Vortigern

(fl. 425-455)
   King of the Britons, who assumed power after the Roman withdrawal from the island. According to an early tradition recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, and Gildas, Vortigern invited the Saxon kings Hengist and Horsa to England as mercenaries. His invitation led to the eventual conquest of Britons by the Anglo-Saxons, even though the king of the Britons had invited the two leaders to aid the Britons against the Picts and Scots. According to the sixth-century historian Gildas, a great hero arose in the wake of these invasions; that hero was later believed to be King Arthur.
   After the last of the Roman armies left the island of England in the early fifth century, the people of the island were forced to find a means to defend themselves from the attacks of the less civilized Picts and Scots to the north. They sought aid from the emperor Honorius in 410, but got little more than the approval to organize their own defense. In about 425, a leader of the Roman-British aristocracy, Vortigern, arose to take control of part of the country and provide for its defense. Called a tyrant or king by Gildas and other early sources, Vortigern acted as a traditional Roman military governor and struggled to protect the Britons from the invaders. He may have attempted to secure aid from the western emperor by writing a letter to the general Aëtius, but any efforts in that regard failed. He did find allies in the Saxon leaders Hengist and Horsa, who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, were invited during the reigns of the emperors Marcian and Valentinian III, probably between 449 and 456. According to the early sources, the Saxons arrived in three longboats on the eastern side of the island, at a place called Ipwinesfleet according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and they immediately waged war against the Picts and Scots.
   Vortigern's plan at first seemed a good one; the Saxons enjoyed great success against the northern invaders at the British king's direction. But Hengist and Horsa soon sent word back to their homeland of their victories and need for help to secure further victory over their enemies. They also informed their kin that "the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly" (Bede 1981, 56). The Saxons were soon joined by large numbers of Germans, including more Saxons and Angles and Jutes. They then turned against the Britons and Vortigern and proceeded to conquer the Britons. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Vortigern took up the sword against his former allies, and in a battle in 455 Horsa was killed. But despite this loss and continued wars with Vortigern, the Saxons took control of much of the kingdom.
   Vortigern's fate is uncertain, but his legacy, according to the early sources, is certain. The king was blamed for the conquest of England by the Anglo-Saxons. For Gildas, the king was a proud tyrant whose unwise rule welcomed the conquerors in. Bede developed the earlier accounts of the progress of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, noting that it was the sinfulness of the Britons that brought on God's judgment in the conquest by the mercenaries hired by Vortigern.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 ♦ Gildas. The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. Ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom. London: Phillimore, 1978.
 ♦ Howe, Nicholas. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Sawyer, Peter H. From Roman Britain to Norman England. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
 ♦ Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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