Mythical Mondays: The Rise and Fall of Vortigern

Legend of the Sword

In the movie, King Arthur Legend of the Sword, Jude Law portrays Vortigern. He is Arthur’s uncle, the brother of his father, Uther Pendragon. Vortigern murders Uther and usurps the throne. By sacrificing his wife and daughter, he is able to transform into a demon knight.

First of all, I’d like to say I freaking LOVED this movie! It was a different and unusual portrayal of the legend of King Arthur, and I’m okay with that. Change is good! I enjoy seeing different versions being told. It add the element of surprise and the unexpected.

The Real Vortigern–Well Before Arthur’s Time

Stories and legends about Vortigern have been circulating for the last millennia or so. Like the movie Vortigern has never really been held in high regard but unlike the movie, he wasn’t even in the picture by the time Arthur came into being.

My favourite account of Vortigern is by Nennius. In his History of Britain, he presents Vortigern as a villain who was proud, anti-Christian, incestuous, and sold his country out to the Saxons.

Britain invaded by Picts and Scots

By the 5th century, Rome had withdrawn its legions from Britain, leaving them unprotected and floundering from invasions from the north. The Picts and Scots were relentless in their attacks.

Vortigern is believed by some to have risen to power because his wife, Severa. She was the daughter of Magnus Maximus, a much loved Roman Emperor and the predecessor to Constantine. This gave Vortigern quite a bit of drag in the court.

Vortigern, acting as an advisor to King Constantine III, bargained with the Picts for peace in the country. Unfortunately, he offered them more than Constantine could possibly give.

When the Picts come looking for payment, Vortigern made his King out to be the bad guy who wouldn’t fulfill his end of the bargain. In return, Constantine was murdered by a Pictish assassin.

Murder and Betrayal

Constantine III had three sons, Constans the oldest, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther. Constans was barely a teenager at the time of his father’s death, and had planned to go live a life of quiet reflection in a monastery. His brothers were barely toddlers at the time.

With Constans so young king, Vortigern took on the role of advisor once again, this time having full control of the kingdom. That still wasn’t good good enough for Vortigern, however so he had Constans murdered. Vortigern usurped the throne, taking full control of the kindom. Aurelius and Uther were whisked off to safety in Brittany where they lived with their uncle Budic I of Brittany.

The Saxons

Vortigern now had free reign of the kingdom as high king or, “superbus tyrannus” as Nennius referred to him. But what was he going to do about the Picts? They still wanted their due, and expected Vortigern to deliver.

Enter the Saxons. Vortigern made a deal with the Saxons to help drive off the Picts. He would give them the Isle of Thanet in exchange for the deed. When Hengist and his brother Horsa arrived with their troops they did not bring enough men or supplies. They begin taking from the neighboring villages which becomes a huge problem. Vortigern begins to worry that they are a worse problem than the Picts and asks them to leave.

By now, Vortigern’s wife Sevira has died in childbirth. Without her, he has lost much of the influence he carried over many of the rulers of Britain. He is losing support as leader.

Rowena, Vortigern’s Downfall

Hengist negotiates with Vortigern. He left and returned to Britain with sixteen vessels as well as his daughter Rowena,(also known in some sources as Ronwen).

When they arrive, the Saxons throw a huge party. They invite Vortigern, got him completely drunk on wine and ale and he falls foolishly and madly in love with Rowena.

He promised Hengist anything he wanted, if only he could marry her. Hengist agrees. His price? The province of Kent. Needless to say, Guoyrancgonus who reigned in Kent at the time, was not happy at all with this arrangement.

Vortimer, Son of Vortigern


Once Vortigern and Hengist have become related by marriage, Hengist demands more and more. Vortigern is more than willing to keep the peace but Vortigern’s oldest son Vortimer is disgusted with his behavior.

Vortimer raised his own army and declared himself a rival leader. For a short time, he managed to hold the Saxons back. He became wounded in battle, however, and was somehow poisoned by his step-mother Rowena.

Saxon Rebellion

As the Saxons demanded more food and clothing to supply their increased numbers. Vortigern refused them. There were just too many of them. The Saxons did not like being refused and rebelled, tearing through the land, leaving devastation wherever they went.

Many were killed during the ensuing battles. Horsa’s son was killed as well as another son of Vortigern, Catigern.

Peace Conference Gone Wrong

Hengist eventually called for a peace conference on Salisbury Plain. When British arrived, they were treacherously cut down where they stood.

Vortigern was saved with the requirement to hand over Essex and Sussex as a ransom. This betrayal resulted in several generations of war between the Saxons and Britons.

Weak-Willed and Manipulated

Many accounts by early historians, especially Nennius, suggest that Vortigern was simply too weak-willed to compete with the Saxon king Hengist. He allowed himself to be manipulated, and let the Saxons dominate the Britons.

The Tower That Wouldn’t Be Built

Under threat from the Saxons, Vortigern flees to Dinas Emrys in north Wales where he tries to have a tower built. There are major problems with its construction. No matter how skilled the masons are, the building falls over. Every morning they wake to the previous days work in ruins.

Vortigern’s magicians tell him that he must sacrifice a youth who has no father and sprinkle the blood on the foundation for the tower to rise.

Merlin, just a boy at the time, is chosen as the sacrifice but he has the smarts to question the magicians.  He then tells them that if they dismantle the tower, they will find a pool beneath it which is causing the problem.

I’m impressed that they actually take him seriously! They take the tower down, and there is a pool underneath, just as Merlin predicted.

Red Dragon, White Dragon

He then tells Vortigern to drain the pool and he will find two hollow stones with two dragons asleep inside.

The king then has the pool drained and finds the stones and dragons, one white and the other red.

The two dragons are locked in mortal combat. The red dragon eventually won. Merlin explained that the White dragon represented the Saxons, the Red Dragon the people of Briton.

Woe unto the Red Dragon, for his extermination draweth nigh; and his caverns shall be occupied of the White Dragon that betokeneth the Saxons whom thou hast invited hither. But the Red signifieth the race of Britain that shall be oppressed of the White. Therefore shall the mountains and the valleys thereof be made level plain and the streams of the valleys shall flow with blood. The rites of religion shall be done away and the ruin of churches be made manifest. At the last, she that is oppressed shall prevail and resist the cruelty of them that come from without. For the Boar of Cornwall shall bring succour and shall trample their necks beneath his feet. (VII, 3)

Although the Saxons were defeating and taking over the Britons right now, the Boar of Cornwall is coming and is going to trample them. Who is the Boar of Cornwall? No doubt, King Arthur!

The Rightful Heir Returns

By now, Ambrosius Aurelianus was on the scene, ready to take back the throne that was rightfully his. Vortigern had previously had no fear of the child but by now he and Uther had grown into a burly young men.

Ambrosius pursued Vortigern driving him south to a wooden castle on the old hillfort of Caer-Guorthigirn (Little Doward). Here, the castle was miraculously struck by lightning and Vortigern burned to death.

It was now up to Ambrosius Aurelianus to put a stop to the Saxons. That’s a story for another day!

More information about Vortigern

Geneology of the King of Powys

The Eliseg Pillar traces the lineage of Eliseg, a Welsh ruler, on a monument that is more than 1100 years old. The Latin inscription, though illegible in areas, traces his lineage back to Vortigern. And this can be used to place Vortigen at around 400 CE

It stands on a middle bronze age burial cairn and was at one time topped with a large stone cross.

The pillar states that Vortigern was married to Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus and gives a line of descent leading to the royal family of Powys.

There are 31 lines inscribed in Latin and also mentions his sons.



Historians Who Wrote about Vortigern

Gildas c. 500-570 CE, who first refers to him as “superbus tyrannus”, a usurper to the throne and blames him for the Saxon invasion.

Bede 672-735 CE, who first calls him ‘Vortigern’.

Nennius is a 9th century Welsh monk presents him as weak-willed and foolish in The History of Britain.

William of Malmesbury c. 1095 – c. 1143 CE, who claims he was a slave to his desires and easily manipulated.

Geoffrey of Monmouth c. 1100 – c. 1155 CE, gives the fullest description of him as a villain

French poet Wace 1110-1174 CE, who follows the lead of Nennius and Geoffrey