25/05/12

Vortimer and Folkestone – more ‘story’ than ‘history’

One of the subjects we are very interested in at A Town Unearthed is that of local myths and legends. We are very grateful to Paul Harris for recently contributing some research on the legendary connections between the Celtic prince Vortimer and the Folkestone area, in particular Sugarloaf and Castle Hills.

So who was Vortimer? He was a 5th century Celtic prince who, legend has it, fought a series of battles with the Saxons across Kent in AD456 (ironically, it was his father, King Vortigern, who had invited the Saxons into Britain). Vortimer’s supposed connection to Folkestone is that the last of these battles was fought near here, and that he was killed in battle and buried on top of Sugarloaf or Castle Hill.

Paul Harris found a reference to this story in a 1913 guide book called ‘Rambles Around Folkestone’. The author, Felix, discusses stories from older, early 19th century guide books, wherein Sugarloaf Hill (which some suggested was artificial!) is named as the burial place of Vortimer;  Felix is clearly sceptical about the story, as were other authors from that era.

Paul then looked to Hasted’s History of Kent, published at the very end of the 18th century. Hasted talks about “…a bloody battle…fought near this place [meaning Castle Hill], between the Britons under Vortimer and the Saxons…” He discusses the “vast heaps of human bones” in the crypt of St Leonard’s church (which have now been dated as medieval and can still be seen today) and an un-named church in Folkestone and as evidence for a large battle. Then he asserts that “Vortimer…died soon after this battle and…on his death bed he desired to be buried near the place where the Saxons used to land, that his bones might deter them…and it is generally asserted that he may be buried here at Folkestone.” Hasted makes it clear he is repeating the accounts of other historians, and Paul found much of the same information in Camden’s Brittania, published a little earlier, in 1789.

Another piece of the jigsaw from the 18th century is the first known pictorial representation of Folkestone, produced by William Stukeley in 1725. It is sub-titled Lapis Tituli, which is Latin for ‘inscribed stone’. This is the name given to the site of Vortimer’s last battle by the Welsh cleric Nennius in his History of the Britons, published around 830AD, and by Geoffrey of Monmouth in History of the King’s of Britain published in 1138. Paul looked at both these sources.

He found that Geoffrey of Monmouth does not actually state that Vortimer was buried near Folkestone, instead claiming his final resting place was either London or Lincoln. According to him, Vortimer requested the building of a pyramidal monument and Paul speculates that this may be where later antiquarians got the idea that the conical Sugarloaf Hill might be artificial.

Nennius does not mention either a pyramid or a hill. He claims Vortimer “…charged his friends to inter his body at the entrance of the Saxon port, upon the rock where the Saxons first landed…”, but goes on to say, “…They imprudently disobeyed…and neglected to bury him where he had appointed.” So Nennius does not claim to know where Vortimer was laid to rest. He does however describe a final battle, fought at a place called Lapis Tituli “on the shore of the Gallic sea” at which Vortimer died. Was Lapis Tituli Folkestone, or a place near the town? Even that is debatable.

As with so many stories like this, the ‘historical truth’ is elusive, lost in the passing of time and obscured by the retelling and mythologising of those who recorded them. But it’s a fascinating subject, and our thanks go to Paul Harris for doing this research and bringing it to our attention.

If you know of any Fokestone myths and legends then please get in touch!

townunearthed@canterbury.ac.uk

This post is in: Background and research