|Vortigern Studies has the
internet's most comprehensive treatment of
Britain's history from the end of the Roman era
to Arthurian times. Edited by Robert M. Vermaat,
this unique website focuses primarily on the
person of Vortigern and the enigmatic earthwork
called Wansdyke. It features narrative histories,
original source documents and important texts,
extensive bibliographies, reading lists,
informative articles by guest writers, maps,
polls and more.
Vortigern Studies Index
- Was 'Vortigern'
a title or a name?
Vortigern a Celt?
- What was
Vortigerns original name?
Vortigern a tyrant?
- Why was he
called Verteneu (the
Vortigern a Pelagian?
- Who was the
father of Vortigern?
- Was Britu the same as
- When was
- What was
Vortigern before he became king?
- Was Vortigern a title or a name?
Most likely, Vortigern was a personal
name. Vortigern means
something like high lord, but not
High King as it is popularly supposed
to mean. Though in itself it is a perfectly
normal Celtic personal name (as we know from many
similar examples), it is the meaning that makes
it significant. We can therefore assume that
Vortigern changed his name when he reached his
powerful position, or the kingship if you will.
We known of others who did that; the most famous
being Octavian, who changed his name to Augustus
('the Exalted One'), which was then used so often
it became a title. The same happened to 'Caesar',
an ordinary name, but now meaning 'king' or
emperor': Kaiser (Germ.) and Czar (Russ.).
However, we know of no other 'Vortigern' in a
high position, which rules out a title. In
Vortigern's time, it was common practise for
Christian converts to change their names as well.
Similar examples of the modern age are Stalin (of
steel) and Atatürk (father of the
Turks), who changed their original names to
new ones that had a strong political message.
- Was Vortigern a Celt?
No, we can
safely say that he was not. Though his name is
truly Celtic, this has more to do with
Vortigerns political (anti-Imperial)
ambitions than with his background. Other
theories that he was a Pict or a German are based
upon a wrong translation of the epithet Gwallthir
(long-hair) of his great-grandfather.
Even so, by his time the family would have become
truly Romanized. An identification with Ireland
is based upon a wrong interpretation of the later
Welsh versions of the names of his father and
grandfather. Guitaul and Guitolin (Latin Vitalis
and Vitalinus) are not versions of Gwyddel (Irish),
which is only comparable with the later Welsh
forms Guidol and Guidolin, but not with the Latin
- What was
Vortigerns original name?
cannot be sure that his parents did not call him
Vortigern, it is very likely that he had a
different birthname, or at least a Roman one. As
his father was called Vitali(nu)s and his
grandfather Vitalinus, we might safely speculate
that this was his prenomen (personal
name) or nomen (family- or clan-name).
This seems strengthened by similar names that
occur in close proximity: the battle of Guoloph,
connected directly with his reign, is fought by
Guitolinus and Ambrosius The former is often
assumed (but for reason unclear to me) to have
been at least a kinsman of Vortigern, which could
make an identification with Vortigern himself a
possibility as well! Even more so, when we look
back from the semi-legendary conflict between
Ambrosius and Vortigern, which could reflect this
same conflict. Another is the archbishop Guithelinus, who acts in the same
role as Vortigern in bringing in foreign troops
in a strange parallel tale in the Historia Regum
Britanniae, disappearing conveniently when
Vortigern enters the story. Though this is of
course no safe identification, I believe we can
assume that Vortigern was originally called
- Was Vortigern a tyrant?
Yes and no.
He was certainly a tyrant in the sense of
illegitimate ruler, as Gildas meant
it. Vortigern was not ruling in name of the
Romans, but he had usurped the power as had his 'tyrannic'
predecessors; Constantine III (406-411), Magnus
Maximus (383-388), but also Constantine the Great
(306-337)! Vortigern may have come to power with
the aid of the military (without which he would
not have ruled long, anyway), but he was no
military commander. He even ruled together with a
council, so was not an absolute dictator.
We dont know if Vortigern was a tyrant in
the sense of a wicked ruler. Though later sources
draw attention to his supposedly evil character,
this is by no means supported in the earlier
sources. Gildas only calls him infaustus
(unlucky), and not injust in any way.
- Why was he called Verteneu (the Thin)?
We do not know for sure. Welsh epithets (nicknames)
were not always connected with names when the
person was alive, and we dont know how
early this epithet is. Since epithets usually say
something about the person involved, we might
conclude that Vortigern was seen as an old man,
the thin referring to his stature.
Another theory is that Verteneu means something
like fox, referring to his character.
What Verteneu certainly is not is a family name!
To speak of a Verteneu-dynasty is not to
understand what an epithet is.
- Was Vortigern a Pelagian?
That is hard to answer. Pelagians were the
followers of the British priest Pelagius, who
preached that all Christians were responsible for
their own soul and eventual salvation. The
Catholics were opposed to that view, maintaining
that salvation could only be obtained through the
Church. Vortigern's involvements with St Germanus,
a staunch Catholic as described by both his
biographer Constantius and the Historia Brittonum, strongly indicate that
he indeed was a Pelagian, because the saint
visited Britain only to prosecute the Pelagians
and stamp out the heresy. Others argue that
Vortigern at least silently supported the heresy
as the ruler in charge. This seems supported by
the fact that the historical person of bishop Faustus of Riez, who might very
well have been a son of Vortigern, is often
called semi-Pelagian. But Faustus, even when
rejecting the Predestination, was strongly anti-Pelagian.
And nothing historical connects Vortigern with St
Germanus, whose official Life is indeed silent
about any such involvements. On top of that,
Gildas is also silent on this matter, something
he would certainly not have been had he known of
any such heretical tendencies!
- Who was the father of Vortigern?
According to the genealogy in the Historia
Brittonum, his father was called Guitol (Vitalis)
and originated in Gloucester. We dont know
anything more, apart from a few speculations;
there is also a Guitol (Vitalis) in the genealogy
of the Breton rulers of Cornouaille. He was the
son of Gradlon Mawr and the father of Aldrwn (Aldroenus),
who figures in the tale of archbishop Guithelinus
a generation later. Was he the same person as
Vitalis, father of Vitalinus/Vortigern? He was
from the same generation, and links with Brittany
are very prominent from the family of Vortigern.
The ease with which Guithelinus was able to
receive troops from Aldroenus would be more
logical if the latter was his cousin! Another
possible candidate for the person of Vitalis is
the praefectus annonae West in 403.
- Was Britu the same as Vortigern?
was the son of Vortigern, as stated by the Pillar of Elise. He could not have been
the same as Vortigern, for he was at least a
generation younger. He is identified with both Vortimer and Faustus, both of whom were sons
of Vortigern. Though we cannot be absolutely sure,
Britu is most likely to be identified with
Faustus of Riez, according to the strory the son
of Vortigern by his own daughter. But while this
story is almost certainly based upon malice and/or
ignorance, we do know that Britu was the son of
Vortigern and Sevira, daughter of the Roman
Emperor Magnus Maximus. Faustus name is almost
certainly a name in Christ, received
when he entered the church. Equally Faustus is
much more likely to have been a son than a
grandson of Vortigern, for he was already abbot
at Lérins in 433. Faustus is also a better
candidate than, say,Vortimer, who was not
connected with the genealogy of Powys at all.
- When was Vortigern born?
Vortigern is traditionally dated as reigning in
the second half of the fifth century, with a
floruit of probably 425x460. The Historia
Brittonum however dates him as reigning from 425x450,
on grounds which cannot be refuted easily. This
can be confirmed through the genealogies, which
has his children born from c. 400 as calculated
from the pedigrees. This would mean that
Vortigern could have been born c. 370, a date far
too early for some, for it would make him very
old in 450. But not only is this very possible,
it is almost exactly the same floruit as that of
the historian Prosper of Aquitane! An age of 80
is indeed old for the times, but by no means
impossibly so, it would also explain the epthet
of Verteneu as referring to his frail person.
Having said that, I would personally prefer
Vortigern to disappear from the scene after 441,
the year historically referred to as the year the
Saxons overthrew Britain. A birthdate after 370
would also make it very possible for him to have
married Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus (k.
388) and a position to lead the Britons after 410,
but it would make involvements with
Hengists daughter rather improbable
see King David).
- What was Vortigern before he became king?
traditional sources give several scant details
about Vortigern s early career. Though
Gildas doesnt say anything directly, we
might assume from what he says that Vortigern
stemmed from a group of nobles that formed the
Council around him, and who later grew into the
kings and sub-king of Gildas day. Vortigern
was by no means absolute king, rather paramount
ruler or first among equals. This
would mean him being a major landlord at least,
based on a territory. The Historia Brittonum
names that territory as an enlarged Powys, and
names his background as Gloucester, but nothing
more. Geoffrey of Monmouth names him as Dux
Gewissei (ruler in Gwent), which he inherited
through his wife Sevira. But Geoffrey also
relates of Guithelinus, archbishop of London, who
is enthrusted with the British defence after the
Roman withdrawal. If Vortigern, this would be a
perfect early career for the man. A very high
ecclesiastical position, possibly with his own
military forces but independent from the Roman
government, would put him in a perfect position
for later domination.