This illustration, from a 14th-century manuscript (labeled BL Royal 20 A II, f. 3 in The British Library) depicts a scene from British legend. Atop the burning castle is Vortigern, a legendary figure from the 5th century who is credited with inviting Saxons into Britain, setting in motion the eventual Anglo-Saxon domination of England that would last for centuries. Although Vortigern was a ruler of the Britons—his name is actually thought to be a title akin to ‘Great Chief’—Vortigern and the Britons eventually had a falling out. Another legendary figure from the 5th century, Ambrosius Aurelianus, reportedly waged war against Vortigern with an army of Britons and assimilated Romans. Geoffrey of Monmouth (flourished c. 12th century), in his History of the kings of Britain, wrote of Ambrosius Aurelianus’ triumph over Vortigern, claiming, “They lost no time, but moved into position with their siege-machines and did their utmost to break down the walls. When everything else had failed, they tried fire; and this, once it took hold, went on blazing until it burned up to the tower and Vortigern with it” (History of the Kings of Britain, VIII.2). This scene of Vortigern being besieged and ultimately dying in an inferno set by his enemies is what is depicted in the manuscript illustration featured above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966.