Vortigern: Facts About the King of the Britons

Here are some facts about Vortigern.

  • Some believe that Vortigern (also spelled Vortiger and Vortigen) was King of the Britons in the early to mid 5th century. Others think he is a legend.

  • In the 6th century Gildas wrote about Vortigern. Apparently Gildas was one of the men who decided to invite the Saxons to settle Britain.
  • The Venerable Bede, writing in the 8th century, he calls Vortigern the King of the British people, and gives names to the leaders of the Saxons – Hengest and Horsa.
  • The Historica Brittonum gives the names of Vortigern’s sons as Vortimer, Pascent, Catigern and Faustus. His father was Vitalis, and his grandfather was Vitalinus.

Vortigern and Rowena

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Vortigern led the Britons against the Saxons in the first of four battles in Kent against Henegest and Horsa.
  • William of Malmesbury said Vortigern was the King of Britain, and an evil man suited to ‘neither the field nor the council”.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britannie says that Vortigern was the successor of Constans (the son of Constatinus III). Apparently, he arranged for Saxon soldiers to come to Britain to strengthen the island’s defenses, and fight against the Picts and Scots.
  • The Pillar of Eliseg (a 9th century stone cross in Wales) has an inscription that links Vortigern with the royal family of Powys.
  • Some historians think that the word Vortigern was a title and not a name.
  • In Wales several landmarks are named after Vortigern, for example, Vortigern’s Gorge is a valley on the Lleyn Peninsula
  • After the Middle Ages the character of Vortigern is still well-known. He appears in two plays, The Birth of Merlin and Hengist, King of Kent, written in 1661.
  • William Hamilton painted him in his 1793 work called Vortigern and Rowena.
  • When the play William and Rowena was ‘discovered’ in 1796, it was said to be written by William Shakespeare. However, it was revealed that it was actually written by William Henry Ireland, a forger.
  • Vortigern often appears in versions of the King Arthur stories. He has been portrayed in movies by Rutger Hauer and Jude Law. He is associated with Merlin and a story about dragons fighting underground causing his castle to collapse.

Athelstan: Facts About the Anglo-Saxon King

Here are some interesting facts about Athelstan.

  • Athelstan was an Anglo-Saxon king, who is often thought to be the first King of England. He was the Anglo-Saxon king from 924 to 927 AD, and King of England from 927 to 939.

  • He became king when his father, King Edward died. The king was so fond of Athelstan that he gave him a sword and made him a knight at an early age.
  • During the first two years of his reign, he fought the Danes and won York. He also defeated opposition in Cornwall and made the five Welsh kings each pay him 25,000 sheep every year.
  • In 934, Athelstan invaded Scotland by land and sea. He may have invaded because the death of the Norse king, Guthrith, that same year meant he could more easily invade.
  • He collected religious relics and works of art which he often gave to churches. He founded many monasteries in Britain, including the Abbey of St. John in Yorkshire.
  • Athelstan helped to promote learning, and one of his students invented a board game called Gospel Dice.
  • The epic poem Beowulf may have been written at his request.
  • He helped create an organization for masons, which may have led to the Freemasons. He also helped translate the Bible into English, banned Sunday trading and promoted trade in rural areas.
  • Athelstan was one of the first kings to write laws and enforce them. The first two laws were about paying money to the church, and making sure the poor were given money.
  • He owned land in Foxley in what is now Wiltshire, and gave the nearby town of Malmesbury 600 acres of land. To this day, the land is still owned by the Freemen of the town.
  • Athelstan was buried in Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. His bones were taken sometime during the 16th century, and the tomb there today is an empty one.

Alfred Jewel: Facts and Information

Here are some facts about the Alfred Jewel.

  • The Alfred Jewel is an Anglo-Saxon artefact from the 9th century, made during the reign of King Alfred the Great.
  • It is made of enamel, quartz and gold, and it would have once been attached to the top of a thin wooden rod. It is thought to have been the handle of a pointer stick (or aestel), used for following words when reading from gospel texts.

  • It is called the Alfred Jewel because Alfred the Great ordered it to be made. The artefact is inscribed with the words ‘Aelred Mec Heht Gewyrcan’ – Alfred ordered me made.
  • The Alfred Jewel is about 6.5 cm long and shows an image of a man – possibly Jesus Christ or St Cuthbert or St Neot.

Alfred Jewel

  • Some believe that the man is a figure representing the sense of sight
  • The artefact was discoved at North Petherton, Somerset in 1693.
  • It can be seen by the public in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
  • Since the discovery of the Alfred Jewel, other similar artefacts have been found. These include: The Minister Lovell Jewel, The Warminster Jewel, The Bowleaze Jewel, The Yorkshire Aestel, The Borg Aestel and the Bidford Bobble.
  •  Many historians believe that the teardrop-shaped piece of crystal used in the Alfred Jewel was recycled from a piece of Roman jewellery.
  • A mosaic based on the Alfred Jewel can be found in the Market Square of St Neots. An image of the Alfred Jewel can also be found on the St Neots village sign.

What next? Learn more about the Anglo-Saxons by visiting our Anglo-Saxon resources page.

Offa’s Dyke: Facts and Information

Here are some interesting facts about Offa’s Dyke.

  • Offa’s Dyke is a large earthwork, which roughly follows the border between England and Wales. In the 8th century, it marked the border between the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia in England and the Welsh kingdom of Powys.
  • England at that time was divided into several independent kingdoms. Mercia was the largest and the most powerful and stretched from the River Humber to the English Channel.

  • The dyke stretches for 240 km from Prestatyn in North Wales to the River Severn estuary. It is almost 20 metres wide in places, and up to 3.5 metres deep.
  • Most historians believe the dyke was built by Offa, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, from 757 to 796, but in 2014 evidence was unearthed to suggest that it might have been a project undertaken during the reigns of several Mercian rulers.
  • It was a considerable achievement back then to recruit enough men for such a large building project. Offa may have required people living in certain areas to take responsibility for building different sections of the dyke.
  • Offa’s Dyke is one of the most impressive early construction efforts by inhabitants of Britain. It may have been built for defensive reasons, or simply as a visible dividing line between the two kingdoms.
  • The Offa’s Dyke long-distance path was opened in 1971. It crosses the border between England and Wales 20 times and passes through 8 different counties.
  • It takes the average walker about 12 days to walk the length of the path from one marker to the other. Horse riders and cyclists are allowed on about a third of the path.
  • The Offa’s Dyke Path is flat in places, and it is known for the large number of stiles along its route. The highest point on the path is 700 metres at Hatterall Ridge.
  • In 2012, the historian Michael Wood ran the entire length of Offa’s Dyke in just over 2 days and 16 hours. He raised several thousand pounds for charity.
  • More than 3000 people complete the 177 mile Offa’s Dyke Path every year. The record finish time is 52 hours and 26 minutes.
  • The first written record of Offa’s Dyke appears in a 9th century biography of King Alfred by Asser.
  • The dyke is in danger of being destroyed in some places due to natural erosion, damage caused by walkers, agriculture and the activity of rabbits and other animals. It is hard to maintain the dyke because much of it is located on private land.
  • There are many very old oak, sycamore and yew trees growing alongside Offa’s Dyke, including a well-known great oak near Chirk, Wrexham, called the Oak at the Gate of the Dead. It has this name because the tree grows close to the site of the Battle of Crogen, fought between the armies of Henry II and an alliance of Welsh rulers led by Owain Gwynedd in 1165.
  • Archaeologists still don’t know if Offa’s Dyke was built in one go, or whether it was constructed by linking up several pre-existing boundary earthworks and barriers.
  • Some parts of Offa’s Dyke would have incorporated wooden ramparts and it is speculated that there would have been thorny bushes growing in the ditch below.
  • Some historians have suggested that towers might have been placed at intervals along the dyke, but no evidence for such structures has yet been discovered.
  • In the fourth season of The Last Kingdom TV series (based on Bernard Cornwell’s books), one of the characters, Hywell Dda, refers to Offa’s Dyke.
  • In 2021 Rob McBridge completed his tree survey of the Offa’s Dyke Path, cataloging hundreds of trees for the Woodland Trust. One of the yew trees he discovered in Discoed churchyard is estimated to be more than 2500 years old.

What next? Discover more Anglo-Saxon facts by visiting our Anglo-Saxon resources page.