Vortigern

Attested:  A ruler in sub-Roman Britain mentioned by all the usual sources Gildas, Bede, Historia Brittonum, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Geoffrey of Monmouth, etc, as discussed carefully by Robert Vermaat.  The commonly quoted spelling with vowel O rests upon what may be a late interpolation into just one manuscript of Gildas from the AD 1100s.  Spellings with vowel E by Bede may rest on an earlier source and Uuertigerno is in probably the earliest surviving manuscript that overtly mentions this man by name.  The Pillar of Eliseg mentions GUARTHIGERN.

Where:  Vermaat summed up his best guess thus: “At the end of the Roman era in Britain, there was a man of high standing, whose family had large posessions in the western Midlands, central and south Wales. This man ... had acquired a high position in either the British church or in the Civil Service of the Roman Empire. He was also a rich land-owner, married to a daughter (Sevira) of the late usurper Magnus Maximus. By the year 425 he became the most powerful man in Britain, though he ruled with a Council of representatives (proto-princes) from the Civitates and other emerging centres of regional power. His own power was based largely on the province of Britannia Prima, and a large part of that province later became the kingdom of Powys.”  An alterative guess might be York.

Name origin:  It is customary to divide this name Vor–tigern and to translate it as ‘great king’ or ‘overlord’.  Neither Matasovic (2009) nor Delamarre (2003) have found a satisfactory etymology for Irish tigern ‘overlord’ and its Celtic cognates, but they seem reluctant to mention dygaf, a Welsh cognate of Latin duco ‘to lead’, related to dux, duke, German Herzog, and possibly to Greek ταγος ‘commander’.  See discussions of Tagea, plus Prasutagus, Caratacus, and Togodumnus.
  The evidence for a “Celtic” name element *tigerno, as commonly cited, turns out to be not very impressive when checked.  Delamarre (2007) lists 13 names beginning with tig-, 6 with teg-, 14 beginning with tag-, and 11 with tog-, all with a clear preponderance around the North Sea.  Most impressive is a recently discovered diploma issued to VELVOTIGERNO MAGIOTIGERNO F(ILIO) BRIT(TONI), whose name contains Latin velum ‘sail’, after 26 years service in the Classis Germanicus, .

Notes:  Vermaat commented that Vortigern's name “began to separate into Welsh, Irish and English forms” and it is not clear which was earliest and which was reinterpretation.  The spelling Wyrtgeorn in the Anglo-Saxon version of Bede may combine Old English wyrht ‘wright, artisan’ plus georn ‘yearnful, eager’, while Latin *vortiger would be a verbal noun from Latin verto ‘to turn about’.  Considering how many names supplied by Gildas were hostile pun-translations, one must wonder what was this man's primary name.  Similar questions arise for Vortimer, son of Vortigern, and for Vortiporius king of Dyfed.

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Last edited 4 September 2020     To main Menu