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The Treachery of the Long Knives

The betrayal and murder of the British King Vortigern by the Saxons Hengist and Horsa is described, among others, in Nennius’ History of the Britons. After being exiled from their Germanic homeland, Hengist and Horsa arrive in Britain. King Vortigern requests them to help him fight the Picts and Scots in exchange for food and clothes. Hengist and Horsa agree, but after defeating the invaders from the north, boats full of Saxons kept coming to Britain and would not leave. According to the chronicle, King Vortigern marries his own daughter and fathers a child with her. This angers Saint Germanus, who takes Vortigern’s son, after which the king is “execrated and condemned by the whole synod”.1 After battling the invading Saxons, a treaty is made. Hengist and Horsa invite King Vortigern to a feast “under pretence of ratifying the treaty”. Vortigern is then betrayed:

The king with his company, appeared at the feast; and mixing with the Saxons, who, whilst they spoke peace with their tongues, cherished treachery in their hearts, each man was placed next to his enemy. After they had eaten and drunk, and were much intoxicated, Hengist suddenly vociferated, “Nimed eure Saxes!” and instantly his adherents drew their knives, and rushing upon the Britons, each slew him that sat next to him, and there was slain three hundred of the nobles of Vortigern. The king being a captive, purchased his redemption, by delivering up the three provinces of East, South, and Middle Sex, besides other districts at the option of his betrayers.2

At the time Nennius wrote the History of the Britons, different versions of Vortigern’s death already appear to have been in circulation. After describing how Vortigern fled Saint Germanus and hid in a tower, which was burnt with Vortigern and all of his wives inside, Nennius continues:

Others assure us, that being hated by all the people of Britain, for having received the Saxons, and being publicly charged by St. Germanus and the clergy in the sight of God, he betook himself to flight; and, that deserted and a wanderer, he sought a place of refuge, till broken hearted, he made an ignominious end. Some accounts state, that the earth opened and swallowed him up, on the night his castle was burned; as no remains were discovered the following morning, either of him, or of those who were burned with him.3

Gildas, in another account, also describes Vortigern in unflattering terms: “Vortigern, prince of Dumnonium, who, though stained with every vice, possessed the chief authority among [the Britons]4.” The story of Vortigern’s sin and subsequent downfall is also featured in the mythology of King Arthur. The first chapter of James Knowles’ The Legends of King Arthur And His Knights describes how the magician Merlin predicts Vortigern’s death by fire. Vortigern does not heed Merlin’s warning and ends up dying in the manner Merlin predicted.5 This treatment of Vortigern’s story also presents the fall and death of Vortigern as a moralistic story, in which bad kings are punished for their sins.

Vortigern and cultural identity
Margaret Bridges argues that “the threat to continued British rulership had been embodied by Vortigern’s ‘mate’, who was alternately figured as a strange outsider or as an incestuously close insider”. Because of this, Vortigern “estranges himself from the values of his native Christianized Britain, becoming a stranger to his own culture”.6 This is an interesting observation, as these events take place while Britain is under threat of an invastion by the Saxons, which presents a cultural danger as well.

William Elliot Griffis’ Welsh Fairy Tales weaves Vortigern into both the Arthurian mythology and the Welsh cultural identity. Interestingly, this story portrays Vortigern in a sympathetic manner. The chapter entitled “The Great Red Dragon of Wales” recounts how the red dragon became the national symbol of Wales. King Vortigern is introduced as a “Cymric king”. Like the historical Vortigern, he asks the “tribes called the Long Knives, or Saxons” to help him protect his people against the invading Picts and Scots from the north. After this, as the historical sources also tell us, the Saxons turned against the people of the British isles and refused to leave. Vortigern decides to build a castle to defend his people from the Saxons, with which the story begins to deviate from other accounts, in which Vortigern has a tower built. Three times the people tried to build the castle, only to find that everything had vanished without a trace the next morning. After the third failed attempt, King Vortigern consulted his council of “twelve wise men”, who advised him to sacrifice a fatherless boy in order to appease the dragons dwelling underground, who were claimed to be angered. A fatherless boy is then found, but when he is brought before King Vortigern to be sacrificed, the boy tells of a “pool in the water down below” that contains two vases. The boy requests the king to order his men to dig for the pool and fetch the vases. Vortigern complies and indeed both a pool of water and two vases are found. The two vases contain a tent, which the boy knows about, but the council of twelve wise men assisting the king do not. The narrator mockingly condemns the council as “those two professed to know the secrets of the world, even to the demanding of the life of a human being”. The tent contains a red and a white serpent, who then proceeded to battle each other. Ultimately, after three battles, the red serpent defeated the white one. It is then revealed that the little boy is in fact Merlin, the famous wizard, who proceeds to explain what had just taken place. The pool symbolises the world, the tent Vortigern’s kingdom. The white serpent represents the invading Saxons, the red serpent King Vortigern. The story concludes, “[a]fter this, whenever a castle was to be built no more human victims were doomed to death. All the twelve men, who had wanted to keep up the old cruel custom, were treated as deceivers of the people. By the King’s orders, they were all put to death and buried before all the crowd”.7 Thus in the Welsh story of Vortigern reign, Vortigern is portrayed as a good king who is led astray by bad council, but brought back on the right path by Merlin’s good council. Vortigern’s death is not part of this story, which nevertheless contains a strong moral message that speaks out against human sacrifice, which the narrator of the story links to ‘barbarous’ cultures in China and Japan and “our ancestors” living in “ancient times”.8

Vortigern as a Christian symbol
Nennius’ account of King Vortigern contains a lot of Christian symbolism, and the story suggests that the king’s fate is a result of his sinful, un-Christian lifestyle:

St. Germanus admonished Vortigern to turn to the true God, and abstain from all unlawful intercourse with his daughter; but the unhappy wretch fled for refuge to the province Guorthegirnaim, so called from his own name, where he concealed himself with his wives.
[...] Again Vortigern ignominiously flew from St. Germanus to the kingdom of the Dimetae, where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guothergirn. The saint [...] followed him there, and with his clergy fasted and prayed to the Lord three days, and as many nights. On the third night, at the third hour, fire fell suddenly from heaven, and totally burned the castle. Vortigern, the daughter of Hengist, his other wives, and all the inhabitants, both men and women, miserably perished: such was the end of this unhappy king, as we find written in the life of St. Germanus.9

Hugh Magennis notes that “[i]deas about treachery and betrayal have been inherited in Anglo-Saxon literature from the Germanic past”.10 However, Magennis argues that treacherous characters in Anglo-Saxon literature can be paralleled to well-known Christian characters that are associated with betrayal: Cain, who murdered his brother, and Judas, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, and Satan, the “universal betrayer”.11 Magennis further observes that

[c]haracteristically, in Anglo-Saxon literature figures of treachery are associated with ‘the other side'representing the possibility of external rather than internal threat. Treachery can be mentioned as an attribute of an enemy, even when this enemy is not particularly engaging in treacherous behaviour. [...] Treachery is not lightly to be associated with those whose perspective the audience shares.12

The historical Vortigern
It is apparent that the accounts of Vortigern’s life, over the whole, put him in a bad light.13 All stories describe him as a bad ruler who is blamed for allowing the Saxons to overrun the British isles. But what do we know about Vortigern, the man? Ralegh Radford reports that

[his] name, which has been anglicized as Vortigern, appears in the oldest Welsh records as Guorthigern and later as Gwrtheyrn. Bede, writing in Latin, uses the forms Vertigernus and Uurtigernus ; in the Anglo-Saxon translation these are rendered as Wyrtgeorn. Chadwick explains the name as meaning high lord or overlord.14

Nennius’ account of Vortigern’s life in History of the Britons for “the greater part [...] is folk tale and legend.”15 The Pillar of Elliseg, dating from the ninth century, features inscriptions that mention Vortigern. According to Ralegh Radford

Vortigern, as pictured in the earliest sources, does not conform to the heroic pattern of Celtic leadership. He is not a warrior. Negotiations with the enemy, cessions of territory, and the erection of strong places are not the normal acts recorded of a military leader.16

This is probably the reason why so many sources speak negatively about Vortigern’s kingship. According to the historical sources that are available to us, “his whole career suggests a Roman civil governor. He is probably the last Roman provincial governor in Britain”.17 This explains Vortigern’s connection to Wales:

He would have been born into the powerful native landholding class, probably in the third quarter of the 4th century. His patron may have been Magnus Maximus, for - we have it on the authority of the Pillar of Eliseg [...] – he married Severa, the daughter of Maximus. A career in the Imperial service, begun under these auspices, would explain his qualification as tyrant. Maximus, executed by the Emperor Theodosius in 383, was a tyrant, a usurper, who seized power in Britain. Welsh tradition connects Maximus with Segontium (Caernarvon).18

From this information a clearer picture emerges. As a Roman official, Vortigern was probably not much loved by the Briton population. Still, it does not answer the question how Vortigern’s reputation has become so bad. Ralegh Radford offers us a possible explanation:

[h]eresy was probably the real offence of Vortigern, though his descendants seem to have returned to orthodoxy if we may trust the Pillar of Eliseg.The final sentence of that record runs: ‘ but Brdyw was the son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed and who was borne to him by Severa, the daughter of Maximus the king (maximi regis), who killed the king of the Romans.’ It is this passage which probably gave rise to the later story of Vortigern’s incest with his own daughter. A careless writer, ignorant of the identity of the historical Maximus and his murder of Gratian, applied the words maximi regis to Vortigern himself. This is not unlikely when we remember the meaning of his name.19

Thus it becomes clear that the historical figure of Vortigern was not a king, but was erroneously believed to have been a king by chroniclers of his life a couple of centuries after his death. A misinterpretation of official records of his life made him into a tyrant who married his daughter. Writers then further tainted his reputation by adding all kinds of other sins, which turned the historical Vortigern – probably not the best of rulers but not the pagan tyrant he was made to be either – into a moral example of an archetypical bad king, whose death was a punishment from God for his sinful ways. The Welsh accounts of his life are more positive: the historical Vortigern was a Welsh land owner. In the end, the biggest betrayers of Vortigern are not the Saxons, but the writers of later times who chronicled his life.

by Birgitte Breemerkamp


1. Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum). Translated by J. A. Giles. Project Gutenberg

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. W. Malms, p. 8., Cited in: David Hume. The History of England in Three Volumes, Vol.I., Part A: From the Britons of Early Times to King John,
Project Gutenberg.

5. James Knowles. The Legends Of King Arthur And His Knights. Project Gutenberg.

6. Margaret Bridges. “The King, the Foreigner, and the Lady with a Mead Cup: Variations on a Theme of Coss-Cultural Contact.”
Multilingua (1999): 185-207.

7. William Elliot Griffis, Welsh Fairy Tales. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.orgfiles/9368/9368-h/9368h.htm

8. Ibid.

9. Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum). Translated by J. A. Giles. Project Gutenberg

10. Hugh Magennis, “Treatments of Treachery and Betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Texts,” English Studies 76-1 (1996): 1-19

11. Ibid.

12. Hugh Magennis, “Treatments of Treachery and Betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Texts,” English Studies 76-1 (1996): 1-19

13. C.A. Ralegh Radford, “Vortigern,” Antiquity XXXI (1958): 19-24

14. N.K. Chadwick, (ed.) Studies in Early British History, p.21-46. Cited in: C.A. Ralegh Radford, “Vortigern,” Antiquity XXXI (1958): 19-24

15. Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum). Translated by J. A. Giles. Project Gutenberg

16. C.A. Ralegh Radford, “Vortigern,” Antiquity XXXI (1958): 19-24

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.