The Northern Way


7. HENGEST - Page 1

As related above, Offa's cousin Witta became under-king of the Swæfe. Witta's son was named Wihtgils, and he fathered two sons, Hengest and Horsa. In his youth, Hengest went out in search of adventures, and joined the war-band of Hnæf Hocing, king of the Half Danes. Many heroes were in that band, Oslaf and Guthlaf and Hunlaf, sons of the Dane-king; Sigeferth, king of the Secgan, and many others, but Hengest surpassed them all in prowess and strength. The Half Danes had long been at war with the Frisians, since the days of Hoc and Folcwalda, but the conflict had been brought to a close when Hnæf married his sister Hildeburh to Finn, the Frisian king.

As related above, many of the Jutes dispossessed by Wihtlæg after the death of Amluth had sought refuge at the Frisian court, and the feud burned between them and Hengest's people just as fiercely as it did between the Half Danes and the Frisians. When Hnæf came to visit his brother-in-law for Yule, with his retinue at his back, the scene was set for one of the bloodiest conflicts the North was ever to know.

The door-warden of their hall awoke Hnæf near midnight.

'I hear the noise of metal on metal, and see lights in the darkness, lord king, outside our hall. Is it dawn already? Or does some dragon fly above in the night sky? Or do the gables of our hall burn?'

Hnæf replied.

'It is not the hall burning, nor does dawn break yet in the east, and no dragon flies towards us. It is the sound of swords being carried against us that you hear. Soon battle shall break, beneath the moon.

'Awake!' he cried to his slumbering men. 'Rise to your feet! Who will fight for me? Hold your shields well, be brave in mood, join me at the hall-doors!'

His thanes awoke, and did on their swords. Two warriors went to one door, Sigeferth and Eaha, swords drawn, and Oslaf and Guthlaf to the other, followed by Hengest himself.

One of the attackers outside, Garulf, King Finn's champion, cried;

'Who holds the door?'

'I am Sigeferth, king of the Secgan, known across the seas. I am accustomed to battle and can bear myself bravely. The death you intend for me will be your own instead.'

Sigeferth and Garulf and their followers fought at the doors, both mighty warriors who shattered each others shields and hacked armour from their bodies. But Garulf fell there, with many good men around him. And the battle raged on until morning when the sun broke on a ghastly scene; Hnæf and many of his men lay dead, including Hunlaf the Dane, but most of Finn's thanes had also been slain, as had his son by Hildeburh. After the dead were laid upon the funeral pyre, Hengest took command of the war-band and negotiated a settlement.

'Your war-band will remain in Frisia until the spring, as my thanes, and thus protected from further feuding. In the spring,' Finn told them, 'you may depart.'

Throughout that long winter, Hengest brooded; serving the slayer of his lord was one of the most dishonourable acts a warrior could commit. When spring broke the frozen waters, he sailed back to his lord's people. But it was not long before the son of Hunlaf, whose father had fallen in the fray, convinced him to return, and avenge the deaths of Hnæf and his thanes.

The warriors sailed back to Frisia with Hengest at their head. They attacked the hall at Finnsburh, killed Finn and his men, and brought Hildeburh back to a victorious people.
Hengest returned to his homeland, where he married, and had four children; Renwein - who later married the King of Britain; Octha and Eosa, who defeated the Picts; and Heathogeat, who was the first king of the Saxon race.

At that time, Vortigern was King of Britain. In his time, the Britons lived in fear not just of the raids of the Picts and the Scots, but also of the Roman Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose father Constantine had governed the land for the Emperor, and whom the Britons had deposed in favour of Vortigern.

In the meantime, the land of the Angles was growing over-populated. When he saw this, King Eomer met with his thanes and elders. In accordance with their ancient laws, they gathered together the youth of their nation. Then they cast lots and chose the strongest and most able of them to go into foreign lands and secure new lands for themselves. They chose Hengest and his brother Horsa, among many more, and made them rulers over the others because of their blood. Then they put to sea in three of the ships they called keels, and sailed to Britain. For long ago, a spæwife had foretold that their people would reign over that land for more than three hundred years, half of which time would be spent in plundering and despoiling.

At that time, Vortigern was at Canterbury, a city that he often visited. Messengers came to him speaking of the arrival of tall strangers in great ships, and he commanded his men to receive them peacefully, and bring them into his presence.

As soon as they had been brought before him, he eyed the two brothers who led the foreigners.

'Where are you from, O strangers?' he asked, by means of his interpreter, Ceretic. 'And why have you come to my realm?'

'My lord king,' Hengest replied, 'Angeln was our birth-place. We come to this land to offer our service to you or some other lord. For we were sent into exile for no other reason than because our nation has become too numerous for our existing lands. In accord with our ancient laws, we set sail, and under the good guidance of Woden we have arrived in your kingdom.'

The king looked earnestly at them.

'What religion do you profess?' he asked.

'We worship the gods of our people,' Hengest told him, 'Tiw and Thunær, and the other deities who rule this world, but most of all Woden, to whom our ancestors dedicated the fourth day of the week, which we still call after his name Wodnesday, or Wednesday. Next to him we worship the great goddess Frige, to whom the sixth day is dedicated, and we call it Friday.'

Vortigern said, 'By your belief, or better unbelief, I am much saddened. But your coming brings me great joy, since, whether it is by God's providence or some other agency, is very convenient for me. My enemies oppress me on every side. If you will fight for me in my wars, I will entertain you honourably in my country, and give you lands and other gifts.'

The Angles accepted his offer willingly, and once the agreement was confirmed, they stayed in the isle of Thanet. A short time after, the Picts issued forth from Pictland with a great host, and began to lay waste the north of Vortigern's domain. When the king learnt of this, he gathered his forces, and went to meet the Picts beyond the Humber. The battle was savage, although the Britons had little need to exert themselves, since the Angles fought so bravely that the Picts were soon put to flight.
Hengest and his men returned to Thanet where they remained, with the Britons supplying them with food and clothing on the condition that they defend the land against its enemies. But as more and more Angles swelled the ranks, the Britons became unable to fulfil their promise. One day the Angles came to claim a supply of food and clothing, the Britons replied;

'Your numbers have grown; we no longer require your aid. You may return home, now, for we can no longer keep you.'

At this, the Angles debated ways in which they could break the peace between them. Hengest, by now a man of experience and cunning, went to the king.

'My lord king, your enemies disturb your land, and your subjects show you little love. They threaten you and say they will bring over Ambrosius from Armorica, to depose you and make him king. If it please you, we will send messengers to our country to invite more warriors, so that with greater forces we will be better suited to oppose your foes. But one thing I would ask of your clemency, if I did not fear a refusal.'

'Send for more warriors from your land, and fear no refusal from me in anything you ask for.'

'I thank you, lord king,' replied Hengest. 'You have bestowed upon me great gifts, but you have not yet granted me the honours fitting to my birth. I should have some town or city under me, so I will have greater esteem among your nobles. I should be made a lord or chieftain, since my forefathers were such.'

'It is not within my power to do you this much honour,' replied Vortigern, 'because you are strangers and pagans. Nor am I yet sufficiently acquainted with your customs to set you on a level with my subjects and countrymen. And if I did rate you highly as my subjects, I would hesitate to do so, because my nobles would dissuade me.'

'Give to me,' said Hengest, 'only so much ground as I can encircle with a leather thong, to build a fortress upon, as a place of retreat if I have need. For I will always be faithful to you, as I have been hitherto, and will pursue no other course in the request I have made.'

The king granted his request, and told him to send messengers to Germany to invite more men over. Hengest did so, and then took a bull's hide, making one thong out of the whole, with which he encircled a rocky place that he had carefully chosen, and within it he began to build a castle. When it was finished, it took its name from the thong with which it had been measured, called, in the British tongue, Cærcarrei; in English Thancaster, or Thong Castle.
The messengers reached Angeln, where they selected many warriors, returning with sixteen ships, and bringing with them Renwein, Hengest's beautiful daughter. Now the Angle chieftain prepared a feast to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter. Beforehand, he asked his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale and mead that they might become drunk.

The king accepted the invitation, and having highly commended the magnificent structure, enlisted the new warriors into his service. When this was done, Renwein came out of her bower bearing a full horn of mead. Approaching the king, she made a low curtsy, and said to him;

'Lord king, wassail!' At the sight of the lady's face, the king was stricken by her beauty. He called his interpreter, and asked him what she had said, and what answer he should make.

'She called you "lord king",' replied the interpreter, 'and offered to drink your health. Your answer to her must be "Drink hail!"'

Vortigern answered accordingly.

'Drink hail!' and asked her to drink. After this he took the cup from her hand, kissed her, and drank it himself. From that time to this, it has been the custom in Britain that he who drinks to anyone says "Wassail!", and he that pledges him answers "Drink hail!"

Vortigern now being drunk, fell in love with the maiden, and asked Hengest for her hand in marriage.

Hengest consulted with his brother Horsa and the other thanes present. Unanimously they advised him to give him his daughter, and to demand the entire province of Kent as her dowry. So Renwein was given to Vortigern, and Kent to Hengest, without the knowledge of Guoyrangancgonus, who ruled it. The same night the king married the lady, and was extremely delighted with her, but this brought upon him the anger and hatred of his nobles, not to mention his sons by a previous marriage, Vortimer, Catigern, and Pascent.

Hengest said to the king;

'As I am your father-in-law, I claim the right to be your adviser: pay heed to me, since it is to my people that you owe the conquest of all your foes. Let us invite over my son Octha and his brother Eosa, brave warriors both, and bestow upon them the lands in the north of Britain, by the Wall, between Deira and Pictland. For they will hinder the inroads of the invaders, and so you may enjoy peace on the other side of the Humber.'

Vortigern complied with the request.

'Invite over anyone you know who can assist me,' he replied.

And so came Octha, Eosa, and Cerdic, with forty ships filled with warriors. Vortigern received them all with kind words and ample gifts. They sailed round Pictland, laid waste the Orkneys, and seized many regions, even as far as the Pictish borders. In the meanwhile, Hengest continued to invite over more and more ships, and his numbers grew every day.

These newcomers were from the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. From the Jutes descend the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight, and those in the land of the West Saxons who are called Jutes to this day. From the Saxons - that is, the area know as Old Saxony - came the East, South, and West Saxons. And from Angeln, which is said to remain unpopulated to this day, came the East and Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the Northumbrian stock (that is, those peoples living north of the river Humber), and the other English peoples.

When the Britons became aware of this, they feared betrayal, and petitioned the king to banish them. But Vortigern, who loved them above all other nations because of his wife, was deaf to their advice. And soon the Angles became firmly entrenched, and were assisted by foreign warriors. For Vortigern was their ally, because of his wife whom he loved so much, and none dared fight against them.

But the Britons soon deserted their king, and elected his son Vortimer to succeed him, and Vortimer attacked the Angles, and made dreadful incursions upon them. Four great battles were fought in Kent.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page