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

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Chapter 6.5: Who killed King Vortigern? A historical mystery

Fabio P. Barbieri

The conclusions to be drawn from the previous chapters are as follows: the legend of the two dragons had originally described a conflict between Ambrosius and Vortigern.  It was written, or told, from a Vortigernid perspective.  It was part of a legend cycle which led up to the king’s disastrous marriage with Ronwein, and to the heroism of Vortimer.  It contains a number of evidently pagan Celtic ideas such as the reincarnation of two dragons and the importance and wisdom of druids; but while its basics must have originated in an oral storytelling culture, surely the same kind of story-teller class which gave rise to A; its lost written original was in Latin, written in the sixth century, and comes from the same sophisticated Latin-speaking, Bible-soaked Ambrosian culture as St.Gildas.  In particular, it shows a similar ability to select biblical passages subtly and for effect.  By Nennius' age it was being re-read as representing the conflict of Saxons and Britons, with Vortigern representing the unfortunate and betrayed Britons.

We notice that this leaves no place for the power of the Ambrosiads; which suggests that the house of Ambrosius was by then no longer thought of or considered.  Though Nennius says that Ambrosius gave Pascent his lands, he says nothing of his descendants.  We know from Gildas that Ambrosius had a descent; but even in Gildas' time, the dynasty was decaying (remember his stricture about their falling-off from auita bonitate), and by Nennius' time it seems to have vanished from the earth.  I know of no ninth-century Welsh dynasty claiming descent from Emrys, and Nennius only shows his part in the story of Vortigern.  This is a strong clue that the story was not only originally created, but also preserved, in Vortigernid surroundings, surely by that Vortigernid dynasty in Powys whose pedigree concludes the Vortigern section of Nennius[1].

It is however possible to argue that the elimination of the Ambrosiads from the equation was conscious, calculated, and the work of Nennius himself.  Nennius knew that Ambrosius/Emrys was the supreme king of Britain: he said as much; above all, he knew, and recognized, in the same phrase, that the house of Vortigern only carried on through his liberality.  Ch.48: Pascent, qui regnavit in duobus regionibus Buelt et Guorthegirniaun post mortem patris sui, largiente Ambrosio illi, qui fuit rex inter omnes reges Brittannicae gentis - "Pascent, who was legitimate king in the two regions Builth and Gwrtheyrnion after his father's death, bestowed by that Ambrosius who was king among the kings of the British nation".  (Largiente, from largiri, to bestow generously.)  That illi is especially damning: it means that Nennius is harking back to an already mentioned Ambrosius, that Ambrosius - who can be none other than the boy in ch.42, hailed there by the sovereign title Emreis Guletic.

The legend of the dragons has Ambrosius taking the great fortress from Vortigern, and commanding him to find himself another land; ch.48 shows that the same Ambrosius “bestowed” a new land on Vortigern’s descendants.  In other words, Ambrosius is the ultimate source of entitlements to the land: whether he commands Vortigern to seek other land, thus authorizing him to hold what he finds, or whether he takes upon himself to assign to him or to his descendants (which in the case of a legendary Celtic hero means the same thing) a specific territory at his own discretion; the common element is Ambrosius' ultimate power to dispose of the land.  Vortigernid land-titles descend from Ambrosius' decree - largiente Ambrosio illi.  (In the story of the dragons, the lands in question are not the historic Vortigernid lands, Gwrtheyrnion and Builth, but rather a country ad sinistralem plagam, towards the left-hand, northern, land - neither Builth nor Gwrtheyrnion may be called northern - called not Gwrtheyrnion but Gwynnessi. This discrepancy is yet another strong clue that other very early features are embedded in the story; of course, if the descendants of Vortigern had originally ruled largiente Ambrosio a fief somewhere in the North, that could hardly have survived the rise of Northumbria[2].)

Did Nennius, then, knew that Ambrosius and Vortigern had been enemies?  He never states it for a fact.  However, this is almost certainly not ignorance, but deliberate silence.  He was ignoring the accounts that told the story.

Gildas says nothing of the end of the superbus tyrannus, and, though he implies that it was a result of calling the Saxons, to my mind this raises some ugly conjectures.  These Gildasian silences are rarely casual.  Had Vortigern been killed by the Saxons, or even fled abroad and died in exile, Gildas would have said so: it would have been too obvious a case of God's punishment on usurpers and bad kings, which was, after all, one of his basic themes, and he would not have passed the opportunity to compare the end of the superbus tyrannus to what awaits the five tyranni unless they mend their ways.  But he does not; no, not even by implication.  At least, if there is an implication, it is buried so deep that the closest literary analysis cannot bring it out.  Gildas, while keen to blast the superbus tyrannus with every weapon in his well-stocked rhetorician's armoury, simply does not seem to want to use his personal fate as a moral example to castigate the successors to his title of tyranni.  He strives to rouse anger and contempt, but does not bring that anger and contempt to their logical conclusion - the contemplation of a well-deserved fall.  And I must say that though this is the merest wisp of a hint, no more than silence, it does seem to be one of those rare cases in which an argument from silence may at least be proposed[3].  It feels as though the royal house of Ambrosius, whose honour and legitimacy are of great concern to Gildas, might not have liked to be reminded of the usurper's end.

Nennius, on the other hand, has no less than three separate versions of Vortigern's death.  The first is the most picturesque, a legend of doom and curse, featuring St.Germanus - who is here to be understood as a local Powys saint called Garmon, whose identity with the great bishop has been denied[4]; this is universally recognized as a separate strand in his narrative, which he himself edited into the greater story, and I shall call his source (now lost) the *Gesta Germani.

This is the part that concerns Vortigern.  In a grand assembly of the clergy and laity of Britain, Vortigern accuses the celibate Saint of having impregnated his daughter, presenting a baby as proof: the infant then opens his mouth in the assembly (I don't need to underline the similarities with the various miraculous and truthful youths we already met) and proclaims that he, Vortigern, is the father! - by his own daughter!  Silenced and disgraced, the king is forced out of the assembly; and his silence is answered by a flow of loud sacred speech, as the Saint breaks into preaching, "that he might be converted".  But Vortigern does not: instead, he flees to Gwerthrynion, the land named after him, ut ibi cum uxoribus suis lateret, to hide there with his wives.  The Saint “with all the clergy of Britain", sanctus ...cum omni clero Britanniae (that's a lot of priests!) follow him there and perform an epic feat of prayer, standing on one particular rock (which no doubt used to be pointed out to visitors) for forty nights, and chanting aloud for forty days.

A cynic might say that all that chanting would be enough to drive anyone away from anywhere: and a cynic would be less mistaken than you'd think.  For the point of the story is the triumph of the power of truthful sacred word over concealed evil and deceiving public statements.  Vortigern had hoped to ruin Saint Germanus, as well as to push away the taint of his own crime, with a loud public lie; but the infans whose inarticulacy was to be his instrument had spoken, and silenced him.  Vortigern had then been driven from the assembly - which was a parliament, a place of speaking - and the clergy, possessors of the word of truth, had followed him across the island, never allowing him to get far from the sound of the truth of his misdeeds.  And, by the height of irony, the Saint had in fact adopted the baby, granting him in law the paternity that Vortigern had hoped to push on him by deception, and removing the stain of a most horrible birth both from him and from his family (since from now on he is no longer a member of it).

When forty days and forty nights had elapsed, Vortigern fled from Gwrtheyrnion to a fortress in Dyved, Caer Gwrtheyrn on the river Teifi; the avenging clergy followed him there.  They were no longer chanting; instead, they fasted for three days and three nights - and on the fourth, fire came down from heaven and destroyed him, his wives and his followers.

We already met this story in the chapter on St.Patrick; as we saw, it is part of a larger, unified narrative structure whose elements, from the arrival of the Saint from across the ocean to the defeat of the national king, cannot be separated.  It is also a quite distinct unit within the body of Nennius’ Vortigern legends.  Germanus/Garmon, the doom-bringer who destroys Benlli and his whole royal fortress almost as soon as he appears, only enters Vortigern's life when the wicked king has committed the last and basest of his sins, with his (presumably consenting) daughter[5].  He has nothing to do with Vortigern's dealings with Hengist and Ronwein, and indeed there is a contradictory feel, in that this story suggests that if Vortigern, after his humiliation in the great assembly, had seen fit to repent and set aside his daughter, he could still have been saved - which seems to make nothing of the horrendous crime of inviting the Saxons.

In other words, the fate of the island of Britain as a whole does not seem to weigh greatly on the author of the legend, whose horizon, it becomes clear, is no broader than Powys.  The *Gesta Germani must be understood as a mini-epic of the origin of mediaeval Powys; nothing Germanus does is unrelated to that.  His one notable act before the destruction of Vortigern had been the destruction of Benlli and the promotion of Cadell Ddyrnllug to king of Powys[6].  The fact that he establishes one dynasty, that of Cadell (the servant of Benlli who fled his master's evil and alone survived Benlli's destruction), and purifies another, that of Vortigern, cannot be separated from the fact that both dynasties ruled in Powys in the eighth and ninth centuries, that of Cadell over the whole province, and that of Vortigern over Gwrtheyrnion (which took its name from him) and Buellt (Builth), two tiny mountain areas in its south.  And it follows that the reason why the story makes Vortigern’s incestuous “marriage” his central crime, is that the latter touches the succession to the line of Gwrtheyrnion and Buellt.  Clearly its author was concerned with Vortigern only as the ancestor of local kinglets; the claim to the throne of Britain, though present, is both vague and remote.

Indeed, the moral of the story is that the political situation of eighth-century Powys would last for ever. After Benlli’s destruction, Cadell is promised, in language borrowed from the Psalms, that non deficiet rex de semine tuo in aeternum, there will never fail to be a king of your seed, for ever.  And the rule of the Vortigernids over Builth and especially Gwrtheyrnion is established, if possible, even more firmly than that of the Catellids over greater Powys.  There is a difference between Vortigern in Gwrtheyrnion and Vortigern out of it.  When he flees there, he has already been publicly shamed and deposed from the throne of Britain.  He is still clinging unrepentantly to his sins, embodied in his incestuous "wife": incest, slander of a Saint and royal untruth (we should remember how important truth and True Word were in the Celtic conception of royalty[7]); and still all the priests can do against him is sing.  Only the sound of truth can affect him, and even so, a heroic effort is needed - forty days and forty nights!  But once he is winkled out of his realm, things change fast.  Germanus no longer sings: instead, he fasts.  Nennius says that he fasts causaliter.  John Morris renders this as "to achieve his end": I, though hardly an expert in Dark Age Latin, would rather read it as "in the manner of a plaintiff in a lawsuit, causa" (this presumes a middle form causalis, meaning a party or plaintiff in a causa).  If Morris' reading is correct, then he worked directly to destroy Vortigern with the magic of his fasting, compelling Heaven to act; if I am, then his complaint to the Heavenly Judge brought about the almost unprecedented punishment on a king whose evil had been correspondingly unprecedented.  Either way, his purpose was not, as according to Nennius it had been at the beginning, that Vortigern might be converted; after he had refused to do so and had been correspondingly driven out of the rest of Britain (symbolized by the assembly), he forced him out of the only place in the land where he could not be punished - and then brought down on him the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the fate of Benlli seems a sort of dry run (arguing that Garmon must be understood as knowing exactly what he was doing).

This would seem to suggest that a king in his kingdom cannot be reached by any such causa, even before the throne of God; out of it, even if he has a fortress to defend him, punishment can be inflicted, and inflicted with comparative ease.  Three days of fasting are not on the same level as forty days of chanting and forty nights of standing.  The former could be done by anyone in reasonable health – I have done it myself – while the latter is virtually unimaginable, and an ecclesiastic such as Nennius, familiar with penitential practices and church singing, would understand the difference.  Once their sacred song had driven the villain out of his own place, punishment was within fairly easy reach.

The fate of Benlli, however, warns us that this is an insufficient explanation.  Benlli's fortress, which is as much his personal domain as Gwrtheyrnion is Vortigern's, is destroyed exactly as Vortigern's final refuge is, after he has left Gwrtheyrnion; but Gwrtheyrnion is not destroyed.  Now the parallel with the legend of St.Patrick shows that the fates of Benlli and Cadell are meant to prelude to that of Vortigern: it is Vortigern who is central – the story leads up to him.  It follows that the story actually flatters the Vortigernids with an implicit comparison: Benlli and his mob were destroyed – the line of Vortigern was not.  Its point is therefore to explain and justify the survival of the seed of the most disastrous king in British history: why had not Vortigern and all his house been destroyed by fire from heaven?  Why had they gone on being kings - though admittedly over the narrowest, stoniest, most hopeless tract in Cambria?

The narrative difference between Benlli and Vortigern is that the saint is admitted to Vortigern's parliament; though the king tries to ruin him once he is there, this is different from Benlli's behaviour, and suggests that the mere presence of Germanus is a talisman that will preserve a royal enclosure from complete destruction by fire.  Benlli keeps him out - and fire destroys his fortress and everyone in it (except for Cadell, who had taken himself out of the precinct); Vortigern lets him in - and though he is himself driven out, only the guiltiest die.  Even when he takes refuge in Gwrtheyrnion, Gwrtheyrnion does not suffer.

Story and genealogy suggest another point: Benlli, unlike Vortigern, had no righteous heir.  Only one of Benlli’s servants, Cadell, was deemed good enough to live: clearly, Benlli's whole gens was evil.  On the other hand, Garmon blesses and adopts Vortigern's incestuous son, who grows up to be the saintly fifth-century bishop and writer Faustus of Riez: whatever else this may mean, it is a token that, despite the patriarch's moral character, the family was not wicked.  If a child born out of the worst possible sin was good enough to be adopted by a Saint of such judgement and doom, then the family was fit to live (and rule).

This, indeed, is the point of Vortigern's children in every legend.  Elsewhere we find Vortimer and Catigern, champions of faith and nation; Irish legend offers Art and Cormac as partial parallels - stainless heroes.  And while Geoffrey of Monmouth made Pascent a villain, opposing "Aurelius Ambrosius" by rebellion and treachery, Nennius makes him receive Builth and Gwrtheyrnion largiente Ambrosio, which argues quite a different relationship. The wickedness of the Vortigernids is almost certainly an invention of Geoffrey's, which finds no parallel anywhere.  In fact, none of Geoffrey’s sources seem to have featured a Vortigernid as a criminal: to stick them with the villainous character he wants, he fathers on Pascent the two princes slain by Gildas' Constantine of Dumnonia, making them the villains, and, incredibly, whitewashing Constantine's character!  Apart from anything else, this is a genealogical and chronological enormity - Constantine was Gildas’ contemporary; Pascent(ius) is claimed to have lived in Ambrosius’ time, a full century before.  It is my view that Geoffrey, blatantly influenced by Carolingian legend, wanted an equivalent of the treacherous bloodline of Ganelon, which is wicked root and branch throughout the legends of Charlemagne, Roland and Renaut of Montauban.

On the other hand, the presence of Faustus of Riez in the *Gesta Germani asks the question whether any actual fifth-century data underlie the creation of this story.  This well-known Gaulish bishop was in fact a Briton.  He was surely of very high birth: firstly, because he was not only admitted to, but made abbot of, the aristocratic and highly intellectual monastery of St.Honoratus in Lérins, and secondly, because the learned and well-born bishop Sidonius Apollinaris describes his aged mother with remarkable awe, as a being of very, very high rank.  Now Faustus of Riez lived a generation after Germanus; he was born about 405, entered St.Honoratus' house between 426 and 433, was bishop of Riez by 462, and died some considerable time later[8].

This cluster of historical fifth-century figures does not look coincidental.  Cadell Ddyrnllug may be chronologically out of place, as we will see when we reconstruct the destinies of the Vortigernid dynasty; but Germanus and Vortigern are of the same generation and probably met; and as for Faustus, he was a British aristocrat whose social and intellectual quality means that he must have been known to Vortigern from childhood (never forget how small, at all times, must have been the circle of Educated Britain), and to Germanus, directly or indirectly, at least when he became prominent in Lérins.  Faustus was a generation younger than either – and he is presented as the son of the one and the adopted son of the other!  This sort of chronological precision is not the patrimony of oral tradition, which is quite capable of making a third-century Ermanaric contemporary with a fifth-century Attila and a sixth-century Theodoric of Verona.  And that the house of Vortigern was laying claim to Faustus in the ninth century is remarkable: why would anyone in Wales think of claiming a by now surely fairly obscure late-Roman bishop who received local cult as a saint in south Gaul but whose name lay under a cloud elsewhere because of what was later to be called semi-Pelagianism[9]?

It is also worth pointing out that Faustus' place and mission are misunderstood: the *Gesta Germani make him the founder of Riez (he was not), a big place (it is not) by a river (Riez lies on the tiny stream Colastre, too small to feature on most maps) and apparently completely unaware of his work as reformer, preacher, teacher and controversialist.  Nobody can misunderstand anything unless something exists to be misunderstood; ergo, a statement about Faustus being bishop of Riez pre-existed the *Gesta Germani.

Dumville speaks with unconcealed scorn of Myres' theory that the legend carried over a memory of Saint Germanus’ mission; and yet, why not?  There is nothing to show that whoever wrote the *Gesta Germani was aware of its anti-Pelagian thrust.  To him, he comes exclusively to oppose Benlli and Vortigern.  In fact, the Benlli episode shows him engaged in converting or destroying pagans.  And yet we have seen that the Mild King must have been Ambrosius' father, that he must have been overthrown by the Evil-Starred Tyrant, and that the Evil-Starred Tyrant must have been Vortigern; we have seen that it was against the success of the Pelagian party in Vortigern's reign that Germanus came.  Germanus' anti-Pelagian mission was directly caused by Vortigern's religious policy; but neither Constantius nor Bede[10] could have told the author of the *Gesta Germani so, or given him any reason to make Germanus the avenger of Vortigern, whom Constantius never mentions and whom Bede never connects to the Saint.  It is, I suppose, possible to argue that Germanus was placed into opposition to Vortigern simply because Vortigern was the villain of the age; but it is one of those coincidences that take a lot of believing.  A historical bishop, now turned into an object of legend, is arbitrarily placed, without any knowledge of the events whatever, in opposition to the very man whose policies he must historically have opposed: is this possible?  Is this likely?  And even harder is to believe that a local saint with no connection with either the historical Germanus or the historical Vortigern should be identified with the one and placed into conflict against the other: what are the odds?  I would rather believe that, whether or not Garmon was Germanus, the story had some roots in the historical conflict between the historical Saint and the historical Pelagians whom the King befriended and protected.

Certainly, the parallel between the legends of Patrick and Garmon proves that the bulk of the story of St.Garmon and Vortigern is unhistorical.  But the Patrician story was about historical figures.  Remove the legendary elements, and what have you left?  That Patrick had once been a slave in Ireland; that he had fled his master (since he is now said to want to compensate him with the price of two slaves); that he has come back from Gaul to Ireland to preach the Gospel; that he became (chief) bishop in Ireland; that he lived in the time of king Loegaire; and that Loegaire was a pagan; all undeniable historical facts.

Remove, likewise, all the mythical elements from the story of Vortigern and Germanus, and what do you have?  That Germanus preached in Britain in the time of Vortigern; that there was a mysterious shadow over Vortigern's royalty, implicit in the legend of his incest (violating the Celtic idea of kingship with its duty of a clean home life) and which led to his overthrow; that Faustus of Riez was the son of Vortigern; and that he was adopted by Germanus.  Now the former two points are certainly historical; the third, Faustus being the king's son, is unverifiable but hardly impossible; and the fourth, while unhistorical - we know nothing of any contact between Faustus and Germanus, let alone adoption - involves a certain and inarguable fact: Faustus did go to Gaul - Germanus' country - and had a great career there.

Faustus’ career had certainly been stunning.  Compare it with that of his older contemporary Patrick: both were Britons who went to Gaul to become monks and be consecrated priests, studying under the best masters: Faustus in Lérins, Patrick with Germanus.  But Faustus was Abbot of Lérins in his twenties, Bishop only three years later; and he managed to survive the blight that so often settles on early brilliance, remaining to the end of his days one of the luminaries of the Gallic church.  Patrick, by contrast, remained an obscure presbyter until his forties, and it took him two successive historical accidents – the establishment of an Irish mission for which he was unusually qualified, and the sudden death of its leader – to reach the episcopal grade; and while Faustus had universal esteem and commendation, Patrick seems to have been the subject of obloquy and defamation.  It is, then, not only our own impression, but a verifiable fact, that Faustus’ ecclesiastical career was of extraordinary brilliance.  This would explain his fellow-Britons placing him on the level of Germanus; and this suggests that the legend may have incorporated aspects of real history, including a contemporary British reaction to the career of Faustus, Abbot and Bishop.

If the story of Faustus’ adoption had its roots in actual memories of his British birth, it would show a neat symmetry.  The only common ground between the historical Germanus of Prosper and Constantius, and the legendary Garmon of Powys legend, is that both came to Britain from Gaul to set it in order; but so too did Faustus, a generation later, go to Gaul from Britain - and he was well known as a reforming bishop.  The point of view this suggests is indubitably British rather than Gaulish.  Given the relative roles of Germanus and Faustus, only a fool or a Briton could have suggested that the activities of the two were equivalent; despite Faustus’ reputation in his lifetime, Germanus was much greater, and nothing that Faustus did compared to the rescue of Catholicism in Britain.  The parallel suggests a provincial, insular perspective on larger church matters, in which the fact that a Briton had actually gone to Gaul and been highly successful there was worthy of commemoration and celebration - as if someone had blessed his endeavours.  But it is not too great a leap for someone who was aware of his success in Gaul, which is a historical fact, to assume that at some point in his youth, and just before he left Britain for ever, he had been blessed in some fashion by Britain's illustrious, miracle-working visitor, Germanus.

The conflict between saint and king was a central mythological feature which the legend of Germanus shares with that of Patrick.  Yet there is good reason to suspect such a conflict in Britain, at least to the extent that Vortigern sympathized with Germanus' Pelagian opponents; and in Ireland, at least to the extent that St.Patrick took residence among the king of Tara's Ulster enemies.  Both legends therefore rest to some considerable extent on fifth-century fact.  Their common plot was applied to real historical figures: Benlli, Dichu and Miliucc may be dubious or wholly legendary, but Patrick and Loegaire, Germanus, Vortigern, Cadell and Faustus are all historical figures who (with the probable exception of Cadell) were contemporaries.  It follows that we should not deny the possibility, at least, that the Nennian legend of Germanus may have the same kind of relationship with historical fact as the legend of Patrick and Loegaire: to the contrary, the weight of the evidence, such as it is, is in its favour.

Its function, we have seen, is to account for the political landscape of eighth-century Powys (even the island-wide significance of Vortigern's crimes and downfall has been replaced by local concerns); the ideas that underlie it are immemorial and Celtic; and there is some ground to suspect that certain fifth-century facts, especially the relationship of Germanus, "Vortigern" and Faustus of Riez, may be woven in it.  We may add that there is an obvious ecclesiastical tinge, not only in its promotion of ecclesiastical heroes (Saints) such as Germanus and Faustus, but also in its commitment to the power of the True (Sacred) Word, and its complete lack of interest in aristocratic values.  Now Wales was always a literate society, carrying over from Roman times not only a tradition of written learning, but actual institutions such as monasteries and bishoprics, and objects such as manuscripts; and it is in ecclesiastical circles, such as preserved the thread of literacy and learning, that the *Gesta Germani indubitably originate.

The thread is of course thin: nothing escaped the rise of England, save remote and mountainous areas, where Roman, Christian, even Gildasian culture, was always thinnest on the ground.  The sixth-century catastrophe must have wiped out most of Britain’s centres of Christian learning.  It was reconstructed largely in the shadow of a lay highland culture, largely discontinuous with the ecclesiastical Gildasian-age Latin civilization; the difference is clear to whoever reads, in succession, Gildas’ work and the poems of the historical Taliesin.  The influence of highland Celtic ideas on the monasteries seems to have been pretty much one-way, with each new wave of Celticism distancing the church structure more and more from its common Latin past and taking it further along a still Christian, but highly eccentric path.  And the reason has to be the socio-cultural position of the monastic class, a mandarin group cultivating a language (Latin) and skills (Latin writing) quite alien to the broader society in which it lived, but which was nevertheless not self-perpetuating, and had to rely for its physical continuation on constant recruiting among the laity.  Each new wave of recruits would come carrying, consciously or unconsciously, the burden of its ideology and life experience; while the Latin Christian heritage, by contrast, was to some considerable extent petrified, largely extraneous to the lay Celtic world outside.  Each new generation would perceive it only through extraneous native categories learned at their mother’s knee.

The influence of the aristocratic Celtic/Welsh laity on the British/Welsh church seems to me fundamental and unarguable.  I would say, under correction, that what can be described as an aristocracy, owning the attitudes and claims of a noble class, was numerically quite a large part of Welsh society.  Because of the country's political fragmentation and the close connection of large family networks, there must have been plenty of poor enough fellows, with barely enough to keep a cow, who were not only ready to identify with the claims of some second or third cousin who was - or claimed to be - lord of a cantref, but were allowed to do so.  That is to say, there would be far less opportunity for specifically peasant or bourgeois viewpoints to develop, since a good deal of people whom we would see as purely peasant, and poor peasant at that, would regard themselves as part of a kingly group.  They might share in common activities, as certainly in the occasional raiding; they might be present when bards praised the generosity of their more powerful relatives; and from such contact they would certainly absorb a largely aristocratic mentality, however reduced by circumstances.  If such men entered the cloister, the mental background they took to it would be hardly less aristocratic than that of an heir of Gwynedd or Ceredigion.

The active force in the development of Welsh monasteries, therefore, was to an extremely large extent the world of outside, lay, aristocratic ideas.  Religion was perceived largely in terms of power, and the religious were part of a very rank-conscious, caste-ridden society, chronically unstable, shaken by feuds and English meddling, and remarkably inward-looking.  Those of the laity which joined monastic establishments expected to be a part not so much of a brotherhood dedicated to apostolate, sacraments and charity, as to a mandarin caste of educated people of the same kind as the highly structured and self-conscious class of Welsh poets, only dedicated to religious rather than worldly learning.  Mediaeval Welsh writing shows evidence of mutual jealousy between monks and poets, the poets speaking of “monks howling like a dog pack” and being in turn described as abusing their gifts and reviling Christ and the Virgin.

Nevertheless, we cannot speak as though there was no continuity whatever; it is perfectly possible that some basic data had survived in Cambrian monasteries, to be misread, misinterpreted, and woven into much later pseudo-historical schemes, by a culture that had developed along completely different lines in its mountain fastnesses.  Monastic libraries would not be particularly concerned with preserving history, so much as religious writing; but Professor Wendy Davies' close analysis of the charters of the Book of Llandaff has shown the survival of vast amounts of data, however corrupt, that goes right back, beyond the Welsh dark ages, even to the time of Gildas.  And if one monastery had such things, why not others?  Of course, the Book of Llandaff as a whole is a barbaric document - this said not as a negative, but as a descriptive term.  The synthesis achieved in Welsh monasteries, as we see it in much of Nennius and in the truly barbaric Welsh tradition of hagiography – something which has no exact parallel anywhere else, even in Ireland – was not even with Gildasian culture, but with an uprooted, localized, and somewhat tribalized Christianity and a thoroughly tribal society, speaking not Latin but Welsh.  The differences with the culture of Gildas, let alone his standard of Latin, are glaring.

What I am saying, therefore, is that generations of monks brought up in the essentially tribal mentality of Welsh society will have approached such Roman and Gildasian relics as they had from a largely alien framework, with no real cultural continuity.  We can be certain that it was from such a mentality, among the royal house of Builth and Gwrtheyrnion, that Nennius, with his peculiar view of history, came; and before Nennius, came the author of the *Gesta Germani.  It follows that there is no contradiction between saying that the story and political picture of such a product of Highland Welsh monastic activity as the *Gesta Germani are entirely eighth- or ninth-century; and saying that we may find, embedded within it, useful and much earlier historical information, which has been misunderstood at the source.

Of course, such things must be suggested with extreme care; though I argued for similar historical processes in the chapter on St.Patrick, “entities are not to be feigned without necessity”.  Within clearly legendary and anachronistic frameworks, the survival of scraps of history, over centuries and across cultural borders, is only to be suggested for very good reason.  But in the legends of Patrick and Germanus, we know on other grounds that historical features exist: that such people as Patrick and Germanus did come from across the sea and preach Catholic Christianity, against the wishes of Pagan or Pelagian ruling classes.  What I argue is that some Powys ecclesiastic concerned with Vortigern and his line, almost certainly from Buelt or Gwrtheyrnion, worked the elements of a written notice about the opposition between Vortigern and Germanus, whose context he did not understand, into the framework of an immemorial Celtic legend of the clash between an ancestral king and a heroic founding holy man, and into the categories of eighth-century Powys politics that made sense to him.  This was the world he lived in, the world he knew, and therefore any reference from the past to rivalries between the royal ancestor and a great bishop, or to the connection with another bishop in Riez, could only be interpreted in its light.

Every scholar recognizes that the story of Germanus is a self-enclosed unit within Nennius. It is not to be treated as a part of a larger Vortigern cycle (though Nennius did his best), but as an alternative account, whose interests and development were wholly different.  But though it is about the origin of Powys, it includes ideas about Vortigern and the Vortigernids that are also found in earlier and broader-sighted legends.  It is not his role as king that keeps Vortigern safe in his kingdom, but the goodness of his family: and this reminds us immediately of the heroic Vortimer/Gwerthevyr the Blessed, whose very bones might have saved Britain, had not his followers disobeyed him.  Both legends end up flattering the Vortigernid line even as they execrate the ancestor.

Now even in Nennius' unadorned Latin, this account of Vortigern's end is fine, dramatic stuff, with a strong development and a clear message.  The same power - the clergy of Britain's prayers - that could have saved the evil king, had he seen fit to repent, becomes the power that destroys him when he stubbornly refuses.  Yet, Nennius himself does not credit it more than so much.  He gives two other versions: in one, Vortigern simply wanders away, deserted by everyone, until he dies of heartbreak; in the other, the earth opens up amidst a storm of fire and devours him and everyone in his fortress, so that no trace of them is ever found.  We notice with interest that of these three death stories, two involve fire as an agent of vengeance.  But all that can be said from these accounts, all that Nennius would tell us, is: he died, no-one quite knows how.

In keeping with his supremely confident and straightforward manner – the stock-in-trade of a truly great hoaxer – Geoffrey, who never admits alternative accounts or elements of doubt and obscurity, has only one version of Vortigern’s end, told with typical vigour and brilliance... and yet, he may well be far closer to historical truth than anyone would expect of him.  What does the main Nennian version say? - that Vortigern was pursued across country by a posse of praying British clergymen led by the outstanding figure of Saint Germanus, come from the Continent to set things right in Britain, till he took refuge in a fortress built ad hoc to escape his pursuers, and was destroyed by fire.  What does Geoffrey say?  That Vortigern fled across country, pursued by a large British host led by an outstanding figure come from the Continent to set things right in Britain, to an impregnable fortress built in the expectation of his pursuers, and was destroyed by fire.  But it was not God, St.Germanus and the clergy of Britain, who pursued and destroyed him - it was Ambrosius Aurelianus (whose Galfridian name is Aurelius Ambrosius), returned from exile with a small army of Armorican Britons quickly swelled by a floodtide of British volunteers.

And this leads us to the fascinating and disturbing point that all the strands of evidence we have state very definitely that Vortigern lost his sovereignty not to the Saxons, but to Emrys/Ambrosius, with whom he had a family feud.  Geoffrey describes Vortigern’s overthrow and killing; the legend of the dragons, both in Nennius and in Geoffrey’s version, make the houses of Ambrosius and Vortigern enemies down the ages, and attribute to Ambrosius the final victory; Nennius admits that the descendants of Vortigern only got lands by Ambrosius’ grace; and Gildas refuses to speak of the relationship between Ambrosiads and Vortigernids, not even saying who it was, exactly, who overthrew Ambrosius’ father - but at the same time he lambasts the political stupidity and blindness of the superbus infaustus tyrannus, for all the world as though he were dealing with today’s news rather than with events over a century old.  The only exception is Nennius’ legend of St.Germanus, where it is the Saint who is the avenger of Vortigern; and that seems to have been calqued on the account of Ambrosius coming from the Continent to sort matters out in Britain, later used by Geoffrey.

Germanus was not the only ancient hero to receive a legend calqued on that of Ambrosius.  As we have seen, the Constantine of Geoffrey also was largely a doublet of his supposed son.  And if two such major figures as Constantine and Germanus, one the establisher of the British crown after the end of Roman power, the other the protagonist of the legend of the coming of the Sacred, both received (from flagrantly different sources) legends partly imitated from that of Ambrosius, it must follow that this legend – including its story of revenge against Vortigern – was famous and important.

Part 2


[1]Ambrosius survived in Welsh folklore as long as it existed. He was called Emrys ben-aur, Ambrosius the golden-headed, or Brenhin Emrys y bunran, King Ambrosius of the five parts. The form of this title is modern: brenhin, I argued, was the title brought into Wales by the Cuneddan dynasty, had replacing gwledig as the general word for high or full king, high sovereign. Nevertheless one would love to know more about those "five parts", which may perhaps be the four Britanniae plus Armorica. P.C.BARTRUM, Dictionary op.cit., 249.

[2]Nennius has two different fortresses named Caer Gwrtheyrn: in ch.42 (the legend of the dragons) the fortress built by Vortigern in Gwynessi once he is turned out of the great fortress; in 47 (the *Gesta Germani) his last redoubt on the banks of the Teifi in Dyved, which God destroys with fire. In one of the Cambridge group of manuscripts (page 186 of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica version of the Historia Brittonum) the Caer Gwrtheyrn of Ch.42 is located at Guasmoric, which is identified with the Roman station and 150-acre inclosure called Old Carlisle, a mile south of Wigton on the little Roman road from Carlisle to Cockermouth (a site easily located on a modern map). This locates Gwynessi and the Vortigernids in or near Carlisle. The area is usually assigned to Urien's kingdom of Rheged, but, in my view, quite erroneously (see Appendix VII). A more serious difficulty is that the famous battle of Armderydd was probably fought in Cumbria, at the Knows of Arthuret, and yet no discernible Vortigernid prince features among its known protagonists - is it likely that a family ruling in or near the battlefield should not be involved? The authorities are in P.C.BARTRUM, A Welsh classical dictionary, Aberystwyth 1993, p.249ff.

[3]As opposed, for instance, to E.A.Thompson's contention that, because Constantius - writing fifty years after the fact and in greatly changed circumstances - is not very clear about British politics and makes no mention of cities, therefore British politics fifty years earlier were greatly different from continental Roman ones, and cities were irrelevant. Incredible that a historian of such quality should deliver such a non sequitur; all that it proves is that Constantius, aging and ill, had no idea of the facts fifty years earlier. I have just recently come across a case in which an Englishwoman trying to reconstruct the life history of her mother - who had been at one point in her life a friend of the legendary Italian royal, the Duke of Aosta - made some glaring errors of fact, quite simply because, like Constantius reconstructing the life of his hero, she had no direct knowledge or very clear idea of the political history of a foreign country fifty years before she wrote. E.A.THOMPSON, St.Germanus of Auxerre and the end of Roman Britain, Woodbridge 1984; DIANA PETRE, The secret garden of Roger Ackerley, London 1987.

[4]Melville Richards, quoted by R.W.D.Fenn, Who was Saint Harmon?, in Transactions of the Radnorshire Society 36 (1966), 50-55, esp. p.55, n.15; I.M.Richards, Places and Persons of the early Welsh Church, in Welsh History Review 5 (1970/1), 333/49, esp. 338, 345; Both quoted by Dumville, The historical value of the Historia Brittonum, in Arthurian Sources 6(1986), 1-27, esp.12. Dumville's views of Garmon and Vortigern, criticized below, are on the same page.

[5]attitude worth comparing to that of his counterpart Patrick, who, even in his legendary An version, is more clement and forgiving, horrified at Miliucc's suicide and refusing to take Loegaire's life even though he could. This should warn us that, even where stories are parallel, this does not make their characters similarly parallel, especially in Celtic ecclesiastical legends, where stories migrated much faster than people. The tale of a priest falsely accused of fathering a baby and the baby miraculously revealing its real father, was told not only of Germanus/Garmon, but also of Brigit and of Ninian; but each of them behaved according to their legendary character, and only Garmon punished the offender so totally.

[6]One would say: to king of Powys in Benlli's place; but the story, in fact, does not say that. Even though Powys dominates its geography, it is not said that it pre-existed Cadell. This may mean that, as late as the eighth century, Cadell was remembered not only as the founder of the dynasty, but of the kingdom itself.

[7]Cf. for instance Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, London 1973, 24-29.

[8]Sidonius, bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, corresponded with Faustus, as he did with most notable people in Gaul in his time, and wrote a poem in which he treated Faustus' mother as the equal of the great Biblical mothers of heroes, Hanna (the mother of Samuel the priest) and even Rebecca, wife of the patriarch Isaac and mother of Jacob! A woman who could draw this sort of comparison, and lead the high-born and highly respected bishop to say that he felt shy and self-conscious in her presence, must have been something out of the ordinary even for a fifth-century Senatorial aristocrat. HANSON, St.Patrick op.cit., 63 and note.

[9]Contemporary criticism, even by quite orthodox scholars, has re-evaluated Faustus. Certainly he tried to write his way around and against some of St.Augustine’s predestinarian theses; but where he did so, our sympathy is more with him than otherwise, given the progeny of horrors generated by interpretations of Augustine which were compatible with positions he actually took. Augustine was certainly a giant, one of the eight original Doctors of the Church, a great and beloved writer, noble in thought and expression, and his opposition to Pelagius was sacrosanct; but orthodoxy does not have to depend on him, and he was as prone to being mistaken and as capable of falling victim to hobby-horses as any other genius and any other Saint. Cf.THOMAS A.SMITH, De Gratia: Faustus of Riez’s treatise and its place in the history of theology, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1990. Monsignor Knox, no wild-eyed reformer and no theological ignoramus, filled me with delight when he said [Salvation outside the Church, in In Soft Garments, London 1942, p.133] that "Dante is so anxious not to put Virgil in Heaven that he gave him a rather untheologically comfortable residence in Hell. But I think all that came from paying too much attention to St.Augustine". How liberating to realize that there can be such a thing as "paying too much attention to St.Augustine": in our respect for this giant, we do from time to time risk idolatry.

[10]Dumville falls below his usual high standards in his dismissal of any historical background to the encounter of Vortigern and Germanus: "Our author" [i.e. the man I call Nennius] "was a reader of Bede and knew that St.Germanus of Auxerre was on the loose in Britain at approximately the right time." Nennius certainly was a reader of Bede, but we have no evidence whatever that the author of the *Gesta Germani was, and plenty of reasons not to think so. Bede only mentions Vortigern as the man who called in the Saxons and never brings him into contact with Germanus, who is only the enemy of unnamed Pelagians; in the *Gesta Germani, there are no Saxons and no Pelagians, but British pagans (unknown to Bede) and an incestuous wedding. There is no reason whatever to believe that anything in the *Gesta Germani depended on Bede, even granting that it was written later than him - which is by no means certain.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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