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The First Meeting of Vortigern and Rowena/ Renwein painted by William Hamilton (Public Domain)

The Shadowy Reign of Vortigern, The King Who Gave Away Britain


Vortigern was a semi-mythical fifth century king most famous for inviting the Saxons to Britain to help him vanquish the invading Picts of Scotland. A disagreement compelled the Saxons to break their promise to Vortigern, opening up Britain to Saxon domination. His deeds are recorded by a handful of medieval chroniclers including Gildas, Bede, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the French monk Wace. He is generally looked upon unfavorably by these medieval writers, who blame him entirely for the Saxon subjugation of Britain. Like most of British history immediately after the Roman’s departure in the early fifth century, Vortigern is shrouded in the mystery of the Dark Ages. Despite this, evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle illustrates that he was a real person who really did appeal to the Saxons for aid. His entry states: “AD 449. And in their days Vortigern invited the Angles thither, and they came to Britain in three ceols [ships], at the place called Wippidsfleet [Kent].” Although Vortigern’s existence can be confirmed, the details of his life cannot. His reign is subject to many fictional embellishments, making it hard to separate fact from fiction. Nevertheless, his story remains a fascinating expression of the anxiety of post-Roman Britain in their quest to re-establish order.

Conquests under Aulus Plautius, focused on the commercially valuable south-east of Britain. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Conquests under Aulus Plautius, focused on the commercially valuable south-east of Britain. ( CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Rise And Fall Of Roman Britain

Hoping to extend the boundaries of his empire, Julius Caesar was the first Roman to sep foot on the British Isles in 55 BC, but Britain was only fully subdued under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Under the command of Aulus Platius, Claudius sent four legions to sail across the English Channel to land at Richborough. They defeated the English tribal chieftain of Catuvellauni at the battle of Camulodunum, present-day Colchester, and by 60 AD Britain was secured by a network client-kingdoms dominated by Roman overlordship.

One of these subordinate tribes were the Iceni, based in Norfolk, whose most famous warrior, Queen Boudicca, led the most celebrated revolt in British history after her lands were pillaged and her daughters raped by the Romans, following the death of her husband Prasutagus. Her reign of terror, which saw the deaths of 70,000 Roman citizens in British cities including London, finally ended with her suicide.


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Jake Leigh-Howarth holds a masters degree in Modern History from the University of Leeds, where he specialized in the travelogues of Western visitors to Soviet Central Asia. His favorite historical periods include the Tamerlane Empire, the Mongolian Empire, and the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece.

Top Image : The First Meeting of Vortigern and Rowena/ Renwein painted by William Hamilton ( Public Domain)

By: Jake Leigh-Howarth

Jake Leigh-Howarth's picture


Jake Leigh-Howarth is a journalist and researcher from the UK with 8 years experience in music, travel, news, and historical journalism. He grew up in rural North Yorkshire where he developed a lifelong fascination for nature, mythology, folklore and history. ... Read More

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