V o r t i g e r n :

T y r a n t  K i n g 167

V ictoria. We might have heard a story about Nelson putting a telescopeto his blind eye, so that he could ignore a signalled order. We might

have heard the bards reciting ‘Not a drum was heard, n o t a funeral note,

as his corse to the ram part we hurried.’ B ut the N apoleonic wars, to

w hich these fragments o f oral tradition relate, w ould have no real place

in our know ledge o f history. O ral tradition is a living art form and only

becom es relatively stable w hen it is eventually captured in w ritten form .

History, in any continuous form , w ould extend no m ore than a hundred

years or so before o u r ow n tim e. Earlier traditions w ould have been

progressively m odified or lost. R e tu rn in g to the tim e o f Gildas, in the

sixth century, real continuous history w ould have been restricted to the

troubles o f the p o st-R o m an period. T h e R o m an occupation o f B ritain

w ould have been a distant and hazy m em ory, associated w ith the decaying rem ains o f the cities and tow ns, and anything earlier w ould have

consisted o f no m ore than disconnected legends and songs.

V o rtig e rn ’s c h ie f claim to a place in th e h isto ry o f th e W essexS to n eh en g e Ill-H y p e rb o re a n cu ltu re is th e tra d itio n , preserved by

Geoffrey o f M o n m o u th , o f his involvem ent (on the losing side) in the

disaster at the C loister o f A m brius, w hich we have already considered

in connection w ith the end o f Stonehenge.

W h ile a c c e p tin g th a t th e W essex C u ltu re and th e g reat age o f

Stonehenge together do no t am ount to a full-scale civilization, it was

none the less instructive to consider a civilization m odel for their developm ent. T he same m ethod may now be used to interpret the end o f the

age. For a hum an death, the causes may be considered under three main

headings: natural causes, m urder, suicide. W hat we (are discussing is the

cause o f death o f a culture. Burgess considered m urder by invasion and,

finding no evidence for any invasion, decided to settle for death by natural causes. For some reason, the possibility o f suicide was never m entioned, though Toynbee found evidence for this in the deaths o f many


T oynbee traced the dem ise o f civilizations to ‘times o f troubles’,

w hich often preceded the ultimate end by many centuries. Thus Ins

Hellenic civilization, which included the Koman Empire, had its time o f

troubles in the last four centuries he, starting with the outbreak oi the

Peloponnesian War in 431 iu The establishment oi tlu Koman Einpue

arrested the decay of the Hellenic civilization Ini srveial (cnturies, but

K I N G A R T H U R ’ S P L A G E IN P R E H I S T O R Y

Saxons was taken from the K entish C hronicle (in Cantia); the stories o f

his family life and death were abstracted from the Life of St Germanus (a

Sancto Germano); and the story o f the fatherless boy and the magicians

was an entirely separate unit, the Tale of Emrys (de Ambrosio). In an

attem pt to com bine these different elem ents into an intelligible history,

N ennius em ployed the technique know n today as ‘cut and paste’ and,

fortunately for us, preserved the identity o f the pieces. Thus we have

the follow ing sequence: (i) Kentish Chronicle, Part 1; (ii) Life o f Saint

G erm anus, P a rt 1; (iii) K entish Chronicle, P art 2; (iv) Life o f Saint

Germanus, Part 2; (v) Tale of Emrys; (vi) Kentish Chronicle, Part 3; (vii) Life

of Saint Germanus, Part 3.

H o w m any Vortigerns were there and w hen did they live? W hich

w ere genuine historical characters and w hich fabulous? N ennius, w riting m ore than four-and-a-half centuries after the arrival o f the Saxons,

w orked on the assum ption that there was only one V ortigern. Geoffrey

o f M o n m o u th , three centuries later again, saw no reason to disagree

w ith him . Gildas, w ritin g m uch nearer the tim e,6 failed to m ention

V ortigern by nam e at all, just as he failed to m ention A rthur. H e did

how ever refer to a ‘p ro u d ty ran t’ w ho, w ith his council, decided to

invite the Saxons over to com bat his enem ies in the north. T he identity

o f this proud tyrant w ith V ortigern has been almost universally accepted.

In essence, he is telling the same story as the Kentish Chronicle, though

w ith a frustrating lack o f the names o f people and places.

T he identity o f V ortigern presents us w ith tw o problem s. Firstly, his

nam e is n o t really a nam e at all bu t a title, m eaning som ething like

high chief. A tw entieth-century exam ple o f such a title w ould be the

G erm an w ord Fuhrer, simply m eaning leader, w hich H itler transform ed

into som ething so terrible that even V ortigern looks positively tam e by

com parison. Secondly, w ith the V ortigern w ho brought in the Saxons,

we reach the lim it o f any sort o f continuous history that can be based

on British sources alone. N ennius com plained that ‘the scholars o f the

island o f Britain had no skill, and set dow n no record in books’,7 and,

apart from oral tradition, Gildas, w riting about An 540, is our earliest


I low much history would we know if we had no books and had to

rely entirely on wh.it our parents and grandparents told us? We would

know about the two World Wars and the British Em pire and Q ueen