Who Was Vortigern?

Vortigern is one of the most important figures in the history of Britain. What do we know about him historically, and what later legends grew up around him?

Jun 21, 2024By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education

who was vortigern

 

After the Romans were expelled from Britain in 409, the island entered a crucial period. Being cut off from the Roman Empire led to the Britons needing to make some important decisions. These decisions would ultimately affect the rest of the history of the island.

 

According to the available sources, a man named Vortigern became a powerful ruler over the Britons soon after the Romans left. He is presented in the medieval records as a foolish and wicked king.

 

Who Was Vortigern?

Folio of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, 10th century, Source: The British Library, London

 

Because the Britons were facing attacks from the Picts and the Scots, the British leader Vortigern came up with an idea for how to deal with the problem. He decided to hire Germanic mercenaries—the Anglo-Saxons—to help defend the borders of Britain. In return, the Germanic mercenaries would be given some territory and resources. Of course, this plan eventually backfired.

 

The Anglo-Saxons became dissatisfied with their end of the deal. Eventually, they turned against the Britons and started conquering more territory, ultimately leading to the creation of England. Vortigern, therefore, had a profoundly important role in the history of Britain.

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The first meeting of the British king Vortigern with the two Saxon Chiefs Hengist and Horsa, in the Isle of Thanet, by William Walker, 1786, Source: The British Museum

 

There is only one reference to Vortigern that is even close to contemporary. This is from De Excidio, written by Gildas in the 6th century. Here, Gildas refers to Vortigern as a “proud tyrant” and an “unlucky tyrant.” Most manuscripts do not include his name, but some do. In any case, later versions of Gildas’ account, such as the version written by Bede in the 8th century, definitely do provide the name “Vortigern.”

 

It is likely that Vortigern was some kind of high king or mini-emperor, ruling over a large portion of what had formerly been Roman Britain. We know that usurping emperors had been emerging in Britain in the early 5th century. The last historically attested one was Constantine III, who then took many of the Roman troops from Britain to invade Gaul in 407. When the Roman administration was expelled from Britain in 409, the historical context indicates that this was merely another usurper. However, evidently he chose not to spread himself too thin, focusing his interests entirely on Britain.

 

Coin of Constantine III, Source: Forumancientcoins.com

 

This is not to say that Vortigern himself was the usurper who drove out Constantine III’s administration in 409. If he had been, then Gildas would undoubtedly have mentioned that, since that would have added to the depth of his “unluckiness” (to Gildas, the departure of the Romans was a profound tragedy). Yet, this does give us a clue as to the likely position of power that he would have had in that early period after Britain left the empire.

 

According to the later legendary sources, Vortigern was originally the advisor to the king who took over immediately after the end of Roman rule of Britain. Although there is no direct historical confirmation of this—it is a plausible scenario. Most importantly, it is consistent with what we do know. Given Gildas’ lack of reference to Vortigern expelling the Romans, he must have come after the usurper responsible for that. Yet, given his position in the early 5th century, he cannot have come long after that original usurper. Therefore, concluding that he was the successor of the one who expelled the Romans from Britain is plausible and in accord with later legends.

 

When Did Vortigern Rule?

Sutton Hoo sword, 7th century, Source: The British Museum

 

When exactly did Vortigern begin his reign? Gildas does not provide any dates, but since Vortigern was the one who invited the Germanic mercenaries over to Britain, his reign obviously must have started before they arrived. The earliest evidence shows that this happened in about 430 as is shown by archaeology. It is also supported by the 5th century Gallic Chronicle of 452 and the 5th century Life of St Germanus. The 9th century Historia Brittonum records that the Anglo-Saxons arrived in 428, and this early evidence suggests that this later tradition may well be accurate.

 

Therefore, we can conclude that the start of Vortigern’s reign was before c. 430, and probably before 428 in particular. According to the Historia Brittonum, his reign began in 425. Although this is not a contemporary source, it is the earliest evidence that we have for the date of the start of Vortigern’s reign. Given its harmony with the earlier evidence we have just considered, this date can likely be trusted.

 

Historia Brittonum, folio 1, Source: The British Library, London

 

Interestingly, the start of Vortigern’s reign likely coincides with another detail in the Historia Brittonum. This record tells us that the last Roman emperor to live in Britain was named Constantius. He ruled for 16 years, but then he was treacherously murdered. This is usually taken as a distorted reference to Constantine III, but the details do not match whatsoever. Interestingly, a later legendary account gives the name “Constantine” to the high king of the Britons who emerged after the Romans left. Most likely, the “Constantius” of the Historia Brittonum was actually this new high king, the usurper who expelled the Roman administration in 409. He was evidently confused for Emperor Constantine III, hence why he is presented as the last Roman emperor in Britain.

 

Counting forward sixteen years from 409 (when the Romans were expelled) takes us to 425, precisely the start of Vortigern’s rule. Notice that Constantius was said to have been “treacherously murdered.” Later tradition claims that Vortigern arranged the murder of “Constantine” the king of the Britons. Both of these are likely independent traditions stemming from the same event. A plausible scenario is that Constantius was the usurper who expelled the Roman administration, and then in 425, Vortigern had him murdered and took power.

 

Vortigern’s Family

Vitalianus Stone, 5th century, St Brynach’s Church, Nevern, Wales, Source: Megalithic.co.uk

 

The earliest source which provides any information about Vortigern’s family is the 9th century Historia Brittonum. This provides the names of his immediate ancestors, his wife, and his sons and later descendants. The accuracy of these claims is obviously unknown, but it is the earliest information we have, so it is valuable. According to the Historia Brittonum, the father of Vortigern was named Vitalis. In turn, Vitalis was the son of Vitalinus.

 

Interestingly, there is a stone inscription which is dedicated to a certain “Vitalianus” in Nevern, Southwest Wales, likely dating to the 5th century. This may well be a dedication to Vortigern’s grandfather. In any case, it proves that the name was in use during this early period, whereas there is little to no evidence for this name in later medieval Wales. This adds some credence to the conclusion that the information in the Historia Brittonum about Vortigern is broadly authentic.

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle folio 37r, 17th century, Source: The British Library, London

 

One of Vortigern’s more famous family members was his son, Vortimer. He fought fiercely against the Anglo-Saxons after they turned on the Britons. Four notable battles between him and the Saxons are recorded. These appear to be broadly supported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a chronicle of the English written in the 10th century. At one of these battles, the Historia Brittonum mentions another of Vortigern’s sons, Catigern. However, it is unclear whether Catigern was fighting on the side of the Saxons or the side of the Britons. Vortigern, for his part, is presented as cravenly attempting to appease the Germanic army, in contrast to his son Vortimer. Eventually, Vortimer died and Vortigern continued his rule as normal.

 

According to this same source, the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern married the daughter of the main Anglo-Saxon king. Later records give her the name Rowena. Again, while there is no earlier confirmation of this, such marriage alliances were very common in the ancient and medieval world.

 

When Did Vortigern Die?

Illustration of Germain of Paris, from the Book of Hours, by Jean le Tavernier, 15th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The battle at which Vortimer is described as dying seems to correspond to the Battle of Crayford recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. That chronicle places the battle in 457. According to the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern continued ruling for some time after this. Therefore, his death is definitely placed well after 457.

 

After a treacherous slaughter of the British kings by the Saxons, the Historia Brittonum says that the Britons made Germanus their commander against the Saxons. This Germanus pursued Vortigern and eventually killed him. For chronological reasons, this cannot be the famous Germanus of Auxerre, who died in 547. It must instead be Germanus the disciple of Saint Patrick. He was active in the mid-to-late 5th century.

 

A later source claims that Ambrosius Aurelianus pursued and killed Vortigern. Bede places Ambrosius’s military career in the 470s at the earliest. Whether it was really Ambrosius or Germanus who killed Vortigern, (or both), Vortigern’s death evidently occurred in the second half of the 5th century. A date in the 470s seems plausible in view of the fact that he was unlikely to have been younger than 25 when he became king in 425.

 

What We Know About Vortigern

Depiction of Aurelius Ambrosius from a manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae, 15th century, Wales, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Our trustworthy historical information about Vortigern is very limited. All we can say with near certainty is that he was a powerful ruler in the immediate Post-Roman Era who arranged for Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to settle in Britain. It is very likely that he was the successor of the usurper who expelled the Roman administration from Britain in 409. His reign must have started in about 425, and it seems that he invited the Saxons over quite soon after he began ruling.

 

Whether “Vortigern” was even really his name is unknown, although all later tradition unanimously agrees that it was. He had several sons, and the eldest, Vortimer, fought fiercely against the Saxons. Eventually, his son died and Vortigern continued attempting to appease the Saxons. His legendary marriage alliance to the daughter of the Saxon leader is not historically confirmed, but it is exactly the kind of thing that we can expect to have happened. Eventually, Vortigern’s reign came to an end when Germanus, Ambrosius, or both, pursued and killed him, likely in the 470s.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.