Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Unlucky Usurpers and Proud Tyrants: The Leadership of Fifth Century Britain

by Chris Thorndycroft

Many books have been written on the chaotic period preceding and following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 A.D., and it is perhaps because we know so little about it that there is so much to discuss.

A rough idea of how the four provinces of
Britain (created by the Diocletian Reform)
looked in the fifth century. Their
arrangement is still a matter of debate.
It was a time of invasions and rebellions. The Picts, once held in check by Hadrian’s Wall, swarmed down from the north. The Irish raided and settled in the west. Saxon and Gaulish pirates roved the Channel. To add to this, Britain was a hotbed of rebellion with the legions stationed there choosing their own candidates for the position of emperor leading to the abandonment of posts and lengthy wars on the continent.

Rome responded as best it could. Some sort of reshuffling of the military organization in the mid fourth century is evident in the creation of three new military posts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum (The List of Offices). The first is the Comes Britanniarum; commander of the mobile field army on the island. The other two are the Dux Britanniarum (commander of the northern frontier including Hadrian’s Wall) and the Comes littoris Saxonici (commander of the Saxon Shore).

This last one is of interest for it seems to coincide with the building of several shore forts along the south-east coast. These ‘Saxon Shore’ forts may have been so named for their function as a defense against Saxon raiders or they may have been operated by mercenary Saxon frontier troops (foederati).

These measures eventually proved futile for in 407 a soldier stationed in Britain was declared ‘Constantine III of the Western Roman Empire’ and took all his troops with him to prove his point in Gaul, effectively leaving Britain open to attack. He was defeated and executed and in 410, Rome officially washed its hands of the troublesome province when Emperor Honorius told its leaders to “look to their own defences”.

Coin of Constantine III, the Roman general who was declared Western Roman
Emperor and removed the last vestiges of Roman authority from Britain.

But who were these leaders? What sort of government was left in the wake of the Roman withdrawal? With no official bodies connected to the Empire and no promise of military intervention from the continent, surely the island reverted back to a climate of chaotic tribalism?

Perhaps or perhaps not.

Portchester Castle, the Saxon shore fort of Portus
Adurni which became the outer bailey wall of a
Norman castle. Credit: Rob Nunn.
A monk called Gildas wrote his scathing On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain sometime in the sixth century and described some sort of council ruling Britain in those days. He also mentions a ‘proud tyrant’ or ‘unlucky usurper’ who invited a group of Saxons to settle on the eastern shores of Britain in order to repel the Picts.

This mysterious tyrant of the Britons has become a figure of particular interest from the period, as much as Hengest and Horsa and even King Arthur. ‘Vortigern’ is the name often given to him but even that is a matter of debate with various spellings including ‘Gwrtheyrn’, ‘Wyrtgeorn’ and ‘Guothergirn’. We do not even know if this was a personal name or a title but Vortigern seems to have been a figure of considerable power in fifth century Britain.

Bede, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the eighth century, first provides the name as ‘Vertigernus’. It was also Bede who first named the leaders of the Saxons as ‘Hengist and Horsa’. As king of the British people, Vertigernus invites the Saxons to settle in Britain for pay. A condition of this was presumably engagement with the enemy who were “come from the north to give battle” and are later revealed to be the Picts.

This story is elaborated by the Bangor-born monk Nennius in his History of the British People, written sometime in the ninth century. A mixture of history and colourful local legend, this work is to be treated with caution but it does present a fascinating story.

Receiving Hengist and Horsa as friends, Vortigern (named here as Guorthirgirn) hands over the isle of Thanet in exchange for their service as foederati against the Picts. Hengist later sends for more of his countrymen who bring with them his beautiful daughter. A feast is held and Vortigern, plied with drink, falls so in love with Hengest’s daughter that he demands her in exchange for the whole of Kent. This is without the knowledge of Kent’s king; Guoyrancgonus.

So who was Vortigern really? Nennius’s ‘king of the British people’ is unlikely as Britain would have been in the throes of chaos after Rome’s withdrawal and the idea of a single king ruling the entire island is implausible. Gildas’s mentioning of a council is perhaps more probable and something aping the old Roman administrative system is easy to imagine with governors and tribunes devolving over time, back into chieftains and eventually kings.

It is possible that Vortigern is a title rather than a personal name as a literal translation from the Brittonic word appears as ‘overlord’ (‘wor’ = over and ‘tigerno’ = lord). But many scholars insist that this doesn’t prove anything as ‘tigerno’ appears in several personal names like ‘Catigern’ and ‘Kentigern’.

Vortigern’s family is outlined by Nennius who states that he had four sons; Vortimer, Catigern, Pascent and Faustus (son of his incestuous affair with his unnamed daughter). More information might be gleaned from the Pillar of Eliseg; a ninth century monument erected in Denbighshire, Wales by Cyngen ap Cadell, king of Powys.

The Latin text on the Pillar of Eliseg is now illegible due to weathering, but a transcription was made by the antiquarian Edward Llwyd in 1696. It claims that Guarthi(gern) (Vortigern) was married to Severa, the daughter of Magnus Maximus; the usurper who famously rebelled against Emperor Gratian. The pillar names the sons of this union as; Britu and Pascen(t), the latter of which is the ancestor of the kings of Powys.

If Vortigern really did marry Severa, daughter of Magnus Maximus, it would most likely have been before 388, which was when Maximus was defeated and executed (politically speaking, a marriage after this date would have been worthless). Severa could scarcely have been younger than seventy by 447 – the date traditionally associated with the arrival of Hengest and Horsa, making the Guarthi(gern) of the pillar a little old to be the Vortigern mentioned by Bede and Nennius.

Unless it referred to his father.

If Vortigern was indeed a title, it may have passed from father to son, making the Vortigern of later texts the son of the union between Guarthi(gern) and Severa.

So what then, was Vortigern’s real name? The History of the Britons gives his genealogy and his grandfather and great grandfather were called Guitaul (Vital) and Guitolion (Vitalin) respectively. This hints at a common family name that may have been something like ‘Vitalinus’ or ‘Vitalis’. Interestingly, Nennius goes on to say that during the reign of Vortigern, there was a battle between Ambrosius and Guitolinus (Vitalinus). Was this a separate person, or the given name for Britain’s ‘overlord’.

We don’t know what the battle was about or who won, but Ambrosius is a name well attested elsewhere. Gildas first mentions an Ambrosius Aurelianus who “perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain by it.”

‘Wearing the purple’ could refer to the imperial colour, or perhaps the purple band worn by Roman military tribunes, so it seems that we are dealing with a noble of imperial stock or a high-ranking military commander. Gildas makes it clear that Ambrosius was some sort of military figure to which the Britons flocked (perhaps the last Comes Britanniarum). His wars with the Saxons ultimately culminated in the siege of Badon Hill (later sources like the History of the Britons credit Arthur as the victor of this battle, not Ambroisus).

As well as the aforementioned war between Ambrosius and Vitalinus, Nennius states that Vortigern eventually handed over all his lands and fortresses to Ambrosius, who granted a large share of them to Vortigern’s son Pascent. It certainly looks like Ambrosius won a significant victory over Vortigern in addition to his success against the Saxons.

The tale of the destruction and eventual death of Vortigern is dominated by the figure of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. The Life of Saint Germanus, written in about 480 A.D. by Constantius of Lyons, states that Bishop Germanus and his companion, Bishop Lupus of Troyes, originally voyaged to Britain in about 429 A.D. to combat the Pelagian Heresy. There, through debate and preaching, they won many back to the Augustinian teachings.

As with the lives of many saints, miracles were also performed including the healing of a blind girl by the holding of Germanus’s reliquary to her eyes. Germanus even leads a British army against a confederation of Picts and Saxons and, by chanting the “Alleluia”, manages to rout the enemy without even having to strike a blow.

A later chapter reveals that Germanus returned to Britain (possibly around 447 A.D.) as Pelagianism was once again on the rise. A healing miracle is performed once again, this time for the crippled son of Elafius, described as a leading man in the country.

The Life of Saint Germanus makes no mention of Vortigern but Nennius further elaborates on Germanus’s second visit to Britain beginning with his confrontation of a tyrannical king called Benlli. After Benlli’s city is obliterated by “fire from heaven” Germanus raises a peasant called Catel Drunlue (Cadell Derynllug in the Welsh genealogies) to the position of king.

Germanus then goes to the court of Vortigern who has, much to everyone’s outrage, married his daughter and sired a son on her to whom Nennius gives the name ‘Faustus’. Germanus gives the boy razor, scissors and comb and tells him to present them to his true father. The boy gives these items to Vortigern who “arose in great anger, and fled from the presence of St. Germanus, execrated and condemned by the whole synod.”

Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, rises to the position left vacant by his father and wages war on Hengist and Horsa, driving them back to the isle of Thanet. Three more battles take place, the first upon the River Darent, the second at ‘Epsford’ (possibly Aylesford as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the battle as taking place at ‘Agaelesthrep’) where both Horsa and Vortimer’s brother Catigern fall. The last battle was “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea, where the Saxons being defeated, fled to their ships.”

Vortimer then mysteriously dies and, in a forerunner to the Welsh tale of Bran the Blessed, commands that his body be buried upon the spot where the Saxons first landed so that they may never land there again. His commands are ignored of course, resulting in the eventual Saxon conquest of most of Britain.

Vortigern returns to power on the death of his son and is invited by Hengist, along with his nobles and military officers, to a feast where, in the original Night of the Long Knives, his men butcher them all. Vortigern alone is allowed to live whom Hengist hopes to ransom for his daughter’s return. More land is turned over to the Saxons including “the three provinces of East, South, and Middle Sex.”

On the run again from the fury of Germanus, Vortigern flees to “the kingdom of the Dimetae where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guothergirn” (literally ‘Castle Vortigern’). Fire once again falls from heaven and destroys this castle, killing Vortigern, Hengist’s daughter and all its other inhabitants.

With obscure mentions of leaders like Elafius, a king called Benlli, a council, and a ‘proud tyrant’ called Vortigern, it seems clear that Britain was in a transitional phase at this time and was anything but united. From later genealogies provided in medieval Welsh sources, we can see that the ex-Roman province fragmented into many small kingdoms, each ruled by separate dynasties who could trace their lineage back to the likes of Cadell, the peasant given King Benlli’s throne by Bishop Germanus.

Ambrosius and Vortigern, whoever they were, also figure in genealogies and place names, suggesting that, if some sort of council had tried to maintain control over the island in the wake of the Roman withdrawal, it most likely gave out to laws of blood succession. Personal interests most likely won out as Britain’s leaders began to hoard territory and carve out their own lands which they ruled as kings, much in the same way that their enemies, the Saxons, did in the east, eventually giving rise to what we now call Wales and England.


William Fairley, Notitia Dignitatum or Register of Dignitaries, in Translations and Reprints from Original Sources of European History, Vol. VI:4 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, n.d.)

Williams, Hugh ed. and trans.: Gildas, The Ruin of Britain &c. (1899), Cymmrodorion Record Series, No. 3

Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Shirley-Price, (St Ives 1990)

Nennius: The Historia Brittonum, trans. John Allan Giles, in: Six Old English Chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals (George Bell and Sons, London 1891)

Constantius of Lyon: The Life of St. Germanus of Auxerre, eds. Thomas Noble and Thomas Head, translators, in: Soldiers of Christ: Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), pp. 75-106

[This is an Editor's Choice archive post, originally published on EHFA on 20th Jan, 2016]


Chris Thorndycroft is the author of the Hengest and Horsa Trilogy which is set in 5th century Britain and involves Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and a whole host of other real figures of the period. He has also written the ghost story The Visitor at Anningley Hall (a prequel to M. R. James’s ‘The Mezzotint’). Visit his blog here;


  1. Fascinating post about a period that often seems skipped over.

  2. Great stuff - I'm always pleased to read anything that casts a bit of light on the so-called Dark Ages. In fact my own blog is named thus, in order to do just that. Wonderful post, thanks :)

  3. I love learning about this time period...and it's actually the era in which my upcoming book is set. I have a blog post coming up next week that's very much along the lines of this article. Great post! :)

  4. Great post, thanks for taking the time over the detail.

  5. Brilliant post Chris. Much of this covers the background to my first and second novels. I also love the Dark Ages, for all the little grey areas, the what-ifs and ambiguities. The more I read about this time, the more it intrigues me!

  6. Nice post - Good summary of what is little is known of the early Dark Ages. I have also rolled up my sleeves to delve into this murky period in English history for my series, A Light in the Dark Ages. I'm currently writing about Ambrosius and Uther, laying the path for the appearance of King Arthur to ride in and steal the scene!

  7. Of course, the nice thing about not knowing many details.. it is an absolute godsend for fiction author because we can make things up!

  8. That was a super post, thank you! It's a period I've read about in a few novels, and each one presents a slightly different version of how Vortigern and Ambrosius fit into the era. It's a complex study which keeps historians (and authors) enthralled!


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