British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.4

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Chapter 6.4: The origin of Hengist's legend

Fabio P. Barbieri

One thing that becomes increasingly clear as we reflect on the Irish and Welsh stories is that, while there is a place for Ronwein in the comparison, there is none at all for Hengist. The great fortress is built against an unnamed mass of Saxons. No parallel whatever exists in the story of Becuma for Hengist and Horsa giving Ronwein away. And even though the Irish legend does feature a devastating invasion from overseas (from Britain, natch), and though I believe that the reason for said invasion - the violent controversy within Munster - is late and adventitious, nevertheless there is nothing whatever to parallel any of the circumstances associated with the Saxon host: the host of Beine Brit does not come in feigned peace, does not first claim an under-kingdom in Ireland - comparable to the taking of Kent from Gorangonus - whether as bride-price for Ronwein or for any other reason - does not revolt against an Irish over-lordship as the Saxons do against the British, does not indulge in any negotiations at any point, and does not assassinate the elders of Ireland. And conversely, neither of the purely Anglo-Saxon sources for Hengist and Horsa, Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, know anything about Ronwein; while on the other hand Ronwein baganes, Ronwein the pagan woman, turns up as Vortigern's seducer, unaccompanied by any kinsman, in the Trioedd Ynis Prydein[1], and a frequent bardic Welsh usage - which we would naturally assume to be archaizing - calls the English "children of Ronwein"[2]. This suggests that an early layer of tradition, now lost, saw Ronwein as the ancestor of the English nation: a concept not compatible with, but rather alternative to, the account of Hengist and Horsa taking to Britain a Saxon tribe already formed[3].

Hengist's war against the British is told more or less in the same terms in two separate accounts, Nennius and the Saxon Chronicle (henceforth ASC). That detail is deceptive. Fifth-century English settlers were, to the best of our knowledge, illiterate, at least in their own language. One may suspect that merchants or ambassadors may have familiarized themselves with Latin writing, but the Teutons of Kent are hardly likely to have had state archives or durable records before 597[4]: and Hengist's war against Vortimer is supposed to have taken place after 442 - 150 years earlier, too long for living memory. On the British side, any source would have been in Latin. Kent must have been one of the most thoroughly Latinized countries in Britain. One fact proves it: according to linguists[5], the name of Dover, which was originally the plural of the very common Celtic word dubr/dwyfr, meaning water, passed into English with a plural stem but an unchanged root. That is, the first English settlers knew that the name of the place was a plural, but did not know what it meant, and simply turned into a plural, in their own language, the unchanged root dubr.  In other words, Kent's first Saxon settlers could not find anybody to tell them that the name of the place meant nothing else than "the waters"!  Clearly, they only spoke with people who spoke Latin.  And it follows that the Welsh names used by Nennius, in particular that of the supposed lord of Kent Gorangonus or Gwyrangcon, cannot be historical.  Any "lord of Kent" of the period would have borne a Latin name and spoken Latin.  The rank and powers suggested for Gwyrangcon[6], apparently a local kinglet of the usual Celtic type, are equally unacceptable in this most Romanized ciuitas of the Romanam insulam, at a time when the Britanniae and Roman law were still tangible realities.  In other words, the events Nennius supposes to have taken place in Kent in the fifth century come, in fact, from a Dark Age Welsh mentality.

Therefore the Nennian/ASC account of war in Kent cannot be historical.  It is not even credible.  They claim it was fought between Hengist and Vortigern's heroic son Vortimer, and, to all appearances, in Kent alone.  This will never do.  Gildas, whose reliability has been proved again and again, states explicitly that the war raged from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.  (In one of his most hilarious asides, Morris, who takes the historicity of Hengist for granted, simply says that "no account survives of the fighting north of the Thames"!)  And this territorial restriction, coupled with Nennian triumphalism - multiplied, if anything, by Geoffrey - means that we get a thoroughly un-Gildasian picture of the British continuously attacking, driving the Kentish Teutons practically into the sea, besieging them three times in their island refuge of Thanet, and of Hengist's people only surviving the storm thanks to the help of repeated drafts of allies from the Continent; all this under the leadership of the heroic brothers Vortimer and Catigern, whose names, are clearly built as calques on that of their "father" Vortigern - a name, itself, which was no more than a later racial insult aimed at the usurper's memory!  If anything could more clearly show that Vortimer and Catigern are legendary figures and in no sense historical, I cannot think of it.  Not only is this legend: it is legend with no discernible leaven of fact.

The three sieges of Thanet are interesting in that there is evidence that the siege of the invading English in an island was part of a set of legendary ideas that could be located anywhere off the coast of Britain.  According to Nennius, a fantastically unlikely coalition of British kings besieged the northern English in Metcaud, identified with Lindisfarne, until the villain of the piece, Morcant, murdered the leader - none other than our old friend Urien.  Some historians have believed this to be historical, and it must be admitted that there is more excuse in this case than in that of Hengist and Horsa[7]; but it is a legend all the same.  It would be more credible if it involved more names, and less familiar ones.  The allies are Urien, Gwallawg, Rhydderch and Morcant.  Two of these are known to us from the poetry of the historical Taliesin, two - Rhydderch and Morcant - from the hagiography of St.Kentigern of Glasgow: and in both cases there are glaring unlikelihoods.  Nennius claims that Urien was the leader of the alliance; but we have seen plenty of reason to believe that Gwallawg was superior in rank - Gwledig as opposed to theyrn - and even that he was the lord of one Owein, probably Urien's son.  Do we believe for a minute that he would leave the command of the army in the hands of a northern cateran like Urien?  And for that matter, if the Owain of Mon of the Taliesin poem is in fact Urien's son, then the likelihood is that Urien was dead as Gwallawg reigned.

And this leads us to the small matter of Urien's supposed murder.  We have seen that Taliesin's Conciliation of Urien shows fairly clearly that the poet's hero had grown old and no longer could fight; in an age in which commanders - especially Urien himself, Taliesin's splendidly vigorous hero who would strike an enemy wherever he appeared[8] - mounted on their horses and fought with their men, this makes it unlikely in the extreme that he could lead a large army in a major war, and he certainly would be unlikely to rouse what Nennius says was Morcant's envy "because in this one, of all the kings, was the greatest virtus in designing war[9]". Some of Taliesin's poems - in particular his Keening of Owain and The battles of Gwallawg - hint at a situation where Urien no longer lived and Owain was teyrn.  Pacified and de-powered by age, there is no reason to believe that Urien did not die in his bed; all the beautiful poems written by later poets, bewailing the great fall of Urien and Rheged, are no more than literary performances, informed by embittered Welsh nationalism.

In fact, there seem to have been at least four separate stories of the fall of Urien: 1) that of Nennius, with Morcant as murderer in the course of the siege of the English in an island; 2) that of the Llywarch Hen cycle, in which Urien's unnamed cousin, the poet himself, beheaded him in the course of a miserable family feud[10]; 3) that in which he is slain by two historical northern lords, Cynon mab Clytno Eidyn and Dyfynnwawl mab Mynedawc Eidyn[11]; and, 4), that which featured one Llovan Llawdyvro or "Exiled hand", who killed him at Aber Lleu, "the river-mouth of the god Lug/Lleu", which belongs to a set of legends in which a figure or avatar of the supreme god Lug features as avenger in a blood feud[12].

What are we to make of this, except that there was no known story of the death of Urien?  These are facts of the same order as the incorporation of Urien and Owain the Arthurian cycle: the claiming of a famous hero for a given period or legend cycle, according to someone's interests or prejudices[13].  By the same token, Molly Miller showed that Urien had been artificially inserted into the genealogy of the Gododdin[14], whose kings claimed descent from one Coel Hen: again, this is in the context of the huge legendary importance of this tribe, from which the poetry of Neirin and the first royal house of Gwynedd had come.  According to Molly Miller, the siege of Metcaud is unknown to Wales, belonging exclusively to the British north, i.e. Stratchlyde[15]; in Wales, we find Urien in the Llywarch Hen cycle; on the continent, in the Arthurian, probably from Breton originals.  Each British province assigned the hero to a different heroic cycle.  What we are to make of this is obvious; Urien was pulled this way and that by conflicting legendary and dynastic claims, one group inserting him in the popular legend of Llywarch Hen, another in the genealogy of the Gododdin; he had no clear legend-cycle of his own except what he got from being identified with a pagan god.  Urien was a prestigious name - but only a name; thanks, no doubt, to his wisdom in employing the man who became the standard for Welsh poetry, the historical Taliesin[16].

As for Morcant and Rhydderch, the problem is that the likeliest candidate to be identified as "that" Morcant is a generation older than Rhydderch.  According to the Life of St.Kentigern, "Morken" had a violent conflict with the saint - who was bishop of Strathclyde in the future town of Glasgow - in the course of which he providentially died; but his grieving friends ran Kentigern out of town.  Some considerable time later, the young Rhydderch came to the throne and summoned the exiled bishop back.  To find Morcant and Rhydderch, kings of Strathclyde in succession, as independent, contemporary and allied kings, is surprising in the extreme.  I ought to say, however, that the identification of the Morken of the hagiography with the Morcant of Nennius is anything but certain: that mighty expert Molly Miller identifies him with one of two separate Gododdin princes, grandfather and grandson.  In view, however, of the villainous character of the Stratclyde Morken in the Life of Kentigern, which corresponds to nothing known to me in the admittedly scanty data about the Gododdin Morgan I and II, I would much rather see the former as the legendary killer of Urien - granting, of course, that he is to be identified with any of them rather than with any other, completely unknown figure of traitor.  After all, more sixth-century British history has perished than has been preserved.

Whatever the case with Morkent, however, I think there is reason to see the Nennian story as late and artificial, designed by someone with very little idea of Gildasian-age realities, who does not understand that a gwledig would not follow a theyrn and that Gwallawg was probably not Urien's contemporary.  Nor is the location anything but unlikely: Lindisfarne did not become a place of any importance until St.Aidan set up his lonely monastery on it, more than a century after the first English settlements in the north; and Aidan picked it exactly because - in the Irish tradition of island monasteries - it was lonely, inhospitable and remote.  What are the odds of it having been an English invasion headquarters?

What we have, then, is two legends of British heroes besieging the English on an island off the British coast, only for the British chief hero to be treacherously murdered on the verge of victory.  Vortimer besieges the English in Thanet "three times"; Urien does so in Lindisfarne, "three days and three nights".  I will add one point: Nennius claims that the English came originally "from the isle Oghgul" across the ocean (Nennius rather absurdly borrows the over-elegant trans Tithicam uallem from Gildas, another of his schoolboy imitations).  But whether or not the English, or a large body of them, came originally from Angeln in Jutland, we may be sure that they came from no island.  What is more, they themselves did not believe so: unlike the Goths, who did claim to come originally from an island in the ocean[17], the English regarded the continental region of Old Saxony as their home.  In other words, this is a piece of British legendry, placing the origin of the hated barbarians in some island in the ocean, not at all unlike, in fact, the Irish picture of the demonic Fomoire.  It was in this island Oghgul that some ancient body of Britons was held to have once besieged the barbarians' first ancestors[18]; and I further surmise that the story was originally vague and unconnected with any recognizable historical period, since it could be borrowed with the same ease to glorify both Urien and Vortimer.  It is reminiscent of the Irish story of the assault of Conan's Tower, in which the people of Ireland, after driving the demonic invading Fomoire from the island, besieged them in a crystal tower in an island in the ocean, until besieged and besiegers both were swallowed by the waves.

Now the isle of Thanet also turns up in the legend of Hengist and Horsa, but it is used differently.  It is the first territory granted Hengist by Vortigern.  The legend does have a clear geographical picture, if totally incompatible with that of Gildas, and - unlike the British material - we need not doubt that the story means to make Hengist and Horsa possess Thanet and no other island[19].  According to Nennius, Vortigern granted them first Thanet, and then, over the head of its current ruler Gwyrangcon, the whole kingdom of Kent.  Hengist then got Vortigern to send his brother Octha in a mission to Northumbria; finally, he had an open-air meeting with the king, at which he destroyed all his (Vortigern’s) elders, but ordered that not a hair on his head be touched - and had vast tracts of land handed over, "for the salvation of [Vortigern's] soul".  But all these steps, except the last, are the result, not of force and illegal seizure, but of perfectly legal royal grants: first Thanet; then, after an appreciable passage of time, the whole of Kent; then Northumbria; then most of the rest of the future England.  Only then does force come into play, and even so, it is not the force of war, but rather another royal grant - though one extorted at the point of a Saxon knife.

It cannot be a coincidence that the progress of Hengist mirrors point by point that of St. Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury.  Aethelberht, king of Kent and (it was claimed) Breatwealda or high king of the English, admitted him as a territorial bishop within his kingdom, but he didn't at first allow Augustine or his followers on the mainland.  He ordered him to reside in Thanet, a peculiar territory, easily reached from Canterbury yet isolated by the sea, central yet peripheral, as it were.  The magical significance of this is fairly obvious, and it is reinforced by Bede's source, who describes the King refusing to stay in an enclosed place with the Christian high priest because he was afraid to be magically ensnared if he did.  And why not?  Aethelberht knew that Christian priests consecrated certain buildings (churches), in which their God was held to reside in a particular way; at least one such building, the ancient church of St. Martin, stood just outside the capital; and he had in his own court a consecrated Bishop, the Frank Liudhard, house chaplain to his Christian Frankish wife.  Franks and Britons the King could handle; but these new priests carried their magic direct from Rome.  They also bore - one wonders how clear he was about the meaning of this - an archiepiscopal title and the claim to rule every Christian in the island; especially all those free Britons who hated him and his whole race.  Of course he would want to be sheltered from any maleficent influence.

From then on Thanet must have had a special significance to the English in general and the Kentish in particular.  It was the first place from which salvation dawned on them.  And it is easily seen that the progress of Catholic Christianity in England is exactly parallel to that of the English in the legend of Hengist as we have it.  First Thanet; then Canterbury; all of it legally, all of it by the gift of the local sovereign.  And Bede's source claimed that Aethelberht was a Breatwalda, a high king over the whole island; in effect, a successor of Vortigern.  Therefore, when he grants the missionaries entry into Kent, he is granting them, like Vortigern, only a part of what he is supposed to rule as overlord[20].  The legend then tells us that the most important of the early English landings was that of Octha and Ebissa in Northumbria, procured by Hengist by personal pressure on Vortigern; parallel to the immense importance of Paulinus' mission to Northumbria, and, in and of itself, thoroughly unhistorical, since English settlements north of the Humber in the fifth century were quite insignificant, if indeed they existed at all.  Then there is a great clash whose stake is nothing less than the whole island, and the newcomers - the English first, the Catholic missionaries after - eventually triumph, in spite of a strong resistance by a powerful "native" element: Hengist and his successors triumph against the Welsh; Augustine and his successors triumph over the paganism of the English (and the schism of the Welsh Christians).

Hengist does on the temporal plane exactly what Augustine will do on the spiritual level.  Hengist destroys the powerful men of Vortigern's kingdom in a meeting presided over by Vortigern himself, but he actually gives an order that not a hair should be touched on Vortigern's head.  Augustine, destroys the king's belief in demons, on which Aethelberht's reign is founded - beginning with an open-air meeting in Thanet presided by the King - but does not touch a hair on his head.  In these early centuries of Christianity, missionaries did not doubt the existence and power of the pagan gods, but regarded them as demons to be defeated in spiritual battle; and it is clear that the mission of someone like Augustine would be regarded literally as the equivalent of a military campaign against the evil spirits of the Germanic North.  And this campaign began, like Hengist's conquest, from Thanet; which, as in Hengist's case, was granted to the future conquerors by the king himself.  In both cases, though for different reasons, the king may be described as deluded; Vortigern is the self-blinded king of a people ripe for destruction; Aethelberht - until his baptism - is dominated by demons.  But their destinies are opposite, Vortigern ruined, Aethelberht saved - according, one supposes, to the design of God to destroy one nation and elevate the other: Gesta Dei per Anglos.  The people who identified Thanet with the landing place of the legendary father of their race were placing the latter within their own picture of the providential design of God for the Angles; and, incidentally, they were placing Kent at the heart of it.

Even in Nennius, the parallel is heavily signposted.  When Vortigern, after the destruction of his elders, surrenders vast tracts of Britain to the Saxons, we are told that he does so "for the salvation of his soul", pro redemptione animae suae, an expression which applies much better to Aetheberht receiving Baptism from Augustine.  In other words, Nennius understood perfectly well the analogy between the Kentish legend of Hengist and Vortigern, and the story of Augustine and Aetheberht[21].  And if Nennius, who hated the English and looked forwards to the day when "God shall give aid" to the exiled Britons in the sacred cause of throwing them out of Britain, clearly understood it, then a fortiori must the English have understood it!

What of the legend of Hengist, then?  One certain fact is that it cannot possibly have been known in such terms in 597AD, for Aethelberht would never have ordered Augustine to dwell in Thanet - and his stay there is historical - if the pagan King, so worried by the magic of the incoming priests, had regarded Thanet as the first British home of his ancestors.  Anywhere but there: to place the alien wizard/priests in the place where the national patriarch's virtue was first manifested would surely have been the same as allowing them a magical path to the complete conquest of country and people.

It follows that this aspect, at least, of the legend of Hengist, must date to some time after the arrival of Augustine, to a time when even Augustine's own journey had had time to become a legendary event and a cultural institution.  It can hardly be earlier than the final success of Christianity in Northumbria (because of the Octha/Ebissa element). On the other hand, in Nennius’ version, Hengist does not end up ruling all of England; only Kent, Essex, Sussex and Northumbria.  Although this picture corresponds to no known stage of the growth of English Christianity, it might indicate that it originated before the complete conversion of the English.  The great kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex are conspicuous by their absence; now Mercia was one of the last English lands to be converted, and while Wessex became Christian comparatively early, Nennius might have confused it with Sussex, the last pagan kingdom, still unconverted in the early 680s.  This would date the first written version of the legend to something like the mid-600s, which, as I will show, is likely on other grounds.

That all three battles credited to Hengist take place in Kent suggest that the original significance of the legend was purely local.  What is more, if his progression to the fatal conference with the British elders mirrors Augustine and Christianity's "conquest" of England, then there is no reason to accept that the conquest of Britain was a part of whatever legend of Hengist and Horsa pre-existed Christianization.  Hengist began as a Kentish local hero.  Nor do we have any actual reason to believe that his legend had any original anti-Roman or anti-British content.  And having reason to reject his historicity in the terms we have, we have no reason not to reject it altogether.  The kings of Kent did not call themselves "Hengistings" but "Oiscings", supposedly from a son or grandson of his.  This smells of genealogical fiction a mile away[22], for if Hengist had actually been the first king of Kent, his successors would have been called Hengistings as a matter of course.  That would be the best evidence that such a king existed; to the contrary, the fact that the name of the dynasty names its founder as Oisc denies Hengist historical reality.  The first English king of Kent, at least from that particular dynasty, was one Oisc; Hengist was a legendary figure.

Oisc is actually mentioned, with the alternative spelling Ansehis[23], as the first Saxon prince to settle in Britain, in the anonymous Cosmography of Ravenna, a text which pre-dates Nennius by almost 200 years.  To unravel the complexities of the anonymous cosmographer's view of Britain would take more knowledge of late-classical and early mediaeval geographical lore than I have, or than I have time or patience to acquire.  But I think I can make a guess as to the origin and reliability of this peculiar piece of information.

I shall, under correction, take the Cosmographer as a Latin-speaking member of the clergy of Ravenna, writing in about 650AD.  The Europe of the time was no longer the largely unified Roman cultural area it had been even a century before.  A process of regionalization had taken place, due to several factors: the Arab conquest disrupting seaborne trade, the instability of Frankish politics, the schism of insular Celtic Christians after Rome sent an archbishop to the hated English, and the intrusion of three aggressive and vigorously independent groups of barbarians - the English between the British and Gaul, the Longobards between Catholic Byzantines and Catholic Franks, and the pagan Slavs and Avars between Greece and the West.  At no time before or since have the various areas that make up Western civilization been so little able to communicate.

As an isolated outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire, Ravenna must have particularly suffered from this process; indeed, the Cosmographer's work may well be seen as a heroic attempt to hold on to the knowledge of a wider world in a shrinking environment.  The city dominated the fertile but swampy lands south of the mouth of the Po, but was surrounded west and north by hostile Longobards.  A thin stretch of land, the Pentapolis, connected it with Rome: otherwise, it was orientated wholly towards the Byzantine East and South (itself in the process of falling to the Arabs), with no possible direct contact with the rest of Europe except through Rome, then still a nominally Byzantine province, and the Papacy, its effective lords.  Peace between Byzantines and Longobards was not made until a few decades after the Cosmographer wrote[24].  We cannot imagine any direct contact between Longobards and Byzantines, especially since most Longobards were still Arians, and therefore beyond the pale for a Catholic ecclesiastic such as the Cosmographer; and the Longobards would do everything in their power to avoid any direct contact between Ravenna and Frankland, seeing that the Byzantines had in the past intrigued with the Frankish kings to invade them.

Any information about Britain must therefore have reached Ravenna either from the Greeks or from the city of Rome.  Now Oisc/Ansehis was - on this there is no doubt - a king of Kent.  Which, therefore, of the two possible sources was likelier to know about him?  By this time, Greek trade with Britain, so vigorous in the previous century, had fallen off to nothing; the various ports were falling to the Arabs, and their trade being re-orientated eastwards and landwards - for centuries, the Arabs of North Africa showed little interest in sea trade, and all their capitals were built away from the sea[25].  Therefore any knowledge of Britain from Greek sources was bound to be outdated and bookish; as is shown, indeed, by the Cosmographer's long and uncomprehending list of British place-names, clearly reproduced from different sources.  He manages to reproduce the name of London twice, with slightly different spellings.

It is however unlikely that he got his mention of Ansehis from a Greek source.  Contact between Greeks and Saxons is highly unlikely, both because the Saxons of Ansehis' time were pagans, and more importantly because they were closely connected with the traders of Frisia and the Rhine, who remained pagans even longer than themselves.  Greek sailors would not be welcome, and they could not compete.  All evidence of Greek trade is on the west of the island and in the south of Ireland, in the Christian, Celtic, Gildasian areas.

Papal Rome, on the other hand, was the one European entity still defiantly resisting the forces of regionalization and collapse.  The city's very reason to exist, now the Empire was gone and Italy separated from her capital by Longobard enemies, was to be the seat of the Western Patriarchate; all Western episcopates were not only in contact with her, but (at least in theory) under her jurisdiction.  And in spite of the British schism, religious unity was stronger in the West than it had been for centuries; the Visigoths of Spain had long since given up Arianism, the Longobards were on their way, the Vandals no longer existed, and, more to the point, English Britain was in the process of being integrated into the Catholic West - a process which had started from Canterbury in the reign of an Oiscing.

Genealogical tradition makes Oisc Æthelberht's grandfather through one Eormenric[26], but says nothing whatever about what either of them ever did as kings.  This silence becomes particularly suspicious when we realize that, by the time when Augustine came to Kent, there must have been plenty of living Kentish men who remembered the king's grandfather.  And the dates are also almost impossible.  John Morris, who (like Tolkien[27]) believed in a historical Hengist, has to stretch the generations to impossible lengths, making Oisc, the grandfather of Aethelberht - who, as everyone knows, reigned in 597 - suceed Hengist in the late 400s!  What on Earth is this, a dynasty of centenarians[28]?  Sensible reckoning means that Oisc must have conquered the Kentish throne in the sixth century; and the fact that nothing is preserved about how he won it, and that an impossible genealogy was concocted to make him the son of Hengist, means that, as with all parvenus, there is something to hide.  Other royal houses, in particular Mercia's, reckoned their ancestry back to Continental kings with names such as Offa and Icel - hardly known to us, but prestigious to them, and clearly datable to the fifth century.  The Oiscings were a latecomer among English dynasties.

The date and the alienness of the Oiscings suggests an identification.  John Morris, following a suggestion from his then pupil Wendy Davies, argued, from a couple of references in mediaeval compilations[29], for the arrival about 527 of a new wave of Teutonic invaders, turned entirely against the already-conquered English lands.  Morris identifies them with settlers in southern East Anglia, to whom he ascribes its division into Norfolk and Suffolk - with Suffolk, in defiance of natural geography, holding (to this day) "the lands by the Lark" and keeping Norfolk in strategic check.  (Another attractive suggestion of Morris' is that this was caused in some way by British policy, calling in this second wave of Teutons to take the English in the back and weaken them.)  But the apparently traditional date for this invasion, 527, also seems an acceptable date for the settlement of Oisc in Kent.  There is no reason why Morris' attractive conjecture should not also be right; the text he reconstructs speaks of a large number of nameless pagan tribes without ranking kings (which corresponds with the evident parvenu status of the Oiscings) and there is no reason why both Suffolk and Oiscing Kent should not have their origin in this movement of tribes.

The fact that the Cosmographer knows "Ansehis", and him alone, as a "Saxon" king and conqueror in Britain, clearly points to a situation where contact is mostly or entirely with Oiscings, and this fits nothing so well as the early contacts of the Church of Rome with England.  The Cosmographer is our only source not polluted by the Kentish legend of Hengist, and he is close enough to St.Augustine's time to have some idea of what Rome knew of the people Augustine was sent to.  We must remember that the first real blossoming of English ecclesiastical learning in Canterbury was in the time of the great Archbishop St.Theodore of Tarsus, which only began a few years after the Cosmographer; if there is a likely time for the invention of Hengist and Horsa, in view of the canonical authority it was to receive throughout England and Wales, this is it - a time in which Saint Theodore effectively established a common English church and created and directed the first great church school in the country[30].  I also think that memories of Oisc, living and even personal in the time of Augustine, would have faded away by the time of Theodore, more than half a century later; the stage would be ready for the invention of a different origin for the Oiscing royal family - in all but their revealing name, which, being universally known, could not be easily changed to Hengistings.

Scholars better versed than I in the problems connected with the Cosmographer will be able to tell whether I am talking sense or not.  The Cosmographer's date is especially important, since it makes a good deal of difference whether he had access to Frankland (and therefore England) or not.  But if my suggestion is correct, then we can almost put a date, and certainly a place, to the invention of Hengist the father of England - and banish him once and for all from our books of history, into the more welcoming and suitable lands of legend.

That Hengist is legendary and unhistorical, however, I am quite confident.  That his legend of conquest is patterned after Augustine's mission is obvious; take the pattern away from his legend, and you not only remove the Christian influence, but also any suggestion of Vortigern's involvement, since Vortigern has no other role in the story than to fill the semantic space of both Aethelberht and English paganism in general.  Indeed, take the pattern away, and you will have no island-wide or English-wide scope.  All that is left is based in Kent.  The Kentish chronographers were not only inserting their pagan founding hero into a Christian world-picture by making him a shadowy and violent precursor of Augustine; they were also claiming for themselves the founding event of the English people, the great war described by Gildas.  It was the Kentish Hengist, not the ancestors of the Angles north of the Thames, who had fought Vortigern's heroic son Vortimer and, in spite of eventual defeat, established the English people on British soil beyond expulsion.

These Kentish chronicles, despite claiming that the war went on for the nice round sum of ten years, could only describe three battles - all in Kent.  This must, on first sight, mean that there were three and only three places in Kent directly associated with the legend of Hengist and Horsa in its pre-Christian stage.  But these places are also singularly difficult to identify, and one blunder by Nennius strongly suggests that they may not have originally corresponded to any actual place at all.

According to both ASC and Nennius, Horsa died in battle at a place called the Ford of Horses.  ASC calls it Horseford, but Nennius Episford.  Now this extraordinary name is not English at all; rather, it joins the English word ford with an obsolete and virtually forgotten British Celtic word for horse - *epi- (cognate to Irish ech, Latin equus)[31].  In other words, Nennius did not know the place-name in English, and had not enough English to make it up for himself: he used the most uncommon Welsh way to say horse that he knew, and hoped nobody would notice.  This is particularly certain since the English name would also have given "ford of Horsa" - and Nennius had not enough English to realize that: he did not understand that the name of the hero was a word for "horse".  This, in turn, shows that his source, which is also the source of the Saxon Chronicle, did not have any English name or place for the place where Horsa died.  Almost certainly, it used a Latin word - something like Vadum equorum - which Nennius rendered first in ordinary Welsh - Rithergabail, Rhyd yr afael - and then in the English he did not have and which he regarded as a late and barbarous intruder in the island.  He was convinced that any local place-name in the time of Hengist would be in Welsh, the language of Britain; to invent a Welsh name for the "ford of horses" was an act of linguistic repossession.  But if the text had referred to any actual Kentish *Horseford, do we doubt that the English name would have been given?

From our point of view, the fact that there never seems to have been an actual Horseford removes our attention from the word horse to the idea of horse, which is what Nennius and his source had in mind: the ford is a place for the animal horse - in whatever language - rather than a definite place in Kent named after a horse.  That is, it is a place connected with the equine name and probably nature of both twins.  Hengist is the "Stallion", Horsa is the "horse"; and among them, the one who dies there, and with whom the place is particularly connected, is the "Horse" - who, not being a "Stallion", has no descent.  According to existing accounts, Catigern, Vortimer's younger brother, also fell there; but by now we have a reason or two to disassociate Vortigern and all parts of his legend from Hengist and all parts of his legend.  The names and characters of Vortimer and Catigern are built on that of Vortigern - the Vortigern of the Black Legend; and everything Vortigern is and does here has to do with his parallel with Aethelberht.  There is therefore no reason for him or his "children" to have had anything to do with the death of Horsa.  So, what we have is a place that pertained to two brothers named "horse" and "stallion", of whom “horse” died there, while “stallion” survived.  If we find that, in the process of amalgamating it with another legend, two other brothers have been put there as their enemies; that one of them, Vortimer, is one of the greatest heroes of Welsh legend, while the other, Catigern, has no mythology of his own at all and seems to have been put in for the express purpose of dying at “Horse-ford”; then it looks very much as though the point of “Horse-ford” was to be a place where one brother died and another - pre-eminent in his own mythology - survived.  I feel confident that the hero "Horse", and he alone, fell there.  Of course, once Hengist had been identified as the arch-ancestor of the Saxons, Vortimer, the hammer of the Saxons, would be identified as his natural enemy; and as Hengist had Horsa, so Vortimer had to be given Catigern, as a doublet[32].

Who did Horsa fight, and at whose hands did he die?  Not, as we have seen, Vortimer or Catigern.  At the end of the day, the only people we find at the Ford of Horsa are Horsa - and his brother.  Several elements connect the legend, once stripped of Vortimer and of Augustinian elements, to a couple of well-known Celto-Latin legends of dynastic origins: Romulus and Remus, and the Irish national founders Eremon and Eber - legends of quarrelling twins.  A couple of twins establish a dynasty or city.  The senior twin receives a senior lordship by means of divination or magic wisdom.  Romulus, disputing with his brother as to who shall found the city and where, takes the role of a Roman augur and sees twelve vultures as against Remus' six; in the division of the land, he receives the northern Palatine Hill, while Remus receives the southern Aventine; and he names the city.  In Ireland, the sage Amergin is a speaker of truth to such an extent that the very gods give way before him: he has already partitioned the island between the divine Tuatha De Danann and the mortal Children of Mil, whose leaders Eremon and Eber are; and it is this truth-telling sage who assigns the noble Northern half of the island to Eremon, who becomes the overlord of his brother, Eber, lord of the lower-caste South.  The names of the greater twin, Eremon, Romulus, is formed from the name of the country, Roma, Eire; the lesser twin's name assonates with his but has no such positive content of its own (this finds no parallel in the Kentish story, unless an assonance be found between Kent and Heng[ist]).  The lesser twin also has a kind of legitimation of his own: Remus did see six vultures, and Eber did become king of a half of Ireland.  But in both cases the lesser twin has ill-disposed men in his retinue who poison his mind against his lord and brother; there is a revolt, a battle, and the lesser twin perishes[33], after which nobody questions the greater twin any more, and he becomes the very picture and incarnation of kingship.

Once you divest the legend of Hengist and Horsa of its Christian and English-national elements, what is left has a lot in common with the legend of the embattled twins:

1) Hengist is always the leading spirit of the two and, like Romulus, is often mentioned alone.  When negotiating with Vortigern, it is always Hengist who acts; his brother is never mentioned, even though, at this point, Horsa is still alive[34].

2) All the clashes take place inside the borders of Kent.  In both the Irish and the Roman stories, events take place within the bounds of the kingdom: Eremon strives to enter Ireland, where he puts a violent end to the rule of the last descendants of the divine Tuatha De Danann, and Romulus fights both his brother and, more improbably, the whole Sabine people, inside the perimeter of Rome.

3) Indeed, both myths are part of a larger overall motion from outside inwards: the Irish come from Spain to Ireland across the ocean, and Romulus, though a royal heir of Alba Longa, has spent his whole life outside any organized community, and, once he and his brother have restored the royalty of their grandfather Numitor, they return to the wild until they are ready to carve out a new sacred space for a city - moving from a disorganized outside to a self-defined inside, which he will not allow even his brother to open up again (Remus dies for having kicked over, or jumped over, the wall that Romulus was building).

4) Specifically, the legends of both Romulus and Eber are legends of settlement, of colonization.  Romulus found and settled the empty site of Rome, and Eremon and Eber came to Ireland from the sea.  And surely this element must have been present in the origin legend of the Kentish dynasty; whatever they remembered of their origin, the Teutonic Men of Kent must have known that they came from the continent.

5) Horsa perishes in a battle, after which Hengist "takes over the monarchy".  The death of Vortimer's lesser brother Catigern at the same battle seems to indicate that a theme of the death of a lesser brother was bound up with that particular place or episode; and while there is nothing to suggest a rivalry, it is certainly the case that Vortimer is the type of the ideal king.  On the other hand, the name of Categirn - "tiyern of battle" - suggests the aggressive character shown in some episodes by both Eber and Remus.

6) In Rome, Romulus is the grandson of Jupiter, and in Ireland, Amergin, the druid who favours Eber, is certainly one of the many incarnations of the supreme Celtic god Lug[35].  Now, there is less distance between Hengist and Woden than between any other dynastic founder and the Germanic Supreme God.  Other English and indeed Germanic kings are descended from Woden, but through other deities such as Freyr, Seaxneat, or Baldaeg (Balder), and then through many generations; Hengist has no other divine ancestors, and only three colourless figures called Wihtgils, Witta and Wecta. As Patrick Sims-Williams pointed out, they are probably only there to connect the Jutes of Kent with the other Jutish tribe on the Isle of Wight; their names represent three versions of the isle’s ancient name.  It is probably a lucky coincidence that they assonate with the All-Father.

7) However, Romulus is also descended from the kings of Alba.  What Sims-Williams does not seem to have seen is that to have three ancestors named for one of Britain’s largest islands, whatever the ethnic relationship between men of Wight and Men of Kent, must mean that Hengist was not really the originator of the English or Saxon ethnic group in Britain; he too, like Romulus, had local ancestors.

8) Like Romulus, if not Eremon, Hengist is notable for asserting his will in default of anyone’s agreement, by any mans necessary.

9) Hengist's slaying of the British elders has a surprising amount in common with one of the stories of Romulus' death, an affair about a secret killing, concealed swords in a place of safety and an assembly of the elders of the land.  In Latin legend, Romulus is killed by the assembled Senators, who carry concealed daggers to murder him, either in the Senate house or in the temple of Vulcanus; that is, in two sacred places.  They dismember his body, and each carry a piece away under their togas[36].  In Hengist's story, as we have it, it is Hengist who slays the assembled British elders in a place of safety (which Geoffrey identifies with the Cloister of Ambrius, Ambrosius' national monastic shrine), by getting his young Saxon warriors to conceal swords in their clothing and shoes; but the elements are the same, from the secret assassination carried out with knives in a sacred place to the conflict of Hengist, as leader of young warriors, with the elders of Britain.  Romulus had signalled his royal independence from the Senate, the elders of Rome, by appointing a sacred bodyguard of 300 Celeres, whose number designates them as a youthful counterpart of the Senate or assembly of elders.  In view of the possible importance of the opposition between the Senate and Romulus' celeres, it is interesting to find that when the death of Remus is not attributed to Romulus himself, it is to his companion Celer, who seems to be an incarnation of the power of these young royal bodyguards, and was, according to the annalist Valerius Antias, their first leader.  A more than casual grouping of forgotten religious ideas seems to outline itself, vague, but suggestive.

10) The detail that Hengist and his people were originally driven into exile has no support in the properly historical account of Gildas, where the Saxon settlers keep close contact with their mother country and therefore must have been on good terms with it.  It is however closely parallel to the story of Romulus, whose followers were base-born - that is why the Sabines reject them as bridegrooms for their maidens - and were a uer sacrum, a band of youthful exiles driven out of their own country for religious reasons.  However, once Romulus had established his city as a place of refuge, his numbers quickly grew with settlers coming from all directions; just as Hengist, once settled in Britain, kept calling in more and more settlers.

11) Both Romulus and Hengist have a basic connection, at the level of identity, with fertility and/or the Dumézilian third function.  Romulus is the incarnation of the third-function god Quirinus, lord of grain (the basic foodstuff in Italy) and of men in numbers; Hengist is a "Stallion" by name, and, unlike Horsa, he generates a long descent.

12) In the story of the ambush against the British elders, the element of saving the king's life while destroying his counsellors has a strong parallel - though in a positive way - in the legend of Romulus and Remus, who, before setting out to establish their kingdom, deliver their grandfather Numitor, titular high king of Latium, from the overmighty and threatening presence of his brother and counsellor Amulius, who, though not a king by rank, has all but usurped the kingship.  This, too, happens by means of a trick such as Hengist uses against the British elders.  This is part of a wider Celto-Latin theme of a great hero delivering a powerless king from an overmighty and practically usurping presence at his court - e.g. Æneas destroying Turnus and Mezentius, thus setting Latinus free from their threatening presence.  Of course, the legend of Hengist brutalizes the theme; especially perhaps as told by Nennius, who had no love for the English[37].

13) The stories of Romulus and Hengist, though not that of Eremon, have a suggestion of a totem-animal element: Hengist and Horsa are named after the horse - to this day the heraldic animal of Kent - and Romulus and Remus are famously raised by a she-wolf - to this day the totem animal of Rome.  (Stand within a mile of the Olympic Stadium any time the football team Roma are playing, and you will hear the thunder of the city's youth: Daje lupi! - Get'em, you wolves!)  This may well go with the notion of progress from the outside to the inside, from the wild to the domesticated, from the world of monsters and wild animals to the world of social men.  Also, it is perhaps not casual that both the horse and the wolf are known to be symbolic of the Dumézilian second function - war, strength, kingship.

14) However, this totem-animal aspect also has a third-function element.  The wolf is a warrior animal, but the creature through which the twins are associated with the wolf is a she-wolf, whose role is to feed them with her milk; in other words, a fertile mother animal.  Likewise, though the horse is a warrior animal, the name of Hengist, "stallion", stands for an animal whose chief function is procreation.  This is probably not unconnected with the way that several Germanic royal dynasties are descended, not directly from Woden/Odin, but from third-function gods such as Freyr or Seaxneat.  For that matter, Romulus himself is, of course, the functional equivalent of Freyr, being the incarnation of the standard third-function god, Quirinus.  A king must be a warrior; but for the kingdom to last, he must also be fertile.

Given all these similarities, it is highly likely that Hengist and Horsa formed originally a variant of the Contending Twins legend, and that Horsa was killed by none other than Hengist, or by his followers.  I think it eminently probable that the fratricide embarrassed its Christian chroniclers, since, however much of the blame may fall on the defeated twin, the proper heroic-stroke-Christian procedure would have been for the victor to be inconsolable in his grief and give up his claim to the throne to some conveniently neutral heir, not to take it over exultantly and enjoy it without shame for many long years (as Romulus did, not only after the death of his twin, but also after that of a shadowy colleague by the name of Titus Tatius).  Turning the story as it were outwards, making it a war against the British, they could make the lesser twin be honourably slain by the national enemy.

If my parallel with the legends of Romulus and Eremon is correct, then that is another reason to deny that the story of Hengist had originally anything to do with the national conflict of English and British.  Though promoted by Christian Kentish historians (who had the advantage in literacy and record-keeping over the rest of England), Hengist must have originally been concerned exclusively with Kentish territory.  There is in fact a strong likelihood that his first legendary role may have had to do, among other things, with the delimitation and subdivision of the state of Kent.  It was a localized, inward-looking Kentish affair whose chief feature was the settlement of the kingdom itself and the rivalry of two twin brothers.  The story of Eremon has no place for any equivalent of Ronwein and little for Vortigern (though some distant echo might be found in the defeat of the Tuatha De Danann, previous lords of the island); the story of Romulus has no space for any equivalent of Vortigern - the site of the future Rome is deserted - and little for Ronwein (the issue of marriage does come up, but the story of the Rape of the Sabines could not possibly be farther from that of the seduction of the British king by the foreign maiden).

Two important conclusions may therefore be drawn.  First, the story of Ronwein is to be separated from that of her "father" Hengist; she is no part of the original Kentish legend.  Secondly, no faith whatever is to be placed in the tales of Nennius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in this respect.  Nennius is not, as John Morris thought, independent of the Chronicle; he has drawn on mainly English sources.  He has ably edited them in with his own Welsh stories, but, unlike the legend of Vortigern and Emrys, they do not represent a native or ancient tradition - though they have a lot to tell us about Kentish influence in the early centuries of English history.


[1]BROMWICH op.cit., Triad 37R.

[2]BROMWICH op.cit. 499.

[3]This would also, by the way, tell us what happened to Ronwein after she faded from our existing accounts of Vortigern.

[4]In point of fact, the first surviving English archival document dates from the reign of Hlothere of Kent (679AD) and shows the marked influence of ecclesiastical rather than civilian Roman or Frankish chancelleries; it is hardly a coincidence that the time of Hlothere was also that of the great Archbishop Theodore, who is known to have brought Latin and Greek learning to the English church.  No doubt this busy and energetic old man also taught Hlothere how to set up a royal chancellery and archive.  Cf. The transformation of the Roman world, ed. Leslie Webster & Michelle Brown, London 1997, pp.211, 220-221.

[5]KENNETH CAMERON, English place names, London 1996, p.32.

[6]I will discuss the character of Gwyrangcon more fully in Appendix II.

[7]Since it comes in a package of largely credible and probably historical items from the British north (essentially Strathclyde, which remained a Welsh country until the 950s).  The great Molly Miller believed in the siege of Metcaud implicitly.

[8]Bei lleas Urien, in PENNAR op.cit., 66-70.

[9]Historia Brittonum 63: quia in ipso prae omnibus regibus virtus maxima erat instauratione belli.  We may have  a Celticism here: that curious expression instauratione belli reminds me of the name Cadwalader, which, according to Mackillop (op.cit. s.v.Cadwaladr) means "battle arranger".

[10]N.J.A.WILLIAMS, Llywarch Hen and the Finn cycle, in RACHEL BROMWICH & BRINLEY JONES(ed.), Aestudiaethau ar yr hengerdd, Cardiff 1978. I do not support Williams' ingenious attempt to relate Llovan Llawdyvro to his otherwise excellent argument that it is the poet himself who has slain his cousin Urien; I think that the mention of a river-mouth called Aber Lleu gives Llovan's mythological identity away.  MOLLY MILLER, Historicity and the pedigrees of the Northcountrymen, in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 26 (1975), gives attractive reasons to believe that Urien’s artificial pedigree, connecting him to the Gododdin ancestor Coel, is connected with this legend.

[11]BROMWICH op.cit., Triad 70; its significance was noticed by WILLIAMS op.cit. - "thus it would appear that as late as the early fifteenth century the identity of the killer of Urien had not been definitely settled..." - though unfortunately he does not push his remarks far enough.

[12] cf. my Indiges, esp. 109.  This agrees with the fact that a number of openly mythological notices have become attached to the legendary Urien, making him the lover of the goddess Modron and his son Owain into an avatar of the god Mabon; cf. BROMWICH, op.cit., s.v. Urien mab Cynvarch, Owein mab Urien, Modron, Mabon vab Modron, and related places; and WILLIAMS op.cit.256, observing with undue timidity that "obviously, if Urien's very historicity is open to mythological intrusion, conflicting traditions concerning his death are a priori not unlikely" - well, since they exist, I would say that they are indeed not unlikely - in the same sense as St.Peter's, the Empire State Building and the Great Pyramid are not unlikely

[13]N.J.A WILLIAMS, op.cit., made an attractive argument for the Llywarch Hen cycle - now largely lost - to have been, in its time, similar to the Irish cycle of Finn mac Cumhail and the Arthurian cycle, in extent, popularity, and habit of absorbing originally independent figures - such as, exactly, Urien.

[14]MOLLY MILLER, op. cit., p.266f.: "The pedigree of Urien stands apart, for that he is the son of the eponym of the Cynferchyn... [which] should mean that Urien was made king by the war-band... since Urien's immediate ancestors do nothing [that is, they have no territorial title, legend or hint of legend] except acquire the epithets of ragged, lean and dismal, it seems likely that this pedigree [tracking Urien to the Gododdin ancestor Coel] is... basically unhistorical".

[15]MILLER, ibid.267: "the statement that Urien was killed at Morgan's instigation... is never found in purely Welsh sources; so that the Lineages of the Northcountrymen has the orthodox pedigree of Urien... and no mention of Morgan."

[16]In general, it is well to beware the influence of poets upon Celtic historical writing.  Take for instance the surprisingly well-known Aedan mac Gabrain, a king of Dalriada (Argyle) in a time when almost no other British sovereign has left a connected account of himself: "I have little doubt that Aedan owed such fame as he possessed... [to] his patronage of Columba [and Columba's monastic foundations in Iona and Leinster]... [and] his liberality to court poets, such as those whose work in Leinster is known to us from surviving texts.  Various fragments have survived which make it clear that Aedan and his descendants were celebrated in poetical tradition..." - and then the deadly observation: "to tell the truth, the evidence of the annals does not suggest that Aedan's military success was spectacular.  He lost four of his sons in military campaigns, and his last campaign at least was a signal disaster.  Yet the annals leave us in no doubt that the rulers of Argyll were celebrated by the bards..." NORA K. CHADWICK, The lost literature of Celtic Scotland: Caw of Pritdin and Arthur of Britain, in Scottish Gaelic Studies 7 (1953), 179f.  A fortiori, then, how much more distorting will be the influence on story and legend of the work of Taliesin, the admitted master of Welsh poetry, identified with the legendary archetype of poets?  Every mention of Urien and Owain, except for those by Taliesin himself, must be regarded as suspect.

[17]JORDANES, Getica, (38) 5.4-9.

[18]It is possible that we have another name for this legendary island.  Thanet, identified by Kentish legend as the first home of the Saxons of Hengist, is given by Nennius the otherwise unknown name of Ruohim, which he claims, rather improbably, to be its British name.  As Nennius also places Vortimer's three sieges of the barbarians - which are, as we have seen, part of the legendary theme - in Thanet, there is every likelihood that Vortimer originally besieged them in Ruohim, and that Nennius, joining together the legends of Vortimer and of Hengist, identified Ruohim with Thanet.

[19]Thanet was then a real island, surrounded by the Wantsum (the two mouths of the Kentish Stour), which was navigable all the way to Fordwich and Sturry, three miles from Canterbury: it was therefore both isolated from the rest of the kingdom, and at the same time readily connected with its ancient capital.

[20]In view of what we will see of the self-aggrandizing Kentish nature of this legend, I feel almost certain that Aethelberht had little or none of the importance attributed to him by the same Kentish sources who wrote the legend of Hengist to make Kent the mother country of all the English.

[21]A useful book by Nicholas Howe suggests that the Anglo-Saxons developed a theory of their own conquest of England as a divinely inspired migration to the Promised Land, on the model of the Jewish Exodus; but the industrious Dr.Howe failed to notice the point about Thanet and Canterbury.  NICHOLAS HOWE, Migration and myth-making in Anglo-Saxon England, Yale 1989.

[22]I wrote this passage two years before discovering that I had the authoritative agreement of Patrick Sims-Williams: “Bede’s story that Hengest and Oesc were father and son looks like someone’s attempt to combine two rival origin legends”, The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle, in Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), p.22.  I would say, however, that while Hengist’s story may well be described as an “origin legend”, the fact that Oesc was apparently no more than two generations earlier than Aethelberht, and therefore well within range of literate transmission, moves him a good distance away from pure imagination.

[23]The vagaries of Latin transcription of Germanic sounds means that the syllable An- can be also written O(i)-, and the sound -sk can come out as -seh - assuming that its second sound is a rolled ch such as German and some other Germanic languages still use.  Something like it happens to the common Norwegian name Olaf, which turns up in Irish writings as Anlaf.

[24]The first peace treaty between Byzantines and Longobards was signed in 680, in the wave of the final conversion of most Longobards to Catholicism under their king Perctarit, and with the Pope negotiating.  Even so, we hear of a Longobard Duke of Benevento storming the Byzantine harbours Taranto and Brindisi in 687 - so the peace did not last long.  PAOLO DIACONO, Storia dei Longobardi, ed. Antonio Zanella, Milan 1991, editorial notes to bk.5 (p.414), and bk.6.1 (p.484).

[25]HENRI BRESC and PIERRE GUICHARD, From the hegiran model to the Arab kingdoms, in ROBERT FOSSIER (ed.), The Cambridge illustrated history of the middle ages, Vol.I, 201-2; The world of the Abassids, in ibid., 273-276.

[26]With one of his typical bursts of sense in between nonsense, John Morris attributes a good deal of significance to this name - the English version of the Gothic Ermanaric, the most illustrious early Germanic king, whose empire is said to have reached from the Black Sea to the Baltic.  "The king who revived his name and gave it to his heir... was a man who dreamt of empire"; Age of Arthur, 113.

[27]From whom I had the precious hint about the Cosmographer.  J.R.R.TOLKIEN, Finn and Hengest, ed. Alan Bliss, London 1982, 63ff. esp. note 69 p.69.

[28]Indeed, the effect of this genealogical fiction was also to twist Æthelberht's own career out of shape.  Speaking of his marriage to Bertha, IAN N.WOOD says: "Gregory of Tours knew that Bertha had married a Kentish prince, and seems to have thought that Æthelberht's father was still alive at the time of writing.  Since Gregory was very closely associated with [Bertha's mother] Ingoberga, and even drew up her will, we can be fairly certain the he would have known of Æthelberht's accession, had it happened before 589.  Bede's chronology of Æthelberht's reign, the beginning of which he ascribes to 561, thus falls to the ground... Æthelberht became king of Kent at some point after 589; far from being a ruler who was pagan for the vast majority of his reign, until external circumstances made him think again - which is a picture that some have seen in Bede's narrative - Æthelberht in 597 was a relatively new king, whose embracing of Christianity came early in his reign".  Augustine and Gaul, in RICHARD GAMESON (ed.), Augustine and the conversion of the English, Stroud 1999, 70f.  Need we doubt that Bede's erroneous dating depends on a genealogical scheme that offered him only five generations from 449 (as he thought) to 597?

[29]The age of Arthur 283 and note.

[30]This school still exists, transformed into an English public school: it is called the King's School, Canterbury.

[31]PATRICIA KELLY, The earliest words for "horse" in the Celtic languages, in SIONED DAVIES and NERYN ANN .JONES, The horse in Celtic culture, Cardiff 1997, 44-5.  *Epi- survives only, as eb-, in Middle Welsh compounds: ebran, "horse-fodder", ebodn, "horse-dung", etc.; it may be that Nennius assumed (rightly) that the English version of Rhydd yr afael would be a compound, and therefore used a Welsh word used, even then, only in compounds.

[32]The vague resemblance between Catigern son of Vortigern, early dead leaving his brother Vortimer alone to face the horrors of the Saxon army, and Connla son of Conn, early fairy-stolen and leaving his brother Art Oenfer alone to face the horrors of Mag Mucrama, is intriguing, but leads nowhere: there is not enough story or correspondence about the two heroes to draw any conclusion - except perhaps that an early lost brother of the heir may have always been a part of the legend, and that there may therefore never have been any such person as a historical Connla son of Conn at all.  Alternatively, it may be an excuse to write the usurper Lugaid mac Con out of the Connachta dynasty, as I suggested in passing.  Certainly the fact that the exiled Lugaid came back and replaced, not his supposed Munster enemy Eogan, but Art mac Conn, strongly suggests that he was of the same blood, since the usual procedure is for estranged kinsmen to come back with armed bands and replace their kinsmen - not their allies.

[33]In the story of Romulus - which is closer in several details to the underlying story of Hengist than that of Eremon - it is frequently said that it was not Romulus who killed him (as in LIVY, 1.7.), but rather one of his followers (so PLUTARCH, Life of Romulus; apparently also DIONYSIOS OF HALIKARNASSOS, 1.87.3, possibly derivating his information from Licinius Macer, quoted in the anonymous Origo populi Romani 23.5).

[34] I don’t think that the Hengist of The fight at Finnsburgh is the same character as the Kentish Hengist; but if he is, as a number of scholars believe, it may be significant that he is alone, with no mention of any brother; even though those who push the identity, like Morris and Tolkien, place the Finsburgh episode before his and Horsa's arrival in Britain.

[35]Dumézil, in his 1948 study Le Troisième Souverain, has suggested a parallel between Eremon and the Indian god Aryaman.  I am rather skeptical about this suggestion, however, and would rather not add it to the current dossier.

[36]I will add that this is only a shadow-version, the more popular version being that he had been taken up to Heaven in a wild thunderstorm. However, this account has a couple of interesting points. Firstly, in some versions, the apotheosis happens in front of a gathering of soldiers, probably his celeres - just as his murder happens, in one version of the murder story, in the place of assembly of the Senate; in other words, the two alternative versions of the legend take place before the two representative groups of the two age classes. Second, that there is a definite difference between the Senate (=the elders) and the rest of the assembly: the elders, alone, are present all the way through and see what actually happens to Romulus, while the rest of the assembly scatters in panic. It is for this reason, it is said, that stories spread about Romulus being murdered by the Senators. Most versions agree that the event was commemorated by an otherwise obscure festival called the poplifugia (plural: "flights of the people"), in which, we are to understand, the people scattered while the Senate stayed in place to witness - whatever there was to witness. This must mean that the story has a religious foundation, to do with an obsolete theology of king, senate, people and (perhaps) military youth.

[37]This asks the question whether Vortigern did not, after all, have an original role in the story. If he did, however, it was probably not as Hengist's victim: the parallel with Numitor shows that, while Numitor himself was high king of all Latium, the heroes established their new lordship over Rome alone, showing no desire to replace him on the throne; and indeed, the story would not make sense unless it was a matter of a loyal kinsman or subject lord delivering the king from an usurper - not replacing the usurper as a threat to the king! What probably happened was that Hengist freed Vortigern - or whatever king of all Britain featured in the original story - from an unwelcome counsellor or group of counsellors, and received Kent in exchange; and we remember that, now that we have separated Ronwein from Hengist and Horsa, we find no reason for Hengist to have Kent at all.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved