Hengest, Horsa and the Coming of the English

by Matt Love, 2009

This story is in note-form, for story-tellers to embellish to taste…

Vortigern, a prince of Britain in the last days of the Romans, and before the coming of the English

He was an ambitious man, who would be High King of the whole Island

He hired Picts to wage war on his rivals, and to assassinate their leaders.

In particular the High King Constan and his son Ambrosius

His Picts won many battles for him, and secretly killed Constan, so that Vortigern became high King himself.

But the boy Ambrosius fled across the sea to Brittany with his mother…

The Picts, meanwhile, demanded higher and higher wages, and blackmailed him

One day, two men introduced themselves at his hall

They were Hengest and Horsa, sons of the king of Saxony, across the Great North Sea.

They said they came in search of a new home, a new master, war, glory and honour

They had three shiploads of warriors at their backs.

In return for their services, they would accept whatever land and gifts Vortigern might offer them.

Vortigern saw a solution to his problems: Their first task, he said, was to rid him of his troublesome Pictish mercenaries

This they did, with great slaughter –

– but they realized that Vortigern might treat them the same way they had treated the Picts.

From that moment, they plotted the eventual downfall of Vortigern, and the acquisition of Britain for their own people, though outwardly they seemed loyal.

When a new Pictish army bent on revenge landed on the eastern shores, Hengest and Horsa met them man for man and drove them back into the sea, although they were outnumbered, for they were fierce warriors: there was great rejoicing in Vortigern’s Hall that night.

But Hengest warned him the Picts would be back again in even greater numbers, and that his brave Saxons would be too few in number to oppose them.

Vortigern thought on this

Hengest then suggested that some of his kin still in Germany might join him and Horsa here in Britain: in return for land, they would defend Vortigern against any number of enemies.

So more Saxons came to Britain, and their kin-folk the Angles, and just in time…

For the Picts send a greater army than ever – but Hengest and Horsa beat them back

This time for good, and Vortigern is overjoyed. He invites Hengest to name his reward

Just as much land as as I can encircle with a single leather thing.   Willingly!

But Hengest kills the biggest bull he can find, and cuts its hide in an intricate pattern so that the whole skin is one huge long strip of delicate thin leather. He can enclose a vast amount of land within it, but Vortigern cannot refuse. He builds a hall, an estate and a great fortress for himself within it.

He invites Vortigern to feast there, and at the feast Vortigern sees Hengest’s daughter Hronwen  and falls in love with her.

‘If you will give me your daughter,’  he says,   
But you are married already…..I will send my wife away
But you’re a Christian ….. I will send away my priests
But she is not sufficiently noble birth …..I will make you a British nobleman
What bride-gift will you offer ….. the kingdom of Kent!

The Britons are appalled, and the priests, and Vortigen’s sons, and his wife’s family, and the exile Ambrosius – but the wedding goes ahead, and Hengest becomes Vortigern’s father-in-law.

When Hengest brings news of pirate raids in the north of the kingdom beyond the Humber, Vortigern agrees to even more Angles and Saxons being brought across from Germany to fight them off… they spread west and north until most of the Island of Britain is under their control.

And then the Britons lose their patience with Vortigern. He is deposed as king, and his son Vortimer succeeds him. Vortimer pledges to fight the Saxons and drive back into the sea whence they came.

And for a time he succeeds, until the Anglo-Saxons are driven all the way back to Kent. In the final battle, Horsa is killed, and Vortimer too, and the old British king of Kent whose land Vortigern had taken away from him.

Hengest asks for a truce, and for talks to take place. Surely, he argues, there’s room enough in this green and pleasant island for Britons and Anglo-Saxons to live side by side in peace…

Vortigern, king once more, agrees, and a great feast is prepared, with each British noble sitting next to a Saxon warrior. Weapons are forbidden, and all the talk is of peace and reconciliation.

But Hengest now secretly wants only revenge for his lost brother, the recovery of his lands in Britain, and the death of Vortigern.

At the height of the feast, he cries out ‘Nimmt eowere seax!’ which means ‘take out your knives! And every last British chieftain is killed. As Vortigern lies cowering in a corner, Hronwen spits in his face and turns her back on him. He has lost everything, and makes no resistance when Hengest deals the fatal blow.  Britain belongs to the English!

But what of Ambrosius? He had grown up to be a strong and noble young man, skilled in weapons and fighting, and burning to drive the English out of Britain once and for all. When he hears news of vortigern’s death, he parpares to sail for Britain, together with his chosen companions, foremost among them a young warrior called Arthur.

But that’s another story…