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

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Book VI: Vortigern: legends and history

This is the longest and most complex book in the study. It argues that the historical figure known to us as Vortigern became the protagonist of at least three separate legend-cycles, partly due to the fact that he was claimed as ancestor by at least two separate and distinct royal families (the Vortigernid-Pascentiads, first in the North and then in Gwrtheyrnion, and the Vortigernid-Brituids of Powys), with different mythologies and even different narrative cultures. From the analysis, deconstruction and reconstruction of the legends, a great deal may be learned about culture and politics in the Welsh dark ages.

 

This argues that the man who became Vortigern became a subject of legend by being confronted with Ambrosius as a pair of The Proud (Vortigern) and The Modest (Ambrosius), in which the "pride" of Vortigern reflected the wealth and splendour - remembered, but hopelessly lost - of pre-442 Roman Britain. In later ages, his image was progressively darkened by the increasing importance of the Saxons, which he had admitted.

Analysis of the legend of Vortigern told by Nennius and by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The two writers tell separate and incompatible versions of the story, which are both two stages removed from a sixth-century original which represented the family legend of a dynasty claiming descent from Vortigern. I argue that the original tone of the legend was decidedly favourable to him.

Analysis of the Irish legend of Conn Hundred-Battles, which is known to have a great many parallels with that of Vortigern and Vortimer; deepening and extending the comparison, it sheds more light on the Celtic royal ideology already investigated in Book I, proposes some hypotheses about the origin of the Vortigern legend and its significance in sixth-century Britain; and, incidentally, proposes some possibilities about Irish prehistory.

The characters of Hengist and Horsa are separated from that of Ronwein, arguing that Ronwein is part of a Welsh legend cycle, but Hengist and Horsa are Kentish legendary figures whose importance has been artificially raised by the Oiscing dynasty of Kent, and whose connection with the legends of Ronwein and Vortigern is very late indeed. It also makes some suggestions about the early history of English Kent, and tries to show that the Nennian notice about King Urien is not history but legend.

Vortigern’s actual name was Vitalinus. He was not killed by the Saxons, but kept in power as a puppet ruler; it was Ambrosius who killed him. Further analysis of Nennian and Galfridian legend finds among other things that the Vortigernids of Gwrtheyrnion used a small number of annalistic data to build another legend of Vortigern and St.Germanus; that Nennius, who was from Gwrtheyrnion himself, was favourable to Vortigern, while Geoffrey was hostile; and Geoffrey never read Nennius, since in all the stories they share Geoffrey follows versions incompatible with those of Nennius.

The part of Geoffrey’s Vortigern legend which has no counterpart in Nennius, and has to do with his relationship with the house of Constantine and Ambrosius, is shown to depend on a quite separate set of legends, originated among the Vortigernid-Brituids of Powys, which Geoffrey himself harmonized with the legend of the fortress and the dragons. This story, in turn, is shown to be the rewriting of a previous account. A number of historical conclusions are drawn.

Further study of Geoffrey’s Vortigern legends shows that he had, directly or indirectly, some sort of credible chronological framework for the British fifth century; and that the other Vortigern legend was probably written in Powys in the period of Cadwallon of Gwynedd (the 630s). The Powysian Vortigern legend, in turn, is shown to include an anti-Vortigern sixth-century legend and a possibly historical account of Ambrosius’ Saxon victories. Another source is identified, a later story of St.Illtyd and his supposed brother Eldol, meant to connect the legend of Hengist with that of Ambrosius.

A curious Breton cult of Vortigern as a penitent saint is analyzed, and shown to have a popular origin and some possible correspondences in Nennius. Some further conclusions about sixth- and seventh-century Britain are reached.

A word-by-word analysis of Nennius’ chapters 31-50, intended to identify all their separate sources and possible allusions, followed by an analysis of the identified sources.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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