Tuesday, July 11, 2017


The name Vortigern or Gwrtheyrn, as found in the HB of Nennius, was once held to be a ruling title. It was thought to be represented by Gildas' Latin pun 'superbus tyrannus' or ‘Proud Tyrant’. However, we now know that Vortigern was a proper name and not a title. It is found recorded not only in several localities in Wales, but in Ireland as well.

Aside from the British Vortigern, whose name means ‘Over-lord’, we have records for the following Dark Age Irish Vortigerns or ‘Fortcherns’:

1) Fortchern, the smith of St. Patrick (Annals of the Four Masters Year Entry 448); as this Fortchern is paired with another smith, Laebhan, i.e. St. Lomman (?), this Fortchern may be:

2) Foirtchern son of Fedelmid, who was for a short time bishop of St. Lomman's Trim. Fortchern of Trim, who was of mixed Irish and British blood, is said to have later retired to Killoughterane/Cill Fortchern in the parish of Muinebeag, Co. Carlow. However, we are told in the ancient Irish sources that Fortchern the smith is the same as Foirtchern of Rath Seimhne (see below). It may not be a coincidence that there is a Gobbin's Cliff, the Cliffs of the divine smith Goban Saor, in Seimhne/Island Magee.
3) Vortigern of Ballyhank, East Muskerry, Co. Cork (inscribed stone).
4) Vortigern of Knockboy in Decies Without Drum, Co. Waterford (inscribed stone dated c. 700-900 CE).
5) Foirtchern of Monte Cainle (probably the Hill of Conlig/Coinleac in north Co. Down), a contemporary of St. Columba.
6)Foirtchern of Rath Seimhne (Island Magee, south Co. Antrim).
7)Fortchern, brother of Cathchern (a name cognate with British Cattigern, a supposed son of Vortigern in the HB narrative), son of Tigernach of the Meic Carthind of the Lough Foyle region.
8)Fortcheirn son of Mael Rubae of the Ui Dicholla of the Dessi
9)Fortchern son of Iarlaith of the Ui Brigte of the Dessi
10)Fortchern son of Tigernach of the Ui Brigte of the Dessi
11)Clan Foirtchern in the Breadach genealogy on Inishowen, near the Lough Foyle Meic Carthind

These examples, some ‘in stone’, should be sufficient to dispell the notion that Vortigern is merely a title. Instead, Vortigern is a genuine Brythonic personal name.

In Wales, Radnorshire or Maesyfed (the ‘field of Hyfaidd’) was once known as Gwrtheyrnion, i.e. the kingdom of Gwrtheyrn. Gwrtheyrnion, roughly between the Wye and Ithon rivers, was a relatively small kingdom in southwestern Powys. Other places in Wales where Vortigern's name is preserved are Nant Gwrtheyrn in Lleyn, close to Gwyniasa (and surrounding Gwynus placenames), and a Craig Gwrtheyrn on the Teifi.

These three places are mentioned in Nennius's narrative, but only Gwrtheyrnion carries weight. The Lleyn and Teifi sites may represent the presence in these places of other Vortigerns, but in all likelihood it is merely the proximity to them of St. Garmon place-names that accounts for the ‘Over-lord’s’ association with them. In Nennius's story of Vortigern, the poor chieftain is literally hounded all over Wales by the saint. Thus wherever there was a known St. Garmon site, Vortigern was placed there. In my opinion, Vortigern was probably not in Lleyn, nor was he on the Teifi (despite the presence at nearby Nevern of a Vitalinus Stone; see below). He belonged instead to Gwrtheyrnion, which was merely one of several Welsh Dark Age sub-kingdoms.

Vortigern of Wales, who is said to have been the son of Guitaul (= Roman Vitalis) son of Guitolin (= Roman Vitalinus, a name found on a stone at Nevern dated by Charles Thomas between 466 and 533 CE – too late for Vortigern’s grandfather) son of Gloiu (Gloyw, the eponym of Welsh Caerloyw, modern Gloucester), is actually the British-Irish Fortchern son of Fedelmid son of Laeghaire. This Fortchern son of Fedelmid was of the right time to be the Vortigern of Nennius. Both Guitaul and Guitolin are substituted for the name Fedel-mid.

It was Robert Vermaat who first called my attention to the details surrounding this particular Fortchern. To quote extensively from his Vortigern Studies website article,

‘Scotnoe & Foirtgirn, the Irish Branch’:

“Foirtchern was the son of Fedelmid, son of Loguire, who was High King of Ireland throughout the period of the mission of St. Patrick (whose dates may be 428-462). Foirtchern’s mother was a daughter of the King of the Britons. The story goes that when St. Patrick’s nephew Lomman visited Trim (in Ireland), the boy Foirtchernn took him home to Fedelmid and his mother, who both spoke British and were delighted to see a visitor from his mother’s country. They made Lomman stay, who then subsequently converted the whole family. The mother might have been a Christian in the first place, for she ‘welcomed’ the saint. Maybe the fact that Lomman was a Christian made him more welcome than his being from Britain. Fedelmid may have embraced Christianity because the saint had just come from Tara Hill, where St. Patrick had defeated the druids of Fedelmid’s father the High King Loguire.

Foirtchern's date may be confirmed by the Annala Rioghachta Eirann:

Annals of the Four Masters, M432.0 – 4

The Age of Christ, 432. The fourth year of Laeghaire. Patrick came to Ireland this year, and proceeded to baptize and bless the Irish, men, women, sons, and daughters, except a few who did not consent to receive faith or baptism from him, as his Life relates. Ath Truim was founded by Patrick, it having been granted by Fedhlim, son of Laeghaire, son of Niall, to God and to him, Loman, and Fortchern.

These annals, though dating to 1616 in their youngest version, date back at least to 1172.

In any case, Fedelmid enthrusted Foirtchirnn to Lomman and founded the church of Trim, making St Patrick, Lomman and Foirtchirnn his heirs. But Foirtchernn was obdurate and did not want to accept his heritage, after which Lomman had to threaten him with taking away the blessing of the church, which is tantamount to incurring its curse. After Lomman's death, though, Foirtchirnn gave away his church within three days. This may be apocryphal, for Foirtchirnn was listed afterwards as the first episcopus (abbot) after Fedelmid and Lomman. He might have given it up later though, for he is also listed as a plebilis, a lay successor.”

Now, the question on my mind, after reading this account, was "Who succeeded Lomman at Trim?" The answer is in the Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh:

He [Foirtchernn] held the abbacy for three days after his master's death until he came to Ath Truim, and then immediately handed his church over to the foreigner Cathlaid [Cathlaido perigrino].

I immediately recognized this ‘Cathlaid the Foreigner’ as a doublet for Catel Durnluc, the traditional founder of Powys, the kingdom that succeeded that of the Roman-period Cornovii.  In the book above I suggested Catel or Cadel might be a pet-name for Cunorix son of Cunedda.

The only objection to a Gwrtherynion ruled by a chieftain of mixed British-Irish ancestry would be that such a king, with such a small sub-kingdom, could not possibly be the ‘superbus tyrannus’ of Gildas. But I offer this argument to account for how such a confusion could have taken place: any chieftain possessing a name such Vor-tigern, ‘the over-/super-/great- lord’ could easily have been misinterpreted as an over-king similar to the ardrigh or ‘high-king’ of Ireland. If I am right and Fortchern son of Fedelmid son of Laeghaire the high king is the British Vortigern of Gwrtheyrnion, then this kind of royal descent from an ardrigh could also have contributed to Gildas's misinterpretation of Vortigern's status in Britain.

In summary, then, what may have happened is this: a chieftain named Vortigern (or Fortchern), who was of mixed Irish-British ancestry, and whose grandfather was the ardrigh of Ireland, had established a small sub-kingdom in southwestern Powys in the 5th century. Gildas, attracted to the name because it seemed to denote a sort of British high king, laid the blame for the Saxon ‘invitation’ (i.e. the use of Germanic barbarian federates) in this presumed high king's lap. Further vilification continued after this identification of Vortigern as the offending monarch was made, until by the 9th century we have a fully developed story of Vortigern in the HB of Nennius.

Alternately, given that the Eliseg Pillar in what was the kingdom of Powys traces the descent of the Powys dynasty from Vortigern, and Catel Durnluc is in the various genealogies confused with Vortigern or made his near-descendent, it is possible that Fortchern son of Fedelmid, at least partly through his wife’s British blood, had managed to lay claim to the throne of Powys itself. His sub-kingdom of Gwrtheyrnion was, after all, part of Powys.

A final possibility, and one which calls into some doubt the notion that Vortigern was related to the Irish high king, is the proximity of Gwrtheyrnion to Brycheiniog.  The latter, as Charles Thomas has shown in his ‘And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?”, was likely founded by the Irish-descended Dessi dynasty of Dyfed.  We have seen above that fully three of the Irish Vortigerns hailed from the Dessi.

The Bodvoc Stone and Vortigern

On Mynydd Margam in southern Wales, there is an interesting inscribed stone dated either 500-599 or 400-550 A.D..  Interesting chiefly because it bears the name Catotigirnus, a name we know from the Historia Brittonum of Nennius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  A Cattigern, modern Caderyn, is said according to competing genealogies to be either the son of the great Vortigern or of Cadell Dyrnllwg.  While Catotigirnus may well have been a relatively common name in the period, the fact that we find it on a stone means that at least his son Bodvoc must have been someone of considerable importance.  Could the father of Bodvoc also have been an important man?  Could he have actually been THE Cattigern?

Here is the relevant inscription:

Of Bodvocus (PN) -- he lies here, the son of Catotigirnus (PN) and great-grandson of Eternalis (PN) Vedomavus (PN).
RCAHMW/1976 37 reading only

We learn more about this stone from the CADW Web page:

"The earliest and perhaps most visual features of the pre-industrial landscape throughout the area are funerary monuments located within the uplands dating to the Bronze Age (2300-800BC); these features are arranged in two main clusters or groups; one towards the western end of the Mynydd Margam ridge including two Bronze Age Cairns, or round barrows at Ergyd Isaf (SAM Gm 160; PRNs 741 and 742; HLCA 004), and nearby at Ergyd Uchaf (SAM Gm 159; PRN 749w; HLCA 010), and a second grouping at the head of Cwm Cynffig, including a two cairns near Llyndwr Fawr (PRNs 751w and 752w; HLCA 010), a ring cairn (PRN 753w; HLCA 010), the 'supposed' original site of the early medieval inscribed Bodvoc stone (SAM Gm 443; HLCA 010), to the south the so called Port Talbot Tumulus (PRN 763w; HLCA 013) and at Waun Lluest-wen another ring cairn (PRN 115m; HLCA 013), and Twmpath Diwlith (PRN 00754w; excavation in 1921 revealed a cist burial; HLCA 013). Outliers include the possible barrow of Mynydd Margam Beacon (NPRN 307,286; HLCA 010), also considered to be a maritime defensive feature of medieval date, and to the south west the near destroyed Rhyd Llechws round barrow, just south east of the summit and the round barrow on Moel Ton mawr (PRN 00755w; HLCA 014). Several of these sites were excavated on behalf of the National Museum of Wales by Dr RE Mortimer Wheeler in 1921 (RCAHMW. Glamorgan Inventory, Volume 1, Part 1); the Royal Commission record that all of the barrows and cairns excavated had been previously damaged and that 'some of the the mounds had been built of irregularly cut turves, and yielded a few flint flakes during excavation.

Of particular interest is the barrow of Twmpath Diwlith (PRN 00754w; SS 8322 8879; HLCA 013), this was found to have been constructed of turf over a rough cist-burial containing fragmentary burnt bones', the site had later been enlarged with earth and a secondary interment (disturbed) inserted. The important 6th century Bodvoc stone (ECM 229; PRN 809w; replica, original in NMW) inscribed BODVOC-HIC IACIT / FILIVIS CATOTIGIRNI / PRONEPVS ETERNALI VEDOMAV ('the stone of Bodvocus-he lies here, the son of Catotigirnus and great grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus') is set into the adjacent ringcairn (PRN 753w; SAM Gm 443; SS 8306 8878; HLCA 010). The 1st edition 6'' OS map of 1884 shows the then location of the stone on the 'tumulus' immediately east of the ancient ridgeway route of Heol-y-moch (an extention of Ffordd-y-gyfraith), and names it as careg-lythrog (inscribed stone). There is a possibility that the Bodvoc stone may have originally have been associated with Twmpath Diwlith, especially in the light of the secondary burial; this is, however, largely speculative.

The significance of the Bodvoc stone is enhanced by its location close to a well-established civil and ecclesiastic boundary; the boundary between the parishes of Margam and Llangynwyd ('yr Hen Blwyf') and the boundary of main monastic lands of Margam during the medieval period (Rees 1932; Williams 1990), the stone's location is thought to reflect the even earlier boundary between the early medieval parochiae of Margam and Llangynnd (Knight 1995)."

Let us first tackle the name Vedomav-.  Celtic language specialists are in agreement that the second component is "servant."  To quote again from the CISP site:

"MAU is attested as the second element in the name Tutamau (CR no. 281), and also probably in Wormawi in ch. 14 of the Vita of Paul Aurelian), unless that is Uurm-/Uorm- `brown' plus the suffix -(i)au. Cornish has a common noun maw `young man, servant' from British *magus. Magu- is attested as a name element in Gaulish. These forms correspond to the OIr. common noun mug `slave, servant'. The same root is found in Breton maouez `woman', corresponding to Cornish mowes `girl', and probably in Breton mevel `domestic servant'. The Early Welsh collective maon (two syllables) is used with the meaning `subjects, a king's warband' (GPC sn.). The singular occurs in the Welsh fossilized phrase meudwy `hermit, monk', as if from *magus Dewi: `servant of God'. The same element occurs in two compound names in Late Romano-British spellings in inscriptions from Wales: MAVOHE[N-] from *Magu-senos (Llanboidy: ECMW no. 149) and VEDOMAV- (Margam: ECMW no. 229). If Gallmau is not simply a name that is servile in origin, it may contain the sense of meudwy as a name in faith, i.e. `Gallo-Roman Servant [of God]'."

Vedo- is from some word which in modern Welsh would appear as gwydd (information courtesy Dr. Simon Rodway).  I will present my reason below for choosing gwydd, 'tree(s), branches, twigs' (see Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru).

The second thing we notice about the Bodvoc Stone inscription is that the name of the father of Catotigirnus is left out.  We thus must be satisfied with the great-grandfather of Bodvoc, Eternalis Vedomavus.  Now, long ago I suggested that Vortigern was at least part Irish.

At the time, I had not plugged the Bodvoc Stone into the equation.  As a result, I did not bother to check into the etymologies for Lomman and Fedelmid (Feidilmidh and other variants).

Lomman, as it turns out, means (see the eDIL) 'tree (or branch) stripped of its bark and/or leaves and/or twigs.'  He is given an epithet lainnech, meaning 'the Scaly' (perhaps for the appearance of bark?).  Ath Truim, his church, means "ford of the elder trees." According to a traditional account, Foirtchern son of Fedelmid was a follower of Lomman.

This reminded me immediately of Vedomavus as "Tree-servant."

Could Eternalis be a Latin rendering of Fedelmid?  We have examples in stone and in MSS. of Latin being used as "translations" of Celtic names.  In Dyfed we have the Voteporigas Protictoris stone, while Gildas wrongly renders Cuneglasus as 'tawny butcher'.

I went to look for an etymology for Fedelmid.  One possibility, supplied by Christopher Gwinn, wasn't helpful:

“Fedelm is the Irish equivalent of the Gaulish name Uidluia (for *Uidlmia). The first element is based on the root ‘to see’ (Uid-). The name likely means ‘seeress.’”

According to Professor Jurgen Uhlich of Trinity College, a derivation from a word similar to Gaulish Uidluia is not possible:

"And finally ref. the connection you propose with Gaulish Uidluia, even IF < *vidlmia (which, however, seems a phonotactically impossible formation). Be that as it may, such a preform could not possible lead to the vocalism of the first syllable of Fedelm(-id), where the e must either be original or the result of Primitive Irish lowering, which however only happens before *a or *o in the following syllable. Also, a group *dl could not have survived into Old Irish, but would regularly lose the d with ensuing compensatory lengthening, thus yielding something like *file, or if really with an original *m, *fĂ­lme (all of this a purely formal exercise, of course). So while words beginning with, or containing, the sequence <vid> make one think of the IE root ‘to see’ (though there are other formal possibilities), one can still not be sure that even the apparently appellative Gaulish word containing this must have meant ‘seer(ess)’, unless it can be argued plausibly have that meaning in its transmitted Larzac context. But this would still do nothing for Fedelm etc., unless the formal concerns could be addressed, and even then it is attested as a context-free name, not an appellative noun."

The second possibility for Fedlemid, however, was quite remarkable:

Sabine Ziegler derives Fedelm and Fedelmid from the adjective feidil "enduring, lasting".

I went to the eDIL for feidil (or fedil) and derivatives and found these meanings:

lasting, enduring, long-lived, constant, continuous, perpetual

Prof. Jurgen's opinion on this derivation is as follows:

"...the only formal connection available indeed appears to be the Irish word feidil... All of this leaves us at best with feidil, for no other reason that this is the most similar word the Irish dictionary can come up with (albeit a very similar one in the present case, admittedly)... I will restate that that connection with feidil seems more suggestive than some other, shorter, root-etymologies... "

What I propose is this: whoever carved the Bodvoc Stone had rightly or wrongly interpreted Fedelmid to mean the same as Latin Eternalis and so he "translated" the name.

Prof. Jurgen commented on this idea thusly:

 "...the latter “meaning” would only have been the one that the translator assumed the name to have by his own reinterpretation (which may have been historically “correct” or incorrect), not the actual meaning of the name at the time, which again would have been limited to denoting a particular person. This is the realm of folk-etymology (usually called that only when the contemporary interpretation of a form can be shown by modern linguists to be historically wrong, but the approach is the exact same when the explanation happens to be “correct”, a criterion that would have made no sense to the folk-etymologiser)."

Eternalis = Fedelmid

Vedomavus = Tree-servant (i.e. Fedelmid, who was, as is made plain in the hagiographical account, a follower of the "tree" Lomman)

If I'm right about this, the Vortigern of Wales was indeed Foirtchern son of Fedelmid by a British wife.  This Foirtchern eventually carved out a kingdom for himself called Gwrtheyrnion, located in southern Powys.

I realize some may challenge my reading of this stone.  Still, I feel that what I have come up with is more than merely provocative.  In truth, it may point to the actual historical existence of Vortigern and allow us to trace his ancestry back to an Irish king.

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