How old is English?


Dates and Vortigern

The modern system of dates, including a year, was not used by the Romans. Although they had a starting year (ab urbe condita = since the foundation of Rome) they preferred to refer to important persons in the past. The Catholic Church wanted a new starting year and eventually that year became the birth year of Christ. This was initially not accepted by all Christians. Some preferred the year of crucifixion. Anyhow, even the birth year of Christ was probably miscalculated. This adds to the confusion. This confusion was at its height during the 5th and 6th century, hence the difficulty to put an accurate year on the deeds of Vortigern.

[1] Council?

Gildas never qualified this 'council' as a senate, most likely because in his eyes it lacked legality.


About 'V'

The Roman Character ‘V’ could be pronounced as ‘w’, ‘oo’, ‘v’ or even aphonically. The early and original pronunciation of the word ‘vinum’ was ‘winum’. In English it’s ‘wine’, in Dutch ‘wijn’ and in German ‘wein’. The northern people of Europe kept the original pronunciation. In the south, Latin and Brythonic speaking parts of the Empire, the ‘v’ pronunciation emerged gradually, and eventually replaced completely the ‘w’-sound.

Vitalinus has to be read like Witalin(us). Pronounce the ‘a’ aphonically, and you are pretty close to the original name Whittling. Vita means ‘life’ in Latin and can be understood as vital. The underlying message is: the family is alive (and kicking?) and vital for the country. At the same time, it was not prepared to adopt a full Latin translation, like Albanus, for it is proud of its eastern-British (people who spoke a different language than the West of Britain) origin. It is likely that the Welsh preserved longer the original pronunciation'.





[2] Several places in modern Wales claim to be the place where Vortigern died. This is probably also the place where he was born. See the best website about Vortigern

Name = Title ?

Compare with Caesar: all emperors after Caius Julius Caesar were called 'Caesar'. Cardinal Ratzinger adopted the name Benedictus when he became pope, suggesting a certain point of view, a program. This papal tradition dates from the Roman Empire. The choice of the name 'Vortigern' suggests three things:
(1) He had the ambition to become the leader of all British lords. Devolution was to be excluded.
(2) The use of the Welsh language instead of Latin suggests the intention to cut all links with the Roman Empire. Britain would not meddle with Rome any more. This was also a message to the Catholic Church. This detail is important as a heresy grew successful in Britain. It was also a signal to the growing group of partisans of 'independence'.
(3) The main opposition in the council was on the southwest (and Welsh) side. Vortigern expressed the ambition to become lord of all Britons, especially the Welsh, using the moderated against the extremists. Vortigern was not a king in the classic meaning of the word. Royalty is inherited. Vortigern was clearly elected.





Ascension of Vortigern


The Byzantine historian Zosimus (end 5th century) wrote about the events between 395 and 510:

Historia Nova, Book VI.5.2-3
The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting without hindrance, reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic peoples to defecting from the Roman rule and living their own lives, independent from the Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms and, braving the danger on their own behalf, freed their cities from the barbarian threat. And all Armorica [Brittany] and the other Gallic provinces followed their example, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and setting up a constitution such as they pleased.

Zosimus indirectly confirms the presence of two people in Britain: the Britanni (Proto-English families) and 'some Celtic people', also in Britain, probably Proto-Welsh families who lived close to the old language border. Both clearly organized their own defence and no longer counted upon Rome. Anglo-Saxons were at this stage not needed. Gildas gives us a similar story.

Probably in 425 Vortigern was chosen ‘chairman’ or ‘upper lord’ of the council [1] in London. The French word is president .

He must have been at that moment around 39 years old. He was of course a member of a powerful family, probably the Vitalinus family. The ancestry of his family is documented in the Historia Britonum.

Around 407, he married Sevira, the second daughter of Maximus Magnus, who had been co-emperor for 5 years. The date of the marriage is derived from the birth date of Sevira: about 20 years earlier. The fact that Maximus had two very young daughters before his death in 388, is attested. I assume that young Vortigern and Sevira had a similar age. This suggests that he was born around 386. Most upper-class marriages at the time were arranged. It was about politics and money. Love was not important. They married during the years of Constantine III, co-emperor and alleged British usurper.

Vortigern remained the leader of the British senate for some 20 years (425 - about 445). He would die in (modern) Wales around 447-452 (a few years after the great rebellion) at an age of 61 to 68, probably in the neighbourhood of his birthplace.

The birth date and subsequent dates in Vortigern's life are a reconstruction. They are partly based upon the mention on the (click) Pillar of Eliseg, of his marriage with Sevira. There are many reasons to believe that this message is genuine. The pillar was erected during the early 9th century. At that time a king was a king solely because of his male ancestors. Referring to a female ancestor (Sevira) was pointless. There are no indications that Sevira ever had become important. Maximus had daughters. Other sources attest this. However, their names were nowhere mentioned but the one on the pillar. He also had a son, Flavius Victor. Referring to him would have been more in line with the tradition that only male ancestors were important. In reality Flavius Victor died too young, but the question is whether people knew that in the 9th century. Strange enough, the pillar was meant to honor the Welsh dynasty of Powys. As Vortigern was considered by Gildas and Bede to be a traitor to the Welsh cause, his name upon a Welsh pillar is rather surprising. Hence my belief that the text onto the pillar is authentic.

Another consequence is that the date 425 (Nennius' Historia Britonum) for the ascension of Vortigern is more likely than 446 (Bede's date). Becoming chairman of the British senate at an age of ±39 is very plausible. Bede's date would have made him about 62 years old. Although possible, it would have made him a very old man for the time. It's much less in line with all the tales we know about Vortigern such as the incest slur. The question also can be raised whether the British senate would have chosen such an old man to lead Britain in those difficult times.

The name Vitalinus (a detail reported by Nennius) is a strong indication that he was a member of the proto-English upper-class in Britain . In Welsh, the name is written Guithelin or similar, although the texts in Welsh appeared later. We can apply here the comparison with the first name ‘William’. William is the modern version of Wilhelm. This name was transformed in French into Guillaume. The conversion of ‘wi’ into ‘gui’ in the (para-)Brythonic languages is something like a rule. Applying this rule backwards upon Guithelin gives us Whittlin(g) in its original language. The colour refers to one’s hair. ‘–ling’ means ‘related to’ or ‘family’. One ancestor of this family must have had white hair, most probably when he was young. Names like ‘De Witte’ or ‘Weissman’ are common in the Dutch language group or in Germany.

Whittling is therefore far from an exceptional name, in all the German-like languages. This is the clue that the family was of eastern-Briton origin. It is at the same time an indication that at least a part of Britain spoke a German-like language. I reject the idea that the family issued from German immigrants. The basis of the wealth of the family was like everywhere else in the Empire agricultural, which was not easily acquired. In most cases, the owners of the land were natives. A translation or adaptation in Latin (Vitalinus) often meant an embellishment of the original name. White in Latin is alba. The name Whittling could have been translated into Albanus or similar. The choice for Vitalinus is not the result of a poor knowledge of the Latin language. Even in Latin, the family referred to its proto-English character. The reason can be guessed: their whole lifestyle depended upon their name and prestige.

Like most of the important families at the time, the Vitalinus family must have possessed vast agricultural estates all over Britain. Later events (it is known that Vortigern returned to Wales after his demise) let us believe that the family had land in south-Wales or neighbourhood, although the ancestral family propriety was probably situated somewhere in Wessex, modern Oxfordshire or Berkshire. This region was probably Welsh territory during the Bronze Age. Vortigern was probably born in this Greater-Wales or Proto-Wales region [2]. It’s there that the young Vortigern grew up. As a member of a proto-English family he must have spoken proto-English with his parents, and as a young boy he must have picked up the proto-Welsh language from his local friends. At school he learned to read and write in Latin.

The picture emerging from the sources is of an intelligent and well-educated man. He probably made an exemplary carrier in the Brito-Roman administration and had been appointed for that reason as the head of his family. This position enabled him to become some sort of ‘chairman’ of the council, not the least because he was and remained a partisan of a centralized government.

Vortigern adopted a Welsh honorific name. Gwr-teyrn: Gwr or Gor is Brythonic (Welsh) for ‘over’, 'upper' and teyrn means 'leader', 'important man', not 'tyrant'! In those days 'teyrn' had no connotation about rank. Any leader was called 'teyrn', even the most low ranking ones. The council had a small problem: all its members were 'teyrns'. So, Vortigern was called 'upper-leader', 'chairman', which is not the same as 'high-king' or 'overlord'. A royal or high ranking aristocratic ascent was not implied. This qualification became soon his name. Gildas would later use the similarity between 'teyrn' and the Latin 'tyrannus' to mock the man.

The classic tradition dictated that 'Vortigern' should have adopted a honorific Latin name, as Maximus Clemens Magnus did.  His Welsh name must have referred to his Welsh background. A classic Latin honorific name would have put him on the pro-Roman side. A Welsh name can be considered as a gesture toward the moderate Welsh. Many moderate Welsh lived in the Northwest of modern England (Liverpool-Manchester area). It was important to keep them on the side of the majority, or they were necessary to obtain a majority in the council. The name Vortigern was like himself: a compromise. It is possible that 'Vortigern' Vitalinus was the first to have this honorific name and that he had successors who adopted the same ‘title’.

Vortigern got the difficult task to appease trouble in the council. To summarize the problems:

( 1) the question whether Britain was still a part of the Roman Empire or not was not solved. At that time, a majority of the council members still fancied the Empire, a growing minority rejected it.
(2) The southwest lords (and Welsh?) wanted to get rid of the 'Anglo-Saxon rule' = the way eastern lords ruled, consolidated and expanded their power by using Anglo-Saxon guardsmen. Only a centrally led army was a legal army, so was argued. It was warned that that 'guard system' would lead to a complete decentralization of Britain. However, most east-British lords regarded their 'Saxon' solution as just temporary.
(3) The authority of the British senate had to be restored, but some eastern lords saw no advantage there. So Vortigern faced opposition from west and east.

The 'Anglo-Saxon rule' or housecarl system proved to be too successful. So much so that more and more 'Anglo-Saxons' were lured into Britain. None of this was officially organized or even legal, which eventually led to some sort of degradation of the quality of those soldiers. Too many young, untrained, inexperienced Germans presented themselves in eastern Britain. The local authorities noticed the trend and urged 'London' to take measures.

Vortigern would become famous as the ruler who 'invited' the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ into Britain.

During the 5th century the Roman way of ruling and organizing became gradually abandoned. In Britain is was all about 'devolution' and the Anglo-Saxon housecarls would greatly contribute to that.