Vortigern and the Saxons

As British society continued to break down, her people became evermore desperate to drive out the invaders. Archaeological evidence from this time indicates that in about the middle of the fifth century, three tribes known as Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began entering Britain as permitted colonists, rather than raiders.

Sources older than Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain refer to a king named Vortigern, who is credited with employing Saxons to fight as mercenaries against the Picts, who were now the greatest threat to Britain.

The sources tell us that the Jutish brothers Hengist and Horsa arrived in three of their ships, and that Vortigern invited them to live in Kent. Ostensibly, they came to fight for Britain, but in reality, they always had their sights set on taking the Island. From the beginning, they demanded more and more supplies and food, on the pretense that their troops needed them in order to fight.

Employing the Saxons to fight as mercenaries was temporarily successful: they drove the Picts away for the time being. But Vortigern's mistake was that his own forces were not strong enough to battle the mercenaries he had brought in. The earlist records tell us a dispute arose over the payments he had agreed to give them, and negotiations broke down. About this time, the Angles and Picts joined forces, and the Saxons mutinied. Legends of this crisis also depict Vortigern marrying Hengist's daughter, just as in Geoffrey. In reality, he may have done so only in the hopes of easing tensions between the two warring factions. But by 457, the Britons were overwhelmed, and abandoned Kent, fleeing to London.

Whether this king's name really was Vortigern is unknown: "Vortigern" means superior ruler. Honorific titles became common during this time, and the dragon became a symbol of royalty. King Arthur's legendary surname, Pendradon, likely comes from the Welsh words meaning "Supreme War Chief."

Whatever the case about Vortigern's name, his decision, at least in part, resulted in Britain's being overwhelmed, and history has remembered him as a wicked and treacherous king for it. Some sources even depict Vortigern carrying on an incestuous relationship with his own daughter.

The Britons, once prosperous Roman citizens, now found themselves overwhelmed and under equipped to defend themselves. For the next several centuries, the invading tribes, now collectively referred to as the Saxons, would continue to ravage them, and would eventually come to dominate the whole of the Island. But there would be a brief period of resurgence to give the Britons hope, a time historians now refer to as the 'Arthurian Fact.'