Who was Vortigern?

Vortigern, a British ruler of the 5th century, is chiefly remembered for his decision to invite the Saxons to Britain in order to counter the threats posed by the Picts and Scots, subsequently allowing them to establish control over the territory. ‘Vortigern’ serves as a title rather than a personal name, signifying ‘Great Chief’ or ‘Supreme Lord’. Little is known about Vortigern’s actual name or many details of his life.

Historical accounts depicting his story are considered credible enough to confirm his existence and his pivotal role in facilitating a Saxon migration to Britain. However, these accounts are predominantly written by his adversaries, leaving his motives ambiguous. Vortigern is commonly portrayed as a villain or, at best, as a leader with weak resolve, unable to manage the Saxons effectively once he facilitated or endorsed their arrival in Britain.

The Name Vortigern

The name commonly known as Vortigern in English is found in the earliest Welsh records as Guorthigirn and later as Gwrtheyrn. Bede, in his Latin writings, referred to him as Vertigernus and Uurtigernus. These forms evolved in later Anglo-Saxon accounts to Wyrtgeorn. The name’s meaning is interpreted as ‘High Lord’ or ‘Overlord’. The element ‘Tigern-‘ in the name doesn’t exactly correspond to ‘King’, which is typically represented in names with the form ‘Rex’, as seen in names like Ri(othamus) or (Vortime)Rix. Therefore, while loosely translating it as ‘king’ might not be entirely inaccurate, it would be incorrect to translate ‘Vortigern’ directly as ‘High King’.

Historical References to Vortigern

Historians such as Gildas, Bede, Nennius, William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the French poet Wace have documented Vortigern’s decision to seek Saxon assistance in repelling the raids of the Picts and Scots. However, their portrayals of him vary significantly, with most depicting him unfavorably. Gildas, for instance, refers to him as ‘Supreme Lord’ and attributes blame to him for the subsequent Saxon invasion. Bede, Nennius, William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Wace similarly present him as weak-willed, foolish, easily manipulated, or outright villainous.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, while mentioning Vortigern’s invitation to the Angles, refrain from passing judgment on his actions, providing a more objective perspective. Additionally, the Chronicles, along with place names in Wales associated with Vortigern, serve as tangible evidence supporting his historicity.

These early historical accounts consistently paint Vortigern as a king who prioritized personal pleasure and comfort over the welfare of his people. His engagement in “pagan acts” contrary to Christian values and morals is also highlighted. The Saxons, portrayed as “heathens,” are depicted as destructive forces who ravaged the land after driving out the Picts and Scots. Vortigern is held accountable not only for his personal conduct but also for the policies that facilitated what many historians viewed as a Saxon invasion.

5th Century Britain

The Roman invasion of Britain began in 43 CE during the reign of Claudius, leading to Roman occupation until 410 CE. By this time, Rome faced its own challenges, including the sack of the city by the Goths, contributing to the decline of the Western Roman Empire.

Over the course of two centuries preceding the 5th century, Rome gradually reduced its garrisons in Britain to address pressing needs on the continent. This strategic redeployment left the Britons vulnerable to invaders, as the Roman army had long served as their protectors, notably along Hadrian’s Wall and in other regions.

With Rome’s departure, the northern Picts and Scots exploited the opportunity, breaching the boundary wall and launching raids on British settlements. Simultaneously, the dissolution of the Saxon confederacy on the continent led to the arrival of Saxon immigrants and raiders on the southeast coast of Britain.

Gildas documented how the Britons repeatedly appealed to Rome for assistance, known as the Groans of the Britons. However, Rome’s resources were strained due to conflicts such as the war with Attila, king of the Huns, rendering them unable to spare troops for Britain. As a result, the Britons turned to the Angles for aid, as noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

The Roman influence had marginalized indigenous leadership, with the Briton aristocracy becoming heavily Romanized. Consequently, in such a situation, it was not surprising for chiefs to seek assistance from any available armed force.

Nennius’ account of Vortigern

In his History of Britain, the Welsh monk Nennius portrays Vortigern as a villain characterized by pride, anti-Christian sentiments, incestuous behavior, and betrayal of his country to the Saxons. According to Nennius, after the Romans withdrew from Britain, the onslaught of invasions by the Picts and Scots intensified. Despite futile appeals to Rome for assistance, Vortigern, driven by the belief that he could gain from the situation, decided to seek Saxon aid.

In Chapter 37 of his work, Nennius recounts Vortigern’s reception of the Saxons, facilitated by an interpreter named Ceretic, who is often identified with the Saxon king Cerdic. Ceretic maintains a friendly relationship with Hengist, the Saxon king portrayed by Nennius as cunning and deceitful. Hengist arrives with his forces to assist in repelling the invasions, but according to Nennius, their numbers are insufficient. Moreover, the Saxons face scarcity of provisions, leading them to pillage neighboring villages. As the situation escalates, Vortigern perceives the Saxons as a greater threat than the Picts and urges them to depart. Nennius vividly describes Hengist’s response and the ensuing repercussions.

But Hengist, in whom united craft and penetration, perceiving he had to act with an ignorant king, and a fluctuating people, incapable of opposing much resistance, replied to Vortigern, “We are, indeed, few in number; but, if you will give us leave, we will send to our country for an additional number of forces, with whom we will fight for you and your subjects.”

Vortigern assenting to this proposal, messengers were despatched to Scythia, where selecting a number of warlike troops, they returned with sixteen vessels, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist. And now the Saxon chief prepared an entertainment, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter, having previously enjoined his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale, that they might soon become intoxicated. This plan succeeded; and Vortigern, at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask.

Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in English Centland, in British, Ceint, [Kent]. This cession was made without the knowledge of the king, Guoyrancgonus, who then reigned in Kent, and who experienced no inconsiderable share of grief from seeing his kingdom thus clandestinely, fraudulently, and imprudently resigned to foreigners. Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

After Vortigern and Hengist establish a familial bond through marriage, the Saxon king begins to assert increasingly demanding conditions, all of which Vortigern complies with. Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, rises in rebellion and achieves success in several conflicts before meeting his demise. Despite driving the Saxons out of the land and shattering their power, Vortigern later extends an invitation for their return. The subsequent events chronicled by Nennius detail Vortigern’s feeble efforts to manage the Saxons, his eventual demise, and the emergence of the legendary hero Arthur, who triumphs over the Saxons at the pivotal Battle of Badon Hill.

Vortigern & Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain 

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136) presents a largely fictionalized narrative of the rulers of Britain from its earliest days, embellished with detailed characterization and dialogue. Although much of the account is considered imaginative, certain events can be aligned with other historical sources, lending a semi-historical status to the work.

In Geoffrey’s rendition, Vortigern is portrayed as a weak-willed ruler torn between his professed Christian beliefs and his personal desires. He invites the Saxons to Britain for assistance but quickly loses control over them. Hengist, the Saxon leader, manipulates Vortigern into marrying his daughter, Ronwen, exploiting the king’s infatuation to advance his own agenda. As in Nennius’ account, Vortigern succumbs to Hengist’s demands, leading to rebellion and chaos.

Adding to the narrative, Geoffrey introduces the enigmatic figure of Merlin, known as Ambrosius Merlin. Vortigern, depicted with questionable Christian values, is associated with darkness and temptation, with Satan portrayed as influencing his actions. When Vortigern falls for Ronwen, Geoffrey suggests that Satan has entered his heart due to his desire for a union with a heathen woman.

Merlin’s arrival marks a pivotal moment, as he exposes the deceit of Vortigern’s magicians, revealing their illusions and lies. Despite their claims, Merlin challenges them, ultimately dismantling the tower under construction by Vortigern. He reveals a hidden pool beneath the tower, containing two hollow stones housing two dragons, one white and the other red.

Merlin’s prophetic speech to Vortigern, akin to that of an Old Testament prophet, interprets the significance of the dragons’ struggle, foreshadowing the conflicts and downfall that await Vortigern and his kingdom.

Woe unto the Red Dragon, for his extermination draweth nigh; and his caverns shall be occupied of the White Dragon that betokeneth the Saxons whom thou hast invited hither. But the Red signifieth the race of Britain that shall be oppressed of the White. Therefore shall the mountains and the valleys thereof be made level plain and the streams of the valleys shall flow with blood. The rites of religion shall be done away and the ruin of churches be made manifest. At the last, she that is oppressed shall prevail and resist the cruelty of them that come from without. For the Boar of Cornwall shall bring succour and shall trample their necks beneath his feet. (VII, 3)

In Geoffrey’s narrative, Merlin alludes to the Boar of Cornwall as a prophetic symbol representing King Arthur, who is destined to emerge as a mighty leader. Arthur will not only vanquish the Saxons but also expand his dominion, eventually conquering much of Europe and even challenging the authority of Rome itself. Meanwhile, Vortigern meets his demise, paving the way for Ambrosius Aurelius, the brother of Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father), to assume leadership. However, both Ambrosius and Uther perish in their struggles against the Saxons, whom Vortigern had unwittingly unleashed upon the land. Nevertheless, Arthur emerges as the champion of his people, avenging his predecessors and liberating Britain through his decisive victory at the Battle of Bath.

What was Vortigen’s Motivation?

It has been suggested that Vortigern might have been relying on the Saxons to adhere to an ancient Celtic practice called celsine (clientship), where a weaker party seeks the assistance of a stronger one during crises, and the alliance ceases once the crisis is over. This theory posits that Vortigern aimed to place the Britons under the protection of the more powerful Saxons. However, the Saxons did not honor the traditional end of the celsine relationship after the threats from the Picts and Scots were eliminated. This perspective aligns with the tumultuous period in Britain following the withdrawal of the Roman legions. The Britons initially struggled to defend themselves against northern invasions and continental incursions until leaders such as Ambrosius Aurelianus or King Arthur emerged.

Geoffrey Ashe offers a different view, suggesting Vortigern was following a common Roman practice by using federates—foreign warriors given land and stipends for military service. This strategy would have been familiar in Britain after centuries of Roman presence. However, the employment of federates was fraught with challenges, and in Vortigern’s case, it ended disastrously.

Despite the intentions behind his actions, Vortigern has long been viewed as a villainous figure. Believed to be possibly Welsh, his actions particularly disgruntled Welsh historians like Nennius and Geoffrey, who may have seen his mistake as a significant betrayal.

While Nennius and Geoffrey don’t explicitly state that Vortigern considered celsine, the idea that he invited the Saxons under this premise is plausible, given the desperate circumstances Britain faced post-Roman rule. During the Roman era, such invasions would have been repelled without much effort from a noble like Vortigern, highlighting the dramatic changes in Britain after the Romans’ departure.


Regardless of his true intentions, Vortigern is often portrayed negatively by later historians based on existing accounts. He is mentioned in the Welsh Annals as one of the “three arrant traitors of the Island of Britain,” and even William of Malmesbury, who acknowledges the Britons’ helplessness after Vortigern’s demise, describes him as weak and indulgent in vices.

Gildas notes that Vortigern consulted a council before inviting the Saxons, yet he offers no praise for him. This negative portrayal, especially by Celtic Welsh writers, could stem from the fact that Vortigern, possibly being Welsh himself, not only invited the Saxons to Britain but also naively believed that they would adhere to the Celtic tradition of celsine, a practice unlikely to be honored by non-Celts.

It’s argued that Vortigern might have expected the Saxons to respect the celsine agreement or perhaps thought he could manipulate them through it. However, it seems he did not anticipate that a non-Celtic group might either be unaware of or choose to ignore such a custom. As events unfolded, the Saxons, after defeating the Picts and Scots, turned against the Britons. This turn of events is marked by the rise of Ambrosius Aurelianus according to Gildas and Bede, and King Arthur in the accounts of Nennius and Geoffrey.

The actual character of Vortigern remains elusive, but he has been infamously remembered for centuries as the ruler who invited the Saxons to Britain. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is credited with shaping the character of Arthur, also established the prevailing image of Vortigern as a traitor who jeopardized his nation for personal gain. Yet, if scholars like Ashe and others are right, and Vortigern’s intentions towards the Saxons were well-meant, he might be seen more as a tragic hero than a villain.