Vortigern

An Arthurian warrior. Arthur was the first Romano-British war leader to use mounted warriors against the invading Saxons. Lightly armed, carrying a small round shield and with a cavalry lance, these horsemen were the prototype of the later medieval armoured knights.

The defences of Cadbury Camp. The steep ram- parts would have been additionally strengthened by having massive wooden defences built onto them, making them virtually impassable.

Night of the Long Knives. Vortigern, usurper of Britain, called the leaders of both Celtic and Roman factions to meet peacefully with the Saxons at Stonehenge. At the start of the council the Saxons rose up and massacred the Britons.

The mystery cults introduced by Rome still survived vestigially, side by side with vigorous native cults of gods who were the direct ancestors of some British royal families, and whose exploits were a matter off a milial pride in the relation of poetic genealogies.

These factors show that life – at least on the surface – continued much as it had always done in Britain. However, in areas like Wales, where Roman rule had always been most tenuous, a new generation of British chieftains was beginning to assert itself. Many were descendants of tribes which had been planted by Roman overlords along the old border country between Britain and the Pictish tribes (in much the same manner as Cromwell planted Presbyterian Scots in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century). There they had grown strong, and some, like the famous Cunedda, had migrated to Wales, where they drove out the few settlements of Irish pirates and settled there, firmly entrenched behind the natural defence of mountain ranges like Snowdonia.

Once these petty kings understood that contact with Rome was finally severed, they began to come down from their mountain fastnesses and establish territories in the Midlands.

The resulting mayhem caused a ripple of panic which spread rapidly throughout the whole province. It was this which, together with the steady influx of the Picts and continued raids from Ireland, may have prompted the leaders of the Romano- British faction to call for help from a Gaulish magistrate and general named Aetius, whom Gildas calls ‘Agitus’. We learn of this from one of the few surviving sources of information we possess for this period. It comes in the writing of the British monk, Gildas, whose chronicle De Excidio Britonum (‘The Ruin of Britain’) is really a long diatribe against various native ‘tyrants’ – one of whom, though unnamed, is probably Arthur – and the general state of decay and ungodliness then rife in the island. The letter to Aetius begins thus:

To Agitus, thrice consul, the groans of the British. . .. The barbarians push us back to the sea; the sea throws us back to the barbarians; thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.

But Aetius was unable to help. Under his not-inconsiderable leadership, the Gaulish Roman forces had been able to consolidate sufficiently to unite the warring tribes into a loose-knit confederacy which later drove back Atilla’s Huns. But this left him no opportunity to respond to ‘the groans of the British’ and the crumbling administration was left to organise its own defence against both the northern barbarians and the fast-growing strength of the native British tribes.

At is at this point that the first among a number of more or less discernible characters emerges from the darkness of post-Roman- Britain. This is the man usually known by the name Vortigern (though in fact this name may mean no more than chieftain) who bore a British name but claimed Roman parentage. His wife is believed to have been the daughter of the great Magnus Maximus (who proclaimed himself emperor in 383 and marched on Rome). Vortigern may also have been able to claim British descent, since he is later shown as (unsuccessfully) attempting to unite the opposing Roman and British factions against their common enemies from the north and west. Certainly by 441-2 he held high office among the administrative hierarchy, and when the still very Romanised nobility looked to Roman inspiration to aid them Vortigern seems to have been able to fit the bill.

At any rate, when no response was forthcoming from Gaul (it may have been Vortigern who sent the letter to Aetius) the Britons were forced to take action for themselves. They succeeded, possibly under the leadership of Vortigern, in putting an end for a time to the worst of the Irish raids, and in containing the Picts beyond the Wall. But this was a state which could not last, and the recurrent threat of attack from the native rulers of Britain was a continual nagging thorn in the side of the Roman administration.

It should be understood that Vortigern was almost certainly not a king in the general sense of the word, although he is called this by later writers who saw him as a paramount figure among the numerous petty rulers of the time. Like Ambrosius and Arthur, who followed him, he was an able administrator and leader of men who did his best to restore some semblance of order to his ravaged land.

Unfortunately, history has not served him well, and he is remembered as at worst a tyrant and at best a fool whose blunder caused the final breakdown of all that remained of Roman rule in Britain.

Whether this image is a true one is no longer easy to say with any certainty. For what happened next in the history of the war-torn island is crucial and at Vortigern’s door, one way or the other, the blame must be laid.

When the ‘call for help’ sent to Aetius elicited no response, Vortigern (or someone with similar responsibilities and authority) called in a group of Saxon federati to help. It is possible that these were already settled in part of southern Britain (probably Kent) or that they were a remnant of one of the old Roman legions recruited in Europe years before. Gildas as well as other sources speaks of three shiploads of men under the leadership of a chieftain named Hengist (‘Son of Wodan, “God forbid!” ‘) who were given lands in Kent and Essex as a reward for their services.

Initially, at least, they were active in aiding the Britons against the Picts, but having once seen the richness of the country they had come to defend (compared with their own sparse holdings along the coast of what is now Holland) they sought lands in which to settle more permanently.

Based on the evidence of Gildas, repeated in Nennius and Bede, we are able to establish a date ofc. 443-4 for the initial advent of Saxon settlers -though these were still confined to the areas ‘gifted’ to them by Vortigern or his like. By 449 they were well established along the western seaboard and Nennius tells us they had taken the Isle of Thanet and were seeking still larger holdings. Nennius also tells us that Hengist saw that he had only simple ‘savages’ to deal with (though the boot could well be said to be on the other foot) and brought another sixteen shiploads (keels) of men to Britain, along with his daughter, with whom Vortigern conveniently ‘fell in love’. In fact, it was probably an arranged deal sealed over several pots of wine. Octa and Ebissa, Hengist’s cousins, were given the whole area beyond the Wall, which they would have to secure for themselves, and this seems to have opened the way to more wide- spread colonization. The Saxons promptly took the Orkneys and attacked the Picts from the north, effectively calling a halt to their attack on Britain for some time to come.

However, it seemed that by inviting these men from across the sea the British administration had replaced one menace with another. As Bede’s account puts it:

It was not long before such hoards of these alien people vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror. Then all of a sudden the Angles made an alliance with the Picts, whom by this time they had driven some distance away, and began to turn their arms against their allies. They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions; then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would ravage the whole island.

When they did not get what they wanted (one suspects that Vortigern’s sup- porters baulked at the idea of giving anything more away) ‘they were not slow to carry out their threat’.

In desperation, with his military position weakened and his popularity waning, Vortigern sought to make a new treaty with his ‘allies’. A gathering was arranged at which a hundred British leaders were to meet a similar number of Saxon nobles. Somehow, Vortigern persuaded them to come unarmed as a gesture of good faith; he himself had by then agreed to marry Hengist’s daughter. The result was the terrible episode known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, in which the Saxons, having hidden knives in their boots, at a given signal rose up and massacred the Britons, presumably before Vortigern’s horrified gaze.

He himself managed to escape and, pursued by both Saxons and Britons, fled to Wales where he eventually met his death. With his going, any semblance of organisation crumbled almost to nothing. The Saxons were left to run free, marauding through the length and breadth of the land, only a few of the larger fortified towns being able to withstand their onslaught, hurriedly throwing up new defences and recruiting militia from the local areas. By 435 things looked bleak enough to merit the first entry in the Annates Cambriae – ‘days as dark as night’.

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