his name, and which remains to the present period.

 

tres filios habuit, quorum nomina sunt guorthemir, qui pugnabat contra barbaros, ut supra diximus; secundo categirn; tertius pascent, qui regnauit in duabus regionibus buelt et guorthegirniaun post mortem patris sui largiente ambrosio illi, qui fuit rex inter omnes reges brittannicae gentis. quartus fuit faustus, qui a filia sua genitus est illi, et sanctus germanus baptizauit illum et nutriuit et docuit et condidit locum magnum super ripam fluminis, quod uocatur renis, et manet usque hodie. et unam filiam habuit, quae fuit mater fausti sancti.

Was Vortigern indeed guilty of incest? I think not. The story which was written in the early ninth century seems a rather fanciful one, which seems to confuse some facts, but it may very well have a rather more sinister background. But there are more explanations for this incest-story, such as the muddling-up of some sources, or mistaken identity.

A Political Slur

I will start though with the political motive, as it is clear from the Historia Brittonum that this was the motive for publishing the story. The incest may have been an attempt to slur the name of Vortigern as the ancestor of the rival dynasty in Powys, the Historia Brittonum being written to glorify the other. 'Nennius' was writing from Gwynedd around 821-829, at the same date as Cyngen erected his Pillar of Elise, which counters all claims of incest! The presentation of the anonymous son (later named St Faustus) to St Germanus is in itself not scandalous at all: the ritual in which St Germanus takes the boy under his wings is a presentation by his mother to his foster-father, characteristic of a Celtic fosterage! It would have been very common for Vortigern to present his son to Germanus and entrust him with his upbringing, in fact it would have been an honour.

This ceremony has been twisted out of context by 'Nennius', the editor of the Historia Brittonum, who clearly wanted to blacken the name of Vortigern. St Germanus was known to have 'blessed' Britu, son of Vortigern, a story which was perverted into a scandal of incest. Earlier, the editor of the Historia Brittonum had already cleverly connected Vortigern with the story of the tyrant Benlli to show that the former's descendants did not have the right to Powys. 'Nennius' then had St Germanus haunt Vortigern for an undisclosed sin, which only became incest with St Germanus' second visit. The reader was meant to have an 'Aha!'-erlebnis and connect all stories into the one, big, attack on the name of Vortigern.

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.

We may therefore conclude that it was all a scam, designed to smear the already damaged reputation of Vortigern, ancestor to the dynasty of Cyngen of Powys, in favour of the dynasty from Gwynedd. The only part which remains uncertain is if and how long this incest-story circulated before its publication and possible embellishment by 'Nennius'.

The Pillar of Elise

The story may have circulated earlier. It may have originated from a misinterpretation of a statement such as the inscription on the Pillar of Elise, in which it is easy to miss who is actually meant:

[+] Britu, moreover, (was) the son of Guorthi(girn), whom Germanus blessed and whom Severa bore to him, the daughter of Maximus the king, who slew the king of the Romans +

 

[+] BRITU A[u]T[e]M FILIUS GUARTHI[girn] QUE(m) BENED[Iixit] GERMANUS QUE(m) [qu]E PEPERIT EI SE[v]IRA FILIA MAXIMI [re]GIS QUI OCCIDIT REGEM ROMANORUM +

Since we identify Maximus with the usurper Magnus Maximus (383-388), the usual reading is as follows:

Moreover Britu was the son of Vorti(gern), whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, the daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
(Britu, son of Vortigern and Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus who killed the Emperor Gratian, was blessed by Germanus)

But there are other possibilities, because it remains unclear who is actually blessed here:

Moreover Britu was the son of Vorti(gern), who was blessed by Germanus, and whom Sevira bore to him, the daughter of Maximus the king, etc.
(Britu, son of Vortigern (who was blessed by Germanus) and Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus who killed the emperor Gratian,)

Or even a reading that could have given rise to a suspicion of incest:

Moreover Britu was the son of Vorti(gern), whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, the daughter of the Maximus king, etc.
(Britu was the son of Vortigern, and born to him by the daughter of the great ('maximus') king who killed the ‘king of the Romans’ (Constans or even Ambrosius?).

If Vortigern was somehow identified with the regis qui occidit regem Romanorum, the conclusion which followed was that Sevira was his own daughter! This would then be the (possible) origin for the story in the Historia Brittonum, where Germanus confronted Vortigern with a son (Faustus) by his own (unnamed) daughter.

Just as with Britu, the Historia Brittonum seems to have received the story of Faustus from another source, just as there is a second story of Vortigern’s death, in which St. Germanus takes his child Faustus into his own care - a child Vortigern supposedly had by his own daughter - and with "all the clergy of Britain" pursues Vortigern to Cair Guothergirn. There, they pray for Vortigern's death, and are answered with hellfire from above. This story has all the trappings of classic medieval hagiography, and the part about Vortigern's incest seems to fit more with the demonisation of a king whose folly brought about the Britons' destruction than it does with fact. It is interesting to note, however, that a cleric named Faustus was active in the generation following Vortigern's, and although his parentage is unknown, there is no reason why he can't be the son of Vortigern.

Vortipor

The last possibility is a likely confusion between two very similar names. These the names of Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn) and Vortipor (Gwrtefyr), also a tyrannus (but of Dyfed), who actually raped his own daughter, according to Gildas:

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chapter 31
Thou also, who like to the spotted leopard, art diverse in manners and in mischief, whose head now is growing grey, who art seated on a throne full of deceits, and from the bottom even to the top art stained with murder and adulteries, thou naughty son of a good king, like Manasses sprung from Ezechiah, Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians, why art thou so stiff? What! do not such violent gulfs of sin (which thou dost swallow up like pleasant wine, nay rather which swallow thee up), as yet satisfy thee, especially since the end of thy life is daily now approaching? Why cost thou heavily clog thy miserable soul with the sin of lust, which is fouler than any other, by putting away thy wife, and after her honourable death, by the base practices of thy shameless daughter?

This seems a lot more like the story in the Historia Brittonum! Indeed, could there have been a mixup? Vortipor's name is exactly the same as that of Vortigern's eldest son Vortimer, as both are written as *Guorthimir in British and become Gwrthefyr in Welsh. In fact, Gildas does not denounce Vortigern in the same terms as the tyrants such as Vortipor, but only describes him as 'foolish' and 'unlucky'. Later though, the reputation of Vortigern worsened, while that of the tyrants grew to be better (some of them at least). Was Vortigern's reputation 'borrowed' from Vortipor? the words in which the Historia Brittonum describes Vortigern's daughter surely echo the words in which Gildas describes the shameless daughter of Vortipor. I therefore propose that the source of the incest-tale might be a mistake for that about Vortipor, or even worse, a deliberate attempt by the author of the Historia Brittonum to blacken Vortigern's name through targeted misinformation.

Bibliography

  • 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, H.M.: The Foundation of the Early British Kingdoms, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 47-56.*
  • 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.*
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, Latin and trans. M. Winterbottom, in: History from the Sources VII, (Old Woking 1978).*
  • Historia Brittonum - Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, in: History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Nash-Williams, V.E.: Nennius's History of the Britons, (London 1938).
  • Nash-Williams, V.E.: Early Christian Monuments of Wales, (Cardiff, 1950).*
  • Ward, J.H.: Vortigern and the End of Roman Britain, in: Britannia III, 1972, pp. 277-289.*

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