The Beginning of the Anglo-Saxons
Many of our folk are of English descent, but do we truly know what that means? When we think of English history, of the great kings of England, the battles, the castles, the very language that has evolved into the tongue we speak and write today, we must give thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, our Germanic ancestors that settled there and helped make the land what it is today. And when speaking of the first days of the Anglo-Saxons in England, one must first speak of the brothers Hengist and Horsa.. These two brothers were the first of the people later known as the Anglo-Saxons to come to Britain, at the invitation of the ruler of the Britons. Hengist and Horsa led the Saxons in their conquest of Britain, gaining control of the Island and establishing the reign of their race that lasted 600 years. Without Hengist and Horsa there may never have been an England as we know it.
The following story has been assembled using a number of early documents written by various Christian scholars and clerics, and while much of the accounts is clearly embellishment or even straight-out fiction, a thread of truth can be seen binding them together, giving us a glimpse of the forging of what would become one of the foremost countries of our age. More than any other people, the Anglo-Saxons were responsible for shaping England’s history. The Saxons arrived after the Romans left the island. When the Romans left, they took with them literacy, law, and the defenders of Britain. The Saxons took advantage of this opportunity. After a couple of hundred years of turmoil, infighting, and war, the Anglo-Saxons came together as one people and one religion, bringing Britain under their power. The eventual connection between Pope Gregory’s Order of Benedictine Monks and the Anglo-Saxons protected Britain from the dominant Franks, whose rulers were heavily influenced by the Church. The Anglo-Saxons, being protected from their biggest threat were able to excel in various avenues of scholarship and culture. Anglo Saxon scholars were in demand throughout the European continent by the eighth century. Before any of these stories can be told however, the story of how the Anglo-Saxons first came to be must be explained.
Hengist and Horsa led the folk that were part of the first group of Saxons to be welcomed on the island of Britain. Once welcomed, Hengist had the political savvy to convince Britain’s ruler, Vortigern, to not only welcome the Saxons onto British shores but to pay them to stay. If there had not been the perfect combination of Hengist’s charisma and Vortigern’s gullibility it is fair to say that there would not be an England today. With England recently abandoned by the Roman Empire, they were far weaker than they’d ever been, and with Vortigern’s involvement the door was opened. After hundreds of years of raiding and attempts to invade the Saxon shore of Britain, Hengist and Horsa were the first to get a foothold. This eventually led to Britain being conquered by the Saxons with the land divided among the Saxon Kings of Kent. Hengist played a major part in the forming and settling of the first Kingdoms of England, such as Kent, Northumbria, Middlesex, Wessex, Sussex, and others.
Roman rule of Britain ended about 410 A.D. (Cambel, 1991, p.8), with the legions largely leaving the island in order to return to Italy to protect the heart of the empire. After dominating the west for centuries, they had grown weak. The Romans' lackluster defense of the Gaelic provinces left the west wide open to the rise of the Germanic tribes. Out of the cold north came hordes of vicious warriors hungry for the fertile lands of western Europe. Foremost among these war chiefs was the Frankish chieftain Clovis. Clovis led the Franks into Gaul and smashed the Roman hold on what is now France. Clovis rallied his foot soldiers behind him and cleaved through his enemies with his great battle-ax. The mighty Germanic Kingdom Clovis formed was the catalyst that inspired the unification of many Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians. The alliance of these tribes took place largely because of the great power of the Germanic Franks to the south. The northern Germanic tribes recognized that they would need to gain strength in order to avoid being overrun by the Franks. A branch of these tribes from the North Rhine would come to be known as the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons braved the North Sea, led by the twin brothers Hengist and Horsa. The brothers successfully invaded Britain through guile and superior intellect. This new Anglo-Saxon race would rule the Island of the Mighty for six hundred years, and gave birth to the dominant culture in Britain to this very day.
The Anglo-Saxons came from Schleswig-Holstein, which is essentially Northern Germany and Southern Denmark, on the Jutland Peninsula. Accounts of the Saxons making war and raiding lands were first recorded by Ptolemy in his Geographia, making their earliest mention in text as far back as the second century. They pushed south from the Jutland peninsula in the third and fourth centuries, absorbing the Germanic tribes they came across, including the Chauci and Angrvarii. From the fourth to the sixth century the Saxons had control of Northwestern Germany, as far east as the Elbe River, and as far south as the Weser River (“Saxons,” 2004).
In Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, written in the sixth century, we learn that the Romans had relinquished control over Britain; Gildas does not mention a timeframe throughout his work, but we know from Bede and Holinshed that the time was in the first decade of the fifth century. The Romans, while having relinquished any type of rule over Britain, did not completely abandon the Britons. The Romans are recorded to have returned to Britain in order to help fortify against the Scots and Picts who had been raiding constantly from the north of the island and the Irish Sea. The Saxons, who frequented the North Sea would have known about the Roman's departure from Britain. The Saxons recognized the Roman departure as the perfect opportunity to invade.
Geoffrey of Monmouth writes in the History Regum Britanniae (1129-1151) that Hengist and Horsa came to the southeastern shore of Britain in three ships. He records that Vortegerne sent them a welcoming party. Hengist claimed to have left Germany because of overpopulation laws. It seems that whenever the area would become overpopulated, the Saxons would gather together their youth and choose from among them groups to leave the area and settle elsewhere. These groups were led by second sons of chieftains. These leaders appear to have been greatly respected, fearless leaders who were hungry for more than was available at home.
Throughout Gildas’s history, he portrays the Britons as cowards, lost without the great power of Rome behind them. Finally, Gildas writes that the Romans tired of Briton’s cries for help and advised the Britons to take up arms and defend themselves. Gildas goes on to say of the Romans, “They then give energetic counsel to the timorous natives, and leave them patterns by which to manufacture arms. Moreover on the south coast where their vessels lay, as there was some apprehension lest the barbarians might land, they erected towers at intervals, commanding a prospect of the sea; and then left the island never to return (Gildas, 1999, par 18).
With the Romans gone the and the Britons under constant harassment from the Scots and Picts, it wasn’t difficult for Hengist and Horsa to arrange with Vortigern, who was recognized as the high king of Britain for safe harbor under the guise of military support. Since at least the third century (United Kingdom, 2009, “Decline of Roman Rule”), interactions between the two peoples had been contentious and consisted of the Saxons raiding the shores of the island and leaving, hence the name “the Saxon Shore”. Due to Britain’s Roman predicament, Vortigern felt compelled to do what had never been done before by a Briton ruler in recorded history. Bede asserts that Hengist and Horsa led the Saxons to Britain at the invitation of Vortigern around the middle of the fifth century. Vortigern made an agreement with Hengist and Horsa to the effect that if they would remain and fight in defense against the raids from the Scots and Picts that Vortigerne would provide the Saxons with the provisions and land they would need to sustain themselves. Gildas reports, “that all the counselors, together with the British king, Vortgerne, sealed their own doom by inviting the Saxons among them.” Gildas goes on to write “once the Saxons got a foothold on the island, they sent for many more of their folk from Saxony”. When Vortigern was not forthcoming with enough provisions to support the new arrivals Hengist threatened to break the treaty (Gildas, 1999, par. 23).
Initially, the Saxons arrived with three ships. The Saxons were joined by the Angles, Jutes, Frisians, and even more Saxons when the second wave brought 16 vessels (Hollinshed, 2012, 5.3), and with them came Ronix, the daughter of Hengist. According to Nennius, Hengist set up a dinner at which it was his plan to have his daughter Ronix seduce Vortigern. Hollinshed writes that Ronix was so beautiful that she was able to entice Vortigern into her arms and away from his Briton wife. Both Holinshed and Nennius allude that Hengist pretended to resist the union at first in order to gain a better bargaining position with Vortigern. When Hengist finally agreed to the marriage he took Kent as a bride price for his daughter even though it was governed by a minor king already (Nennius, 2012, par 37).
After the marriage of Vortigern to Ronix, Hengist said to Vortigern,
“I will be to you both father and an advisor; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust; if you approve, I will send for my son and his brother, both valiant men who at my invitation will fight against the Scots, and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called “Gaul” (Ninnius, 2012, par. 38).
Through this maneuver, Hengist was able to establish a solid connection between himself and the ruler of Britain. He was able to get a much greater amount of leeway on the island as the father-in-law of Britain’s ruler.
Holinshed reports in his Chronicles, written in 1577, that the tribes of Schleswig-Holstein came to join their shield brothers in droves. With Vortigern’s approval, Hengist sent for his son Octa, and Octa’s brother, Ebusa. As Hengist guarded the southeastern border, he sent Octa and Ebusa to fight the Picts and Scots in the north. They came with forty ships and “Laid waste to the Orkneys and took possession of many regions” (Nennius, 2012, par. 38). After fulfilling their obligation to Vortigern, these mighty folk were given the land now called Northumberland and the surrounding region. According to Holinshed, they eventually became kings, but not for about 99 years. Until then, they remained subjects to the Saxon kings of Kent (Holinshed, 2012, p., 5.3).
Because of Vortigerne’s close association with the Saxons, the British leaders thought it was time to get him out of power and place a younger king upon the throne. They needed a king that would be willing to fight the Saxons if the need arose. Vortimer was young, boisterous, and ready to oust the Saxons from the shores of Britain. Britain's royal council of twelve kings advised Vortigern to exile himself, and place his son Vortimer on the throne in his stead. Nothing is said of Vortimer in Gildas or Bede, but in Historia Brittonum, Nennius writes that Vortigerne’s council advised him as follows:
“Retire the remote boundaries of your kingdom; there build and fortify a city to defend yourself, for the people you have received are treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by stratagem, and even during your life, to seize upon all the countries subject to your power, how much more will they attempt after your death!” (Nennius, 2012, par. 40).
Vortigern took the advice of the council and Vortimer was put on the throne.
According to Nennius, Vortimer fought four great battles. In the third battle, which was at Epsford, Hengist's brother Horsa was slain. In the following battle, a number of Saxons were forced to flee to their ships in the Gallic Sea. Shortly after this, not much is said about Vortimer except that his reign was short and he died. It is possible that had Vortimer lived longer and had more time at the head of the Britons he might have been able to restore the island back to the Britons.
Upon the death of Vortimer, Vortigern was returned to the British throne. Holinshed puts the year at 471, then goes on to write that Hengist returned with a mighty host of Saxon warriors, and Votigene gathered together the British war hosts to meet the Saxons. When Hengist found out about Vortigern’s gathering host, he immediately set up a treaty meeting. Messengers were sent back and forth till it was decided that each group of men would gather together with 300 unarmed warriors. This meeting would forever tilt the scales in favor of the Saxons. This night was on May Day, and would come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives. Hengist instructed his men to conceal knives in their stockings or under their feet and mix with the Britons, telling his men “…when they are sufficiently inebriated,… cry out ‘Nimed eure Saxes,’ [draw your knives] then let each draw his knife, and kill his man; but spare the king on account of his marriage to my daughter, for it is better that he should be ransomed than killed” (Nennius, 2012, par. 46).
According to Nennius, as he wrote in the sixth century, everything went precisely as Hengist planned, and when they ransomed King Vortigern, he awarded them East, South, and Middle Saxons , now called Essex, Sussex, and Middlesex respectively, as well as other districts. Holinshed states that they were awarded Kent, Essex and Sussex, as well as awarding Norfolk and Suffolk to the East Angles. “Then Hengist being in possession of those three provinces, suffered Vortigern to depart, and be at his liberty.” (Holinshed 2012, p. 5.5).
Gildas goes on to describe as follows,
“...so that all the columns were leveled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press…(Gildas, 2012, par. 24).
It becomes a pretty horrific scene, where many Britons were slain and many more were enslaved.
Thus came about the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon rule of Britain.
The Saxons took advantage of every opportunity that was presented before them and were able to eventually take over most of Britain. Without the political savvy and versatile mind of Hengist, who was able to accomplish what no Saxon before him was able to, who knows where the island would be today? The weakened state of the Britons after the Romans left for mainland Europe leads me to believe that if it wasn’t the Saxons, it would have been the Scots and Picts ruling the island. It is obvious to me that the Briton’s dependence on Rome’s power to defend them weakened their skills of war, and also their ability to rule themselves. The Anglo-Saxons took immediate advantage when they saw the opportunity present itself to rule the British isles for the next 600 years.
Although they ruled the Island for the next 600 years, it is not nearly as simple as all that. When they became established on the island they then began to form kingdoms that at first paid tribute to the kings of Kent, but over the years the seat of power changed, and with that change also came in-fighting and civil war. Eventually, these warriors stopped fighting amongst themselves and formed a unified state. The Anglo-Saxons became as advanced in scholarship as they were in war, although most of their law and lore were recorded orally. Because of this, they excelled and prospered, inspiring much of today’s system of law.
A big part of England maintaining sovereignty throughout the Middle Ages was their connection to Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). Pope Gregory and the Benedictine order were very active in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England. Pope Gregory wisely advised Abbot Mellitus to convert the old temples into churches and to institute new religious festivals, acknowledging that people convert gradually, “rising by steps and degrees and not by leaps” (Cultural Exchange in Medieval Europe”, 2004). Pope Gregory sent Augustine, the head of a monastery in Rome, to England in order to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Augustine gave a sermon to the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelbert, with Ethelbert responding thusly:
“Your words are fair, and your promises-but because they are new and doubtful, I cannot give my assent to them, and leave the customs which I have so long observed, with the whole Angl-Saxon race. But because you have come hither as strangers from a long distance, and as I seem to myself to have seen clearly, that what you yourselves believed to be true and good, you wish to impart to us, we do not wish to molest you; nay, rather we are anxious to receive you hospitably, and to give you all that is needed for your support, nor do we hinder you from joining all whom you can to the faith of your religion (Bede, 1996).
It was the nature of most of the Germanic Heathens of the time to be hospitable. It was even commanded of them by their god Wotan. Ethelbert, along with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon race, was eventually converted to Christianity, though Pope Gregory did not live to see the completion of his mission. Because of their connection to the Church and the Benedictine Order of Monks the Anglo-Saxons were pretty much left alone and given the freedom to trade with whom they pleased.
The Anglo-Saxons would never have existed without the two brothers that were able to talk their way onto the island, then fight to remain there. There would still have been the Angles and the Saxons but without Hengist and Horsa there most certainly would never have been England and its Anglo-Saxons. The possibility exists that their stay on the island would have been short-lived had they not chosen to convert to Christianity. The combination of Hengist’s political savvy and his descendant’s hospitality to the Christians made England a force to be reckoned with throughout the Middle Ages. After the conversion to Christianity, England never went back to their Germanic gods and goddesses. Though the Gods were forgotten, their folk continued, and the importance of England’s place in history cannot be denied. As our people awaken and return to their ancestral ways, it’s critical to remember our roots. Without Hengist and Horsa to kick it all off, who knows where we would be today. I, for one, as an Anglo-Saxon, would not exist.
- Written By J. Cache McCallum, B.A and first published in The Epicist number 1
Bede. (1996). The penguin book of historic speeches. (B. MacArthur, ed) New York: Penguin Books.
Campbell, J., and John, E., and Wormald, P. (1991). The Anglo-Saxons. London: Penguin Group.
Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (2020, January 21). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_History_of_the_English_People#/media/File:Beda_Petersburgiensis_f3v.jpg
Gildas. On the ruin of Britain. (J. A. Giles Trans.)
Holinshed, Raphael. The chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Holinshed Project 1577.
Nennius. (2012), History Britanum, 8th Century.