The Legend of Vortigern by Simon Heywood
So, Vortigern, who he? There can be few people in this septic isle who don’t know something of the legendary exploits of King Arthur or the derring-do of Robin Hood and his merry men. But Vortigern? You might just about struggle to identify him as a 5th century British warlord. Over and above that it might simply be that you know him as one of the bad guys.
It’s with tremendous pleasure then that we can now rediscover his legend through Simon Heywood’s excellent new volume in the Ancient Legends Retold series, published by The History Press (Series originator: Fiona Collins).
What’s particularly good about Simon’s treatment of the legend is that he has neither just slavishly retold the story nor done a whitewash job on Vortigern’s much maligned reputation. That this warrior king is a victim of history being written by the winners, his tale twisted by his enemies to make him appear evil.
Simon’s book redresses the injustice with sensitivity, made all the more powerful by a first person narrative. This is Vortigern’s story told by the man himself, warts and all, and makes for a gripping read from his rise to ultimate fall and exile in the mountains of Erin.
This is a tale of love and battle, loyalty and betrayal. Dragons and magicians play their part, kings, queens and princes, and priests, old and young. It has all the ingredients of a thriller from the Dark Ages, set in the war-torn world of post-Roman Britain where Picts, Gauls, Saxons and many another tribe do battle across the islands from Caerleon to London, from Gloucester to Brittany.
As to be expected, Simon has done his homework well. He has studied the origins of Vortigern’s story from Gildas in the 5th century through Bede, then from an anonymous Welsh author of the 9th century to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s retelling in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. It is this last account which forms the major inspiration for Simon’s book.
Inspiration is, indeed, the right term for the book is no slavish repetition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version. Simon has, by his own admission, “parted company with him in looking for more than a simple villain behind the mysterious name.”
He has more than accomplished this aim. What we have is an immensely readable story with a human hero, sometimes heroic, at other times a cruel opportunist, now noble now tragic. Rush out and order one and rediscover one of the great, neglected tales of this island’s history – but expect to find not so much the work of a serious historian but that of a very gifted storyteller. A ripping read!