The Historia Bruttonum, was written or complied around the beginning of the ninth century (Current dates are to the 820s, localised or at least connected to the court of Gwynedd in the reign of Merfyn Frych). It is the oldest surviving, developed Vortigern story.
Although the narrative is sometimes confused and self-contradictory, Vortigern has become a character with something approaching a biography. It is he who is responsible for the ruin of Britain. He is a weak and evil man. The external manifestation of his evil is sexual. He has a son by his daughter, and his infatuation with Hengist’s daughter, who appears here for the first time, allows Hengist to outwit him.
However, by the ninth century, there were competing versions of the story: a Good King Vortigern and the HB’s Bad King.
Early Welsh Genealogies preserve Vortigern’s name as an honored ancestor who adds luster and legitimacy to the royal dynasties, even claiming him as the eponymous founder of a Welsh Kingdom.
Neither Arthur nor Ambrosius appear in the genealogies. Vortigern’s presence not only suggests that he was considered historical at the time, but also proves the HB’s version of his life was not the only one in circulation. David Dumville pointed out, a long time ago, that Vortigern disappears from the genealogies after the tenth century, suggesting that the Bad King version proved the stronger.
In the HB Vortigern is now ‘King of the Britons’. He doesn’t invite the Saxons. Hengist and Horsa have been exiled from Germany. Vortigern gives them Thanet and in return for food and clothing they offer Vortigern their services in his wars against the Picts. As they become more of a threat, Vortigern is outmaneuvered by Hengist who uses his daughter, (who is not named in the version I've been reading) as a bargaining tool. The devil enters Vortigern's heart and he is so besotted he is prepared to give up half his kingdom for the girl.
However, Vortigern is also in an incestuous relationship with his own daughter, and they produce a son. Confronted and humiliated by Saint Germanus, Vortigern flees with his wizards. He meets Ambrosius, a boy without a father, who advises him, and makes a prediction about the British and Saxons based on some worms they find in a pond. Given that this is written in a Welsh context, it’s hardly surprising the prophecy ends with a prediction that the British will eventually expel the English.
In his absence Vortimer, Vortigern’s eldest son, fights against the Anglo-Saxons, but although victorious at first, dies. Hengist comes back and treacherously slays the leading Britons. Vortigern dies.
In outline, and in some of the details, this is the story Geoffrey of Monmouth will use. But there are at least three centuries between Gildas and the Historia Bruttonum and that is really all that needs to be said about the historical value of the HB’s account.
The Medieval approach to the past.
It is obvious that the story tellers have been at work. The story of Ambrosius, the boy without a father but with the gift of prophecy (a story which Geoffrey will elaborate and shift to Merlin) is straight out of a folk tale. The HB also records three versions of Vortigern’s death. He is burnt to death ‘with his wives’ as a result of St Germanus’ prayers. He wanders alone and forgotten and dies of heartbreak. The earth swallows him up.
It’s difficult for modern readers to understand how different the early medieval attitude towards ‘history’ was to the thing we learn in school or at the library. The medieval tolerance for obvious inconsistency within a single text can be astonishing.
The HB contains the miraculous, the marvelous and is internally inconsistent. The whole point of the story of Ambrosius is that Vortigern has to find a boy who has no father. But after he’s prophesized, Vortigern asks him: ’What family do you come from?’ and the boy replies ‘My father is one of the consuls of the Roman people’. You could try and rationalize this but you’d be missing the point.
The idea of establishing facts, sorted into a chronological sequence that could be dated, or critically evaluating available sources, rejecting alternative narratives to establish which is the most likely, was not wide spread medieval practice. Even when it was attempted, the attempt was complicated by the difficulty of dating anything outside living memory.
The HB for example uses at least three different dating methods: from the Incarnation, which we have inherited as BC/AD, from the Passion, and the Roman way of dating by naming the consuls in the year.
It’s worth remembering that Bede’s date for the Adventus was nothing more than an educated guess. The HB gives two dates for the arrival of Hengist and Horsa and makes no attempt to reconcile them. The first is 347 years after the Passion, which puts the date somewhere around 370-380.
Later, the HB uses consulships to date the reign of Vortigern to 425, claiming the English came in the fourth year of his reign, which would be 428/9, ‘four hundred years after the Passion’.
The difference between modern and medieval thinking can be swiftly demonstrated by using the inscription on the Pillar of Eisleg. There Vortigern is named as the father of a line of kings, friend of St Germanus and son-in-law of Magnus Maximus. This is the Good King version.
We know from other sources that Magnus Maximus was an historical character, a soldier of Spanish descent who took troops from Britain to invade Europe, was briefly Western Emperor until he was executed in 388.
We know daughters were used to extend family influence and establish alliances. When Magnus was on the rise, he would have chosen her husband carefully: someone with enough power to be attractive as an ally. On the other hand, she would have had no value to anyone in the aftermath of his defeat.
So, if Vortigern married her, it’s likely he did so before 388 and it’s also likely that he would have been an adult and a significant player in the political landscape by that date. How old would that make him in 449?
Ironically, Guy Halsall, doesn’t use this to support his argument for a fourth century Adventus because he has already suggested that Vortigern and Magnus are the same person. On the other hand….
But such a thinking process is not medieval. In the Annales Cambraie the entry immediately before the famous reference to the battle of Badon records the death of Bishop Ebur at the age of 350. The writer saw nothing odd about this.
The value of these stories as ‘historical evidence’ may be negligible. Watching anyone trying to tease out some historical ‘facts’ from the tangled mess is an entertaining spectator sport, but the activity is ultimately futile. The Historia Bruttonum and the Pillar of Eisleg, the early Welsh Genealogies, Bede, Gildas, and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle tell us little or nothing about the historical reality of the fifth century, but reveal a great deal about what Peter Hanning called ‘the historical imagination’ of their tellers.
In the imaginations of the story tellers, Vortigern, who may never have existed, moves towards his role as the great national villain in Laȝamon's Brut (where all these post have been heading.) The last steps in the process are the adjustments Geoffrey of Monmouth had to make to fit him into a coherent chronology and tidy up the narrative's loose ends.
But, as the Historia Bruttonum says, for now: ‘Enough has been said of Vortigern and his family’.