Early Arthurian Britain – The House of Vortigern

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In time after Constantine’s death, one of the “tyrants,” a leader called Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn in Welsh), came to power on a wave of anti-Roman trendiness, beginning around the year 425. He probably came from central Wales. He and his supporters favored Pelagianism, an offshoot form of Christianity begun by a British monk, Pelagius. This following may have only been a political ploy to gain power. The church considered Pelagianism as heresy, and Pope Celestine I sent St. Germanus to quell the movement in 429 and again in c.445. By the second visit, however, Vortigern’s political use for the Pelagians had waned.

Saxon raids grew more severe and frequent by the 440’s. In spite of the turmoil, Vortigern’s power was strong, but as the Picts attacked more and more from the north, he turned to a Roman tactic, the use of foederati (the hiring of auxilliaries). He allowed some of the Saxon barbarians to settle in the island in return for help fighting the Picts. The oldest records of this practice mention Vortigern and his council inviting Hengist and Horsa, Jutish brothers, to take land in Kent. Three shiploads (keels) arrived. More came soon after, settling along the eastern and southern coasts.

The campaign was successful at first, but as more settlers arrived and lacking resources to pay his mercenaries, Vortigern began to lose control. In 455, a battle at Aylesford is described to have had Angles and Picts fighting together against the British. Allegedly soon after, a new treaty was created for peace and Vortigern set aside his British wife to marry Hengist’s daughter. Peace did not last. In 457, civil violence spread as displaced native people and Saxon settlers fought. The Britons abandoned Kent after losing a battle at Crayford.

The degree to which the Saxon onslaught was waged is continuously debated. Some historians say the movement was gradual and not nearly as bloody as originally thought. Others claim it was devastating, the towns were swept away in massacres, refugees fled to the western mountains and Brittany, and it was questionable whether Britain could be saved at all. Either way, the discrediting of Vortigern, the ruin of political unity and the Church’s disconnection from the continent brought about the rise of the Roman faction’s remnants into favor once again. Two brothers, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther Pendragon, sons of the previous king Constantine, led that faction. Ambrosius, avenging his father’s and brother’s lives, is alleged to have defeated Vortigern by burning him and his forces in a stronghold. The date for this is unknown, but logically falls in the 460’s.

Vortigern may have had several sons by his first wife. The oldest, Vortimer, supposedly broke with his father over the settlement of the Saxons. According to Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, Vortimer fought the Kentish Saxons four times, driving them out. He died shortly after, possibly poisoned by his father’s Saxon wife. Vortigern appeased the Saxons, and they returned to plundering. A second son, Cadeyrn, was killed at the Battle of Aylesford. Vortigern’s third son, Paschent, was allegedly a troublemaker. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, he first stirred up the Saxons, landing in northern Britain. Ambrosius defeated him there. Then Paschent went to Ireland, joined in an alliance with the Irish King Gilloman, and landed at Menevia (Mynyw in Welsh, now called St. David’s.) with the Irish. He was again defeated, this time by Uther Pendragon. Paschent was killed in the battle. And finally, a British bishop called Faustus, prominent in Gaul around the year 470, is speculated to have been another of Vortigern’s sons.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tied a number of Merlin’s prophecies to Vortigern. The best known came during the king’s attempt to refortify a stronghold at Dinas Emrys, in the mountains of North Wales. (See Section on Archaeology in Lesson 1.) The walls continuously fell, disallowing the building to be completed. Vortigern’s magicians recommended a boy without a father be brought in and his blood sprinkled on the foundations to give them the necessary strength. Merlin, a young boy at the time and unknown as to whom his father was, became the designated sacrifice. But Merlin, crafty as he was, avoided death. He revealed a pool lay beneath the structure that undermined the foundations. He convinced the king to have the pool drained. A red dragon and a white dragon bitterly fought there. When the king asked the meaning of the dragons’ fight, Merlin replied with a long prophecy, in effect detailing the defeat of the Saxons (white dragon) by the British (red dragon).