British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Appendices > Appendix 11

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Appendix 11: Vitalinus, Fitela, Sinfjotli?

Fabio P. Barbieri

Beowulf insists very heavily on the importance of the relationship of uncle and nephew, or of first cousins, for the stability of a dynasty: all its feuds come upon from rivalry between them, while the most perfect heroes - Sigemund, Beowulf himself, and possibly Wiglaf - are all shown to be loyal to their uncles or to have loyal nephews.  Wiglaf is not said to be the nephew or cousin of Beowulf, but he is one of his few kinsmen and goes to his help when no-one else would - and it is thanks to him that the hero wins his last victory.  Beowulf himself is unbreakably loyal to his uncle Hygelac and his cousin Hęžcyn; and Sigemund dragon-slayer - the greatest of all heroes, not excluding Beowulf himself - has with him a loyal nephew called Fitela when he goes to kill his dragon; though, being every bit as great as Beowulf in the days of his youth, he does not need Fitela's help.

In later versions of the Volsung legend, Fitela features as Sinfjotli, not the loyal nephew of Sigemund, but his son.  In a prose note in the Elder Edda, he is Sigemund’s first son, poisoned by his second wife Borghild for killing her brother over a woman.  In the Volsunga Saga, derived largely but not entirely from the poems of the Elder Edda, Sinfjotli is the son of Siegmund’s vengeance, conceived with his sister Signy (Sieglinde) to destroy her hated and criminal husband Siggeir; once this task is completed, he is poisoned by Borghild. 

Fitela/Sinfjotli also features as the helpful half-brother of a quite different hero, Helgi Hundingsbani.  Helgi, in the documents we have, is always a son of Siegmund and brother of Sinfjotli, but the authenticity of these family relationships has been long doubted.  His field of action (to judge by the appearance of the place-name Svarin, i.e. Schwerin) is south and east of Denmark, in modern Mecklemburg; the other Volsungs, Sigemund and Siegfried, move around the Rhine valley and are clearly said to be Franks, in ambiguous and ultimately hostile relations with the Franks’ hostile southern neighbours, the Burgundians.  The two stories are joined together by making Sinfjotli fight alongside Helgi before he destroys Siggeir and his house and is killed by Borghild; however, the Helgi episodes feel rather intrusive in the saga of dynastic revenge of the Volsungs, and Helgi himself looks rather out of place in the pedigree, between the first son who never lived to inherit - Sinfjotli - and the youngest son who was both to inherit and to prove the greatest of all heroes - Siguršr.

However, the thirteenth-century Nibelungenlied, the grandest of all statements of the Siegfried legend, knows nothing of Sinfjotli (and little of Siegmund, who, as Siegfried’s father, is reduced to a pale memory).  The Nibelungenlied is a product of south Germany, composed in the thirteenth century somewhere between Passau and Vienna.  This suggests that, while Fitela/Sinfjotli was known enough in continental North Germany to be used in two different heroic sagas, one Frankish, one Danish, he was almost certainly unknown to the southernmost Teutons. The story of Siguršr/Siegfried is an epic of the early Franks; both northern and southern versions make his nationality quite clear, and it follows that it must have reached the Bavarian courts of the Danube (subject to Frankish influence from Merovingian days) from the southern reaches of the Frankish territory, that is the middle Rhine valley and the Main - what the Germans call Franken to this day.

I conclude that Fitela/Sinfjotli was placed in two different North German heroic cycles as a figure of dynastic helper and supporter, and to some extent of scapegoat.  He was an originally independent figure, known in the northern Teutonic areas, enough for both Danes and North Franks to want to appropriate him; but he was unknown to the southern reaches of the Frankish confederacy.

What kind of character, then, is Fitela, and why did two ambitious tribes want to appropriate him?  What is remarkable is that, both in Beowulf and in the Helgi songs, he really has little to do but show loyalty.  He engages in a slanging match with Helgi’s enemy Guthmund, but it is Helgi who kills him - after telling Sinfjotli that it is really better to fight with swords than with swords.  In Beowulf, Fitela really does nothing at all; Sigemund kills his dragon, so far as we can tell, on his own.  In the Volsunga Saga, Sinfjotli has a more active role.  He does, as it were, the dirty work, helping his father to destroy Siggeir and his own half-brothers, the sons of Siggeir’s cruel marriage to Signy

There can be little doubt that the switch from nephew (Beowulf) to son (Icelandic sagas) has something to do with different ideas about kinship and inheritance; Fitela/Sinfjotli plays different roles in the various versions, but he is always a support and help to his kinsmen, the picture of dynastic cohesion.  The point of each family tree is to make Fitela/Sinfjotli into the credible and loyal attendant of the Volsung dynasty.  The same point is made by the alteration of the name, from the alien-sounding Fitela to Sinfjotli, which assonates with Sigmund and Siguršr/Siegfried and also reduced the un-Teutonic three syllables of Fitela to the more natural -fjotli.  At the same time, he seems doomed not to succeed.  In both the Elder Edda and the Volsunga Saga, he is Sigemund’s first-born son, but he does not inherit.  And if there is any truth in the insults swapped with Guthmund in The first song of Helgi Hundingsbani, this is more than an accident: female demons, says Guthmund, have gelded him.

This finds a clear echo in his incestuous birth in the Volsunga Saga.  In a number of mythologies, incest is allowed among the gods; but it is surely unimaginable that the continuity of a mortal royal line should pass through an incestuous birth.  Nor is Sinfjotli actually born to succeed to any throne: the purpose of his birth is very purely revenge on Siggeir.  The son of an incestuous alliance, hated (for very good reason) by his father’s legitimate spouse, Borghild, he seems the incarnation of the internecine violence in the Volsungs, a family whose sequence of murders, incests and vendette is easily comparable with the Atreids.  But the vengeance which he incarnates - this must be underlined - is just and right: the villainous Siggeir, whose family he helps to destroy, is one of the most loathsome murderers in the entire canon of Icelandic saga.  Indeed, Sinfjotli’s vengeance and death clear the way for Siguršr/Siegfried, the greatest of all heroes.

Fitela must at some point have been quite famous in English tradition.  Fiddleford in Dorset, Fittleton in Wiltshire, and Fittleworth in Sussex carry his name.  He does not sound like a Saxon: the three sillables of his name, with their unusual pattern of sounded and unsounded consonants, sound very much like a Latin word adapted with unusual closeness - Fidelis, Vitellius, or, alarmingly, Vitalis.  There is no reason whatever why it could not be Vitalinus: to the contrary, the few Roman proper and place names we know to have crossed over into Old English have almost all lost syllables - Aust (Gloucestershire) for Augusta, Dor(chester) for Durnovaria, Rich(borough) for Rutupiae, and probably Ant(ingham), Norfolk, for Antonius (or any Greek name in Anti-) Cost(essey) for Constans or Constantinus, and Ames(bury) for Ambrosius.  The earliest spelling of Fittleton - though admittedly in the unreliable Domesday Book, compiled by French-speakers who coped very badly with Old English sounds - is Viteletone.

There is something else that makes us think of Ambrosius’ enemy.  There is a fascinating group of names in Amber- or Amer- at several places in the south and the midlands, which, according to a particularly attractive suggestion from John Morris, derive from Ambrosius.  Particularly dense in Essex (a border march against English Norfolk and Suffolk), they can also be found in West Kent, Sussex, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, but not north of a line drawn roughly from Colchester to Hereford[1], and not in the Fens, in Yorkshire, or the south-west.  Wales only has one or two place names in Emrys, and they may have their origin in later legend, but these English place-names, very unusual in taking the name of a notable Briton - the English, evidence shows, renamed everything, mostly with English personal names - have frozen a late-sixth-century political geography in place.  They show that the house of Ambrosius dominated the south of present-day England, meaning the Severn, the Thames and the Channel coast.  Morris suggests that they represents the settlement of military units raised by Ambrosius, according to the Roman custom by which such units received the name of the emperor under whom they were enlisted (e.g. Theodosiani, Honoriaci); a suggestion I am happy to accept, since we have seen other reasons to think that Ambrosius was committed to Roman ways.  He probably wanted to put at least a Roman veneer on his Celtic armed forces, as well as to act like a legitimate emperor.  We have seen other reasons to suspect that such military settlements, recruited probably from northern tribes, took place in and after Ambrosius’ time.

Now, both Fittleton and Fittleworth are close to Ambres- place names.  Fittleworth, in Sussex, lies across the river Rother from the main Roman road from London to Chichester, and between two Ambres- names: South Ambersham, seven miles almost due west from Fittleworth, and Amberley, four miles south-south-east.  Amberley dominates both the road and the strategic Arun river valley, a gap between the South Downs; a castle was built there in later times, upriver from the more famous one at Arundel.  South Ambersham has less obvious strategic value; but, looked at in conjunction with Amberley, it seems well placed not only to bracket the Fittleworth area, but also to keep a wary eye on the regional capital Chichester, from which both villages are roughly the same distance - not in sight, but within reach.  Fittleton is a few miles upriver from Amesbury itself, which seals it off from the Roman road[2].  Oh dear.  Do we think that Ambrosius saw reason to control land associated with Fitela as he controlled, with numerous amber-named settlements, the Saxon border next to London?  Tut tut.  It does not look too good for the patriotism of Vitalinus; and it looks as though the traditions that survive in the second part of the Life of St.Gurthiern - that Gurthiern was "king of the English" - had some reason to exist, and that the English poet who first invented the story of Beowulf, some time between the seventh and the ninth century, an expert in ancient lore and the names and deeds of great kings, was disposed to think of - was it Vitalinus? - as the kinsman and loyal helpmate of the greatest Teutonic hero of legend.

Of course, this only represents the English - or rather the Teutonic, north-Germanic - view of Fitela, and, what is more, we only come across it after at least three centuries have elapsed.  However, to judge by the similarities between the Danish kings of Beowulf and those of Saxo, Snorri, the Hrolfs Saga Kraka and Arngrimur Jonsson five hundred or more years later, Nordic culture was remarkably retentive of individuals, relationships and feuds.  If memory made Fitela a loyal helpmate of early Germanic heroes, perhaps there is a case for his having had such a role.

It is also possible that the canonic account of Sinfjotli’s death may have something to do with the legend of Vortigern and Vortimer.  Sinfjotli is poisoned by his stepmother.  In the British legend, it is Vortimer who is poisoned by his stepmother.  We have seen in the matter of the Seven Breatwealdas that the Saxons were capable of seizing British legends and reversing their content and meaning to their own advantage; in this case, it is possible that they appropriated the death of the great patriotic hero, the son of the traitor Vitalinus-Vortigern, to turn his father into a martyr, victim of treason and underhanded murder. Vitalinus, we have plenty of reason to believe, was in fact killed by Ambrosius as part of an anti-Saxon campaign; from the Saxon point of view, this would represent the disloyal murder of their royal protector in Britain.


[1]Except for Arminghall, Norfolk; for which, see Appendix III.

[2]The stationing of Amesbury and Amberley in Sussex, incidentally, seems to indicate a concern with the control of major routes, Roman or pre-Roman. The strategic importance of Amesbury cannot be traced on a modern map, unless one joins up the remnants of the Roman road that once went from Silchester (where its memory is preserved in three Stratfield village-names) to Andover, where it apparently turned south to the Wallops, while the pre-Roman Harrow Way went on to Amesbury and beyond. The systematic destruction of Silchester at some point in the sixth century seems to have meant the obliteration of this whole road, and the loss of importance of all points across it. In Ambrosius' day, Amesbury's back was to the Salisbury Plain; its front to an area dense with Roman towns, roads and fields. The fact that these settlements, though distant from areas of large Saxon settlement, were apparently designed with control of the road network in mind, argues for an island-wide, national perspective, in which the military defence of the road network was a major consideration.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

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