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Hengest and Horsa And The Saxon Invasions

The rhyme helping school children recall the kings and queens of England starts with William the Conqueror. "Willy, Willy, Harry..." etc. The kings who came before 1066 are not included. The period before 1066 seems to be one of misty confusion, the period after one of "history". Perhaps the difference between England before and after 1066 is symbolised by two books, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the period before 1066, and The Domesday Book for the period after. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle has different versions, written by different people in different places. Particularly in its references to the very earliest days of Saxon Britain the Chronicle is a mixture of myth and history. The Domesday Book in contrast is precise and exact. Page after page, lists the precise details of all land holdings in England. There was no more ambiguity, no more questions. This was Doomsday, the end, the final judgment. The Domesday Book suggests central control of a high order. But the Chronicle talks of a much more indefinable identity.

The Chronicle begins in a dark period coinciding with the Roman withdrawal from Britain early in the fifth century. Following an occupation lasting over three hundred and fifty years, the Roman departure left a vacuum of power. Historical sources for this chaotic time are poor. The period's first history wasn't written until three hundred years later by the historian known as the Venerable Bede. And the Chronicle did not begin its compilation until late in the ninth century. The story that follows is not the Domesday Book. Much is left in doubt. Simon Young describes this period of history in the following terms: "It is as if an audience has been watching with interest a play called 'The History Of Britain' that continues through a power cut - and all that reaches the audience for this scene are the occasional sounds of scuffles and exclamations from a blackened stage" (The End of Roman Britain, History Magazine March 2010). This is a story that hovers somewhere between myth and history, and begins at a time of social breakdown soon after the Romans left around 410AD. It is fairly clear that the last Roman commander was a soldier who the Welsh call Coel Hen, whose name has survived in the English nursery rhyme Old King Cole. He may have founded some kind of local dynasty in southern England. Then it seems a warlord called Vitalinus came to dominate at least part of Britain, and he was known as the "Vortigren", which means "supreme leader". Without Roman troops the Pictish tribes in what is now Scotland were making increasingly bold raids into the former province of Britannia. Attempting to control these attacks, the Vortigren is supposed to have contacted Hengest, a fearsome mercenary from Friesia, an area in northern Germany. Hengest was hired, and he arrived on what was then the east Kent island of Thanet - pictured above - possibly with his brother Horsa, and a band of men. This arrival is described in one of the oldest examples of English literature, Beowulf


Then came three keels driven into exile from

Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa

and Hengest... Vortigren welcomed them,

and handed over to them the island that in

their language is called Thanet, in British



Hengest was successful in his battles with the Picts, and he has left his legacy in the name of the city of Dumfries, which means "the fort of the Friesian". At this point his job was done, but instead of returning to Friesia, Hengest started bringing in uninvited "reinforcements" who could not be paid. In an attempt to control the situation Hengest was invited to attend a conference with three hundred members of the British council. Hengest and a group of his men came to the conference with weapons hidden in their clothing, and proceeded to kill all of the elders, except for the Vortigren, whose power was broken. From his headquarters on Thanet Hengest quickly moved to subdue Kent. Two battles in 455 and 456 defeated the British in Kent, but at the cost of Horsa's death in the first battle. Hengest then continued as leader of the Fresians, until his death in 488, when his son Aesc took over. Aesc was then king of Kent, according to the Chronicle, for twenty four years. By the end of the fifth century Kent, the first of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms was firmly established. Former Roman place names started to be replaced by Germanic names: Ruoihm became Thanet; Cantii, became Kent, Ripuarium became Richborough, and Dubris became Dover.


Pevensey Castle

Meanwhile a different group of European invaders, the Saxons, led by Aelle landed at Selsey Bill and set about conquering Sussex. In 491 Aelle's men stormed the British fortress at Pevensey Castle and massacred all the people sheltering inside. Then in 495 Cerdic and his son Cynric landed at Southampton Water and launched an invasion of Hampshire and Wiltshire. The area they conquered became Wessex, a name which refers to the kingdom of the West Saxons. This in outline is the story that the Chronicle tells. No mention is made of the East Angles, East Saxons, Middle Saxons, Middle Angles or Mercians. No reference is made to the mysterious delay in Saxon advance between 500 and 545, which may have been the time of the last great British resistance. King Arthur legends may be linked to this period. This was a time when history was imprecise, uncertain, peopled with semi mythic figures. This seems so different to to impressive and endless columns of facts and figures that came in with the Domesday Book. But in the final analysis history is not statistics. History is in fact a story that people tell, often with an eye on the present and what the present requires of its past. Stories were told before the Domesday Book and would be told after it. Perhaps there is a story that we can discern from the fact that William the Conqueror is named as the first king - in leading an invasion he subdued not only the land, but also history, and made history start with him.





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