Archive for August, 2008

August 8, 2008

Hengest and Horsa And The Saxon Invasions

The rhyme helping school children recall the kings and queens of England starts with William the Conqueor. “Willy, Willy, Harry…” etc. The kings who came before 1066 are not included. People seem to like their history much neater and tidier than it actually is, and perhaps the difference between England before and after 1066 is symbolised by two books, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the period before 1066, and The Domesday Book for the period after. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle has different versions, written by different people in different places. Particularly in its references to the very earliest days of Saxon Britain the Chronicle is a mixture of myth and history. The Domesday Book in contrast is precise and exact. Information in column after column, page after page, lists the precise details of all land holdings in England. There was no more ambiguity, no more questions. This was Doomsday, the end, the final judgement. The Domesday Book suggests central control of a high order. But the Chronicle talks of a much more indefinable identity.

The Chronicle begins in the dark confusion that came with the withdrawl of the Romans from Britain at the end of the fourth century. Following an occupation lasting over three hundred and fifty years, the Romans’ departure left a vacuum of power. Historical sources for the chaotic time following the Romans’ departure are poor, and the first history of the period wasn’t written until three hundred years later by the historian known as the Venerable Bede. And the Chronicle did not begin its compilation until late in the ninth century. The story that follows is not the Domesday Book. There is no last word. Much is left in doubt. This is a story that hovers somewhere between the possible and the probable.

It is fairly clear that the last Roman commander was a soldier who the Welsh call Coel Hen, and he has survived in the English nursery rhyme Old King Cole. He may have founded some kind of local dynasty in the south of England. Then it seems a warlord called Vitalinus came to dominate at least part of Britain, and he was known as the “Vortigren”, which means “supreme leader”. Without Roman troops the Pictish tribes in what is now Scotland were making increasingly bold raids into the province of Britannia. To try and control these attacks, the Vortigren is supposed to have contacted Hengest, a fearsome mercenary from Friesia, an area in northern Germany. Hengest was hired, and he arrived on what was then the east Kent island of Thanet – pictured above – possibly with his brother Horsa, and a band of men. This arrival is described in one of the oldest examples of English literature, Beowulf


Then came three keels driven into exile from

Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa

and Hengest… Vortigren welcomed them,

and handed over to them the island that in

their language is called Thanet, in British



Hengest was successful in his battles with the Picts, and he has left his legacy in the name of the city of Dumfries, which means “the fort of the Friesian”. At this point his job was done, but instead of returning to Friesia, Hengest started bringing in uninvited “reinforcements” who could not be paid. The lack of payment led to rebellion. In an attempt to control the situation Hengest was invited to attend a conference with three hundred members of the British council. Hengest and a group of his men came to the conference with weapons hidden in their clothing, and proceeded to kill all of the elders, except for the Vortigren, whose power was broken. From his headquarters on Thanet Hengest quickly moved to subdue Kent. Two battles in 455 and 456 defeated the British in Kent, but at the cost of Horsa’s death in the first battle. Hengest and his son Aesc were then left as leaders of the Fresians, with Aesc succeeding as leader in 488. Aesc was then king of Kent, according to the Chronicle, for twenty four years. By the end of the fifth century Kent, the first of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms was firmly established. Old names used in the area changed to Germanic names: Ruoihm became Thanet; Cantii, became Kent, Ripuarium became Richborough, and Dubris became Dover. Celtic speech was swamped by Germanic dialect.

Pevensey Castle

Meanwhile a different group of invaders, the Saxons, led by Aelle landed at Selsey Bill and set about conquering Sussex. In 491 Aelle’s men stormed the British fortress at Pevensey Castle and massacred all the people sheltering inside. Then in 495 Cerdic and his son Cynric landed at Southampton Water and launched an invasion of Hampshire and Wiltshire, an area that became Wessex, kingdom of the West Saxons. This in outline is the story that the Chronicle tells. No mention is made of the East Angles, East Saxons, Middle Saxons, Middle Angles or Mercians. No reference is made to the mysterious delay in advance between 500 and 545, which may have been the time of the last great British resistence. King Arthur ledgends may be linked to this period. This is the nature of the history of this time, imprecise, uncertain, peopled with semi mythic figures, whose general fascination has survived into the present day. In its way these history stories are as important as the incredibly impressive columns of facts and figures that came in with the Domesday Book. And those facts and figures are misleading in themselves. History did not suddenly become clear with the reign of William the Conqueror. Following 1086, the year of the Domesday Book’s preparation, history remained a battle of stories, with propaganda passing for history much of the time. Most of what I read at school about Richard the Second, to take just one example, turned out to be propaganda put about by Henry the Fourth who deposed him. With increased abilities in record keeping came increased possibilities for propaganda. In a way the things that clarify the story bring doubt to it again. Perhaps this shows that there is no actual Domesday Book which will end all doubt. History keeps going, and we should not neglect a great part of English history just becuase it seems unclear. History did not start with William the Conqueror, or with Hengest and Horsa. In history there are no real beginnings and no real doomsdays