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The Worst King of the Britons


Vortigern, the King who gave Britain away

Spare a thought for Vortigern. A man who tried to hold his people together in hard times, who miscalculated badly and is remembered in legend as the King who gave Britain away.

He is held responsible for the demise of the Britons in the 5th century by inviting the Saxon mercenaries to help him repel Pictish raiders from his territory. Vortigern underestimated the Saxons. The mercenaries not only stayed, but encouraged increased numbers to join them, only to find that the settlement area and provisions were far from adequate.

The result was long, terrible years of slaughter on both sides. It was a bad mistake, but surely not enough to be remembered as the Worst King of the Britons.

Vortigern and the Treaty with the Saxons

Who was Vortigern?

The story goes that Vortigern ruled Britain during the early to mid 400s, having taken the leadership from Constantine, the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther Pendragon.

He then proceeded to invite the Saxons, under Hengist and his brother Horsa, into Britain as mercenaries to help fight the invading Scots and Picts. He gave the Saxons what is roughly the present county of Kent which they used as a base to increase their presence in Southern England.


The Historical Vortigern

We meet an historical Vortigern in the writings of the monk, Gildas, a near contemporary of Vortigern, in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae written around 540.

He tells us how Vortigern made a foolish mistake in inviting "the fierce and impious Saxons" as mercenaries to counter the threat from the Picts in the north.

According to Gildas, a small group came at first, then invited more of their countrymen and the colony grew. Eventually the Saxons broke their treaty and plundered the lands of the Romano-British.

Gildas described the British resistance, the war chief Ambrosius, and the defeat of the invaders at the battle of Mount Badon.

The Marriage of Vortigern and Rowena

In the list of Vortigern's sins and crimes is his marriage to Rowena 'the pagan woman' (Ronnwenn paganes).

Now why this was seen as a crime is no mystery. Who recorded the marriage of King Vortigern? The monks who hated the Saxon Gods! And the marriage was held at the Winter Solstice when the Christians celebrated the birth of their Saviour. In any case the marriage was one which was marked by love and deep devotion. It may have been intended only as a dynastic union for political purposes but Rowena and Vortigern lived in happiness together.

The story of their deep affection for each other is another reason the monks despised Vortigern. It may have been a fabrication circulated from the monastery, but I like to think this particular aspect of the story is true.

Vortigern and Rowena

Vortigern accepts the Wassail Cup

Vortigern accepts the Wassail Cup

Rowena and the Wassail Cup

There's an interesting story about Rowena and Vortigern and a custom still used in parts of the world today.

During a celebration with the Saxons, hosted by King Vortigern, Rowena raised her cup and proclaimed, "Louerd King, waes hael," Lord King, be hale! (Meaning be of good health) to which he cried out, "Drink, hael!"

The two became enamored with each other, met in a rendezvous of passionate lovemaking, and were joined in marriage the next day.

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Our word "wassail" traces back to this historical event, and commonly refers to drinking from a large bowl or loving cup on Christmas Day.

Though what passes for wassail today is nothing more than mulled cider before dinner, this story of a British King who was reviled by history and his toast to his Saxon wife is where the custom began.


The Tower of Vortigern

Merlin's Prophecy - A story compiled from folktales

It was said that Vortigern decided to build a tower on top of Dinas Emrys. This was a magnificent hill, and upon it would be a magnificent testament to the power of Vortigern, a tower taller than any in all of Britain.

But each day, after the foundation was laid, the night would swallow it up.

The seers advised Vortigern to find a lad without a father. After a search, young Merlin and his mother were brought forward.

The boy told Vortigern that a pool beneath the site was causing the foundation to sink. Workmen dug beneath the site and indeed a pool of water was discovered.

Then Merlin asked the other magicians, "Tell me, now, you lying flatterers. What lies beneath the pool?" They could not say.

Merlin ordered the pool to be drained, and two dragons emerged, one red, one white. After the dragons had battled, Merlin prophesied, "Alas for the Red Dragon, for its end is near. It will be overrun by the White one, the Saxons.

Merlin continued with his prophecy, telling Vortigern that Ambrosius and Uther, the sons of Constantine, were sailing from Armorica to defeat the Saxons. "Even as I speak they are spreading their sails to cross the sea. They will conquer the Saxon people, and then burn you alive, shut up inside your tower!".

Things happened as Merlin had foretold.


Sons of Woden

Hengist and Horsa

Woden was the chief god of the Germanic warrior tribes, including the Angles and Saxons, and most Saxon kings of England claimed descent from Woden. Among them were Hengest and Horsa, the legendary founders of the English nation.

Vortigern had unknowingly unleashed a threat to his kingdom with his invitation to the brothers.

The danger signs had been there from the start- Hengest and Horsa had agreed to help Vortigern on condition that they could bring more warriors with them than had first been suggested.

Legend tells us of a great battle at Ayelsford in which Horsa was killed (c.455), and that Vortigern perished in a burning hut.


Is it Legend or History?

Hengist continued his war in Britain for another 18 years. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives evidence of his ferocity. 'The Britons gave up Kent and in great fear fled to London .. the Welsh fled as one flees fire'.

But were Hengest and Horsa historical figures ? There is no corroborating evidence to show that Hengest or Horsa ever existed, or even if they were actually the same character.

Hengest is recorded in two other Anglo-Saxon literary sources: Beowulf and The Finnesburh fragment. These go a long way to suggest that he probably did exist, but matters are confused because 'Hengest' and 'Horsa' both mean literally 'horse', with Horsa just being an alternative name for Hengest in another dialect.

The tribal names, Hengest and Horsa, may all be mythical, but in the 5th century a Jutish chief and his retinue did arrive in Kent, did serve a British king, and did revolt, preparing the way for the later settlement of Kent.


The Saxons

This map, more or less connected to Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa, shows three homogeneous and related groups called Saxons, Jutes, and Angles.

Although known generically as Saxons, these people were culturally slightly different. The name is drawn from their distinctive weapon, the 'Seax'.

To counter the threat of the Saxons, coastal and estuary defences were erected, and possibly some of the old Roman ones repaired.

Around the year 500 the Britons who, we are told, were under the command of Arthur, defeated the Saxons at Mount Badon, and halted the Germanic invaders.

Almost 400 years later, it was a Saxon king, Alfred, who held off Danish invaders,eventually signing an historic treaty with the Northmen.

Britain had become a Saxon kingdom. Angleland.

A Saxon Earl

Stellan Skarsgard as the Saxon Earl, Cerdic, in the film, King Arthur

Stellan Skarsgard as the Saxon Earl, Cerdic, in the film, King Arthur

Stellan Skarsgard played a convincing Saxon Earl in the 2004 movie, King Arthur. He portrayed Cerdic, who landed on the southern coast of England toward the end of the 5th century, roughly the time of Vortigern, and of the War Leader, Arthur.

Cerdic became the first King of Wessex.

Hengist and Horsa may be characters from legend only, but Cerdic was an historical man. He is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and descent from Cerdic became a necessary criterion for later kings of Wessex. Subsequent rulers of England claimed him as an ancestor.

Whitehorse Hill

Whitehorse Hill, Uffington

Whitehorse Hill, Uffington


The White Horse

Popular folklore tells us that when the Saxons invaded Britain, they carried a White Horse standard. They most probably did.

In the English countryside there are several "white horses".

One of the most famous is the White Horse of Uffington, cut on the slopes of White Horse Hill, a downland viewpoint in the Vale of the White Horse, Berkshire.

This is probably the oldest example of this type of hill figure in Britain, and can only be seen properly from the air. The Uffington Horse has lasted through the centuries because of the periodic cleaning of it, known as 'scouring', held as a festive occasion by local villagers. It's now maintained by the ancient monuments section of the Department of the Environment.

The horse was a potent symbol for early peoples and even today, more than 1500 years after Hengest and Horsa, the county of Kent has a horse as its symbol.

  • Why the Red Dragon Is the Emblem of Wales
    Legend told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (ca. 1136) and printed in The Welsh Fairy Book, compiled by W. Jenkyn Thomas, (first published 1907)
  • Vortigern Studies
    An informative website featuring Britain's history from the end of the Roman era to Arthurian times. It focuses primarily on the person of Vortigern and the enigmatic earthwork called Wansdyke

What was worse for the People of Britain?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Susanna Duffy

Want to leave a Comment for Vortigern? - This is where you do it!

Susanna Duffy (author) from Melbourne Australia on September 13, 2014:

I really like the comment about "holiday brochures in Scandinavia, for seaside activity holidays in Britain". Made me laugh out loud

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on February 17, 2014:

i found this an interesting bit of history. i also learned quite a few new things. that's always a plus. great lens.

Giovanna from UK on January 27, 2014:

History or legend - Vortigern evokes a deep sense of how hard it is to do what is best!! A great lens I love you r images.

anonymous on April 26, 2013:

This is really interesting .....well you learn something new each day

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on November 03, 2012:

I am glad that Vortigern so unexpectedly found true love. Hope you had a great holiday. I am sure that you have brought back a lot of images and information for a number of new articles.

anonymous on May 09, 2012:

Have never heard of Vortigern before. Interesting stuff.

ccrcats on January 17, 2012:

What a great story.

OldStones LM on December 23, 2011:

I thought i was fairly well versed in history/legend, but I do not recall Vortigern. I enjoy learning about him though.

therealstig86 on March 06, 2011:

i was never that hot on history, but this is a great story, I'd have studied more if history was like this at school!

ChrisDay LM on December 02, 2010:

I'd love to have seen the holiday brochures in Scandinavia, for seaside activity holidays in Britain . . . .

Addy Bell on September 21, 2010:

What a fun lens! Thank you.

Indigo Janson from UK on January 16, 2010:

So this is where the white horses and wassailing come from! A most enjoyable journey into history here. I'm glad Greekgeek's new blog featured this fascinating lens or I might not have discovered it.

Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on October 07, 2008:

I'm not sure the Saxons were bad for Britain in the long term because they made us what we are, maybe the same could be said for the Vikings. It was just really tough for the people who got killed and suffered in the raids.

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