Vortigern in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
1 Swanton, p. xxi.
2 Little is known for certain about Gildas (fl. 6th century); most likely a cleric, and a highly educated one at that, Gildas was the author of a treatise called De excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain), which recounts the afflictions and invasions suffered by the Romano-Celtic Britons as a result of their myriad sins. The following passage from De excidio tells of the coming of the Germanic tribes to Britain:
And they [the Britons] convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings by the peoples I have mentioned.
Then all the members of the council, together with the proud tyrant, were struck blind; the guard -- or rather the method of destruction -- they devised for our land was that the ferocious Saxons (name not to be spoken!), hated by man and God, should be let into the island like wolves into the fold, to beat back the peoples of the north. Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death even in their absence -- 'the silly princes of Zoan', as has been said, 'giving foolish advice to Pharoah.'
Then a pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language. The winds were favourable; favourable too the omens and auguries, which prophesied, according to a sure portent among them, that they would live for three hundred years in the land towards which their prows were directed, and that for half the time, a hundred and fifty years, they would repeatedly lay it waste.
On the orders of the ill-fated tyrant, they first of all fixed their dreadful claws on the east side of the island, ostensibly to fight for our country, in fact to fight against it. The mother lioness learnt that her first contingent had prospered, and she sent a second and larger troop of satellite dogs. It arrived by ship, and joined up with the false units. Hence the sprig of iniquity, the root of bitterness, the virulent plant that our merits so well deserved, sprouted in our soil with savage shoots and tendrils. The barbarians who had been admitted to the island asked to be given supplies, falsely representing themselves as soldiers ready to undergo extreme dangers for their excellent hosts. The supplies were granted, and for a long time 'shut the dog's mouth'. Then they again complained that their monthly allowance was insufficient, purposely giving a false colour to individual incidents, and swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island unless more lavish payment were heaped on them. There was no delay: they put their threats into immediate effect.
(trans. Winterbottom, pp. 26-27)
See also Giles's translation, available on The Camelot Project; Giles supplies the name of the "proud tyrant" as Gurthrigern (Vortigern).
3 Bede (c. 673-735), who spent his life as a monk at the twin monastery Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, is justifiably regarded as the most accomplished Latin writer of the Anglo-Saxon period, and among the greatest Christian intellectuals of the post-Patristic age. Today he is best known for his long historical work entitled Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), completed around 731. The following passage from Historia ecclesiastica (which Bede adapted from Gildas' De excidio) was the source for the Chronicle entries pertaining to Vortigern:
In the year of our Lord 449 Marcian, forty-sixth from Augustus, became emperor with Valentinian and ruled for seven years. At that time the race of the Angles or Saxons, invited by Vortigern, came to Britain in three warships and by his command were granted a place of settlement in the eastern part of the island, ostensibly to fight on behalf of the country, but their real intention was to conquer it. First they fought against the enemy who attacked from the north and the Saxons won the victory. A report of this as well as of the fertility of the island and the slackness of the Britons reached their homes and at once a much larger fleet was sent over with a stronger band of warriors; this, added to the contingent already there, made an invincible army. The newcomers received from the Britons a grant of land in their midst on condition that they fought against their foes for the peace and safety of the country, and for this the soldiers were also to receive pay.
They came from three very powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. The people of Kent and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight are of Jutish origin and also those opposite the Isle of Wight, that part of the kingdom of Wessex which is still today called the nation of the Jutes. From the Saxon country, that is, the district now known as Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. Besides this, from the country of the Angles, that is, the land between the kingdoms of the Jutes and the Saxons, which is called Angulus, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all the Northumbrian race (that is those people who dwell north of the river Humber) as well as the other Anglian tribes. Angulus is said to have remained deserted from that day to this. Their first leaders are said to have been two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Horsa was afterwards killed in battle by the Britons, and in the eastern part of Kent there is still a monument bearing his name. They were the sons of Wihtgisl, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden, from whose stock the royal families of many kingdoms claimed their descent.
(trans. Colgrave and Mynors, pp. 49-51.)
Bede adds considerably to Gildas' account. He supplies specific information, such as the names of the two Roman rulers (probably to lend the episode more historical credibility) and the name of the British ruler Vortigern (who is referred to simply as superbus tyrannus, or "supreme ruler," in Gildas).
4 For another early account of the Adventus Saxorum, see also The History of the Britons (c. 800), usually attributed to one called 'Nennius.'
5 Swanton, p. xxi.
6 Many editors of Old English texts staunchly retain the yogh, but Gneuss argues (p. 17) that this is unnecessary, since editors have long since abandoned the special letter-forms for d, f, r, s, etc.
Edition and Translation
1 Changed to "Martianus" by another hand (Bately, p. 17 n. 2).
2 The Peterborough Chronicle also includes the traditional detail that the Germanic peoples first came aboard three ships: "7 hi þa coman on þrim ceolum hider to Brytene" ("And they came in three ships here to Britain").
3 The Peterborough Chronicle has "Heopwinesfleot." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names explains: "Probably Heopwelles fleot 'the river Heopwell'. Heopwell means 'stream where hips grew'. The forms from ASC [The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] are corrupt" (p. 159).
Peterborough also adds that Vortigern gave land to the Germanic peoples in return for their military service: "Se cyning Wyrtgeorn gef heom land on suðan-eastan ðissum lande" ("Vortigern the king gave them land in the southeast of this land").
4 The first hand ends here; a different hand adds the subequent text. 449 is the last entry on this leaf, so the material added here is squeezed into the lower margin; this text, not surprisingly, is nearly illegible in some places.
5 Peterborough adds considerably to the end of this account (this additional material is from Bede's Ecclesiastical History). First it records the names of the two brothers, Hengest and Horsa (hitherto unnamed in Peterborough), then gives their genealogy: "Heora heretogan wæron twegen ge broðra, Hengest 7 Horsa, þæt wæron Wihtgilses suna. Wihtgils wæs Witting, [Witting] Witta Wecting, Wecta Wodning. Fram þan Wodne awoc eall ure cyne cynn, 7 Suðanhymbra eac." ("Their war-leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa, that were sons of Wihtgils. Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta the son of Wecta, Wecta the son of Woden. Thusly did Woden engender all of our noble kin, and that of the Southumbrians as well"). The genealogy in the MS contains an obvious scribal error (repetition of "Witting").
6 As I have tried to indicate here using superscript, the word "to" is added above the line in the MS.
7 The "empire" referred to is the Roman Empire. Britain had been a Roman province since the first century of the Common Era, so many of the earlier Chronicle entries include references to Rome.
8 These two brothers are quasi-historical characters famous in early Germanic lore. Their names, no doubt, have a kind of mythological significance: "Hengest" means "stallion" and "Horsa" means "horse."
9 I.e., the Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the island.
10 See note 3 above.
11 "Pict" is the traditional name for a people that lived in what is now Scotland from roughly the third to ninth centuries. Little is known for certain about them. For a good overview of the evidence, see "Picts," Dictionary of the Middle Ages, vol. 9, pp. 641-43.
12 Located in what is now the Schleswig-Holstein region in northwestern Germany.
13 I.e., the Germanic peoples.
14 This division of the Germanic peoples into the famous "three tribes" (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) is first found in Bede's account (see note 3 of the Introduction).
15 I.e., The Isle of Wight, a small island off the southern coast of England.
16 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names explains that Ayelesthrep "is probably an alternative name of Aylesford, meaning 'Ægel's thorp'" (p. 20). "Thorp" means "[a] hamlet, village, or small town; in ME. esp. an agricultural village" (OED). Swanton notes that Aylesford was "[t]he ford on the River Medway in mid Kent, avoiding a defended Roman bridge to the north at Rochester" (p. 13, n. 9).
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a generic term for the disparate collection of annals that record the centuries-long history of the Anglo-Saxons, extending in some cases even beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Chronicle seems to have originated from a body of historical writings now known as the "common stock." Even the common stock is relatively late, however, and certainly does not extend back to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon peoples to England; this material dates back only to the late ninth century, and was perhaps written at the request of King Alfred the Great (r. 871-99). The authors of the common stock retroactively devised entries for the dates before their own time; for these entries, the authors mined existing sources like Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and various local annals. The common stock spread quickly throughout England, and Chronicles in different places took on a more local color. Michael Swanton aptly summarizes: "[The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] does not consist of one uniform text, but a number of individual texts which have a similar core, but considerable local variations; each has its own intricate textual history."1
The two Chronicle entries included on this website deal with the Adventus Saxorum, the traditional account of the coming to Britain of the Germanic tribes. This account indicated that the Germanic peoples came to Britain in a sweeping invasion that defeated and displaced the Romano-Celtic Britons; the British cleric Gildas, writing in the sixth century, popularized this tale in his treatise On the Ruin of Britain.2 Two centuries later, the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede borrowed Gildas' account when he added this episode to his Ecclesiastical History.3 The compilers of the common stock of the Chronicle borrowed their text from Bede. Thus the Chronicle reiterates the Adventus Saxorum tradition,4 but the truth is that the Germanic settlement of Britain was less a full-scale invasion and more a gradual migration over the course of the fifth century.
According to the chronicles, Vortigern was the fifth-century British king who reigned at the time of the Adventus Saxorum. Vortigern is said to have invited warriors from Germanic tribes to Britain in order to help defeat the Picts and various other groups that were harrassing the British people. After defeating the Britons' enemies, the story goes, these Germanic mercenaries turned against their former employers and sent word to their kinsmen that the island of Britain was ripe for the taking; the Germanic peoples then came to Britain and seized the island for themselves, driving the Britons into the land now called Wales. The Welsh, linguistic and cultural heirs of the Britons, blamed Vortigern for the Germanic conquest of Britain.
Ultimately Vortigern became incorporated into the Arthurian legends because many tales indicate that Arthur, the national hero of the Welsh, battled against the Saxons who had seized the island from Vortigern. Writers in the High Middle Ages and afterwards explicitly linked the story of Vortigern to the rapidly-expanding Arthurian mythos; see, for instance, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138).
Notes on the Edition
My base text is the Winchester Manuscript (also known as The Parker Chronicle, or MS A of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173, ff. 1v-32r. This is the oldest surviving MS of the Chronicle and the only one in which the dialect was not updated into Late West Saxon.5 The Vortigern entries are contained on ff. 4v-5r. For some passages not included in the Winchester MS, I have examined the Peterborough Manuscript (also known as The Laud Chronicle, or MS E of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle): Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud 636. This is the latest version of the Chronicle, and the one that was maintained the longest. See the Select Bibliography for the MSS, editions, and translations I have consulted.
I have strived to be simple and straightforward in my editorial conventions. My guiding principle was to present an Old English text that was as close to the MS as possible. To that end, I have also preserved most of the original orthography, including u for v, the symbol 7 for "and," and the well-known Anglo-Saxon characters thorn (þ), eth (ð), and ash (æ). On the other hand, I have replaced the character yogh (3) with g,6 and I have changed the runic character wynn to a modern w because the form of the wynn is nearly indistinguishable from the letter p. As for other editorial decisions, I have followed standard Old English editorial practice in modernizing punctuation, capitalization, and word division so as to avoid confusion (e.g., Vortigern's name in the MS is written as follows: wyrt 3eorne). Finally, I have silently expanded common medieval MS abbreviations such as final -er, -um, etc.
Text & Translation
AN CCCCXLIX. Her Mauricius1 7 Ualentines onfengon rice 7 ricsodon uii winter. 7 on hiera dagum Hengest 7 Horsa, from Wyrtgeorne geleaþade, Bretta kyninge, gesohton Bretene2 on þam staþe þe is genemned Ypwinesfleot3 -- ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie eft on hie fuhton.4 Se cing het hi feohtan agien Pihtas, 7 hi swa dydan, 7 sige hæfdan swa hwar swa hi comon. Hi ða sende to Angle 7 heton heom sendan mare fultum, 7 heom seggan Brytwalana nahtnesse 7 ðæs landes cysta. Hy ða sendan heom mare fultum. Þa comon þa menn of þrim mægþum Germanie: of Eald Seaxum, of Anglum, of Iotum. Of Iotum comon Cantware 7 Wihtware – þæt ys seo mæið ðe nu eardaþ on Wiht -- 7 þæt cynn on Westsexum þe man gyt hæt Iutna cyn. Of Eald Seaxon comon East Sexa, 7 Suð Sexa, 7 West Sexan. Of Angle comon, se a siððan stod westi betwyx Iutum 7 Seaxum, East Engla, Midel Angla, Mearca, 7 ealle Norðhymbra.5
[Listen to the Old English text]
AN CCCCLU. Her Hengest 7 Horsa fuhton wiþ Wyrtgeorne þam cyninge in þære stowe þe is gecueden Agelesþrep, 7 his broþur Horsan man ofslog. 7 æfter þam Hengest feng to 6 rice, 7 Æsc his sunu.
[Listen to the Old English text]
449. Here Mauricius and Valentinian seized the empire7 and reigned for seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa,8 invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons,9 sought Britain on the shore called Ebbsfleet10 -- at first as protection for the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king commanded them to fight against the Picts.11 They did so, and had victory wherever they went. Then they sent to Angeln12 and called on them to send more forces, and to tell people about the worthlessness of the Britons and the merits of their land. Then they13 sent them more support. These men came from the three races of Germany -- from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, and from the Jutes.14 From the Jutes came the Kentish people and the Wightish people – that is the race that now dwells on Wight15 -- and that race in Wessex that is still called the race of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. From Angeln, which afterwards stood deserted between the Jutes and Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians, and all the Northumbrians.
455. Here Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king in the place that is called Ayelesthrep,16 and his brother Horsa was killed. After that, Hengest and then his son Aesc took hold of the kingdom.
Flower, Robin, and Hugh Smith, eds. The Parker Chronicle and Laws (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 173): A Facsimile. EETS o.s. 208. London: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. The Peterborough Chronicle (The Bodleian Manuscript Laud Misc. 636). Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile. Vol. 4. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1954.
Bately, Janet M., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition, Volume 3, MS A. Gen. eds. David Dumville and Simon Keynes. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1986.
Earle, John, and Charles Plummer, eds. Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892. Rpt. 2000.
Colgrave, Bertram, and R. A. B. Mynors, ed. and trans. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Swanton, Michael, ed. and trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: J. M. Dent, 1996.
Winterbottom, Michael, ed. and trans. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. London: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 1978.
Other Works Cited
Ekwall, Eilert. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.
Gneuss, Helmut. "Guide to the Editing and Preparation of Texts for the Dictionary of Old English." The Editing of Old English: Papers From the 1990 Manchester Conference. Ed. D. G. Scragg and Paul E. Szarmach. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994. Pp. 7-26.
Strayer, Joseph R. et al, eds. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982-89.