Four chapters ago Gwrtheyrn was briefly mentioned as an example of evolving British kingship during the sixth century. Eleven chapters before that, his development as a literary character was examined as a part of The Kentish Source’s development. To understand his career better, it will be simplest to focus on his progression as a character in British history and then critically examine that against what we have already learned.
Gwrtheyrn first appears in Gildas as superbus tyrannus – “Overking”. There he is credited with inviting the first Germanic tribes over to Britain. In the Late Roman tradition, he settled them in the troubled areas of the island and promised to feed and house them in return for their services as mercenaries against the Picts and their fellow Germanic tribesmen.
This story is all wrong though. As we have seen, there is no evidence that a single king controlled Britain during the fifth century. In fact, from the break down of Roman provincial government, to the settlements of the Irish, the known activities of the fifth century kings, and into the sixth century alliances demonstrates a consistent trend of emerging and developing kingships beginning in the late fifth century. As we will see in the pages below, these kingdoms continued to increase in size and complexity until they became the medieval kingdoms that would survive remain in place for most of the Middle Ages.
We have also seen that the Romans had been bringing Germanic tribes as foederati to Britain from the fourth century; they were already on the island when Gildas had his superbus tyrannus inviting them in the fifth century. Realizing that, we can see why Gildas had to include an over-king in his history; he needed one to explain why the Germanic peoples were on the island.
Knowing what we know now we can empathize with Gildas. He saw the Romans as the instruments of God’s forgiveness and because of that could nbg nbot imagine them ever making the mistake of bringing the Germanic peoples to the island. What made more sense to him was that a Briton king had been at fault, someone who must have ruled Britain so that he had the necessary power. That was why he placed the introduction of the foederati after Aetius, that and a probably weak oral memory of the time between Aetius and Badon.
Following him was Bede, a man who was no fool by his exquisite Latin and careful scholarship. He was locked into the story though. By the time he wrote two hundred years later Gildas was already remembered as a great scholar and his history as the history of post-Roman Britain.
Even if he had been willing to challenge Gildas, his ecclesiastical superiors had given him The Kentish Source as the official history and it confirmed everything Gildas had written. Bede really had no other choice but to write the story he had in front of him. We know he expanded the Gildasian history, probably using The Kentish Source, adding the names of the two Germanic chieftains, Hengest and Horsa, and along with a brief biography. Because we know that he was so strongly Northumbrian, it was probably he who had added a snippet about two additional chieftains who fought in the north but were related to Hengest. His contribution to the history strengthened Northumbria’s claim to power in his century by connecting the kingdom’s earliest leaders with the most famous the man who had outwitted the British over-king and legally been given possession of Kent.
When the Historia Brittonum was originally written during the ninth century, most of that story was probably ignored. After all, it was written in Powys by the son-in-law of the Powysian king, and Rhodri had the history written to help him unite the British kingdoms under his kingdom’s leadership.
It was rewritten in the tenth century, though, and the purpose of the Dyfed revision was to undermine Powys’ authority by attacking one of its most revered kings. At the time, Hywel Dda ruled the kingdom and he was firmly allied with Æthelstan, so Hywel probably had access to The Kentish Source through him. He made use of it, for the first time blending the British memory of Gwrtheyrn’s power and dynastic importance with Vortigern’s control of Britain, flaws, and chronology through the suggestion of their name similarity – Vortigern was the Latin form of Welsh Gwrtheyrn.
In this new version of history, Gwrtheyrn had emerged as the leader of all Britain after 410 but was still being attacked by the Picts and Germanic peoples. Hoping for a solution he took counsel with his nobles and decided to invite Anglo-Saxon mercenaries onto the island to help him. These foederati performed their jobs well, but then their leaders fooled him into allowing more and more warriors from the continent. They fooled him again when they introduced him to a Germanic woman who seduced him. He insisted on marrying her, and Hengest insisted on Kent as a dowry. That was when he had lost control.
His son Vortimer (properly Gwrthefyr if the information had come from a Briton source) now emerged to beat the Anglo-Saxons nearly back to the eastern coast but was killed in the fighting. At that point, old Gwrtheyrn returned to the story. He was captured when all of his nobles were killed and ransomed for more territory. When the ransom was agreed upon, he spent his remaining days hidden inside a fortress only to be burned alive when two dragons emerged from its foundations.
Alfred, or whoever commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, happily made use of the story about the cunning Germanic chieftains and the fool they had stolen Britain from. Besides cutting back the story to fit into a chronicle form, the editor(s) only made two changes to the tale. The first was that Gwrtheyrn’s son was never mentioned because the English probably had no memory of one. The second was that they reversed the order of the battles so that it looked like the Anglo-Saxons were conquering territory instead of losing it.
Without a doubt, what we know about Gwrtheyrn comes mainly from Gildas and the mistaken association between his superbus tyrannus and the historical Gwrtheyrn. Sorting through the information gaps, personal, religious, and political motivations there is very little else to be learned about Gwrtheyrn. Very little, but there is something of value.
First of all there are the names. The interchangeability of roles between the superbus tyrannus, Vortigern, and Gwrtheyrn have been widely accepted as showing they were considered the same people in the historical tradition. The Historia Brittonum also names an Outigern as roughly contemporary to Maelgwn, Ida, and the five bards and imples that all eight men were important in their time – the bards for their abilities and the kings for their successes; Koch has even suggested that the here implies that the first named poet, Talhaearn, was attached to Outigern. Yet we know nothing whatsoever about this king otherwise. In Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, the author proposed a simple scribal error; dyslexia might have switched Votigern to Outigern, and Votigern is a close form of Vortigern.
Finally there is Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn. His name translates as “great prince” while his “father” ’s name translates as “over-king”; similar but not identical. He also only appears in Historia Brittonum, and only so that he can fight Hengest in four battles – Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone. Bede says there was fighting between Vortigern and Hengest, but names no battles making it possible that he had simply eliminated British victories from his history.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also says the battles were fought between Vortigern and Hengest but names them; ÆgelesÞrep (Aylesford), Crecganford (Crayford), Wippedesfleot (near Ebbsfleet), and a fourth unknown site. Historia Brittonum names them too; Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone.
None of the seven sites match which means that the information was probably not taken from the same source. However, Epsford is probably Aylesford, and all seven sites are usually located in Kent. That at least suggests that both the British and the English had a memory of a series of four battles fought by Hengest. The fact that Gwrthefyr shows up nowhere else but replaces Gwrtheyrn for them suggests that Gwrthefyr is yet another doublet, a seam in the blending.
As aspects of Gwrtheyrn’s career that were apparently uninfluenced by the Gildas/Kentish Source tradition Outigern and Gwrthefyr might just allow us to see something historical about the Gwrtheyrn; he was a king recognized as Maelgwn’s equal who fought several battles in or at least near Kent.
That is really not much. However, there are two other details to consider which will throw some light on the mysterious Gwrtheyrn; we know almost nothing about Iurminric the father of Æthelberht and the northern British kings seem to have dominated the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria during the same time frame. Let me explain.
It has not really bothered anyone that we know nothing about Iurminric, and that strikes this scholar as odd. Consider, Æthelberht allowed the Christian mission into his kingdom in 597, along with its ability to write and the potential power that gave the king. A fifty-five year old man at that time could easily be expected to remember back to 557. Æthelberht may have married his Frankish wife (who brought her priest) around 580, meaning that oral memory might have gone back to 540 – 530 if a fifty-five year old at the time had remembered any events back when he or she was five. On the other hand, Iurminric was born in the range 523-560. No matter how you work the numbers, he spent his entire adult career within the limits of oral memory, yet the only two details we have about him are that his name is Frankish, implying a relationship with the Franks back another generation, and that he was the father of Æthelberht. Very odd.
Next piece of information; the northern British kings. As we have seen above, there were at least five different alliances over the last half of the sixth century, at least two of which took tribute from Germanic-held territories. This was a period of British revival and expanding political awareness because the British had already developed kingship and with it access to a stronger political organization along with more warriors under one king. The only southern king we have seen was active during this period outside of Wales and Cornwall is Gwrtheyrn.
Take those unrelated facts and add that to a question about the Hengest battles against Vortigern/Gwrthefyr. We know they could not have been remembered if they had taken place in the fifth century; that and neither Hengest, Vortigern, or Gwrthefyr would have been around to fight them. So why were they remembered in both traditions? What would have been the point of remembering them before they were made a part of The Kentish Source and attached to the Historia Brittonum?
To answer that, we return to the fact that Iurminric would have been active during the middle of the sixth century, roughly the same era as Gwrtheyrn himself. Gwrtheyrn, as we have seen, was remembered in the north for being a powerful king. In the north, the powerful men of his era controlled land all the way to the eastern coast. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have as well?
It would make sense. The Kentish Source was focused on showing the legitimacy of Kent’s rule by demonstrating that its early kings had been smarter and better warriors than their British counterparts. Its writer(s) had not made up the initial landing and the outwitting of Vortigern, so why would they have started making things up with the battles? It seems more likely, at least to the present scholar, that those battles would have been taken from oral memory, and oral memory would only have extended back to the middle sixth century, suggesting that Iurminric might have been the man fighting the battles against Gwrtheyrn.
Why was Iurminric not connected to them? As they are used in Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they are battles of conquest on an island that the Germanic people had just come to. However, if Iurminric was fighting them they would have been battles for independence. Independence might have a certain attraction, but it would also mean that at some point the royal house of Kent had willingly submitted to British authority and that would have gone against the basic purpose of The Kentish Source.
So, instead of deleting the battles altogether, they did what any good medieval historian seems to have done, they repurposed and redated them. The decision demonstrated Hengest’s superior leadership and eliminated the potentially embarrassing fact that as late as the middle sixth century Kent had been paying tribute to the Britons. When in the tenth century Dyfed eliminated the pro-Gwrtheyrn version of the Historia Brittonum and rewrote British history it was an unhoped-for stroke of luck for Kent.
Of course even if the above theory is right there is no way to know who won what battle, or even the campaign. Probably our safest source for that is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because of its writer’s habit of explicitly saying when the English won and being vague when they did not. It states that Hengest and his son Æsc won Ægelsþrep (probably Aylesford) and another battle and implies that they won at Crecganford (probably Crayford), while it is mute on the victor at Wippedesfleot.
Who was Gwrtheyrn? He was a powerful king who lived at the climax and the twilight of British power. It seems reasonable that Gwrtheyrn claimed sort of tribute over many of the Germanic clans in the south. The author’s appraisal would be that there was a revolt late in his career. Maybe it was led by Iurminric but Ælle, Bede’s first Bretwalda, is a more likely possibility; it would explain his place in Bede’s list and fit in well with the chronology of events that has been worked out above.
More probable still would be that several leaders emerged among them Ælle, Ceawlin, and Iurminric. In that scheme the former two could have been contemporary Bretwaldas, bringing dozens of villages under one ruler in imitation of the early British kings.
Growing more theoretical as the sources give less information, the fighting was indecisive in Gwrtheyrn’s lifetime, but after he died (probably not in battle as Vortigern’s end has nothing to do with the invaders in either the British or the Germanic versions) the Germanic tribes claimed their independence.
In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Vortigern is not mentioned after the first battle. It is also possible that he lost it and died, and whoever followed him could do no better. Again though, we may never know.
1 De Excidio Britanniae, trans. Michael Winterbottom, (Chichester, 1978), 23.1
2 The author has elsewhere suggested that he may have taken advantage of this gap in his knowledge to blame Arthur for the Germanic presence because of a family feud involving the death of his brother. There is no better evidence for that theory now than there was then, but it would explain his choice of using an over-king to explain the Germanic presence instead of a simple invasion of Britain; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2012), 42-9.
3 The Late Roman Empire included many powerful men who were able to carve small kingdoms out of the Roman Empire for decades at a time. If Gildas was well read, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, he may have known this and applied that knowledge to what he did not know about fifth-century Britain.
4 It has been pointed out that Aetius was the far extent of his oral knowledge, but that is no guarantee that he had access to an unbroken sequence of events from that famous letter to his present day.
5 Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 86.
6 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 27.
7 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 89; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 16.
8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953), years 455, 456, 465, and 473.
9 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), chapter 44.
10 Brooks places the marriage between the mid-570s and 581; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 50; Stafford, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, (Athens, GA, 1983), 35-6, 67-8, 73-4.
11 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 222. Brooks places him in the second quarter of the sixth century because his parents must have been influenced by the Franks to have given him that name; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 46-7.
12 Rhun’s primary concern seems to have been the north, and legend does say he was gone for a long period of time which would have left a void of power in Wales. Even if he had remained in Gwynedd for the relevant part of his career, Gwrtheyrn’s genealogy includes Gloiu, or Gloucester, suggesting that his base was along the Wye River. Their spheres of influence may have never overlapped.
13 It has already been suggested that overlordship probably meant control over less area for the earlier Bretwaldas; Campbell, “The Lost Centuries 400-600”, The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald, (London, 1982), 53-4.