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

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.6

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Chapter 6.6: Geoffrey and the legends of Vortigern and of Guithelinus

Fabio P. Barbieri

Geoffrey deviated from both the Nennian passages relevant to the feud. He had Merlin rather than Ambrosius as the wondrous youth in the tale of the dragons and he said absolutely nothing of a mysterious event mentioned in the concluding chapter of Nennius’ history of Britain proper, chapter 66: the Cathgwaloph. And while his replacement of Ambrosius with Merlin is not a misunderstanding, but - as I will show in Appendix VI - the result of a choice between two incompatible accounts (and he chose well; his account of Ambrosius destroying Vortigern must be, at least, significantly closer to historical reality than the alternative notion of Vortigern peaceably abandoning his royal tower to him), his ignoring the Cathgwaloph, the one traditional account mentioned by Nennius that looks as if it had to do with the rivalry, was not a choice. He knew, it can be shown, nothing about it.

Nennius' chapter 66 contains a summary of his chronological computations, with what he regarded as a definitive sequence establishing solid historical dates for British and world history - a matter close to his heart[1]. Among the landmarks - Augustus’ victory at Actium, the coming of the Saxons - is a lost legend, dated to “the twelfth year of Vortigern’s rule” – “the discord of Guitolinus and Ambrosius... that is the Cathgwaloph", completing his picture of Britain and the world. That is, he sees it as an event as important, as decisive, as history-making as the foundation of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Saxons.

He gives the event both a Latin and a Welsh name: discordiam Guitolini et Ambrosii... quod est Guoloppum, id est Catguoloph. This is his standard procedure when bringing in a person, episode or battle which he expected his audience to know by a Welsh name. Ipse est Catell Durnluc, “the same man was Cadell Ddyrnlug” (ch.35); -"Ambrosius vocor", id est Embris Guletic ipse videbatur"("I am called Ambrosius; that is, he turned out to be none other than Emrys Gwledig himself"; ch.42); [Arthuri] septimum fuit bellum in silva Celidonis, id est Cat Coit Celidon ("the seventh of [Arthur's] battles was in the forest of Caledonia, and that is Cat Coed Celyddon"; ch.57); a tempore istius belli vocatur Gueith Lin Garan ("from the time of this battle, it is called Gweith Llyn Garan"); et Penda distribuit ea regibus Brittonum, id est Atbret Iudaeu ("and Penda distributed these things to the kings of the British, that is Atbret Iudaeu"). It follows that the Cathgwaloph was as famous and proverbial as these famous episodes.

The narrative, whether oral or written, existed in Welsh first, and was later translated into Latin. This is proved by the fact that the name of Ambrosius' enemy Guitolinus is a Welsh form of an originally Latin name, Vitalinus, Latinized back uncomprehendingly. (And the Latin place-name Guoloppum also sounds suspiciously like a transliteration from Welsh.) That is, the Latin name Vitalinus developped into Gwythelyn in Welsh and was not rendered back into Latin until the original had been forgotten; while it was never forgotten that Emrys was Ambrosius. Nennius knew it: “Ambrosius vocor”, id est Embreis Guletic ipse videbatur. It was understood that he was the same person as Gildas praised so highly; but his heroic deeds at the Cathgwaloph, whatever they were, were sung only in Welsh, long enough for his enemy's original Roman name to be forgotten.

Now the name Vitalinus (Gwythelyn) turns up in close connection with Vortigern. Nennius gives a Vortigernid genealogy: Fernmail son of Teudebir, son of Pascent (II), son of Guoidcant, son of Moriud, son of Eldat, son of Edoc, son of Paul, son of Mepurit, son of Briacat, son of Pascent (I), son of Vortigern, son of Guitaul (Vitalis) son of Guitolinus (Vitalinus), one of four "sons of Gloyw", Bonus, Paulus, "Mauron" (Maurus? Mauricius?) and Guitolinus, who are said to have founded the city of Gloucester (Caer Gloyw). Between the Roman names Pascent (Pascentius)[2] and Gwytawl (Vitalis, a popular late-Roman name), the Celtic Vortigern sounds like an intermission; as we should expect if, as I have argued all along, Vortigern were not the man’s real name but a later insult with racial connotations. Vortigern is the son of Vitalis son of Vitalinus; that is, Guitolin-Vitalinus is a Vortigernid family name, and according to frequent contemporary Roman usage, one would expect the son and grandson of these gentlemen to carry a related name, perhaps even that of his grandfather (cf. Constantinus, Constans and Constantius, sons of Constantinus - the Great - son of Constantius Chlorus). This is perhaps one reason why the derogatory nickname provided by the enemies of his dynasty and beginning in V, stuck[3].

The Guitolin-Vitalinus who was Vortigern’s grandfather was one of four brothers with good late-Roman names, Paul, "Mauron", Bonus and Guitolin. Gloucester was, of course, considerably older, but the fact that they are identified as sons of its founder means that they were identified with the lordship of the city, and the fact that they do not bear tribal names, but ordinary Roman ones, suggests that we are not speaking about legendary tribal ancestors, but about real people, only later identified as tribal founders, "sons of Gloyw". The names Bonus and Vitalinus both turn up in late-Roman British contexts; Bonus is the man whom Ausonius tried to castigate in that galumphing piece of failed satire I castigated earlier, and a Coimagnas son of Vitalinus turns up in a Pelagian-type ogham in co.Kerry - obviously a British Latin name taken to Ireland, probably in the wake of the Pelagian emigration.

Gwaloph, the site of the cath or battle (some discordia this must have been!) may be a real geographical site, the Wallops[4] in Hampshire, a strategic valley along the Roman road between Salisbury and Silchester, in the shadow of the mighty earthwork called Danebury, within nine miles' distance from Amesbury, ten from Salisbury, thirteen from the great Roman and medieval centre of Winchester, and no more than six from Andover, whose Celtic name alone would prove its importance in a traditional Celtic geography, possibly pre-Roman, or possibly Gildasian[5]. There is something that stimulates the imagination about the presence of so many Roman sites and roads, so close to the place where the Cathgwaloph might have taken place: in particular, of "the fortress of Ambrosius" Amesbury, whose name means the same as Dinas Emrys. Amesbury features prominently in Geoffrey’s account of Ambrosius. It seems quite a suitable spot for a decisive clash between Romans; or a suitable spot to imagine one, if you know the area and are familiar with the concentration of important Roman and pre-Roman spots... which Nennius and Geoffrey certainly were not[6].

We can safely say that there were two traditions, perhaps two separate developments from a lost original: one that said that Ambrosius avenged the usurpation of his family’s throne on Vortigern by burning him to death in a house or fortress; the other, that Ambrosius had a violent clash, a battle (cath), with someone called Vitalinus, in a place called Gwaloph. They were both regarded as hugely important: Nennius regarded the Cathgualoph as comparable to the coming of the Saxons in importance, and the account of Ambrosius coming from the Continent to set matters right in Britain and burning the usurper in his tower became the model for the legend of two other national founding figures, Constantine II(I) and Germanus. In both cases, we have come to postulate the existence of skeletal data about the existence, age and role of these heroes, accompanied by no narrative account; in both cases, the story of Ambrosius was used as a template for theirs, as if it came natural for Dark Age British storytellers and historians to imagine a rescuer and re-founder of British institutions, whether temporal or sacred, as a doublet of Ambrosius.

The evidence that Geoffrey knew nothing of the Cathgwaloph is that, while the name Vitalinus belongs either to Vortigern himself or at least to his family, in Geoffrey’s work Guitolin-Vitalinus is none other than Guithelinus, archbishop of London, a friend and ally of his version of the Ambrosiad dynasty. He summons their founder Constantine from Brittany (and is dead before Ambrosius becomes a factor); but, to Nennius, Guidolinus was an enemy of Ambrosius.

Whatever else this may show, it shows that the notion that Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern were the protagonists of a blood feud did not reach Geoffrey by way of Nennius ch.66, much less of the Cath Gwaloph; and that Geoffrey is quite unaware that "Guithelinus" and Vortigern were, in all likelihood, one and the same person. He did not learn of the Vortigern-Ambrosius blood feud from Nennius, nor from his sources; on the other hand, the *Gesta Germani, which he did not use, looks as if it was somehow derived from a source which also contributed to Geoffrey's account the notion of a great personage come from overseas to set matters right in Britain and destroy Vortigern, the pursuit across country by an avenging host, and the final destruction by fire of Vortigern’s last redoubt[7]. In other words, the tradition of Vortigern and Ambrosius’ blood-feud was ancient and widespread enough to have taken many shapes and passed through many hands.

But the identity of Archbishop Guithelinus, and his relationship with Vortigern, are not really so mysterious as they seem. They are a part of the legend in which a few surviving historical items about the British usurper Constantine III and his son Constans (the one who shocked Orosius by renouncing his monastic vows to become his father's Caesar and gather armies for him) have been woven into a wholly fictional account of the origin of the independent British monarchy. As we have seen earlier, the historical items in this legend include the names of Constantine and Constans, the fact that they were father and son, the fact that Constans was a monk who had shamefully broken his vows to become a sovereign and his father's heir, the fact that both died violent deaths, and the fact that Constantine and Constans represent in some fashion the end of the Roman period of British history. Constantine is regarded as the first Rex Britanniae after the end of Roman power, and Constans as his successor. The rest of their adventures are legendary.

Sent to Britain by his brother Aldroenus king of Armorica in response to Archbishop Guithelinus' urgent demand for help, the young Constantine proves a great war-leader, leading the desperate and leaderless British to victory against Pictish invaders. Young and unmarried at the start of his great adventure (the historical Constantine III was old enough to have an adult son) to suit his role as founder of a dynasty - youth agrees with the notion of beginnings, of starting things up - he marries a ward of Archbishop Guithelinus as part of his process of establishing (or, to Geoffrey, re-establishing) the kingdom of Britain, and has three sons, the teen-age monk Constans and the babies Ambrosius and Uther (the father of King Arthur). Murdered by a Pict after a reign long enough for his elder son Constans to be in his teens, he is scandalously succeeded at Vortigern's instigation by the boy monk Constans, who reigns (in name only) till it suits Vortigern to suborn his murder. Vortigern forced his coronation, even taking himself the role of a bishop in his consecration, thus insuring that Britain would be ruled by a cloister-trained incompetent whom he could dominate. He then induced Constans' Pictish bodyguards to murder him, and took the throne, while Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were smuggled to Brittany. His rule was disastrous, and the Saxons reduced him to their puppet ruler, until a grown-up Ambrosius came back from exile and, leading a host of Armorican soldiers and rebellious Britons, surrounded Vortigern in an impregnable fortress and burned it down. The crown then reverted to the rightful heirs, Ambrosius and Uther ruling in turn, and a teen-aged Arthur then took over with none of the complications of later Arthurian romance.

The legend, I have argued, must have been built on a few skeletal written historical data, misunderstood at the source and placed within a contemporary framework. A hilarious demonstration of how easy it was to scramble such data, even with unimpeachable sources, can be found in the Penguin Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks, whose chapter on the Vandals' rule in North Africa is absolutely pock-marked with corrective footnotes. "Trasamund died, and so finished his maltreatment of God's elect. Huneric became King of the Africans [footnote: Huneric preceded Trasamund]... Huneric... tore himself to pieces with his own teeth and ended his unworthy life in this torment which was a befitting death. Childeric succeeded him. When he died, Geilamir became King. [footnote: Huneric died in AD 484; Childeric became King of the Vandals in 523 only; Geilamir deposed Childeric in 530]". How did this festival of chronological inaccuracy happen? Quite simply, because Gregory's source was an account of the sufferings of persecuted Catholics under a century of Arian Vandalic rule, never intended to be a history of the Vandalic kingdom, and such data as were embedded in it were incidental to the story it told. This does not impugn its historical value, but shows how even perfectly reliable documents - reliable, that is, for what they are - may innocently give rise to major misunderstandings when they are the only documents to survive from a given period, and when they are not cast in a solid and well-researched chronological form. Certainly anyone who tried to reconstruct the history of the Vandalic kingdom from Gregory would be in trouble.

There is no reason why whoever invented the House of Constantine, whether Geoffrey himself or an otherwise unknown Welsh historian or storyteller, should not have suffered a similar problem with basically historical material. That someone like Constans was remembered at all, and remembered as what he was, a monk persuaded to turn Caesar to the scandal of his fellow ecclesiastics, shows that there were accounts of him and his father in existence, for the systematizers to bring together in the first place.

That, however, is as much as we can suggest. Nobody, much less the historical “Vortigern”, can have had the role of mentor of the historical Constans which Vortigern has in Geoffrey; for that matter, Vortigern-Vitalinus took the throne seventeen or eighteen years after the fall of Constantine III, and may then have been quite a young man, since, as we have seen, there is reason to believe that he lived on - under Saxon control - to be murdered at the start of Ambrosius' revolt, which took place certainly after 452 and before 468. That he had a position of moral, let alone spiritual, authority, so much earlier, is almost impossible.

This tells us that the author of this particular fiction had no idea of British fifth-century chronology. If the story of the Ambrosius-Vortigern blood feud was as widespread as we saw reason to believe, he must have known of it (even supposing, which is overwhelmingly unlikely, that a version of Vortigern's death at Ambrosius' hands did not in fact form the climax of his narrative), but he cannot have realized that it was resolved at last half a century after the fall of Constantine and Constans. He saw all the major figures of the fifth century as part of one picture of grandeur, treachery and misery.

By the same token, his family relationships are - well, it is hard to do justice to their bizarreness. The Archbishop is cast in the role of a prestigious early figure bestowing his daughter on Constantine. This is typical Welsh genealogical lore, attaching a dynasty to an early hero by means of an invented daughter; that serves to flatter an existing dynasty, by giving it a proud and legitimate ancestry. In this case, however, it is not only fantastically out of skew with everything known or suspected about British history, but also with everything known or suspected about Welsh genealogical lore. Not only was there no Constantinid dynasty; not only is it ridiculous to imagine that Ambrosius or his descendants – wildly affiliated to the Constantinids by the story – would take it as a great honour to be affiliated to Guithelinus or Vitalinus; but no Constantinid dynasty can have existed. Where would it come from, since Constantine and both his sons died in the troubles of 410? This is not genealogical lore, but genealogical fiction, attributing to a fictional dynasty a fictional dependency on a fictional early archbishop.

What, then, was its purpose? Well, the one thing it does do is to allow Guithelinus to overwhelm the prior claim of Ambrosius’ father to the throne by a kind of reverse validation: Guithelinus is the father-in-law of British monarchy, rising above the Ambrosiads in terms of prestige and legitimacy.

Now the thing we have to notice is that, in this legend, both Guithelinus and Vortigern play prominent roles; and what is more, they play two versions of the same role. Guithelinus summoned and crowned Constantine; and we hear that when Vortigern forced Constans' coronation, the clergy were so shocked at the breaking of his monastic vows that nobody would perform the ceremony of anointing, so that Vortigern acted as bishop himself. So Vortigern, whose name we suspect to have been Vitalinus or Gwythelin, took the place of the Archbishop Guithelinus who had summoned and crowned Constantine, to summon (from the cloister) and crown Constantine’s son and heir? (Guithelinus, Geoffrey tells us, had been long since dead.) Methinks we have grounds to suspect duplication.

We have come across this sort of thing before. In the legend of the Seven Emperors, Magnus Maximus, who had been a single and quite legendary figure in Gildas, broke up into the Maximus and Maximianus of the legend of the Seven Emperors; and we have seen that it was a conscious operation whose mechanics Nennius understood quite well. It seems exactly the same sort of thing when we find Good Guithelinus, the ecclesiastical hero who travels overseas to find the rescuer of Britain, crowns him king, and gives him a noble wife; and Bad Vortigern, who lures the rescuer’s son from the cloister and imposes himself on him. The moral predominance which makes Constans the docile instrument of Vortigern’s will is not really different from the influence that can be read in Constantine, summoned, crowned and married by Archbishop Guithelinus all off his own bat; both Good Guithelinus and Bad Vortigern go out on their own initiative and convince a candidate of their own choosing to take the crown of Britain.

Both legends carry out the separation between Good and Bad character in the same way. Bad Maximianus follows Good Maximus in time just as Bad Vortigern follows Good Guithelinus, in time; but they have nothing to do with each other and certainly there is nothing whatever to suggest that they may be members of the same family. The Bad character succeeds the Good character in time, and any suggestion of family or kinship between them is accurately avoided. And need I belabour the point that the existence of this duplication also works in reverse, as evidence, showing that the character called, in his bad sense, Vortigern, can be duplicated with a “good” character called Vitalinus, who is an arch-ancestor? In other words, this is another reason to believe that the actual historical name of the Romano-British pretender Emperor who dethroned the Mild King and became known as Vortigern was in fact Vitalinus.

If this is, as in the case of Maximus-Maximianus, a piece of genealogical fiction or manipulation, meant to restore the good name of a dynasty with a “difficult” patriarch whose bad character is too entrenched in legend to be simply whitewashed, then the separation from the blood-line is the very heart of the manipulation. The troublesome ancestor is conveniently divided into a Good and a Bad figure, the Good meant to flatter the dynasty and the Bad to keep the established villainous role; but the whole point of the duplication is to separate the Bad dynastically from the Good, leaving no connection to the Good’s newly cleansed descendants.

Good Guithelinus' other major contribution to the story is Constantine's bride. Geoffrey tells us nothing about her except that the archbishop brought her up and that she was very nobly born, but she bore Constantine three sons, Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther Pendragon. They were all to reign in turn, and two, Ambrosius and Uther, were to be great heroes; which makes their unnamed mother a major figure[8]. This is in the same area of genealogical fiction: Welsh genealogists were fond of inventing daughters for great figures of the past and marrying them off to the patriarchs of dynasties in search of Roman or at any rate ancient legitimacy. This was how Maxen/Maximianus sprouted a pleasing crop of unhistorical but apparently irresistible girl children, all fated to marry the founders of royal lines (lucky young ladies!). It was not only Roman heroes who developed such posthumous progeny: Tewdrig, for instance, a Gothic or Frankish adventurer who established some sort of lordship on both sides of the English Channel in the first half of the sixth century and became famous in legend[9], lent his genealogical status to Brychan, Irish founder of Brycheiniog or Brecknock, in the form of a “daughter” – an acquaintance of ours, none other than Marcella; and Brychan, in turn, produced dozens of supposed mothers of Saints.

Except that Guithelinus is not said to be the father of Constantine’s wife, this seems exactly the same sort of thing; indeed, I feel certain that, in an earlier version, she was not in fact the Archbishop's daughter. Clerical celibacy was only decidedly enforced in 1022, with the savage canons of Pope Benedict VIII, and cannot have been an absolute rule when this story was first drafted. Gildas[10] speaks of a bishop and his son, both notorious fornicators; but he does not seem to see anything special about a bishop having a son - it is the bad example he gives as a father, not the fatherhood itself, that he condemns. (This strongly suggests that the story was not invented by Geoffrey, but adapted from an earlier source.)

Once we realize that what we are dealing with is Welsh genealogical lore of an absolutely typical stripe, we are a good way down the road. Centuries of distortion and self-interested invention lie behind the text as we have it, and will make our lives interesting trying to disentangle them; but it is something to know what sort of thing we are dealing with, and that it is a kind of fiction with whose rules we are tolerably familiar – others more than I, but I myself not badly. The whole Galfridian description of the "House of Constantine" is one extended genealogical fiction. Someone reconstructed an idealized British past by forming a double triad, a triad of generations - Constantine, Constans-Ambrosius-Uther, Arthur - the second of which is a triad of brothers, Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, Uther Pendragon; a thoroughly fictional triad, indeed the more fictional for at least two of them being historical - for nothing is more certain than that they never were brothers and never met.

The importance of Guithelinus may have been reduced by Geoffrey, who stretched out the monarchy of Britain to a prehistory long before Rome, and, in particular, created a visibly artificial succession of kings of Britain under the Roman Empire. He should not be blamed: his view of the Roman Empire was based on the Holy Roman Empire of his day, a feudal realm including several kingdoms and kings - Germany, Burgundy, Italy, Bohemia - and with an ill-defined suzerainty over others such as France. He would naturally think of Britain as a kingdom within a larger feudal Empire, and, where no documents for such a "kingdom" seemed to him to have survived, he would simply go looking, among the genealogies which he certainly knew by the score, for ancestors who could be credibly placed in what seemed to him a glaring gap in the evidence. My point however is that this is his own creation, redolent of his age and viewpoints. As there evidently were no kings of Britain in the earlier legend - only seven "Roman Emperors" - the arrival of Constantine from Letavia must have been seen as the foundation, not the re-establishment, of a British kingdom, and Guithelinus, his daughter, Aldroenus, and Constantine, must have been seen as founding heroes. Therefore the marriage of Constantine and Guithelinus' daughter was more even than just a royal hieros gamos, a sacred marriage consecrating the king: it was a foundational event establishing the royalty of Britain. The Archbishop, senior to the young king and conferring on him the bride through whom the future of kingdom and dynasty pass, is the foster-father of monarchy itself.

Celtic monarchy is everywhere essentially a military power, but consists of a marriage with the fertile land (Guithelinus' unnamed daughter is no doubt to be identified with the spirit of the land, married by the first king) and therefore has the ultimate claim over the land's wealth. If we remember the separation of royal and sacred function in various legends we encountered, we must be struck by the ideological parallel between this creation of a monarchy and the sequence of Roman interventions in A. A's first Roman invasion establishes, peacefully, their ultimate claim to the land, de iure, in the realms of law and consecration typical of the Dumezilian first function; it is the second invasion, following upon the first and justified by its precedent, that establishes it de facto, with its military power and its economic correlation in the ultimate Roman claim to all British wealth. The same set of relationships, personalized in a group of heroes, is to be read in the story of the origin of the kingdom of Britain: it is the supreme first-function authority of Britain, the lord of the Sacred, Guithelinus archbishop of London, who summons, consecrates and blesses the future king, and, by bestowing a sacred bride on him, makes him the head and source of succeeding legitimate rightful monarchy[11].

The first author of the legend seems to have wanted to underline the importance of Guithelinus and his consecration by working in a false start. The great crisis that leads to the complete disarticulation of Britain's society begins when, by emptying Britain of her soldiers, Maximianus - Bad Maximianus, the last Roman emperor - leaves its "witless" peasantry exposed to the savagery of Picts "and Huns", whose two leaders, Wanius and Melga, are named[12]; however, when Maximianus hears of their ravages, he sends two legions commanded by Gratianus mancipalis, the freedman Gratianus, a name in which we recognize the Gratianus municeps or civilian officer who was briefly thrust into the usurper's role in the British Year of Three Emperors[13]. But when Maximianus' own bid for power collapses in Rome, Gratianus crowns himself king of Britain, soon proving a tyrant so bad that the British murder him - and are immediately subjected to Pictish assaults again, so that the whole of society collapses into a rubble of hunter-gatherers skulking in woods and caves.

It is at this point that Archbishop Guithelinus first appears on the scene, edited into Gildas' account of the last two Roman expeditions, speaking at a grand national assembly summoned by the Romans for the building of a very Gildasian version of the Wall, trying to rouse their spirits and encourage them to fight for themselves. (And thank God that we have Gildas' original for these events, with no Guithelinus or popular assembly; if we did not, it would be all but impossible to recover the original narrative structure. This gives some idea of the difficulties in dealing with an elaborate written tradition such as we have in Nennius and Geoffrey, with several different pre-existing accounts edited together often with no obvious sign of where one ends and another begins.) He does not succeed, and is next heard from in Armorica, trying to get Aldroenus to come to the rescue of Britain, and obtaining Constantine instead.

Guithelinus, interestingly, is not mentioned as part of the embassies that procure Rome's two expeditions, which Geoffrey has taken almost verbatim from Gildas: he first appears trying to weld together an almost disarticulated British people, and then crosses the Channel to summon Aldroenus to the rescue of Britain - having found British peasants, as Geoffrey makes brutally clear, quite useless to defend the country[14]. The doctrine that underlies this story is that, without a social class dedicated to the use of weapons - a fighting nobility headed by a warrior king - the peasantry cannot do their proper work of producing food, and society collapses.

The distinctive feature of this theory is the description of the collapse of society, without its royal defenders, into a primitive hunter-gatherer mob. The legend (which we shall call N) ascribes the gathering of the survivors to the presence of Constantine; which is an instance of its author's constant and indeed quite able fusions of different narratives into one whole. The template for N's arrival of Constantine to free Britain from the Picts is the historical coming of Ambrosius to free Britain from the Saxons; but there is nothing in Gildas’ description of the Saxon conquest to match the element of reduction to hunting-gathering. Indeed, even Gildas' report of A’s third Pictisn invasion describes not so much the kind of reversion to the stone age that this theory presupposes, as a credible picture of hosts of refugees driven out of their homes to starve - a picture we know all too well, but which has no necessary connection with any return to hunting-gathering. Refugees, then as now, set out on metalled roads in search of some civilized community to feed them for pity's sake, and if they do not find anyone, they do not revert to hunting or gathering, but simply starve.

In other words, credible though it may look, the collapse into hunting-gathering is in fact a false picture. The ruin of the military defenders of a country does bring regression and social chaos - as may be seen by the well-documented contemporary death throes of the Western Roman Empire - but not regression to such a point, for the very simple reason that the enemies from whom military power had defended the country sweep in and take over - the classic description of a barbarian invasion. They then proceed to exploit the conquered land for themselves. No historical description of Saxon or even Pictish conquest could have served as template for the description of a completely disarticulated British society given by Guithelinus in Geoffrey: it is a legendary picture. It is even possible that some featurs of Gildas' own description of the Saxon war owed more to this model of a war of conquest than to the facts: in particular, the self-surrender of British persons into slavery because of hunger, which echoes episodes both in the Third Pictish Invasion and in the Roman dolosa leaena punishment raid, seems somewhat out of place as part of a blitzkrieg, which, while no doubt atrocious and horrible in its effects, might not last long enough to affect food stocks or planting and reaping - which people will do even in the direst circumstances, because they know it's either that or starve. Besides, the Saxons, who were fighting for annona, had an interest in the continuity of planting and reaping even in the lands they pillaged.

This, in short, is nothing but a Celtic political doctrine, which seems to hinge on two things: a vision of the enemy as destructive and irrational, not dedicated to their own advantage (which involves taking over the land with its productive system as intact as possible) but purely to the irrational desire to destroy; and an unconsciously self-serving picture of the indispensability of the Celtic aristocracy itself, without which the helpless peasantry could never survive or organize itself. (Caesar: "The commons are regarded more or less as slaves, are never consulted on any matter and never dare to act for themselves.") Neither the idea that the peasantry could organize itself, nor that there existed another leadership in the world capable of taking over from the Celtic aristocracy itself, seems to cross their minds.

In other words, the epic accounts of the country's reduction to hunting-gathering and complete societal disarticulation are not historical but legendary, and they are to do with the self-justification of the Celtic royal upper class. But that social class, in turn, needs consecration from something higher than itself, namely first-function figures such as Guithelinus. Gratianus had received his command in Britain from something no higher than himself - that is, another king, Maximianus - and his rule was based only on the strength of his armies, with no element of consecration or righteousness: he had therefore become a tyrant, and force had turned in on itself, with his subjects revolting against him and the universal darkness of Pictish-Hunnish invasion covering all.

That the ruin of Gratianus was meant to serve as a contrasting parallel to the success of Constantine, summoned by a higher authority and obedient to it, is clear by the fact that the original author has distorted his data. He must clearly have started from a brief notice about Britain splitting off from Rome under the usurpers Gratianus municeps and Constantine; and he knew that Gratianus had been murdered by his own people within a short time of seizing the throne, while Constantine had lasted rather longer and fallen, when he did, at the hands of his enemies. To fashion his romance, he illegitimately connected Gratianus with "Maximianus" and separated him from Constantine.

Why? Well, the effect of this distortion in the story as we have it is to place between the failed regime of Gratianus and the triumphant rule of Constantine the terrifying interval of the Pictish invasion, which, in this author's story, are the fault not so much of Maximianus as of Gratianus. Maximianus is indeed responsible for emptying Britain of troops, but then does his best to repair the damage by sending Gratianus and no less than two legions.

nd this represents the result of the author's intervention, not only on Roman annalistic notices, but on Gildas as well. We remember that, in Gildas, one legion was enough to free Britain of Picts and Scots; our author had read Gildas, and therefore his use of two legions is meant to indicate solicitude and indeed some overkill on Maximianus' part.

This is reminiscent of the attempts to clean up Vortigern's character which we are analyzing. Maxen had already, like Vortigern, been the subject of an attempted clean-up through duplication; it may be that, when that failed (the connection between the villainous Maximus of Gildas and the Good Maximus/Maxen of legend was not forgotten), the same Dark Age author we are talking about may have wanted to offer some Maximid ruler or other another figleaf.

Why do I think that the author of the legend of the House of Constantine had read Gildas? (Geoffrey has, of course, but the appearance of Guithelinus in Gildas' national assembly might be Geoffrey's work rather than that of his source; that is, it is not evidence that his source knew the great writer.) Because of a significant mistake. To Roman historians, Gratianus is municeps, a civilian functionary; to Geoffrey, he is mancipalis, a freedman. We have met this word before: it is Gildas' word for the group of unslaughtered survivors of the Roman punishment on the culprits of the leaena dolosa conspiracy. Gildas uses this word to signify a definite class or caste, that from which, in fact, Maximus himself has sprung: the tyranni of British lesser kings. Here, however, the title is specifically ascribed to Gratianus. This seems parallel to the author's desire to clear Maximianus of blame for emptying Britain of troops: as he is not the ruinous culprit of British helplessness, so he is not actually a mancipalis or serf-king - it is Gratianus who is both of those things. And it is because of Gratianus' illegitimate and therefore tyrannical rule, not because of Maximianus emptying her of troops, that Britain collapses into foreign invasion and anarchy: when he made himself king, the country was not undefended - it had two legions.

The author's mistake may have been unintentional; it is quite possible that he simply misread two similar words, especially, perhaps, if we assume that the rank of municeps functionary had ceased to exist by his time and the word gone out of use. Mancipalis, on the other hand, would have lived on, buttressed by the high authority of Gildas, and defining a social reality which our author seems to have understood; and this might have spurred his whole invention. But there can be no doubt, unless we refuse to see any purpose in his very elaborate distortion of historic data, that his purpose is mirrored in his results: and his results are to separate Gratianus, a tyrant with no consecration and no successors, from Maximus, the last and not the worst of the Emperors of Rome in Britain, and from Constantine, heroic, beloved, and consecrated. Gratianus is the figure of a tyrant, a king promoted only by his own force, sterile and without descent; Constantine, of a legitimate and fruitful monarchy. He must have been remembered as the true founder of British monarchy, and the historical enormity of attributing to him Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon as sons was simply an inevitable corollary of his legitimacy - succeeding British kings had to be of his blood.

A whole prehistory seems to loom, not just as a battleground for dry if fraudulent genealogical data, but also for an entire cycle of legends with, perhaps, historical fact behind them, yet developed in ignorance of most historical facts about Constantine and Constans.

But even this story has a prehistory. We have to start from the fact that history meets legend at the point when Constans is persuaded to leave the cloister and take the crown. Both legend and contemporary opinion condemn this: Orosius, a contemporary historian, was shocked – proh dolor!, he exclaims – and the legend agrees to the point that no clergyman is willing to anoint the vow-breaker[15]. It follows that the person who convinced him to do so, for good or for ill, must be seen as a tempter. This person is Vitalinus/Vortigern, and cannot be anyone else. If the actions of Good Guithelinus, bringing Constantine from Brittany to save and rule over Britain and to marry his own foster-daughter, were of the same order - if not of the same moral value - as those of Vortigern in taking Constans from the cloister to the throne, if the two figures formed a couple or dyad, then one of the two stories, and one of the two characters, was built on the other; and the model can only be that of Bad Vortigern, since it is the supposed result of his actions, Constans’ vow-breaking, which is historical.

A related point is that, according to Geoffrey, there were no elders anywhere in Britain, save for Vortigern himself, when he crowned Constans: every other person of rank happened to be young and callow. This agrees with the fact that Guithelinus and Vortigern are the two figures who confer the kingdom. After Archbishop Guithelinus’ desperate message, King Aldroenus takes measures to restore a British aristocracy, sending his younger brother Constantine and 2,000 selected men from his kingdom’s provinces to be the core of an army of liberation – and, surely, of a future British aristocracy. But one elder at least was present in this unshaped Britain: that is, Archbishop Guithelinus, who had a foster (?) daughter old enough to marry Constantine. Guithelinus does seem to be the only elder in Britain in the days of Constantine's youth[16] - like Vortigern with the youth Constans.

So: on the historical event of Constans’ vow-breaking is built the legend of Vitalinus-Vortigern, the bad adviser luring him; and on that, in turn, is built the picture of Good Guithelinus, and the thoroughly unhistorical summoning of Constans’ father Constantine. In the parallel duplication of Maximus and Maximianus, the Good character was worked out of the Bad one, and Bad Maximianus is a closer reflection of Gildas’ Magnus Maximus; in the same way, Bad Vortigern must be taken as closer to the original than Good Guithelinus.A revision was made to preserve the pride of a still notable house of Vitalinus; but it had no future – or rather, its future was to completely forget the connection of Good Guithelinus, the saintly, elderly archbishop, joint saviour of Britain and partner in the founding of a great dynasty, with the most hated man in Welsh pseudo-history.

The account of Vortigern seducing Constans is primary. It depends on one historical fact - Constans' vow-breaking - whose context it no longer perceives, but which it still regards as outrageous and ill-omened, and attributes this disgrace to the evil advice of Vortigern.

This strange claim would, itself, make no sense; but if we look at how the story develops (eliminating the opening episodes of Gratianus’ tyranny, Aldroenus, Guithelinus, and Constantine, which were added later), it becomes clear that it works within a calculated purpose - namely, to attribute all the woes of Britain, form the vow-breaking and death of Constans, to Vortigern, with the coming of the Saxons as the final outrage. What happens to Constans, once Vortigern has placed him on the throne? That Vortigern then induces his Pictish bodyguard to kill him. This is part of the same story, in that it only makes sense as the sequel to his promotion of the boy monk; also, it is clearly based on the same kind of extremely fragmentary data - the author knew that Constans the monk had died a violent death, but not where or at whose hands. Another historical fact he knew is that Vortigern-Vitalinus had not killed anyone: here, he is only shown spurring on the Picts. As in the seduction of Constans, he is a tempter and a counsellor of evil, but never a first-person murderer. He can plausibly, indeed correctly (for he never actually recommended murder to his Pictish tools), deny any involvement with Constans' murder; and he can suitably punish the killers. This, in turn, leads to another disaster: the fellow-countrymen of his Pictish scapegoats come to suspect his part in the events, and prepare for war; for the same suspicions, Vortigern's own British subjects withdraw their support; and as a result, he must needs call the Saxons - with what results, everyone knows. This is the climax of the whole sequence, and, although Geoffrey or his source edited it in with the legend of the dragons, it amounts to an alternative account of the call to the barbarians.

My method of analysis always starts from the question, what is the central issue of this or that legend? And the central issue of this one is decidedly the coming of the Saxons, to which the war against the Picts is strictly accessory. It is at this point that the Bad Vortigern of this legend meets history and other legends: Vortigern is always, from Gildas on, condemned as being the man who brought the Saxons in. And at some point, a talented storyteller concocted a story which bound him to all the other evils of the early fifth century, in particular the vow-breaking of Constans and the Pictish wars, into a relentless progression towards the call to the barbarians. The very Pictish danger which the Saxons were meant to meet was in fact the work of none other than... Vortigern. It is nobody else's fault that the Picts are his enemies at all! Their sudden preparations for war after a long peace are due not to Pictish land hunger or even to ancient hostility and the desire to reverse a stunning previous defeat – but to their thirst for revenge for their fellow-countrymen, first encouraged to murder Constans and then punished as regicides.

These Picts are a million miles from the vicious, ever-watchful northern enemy of A, everlastingly waiting for a weakening in Britain's defences to invade, plunder, enslave and condemn to death by starvation: they are uncomplicated, ignorant barbarians, prone to drink, easily misled by a show of friendship, and ultimately the victims of a more sophisticated scoundrel. Though not unused to violence, they are boisterous, simple-minded innocents and fundamentally no more than a bunch of big babies used and abused by Vortigern, who gets them drunk and convinces them to assassinate Constans becaushe Vortigern ish - hic! - their deeearesth frie - hic! -friend, and should - hic! -sh-sh-should be made King himshelf (hic!); only to disavow their "horrible act", and have them punished for regicide, the moment he is on the throne. They are indeed dangerous, and when they go to war the king of Britain worries; but they do not go to war unless provoked, and the provocation is that the man now on the throne has used and abused the boisterous good nature of their fellows, and left them to be hanged for a murder he had suborned.

The direct relevance of this to the calling of the Saxons is that there was no need for them, no Pictish threat and no depopulation. It is a defining characteristic of this kind of semi-legendary explanations for historical events that they are always personalistic and often casual; if X had not done Y, war would not have broken out. No structural reason or historical inevitability is ever recognized. So, in this case, the historical Pictish war was caused by the individual crime of Vortigern and by no other more general cause. The Picts would have kept nice if only Vortigern had not seen fit to use and abuse them in his bid for illegitimate power. As for the plague – plague, what plague? Geoffrey knows nothing of it[17]. This is all in direct and total contradiction with the statements of A and Gildas.

The story comes, I would suggest, from a lowland perspective: the Picts, naive highlanders, more dupes than threats, are not seen as a very great menace; the Saxons, on the other hand, apart from being militarily far more fearsome, are a great dear more subtle. Vortigern deceives the Picts, but is deceived by the Saxons. And while the Picts threatened the highlands, the Saxons occupied large chunks of the lowlands.

The purposes of N are not properly Ambrosian. The Ambrosian file, as we can see it in Gildas, charged the Senate of Vitalinus/Vortigern with complicity in the calling of the Saxons, and with not being a properly constituted Senate at all. On the other hand, N, while hostile to Vortigern and therefore pro-Ambrosian more or less by reflex, exonerates the aristocracy around Vortigern from blame. There is something familiar about the way that “the Britons” in general, all the citizens of Britain – or at least, all those entitled to present their opinions to Vortigern – are against the Saxon settlement, part of the “can’t pay won’t pay” party, from the beginning. One has the impression of a common historical phenomenon – all the eroi della sesta giornata (“sixth-day heroes”) who turned out, to the surprise of those who had done the fighting, to have taken unspecified and indeed invisible part in the “Five days of Milan”, the smashing of Radetzky’s Austrian army, in March 1848; or all the people who turned out jamais to have supported the Vichy government, and toujours to have been secret members of the Free French, after June 6, 1944. It is always amazing how popular victorious parties turn out to have been.

An exactly similar claim is part of Nennius' chapter 36, though most of its account is unmistakably parallel to Gildas’. "It then happened, after the Saxon were measured out on the aforementioned island of Thanet, that the aforementioned king promised that food and clothes would be given them without fault; and it pleased them, and they promised to powerfully overwhelm his enemies. But as those barbarians were multiplied in number, the British could not feed them. When they asked for food and clothes, as it had been promised to them, the British said: 'We cannot give you food and clothes, for your number is multiplied; but go away from us, for we are not in need of your help.' And they made a council with their elders, to break the peace."[18]

This chapter, the first about the Saxon war, is visibly out of sequence with those that follow it. At the end of ch.36, the Saxons are threatened with starvation by the British refusal to feed them, and their elders are taking counsel to break the peace; ch.37, implausibly, has Hengist begin a long series of diplomatic manoeuvres as if he had all the time in the world. And we notice that it is strikingly close to Gildas. It is written in the unmistakable bad style of the Annales Romanorum: even in such a small space, it manages to place two separate groups of irritating repetitions - dari illis victum et vestimentum - Cum postularent cibum et vestimentum - Non possumus dare vobis cibum et vestimentum; cum multiplicati essent numero - quia numerus vester multiplicatus est; and we find the verb promitto turning up three times in as many sentences. It is both preceded and followed by passages concerned with Hengist and Ambrosius, but, as well as being singled out from them by a notable difference in content and emphasis, this sudden multiplication of repetitions - far less frequent and obtrusive in the Hengist- and Ambrosius-related passages - marks it out as not being by the same author. It would seem that the author of the Annales Romanorum had access to a pre-disaster source, not dependent on Gildas but equally based on fact. It is significant that he makes no mention of any Hengist: clearly, by the time he wrote, the name had not yet reached the learned classes of Wales.

The sequence of events in Gildas and in Nennius 43 is exactly the same, with the addition of the wholly credible claim that the Saxons were "measured out", metati, evidently for the purpose of reckoning the annona. The king[19]promises them food and clothing; they, in turn, promise to expugnare his enemies - to take them by storm, overwhelm them - fortiter, mightily or courageously. Given the emphasis that both Gildas and this source place on this exchange of promises, there can be no doubt this was a ritual and public ceremony, which the embittered Gildas savagely cast in a satirical imitation of the incipit of L - a story of genuine British heroes, defending the land of Britain against these same supposed defenders.

Both authorities make the same charge: the Saxons have grown in numbers - Gildas says, because they have called in "satellites and dogs" from the mother country. This is evidently the point of saying that the Saxons had been metati, measured, before the oaths were echanged: we know how many you were when we let you in, say the British, so don’t come the crafty barbarian with us. On the other hand, Gildas is not as blunt as the Nennian source, whose message was simple: "there is no food for you here; go away, we don't need your help". (That this was a pretext is clear by the fact that the British wanted to make the alleged increase in barbarian numbers an excuse to stop all payments altogether, and demanded that all the barbarians should go "since we no longer need you.") The end of the affair is the same: "the starved and indignant Goths rebelled", the elders of the barbarians decided on war.

In this thoroughly historical picture, however, one matter differs from Gildas: "the British", the aristocracy of Britain, are from start to finish against the Saxons, whom the king, in effect, invites in off his own bat. Not that the Annales Romanorum are as tendentious as Geoffrey's sources. They do not say that "the Britons" opposed the summoning of the Saxons, only that they eventually decided to stop payments - which is no more than we had already determined from Gildas; and their charge that Vortigern alone decided to summon the barbarians, could easily be seen as a development of the Gildasian argument that the body that voted for their admission was no legitimate Senate but a gang of consiliarii at the tyrannus' beck and call. But it is at the deepest level that it is in contradiction with Gildas' picture. To Gildas, the British aristocracy of Vortigern's time was guilty as a body, the tyrannus being only the head of their collective sins, and would be punished as a body; to the redactor of the Annales Romanorum, Vortigern was the only guilty party – the only mention of the “British”, that is of the aristocracy, is that they try to get rid of the Saxons whom the king, apparently alone, had summoned. His brief sentences are already half-way to Geoffrey's description of an unsupported usurper, suspected of doing away with his predecessor, calling in alien mercenaries in order to have one party in the state he could trust.

There is no doubt that this view of the aduentus Saxonum pre-existed Geoffrey. (I will call the Annales Romanorum, and specifically their source, M.) This attitude to history, shifting the responsibility for all the woes of Britain on the usurper alone, is clearly responsible both for historically based accounts such as M and for the legend of Vortigern and Constans, a legend clearly alternative, if not indeed contradictory, to that of the dragons. There Vortigern calls in the Saxons out of love for Ronwein; and there is no hint whatever that any native sedition or even foreign war threatened the stability of his throne until he saw her face. That Vortigern was a settled king over Britain, with druids (!) at his court and swarms of officials ready to search the island, at his behest, for a stable fortress or a fatherless boy; this one is a usurper unable to trust anyone, threatened at home by the suspicion that he had his predecessor murdered and abroad by the anger of the Picts, turning to the Saxons because he has no other support.

It seems as clear as the sun that the original story of the seduction and murder of Constans, and its effects, did not originate in a Vortigernid environment. It is therefore equally clear that the antefact of the story - with Good Guithelinus convincing Constantine, saviour of Britain and founder of the independent monarchy, to come to the land, just as Bad Vortigern convinced his son out of the cloister - is a Vortigernid revision of an originally hostile account. (The concern pointed out earlier, to whitewash Maxen/Maximianus, is probably a part of the same revision, since the vilification of Gratianus mancipalis, which is part of it, is the counterpart of the invention of Good Guithelinus and his protegé Constantine.)

Even before the invention of Good Guithelinus, this must have been a work of considerable complexity and more than ordinary ability. The artistry of its plot, that can weave all the evils of Britain - political instability and the presence of two powerful and hostile barbarian groups, Picts and Saxons - into the one single man's career, is remarkable, and one invention - Vortigern's usurpation of the title of Bishop - is first-rate. It must have been invented for the purpose: no other legendary or historical material suggests that the usurper had anything to do with holy orders, but the Vortigern who seduced Constans was a false bishop; and the Guithelinus who called Constantine to Britain, the whitewashed "true" Vortigernid ancestor, is a true Archbishop. This is scarcely likely to be historical: I cannot imagine that the extraordinary situation of a British bishop, perhaps an archbishop of London, being both an usurping head of state – almost impossible in the first place! - and favourable to compromise with Pelagians, would have escaped notice by Prosper Tiro and Constantius of Lyons, let alone the host of other church writers and historians, all too familiar with schismatic and heretical bishops from Nestorius of Constantinople to Priscillianus of Avila. It seems much likelier that Vortigern's false episcopate was part of the original legend.

As Guithelinus was designed to offset the evil image of Vortigern, so his episcopal rank must have been designed to offset the original account; therefore Bad Vortigern's usurpation of the title of Bishop must have been a very impressive feature of the story. Even we, left as we are with less than the bare bones, cannot help but find it striking. There is something like a ghastly reversal of sane norms, almost a plunge into madness, about the picture of this subtle elder, with no previous pretensions to clerical character or faith, suddenly appearing in the golden robes and mitre of a crowned Bishop, to lead his callow, unsuspicious charge – whose tonsure is just beginning to become overgrown with hair – into a cathedral or basilica full of sycophantic assembled nobles, but devoid of clergy. The amount of birds it manages to kill with a single stone gives me a high notion of the literary abilities of whoever invented it. Vortigern’s rape of the country's religious order is an appalling confusion of lay and religious rank in artistic symmetry with Constans’ surrender of the religious life: while he, an ecclesiastic, broke his vows, his layman seducer usurped a churchman's robes to facilitate his oath-breaking. It also preludes to his other usurpation: he is an usurping bishop even before being an usurping king[20]; and the fact that he could not find one single solitary clergyman to perform Constans' ill-advised coronation is a foretaste of the usurper's loneliness and lack of support, that is to lead him to call the Saxons. Evil counsels are a leitmotif: Vortigern advises badly, first Constans, but then himself, which results in the settlement of Saxon barbarians on a divided island whose usurping sovereign has no support among his own people.

The genius of the person who revised this in favour of the Vortigernids seems quite equal to his predecessor's. His invention of a true Archbishop of London reverses his picture of Vortigern's assault on the sacred things of Britain; and the fact that he not only nominated the hero Constantine but actually gave him a bride - that essential part of Celtic royalty! - answers the sacrilegious and anti-royal role of the false ecclesiastic and false monarch.

It also shows that the Vortigernids were still not resigned to playing second fiddle in Britain. By making Good Guithelinus into the foster-father and the sacred validator of the institution of British monarchy, he vaults over even the enormous amount of evil attributed to Vortigern by his predecessor; he polishes the Vortigernid claim, indeed adds one layer of self-validation to it; and by his manipulation of the sequence of Gratianus mancipalis and Constantine into a duality of unhallowed and hallowed king, usurper and consecrated lord, he both clears Maximianus/Maxen of the charge of ruining Britain, and turns the story into a comprehensive sequence of the establishment and first great epic of the kingdom of Britain. Finally, he is almost certainly the inventor of the House of Constantine, a romance which brings together all those great names, from Maximianus to Arthur, whose individual reputations, good or bad, still towered across the historical horizon: his capacity for brilliant systematization and large-scale invention seems, if anything, even higher than the earlier writer's.

This is already the third legend of Vortigern we have met. They begin to multiply beyond ease: therefore, from now on, I will refer to them by letters.

1.     M will be the source of Nennius ch.43, that is the Annales Romanorum and its source;

2.     N will be the tale of the house of Constantine;

3.     N1 will be the original tale of Vortigern and the seduction of Constans, with all its consequences;

4.     O will be the legend featuring Emrys, the two dragons, and Ronwein;

5.     P will be the *Gesta Germani

We can see that the prehistory of the Vortigern material is enormously complex, and the material itself multifarious beyond anything we have yet met. And we are beginning to see why. Nennius intervened on his materials in the interests of the Vortigernid house of Builth and Gwrtheyrnion; but Vortigernid fingerprints are also on N, which Nennius never touched, tacking on to the wicked Vortigern of N1 the good Guithelinus of N. What is more, we have seen that the original of O was itself a justification of Vortigern, making him, like Conn and his descendants, an unhappy victim of love and a patriot struggling to undo the evil he had done; in other words, there was already, by the time O took shape, a need to excuse and justify the ancestor.

The legends date to different periods: the first redaction of O, I date to the age of Gildas; P assumes that the political set-up of eighth-century Powys is a permanent reality and cannot be much earlier; and N cannot (at this point in our inquiry) be dated with any confidence, but comes from a period - or from a social group - which no longer knew the dynastic and political history of the British fifth century.

All these seem to move in the same direction, towards whitewashing to some extent, not necessarily Vortigern himself, but certainly the Vortigernid succession; however, they start from different positions. The original of O must have presented Vortigern as basically a tragic, well-meaning hero and patriot; on the other hand, P and N assume the truth of the Black Legend, seeing Vortigern as unforgivable and damned, and only strive to clear the name and legitimacy of his successors. In other words, O - the presumably earliest of all the legends - was concerned with justifying Vortigern himself; by the time N developed, the focus had shifted from justifying the ancestor to removing him from the pedigree, by inventing a wholly different Guithelinus; and P may be seen as a final stage, using all the ingenuity available to clean up the blood-line, and - if the claim to being a legitimate king of all Britain was part of the original *Gesta Germani - to preserve the ancestor's ancient claims, but making no effort either to clean up Vortigern's image or to remove him from the lineage. The Black Legend of Vortigern has triumphed.

As I pointed out, the Black Legend did not exist in Gildas, and the evolution we notice strongly suggests that it was the product of the fall of Britain. There is a definite point after which any defensio of Vortigern as a person was no longer possible, and it seems obvious that it must be when the barbarian danger he summoned to Britain - which Gildas and O regarded as subdued and under control - suddenly awoke and exploded across the island. It hardly seems unrelated that, at some still unspecified point (I will propose a chronology later), the emphasis in the Vortigern stories shifts from defending Vortigern to defending the blood-line.

As with the division of Gildas' Magnus Maximus into Good Maximus and Bad Maximianus, it seems reasonable to see dynastic self-defence at the heart of the division between Good Guithelinus and Bad Vortigern; and indeed, the common motivating element of most Vortigern material is not so much loyalty to the ancestor, but rather the honour, the rights and the claims of the family. N and P accept the Black Legend with little qualification; the one simply asserts that Bad Vortigern was no part of the blood-line at all, the other that, whatever his crimes (probably felt with far less intensity now that they were so distant in time, and so far removed from the Powys stage that, alone, really interested this author), he still was a legitimate king and his blood (cleansed by St.Germanus) is the blood of kings.

So, in the sixth century, again in the eighth or ninth, and at some unestablished point in-between, we find Vortigernids defending their line through legend. Only O, the earliest, can be said with any confidence to have begun with them; the other two represent some sort of reaction to pre-existing stories witten by others. N would not have duplicated Vitalinus/Vortigern, rather than rewrite N1 in any other way, unless Vortigern was already known as irredeemable, and P seems derived in some fashion from an account of Ambrosius, the flawless hero, coming to Britain and destroying an obviously wicked and irredeemable Vortigern. (Another interesting conclusion is that the author of N, though ignorant enough of fifth-century fact to make Vortigern the seducer and murderer of Constans, still knew that Vortigern’s real name was Gwythelyn or Vitalinus, and left the opprobrious nickname to the Bad character while giving the Good one the proud Latin gentilicius.)

As works of literature and history, they cannot all be judged in the same way, since they come from indubitably widely different environments: O from the blazing noonday of Gildas' age of superb Latin, with most of Britain still under British control; N and N1 both from an age in which literary ability is still very high - witness the way in which they both work the few data of known history into their own particular point - but in which the Saxon invasion has become a chief concern, and the man who summoned the Saxons can no longer be excused in any way. P is the product of a narrower and far less sophisticated world, in which the little kingdoms of Wales dominate the landscape, the idea of a greater Britain is close to the horizon if not beyond it, and political points are made not by the clever manipulation of historical data within a contest of creative fiction, but by the flat adaptation of a previously existing legend. P is also incapable of the clever use of Biblical quotations apparent in O's meeting of Ronwein and Vortigern; the one Biblical passage he quotes, the Psalmist's promise of an everlasting succession of kings, is pretty obvious stuff. The mental horizon has indubitably shrunk; though it is worth pointing out that the concept of creating fictional pseudo-histories incorporating the thin trickle of data of ancient documents - such as the apparently skeletal references to St.Germanus' visit to the Britain of Vitalinus, and the success of the Briton Faustus in Gaul - has not died out.


[1]Dumville, who has more chronology in his little finger than I in my whole body, regards this chapter as "indubitably corrupt". I do not doubt that he is right, but as I am only concerned with the event of the Discordia Guitolini et Ambrosii, and its correspondence or otherwise with Vortigern's reign, I do not think that Nennius' chronology, however mistaken or corrupt, is very relevant. The essential point is that some sort of correspondence exists between Vortigern's reign and the discordia. I do certainly not wish to seem sanguine about the statement that it occurred in Vortigern's twelfth year, since, as we have seen, Nennius was obviously bent on extending his ancestor's reign backwards: this "twelfth year" might be anything. It might even refer to the Mild King's original overthrow, though we have seen nothing else to make us suspect that a battle of any sort, let alone the Battle of Gualoppum, had anything to do with it. The Cath Gwaloph is altogether a lost piece of legend - or history, if that is what it is; but we know that it existed, and that is not without importance.

[2]A royal name: "son of the shepherd", that is, of the shepherd of his people, with some indubitable allusion to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. If this is the historical name of Vortigern's heir, it may suggest a relationship with God and the Church very different from that of the family who named a son for St.Ambrose. Ambrose stood for the separation of Church and State and the right of the Church to judge and condemn, even at the highest levels, the actions of the State; Pascentius is a name that implies a sort of equivalence of the earthly sovereign with God in His royal role, making him, by implication, master of the earthly Church as well as of the temporal power. Members of aristocratic families, let alone those with royal pretensions, are rarely named without an eye to the meaning of their names. The name of Ambrosius could possibly be only be expressive of a devotion to that particular Saint and a particular view of the rights of the Church; but if the name of Pascentius expresses opposition to that particular view, making the King an earthly image of the Good Shepherd, it can have some bearing on a polemic in which the position of Church and State had become an issue. The British religious crisis certainly involved a conflict between powerful laymen in the British state and the great priest in Rome. Also, if Ambrosius was active in war against the Saxons in the 460s, he must have been very young in the 420s, and if Pascentius had been granted land from him, he may have belonged to the same generation; they may well have both been baptized - and named - in the middle of the great religious crisis; and these baptisms would be public and notorious acts. But this is all purely guesswork, which is why I footnoted it. We cannot even be certain that Pascentius was in fact Vortigern's son and heir; only that his remote heirs claimed he was; as we will see, there are problems with the Nennian genealogy of the Vortigernids.

[3]This in turn implies that, when the insult Vortigern was contrived, the real Roman name - beginning in V - was still known, and had not yet mutated into Welsh Gwythelyn.

[4]Wallop is one of those place-names with which etymologists have had trouble. A.D.MILLS, Oxford Dictionary of English place-names, Oxford 1998, s.v.Wallop: "Possibly "valley with a spring or stream", OE waella+hop; alternatively the first element may be OE weall "a wall" or walu "a ridge, an embankment"." If the name of the Cathgwaloph refers to the Wallops, then the name must be pre-Saxon; and as Over, Middle and Nether Wallop, between them, occupy the whole upper course of a valley, and as they are on a Roman road and in the middle of a heavily Romanized region, I would suggest that the first element could be Latin uallis and the second the probably Celtic name of the brook or stream in it: Uallis op... - or perhaps even the name of a Latin goddess, uallis Opis, "valley consecrated to the goddess of abundance". That there are few known purely Latin place-names in Britain does not mean that one might not turn up; Britain was only Roman for 400 years, after all.

[5]MILLS, ibid, s.v. Andover: "Ash-tree waters". Ashes were among the most sacred trees in Celtic religion - ANNE ROSS, Pagan Celtic Britain, London 1992, 60f. and note 46 - and popular markers for tribal assembly sites: the mere name of Andover, therefore, strongly suggests that pagan assemblies used to be held there.

[6]John Morris has drawn attention to the existence of a number of English place-names featuring what seems to be a personal name *Ambres-, and all found (with the exception of Arminghall, about which see Appendix V) within a very definite geographical area that covers the Severn and Thames valleys and the southern Midlands, excluding Kent, East Anglia, Dumnonia and Wales. He has argued that these were places associated with Ambrosius, and in particular with military posts established by him, according to the old Roman habit of naming military units for Emperors. I find his argument very attractive, and accept it; the more so since some of these *Ambres- place-names are suspiciously close to Fitela- place names, as we will see. Age of Arthur, page 100, map on page 101, and notes (pages 558 and 625).

[7]This also suggests a reason for the use of this particular legend. Quite apart from making Germanus the prophet of Catholic Christianity in Britain, which has some remote relationship with reality, the element of fire from heaven destroying an evil king, which surely belonged to the story - we find it applied to Miliucc in Ireland - may have raised echoes in the mind of the author of the *Gesta Germani. This might in turn suggest that the death by fire was peculiar to Vortigern and not necessarily original, and that, which is quite likely anyway, the destruction by fire of the high king was no part of the original idea. Innate rebelliousness and destruction by fire would then be a feature of the lesser king in the story, the teyrn; and that in turn would agree with what we have seen of the naturally rebellious and defeated significance of this rank.

[8]Curiously enough, there is another Guithelinus in Geoffrey: a prehistoric king whose most notable feature is a very wise wife, Marcia, skilled in all the arts, who is responsible for a famous code of laws, and who then distinguished herself as regent for her underage son Sisillius when Guithelinus died. It seems that to Geoffrey, the name Guithelinus tended to be associated with a great, wise and queenly woman who gave life to royal children. As Geoffrey is in the habit of misdating royal names and data - Sisillius, for instance, is Seisyll, the Dark Age king of a territory stretching from Ceredigion to Gower, transferred for the purpose to a pre-Roman age - and as Marcia is a fine old Roman name, is it possible that what we have here is the actual historical name of the wife of Vitalinus-Vortigern, and mother of Pascentius? GEOFFREY, History, 3.13-14.

[9]I have dealt with an important legend of Tewdrig, which has nothing to do with the present matter, in my Indiges, Appendix III.

[10]The Ruin 109.1

[11]BARBIERI, Indiges op.cit., 112: "Aeneas is the activity of sacrifice... he bears within himself the [proper] relationships of [existing] objects with each other[; therefore] that sacred activity... in which men, gods and cosmic realities are assigned their proper place [that is, sacrifice] must pertain to him in the highest degree... He is priestly." 114: "the fact is surely significant that, without Aeneas, Latinus may have no descent... the kingship of Latium will not be stabilized. Without the presence of the holy things Aeneas brings, royalty is not even capable of being itself, an institution whose being is in its own succession, in the presence of regularly appointed figures on the throne; because there shall be no successor." In other words, in the earliest Latin culture (which, as Indiges argued, is very closely related to the Celtic), first-function, "priestly" consecration was necessary for royalty, however powerful and respected, to exist at all; otherwise it would dissolve in a chaos of violent and lawless contention. Ibid. 111: "Lavinia, [the daughter of king Latinus, is] destined to make the line of kings fertile... The blood-line of future kings cannot exist without the blood of righteous King Latinus, but it cannot exist without the Alien either, for nobody else is allowed to marry the king's daughter... Lavinia is a blazing torch bound to burn [her father's] house. No doubt, without Aeneas, she would [still] have caused war between pretenders [to her hand]; but such war was bound to have no winner or end, because its proper appointed end, Aeneas, [would not be] there." The fact that Aeneas takes a daughter from Latinus, rather than the reverse, is less important than the consecrating, stabilizing significance of the first function upon the second.

12]Given that a good few historical features have gone into this work of fiction, and that a savage Pictish invasion does seem to have attended the beginnings of the independent Romano-British state in the early 410s, it is possible that these two names may have some connection with history and represent the names or titles of Pictish or other invaders, surviving in the skeletal records that were worked into the Guithelinus legend. However, they do not seem to correspond to the names of any known Pictish king.

[13]Curiously, Geoffrey's source seems to have known nothing about his predecessor, the first usurper, Marcus.

[14]Defender of the country, diffreidyat gwlat, is, as we remember, one of the proudest titles of Taliesin's Urien: it was obviously the first claim of Celtic kings to the respect of their subjects.

[15]This, too, might be essentially historical, since Gildas tells us that the Grim Kings - who must include Constans - were not anointed by God. Is it possible, come to think of it, that Gildas' non per Deum has something to do with the coronation of Constans, which seems to have been regarded as a scandal and practically a blasphemy?

[16]This reminds us irresistibly of the equally legendary notice that Maxim(ian)us had taken away Britain’s fighting forces for ever; the legend of Maxim(ian)us, that is, must have pre-existed not only that of the House of Constantine, but the earliest layer of it, that of Bad Vortigern and Constans.

[17]As we will see in the next chapter, the depopulation of Britain and its resettlement by Saxons is not unknown to this account: it is, however, not mentioned until Ambrosius, much later, subdues the Saxons and then lets them settle the empty parts of the island; rather incongruously, since, to judge from Geoffrey's account, it had been the Saxon war and that alone - not any plague - to cause that depopulation, so that great Ambrosius is in effect rewarding the criminals for their crime!

[18]Factum est autem, postquam metati sunt Saxones in supradicta insula Tanet, promisit rex supradictus dari illis victum et vestimentum absque defectione, et placuit illis, et ipsi promiserunt expugnare inimcos eius fortiter. At illi barbari cum multiplicati essent numero, non potuerunt Brittones cibare illos. Cum postularent cibum et vestimentum, sicut promissum erat illis, dixerunt Brittones: "Non possumus dare vobis cibum et vestimentum, quia numerus vester multiplicatus est; sed recedite a nobis, quia auxilio vestro non indigemus." Et ipsi consilium fecerunt cum maioribus suis, ut pacem disrumperent.

[19]I wish we could be sure that this description of Vortigern as a "king", rather than as an usurper or a tyrant, came from the Annales Romanorum rather than being Nennius' own contribution. The style suggests that this passage had been copied out pretty much verbatim; but mention of Thanet certainly is Nennius’ own addition – to link it to Hengist’s supposed first settlement - and we know that Nennius was committed to showing that Vortigern was a genuine king, and to change one word in a description would not trouble him too much.

[20]This gives us a possible hook on contemporary reality. British kings using and abusing episcopal titles - even claiming them themselves, like Gregory of Tours' Macliaw of Vannes, for pure personal advantage - were a notorious scandal in the time of Gildas and Gregory. It may be that the author of the first, anti-Vortigern version of the legend, wished to reflect in the wicked ancestor of the tribe some enormity committed by some contemporary Vortigernid lord. This might suggest that the story dates to something like the period of disorders documented by Gregory of Tours and Gildas, in which kings used and abused episcopal titles as they pleased.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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