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

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.8

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Chapter 6.8: The cult of St.Gurthiern

Fabio P. Barbieri

A completely separate legend of Vortigern - or rather, two widely divergent legends, bizarrely joined into one document - come from Brittany.  The patron saint of the Breton abbey of Quimperlé  (department Finistere) is called St.Gurthiern; obviously the same name as Vortigern.  The Cartulary or collection of official records of the abbey opens with an extraordinarily short and unimpressive Life of the saint, made up of a genealogy, a legend, and an originally separate note which claims to be about the finding of his relics in the island of Groix (not far from Quimperlé , but in the department of Morbihan) but is actually mostly concerned with the miracles he is supposed, while alive, to have performed for the kings of Cornouaille and Bro-Erech, the two states between which lay the territories of the abbey.

The so-called Life is preceded by a genealogy of the saint, son of Bonus son of Glou son of Abros son of Dos son of Iago son of Idwal son of Beli son of Eudaf hen son of Maximianus son of Constantius son of Constantine son of Helen, who found the Holy Cross; and on his mother's side, he was son of Dinoi daughter of Lidinin the king (gwledig?) who held the principatum (high kingship?) over all Great Britain.  Furthermore, Beli had an illustrious brother: Beli and Kenan were two brothers, sons of Eudaf hen.  That Kenan held the principatum when the British advanced to Rome.  There they held Laeticia [certainly a misreading of Letavia, Llydaw, Brittany] and reliq-[missing letters].  And then a chronological enormity: Beli son of Anna, whom they say was the cousin of Mary, mother of Christ - even though this Beli is meant to come four generations after Constantine son of Helena!  This is probably originally a gloss incorporated in the text; but it does show that someone, in the face of all likelihood, understood this Beli to be that Beli, the mythological son of Manogan.

The first two entries in the father's-side genealogy remove all doubt that this might not be "our" Vortigern[1].  It is however clear that most of the genealogy has collapsed: he is made the son of what is, in the Nennian pedigree, his great-uncle, Bonus son of Gloyw.  The patriarch of the family, Gloyw, and the easiest to remember of all his sons - Bonus, Good Man - have survived the collapse; but at some point in the transmission, nearly all the ancestors of Vitalinus/Vortigern have been forgotten, and the very name Vitalinus lost.

This is a translation of the narrative parts:

When Gurthiern was young, he went out on a certain day with his father to fight his enemies.  Gurthiern and his father were victors on that day, and Gurthiern killed his sister's son[2].  He did not know that he was his friend, and after he realized that it was his sister's son[3], he repented committing that sin, and wept.

And after that he went out in the desert and dwelled in a great valley between two mountains[4] in the northern part of Britain, and there performed penance for one full year, and nobody lived with him.  And there he made himself a tiny cell, and living water was near the cell, and a great stone was by the shore of the river.  And each day he plunged[5] his body in that same river[6], and when he rose from the river, he [would] lie on the stone and pray.  So he used to do in that place for one year.

But on a certain day, a certain hunter came to him, and seeing the young man sitting and praying without intermission, he questioned him and said: "Why do you live here, son?" and the young man answered: "What I have deserved did this to me".  And he swore to him that he would tell nobody that he was in that place.

And then the hunter travelled to the house of his father and told everyone what he had seen, reporting that that young man sitting and praying on the stone was like the son of the king.  At which, the king: "Let us proceed to that to place, to see that man striving as you said".  And then they proceeded to that place where the young man lived, and saw him striving by the shore, and he fled into his cell, and he wept.  And his father questioned him saying: "O my son, why do you do this work here?  You must come to me to my home, and receive the kingdom of your father".  And he loudly refused.  And the father said: "I will make you a monastery and a multitude of monks".  And he stayed there for one year, and he prayed.  And his father said: "I will make you a monastery and a multitude of monks".  And he stayed there for one year, and he prayed.

And an angel of the Lord came to him and said: "Proceed to that place which the will of God foresaw for you."  And he went out to the road with two servants.  And they heard the voice of a certain woman, and proceeded to her, and questioned her[7]: "What happened to you, woman?"  {She} said: "O servant of God[8], I had one son, and he was killed in battle".  [And] he: "Why do you carry his head?": she: "Because I could not carry his body to his monument [grave?]".  And he said to her: "Proceed before us to that body".  And he proceeded with her, and they saw how matters stood.  And Gurthiern said: "Give me his head, and I will join that to his body."  Having then made a prayer, the man of God blessed him, and right away he rose again.  And he reproached them: "Why did you take me away from the good place where I was?"; and he: "It is better for you to remain with you and with your mother."  And he: "I do not want to."  To which the holy man: "Remain nevertheless, and tell everyone the good which you saw, and I will pray with you that you may find again that place in which you were before".

And after that they went to the shore of the river called Tamar, and stayed there for a long time.

And the angel of the Lord came to them and said: "Look to the sea, and you will see a vessel [container] in which you will enter".  They, sailing, steered it to a certain island, and were in it for a time.  Then the angel came to them and said: "Go to the other place of promise, which is called Anaraut[9]".

Moreover the angel of the Lord commanded[10] that in whatever region of Little Britain were all the fields of Saint Gurthiern, it should serve Anaraut, for the town is chosen by God; and the angel, too, promised victory in war to all kings who preserved the pact of Saint Gurthiern.  Whatever, moreover, kings and princes or dukes would not preserve it, they will be cursed by the Lord.  So do you all [imperative] desire salvation from all the clergy and laity, bishops and kings, priests and all orders who keep the pact of Saint Gurthiern, that they may be in the unity of the Holy Trinity, as you have received salvation from us.  Thus may you receive the command [recommendation] of the angel, so that [both] we and you find mercy from God.  So be well.

This obvious and surprisingly elaborate conclusion is followed by what is just as obviously the start of another document:

About the discovery of the relics of Saint Gurthiern and of other Saints, in the time of Abbot Benoit and of Gwygon son of Huelin of Castle Henpoint, in the island of Groix, [the relics being] revealed by the monk Oedri.

These are the relics of Gurthiern, who was king of the English; who, although he held the sovereignty of his fatherland [country], preferred more the contemplative life than the active.  And acting accordingly, he abandoned his fatherland [country] and came to a tiny little land in the island they call Groix.  Staying in it, he performed many miracles, and there the noblest men of Chemenet Heboeu gave him honour.  From there [or: therefore] his fame flew all the way to Gradlon the Great, "Consul" [king] of Cornouaille, who sent him his representative [telling him] to come to him.  And the same "Consul" gave him Anaurot, where [the rivers] Helea and Illa meet, and a thousand paces of land in the circuit of this town, and also the village of Beia.

In that time, as Count Guerech[11] reigned, plague and famine arose in Bro-Guerech; in fact, worms devoured the fields.  For this reason the aforementioned count sent his messengers to Saint Gurthiern, that is Gwyddgaul and Cathwoth and Cador, that he should help the country.  And so the man of God came, and blessed water and sent [it] throughout that country, and it put to flight an immense multitude of worms.  Because of this, Count Guerech gave him the village of Veneac over the river Blavet, which later was called Chevenac.  Moreover the man of God remained there to the day of his death.

Now whoever has read Geoffrey or Gerald of Wales knows that the Welsh and Bretons of the time knew perfectly well that they were related, and that the English were the hereditary enemies of "the British nation"; which is why we are startled to read, in the second section of the so-called Life, that Saint Gurthiern was "king of the English", Rex Anglorum - a title perfectly intelligible to any contemporary and clearly opposite to the interests of any British royal bloodline.  One has the impression of seeing, in a single surviving title, all the agonizing issues facing the usurper of the legends, who called in the barbarians because he had no other support, and ended up becoming their puppet ruler - Rex Anglorum in a peculiarly humiliating and disgraceful manner.  No wonder that he is said to have preferred the contemplative life!  In other words, I hardly think the title attributed to him is casual: it is a ghostly survival of a much more elaborate view of his position.  At any rate, the mere presence in his pedigree of Bonus, Gloyw and Ambrosius shows that at this stage in the evolution of the legend - or rather legends - the data about "Saint Vortigern" were almost, but not quite, forgotten.

Not quite forgotten.  We must therefore ask ourselves how this curious offshoot relates to the great sheaf of Vortigern legends, which, roughly bound together and giving preference now to one aspect, now to another, dominate the legendary history of the British dark ages.  And the answer is that both of them, though so widely divergent that it is a wonder that the monks of Quimperlé ever managed to see them as a unit, can be related to some of the less famous Nennian items.  Nennius, but not Geoffrey, has Vortigern (a) wandering off in search of a place to settle after he has left the seat of his royalty because of a terrible sin he has committed, till he finds Gwynessi in the northern part of Britain, and (b) paying for his terrible sin (in one of his three versions of the death) by wandering off alone, deserted by family and friends, till he died of heartbreak.  The similarity between this and the life of a hermit atoning for sin is obvious.  Even the fact that he had killed his sister's son - who, however we imagine the ages of "young" Gurthiern and his father, must have been quite young - may have something to do with the nature of his (legendary) sin, which, quite apart from the summoning of the Saxons, was to try to have a boy killed.  The first part of the Life is dominated by a terrible sense of grief and sin.

The Latin prose of this earliest part of the text is very similar to that of the Annales Romanorum, though less intense; commonsense therefore suggests that it must belong to the same period, that is, to be probably older than Nennius himself.  (The same kind of Latin can be found in the Book of Llandaff, repetitions and all.)  It was however written in Brittany, and by the time it was written down, the legend had already rooted itself in the country, so that the Saint himself could be said to have come over from his God-given site "on the Tamar" and died in Quimperlé.  Conversely, the Nennian elements to which it relates do not show any direct knowledge of a cult of Vortigern; they are obscure and have the air of a half-forgotten notice picked up somewhere.  The main tradition seems to have had Vortigern die in the flames of his fortress, at the hands either of Ambrosius or of the God of Germanus - but always going down in a catastrophic conflagration.

However, one of the Nennian versions hints at a further mystery: Alii dixerunt: terra aperta est et deglutivit eum in nocte in qua combusta est arx circa eum, quia non inventae sunt ullae reliquiae illorum qui combusti sunt cum eo in arce.  "Another source says that the earth opened and swallowed him in the night in which the fortress was burned around him, for no human remains whatever were found of those who were burned with him in the fortress."  This obviously means that at least one traditional death-place of Vortigern was known, and that he was reputed to have been burned to death there; but as no burnt human remains were visible, he was then understood to have been swallowed by the earth.  The style is, again, an attenuated echo of the Annales Romanorum, Dark-Age Welsh Latin, repetitious style, combusta est arx... qui combusti sunt in arce..., indicating, again, a similar date.

However, this hints at a wholly different idea.  Missing bodies in ruined buildings are a favourite feature of a very well-known kind of political legend which often follows on the death in battle, or by violence, of a major king or leader.  Quite as soon as the news come, rumours begin to circulate that he is not really dead - he is in hiding somewhere - he is going to come back.  The political waves this makes tend to solidify into what is, or swiftly becomes, a popular rather than upper-class movement.  Pretenders appear; sometimes they gather quite a few followers; inevitably, they tend to lose, because the ruling classes - even those which had, in the past, collaborated with the defeated Leader - are not happy with uncontrolled popular emotion.  Dukes who liked Henry Tudor no better than poison would still rather see him on the throne, with the promise of stability, than Perkin Warbeck and his armies of Cornish peasants.  It is not necessary that the Lost Leader should have been loved or respected; sometimes the rumour of his survival and possible return is more in the nature of a self-indulged terror than of a hope.  Rumours about Nero, for whom nobody would raise a sword, started circulating within hours of his suicide; Edward II, the most despised king in the history of England, was supposedly discovered in an Italian monastery; even Hitler had the honour of repeated rumours - eventually merging into the oceanic wave of post-World War Two thriller fiction, The boys from Brazil and the like.

A Christian variant, which has been known to occur when the long-expected reappearance did not take place, is that the Leader has become a religious or a hermit, spending his days in repentance.  This was, of course, particularly appropriate for a sinner king like Edward (though nobody, to my knowledge, has yet applied the story to Hitler), but it was told, before him, of the less sinful but no less unfortunate Harold, who had the honour of a haunting and magnificent retelling of his legend from Kipling[12].  In general, people's minds resist, consciously or unconsciously, the sudden removal from reality of someone who has dominated for a long time their mental landscape, as king, leader, or even terrible menace.  Sudden death, in particular, is not easily accepted.  Therefore, the rise of a cult of a penitent and heremitical Vortigern does not necessarily mean that he was popular in his life; though it tends to argue that he fell suddenly and unexpectedly, and that he had been king for long.

Psychologically, this is related to what I observed in the first chapter of this book, about the mental significance of the charge of pride, hurled at Vortigern as at so many fallen kings and tyrants.  It is an aspect of the mental adjustment that must be made when political realities suddenly and radically shift; except that, while the legend of the Proud Fallen King - what you might call the Ozymandias account - does embody an acceptance of the finality of defeat, the legend of the Hidden Leader represents a failed adjustment, an unwillingness to absorb the reality of the end.  It is possible to see a certain regularity in these reactions: the Ozymandias account may tend to prevail among the powerful classes - political, religious and intellectual leadership; the legend of the Hidden Leader tends to appear among the populace.  This probably has to do with the fact that the societal leadership, having to be in constant contact with the realities of power, has no escape from the reality of events, whatever construction they choose to put on them; while the populace may tend to be ill-informed and naive about political power and what conditions it.  Apart from anything else, the realities of political power may dictate that, even if a Hidden Leader were found and partisans gathered, he would really be an irrelevance, unable to reconstruct the base of past power in a completely changed political landscape; which any social leadership is better placed to understand than the common citizen.  On occasion, political and intellectual leaderships have been carried along by a legend of Lost Leaders; but, in general, they tend to be more of a popular concern.

When I say popular, however, I do not mean that it would tend to involve all or most of the populace; only that such movements would tend to arise in popular layers, even where they remain a minority concern even among them.  In our day, Italy sees a stubbornly enduring strain of Fascist nostalgia whose chief though not sole breeding grounds are the very-petty-bourgeoisie and proletariat of Rome, Naples and a few other areas.  The majority among these social classes is in fact not in any sense in sympathy with Fascism or nostalgia, but it is a well-known fact that it is among them that the evil tends to breed; and the reason for this is one of exclusion - that they have no access to the wider sense of life that means that, among the better educated and more politically-aware classes, even those who would be temperamentally in sympathy with Fascism can see the utter futility of resurrecting the ancient charade of parades, black shirts, jodhpurs and fez hats.  (This has been recognized even by the Fascist political leadership; as they recently got closer and closer to a place in government, and were involved in more and more local administrations, they have carefully shed all the folkloric blackshirted aspects, even to the extent of suffering a right-wing split.)  There is a certain leaven of upper-class membership in Fascist parties and circles, but it amounts mostly to immature and spoiled younger sons wanting to work off their twin senses of superiority and exclusion; as they grow older, they tend to grow out of it.  Nostalgia and legends of the Lost Leader tend to flourish better among those groups which are excluded, socially or otherwise, from the intellectual and social main currents.

There can be no doubt that the legend of an exiled, repentant and ascetic Vortigern was never widespread.  The signs are that it must have lingered long, however, losing contact with historical reality, before it blossomed into an organized monastic community and a cult.  By the time the community legend was first written down, the name Vortigern was universally accepted; not only does the cult not show any knowledge of the name Vitalinus, it actually forgets the dynastic names Gwydawl and Gwythelyn, Vitalis and Vitalinus.  It also admits (what the dynasty would rather die than accept) the seniority of Ambrosius' royal title as compared to Vortigern's.  The pedigree of Gurthiern carries its own ideological messages, beginning with the primacy of the Roman imperial title, from which all legitimate royal power flows.  Oddly enough, Eudav is made the son of Maximianus for the same reason why he is his father-in-law in The dream of Maxen Gwledig: because Maximianus/Maxen is the overlord of Britain.  In the Gurthiern pedigree, the inferiority of "Outham" as compared with Maximianus is signalled by his being his son; in the Welsh legend, by Maxen demanding his daughter, conquering his country, and making him its king by imperious fiat.  By the same token, the fact that Beli comes after Maximianus and Outham corresponds to the fact that he is the class representative - deity, if you will - of the tyranni/teyrnedd, the under-kings of Britain, and therefore inferior to Eudav and Maxen; in The dream of Maxen Gwledig, the same notion is expressed by Maxen driving Beli out of Britain to install Eudav in his place.  The concept, that is, is prior to Welsh legend and Breton pedigree, each of which expresses it differently.  (A related deduction is that the royalty of Conan Meriadoc, legendary founder of Brittany, was inferior in degree to that of Eudav, king of Britain, and equivalent to the teyrn-like royalty of Beli, whose brother he is according to the pedigree.)

After Beli, consciously or unconsciously, the pedigree shifts its meaning.  Until Beli - the lowest rank of king - it had been concerned with levels of royal dignity: Roman empire (Helena, Constantine, Constantius, Maximianus), all-British monarchy (Outham/Eudav), kinglet level and Breton lordships (the brothers Beli and Kenan).  After Beli, there is the meaningless interpolation of Iago and Idwal, dragged in from a North British pedigree - and then only two groups: Ambrosius with his father[13], and Gurthiern with his father and grandfather.  This obviously refers to level of seniority, or worth, within the historical background of the saint himself, rather than at the general level of world (Roman) and British society; and in that background, what the pedigree tells us is that Ambrosius son of Dos is senior to the family of Gloiu, Bonus and Gurthiern[14].

The presence of Ambrosius as grandfather of Gurthiern means that the royalty of Gurthiern derives from that of Ambrosius.  Beyond Ambrosius, the shreds of genealogies show that someone was keen to relate Gurthiern (1) to Beli, the universal ancestor of British kings; (2), to Conan Meriadoc, founder of Brittany, who is made the brother of Beli instead of, as in The dream of Maxen Gwledig, Adaon[15]; (3), to his father Eudav/Outham, by the grace of the Roman Empire king of all Britain; and (4), to the legendary Roman emperors, Maximianus and Constantine, and through them to the very revered Saint Helena and a glimpse of heavenly realities in the Cross[16].  The point of this is that Gurthiern is of the highest British royal blood, come from emperors and kings of Britain.  This dates the origin of the community to a period in which the sovereignty of Ambrosius (that is, his descendants) was not only established, but affirmed to a point where no alternative is imaginable; the community does not even conceive that their own saint might have a claim to the royal crown of Britain equal to that of "Abros son of Dos"; and it naturally sees his royalty as derived from that of the greater name[17].  The popular memory that had seized on the idea of the concealed, penitent Vortigern had moved very far from historical fact.

In fact, both the first and the second section of the Life completely lack a dynastic viewpoint.  Saint Gurthiern has Vortigernid ancestors; what he does not have - what does not turn up anywhere, even by implication or suggestion, in the two sections of the Life, or in the genealogy - is Vortigernid descendants, which are vital to understand every other Vortigern legend.  This is the first Vortigern legend we met which is completely detached from Vortigernid dynastic concerns.

It would be natural for the Vortigernids - at least the branch of the family that made its peace with Ambrosius and allowed him to grant them land - to find this sort of thing horribly unwelcome.  However much they cherished their imperial past, their own dynastic legends acknowledged the legitimacy and power of the Ambrosiads; it would not do to have a cult that represented their ancestor as a sort of martyr.  Nor would they appreciate, either, a movement that seized control of that important resource, the name of their ancestor, giving it connotations that they could not control.  There may have been branches that took a less quiet attitude to their status and did more to favour the cult of St.Vortigern; but, on the whole, I doubt that it ever had a strong dynastic connotation.  We know that, by the eighth century, the surviving Vortigernid line had adopted Saint Germanus as their patron.  The story itself tells us with great clarity that Gurthiern refused twice his father's offer to build him "a monastery with a multitude of monks"; this signals that "the Saint" - that is, his community - was consciously separated from the saint's blood-line and from any politico-religious power that might stem from it.  What was taken to Armorica from Great Britain was the cult of a great penitent and ascetic, whose penance and ascetic merit become the focus of a monastic community; there is only the vaguest idea - in the second part, no idea at all - of what might have made him a penitent and an ascetic.  The religious merit, and the formation of a religious community, are the decisive feature; this, not the formation of a dynasty, is what the legend preludes to - what it is meant to explain.

That the saint is shown to refuse the offer of a royally sponsored monastery and "a multitude of monks" tells us that the community was neither large nor closely connected with a royal family.  They apparently took some sort of pride in not being destined to be "a multitude of monks": their founder had passed up the opportunity.  When they reached Brittany, they placed themselves in the pretty, but tiny community of Anaraut/Quimperlé , at the border between two Breton kingdoms, and established friendly relations with both: the second part of the Life, much more closely involved in Breton realities than the first, emphasizes the miracles done by the saint for both Cornouaille and Bro-Erech, and speaks of "the pact of St.Gurthiern" established by the community with everyone who will keep it - that is, clearly, both its neighbours.  And this marginal location went with small size and lack of wealth.  The Life speaks of the "thousand paces" of Anaraut and the gift of two villages as though they were worth boasting of! - in the scale of endowments of mediaeval monasteries, they were surely near the poverty line.

And that being the case, we must see the geographical stages in the two legends as stages in the progress of a cult, even of a community.  A cult of a penitent, ascetic Vortigern, hinted at in the Nennian story of him wandering alone, deserted by everyone, existed in Britain: the Breton legends agree that the saint reached Quimperlé from Britain, and this must represent the progress of his community.  We need not doubt that the two sites, the northern "great valley between two mountains, with a cold river flowing through it", and the perhaps less severe spot "on the shore of the Tamar", where the saint with his two companions, an embryonic community, stayed "a long time" (he seems to have been fond of rivers) are places where cults and perhaps communities had existed; it is when the site on the river Tamar, even before those of Groix Island and Quimperlé, which the angel describes as chosen for Gurthiern by the Lord - in other words, it is a permanently consecrated site, obviously for an abbey.  Nothing easier than to link these sites, legendary or historical, as stages of the penitent's journey, with its last stage in Brittany.

Nobody ever heard of a cult of Vortigern on the shores of the Tamar.  But there is an unexplained place-name which looks as if it might have something to do with the cult: Wyrtgernesburg, reported by the reliable William of Malmesbury as the place where Coenwalh, an early king of Wessex, defeated the British in the 650s[18].  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places what seems like the same battle in Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath.  Bradford is an ancient, pre-Saxon town; but unlike Amesbury, which is not only named for Ambrosius but has plenty of reported connections with him, there is nothing to suggest that Bradford or its neighbourhood - if it was Wyrtgernesburg - had anything to do with Vitalinus as a historical figure (as we know, he seems connected with Gloucester).  On the other hand, it does have a few points that suggest the legend of St.Gurthiern.  By the time the legend was written down, the Tamar was the border river between English and British; but in the time of Coenwalh, this frontier role belonged to the Somerset Avon.  Indeed, Bradford was on a British border even before the Saxons came: the Wansdyke crosses the Avon nearby[19].  When the cult of St.Gurthiern reached Brittany, it rooted itself in Quimperle', straddling the border between Cornouaille and Bro-Erech and with lands and royal patrons - if on a modest scale - in both kingdoms.  (Surely this cannot have been widespread?  The evident connection of Welsh learning with specific families, with the Vortigernids having a body of legends of their own, the Ambrosiads having what I have called the Ambrosian file, and other such phenomena, strongly suggest that institutions of learning such as monasteries tended to depend on one particular royal patron family.)  It would seem that it found a position straddling frontiers and sitting over rivers comfortable and natural; in other words, when it forgot what its original location in Britain had been, it settled on the Tamar as an obvious place.  The original site in Britain had been doubly forgotten, not only because it was misplaced to the Tamar, but also because the Saint himself was made to come and die in Brittany; which argues for a considerable lapse of time between the end of the British cult - which was probably in the 650s, and certainly in the late 500s/early 600s, when the English overran the country - and the writing of the first part of the Life; we may therefore place the latter at some point before the Carolingian age, perhaps in the 700s.

The cult, then, with its wreckage of memories of a penitent who had once been a king - who had once been king "of" the English - who had committed a great sin and left his royal house for ever to wander to the cold north - who was of the highest British blood - the cult was carried over to Brittany.  What its status was in Britain we cannot imagine; the evidence does not suggest that the Vortigernids did anything much to support it, and Nennius may be said to take a dismissive view: Vortigern did not engage in constructive repentance, but merely in the sin of despair.  The difference is perfectly clear to any Christian ecclesiastic.

The most interesting thing about the cult of Saint Gurthiern is the existence of the cult itself.  Everything about this cult - including the very simple, fable-like form in which its stories have come down to us, which does not argue the existence of any great storytelling skills among the brothers - suggests a popular origin. Religious movements of popular origin, or at least of popular character, existed in Gildasian Britain; Gildas, as we have seen, severely reprimands certain religious extremists who preferred slaves to masters and commons to kings, who may perhaps be identified with the severe monastery of St.David. It can never have been very important, and it seems to have died out altogether in the mother island, perhaps snuffed out when the Saxons overran Bradford; but it is relevant to us for what it tells us of the after-life of Vortigern's reputation outside the manipulative hands of self-interested rival noble houses, and what it suggests of the life of social classes not often heard from in this period.


[1]Irish ecclesiastical legend knows two or three people called Foirtchern - a natural Irish development of British *Vertigernos - of whom the earliest was supposed to have lived in the late fifth century and be the son of a British mother; so it seems that in Ireland, but not in Britain, the usurper's despised nickname did develop into a proper name.

[2]This, to say the least, is odd. If Gurthiern, at this time, was but a young man, and his father still not too old to fight in battle, how could they have a sister/daughter old enough to have a son old enough to fight? But then, we cannot expect coherence from a legend which is in effect a hotchpotch of commonplaces used much better elsewhere.

[3]Here we begin to have a kind of jejune repetitions that remind me strongly of the style of the Annales Romanorum. They recur throughout the first part, and then do not appear at all in the second.

[4]This looks as though it might originally have embodied a genuine topographical tradition, though as things stand "a valley between two high mountains" is not very helpful; even in Britain - not the world's hilliest country - there are more than enough of those. It might even refer to Gwrtheyrnion, but as three separate sources - this Life, the Nennian version of Vortigern 1, and the Cambridge interpolations - speak of a northern place of exile for Vortigern, we should look in that direction. The Cambridge interpolation actually places it in Wigton, near Carlisle and not very mountainous as Cumbria goes; on the other hand, that is mentioned as the lesser royal seat of Vortigern - not as his place of religious exile. We must think of a remote and isolated place; in whatever imagination ever thought of this scene, it was far enough from normal people that only a venturesome hunter would go there.

[5]In the text, emergit, he rises (present) out of the river, which makes no sense; surely a double blunder for demersit, he plunged. The author did not realize that the perfect of mergo (emergo, demergo) is not mergi but mersi; and either he or a copyist dropped the initial d.

[6]This suggests the existence of a holy well of St.Gurthiern in the area described, since immersion up to the neck was the ritual practiced by Welsh pilgrims to certain holy wells, in particular the famous one of St.Winifred at Holywell; in other words, Gurthiern is acting like the prototype of a pilgrim to a holy well, setting the pattern, as it were. One Thomas Pennard saw Catholic pilgrims plunging into Winifred's well as late as 1795: ELIZABETH REES, Celtic Saints: passionate wanderers, London 2000, 80.

[7]We notice that at this point the two servants are taking part in the actions of the saint, as we read that "they" (plural) hear the woman, and that "they" proceed to her and question her. At this point, the individual hermit has turned into an embryo community: an important stage for the history of a monastery.

[8]The woman, however, only addresses one "servant of God" - obviously the leader, Gurtheirn.


[10]Another Latin misspelling: commendavit (entrusted, recommended) for commandavit (commanded). The sentence has no object, nobody or nothing for the angel to entrust or recommend them to.

[11]There is a striking difference between the vocabulary used for Gradlon "the great", who is a "Consul" and sends legati, a vague number of unnamed ambassadors, and Guerech (Erec), who is a Count and sends three named nuntii. This looks as though it might refer to a difference in status.

[12]The tree of justice, in Rewards and fairies. The original account is translated by RICHARD BARBER, British myths and legends, London 1998, 451-466.

[13]Where Dos comes in is not clear to me. We might have a trace of the otherwise lost name of the Mild King, some Roman name such as Decius; or it might derive, as the editors of the Cartulary suggested, from the attribute Ambros Da - Ambrosius the Good, though that, unlike Ambrosius Golden-Head and King Ambrosius of the Five Parts, is not witnessed elsewhere. I notice that the elements of this composite artificial pedigree tend to come in groups of two or three, assembled from known Welsh pedigrees: Vortigern | son of Bonus son of Glou [dynasty of Vortigern] | son of Abros son of Dos | son of Iago son of Idwal [dynasty of Coel]| son of Beli | son of Eudaf hen "son of" Maximianus [dynasty of Maxen]| son of Constantius son of Constantine son of Helen, who found the Holy Cross [hagiography of Constantine and St.Helena]| his mother was Dinoi daughter of Lidinnin [dynasty of St.Kentigern]. The order of Maximianus/ Maxen and Eudaf, as well as their relationship, are very different from those of The dream of Maxen Gwledig; but the only figure who does not appear with a known relative is Beli, pressed however into service as - of all things - brother of Kenan, that is the Conan who was Eudaf's son in Maxen, and who, as Conan Meriadoc, is the legendary founder of Brittany; that is, Beli is part of that particular dynasty and does not contradict the overall picture. It follows that the coupling of Abros son of Dos is an ancient designation that pre-dates the genealogy.

[14]An exactly similar and equally fictional genealogical picture is drawn, amusingly enough, with respect to Vortigern himself, by the pedigree of the Catellids of Powys, as found both on the ruined Pillar of Eliseg and in one of the lists of Jesus College Ms.20, in which Cadell is the grandson of Vortigern - we remember that the *Gesta Germani made them contemporaries! - who is the son-in-law of the last Roman emperor, Maxen. This manifests a downwards progression: from the last Roman emperor, through the first king of Britain (the Catellids evidently accepted the Nennian view that Vortigern was the first legitimate king of the island) to the founder of the kingdom of Powys. This kind of descent list is a legal claim for the legitimacy of a dynasty's rule, not a historical record; certainly a Vitalinus who was young in 429 can hardly be the son-in-law of a Magnus Clemens Maximus who died in 388 along with an adult son!

[15]This suggests that the Bretons found a brother character necessary to their picture of Conan, but were open to suggestions as to his real identity.

[16]It seems probable that the immense popularity of St.Helena's legend and cult in the Middle Ages has to do with her somehow validating and Christianizing, through being the mother of Constantine and the finder of the True Cross, the Roman Empire; of which most Christian Europeans felt, until quite late, that they were ultimately citizens (read, for instance, Dante's political treatise De Monarchia, with its faith in the ultimate importance of universal monarchy).

[17]There may of course have been an element of conscious bending with the wind, but, if so, it was so naive and obvious that it might never have impressed either Ambrosiads or Vortigernids, who, to judge by Gildas' Ambrosian views on the one hand, and the Vortigernid legends on the other, were conscious of their rival claims till the end - even when the Vortigernids, in the legend of the two dragons, acknowledged the finality of Ambrosiad success.

[18]WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY, The kings before the Norman conquest, tr.Joseph Stephenson, Llanerch 1989 (reprint), 1.19 (p.19).

[19]When the Saxons took Bradford from the British - both sides, by then, were Christian - they imposed an evidently intrusive cult of Saint Lawrence, a Roman martyr then at the height of his popularity. Pilgrims to Rome would visit the magnificent church dedicated to him only a few decades before; in other words, his cult had the characteristic of being very visibly Roman and Catholic. I do not think we would be too far wrong if we saw it as replacing, quite programmatically, a British cult which was objectionable to English or Roman eyes, and while this proves nothing, the cult of an uncanonical saint identified with one of the most ill-famed kings in British legend would probably not impress Saxons or Romans. Bibliotheca Sanctorum, Rome 1962, s.v. Lorenzo.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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