Archive for July, 2008

The Rise of Vortigern

July 31, 2008

The Rise of Vortigern

The “Overking” of Britain

© Joseph Allen McCullough

Vortigern was the first recorded ruler of post-Roman Britain. Unfortunately, his best remembered deed was to invite Hengest the Saxon to come and fight for Britain.

In 410 AD the Roman Emperor sent a letter to Britain saying that the island must look after its own defences. Soon thereafter, the Roman Government within Britain collapsed. The next decade and a half are lost to history, but around the year 427, a man called Vortigern arose as the new leader of the Romano-British. There is no record of how he came to power, or who he might have been before. In fact, even his name is a matter of debate. In the ancient British language, “Vortigern” meant “Overking”. It was not a title that had ever been used before, nor was it ever used after. Most likely it was an honorific nickname that became so commonly used that it swallowed up his real, probably Roman, name. It is worth noting that his name alone is an indication of how quickly the trappings of Rome were deteriorating, and how the British were possibly reverting to their old ways.

As Vortigern came to power, Britain was under increasing threat from the Barbarians, most notably the Picts to the north and the Irish (For more information on the Irish see related article). At the time, Britain still possessed a decent sized army organized along the Roman lines, most of which had been set to watch the Northern border. Unfortunately, this force possessed no navy of any type. Thus the Picts were able to sail around the defenders and launch raids up and down the eastern coast.

In a move to help counter these attacks, Vortigern hired a group of Saxon mercenaries lead by the brothers Hengest and Horsa. During this age, the Saxons were the rulers of the waves and were one of the few groups that could actually fight at sea. (Even the Picts only used boats as transport, not as weapons). In exchange for the Saxon’s help fighting the Picts, Vortigern offered them the small island of Thanet as a place of settlement.

These original Saxons were soon reinforced by a large army led by Hengest’s son Octha. Together, Hengest and his son led a campaign against the Picts, blazing a trail of destruction through the north of England. These seaborne invaders proved too much for the Picts, and in that moment, they ceased to be a danger to the British.

Although, later chroniclers condemned Vortigern for replacing one danger (the Picts) with an even greater danger (the Saxons) it should be noted that Vortigern once again brought peace to England. And, in the end, it would be the British as much as the Saxons that brought Vortigern down.


The copyright of the article The Rise of Vortigern in British Dark & Middle Ages is owned by Joseph Allen McCullough. Permission to republish The Rise of Vortigern must be granted by the author in writing.