Invasion of Britain by Brothers Hengist and Horsa: Truth or Legend?
Hengist and Horsa were a pair of brothers mentioned in British history. According to legend, they were the leaders of the first Germanic settlers (or Anglo-Saxons) of Britain. They are believed to have lived during the 5 th century AD.
The story of Hengist and Horsa is found in various literary sources that were written by the English long after their legendary arrival on the island. In these sources, Hengist and Horsa are presented as seizing the land from the native Britons by force. Consequently, scholars have traditionally held the view that there was a mass invasion of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, during which the natives were displaced by the newcomers. This view has been challenged, however, in more recent times, as a result of evidence from other sources.
Scarcity of Sources From the Time
The invasion of Britain by the Germanic tribes is believed to have taken place during the 5 th century AD, following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from the island. Unfortunately, contemporary accounts of events happening in Britain during that period are very scarce, or perhaps even non-existent. One of the most important written sources from this period in British history is De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ( On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain ), written by Saint Gildas during the 6 th century. Apart from this work, however, other written sources regarding 5 th century Britain comes from later centuries.
The Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ( The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ), for instance, was written during the 8 th century AD, whilst Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain ) during the 12 th century.
Illumination of a 15th-century manuscript of Historia regum Britanniae showing Vortigern and Ambrosius watching the fight between two dragons. ( Public domain )
Regarding Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain , this was in fact not intended by its author to be a work of history. Instead, Gildas produced this piece of writing as a sermon to condemn the deeds of both his secular and religious contemporaries. The saint argues that the terrible state of Britain at that time was caused by the evil actions of these men. On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain may be divided into three parts, the second of which being a brief history of Britain from the time of its conquest by the Romans till Gildas’ day. It is here that the saint mentions the invasion of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons.
According to Gildas, “then all the councilors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations…. A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in three ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favorable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same.”
First Mention of Hengist and Horsa’s Exploits in Britain
Gildas, however, does not mention the names of men who led the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Indeed, the earliest known reference to Hengist and Horsa is found in Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People , written about two centuries after Gildas composed his sermon. Bede’s story is similar to Gildas’, i.e. the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were invited by a king of Britain to fight against his enemies. Although the Anglo-Saxons first performed their duties as mercenaries, they later turned against the patron, and ravaged the island. According to Bede, the first two commanders of the Anglo-Saxon invaders were Hengist and Horsa.
Hengist and Horsa, Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909). (Sir Edward Parrott / Public domain )
The author goes on to say that the two brothers were “the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces deduce their original.” As for the fate of the two brothers, Bede mentions that Horsa was slain in battle with the Britons, and was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument with his name was still standing during his time. Hengist, on the other hand, became the progenitor of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent.
Another source of information for Hengist and Horsa is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles , a collection of annals that was first created during late 9 th century AD. The entry for the year 449 AD reads as follows,
“This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern (Vortigern), King of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes.”
Depiction of Hengist and Horsa landing in Britain for the first time. (Richard Verstegan / Public domain )
This is more or less the same story told by Bede. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles , Horsa was slain in 455 AD during a battle with Wurtgern. Following Horsa’s death, Hengist “took to the kingdom with his son Esc (Oisc)”. In 457 AD, Hengist and Esc fought against the Britons at Crayfod, and 4000 men were slain. Following their defeat, the Britons abandoned Kent, and fled to London. In 465 AD, the Anglo-Saxons fought a battle with the Welsh near Wippedfleet, and twelve Welsh leaders were slain. An Anglo-Saxon thane by the name of Wipped fell during the battle. In 473 AD, the Anglo-Saxons fought the Welsh again, defeated them, and captured a great quantity of booty. Finally, in 488 AD, Hengist is succeeded by his son Esc as the ruler of Kent.
Alternative Account: Exile, Trickery and God’s Army
The next piece of writing that mentions Hengist and Horsa is the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons ), commonly attributed to Nennius, a Welsh monk who lived during the 9 th century AD. In this work, the brothers were not invited by Vortigern to Britain, but were exiled from their homeland, and found their way to the island’s shores. They were welcomed by the king, and allowed to settle on the island of Thanet. Subsequently, Vortigern made an agreement with the Saxons, promising them provision and clothing in return for their assistance against his enemies. Vortigern, however, was not able to fulfil his promise, as the number of Saxons had greatly increased, and therefore began seeking a way to break the alliance.
Nennius portrays Hengist as a cunning leader. When the Saxon leader learned of Vortigern’s plan, he requested the king’s permission to bring more men from Germany to fight for him. For one reason or another, the king granted his request. After the arrival of the newcomers, Hengist gave a feast, and Vortigern was invited. Amongst the newcomers was Hengist’s daughter, who was asked by her father to serve the king alcohol in order to get him drunk. In a state of intoxication, Vortgern demanded Hengist’s daughter, and promised the Saxon chief anything he wanted. Hengist asked for the province of Kent, and it was given to him.
Depiction of Hengist presenting his daughter, Rowena, to Vortigern. (William Hamilton / Public domain )
As time went by, more and more Saxons were invited by Hengist to Britain, and came to reside in Kent. Eventually, war broke out between the Britons and the Saxons. Vortigern had gone into hiding, so his son, Vortimer, fought against Hengist, Horsa, and the Saxons. The war was inconclusive, as the Britons won some battles, whilst the Saxons others. After Vortimer’s death, however, the Saxons became unstoppable.
Vortigern, despite being a weak ruler, was still considered to be an obstacle, and Hengist came up with a plan to get rid of him. The Saxons sent a messenger to the king to offer peace and perpetual friendship, which Vortigern accepted. The king, his nobles, and military leaders were invited to feast to celebrate the ratification of the treaty. When the Britons were sufficiently drunk, Hengist shouted ‘Nimed eure saxes!’ (‘Get out your knives!’). The Saxons, who had been concealing knives, took them out, and began slaughtering the Britons.
Only Voltigern was spared, in exchange for Essex, Sussex, and Middlesex. According to Nennius, the Saxons were defeated shortly after that by Saint Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, “the blessed man was unanimously chosen commander against the Saxons. And then, not by the clang of trumpets, but by praying, singing hallelujah, and by the cries of the army of God, the enemies were routed, and driven even to the sea.”
Stain glass window depiction of Saint Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, in Truro Cathedral, England. ( Public domain )
Compared to the earlier sources, it is clear that the story of Hengist and Horsa had been embellished by the time Nennius was writing, or perhaps by the monk himself. In addition, the author used this story to highlight the struggle between the Christian Britons and the pagan Saxons, in which the former ultimately emerges triumphant. This is evident in the final defeat of the Saxons by a holy man. Nennius’ version of the story serves as the basis of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain . Nevertheless, the story is expanded upon, and some details are changed.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History: Merlin’s Prophecy
The story of Hengist and Horsa in The History of the Kings of Britain follows a similar trajectory to the one written by Nennius, though some changes and additions can be detected. For instance, there is the story of the building of Thancastre. In this tale, Hengist asked the king for permission to build a fortress on a piece of land that can be encompassed with a piece of leather thong, which was granted. Hengist took a bull’s hide, made a thong out of it, and encompassed a rocky place where he intended to build his stronghold. Having done so, Hengist built his castle, which came to be known as Thabcastre, meaning ‘Thong Castle’.
Unlike Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the story has the Saxons defeated by a pair of brothers – Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon. The defeat of the Saxons was prophesized by the wizard Merlin,
“The faces of the Saxons shall look red with blood, Hengist shall be killed, and Aurelius Ambrosius shall be crowned. He shall bring peace to the nation; he shall restore the churches; but shall die of poison. His brother Uther Pendragon shall succeed him, whose days shall be cut short by poison.”
A crude illustration of Aurelius Ambrosius from a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s "Historia Regum Britanniae". (Geoffrey of Monmouth / CC0)
Merlin’s prophecy came true, as Aurelius led the Britons to victory against the Saxons at Maisbeli and Cunengeburg. As for Hengist, he engaged in a duel with Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, and was defeated. The duke was the only Briton to have escaped from Hengist’s treacherous feast, during which the Britons were massacred by their Saxon hosts. Eldol had his revenge by beheading Hengist. Octa, Hengist’s son, and Eosa, a kinsman of Hengist, retreated to York and Alclud respectively. The two Saxon leaders surrendered to the Britons. Aurelius allowed them to inhabit the part of the island bordering Scotland, and made a covenant with them. Thus, the Saxon threat came to an end.
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Modern Challenges to Invasion Theory
The literary sources about Hengist and Horsa have shaped the traditional narrative about arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. For a long time, it was agreed that Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, invaded Britain, and forcibly displaced the native Britons. In more recent times, however, new sources of information have allowed scholars to challenge these long-held views.
The archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon period, for instance, suggest that cultural practices in Britain during that period were not imported by the Germanic invaders, and imposed onto the native population. Instead, it has been suggested that these practices were developed and adapted from pre-existing Romano-British ones. As another example, field layouts and boundaries from the Romano-British, or even prehistoric period, were maintained during, and beyond, the 5 th century AD. This suggests that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons did not cause massive political upheaval on the island.
Although the scholarly opinion about the Anglo-Saxon arrival in Britain has changed in modern times, this does not mean that the literary sources have become obsolete. On the contrary, the tale of Hengist and Horsa, as well as its evolution over the centuries, provide some insight into the world view of the men who were writing (and re-writing) the tale. At the very least, the story makes for interesting reading.
Top image: Representation of Hengist and Horsa. Source: Brambilla Simone / Adobe stock
By: Wu Mingren
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