The Northern Way


7. Hengest - Page 2

The first was fought in Thanet itself, where Vortimer drove them; he enclosed them within, and beset them on the western side. The second was at Crayford, at the meeting of the river Derwent and the river Cray, where Hengest and his forces slew four thousand of the enemy, and the Welsh forsook Kent, and fled in consternation to London. But soon they returned, and a battle was fought at Aylesford, where Horsa and Catigern son of Vortigern met, and after a long fight slew each other. Then the Angles fled to their ships, and a fourth battle was fought near Wippedfleet, where they slew twelve British leaders. On their side a thane named Wipped was slain, after whom the place got its name.
Vortimer besieged them there, harrying them daily with his fleet. When they were no longer able to bear the attacks, they sent Vortigern, who had been with them throughout the war, as an emissary to his sons to ask leave to depart safely for their homelands. While the matter was being discussed, they went aboard their keels, abandoning their women and children, and returned to Germany.

Vortimer began restoring to his subjects their possessions that had been taken from them, and to rebuild their churches. But this stirred up the enmity of his stepmother Renwein, who decided to bring about his death. She consulted poisoners, and finding one who was intimate with Vortimer, corrupted him with large and numerous presents, and bade him give the king a poisoned draught. As soon as he had taken it, Vortimer was seized by sudden illness. He ordered his men to come to him. Telling them he was near death, he divided among them his treasures. He comforted them by telling him that he was merely going the way of all flesh, but urged them to fight bravely against all invaders.

'Place a brazen pyramid in Thanet,' he told them, 'and place my body on top of it, so that the sight of my tomb might frighten the Angles back to their own lands. None of them who should look upon my tomb will dare approach our land.'

But despite this, when he was dead, his men disregarded his wishes and buried him in London.

Now they restored Vortigern to the throne. At the request of his wife, he sent messengers to Hengest, inviting the to return to Britain with a small retinue, so no more quarrels would break out between the Angles and his people. But Hengest, remembering Vortimer's harryings, and Horsa's death, raised an army of no less than three hundred thousand men. Fitting out a fleet, he returned to Britain.

When Vortigern and his nobles heard of this, they were greatly angered, and decided to attack them, and drive the Angles from their coasts.
Hengest, learning of their intentions from messengers sent by his daughter, spoke with his thanes. They considered several means of dealing with the situation, but decided finally to approach them peacefully. Hengest sent messengers to Vortigern, telling him that he had brought so many men not wishing to attack the Welsh, but because he thought Vortimer might still be alive.

'Now that we know him to be dead,' his message ran 'we will submit ourselves to your judgement, lord king. You may keep as many of us as you see fit, and let the rest return to their own lands. And if this pleases you, my lord, appoint a time and place for a meeting, where we might decide these matters more fully.'

The king was pleased with these words, since he was very unwilling to part with Hengest. He commanded his subjects and the Angles to meet upon the calends of May at the monastery of Amesbury, and here settle the matters between them. The meeting was agreed to on both sides, but Hengest privately ordered his warriors to carry a long dagger, or sax, under their clothes.

'When the conference is in full swing, I will give this word of command; "Draw your saxes!" At this, you must seize the closest Briton, and stab him to death,' he told them. 'In this way we can end the threat the British nobles pose us.'

The two parties met at the time and place appointed, and began discussing peace terms. But as soon as there was a suitable opportunity, Hengest shouted;

'Draw your saxes!' and seized Vortigern by the cloak.

The Angles drew their long knives, and fell upon the unsuspecting Britons, killing four hundred and sixty noblemen. They had come unarmed, thinking only of peace. But the Angles did not escape entirely unharmed, for the Britons defended themselves as well as they might with clubs and stones.

Eldol, lord of Gloucester, defended himself with a club, and fled back to his own city after fighting his way out of the press.

The Angles spared Vortigern, but threatened him with death and bound him, demanding his cities and hill-forts in return for his life. The king bought his freedom by giving them Essex, Sussex, and Middlesex, along with other places. They made him confirm this with an oath, then released him, and marched first on London, which they took; then to York, Lincoln, and Winchester, laying waste the lands between.
Soon after, Vortigern called together his wizards to consult them. They said to him;

'Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom; build and fortify there a city to defend yourself.'

The king, pleased with this advice, departed with his wizards, and journeyed through many territories, in search of a place to build a citadel. At length they came to a province named Gwynedd, and having surveyed the mountains of Snowdon, they found a place adapted to the building of a citadel on the summit of one hill. The wizards said to the king;

'Build here a city; for this place will be forever secure against invasion.'

Then the king sent for masons and carpenters, and gathered together all materials needed for building, but they all vanished in the night. A second and a third time they obtained the necessary materials, but again they vanished. Now Vortigern asked his wizards why this had happened.

'You must find a child born without a father,' said Maugantius, leader of the wizards, 'put him to death, and sprinkle the ground with his blood, or you will never build this citadel.'

The king sent messengers throughout Britain in search of a boy without a father. In their travels they came to the field of Ælecti, in the district of Glevesing, where they saw some young men playing ball. As they were watching, they heard a quarrel between two of the youths. One said to the other;

'Oaf! Do you think you can quarrel with me? You are nothing! I am of royal blood on my father and mother's side. As for you, who can say what you are, since you never had a father.'

Hearing this, the messengers asked the bystanders about the boy in question.

'No one knows his father,' they learnt, 'but his mother is the daughter of the king of Dyfed, and she lives at St Peter's, with the nuns of Carmarthen.'

The messengers hurried to the ruler of the city, and told him to send the boy and his mother to King Vortigern.

When the mother and the son were brought to Vortigern, he spoke to the mother with the respect her noble birth demanded.

'May I ask by what man you conceived this boy?'

'My lord king,' she replied, 'by your soul and mine, I know of none who fathered him. All I know is that once when I was with my handmaidens in our chambers, one appeared to me in the guise of a handsome young man, who would often embrace me, and fall to kissing me. But when he had stayed but a little time, he would vanish from my sight. Then he would speak with me when I was alone, though he was invisible. After much time, he lay with me many times in man's form, and got me with child. For I have known no man other than that one.'

Vortigern was struck with amazement. He sent for Maugantius, who listened to the matter, and said;

'In the books of our philosophers, and in a great many histories, I have read of several people who have known similar experiences. As Apuleius asserts in his De Deo Socrates, there dwell in the void between earth and moon spirits who we name incubi. They are partly of terrestrial nature, and partly that of angels; and it is their habit to take on human form and lie with women. It is likely that one appeared to this woman, and fathered the young man upon her.'
The next day, the boy without a father was brought before Vortigern.

'Why have your men brought me here?' the boy asked.

'So you may be put to death,' replied Vortigern, 'and so the ground upon which my citadel will stand may be sprinkled with your blood. Otherwise I shall not be able to build upon it.'

'Who told you to do this?' asked the lad.

'My wizards,' replied Vortigern.

'Bid them come hither,' replied the boy. When they entered the chamber, he questioned them closely.

'How did you learn that this citadel could not be built unless the ground were sprinkled with my blood? Tell me, then who told you of this.'

Afraid, the wizards said nothing. The boy turned to the king.

'I will make plain to you this matter in good time,' he said, 'but first I wish to speak with your wizards, and wish them to tell you what lies beneath this pavement.'

'We do not know,' said Maugantius resentfully.

'There is a pool,' said the boy. 'Come and dig.'

Vortigern's men did as the boy said, and they found a pool.

'Now,' said the boy to the wizards, 'tell me what is in it.'

They made no reply.

'I can tell you,' said the boy. 'You will find two vases in the pool.'

They examined the pool, and found two vases lying together.

'What is in the vases?' asked the boy.

They said nothing.

'You will find a tent within them,' said the boy. 'Separate them, and it will be as I say.'

'Do as he says,' said Vortigern. All was as the boy had said.

'What is in the tent?' the boy asked. The wizards could not answer.

'You will find two serpents, one white, one red; unfold the tent.'

They obeyed, and found two serpents, as he had described. The boy told them to pay attention to the creatures.

The serpents began to struggle with each other, and the white one threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and at times drove him to its edge. This happened three times. But at length, the red serpent recovered his strength and forced the white serpent from the tent, pursuing it through the pool.

'And what does this wonderful omen signify?' asked the boy.

'We do not know,' said Maugantius grimly.

'I will now explain the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the world, and the tent is your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons. The red serpent is the Red Dragon of the Britons, but the other serpent is the White Dragon of the Saxon people who now occupy much of your land. But at length, however, our people will rise and drive the Saxons back into the sea.

'However, you must leave this place, where you may not build your citadel. Fate has allotted this mansion to me, and I shall remain here. You must seek other provinces to build your fortress.'

'What is your name?' asked Vortigern.

'I am Merlin,' replied the boy.
By make these and other prophecies, Merlin amazed all who were present. Vortigern, wishing to know more of his fate, questioned the boy closely.

'Flee the sons of Constantine, if you can,' he replied. 'Even now they are preparing their fleets to leave the Armorican shore, steering for Britain. They will fight and subdue the Saxons, but first they will slay you. It was to your own ruin that you betrayed their father, and invited the Saxons into the island. You are caught between two fates; one that the Saxons shall lay waste to your kingdom, and kill you if they find you, the other that Ambrosius Aurelianus will avenge his father's murder upon you. Seek out a refuge if you can. Hengest will be slain, and Ambrosius will reign over this land until he is poisoned. His brother will succeed him, but die the same death, and your own son will be associated with this matter, but he of Cornwall shall seek vengeance.'

The next day, Ambrosius Aurelianus and his brother arrived in Britain with ten thousand men.
The king gave Merlin that city, and fled to the region known as Ganarew, where he a built the city that is named after him, Caer Gwetheyrn.

Once they had heard of Ambrosius' coming, the Britons, who had been scattered to the winds by Hengest's attacks, gathered together, and made Ambrosius king. They begged him to attack the Angles, but he insisted they deal with Vortigern first, and they advanced on Caer Gwetheyrn to besiege it.

Setting their siege engines to work, they tried to beat down the walls, but this was fruitless. Finally, they fired the city, and it blazed until it burned down Vortigern's tower and killed him within.
Meanwhile, Hengest and his Angles had heard this news, and he was greatly afraid, since Ambrosius' reputation was so great that none in Gaul had dared encounter him, and he inspired great loyalty in his followers. The Angles retreated north of the Humber, and fortified towns and cities.

Hearing of this, Ambrosius led his army north, marching through the devastated lands between. When Hengest learnt of his approach, however, he took heart again, and spoke to the bravest of his thanes.

'Ambrosius has but a few Bretons with him,' he told them, 'no more than ten thousand, and the miserable Britons, who we have defeated on so many occasions, are their only reinforcements. We are two hundred thousand men - the victory is ours!'

He advanced towards Ambrosius, into a field called Maes Beli, through which Ambrosius was to pass, intending to attack them by surprise. Ambrosius became aware of the move, and yet he still marched on. coming within sight of Hengest's forces. Now he put three thousand Breton horse in the centre, drawing out the rest of his men and the natives on either side, the men of Dyfed on the hills, those of Gwynedd in the nearby woods to fall upon the Angles, should they flee in that direction.
On the other side, Hengest was walking through the ranks of Angles, telling them how they should act in battle.

'Place all your hope in the gods,' he told them.

Then battle commenced, with great loss of men on either side. But Hengest and his men were routed, and forced to retreat to the nearby town of Caercynan, or Conisbrough. Ambrosius pursued, killing or enslaving all he came across.

Seeing this, Hengest did not enter the town but assembled his men outside, and awaited Ambrosius. The British leader appeared, and another battle began, where the Angles held their ground, despite heavy losses. Just as victory seemed within their grasp, however, a detachment of Breton horse attacked, and the Angles gave ground.

Then Eldol faced Hengest, and they fought, and the Briton captured his foe. The Angles began to flee the field, the Britons pursuing them; some fled to the cities, other to the forests, others to their ships. But Octha, son of Hengest, retreated to York, while Eosa made his way to Alclud, or Dumbarton, where he had a large host.
Now Ambrosius took Conisbrough, where he remained for three days, deliberating with his men what should be done with the captive Hengest. Eldad, brother of Eldol and bishop of Gloucester, said;

'Although you would free him, I wish you would hack him to pieces. As the prophet Samuel did, when Agag the Amalekite was in his power, hewing him to pieces, saying "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women". Do this to Hengest, who is another Agag.'

So Eldol took Hengest outside the walls of the town, and there beheaded him. But Ambrosius, who was a man noted for moderation, decreed that he be buried, and a barrow raised above his corpse, after the custom of the Angles. Following this, he led his army to besiege Octha in York.

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