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Gwrtheyrn in Welsh

The Meaning of the Name


The name Vortigern, which has been anglicized as, appears in the oldest Welsh records as Guorthigirn and in modern Welsh as Gwrtheyrn. The Venerable Bede, writing in Latin, uses the very early forms Vertigernus and Uurtigernus; in the later Anglo-Saxon texts these are rendered as Wyrtgeorn.

The meaning is explained as ' High Lord' or 'Overlord'. Tigern- does not quite have the meaning of 'King', which is usually represented in names with the form 'Rex', as in Ri(othamus) or (Vortime)Rix, though a more loose translation with 'king' may not be totally incorrect.

Superbus Tyrannus? Proud Tyrant or Arrogant Usurper; The title bestowed on Vortigern by Gildas

Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae  “The Overthrow and Conquest of Britain” circa 540 CE  does not seem to mention the name of Vortigern, only the probable pun on his name, superbus tyrannus, “Proud Tyrant or Arrogant Usurper” though some manuscripts of Gildas actually do mention him directly.

This phrase, together with the occurrence of the name twice in the works of the Venerable Bede and once in manuscript A of Gildas but not in the oldest manuscript, C, had led to speculation among historians. The best interpretation seems to be that British *Wortigernos was the man's name, and only the fact that Mommsens's popular edition was based on manuscript C, which lacked it, gave rise to these speculations of interpolation by Bede or others in the first place.

We have seen that Gildas may have written superbo tyranno Vortigerno after all, and that this may well be why it appeared in Bede. In any case, the point is that in calling him 'arrogant usurper' he was characteristically playing on the meaning of the British *Wortigernos in exactly the same way as he did with that of Aurelius Caninus, Vortiporius, Cuneglasus and Maelgwn.

Superbus tyrannus does not mean 'outstanding ruler' or 'high king' and is not the Latin translation of *Wortigernos. Latin superbus means 'arrogant', 'haughty' or 'proud', and most certainly not 'superior'. Latin tyrannos was borrowed from Greek and had always a negative meaning of unconstitutionality or despotism.

The name Vertigernus or Vortigern means overlord or high lord. Gildas was punning it in his usual way, and getting an offensive meaning out of it, by rendering *wor not by Latin super but by superbus 'arrogant, proud', and *tigernos not by dominus 'lord' but by tyrannus 'despot, usurper'.

But Gildas may have had yet more in mind with choosing this pun. To the latin reader, superbus had another meaning, namely that of the name of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the last (non-Roman) ruler of Rome before the Romans overthrew the hated monarchy. Afterwards their republic went on to dominate the world, and kings were never again allowed. Gildas might have indicated with this pun that he saw Vortigern not only as equally proud, but also as the first (non-Roman) king after the Romans!




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Born circa 400 CE ; Welsh: Myrddin;

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