MYTH TO REALITY: VORTIGERN’S CAVE IN MARGATE
Margate is rightfully known for its famous, undatable Shell Grotto, which has been known as a folly, a Roman mithraeum and even a Phoenician temple. However, FAR lesser known is another set of caverns, known as Vortigern’s cave. Probably dating between the 1600-s-1700’s, these caves have been closed on and off for several hundred years; the last time they were open was in the 1990’s (when I was lucky enough to visit them.) The wall paintings of redcoats and the hunt were very well preserved colour-wise and quite unique. There were also an elephant and a crocodile.
The name Vortigern (meaning Great Lord) seems fanciful, being that of a semi-legendary ancient British king who supposedly gave the region of Thanet to his son-in-law Hengist the Saxon. It was only applied to the caves in the later 1800’s when a new tenant of Northumberland House, through which the caves could be accessed, decided to open the caves as a tourist attraction.
However, recent archaeological digs in anticipation of re-opening the caves in 2019, have shown that there was indeed a pre-Roman presence in the bumpy field overlying the cave site. In fact a rather imposing one–a large defensive ditch surrounded by postholes and pits filled by Iron Age pottery. The Iron Age occupation appears to end with the advent of the Romans, implying that the locals were either annihilated or driven away.
Now this makes it far too late for Vortigern and his Saxon alliance (said to have taken place late in the 5th century) but it shows there probably WAS a powerful chieftain and tribal group dwelling on high ground near the shores at Margate in prehistory.