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

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.3b

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Chapter 6.3: The cycle of Conn, Art and Cormac

Part 2

Fabio P. Barbieri

viii)- Moral corruption at the court: the king, the druids, the fairy bride

The relationship of the king and the dangerous alien woman is directly connected with the moral corruption of the court druids.  In neither of the legends are the druids incompetent; both in Britain and in Ireland, the first advice they give their kings is correct and insightful.  Vortigern's wizards tell him to look for a designated place to build a fortress the Saxons cannot storm, and, according to Nennius, reveal to him, what he did not yet know, that the tribe he had so naively let into Britain was envious of him and meant to kill him by stealth; by moving to Snowdon, though he cannot keep them from rebelling and overrunning the land, he frustrates their plan.  In the same way, Conn's druids start with a surprising display of wisdom: they have the insight to see the root of the King's troubles in the disastrous presence of Becuma.  But both groups of wizards follow this advice up with one that is shamefully and disastrously wrong, the same in both cases: the immoral and potentially disastrous sacrifice of the wondrous boy.  In the Irish legend the discontinuity between the discovery of the evil and the proposed remedy is so flagrant that one suspects that the druids may know all too well what they are doing.  Dare they tell the besotted king that he must dismiss his glorious new wife?  One rather thinks not; in fact, when Rigru Roscleidan herself tells him the truth, his only answer is "Yours would be good advice, if I could follow it, but I cannot; so give me another" - at which the woman curses the whole land of Ireland to famine as long as Becuma is there.

The druids do not even try.  They are, as Geoffrey's version of the wonderful boy calls them, "lying flatterers".  (In both legends, druids are present as a group, not as individuals.  The decision to find and sacrifice the wonderful boy comes not from any named individual, but by a nameless assembly: which the miraculous child overcomes alone.  This reminds me a bit of the fact that teyrnedd and tyranni - an inferior class - are always many and nameless: evidently, to the Celtic mind, a large number and no clear leader were bad news.)  There is a presumption that druids will know, always, everywhere, ever where ordinary human beings cannot imagine any relationship of cause and effect or see beyond their nose; this story feature satisfies that presumption, laying the blame on their cowardice, not their ignorance.  Therefore, if the druids fail not through ignorance but through lack of moral fibre, there must be a reason; and the only sensible reason is that of the Irish story: the full knowledge that the king would not put up with the true answer to his problem - to wit, divorce his bride.

There is, however, one bit that makes no sense.  Vortigern's druids have already charged Ronwein's people with being the worst kind of traitors; there is no reason for them not to then have the nerve to face the king with the facts[26].

What we have here is a by-product of the imposition of a mythical pattern upon historical, even contemporary, facts.  The pattern of the legends of Conn and Vortigern involves the seduction of an ageing but still vigorous sovereign by a woman of literally fatal, irresistible charm; which incarnates an episode of dynastic near-ruin, in which we are to understand that the king was led to folly and crime when particularly vulnerable - as vulnerable as a middle-aged widower - to something with the crushing allure of a fairy woman[27].  The concept of welcoming one's own destroyer under the guise of something good, attractive, even supportive, must have applied with particular pertinency to Vortigern's admission of the Saxons into Britain; to Britons of any age after the mid-450s, their presence was one of the largest and sourest facts in view - if that wasn't welcoming one's destroyer - what was?  However, the very visibility of their presence means that the druids of the royal household could not really give an obscure warning; and as their warning about the Saxons was in fact so clear, the whole element of druids running away from their responsibility could not hold.  There was nothing to conceal, nothing that could be concealed.  The story element was not written out or replaced with any other explanation; it simply grew obscure and murky.  Geoffrey's Merlin reacts to Vortigern's druids as though they were the moral cowards of the Irish legend; but while his insult "lying flatterers" would make plenty of sense in the story of Conn, where they are exactly that, it does not mean anything in Geoffrey, where the point is not that they had deliberately lied to flatter the king, but that they had advised a crime while ignorant of the facts[28].

By the same token, it is notable that neither Nennius nor Geoffrey are very clear about the final fate of Ronwein.  The Irish story leads inevitably up to Becuma's final banishment from Ireland; in Britain, though Ronwein is guilty of crimes that make the blood run cold, she simply... fades.  The point is that the moral value of the alien woman's banishment is defined by the king's besotted clinging, the druids' cowardly evasion of responsibility, the terrible dangers of the triad of quests, and, by contrast, the shining moral clarity associated with the wondrous boy.  We know that she is corrupt and dangerous just because the king clings to her even when he should and does know better; because his crazed love for her corrupts the court atmosphere to the point where the druids dare not speak the truth as they should, to the point where, rather than get rid of her, the king is disposed to cut the throat of a literally innocent boy; and to the point where only a bold stripling (or his angry mother) dare to break a whole world of lies, and throw the truth in the king's face.   The truth is told, in Ireland, by Rigru Rosclethan at the court of Conn, and by the bold stripling Cormac mac Art at the court of the usurper Lugaid; in Britain, it is shown with particular clarity by Geoffrey's Merlin, who spoke before the king with a freedom that the king had never heard before in his life, and which still clearly contrasts with his sycophantic court.  But as the story develops, the moral cowardice of Vortigern's wizards, and Merlin's contrasting defiant honesty, are not clearly connected with the fate of Ronwein in any way.  Even less are they so in Nennius, where Ronwein plays a distinctly reduced part, not even poisoning Vortimer.  Both versions have something in common with the Irish legend: the murderous enmity of Becuma for Art mac Conn corresponds to Geoffrey's Ronwein murdering Vortimer; but the Nennian Vortimer dying in the course of the war rather than at her hand seems close to Art mac Conn dying not at Becuma's hands but in battle against the Britons, beheaded by the exiled hero Lugaid Laga.  It seems that the legend may have contained an alternation from the beginning.

However, this very alternation points to the fact that the corrupting alien woman is directly comparable to the murderous alien host that features in both legends, so that what she does not do, they do.  The royal heir is doomed to die; either at her hands, or at theirs.  Everything points to the corrupting alien women, Ronwein, Becuma, having a profound and essential connection with the devastating alien host.  And this means that the dreaded spell of fairy love is to be seen as one face of the terrors of the Outside, the alien horde as the other.  Where the Outside is not, like Becuma and Ronwein, lethally seductive, it is lethally destructive like the Host; but it is lethal anyway.  The Outside is a place of power and terror.  And therefore Ronwein's direct connection with the dreadful alien Host is very much in keeping with the spirit of this legend; she seduces, they destroy - a most efficient division of labour.

These actually are the two stages of the destruction of a foredoomed king in a number of legends; in particular, the sombre and impressive tale of a later king of Tara, Muirchertach mac Ercae.  He, according to Professor Byrne, was probably unhistorical; the more reason to pay attention (as he does) to the legendary and mythological features in his story.  He is in fact an Ui Neill, a descendant of Conn and Art, and - like Conn and Vortigern - he has a scapegoat quality.  He meets his doom-lover while sitting on his mound, just as Conn meets Becuma; and we are told that she kills him to avenge the aboriginal inhabitants of Tara, slaughtered in the Ui Neill conquest; in other words, Muirchertach is the vessel of wrath for the bloody conquests that established his whole line as high kings of Eriu.  Sin[29] separates him from his family and the Church, and then leaves him, enchanted and exhausted, at the mercy of his avenger.  He may well have taken this scapegoat role, consciously or unconsciously, from what an earlier tradition envisaged for Conn[30].

Both Conn and Vortigern had the rank of insular High King (or Emperor), unique sovereigns above both gwledig and teyrn; and the point of the story is how they came to either lose or endanger near to loss the rank that, after all, pertained not to them alone but to the dynasty.  Therefore the moral corruption brought in by the fairy or alien woman, and swiftly embracing all the court - to the point where the Druids, though they know the truth, no longer dare tell it to the king - is at the very core of the story: for the loss of Truth by the sovereign - shown in the default of its ministers, the Druids - is one and the same with the collapse of his supremacy.  Fir, truth, is the very essence of a king, in every Irish treatise; it can go to war with him and strengthen him in battle, it can make his fields fertile and all he does successful.  This is, I would suggest, because the king himself is married to the land, a relationship which, like all marriages, is based on Truth.  Once Conn marries a woman with untruth in her soul, who has been banished from the Land of Youth because of treachery; once Vortigern marries an alien woman unconnected with “the land he loves” and member of a tribe of exiles (it is a constant and unhistorical feature of the legend that Hengist, Horsa and their people, clearly including Ronwein, had been banished from their mother country) - then both Vortigern and Conn have placed untruth at the very core of their royalty.  And it withers.

It seems very likely, therefore, that at some point Conn was seen not as the great ancestor, but as the near-ruin of the dynasty, precipitating a terrible period of trial.  The difference is that, as recorded history begins, the dynasty that claims descent from Conn and Cormac - the Ui Neill - are very much in the saddle.  Whatever historical upset had taken place, it had been carefully covered over, and the antefact of the war transferred to Munster.  The trace of the origin of the catastrophe in Conn's disastrous infatuation for Becuma is still clearly to be found in the fact that it is entirely thanks to her that Art goes to his last battle without an heir; in other words, without her Mag Mucrama would not be as disastrous as it is, since dynasty and race would not have come near extinction.  She and the Alien Host collaborate in its near-destruction.

The element of threat from the Outside of fairyland is central to the Irish legend, and accounts for many of the elements in which it deviates from the British parallel.  For instance, the enmity between Art and Becuma is not well motivated, since there is no transition from the magic fairy love she is said to have felt for him at the start of the story - not so much to Art's expulsion from the island, which might be a way for a wife committed to her husband to distance herself from her first love, but to the mutual hatred shown in the game of fidchell; a hatred with no visible element of mutual attraction left over, in which each of the two is trying to do the other as much harm as s/he can.  But while the latter is clearly in keeping with the radical enmity between Ronwein and Vortimer, and with the nature of Becuma as a threat and a pollution to the line - whose legitimate succession passes through Art - the former is simply an Irish commonplace, used probably in conscious imitation of the other fairy's wooing of his brother Connla.  We are probably meant to feel enough nervousness about the arrival of this magnificently dangerous alien woman not to question too much the sense of her actions, especially since - in the light of Connla's disappearance - the love of a fairy woman might be held to be quite as dangerous as her hate.

The dynastic crisis does not appear in the same terms in Wales.  There is no such obvious threat to the succession: Vortigern has no less than three possible heirs, Vortimer, Catigern and Pascent[31].  Of them, Catigern vanishes early - not fairy-stolen, but fallen in battle (against the Saxons of Ronwein, though!); but Vortimer is the subject of Ronwein's peculiar hostility.  Unlike his father, Vortimer is a hero to all Welsh traditions, the warrior who would not give an inch against the Saxons, who would fight even after his death.  In his case, it is perfectly clear why Ronwein should be hostile to him; but the parallels between the Irish and Welsh legend warn us that the issue is not only one of national hatred between English and Welsh.  The exile of Art is the only request made by Becuma in exchange for her hand, and is therefore the parallel of the favours made to the Saxons in exchange for Ronwein's hand; namely, their settlement in Britain.  But the issue between Art and Becuma is one of dynastic continuity rather than national survival; and it follows that we should not neglect it when considering Ronwein and Vortimer.  Ronwein and Becuma are flagrantly parallel characters, and their special characteristic is to be bad news to the integrity of the dynasty.  This includes a corrupting effect on the integrity of their royal function, closely related with the corruption of the druids; this is especially evident in the Irish story.

ix)- Ronwein

Ronwein figures, in both Geoffrey and Nennius, as the daughter of Hengist and niece of Horsa, two unquestionably English heroes; yet her origins as a legendary character are evidently not English but Welsh[32].  She is a Celtic figure, the destroyer disastrously embraced, within a context that centres on the dynasty - the British dynasty of the Vortigernids.  And there is one assonance that has haunted me for years, and that looks like it might have something to do with the earliest development of the story - and of another Welsh legend to do with the conquest of the island.  Is it only me, or is Ronwein rather too close for comfort to Rhuuein, Rome[33]?

In point of fact, if Ronwein were seen as in some sense "Roman", it would be quite possible to read the legend of Vortigern as a reversal of the proper relationship of Rome and Britain as we have seen it in Gildas and The dream of Maxen Gwledig: a perverted reversal, I argue, of the norm of male Roman rule over feminine Britain[34], in other words an account of usurpation.  The following points occur:

      In "proper" Gildasian terms, Britain is a land for Romans to rule; and we know that royal rule of this kind would inevitably be seen as the marriage of a male Roman king with a female figure of Britain.  Here, conversely, we have an alien woman whose name is terribly close to that of Rome, marrying a native male British king, in whose name the inferior "native" kingship of the teyrnedd is clear for everyone to see; in other words, an unwonted case of British masculinity marrying Roman femininity.

      In the legend of Maxen Gwledig, Maxen - though king in Rome - comes to Britain and settles there for seven years out of his love for Elen, leading his Roman subjects to think that he is dead, until he comes back to Rome in wrath; in the legends of Conn and Vortigern, it is Becuma and Ronwein who leave their native lands and settle in Britain or Ireland, where their bridegrooms are wildly in love with them, until Becuma at least is forced to leave.

      Conn leaves Ireland once, ultimately on account of his disastrous love for Becuma, handing it over to Art in the presence of a grand national assembly; then he comes back and takes the throne again.  The parallel of Vortigern and Vortimer indicates a rebellion instigated by the Britons, and especially by their lords; but, like Conn, Vortigern comes back and takes his throne again.  Maxen leaves Rome for love of Elen; the Senate - like Vortigern's rebellious Britons - then installs another Emperor; but Maxen comes back to Rome and takes the throne again.  The fact that the Senate is parallel in this with Geoffrey's generic "Britons" and with the grand national assembly of the legend of Conn, confirms that what we are talking about, in both cases, are assemblies of the national nobility[35].

      Maxen comes to Britain to conquer it, and leaves it to conquer Rome (again); Ronwein and Becuma are expelled from their native lands[36], and Becuma at least is also expelled from Ireland.  That is to say, Maxen's reason to enter the island, and to leave it, is one and the same; and so is Becuma's[37]; but while in his case it is to win a throne by means of a marriage with a British princess - and to take back another by means of his alliance with her brothers - in her case both expulsions represent both the break of a marriage alliance and the loss, either of a throne or of an even higher dignity - life among the immortals.  Ronwein, as we have seen, simply vanishes from the scene; which is probably the easiest way out of the narrative difficulties raised by having this arch-criminal simply expelled from the island which her "father" was shortly to conquer - expelled how, who by, where to, and for how long, since Hengist was soon to be king himself? - and indeed to connect Ronwein with Hengist at all.

Of course, Ronwein's association is with the Saxons, not with the Romans; but even this is not without parallel.  The connection between Romans and Saxons is obscure but not nonexistent; as I have pointed out, it is present in Gildas, who draws a number of visible parallel between the description of the two invasions, making his Saxons into an evil (and temporary) caricature of his Romans.  I have argued that the first redaction of the legend of Vortigern, Emrys and the dragons - of which Ronwein must be seen as a part - dates back to the sixth century, and there is no reason not to think that this represents another slant on the same idea.  Ronwein represents a horrible, perverted version of the legendary power called Rhuwein - the power that came to Britain from Outside, established its own monarchy in the island.  Even the fact that Ronwein and her Saxons are pagans[38] is probably germane, since Gildas knew that the Romans were pagans when they conquered Britain.

x)- Legend and history: Art mac Conn and Vortimer

The purpose of having such stories at all is to explain something.  They are not about a cosmic or permanent reality: they do not define any element of the world.  They are about a specific dynasty and a specific point in history.  Both have a considerable amount of contact with historical reality: "Vortigern" and Ambrosius were historical figures, and the house of Niall of the Nine Hostages, with its descent from Conn and Art, certainly represents one of the most massive historical facts in Ireland.  The Welsh legend is built out of real politics, as seen through a sixth-century refracting glass and from a Vortigernid viewpoint; it represents, in effect, an apology for the disaster that had befallen the dynasty in the time of a disastrous ancestor - besotted by a femme fatale with more than a touch of the terror of fate itself about her.  It was not wickedness, but wretched love, that had led him to his disastrous choice.

And this strongly suggests that something of the kind may have been at the heart of the Irish legend before an unknown but brilliant narrative talent decided to rework it against Munster.  Conn, the ancestor of the great Ui Neill tribe who eventually made a near-monopoly of the kingship of Tara, corresponds to the figure of Vortigern; and as the legend is certainly one of guilt and ill-conceived effort in the attempt to shore up a failing kingdom, we can only imagine that Conn's role and fortunes were rather cleaned up.  But the facts suggest that he was once seen not as the forefather of the dynasty's glory, but as its near-ruin.

Perhaps, too, something can be drawn from the notice that his son Art died in a catastrophic battle following an invasion from Britain led by an exile called Lugaid mac Con and a leader from Britain called Beine.  John Morris - whose constant historicization of legendary matter I am for once happy to follow - argued that Beine was not a Welsh or Irish name, but sounded like a Roman Bennus or Benignus[39].  It seems that, at some point, the ancestors of the O'Neils suffered a disastrous reverse, possibly through an alliance between a Roman commander and a rebellious or exiled faction gone down in legend as that of Lugaid mac Con.  We have seen that the story of Connla the fairy-stolen was underlain by a pre-existing notice, probably from a king-list, that made Art an only son, and by the pathos of knowing that he was to die in a great battle.  This notice, which is certainly much older than the story itself, is a reason to suspect that historical data may underlie the legend-cycle, in a frame of interpretative legend.

There is a different strand of evidence that suggests that Conn was a historical figure: the renaming of the province of Connaught.  "The name of the [province] refers primarily to the descendants of Conn... The three septs which claimed descent from Niall's brothers formed the teora Connachta or "three Connachts".  According to tradition, the [province] beyond the Shannon was once known as Coiced Ol nEcmacht, the Fifth of the Fir Ol nEcmacht (or Necmacht), which may conceal the name of the Nagmatae, a tribe which Ptolemy locates in the west of Ireland.  On the other hand, it may be simply a pseudo-antiquarian device to describe the province as it presumably was before the Connachta [as descendants of Conn] had come into existence..."  (Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, 231).  Pseudo-antiquarian devices, however, are as a rule easily detected.  We have often met the fantastic chronological, geographical or dynastic mistakes they tend to produce.  But this one shows no such features.  Nor does it seem to serve anyone’s interests; by the time this bit of lore was written down, there were practically no Connaught houses which did not claim descent from Conn, who was so prestigious that the only advantage to be drawn from pseudo-antiquarian devices was to claim, not to disclaim, him.  And on the other hand, Ptolemy's geography of the British Isles is famously accurate, still used today to describe both Roman and barbarian areas.  Even more important than the correspondence between nagmatae and Fir Ol nEcmacht, is the fact that he knows nothing of any *Connactae; which shows that, in his time, the name had not yet come into being.  At some point in history, dynasties claiming descent from a King Conn achieved such success in north-west Ireland that the area was identified with them, but the process was only completed after the time of Ptolemy's informants.

That there are two separate strands of evidence, together with the political nature of the legends, seem to me enough to accept the historicity of Conn, of Art, and therefore of Mag Mucrama.  And while we have no written or (it seems[40]) archaeological evidence for a Roman raid on Ireland, it is hard to imagine where an invasion of the force and merciless efficiency suggested by the legend would come from, if not from the legions.  The siting of the battle suggests deep penetration: Mag Mucrama is in county Galway.  An invasion from Britain such as the text describes, would have to cross all of Meath.  The legends associate Conn with Tara in every possible way[41], and if his son and heir existed at all, he must have been a king of Meath.  In other words, the picture is that the enemy army had crossed the whole of Art's probable lordship before he gave battle; and the reason why he took so long to do so is sufficiently shown by the fact that he lost and died.  Then the British host installs Lugaid mac Con on the throne of Tara - and vanishes (though a vindictive fantasy has Beine Brit beheaded by Lugaid Laga); just as a Roman army would, after they destroyed a stroppy native king, installed another (perhaps his brother, if that patronymic mac Con means what I suspect!) and sufficiently impressed the terror of the eagles on the natives.

Vortimer, on the other hand, cannot be a historical figure.  His name, unlike Art mac Conn's, is a calque on his father's - which is in turn almost certainly a racial and social insult, and therefore (this is my point) legendary rather than historical.  Art Oenfer mac Conn must certainly have figured in the king-lists and pedigrees as the fallen of Mag Mucrama, and therefore - if we take Conn to be at all historical - he must be historical too: it was the ruin of Mag Mucrama, however we imagine it, that placed them both in an ancient legend of dynastic ruin.  Vortimer’s death before his father, on the other hand, seems a very convenient device to explain why king-lists and pedigrees knew no-one of that name, and traced the line of Vortigern through Pascent or Britu.  Vortimer, according to Rachel Bromwich, is unknown to the gogynfeirdd, the poets that follow on the heroic age of Taliesin, Neirin and Llywarch Hen; he only turns up in narrative legends in which Vortigernid manipulation is more than suspected; and our faith in his historicity is not helped by the fact that two genealogies name him as the father of Madrun - who is none other than the goddess Matrona, patroness of the river Marne and favourite of any amount of legendary lines of descent[42].

And we should remember that these legends are explanations of dynastic disasters.  In Britain, it is the father, Vortigern with whom the dynasty is ruined; in Ireland, it is Art, the son.  The dynastic disaster is consumed at Mag Mucrama, and Mag Mucrama is the affair of Art and of Art alone: Conn is long since dead.  Vortimer, on the other hand, exists purely to clean up the reputation of his line, and is completely untainted by his father's crime or punishment, except to the extent that Ronwein murders him – in other words, that he pays for his father’s disastrous marriage with his life; he is, to that extent, and in a different way from his father, a scapegoat.

The major difference between Art and Vortimer is that Art eventually succeeds his father and suffers, alone, for whatever taint had entered Ireland from Outside in his father's days; while all of Vortimer's life and adventures take place within the frame of his father's lifetime.  This is almost certainly dictated by the fact that the historical "Vortigern" was in fact the only figure directly connected and charged with letting in the Saxons.  The legend of his disastrous love depends on this historical fact; and on the legend of his disastrous love depends, in his entirety, the character of Vortimer, who is wholly defined by his relationship with the two terms of the ruin - Ronwein and the Saxon host - and who exists, therefore, wholly within the framework of the legend.  The admission of the Saxons, with all that it implies, is the affair of Vortigern and of him alone.  On the Irish side, Conn's dark role seems to arise from his having only one son, something which was to prove disastrous at Mag Mucrama, and from that son having no legitimate heir.  The naive moral positivism so often encountered in these legends must have argued that their ill-luck must have some reason.


[26]In the Irish legend, the subtext of the druids' cowardice is resolved by Rigru Rosclethan (who hogs the spotlight away even from her own son): she condemns them to death.  It is also she who demands that Conn banish Becuma, and punishes all Ireland when he refuses to do so; in other words, she is another element linking Becuma with the druids' disastrous failure to tell the truth.

[27]It is also because of unfairly judging in favour of his own queen that the usurper Lugaid falls.  A sheep had unlawfully grazed on the queen's meadows; Lugaid ordered it confiscated, but Cormac said that it sould only be sheared and the wool confiscated, since wool and grass will both grow again.  At this, the wall of Tara fell down because of a wrong judgement, and the people acclaimed Cormac the true king.  We are not told that the woman in question was Lugaid's second wife, or even her name; the whole thing is a very attenuated echo of the poisonous influence of Becuma and Ronwein; but it is still weakness towards his woman that is the king's downfall.  Cormac himself, in the Instructions of Cormac, warns repeatedly and severely against allowing women any influence - AGRATI-MAGINI op.cit. 579-595.

[28]This, I feel sure, is Galfridian.  Geoffrey saw the wizards as nothing more than murderous purveyors of groundless hocus pocus, much as a Victorian colonial official might regard an African witch doctor; and the whole explanation of the story has to do with the fact that they don't know, and that it is only Merlin, the man born from a spirit of the air and therefore endowed with supernatural learning, who does.  This is the twelfth-century version of scientific rationalism; groups of wizards working magic are simply lying fraudsters, but the powers of a spirit of the air are modern, scientific and rational, agreeable to the great increase in learning that was taking place at the time.  Geoffrey delights in whirling his learning before his public: in the extraordinary explanation for Merlin's birth put in Maugantius' mouth, a fifth-century Celtic sage is made to quote Apuleius and Greek cosmology.  To a Celtic pagan, on the other hand, a druid would know by definition; and when he refused to share his knowledge, or misled the king, it was not because he was ignorant, but because he was unwilling.

[29]The similarity of her name with the English for peccatus is purely a happy coincidence (Muirchertach certainly has plenty of sin to pay for); it actually means a winter storm.  Nevertheless, she certainly incarnates the king's guilt and punishment.

[30]The avenger helped by Sin to murder him, Tuathal Maelgarb son of Cormac the one-eyed, bears the name of two of the greatest tribal ancestors, Tuathal Techtmar and Cormac mac Art; could this embody a resentment for an Ui Neill usurpation, not against rulers from other provinces, but against fellow descendants of Cormac, Conn and Tuathal?  Cormac mac Art is actually said to have lost an eye, and to have been driven from Tara in consequence.  MACKILLOP, Dictionary op.cit., s.v. Cormac mac Airt, 93-94

[31]Nennius attributes to him another son, Faustus, the result of his incestuous "marriage" with his daughter.  This, however, is quite different legend - as we will see - edited into the narrative by Nennius himself.

[32]While the names of Hengist and Horsa are perfectly clear English, no attempt to explain Ronwein in terms of English philology has been successful - cf. BROMWICH, Trioedd op.cit., s.v. Ronnwen baganes, 498-99.  Bromwich believed the name to be of Welsh origin, though she had problems finding an exact sense: "White/fair lance", or something derived from Rhawn, "horse-hair".  Interestingly, she pointed out a number of common points with Bronwen daughter of Llyr:"...a curious similarity both in the names and in the stories... both heroines were bestowed in marriage upon the king of a foreign country as pledge for a political alliance which subsequently fell apart.  And both names are applied uniquely to the heroines concerned, and to no other".  The parallel of the "political alliance" is however less strong than she makes it, since the conditions are different - when the "political alliance" fails, Bronwen is subjected to severe humiliation, which never happens to Ronwein that we know of - and since, unlike the feeble Matholwch, driven into outraging his bride by his nobles, Ronwein's Saxons meditate treachery from the beginning.

[33]The name appears first in Geoffrey, where various manuscripts spell it as Renwen, Ronwen, Rowen and Roawen.  A philologist I am not, but it seems to me that the meeting of nasal N and semi-vocal W this suggests is not a million miles away from the meeting of long O and lenited M that turned Latin Roma into Welsh Rhuuein; it sounds as though a nasal infix had been added to the name of the Eternal City.  Cf. BROMWICH loc.cit.

[34] As I pointed out above - bk.6, ch.2 - the legendary Vortigern also shows, in another respect, a puzzling display of normal female roles: “Vortigern, wandering the country until he can find a place to settle, name, and die in, figures as a male version of the largely female name-heroines of Irish and other Celtic traditions, who die somewhere after long wanderings and give their names to the place where they died”.

[35]In the legend of Vortigern and St.Germanus, which we shall examine later, Vortigern is expelled from the throne of Britain by an assembly of clergy and nobility, having tried to deny his incestuous child and pass him off as Germanus'.  This has a number of elements in common with this item: the national assembly: the presence of father and son, in some sort of hostile relationship with each other - cf. the "Britons" expelling Vortigern from the throne in favour of Vortimer; the expulsion of the reigning king because of an unhallowed marriage (with his own daughter), and the exaltation of the son, who is adopted by the great Germanus and becomes a Saint himself.

[36]Nennius and Geoffrey inform us that the first Saxon fleet had been driven from Germany into exile. This is not in keeping either with Gildas' historical account, which assumes close and friendly contact between mainland Saxons and settlers in Britain, or with Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's version of the Hengist legend, which have no mention of exile - or of Ronwein either. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle agree quite simply with Gildas that Vortigern called the Saxons to defend Britain from the Picts, a picture to which any mention of the Saxons being exiled would be irrelevant. On the other hand, the effect of this statement on Ronwein - the person on whom the settlement of the Saxons hinges in both Geoffrey and Nennius - is to make her an exile too.

[37]A certainly related fact is that, within the triad of quests that follows her presence in Ireland, Becuma is the only one not actually forced to leave the island; as long as she is not expelled by force from Ireland - parallel and contrary to Maxen leaving Britain to take back Rome - she clings to the place to the exclusion of the whole Outside to which she belongs.

[38]It is worth noting that the Triad that sums up the tragedy of Vortimer and Vortigern calls Ronwein not Saxon or English, but simply pagan - Ronnwen baganes. BROMWICH, Trioedd op.cit., Triad 37.

[39]GUY DE LA BEDOYÈRE’s Companion to Roman Britain, Stroud, 2000, does not know any Roman political or military leader by these names. On the other hand, mr. de la Bedoyère would be the first to admit that what we do not know of Romano-British history would fill a library.

[40]Confused notices about a Roman legionary camp in Ireland surfaced in The Times - a newspaper with a great enthusiasm for archaeology - some five years ago, but were apparently quickly dismissed as misinterpreting the evidence, and no reputable authority seems to credit them.

[41]Cf. the effective summary in MACKILLOP, Dictionary op.cit., s.v.Conn Cetchathach, 90.

[42]For the points in this paragraph I am indebted to Rachel Bromwich's entry for Gwerthevyr Vendigeit mab Gvrtheyrn Gvrtheneu in her monumental Trioedd Ynis Prydein (Cardiff 1962, 386-88); as ever, she manages to condense practically everything knowable about this hero.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved