Vortigern and the Chaos of Britain
According to the Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.
This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars. Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans. It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.
The Assassination of King Constantine
After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back. After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery. Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king. The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther. Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther. It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.
Vortigern Becomes Ambitious
Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life. Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself. To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser.
Constans: The Puppet King
Constans agreed and left the monastery and Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king. The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony.
Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people. He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name. With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.
The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means. At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent. As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.
He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination. Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard. This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting. Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.
Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control. He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.
To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard. When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome. He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard. So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.
Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans. In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them. Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.
The Killing of King Constans
He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain. Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them. They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,
“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1)
After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber. They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.
Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown. In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica. The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.
As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country. Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay.
The Threat of Aurelius
Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother. Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain. He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.
Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning. With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance. Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.
With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret. As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.
To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.
© 12/02/2020 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright February 12th, 2020 zteve t evans
- History of the Kings of Britain – York University – Page 97; [PDF]
- Vortigern in the Sources – Vortigern Studies
- The Project Gutenberg eBook, Cassell’s History of England, Vol. I (of 8), by Anonymous
- Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut by Wace
- [PDF] Nennius – History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum … – York University
- Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons
- Under the influence! – Vortigern’s Rule: The Treachery of the Long Knives
- Under the influence! – The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons
- Under the influence! – Merlin and the Giant’s Dance: The Victory of Art over Strength
- On the Ruin of Britain by Gildas
- Image cropped from File:Uther-Pendragon,-Aethelbert- Arthur-Oswald-Paris-Epitome-Chronicles.png by Matthew Paris from Wikimedia Commons