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Author Topic: History vs. Folklore: The Battle of Aylesford, Horsa and the White Horse of Kent  (Read 21316 times)

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Offline Islesy

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An absolutely brilliant posting Leofwine, one that almost deserves to be made a 'sticky'! Kent has always been the 'Arrivals' Hall for Britain and the period between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving is one that has always fascinated.
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Offline peterchall

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After reading Leofwine's latest post I feel as if I could be dropped into Kent in about 600AD, understand what was happening around me, and feel quite at home - brilliant :) However, Leofwine, can I prevail upon you for a bit more info?

Regarding taxation - this requires a system of record keeping, a mechanism for collection, and the existence of coinage. I know that the Romans had coins but in the (presumably) less organised and centralised Anglo-Saxon society, was there a common coinage, and were the 'workers' paid in cash? Presumably even a slave would have an allowance for a minimum of personal needs. It seems that there was no equivalent of the modern village shop, so if a family didn't have the skill to bake its own bread or make a pair of shoes, how did it get them?

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Offline busyglen

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....and it's `wow' from me also!

I have only just caught up with this thread not having had much chance to read all of the posts recently, but what a joy!

When I was at school, I hated history!  Probably because my history teacher didn't seem to have the knack or the `enthusiasm' of being able to bring it to life, and I found it boring to say the least. 
Now....as an OAP, and having read all that has been said so far...I have gone on to re-read everything again, and can't wait for more.  At last I am looking for answers, rather than taking everything as `read'.  So...Leofwine, thank you so much for your informative and questioning posts, which are so interesting.
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Offline peterchall

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Another post to print and read at leisure - and never mind the expense :)
Thanks again, Leofwine
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Offline Leofwine

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Leofwine, printing and reading your post in depth has increased my admiration of your work still further.

I presume this is the period known as the ‘Dark Ages’, which relates to the paucity of knowledge that you mention.

Yes, this is the period that used to be commonly known as the Dark Ages, but now it is usually labelled as Post Roman Period, Migration Period, or Early Medieval Period.  The term Dark Ages was popularised in the Victorian era, as back then Roman culture was seen as "the great guiding light" so Dark Ages had the double meaning of dark in the sense of little information, and dark as in no longer illuminated by Rome's greatness until the Normans come along and re-invent/rediscover the greatness of Rome. More recent multi-disciplinary approaches to historical research have given us much more information, and have shown that much that the Victorians credited the normans with was actually begun in the period 400-1000AD, and that much of the greatness of Rome that the 'barbarian hordes' ruthlessly destroyed was actually disappearing long before the departure of Roman Governance, hence the 're-branding' of the period.

Despite the obvious difficulties of travel, I’m struck by the speed at which news seemed to spread. You mention:
1.   Quote: “…the Picts come from Alba [Scotland] with an immense army and attack the northern part of the island. Vortigern catches word of the attack, …”. And this was news from the other end of England.

There are several factors to bear in mind here, and again the 'dark age' prejudice can affect people's perception. The first is that most armies of this period are primarily infantry, but horses were readily available, so a messenger on horseback, with spare horses, could travel much more quickly. In later Saxon times there were a group of king's messengers (also employed by many nobles) who were termed beadles, and these men could requisition horses, boats, etc to enable them to carry important messages swiftly. This, or a similar system, may have been employed in this period too. A rider with several changes of mount can cover 80-120 miles a day on the sturdy little horses employed in this period (basically the Germanic mount was what we now know as Icelandic Horses, a breed known for stamina and endurance). Germanic tradition (and probably British too) tended to make use of watchmen, coast-guards, etc to guard borders and send warnings. It is also likely that the Roman tradition of beacons/signal fires was also still being used, particularly at the shore forts. Another factor that may have come into play is the Germanic practice of using oared sailing vessels for swift coastal travel and troop deployment (a technique the Vikings used to great effect a few centuries later!). Another factor to bear in mind is that although Germanic warriors fought on foot, many, if not most, were also trained riders who would ride to battle, then dismount to fight on foot (much as modern infantry might deploy with trucks or helicopters). Lastly, espionage is nothing new, especially amongst those from the Roman world, and a powerful king or war leader was likely to have spies or informants in many enemy camps.

2.   Word of the British incursion into east Kent reached Vortigern in time for him to gather a force to meet them on Bluebell Hill (Battle of Aylesford).

See above, and bear in mind it was usual for a king to grant lands to a young warrior who had proven himself in battle, typically 4-6 farmsteads run by commoners, who supported the young noble in return for his protection.  Anglo-Saxon society was ruled by a warrior elite, and set up in such a way to support the rapid deployment of that warrior elite when tribal lands came under threat. In a newly conquered region these 'manors' were usually much more densely clustered near the borders keeping a ready fighting force on hand. If, as we assume, the Britons were organised along the late Roman lines militarily, the days of the Imperial legions covering 40 miles a day were long gone. Some accounts suggest 10 miles a day was good progress for a late roman army!  At this rate scouts and outriders could give fair warning. In addition, the medway is a formidable barrier with few crossing points and it is likely unlanded warriors in the king's retinue would be kept near these vulnerable crossing points. The speed and mobility of the Anglo-Saxon mounted infantry is borne out from the end of the era by the famous marches from London to Stamford Bridge and back, and then from London to Battle in only a day or so.

3.   The description of the marriage of Vortigern and Rowena suggests it is an event that would be known of throughout the land.

If this marriage actually took place and is not just allegorical, then it would presumably have been well known, and the spread of this news is suggested as the reason for Vortigern losing some of his support amongst his own nobles. In reality, there were probably many more factors involved in the loss of popularity Vortigern (or whoever the leader actually was) suffered including old favourites like increased taxation to pay for the military forces (Briton and Saxon), perceptions of things being better 'in the good old days', the use of foreign troops, etc, and many many more besides.

4.   Vortigern visiting Canterbury and being informed of "the arrival of some tall strangers in three large ships" and ordering that they be received with peace and led to him.
All of which suggests that the news spread faster than a person could travel, and this paradox seems to me to have existed right up until the advent of the telegraph. However, I believe that in Napoleonic times there was a system of semaphore stations within sight of each other, enabling signals to be sent almost as quickly as each letter could be sent on to the next station; was there any equivalent system in earlier times?

I think the answers to that are pretty well covered above.

Which raises another point; with the low density of the population (‘History of Kent’ states a total population of c50,000), why did the Britons and Saxons need to fight at all? With no vital resources like coal or oil to fight over I would have thought there was plenty of room for them to live side by side. Yet Hengist tells of his homeland becoming over-populated (Your note B). Did the style of living at the time require so much more land per person than modern living – for crops, livestock, etc?

There are probably many reasons for this, not least the leaders wanting to be able to point to the land and say "That belongs to me!"  In some of the less densely populated areas of Britain there is strong evidence to suggest peaceful settlement and co-existence between the Britons and Saxons. In other areas it seems the Saxons just replaced the ruling class, but the ordinary populace were the native Britons working for new lords. But Kent (and Sussex, Essex and other parts of the south-east) were densely populated by the standards of the day, and rich in agricultural land, a great prize.  Much of the country was wild, much of that wild area woodland (one estimate has suggested as much as 70% of the country was ancient woodland in about 500AD). On the continent, much of Germany and Scandinavia was also heavily wooded, or extensively marshy, leaving little good arable land. A good, already cleared area of farmland was much more tempting than wild lands that might take years to properly clear and bring under the plough.

Also, as you hint at, the land requirements were greater per person as modern intensive farming, selective breeding of crops and livestock, etc had not begun. The grain yields per acre may have been as low as only 10-15% of what could be grown on the same land today, due to both the type of crop grown and the farming techniques employed; for example the early plough was not much more advanced than the iron age Ard, so generally only lighter soils could be ploughed with it, and these tend to be less fertile than rich clay soils. The moleboard plough with proper share and coulter was an invention of the Middle-Saxon period and allowed these heavier soils to be cultivated, vastly expanding the wealth of the country, the very wealth that attracted the Viking raiders, proving every silver lining has its cloud! The ploughs were pulled by oxem, not horses, which were not as efficient either (the invention of the horse collar in the medieval period was an incredible revolution, allowing fields to be ploughed/harrowed/etc much more swiftly, thus bringing even more land into cultivation).

One resource in Kent and Sussex that would have been particularly appealing top the Anglo-Saxons would have been wealden iron, a resource well worth fighting for.  The section below on social structures also offers more explanations.

So I wonder how far the division of labour had progressed in those times. Did each family keep its own animals, grow its own crops, bake its own bread, and make its own clothes? Or where there specialised farmers, bakers, tailors, etc? Apart from the existing Roman towns, were there any new population centres larger than farms or villages?

Early Germanic settlement patterns, even before the Romans arrived in North Germany and Britain, were very stratified, consisting (in it's simplest version) of three main classes. At the top were the Warrior nobility. In the middle were the freemen - primarily farmers and craftsmen. At the bottom were the slaves. Although in essence this sounds not unlike later feudalism, it was actually more fluid and more complex than that, and relied much more on reciprocation than feudalism did...

Right at the top of the heap was the King or Chieftain, but this was not a hereditary position. In fact, in the first few hundred years of Anglo-Saxon England remarkably few crowns passed from father to son. The king was chosen by the nobles from amongst the most powerful warrior families. When one king died or was killed the nobles met and chose the one of their number deemed to be most powerful (and hopefully honourable). These successors were usually related to the previous king, sometimes a son, but often a cousin or brother. They were 'of the royal kin', the word King and kin are derived from the same root (O.E. cyn and cyng/cyni(n)g respectively).  In some cases, when there was more than one powerful candidate it could (and did) lead to civil war. The new king would be expected to be brave, warlike, just and generous.  In return for their support the warriors would expect to be rewarded with land, gold, arms, slaves, etc.  A king who did not/could not supply these things would quickly lose support and might find himself ousted in favour of a more suitable leader. Thus, whilst the king could demand service and loyalty, he would only receive it as long as he was brave and generous to his followers. If he did this his warrior nobility would follow him almost unquestioningly, fighting when and where he told them. It was up to the king to pick his wars and his nobles to fight them. Tacitus, writing of the Germanic tribes in the first century, noted that "the warriors fight for their leader, the leader fights for victory." This pattern was still true to some extent even a thousand years later in the Germanic world.  A successful king would attract more followers, sometimes from outside his own kingdom, thus increasing his power and status further. Of course these new followers would expect more rewards (usually via conquest). Of course, successful conquest led to more followers and so on. A term often seen to describe a young or newly crowned king early in his careeer is "when he was still weak", i.e. when he had not fully secured the loyalty of many noblemen.

The warrior classes came in two types, the young unlanded warriors and the older landed ones. The unlanded warriors were generally the sons of the landed warriors. From a young age, maybe five or six, they would be taught skill at arms, poetry & riddles (a swift mind was considered as important as a swift sword-arm) and other things such as running the manors, tribal history and other things they would need in later life. To further bond the tribe, these boys were often fostered with another nobleman for their martial training, ensuring close ties between the various families. At the age of about 12-15, their training substantially complete, these young warriors would be sent to the king, acting as his 'rapid deployment' troops, living in his hall, or on one of his royal manors, ready to spring into action as needed - seeing of raids from enemy tribes, acting as honour guards, or whatever else was needed. These warriors were most often rewarded with arms, gold and other portable wealth. As the young warrior grew older and more experienced he would hope to distinguish himself enough to be granted land. This land was not his permanently, but was 'on loan' from the king for his lifetime, or if he was exceptional, for three lifetimes (his son & grandson too).  After this the land reverted back to the king.  (With the arrival of Christianity this became more complicated as sometimes land was granted to the church, but since God is eternal, so is his lifetime...) Sometimes he might be granted his father's estate after he died, but often it would be a completely different estate. Of course, many warriors would have more than one son, meaning the king's army would be constantly growing in size, and the need for new lands to reward them with would be a constant factor. It was these young warriors referred to above who protected the borders. In times of great threat (such as an invading army rather than just a raid) the king would call upon all his warriors, landed as well as unlanded to come to his aid.

The landed warrior would live in a hall, sometimes fortified with palisade and ditch, surrounded by farmland and one or more villages. At the hall and important nobleman might have his own staff of specialist craftsmen such as weaponsmiths, jewellers, horse-breeders or even glassworkers, as well as slaves and freemen to farm his lands.

Below the king was the ordinary freeman. These tended to live in villages of a about 3-6 families, each with their own family house in addition to a communal hall, workshops, barns, etc (the reconstructed Anglo-Saon village at West Stow in Suffolk is an excellent example of this type of settlement). Each village was surrounded by farmland these villagers cultivated. The villages were largely self sufficient with the men being farmers, but also skilled in various basic crafts - woodworking, leather-working, simple ironwork, etc. The women would practice crafts such as cloth production, gardening (in the sense of fruit and vegetables), cooking, food preservation, basketry, etc and the general day to day running of the household. Children, in addition to learning to farm and other crafts would be herders, foragers, etc. It is probable that within each village people speciaised in one or two crafts they had an aptitude for, rather than all being expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. Presumably these skills, or their products, would be bartered amongst the various families. Within the village people might also practice fishing, beekeeping, etc. Villages were often grouped together in estates, and within each estate you might have more specialised, almost full time craftsmen such as potters, smiths, boat-builders, wheelwrights, etc, though even these would help with the farming at busy times of the year.  These villages would send a certain amount of their produce to their nobleman, in return for which they would be protected, have access to his craftsmen, and hopefully receive a share of any spoils he gained on the battlefield or as a reward from the king. The king would regularly send his representatives to the villages, and if the villagers were not happy with their overlord the village elders could petition the king to have him replaced, so in the same way that it was in the King's interest to keep his nobles happy, it was in the nobles' interest to keep the villagers happy.  It should also be borne in mind that interraction between villages would have been widespead due to the sheer number of villages. For every modern village that can claim Anglo-Saxon founding there are likely to be 5 or 6 'lost' villages, and there might well be a dozen or more neighbouring villages within half a days walk (not quite the old image of the isolated peasant who never went more than a mile from his house!) The reason for the later concentration of these villages in the seventh and eighth centuries is thought to primarily be Christianity - quite simply, a church was built to serve a number of villages, but as the villagers would be expected to go to church almost every day, it became easier to move the settlement to the church, leaving the longer walk to the fields as you were visiting the fields less days of the year than the church!

At the bottom of the pile came the slaves, and these we know least about. Scholars disagree on how many slaves there were, figures varying from about 10% of the population up to as high as almost 90% of the population, depending on which scholar you ask. The actual figure was probably very variable depending on time and place, and affected by many factors. Sources for slaves were many - prisoners of war, criminals, bred slaves, slaves bought from traders, spoils from raids, etc.  After a war, for example, the number of slaves might be expected to increase, but after a long period of peace their numbers might have gone down. Needless to say slaves, where available, probably bore the brunt of the heaviest and least pleasant tasks in the settlement. Sometimes slaves might be freed, but most probably died in bondage. We don't know how slaves were treated, and their treatment may have varied from owner to owner, but it seems that male slaves were distinguished by having their hair very closely cropped.  Some freed slave may even have moved highly up the social scale. In Beowulf King Hrothgar's queen is named Wealtheow which means 'foreign slave', leading some scholars to suggest she may have been a slave he took a fancy to and freed, eventually marrying!

As David Frost said in ‘Through the Keyhole’: “Leofwine, it’s over to you”. :)

Hopefully that has helped explain at least some of the answers.

I think that a lot of the fighting between the two tribes is still prevalent today; you put two British Regiments together without a common enemy and they will fight; football fans will fight amongst them selves if no other fans are present. Then you were either Saise (Saxon) or Jute and 'nere the twain should meet'. This is really good. Please sir, may we have some more................ S4.

I once read a book called "The Xenophobe's Guide to the English." It is a jokey book, but contains a lot of things that are funny, because they are true. One that has always stuck with me is a piece from the introduction which I cannot quote exactly, but can give you the gist of. I think it explains what you mean, and is almost certainly one of the traits we have inherited from our Old English forebears. It goes something along these lines:

In order to understand the concept of Englishness you first have to understand how the Englishman perceives foreign-ness. In most countries foreign-ness starts beyond your country's borders. In England it starts beyond the end of your street! However, don't be fooled into thinking foreign-ness is purely a product of distance. It is equally as much to do with distance and common history. To an Englishman, a Frenchman, whose country lies a mere 20 miles or so from England, is far more foreign than say, a Canadian, an Indian or an Australian....

I suspect our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would have fully understood this, and you might have heard a Kentish Jute say something like. "I'm not sure about those foreigners in Essex, Sussex or Wessex. But at least they aren't as bad as those strange Mercians, or Woden help us, Northumbrians!  As for those Britons (Welsh), well the less said the better. Very stange the lot of them. No, I'd much rather have a Frisian as a neighbour than any of THAT lot!"
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Offline Sentinel S4

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I think that a lot of the fighting between the two tribes is still prevalent today; you put two British Regiments together without a common enemy and they will fight; football fans will fight amongst them selves if no other fans are present. Then you were either Saise (Saxon) or Jute and 'nere the twain should meet'. This is really good. Please sir, may we have some more................ S4.
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Offline peterchall

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Leofwine, printing and reading your post in depth has increased my admiration of your work still further.

I presume this is the period known as the ‘Dark Ages’, which relates to the paucity of knowledge that you mention.

Despite the obvious difficulties of travel, I’m struck by the speed at which news seemed to spread. You mention:
1.   Quote: “…the Picts come from Alba [Scotland] with an immense army and attack the northern part of the island. Vortigern catches word of the attack, …”. And this was news from the other end of England.
2.   Word of the British incursion into east Kent reached Vortigern in time for him to gather a force to meet them on Bluebell Hill (Battle of Aylesford).
3.   The description of the marriage of Vortigern and Rowena suggests it is an event that would be known of throughout the land.
4.   Vortigern visiting Canterbury and being informed of "the arrival of some tall strangers in three large ships" and ordering that they be received with peace and led to him.
All of which suggests that the news spread faster than a person could travel, and this paradox seems to me to have existed right up until the advent of the telegraph. However, I believe that in Napoleonic times there was a system of semaphore stations within sight of each other, enabling signals to be sent almost as quickly as each letter could be sent on to the next station; was there any equivalent system in earlier times?

Which raises another point; with the low density of the population (‘History of Kent’ states a total population of c50,000), why did the Britons and Saxons need to fight at all? With no vital resources like coal or oil to fight over I would have thought there was plenty of room for them to live side by side. Yet Hengist tells of his homeland becoming over-populated (Your note B). Did the style of living at the time require so much more land per person than modern living – for crops, livestock, etc?

So I wonder how far the division of labour had progressed in those times. Did each family keep its own animals, grow its own crops, bake its own bread, and make its own clothes? Or were there specialised farmers, bakers, tailors, etc? Apart from the existing Roman towns, were there any new population centres larger than farms or villages?

As David Frost said in ‘Through the Keyhole’: “Leofwine, it’s over to you”. :)
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Offline Lyn L

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Great stuff Leofwine, Thankyou  :)
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Offline Sentinel S4

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I have not read it all just yet. When are you going into print? This is Great Suff, just what I like and enjoy. Like Peterchall I am going to have to print it off and read at leasure. When you have a little time is there any more? Please........ Sentinel S4.
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Can only double peterchall and say wow wow thanks for a great write up Leofwine look forward to whatmore it may bring

Offline peterchall

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What can I say except 'WOW'?
That has put into place so much that that was just vague notions in my mind, and I'm going to print it to read at leisure (12 pages of 12pt!) - so be prepared for requests for more info, Leofwine. :)
A fantastic piece of writing - Many thanks :)
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Footnotes

1  The original manuscript of the Chronicle is thought to have been created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Multiple copies were made of that original which were distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154. At present there are nine known versions or fragments of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" in existence, all of which vary (sometimes greatly) in content and quality.

2   The Historia Brittonum, or The History of the Britons, is a historical work that was first composed around 830, and exists in several recensions of varying difference. It purports to relate the history of the Brittonic inhabitants of Britain from earliest times, and this text has been used to write a history of both Wales and England, for want of more reliable sources. Nennius is traditionally named as the author of the text, though this is widely considered a secondary tradition, originating in the 10th century. This is also the earliest source for another great legendary character from the fifth century - King Arthur!

3  The Historia Regum Britanniae (English: The History of the Kings of Britain) is a pseudo historical account of British history, written c. 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It chronicles the lives of the kings of the Britons in a chronological narrative spanning a time of two thousand years, beginning with the Trojans founding the British nation and continuing until the Anglo-Saxons assumed control of much of Britain around the 7th century. When events described, such as Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, can be corroborated from contemporary histories, Geoffrey's account can often be seen to be wildly inaccurate, but is a valuable piece of medieval literature, which contains the earliest known version of the story of King Lear and his three daughters, and introduced non-Welsh-speakers to the legend of King Arthur.

4  On the continent many more records were kept using the Roman calendar/chronology, and in particular the early conversion of the Frankish court (England’s closest neighbour) led to written records being kept much earlier there than in England.

5   The exact date varies in different copies of the Chronicles.

6  The Old English names Hengest and Horsa mean "stallion" and "horse" respectively, and the two are usually described as brothers. Sources disagree with whether Hengest was the father or grandfather of Oisc of Kent and Octa of Kent, one of whom succeeded Hengest as king of Kent.

7  Vortigern (Old English: Wyrtgeorn or Wurtgern; Welsh: Gwrtheyrn; Breton: Guorthigern; Irish: Foirtchern), also spelled Vortiger and Vortigern, was a 5th-century warlord or king of Britain, a leading ruler among the Britons. His existence is considered likely, though information about him is scarce and shrouded in legend.

8   It is interesting that the Christian Bede records a genealogy going back to the Pagan God Woden [Odin]; Nennius' Historia Brittonum gives a different genealogy of the two: Hengest and Horsa were sons of Guictglis, son of Guicta, son of Guechta, son of Vouden, son of Frealof, son of Fredulf, son of Finn, son of Foleguald, and Foleguald son of Geta. It goes on to detail that Geta was said to be the son of a god, yet "not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ," but rather "the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen." In either case, their descent is claimed from pagan gods. This very descent is what has led many scholars to dismiss Hengest and Horsa as purely fictional. On a side-note, our current Royal family are (distantly) descended from Alfred the Great, whose own genealogy traced him back to the god Woden!

9   It may be noted that the kings of Kent used the familial name Oiscingas [People of Oisc], and did not use Hengest to derive their surname. There are various potential explanations for this. Some scholars claim it as further evidence that Hengest was a mythical figure, others that Oisc or Aesc was the first to style himself ‘King’ of Kent, whereas his predecessor(s) may have just been considered tribal chiefs or war-leaders.

10   The word Welsh is derived from the Old English word ‘Wealas’ that was used by the Angelisc [Anglo-Saxons or English] to describe the natives of Britain and has two meanings. These two meanings give a good idea of the Anglo-Saxons’ attitude to the native Britons since the word meant both ‘foreigner’ and ‘slave’! It may also be noted that some English predjudices might have a long history – they arrive in a new country and immediately start calling the locals ‘foreigners’!

11   Often these folk histories have many different versions, sometimes complimentary, sometimes contradictory which is what makes them so unreliable as pure history, but at the same time they often contain memories of historical facts or customs that might be otherwise forgotten.

12  The name Germania applied not only to what we now think of as Germany, but also to Scandinavia.

13  This Prince is sometimes named as Aurelius Ambrosius from Armorica, a figure often associated later as being King Arthur, or his father, Uther Pendragon.

14  In some versions of the story Vortigern is tricked into granting the whole of Thanet as Hengest asks for “only as much land as he can enclose with the hide of a single bull.” Of course, Vortigern readily agrees to this. Hengest then orders the larges bull in his herd killed and skinned. He then carefully cuts the hide into a single long, narrow leather thong with which he bounded the Isle of Thanet. Whether this is designed to portray him as a sneaky and underhand villain, or as intelligent and cunning (two traits greatly prized in a Germanic warrior) is unclear.

15  In the Historia Brittonum Hengest had an unnamed daughter (her name is first given in Historia Regum Britanniae as Rowena)
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Following discussions about East and West Kent in another thread (http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=12137.0) I mentioned that sometimes when dealing with the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Kent the folklore may contain nuggets of history, whilst the accepted history may be little better than folklore. (I’m sure this is true of many other periods, but this one is a period I am fairly familiar with.) And warning here – long post coming up!

First let us look at the usual ‘historical’ sources for the invasion/settlement of Kent. The two most commonly quoted documents for the first wave of Anglo-Saxon (or Jutish) settlement in Kent are Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History’ and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ (actually a series of several different histories from different Anglo-Saxon monasteries scattered around the country and generally first compiled from about the 9th century onwards.1) The Chronicles trace the history of England from the birth of Christ until after the Norman Conquest, and were written by the Anglo-Saxons themselves, so surely they are an accurate, reliable source of information? Well, bluntly, no! At least, before about the eighth century, the details, and in particular the dates must be treated with a certain degree of circumspection. Most of the information in them for the migration period is drawn from Bede (perhaps with a few small additions/amendments drawn from regional folklore/oral history), so despite apparently having two sources that roughly corroborate one another, in effect we just have Bede.  Later writers such as Nennius in his Historia Brittonum2 and Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae3 drew on Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles supplemented by regional folklore for their works.

Bede wrote his history in the years around c.735AD, and his appears to have been the first written English (as opposed to British) history. Therefore he had no accurate sources or dates for earlier events, and he, in effect, was taking his ‘best guess’ for the earlier parts of his history, based on information received from other scholars around the country (and it is worth remembering that at this time England was one of the cultural and scholarly capitals of Europe). Generally his dates would have been achieved by using the genealogies of the various kings, something that would have been learned by most of the important members of each kingdom. However, these only recounted ancestry, not dates, so Bede would have been working back to find his dated by using the fact that King A ruled for about 15 years, his father ruled for about 20 years before that, his father for about 18 years before that, etc. All those ‘abouts’ can lead to fairly big discrepancies over a period of 250-300 years, and bearing this in mind his dates are often not bad, but not completely accurate. In some instances we can compare his (and the writers of the Chronicles’) dates for certain events with continental sources.4 In some cases, even events that are thoroughly established today, and would have been expected to have been accurately known by Bede or the Chroniclers, are sometimes inaccurately recorded, for example the Claudian invasion of Britain is recorded as 46/7AD5 in the Chronicles whereas we know it was actually 43AD, a three to four year discrepancy on what should be a ‘solid’ date!

We also know from archaeology that the Germanic settlement of Britain was a very complex affair taking place over many generations, with Germanic settlement indicated as far inland as Dorchester as early as about 380AD, so some small scale Germanic settlement was known to be taking place before Roman rule had even ended. Added to this we know Germanic mercenaries/auxiliaries were employed to man some (or maybe all) of the Saxon Shore forts.  In his history (and therefore in the Chronicles) Bede simplifies this process considerably, and perhaps we should think of his explanation as a generic example of how the early settlements began, rather than a single historical event. With that, let’s look at how the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record the early conquest/settlement of Kent (combined from various copies of the Chronicles):

A.D. 449.  This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters.  In their days Hengest and Horsa6, invited by Wurtgern [Vortigern]7, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet [probably Ebbsfleet, Thanet]; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them.  The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land.  They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes.  From the Jutes are descended the men of Kent, the Wightwarians (that is, the tribe that now dwelleth in the Isle of Wight), and that kindred in Wessex that men yet call the kindred of the Jutes.  From the Old Saxons came the people of Essex and Sussex and Wessex.  From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of those north of the Humber.  Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden.  From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.8 (([Alternate entry in some chronicles] A.D. 449.  And in their days Vortigern invited the Angles thither, and they came to Britain in three ceols [Keels or Ships], at the place called Wippidsfleet.))

A.D. 455.  This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king near the place that is called Aegelesthrep [Aylesford].  His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Aesc [sometimes Oisc].9

A.D. 457.  This year Hengest and Aesc fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Crecganford [Crayford], and there slew four thousand men.  The Britons then forsook the land of Kent, and in great consternation fled to London.

A.D. 465.  This year Hengest and Aesc fought with the Welsh,10 nigh Wippedesfleot [location unknown, but possibly another name for Ebbsfleet]; and there slew twelve leaders, all Welsh.  On their side a thegn was there slain, whose name was Wipped.

A.D. 473.  This year Hengest and Aesc fought with the Welsh, and took immense Booty.  And the Welsh fled from the English like fire.

A.D. 488.  This year Aesc succeeded to the kingdom; and was king of the Kentish people for twenty-four winters.

As can be seen this is little more than a short list of (estimated) dates, battles and a few names of important people. So can we flesh out events ant further? This is where folklore can sometimes give us clues and hints, if not solid details. So, let’s fast forward a millennium or so…

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the English Nobility began to take an interest in their own national identity, and as part of this the first of the ‘modern’ histories of England began to be compiled by scholars (usually men of wealth and power) travelling around and recording the oral traditions and histories of the different parts of the country combined with earlier medieval histories. Many of these were written down and published over the next few centuries, forming the basis for much of the scholarly history of the Victorian era. So how much of this ‘folk history’ is reliable?  Is it all just a good story (after all, who does not enjoy a good Robin Hood story!?) or is there any historical value to it?

Let’s look at the first few Chronicle entries above and see what facts and folklores can be associated with them. (Forgive me if I repeat some of the information I posted in the thread mentioned at the start of this post)

The folk history versions (all the following are my own amalgamations from various folk histories11 compiled into a single narrative) give us much more detail, but how much of it is reliable can be hard to tell. After the basic telling of the tale we will look at the overall story and some of the individual details (indicated by a letter in brackets in the text) to see how likely they are to be true, or at least contain elements of truth.

So, sit back and listen as I tell of heroic deeds and mighty battles in days long gone and how the first English carved out their own Kingdom in Kent. The Legions have abandoned the once prosperous province of Britannia, and have told the Britons to look to their own defences. The tyrant, Vortigern, has taken command of Britannia as High King of the Britons, but is sorely beset by enemies - primitive Picts from the north, wild Irish raiders from the West and fierce barbarians from the East.(A) His own soldiers are too few to repel all these assaults, and he prays for a miracle to aid him.

One day, soon after, Vortigern is visiting Canterbury and is informed of "the arrival of some tall strangers in three large ships" and he ordered that they be received with peace and led to him. Hengest and Horsa are brought to him at the head of their men. Vortigern looks over their soldiers and observes that the brothers "excelled all the rest both in nobility and in gracefulness of person." Vortigern asks what country they have come from and why they have come to his kingdom. Hengest, whose "years and wisdom entitled him to precedence," responds for the company, stating that they have come from their homeland of Germania,12 across the sea, and that they had come to offer their services to Vortigern or some other prince. Hengest then explains that they were driven from their native country because "the laws of the kingdom require it." (B) He goes on to state they have arrived in Vortigern's kingdom "under the good guidance of Mercury."

At Hengest's mention of Mercury, Vortigern looks "earnestly upon them" and asks them their religion. Hengest responds:

"We worship our country gods, Saturn and Jupiter, and the other deities that govern the world, but especially Mercury, whom in our language we call Woden and to whom our ancestors consecrated the fourth day of the week, still called after his name Wodensday. Next to him we worship the powerful goddess, Frea, to whom they also dedicated the sixth day, which after her name we call Friday."  (C)

The Christian Vortigern comments that he is grieved that pagans have come to help him, but says that he rejoices at their arrival as, "whether by God's providence, or some other agency," their assistance is much needed, for Vortigern is surrounded by enemies. Vortigern asks Hengest and Horsa if they will help him in his wars, and offers them land and "other possessions." Hengest and Horsa accept Vortigern's offer, settle on an agreement, and stay with Vortigern at his court. Soon after, the Picts come from Alba [Scotland] with an immense army and attack the northern part of the island. Vortigern catches word of the attack, gathers his forces, and meets the Picts beyond the Humber. A fierce battle ensues, yet "there was little occasion for the Britons to exert themselves, for the Saxons fought so bravely, that the enemy, formerly victorious were speedily put to flight."

On their return from the north, Vortigern, impressed by the skill of these warriors, and realising he owes his victory to Hengest and Horsa, he increases the rewards he has promised to two. Hengest, "man of experience and subtlety," then told Vortigern that Vortigern's enemies assail him from every quarter, and that few of Vortigern's subjects love him. Hengest continues that Vortigern's subjects threaten Vortigern and say that they will bring over a foreign prince13 to depose Vortigern and become king. Hengest asks Vortigern to allow him to send word to Germania to bring over more soldiers so that the Saxon forces will be better able to oppose the call to depose Vortigern. Vortigern agrees, and adds that Hengest may invite over whom he pleases. Vortigern gives Hengest the Isle of Thanet "for the subsistence of himself and his fellow-soldiers."14 Hengest bows low in thanks, and tells Vortigern that, while Vortigern has provided him with much land, he wishes Vortigern would make of him a consul or a prince, as Hengest’s royal heritage dictates. Vortigern responds that it is not in his power to appoint Hengest to these positions, reasoning that Hengest is a pagan, that he barely knows Hengest, that Hengest’s people are strangers and that Vortigern's nobles would not accept the appointment.

Messengers were sent to Germania, where "a number" of warriors were selected, and, with sixteen ships, the messengers returned. With the men came Hengest’s beautiful daughter, Rowena.15 Hengest prepared a feast, inviting Vortigern, Vortigern's officers, and Ceretic, his translator. Prior to the feast, Hengest enjoined his daughter to serve the guests plenty of wine and ale so that they would get very intoxicated. The plan succeeded. "At the instigation of the Devil" Vortigern fell in love with Hengest’s daughter and promised Hengest whatever he liked in exchange for her betrothal.(D) Hengest, having previously "consulted with the Elders who attended him of the Angle race," demanded Kent. Without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Vortigern agreed! Vortigern marries Rowena that night, is very pleased with her, but brings upon himself the hatred of his nobles and three sons. Many versions of the story then survive, but we will follow the one that most closely matches Bede's.

So, on to the Battle of Aylesford...

The Britons of Kent (and perhaps surrounding areas) gather an army, determined to drive their Saxon overlords out and reclaim Kent. The British army (said to number well over a thousand men), led by, or at least including, Vortigern's son, Cartigern, crossed the Medway into Kent at Aylesford and began to march up Bluebell Hill. Hengest's Army of a few hundred men, commanded by himself and Horsa, was drawn up at the top of the hill.(E) On seeing the Britons approaching the brothers noticed the Britons were marching under the banner of a white horse,(F) which they took as an omen since the names Hengest and Horse meant "stallion" and "horse". They ordered their men down the hill to attack and take the standard. The two armies met about halfway down the hill and there was fierce fighting around an ancient standing stone. Hengest's warriors cut their way to the standard and took it, Hengest adopting the standard as his own. The stone was afterwards named 'White Horse Stone' in honour of the standard having been taken there.(G)

The loss of the standard disheartened the Britons so much they began to retreat back towards the ford, but near Kit's Coty Cartigern rallied them once more.(H) The two armies faced one another once again, but in order to save further bloodshed the leaders decided to settle the fight by single combat. Horsa would champion the Saxons whilst Cartigern would Champion the Britons, each offering a prayer to their respective Gods before climbing to the table-like top of Kit's Coty to fight their duel.(I) The champions began their battle, but were well matched, with neither getting the upper hand for long. After a considerable time, both warriors struck a mighty blow, each mortally wounding the other, each collapsing to the stone to die. Upon seeing this, the Christian Britons cried out in despair as they believed God had not protected Cartigern, and they turned and fled, throwing away their arms and heading for the ford. The Saxons on the other hand shouted praise to their war-god, for their champion had cut down the enemy, and been granted a glorious warrior's death.(J) They pursued the Britons, cutting them down as they fled, harrying them back to the ford and slaughtering most before they could reach the river. It was said afterwards that Hengest was able to walk from the ford back to the body of his fallen brother without his feet touching the ground, so many were the dead Britons he could walk upon.(K)

With the battle won, Hengest ordered that his fallen brother Horsa be carried to the high ground above the battle and buried with all the honour a great warrior deserved. He was buried with great riches and weapons and a mound was raised over him, the site of his burial being ever after known as Horstead (The place of Horsa). Of course, another derivation of the name Horstead would just be 'Horse Farm'! (L)

The first part of the story, detailing the arrival of the Germanic mercenaries and their subsequent employment and payment in land may be seen as a way of explaining at a personal level, the grand events that were taking place. Small groups of pagan soldiers, whether exiles or adventurers, were taking ship across the north sea and fighting for British leaders in return for land (basically the old Roman system of employing foderati, friendly tribes to form a bulwark against more hostile enemies). Once they have their land, they bring over their families and other tribal members to support them (cultivating crops, crafting necessary goods, etc). Some of these newcomers marry locals, mingling the populations somewhat. Through a combination of increasing numbers of settlers, political manoeuvring and armed force they gradually come to dominate the local population leading to a war of conquest where the native population is either assimilated into the new culture or driven out completely.

That covers the general outline of the story; now let’s look at some of the individual details more closely.

(A) These would have been the continuation of the raids that the Saxon Shore forts were built to counter. It is likely that without Rome’s protection these raids might have increased in size, frequency and/or intensity, leading the British leaders to look for more drastic solutions. The use of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, in a kind of ‘fight fire with fire’ policy might have seemed like a logical solution.

(B) Exile was a common feature of early Germanic society. In one version of the tale recorded in the Historia Regum Britanniae, Hengest explains that his homeland had become overpopulated; and that the tradition of their people dictated that when their lands are overstocked with people, the leaders of all their provinces meet, and they order that all of the young men of the kingdom assemble before them. Then, through casting lots, the leaders chose from the "strongest and ablest" among their people to "go into foreign nations, to procure themselves sustenance, and free their native country from a superfluous multitude of people." Hengest notes that his retinue is the result of this process, and through this custom Hengest and his brother Horsa were made generals "out of respect to our ancestors, who enjoyed the same honour."  Another, probably much more common, reason for exile was the killing of someone important in a blood feud. This latter reason may fit in with some of the other tales of Hengest that have survived.

(C) Although the English had been (nominally) Christian since the late sixth or early seventh century, their pagan origins were not forgotten. In fact, later Christian Anglo-Saxon Kings justified their wars against Christian Britons because "they had selfishly withheld the light of Jesus Christ from them" when they had first arrived in this Island. The use of Roman rather than Germanic names is probably more to do with the later habit of seeing all things Roman as civilised, rather than any contemporary usage of such names.

(D) This high profile marriage, and its consequences, may not have been the true event, but it suggests that intermarriage between the incoming Saxons and the local Britons was taking place. The reaction to it remembered may also reflect an element of disapproval on the part of the 'loyalist' Britons. Those Britons who did marry the newcomers or adopt their culture may even have been seen as 'collaborators' to be shunned and despised, which would be likely to lead those marrying into this to become culturally Saxon even if they were Britons by birth, helping to account for the apparent complete replacement of British culture in Kent.

(E) This discrepancy in numbers may sound unlikely at first glance, but was possibly common in this era due to the way the two peoples raised their armies. Modern research suggests that the Britons still used the late Roman system of conscription of able bodied men. These units were a far cry from the mighty Legions of Rome's glory days. Conditions in the late Roman army were bad enough that many men mutilated themselves (usually by the removal of their right thumb, thus rendering themselves unable to hold a weapon) in order to avoid conscription. Those who were conscripted were generally poorly equipped with little in the way of armour (generally just a crude helmet and shield, with a few of the front rank equipped with a leather jerkin or small mail shirt), and poor quality, mass produced weapons and often inadequate training. By comparison, the Germanic warrior of the era was generally born into the role, being the son of a warrior, trained to fight from the age of five or six. Although possibly not much more heavily armoured than his British opponent, his weapons were of much higher quality (many wealthier officers in the late Roman army commissioned swords and spears from Germanic smiths, to replace their shoddy 'issue' weapons) and his training far in excess of his opponent. In modern terms we might think of a small group of ‘special forces’ troops up against a poorly trained, poorly armed rebel militia.  The size of the Saxon army, small to the modern mind, would not have seemed so to the Anglo-Saxons themselves. Later law codes from the eighth century define an army as a group of more than thirty-five armed men, so an army of several hundred was a sizeable force.

(F) If the Britons organised their armies in the late Roman fashion, a standard bearing an animal motif is not at all unlikely. The eagles of the Imperial Legions had long since been abandoned in favour of cloth banners bearing devices of all kinds, very often animals, birds or mythical beasts. Some of these designs have been preserved in manuscripts detailing regimental insignia, with red being a favoured colour for the background, and yellow or white being a common colour for the design, so Kent's traditional emblem of a white horse on a red background would easily fit in to this general form for a military banner.

(G) White horse stone seems to have been associated with the Medway megaliths, and survived in situ, halfway down Bluebell Hill until the road was widened in the 1980s/90s. The petrol station halfway down the hill was built on the site of the stone.

(H) Distinctive landmarks such has prehistoric monuments, feature in many accounts of battles in early history and late pre-history as rallying points or sites of last stands. This is probably because these man-made structures stand out clearly in a largely natural and untamed landscape.

(I) Both Germanic and pre-Roman Celtic warrior traditions included the concept of settling disputes or battles by single combat, the victor's side winning the battle, the loser's leaving the field, often being forced to leave some or all of their wealth and/or arms as tribute. Whilst unusual, it is not unlikely that after fierce fighting this method might be settled on to settle the battle.  Such single combats usually took place on a limited field - a spread cloak, a small island in a river, a forest clearing, etc, with a combatant losing by default id he left the chosen field. The large stone atop Kit's Coty would certainly have provided a suitable field of combat for such a fight.

(J) To me, this particular detail seems very telling, as the difference in attitudes of a pagan warrior to a Christian one would not have been something the average person would have been familiar with in the late medieval and early modern world, but that detail was recorded in 16th and 17th century versions of the story. Modern studies of ancient texts show that the idea of dying whilst defeating a worthy foe was considered a victory amongst the Germanic warrior elite (a good example being Beowulf dying as he defeats the dragon).

(K) This aspect of Germanic warfare, the slaying of a retreating foe, may well have come as a shock to the 'civilised' Britons, but was common practice amongst the many warring tribes of Germany and Scandinavia and is well recorded in Roman and later texts. In one text it is explained that the more thoroughly the enemy warriors are destroyed, the longer it is before that tribe can raise another army strong enough to threaten the victorious tribe, and in addition word of the ferociousness of the victorious tribe spreads, dissuading others from attacking them. This attitude may have continued throughout the Anglo-Saxon era and may go some way to explaining why, at the Battle of Hastings, when the Normans' flank was broken so many of the Saxon army streamed down the hill in pursuit, only to be cut of and slaughtered in their turn by the remaining, rallied part of the Norman army.

(L) The 'Horse farm' derivation of the name may be the true one, but when Fort Horstead was being built in the 19th century the workers are said to have found the remains of a mound containing bones, rusted iron weapons and golden jewels. Sadly these items seem to have quickly disappeared, but from the few descriptions would seem to indicate an early Anglo-Saxon male burial. Whilst it may not have been the actual burial of the legendary Horsa, it is interesting that local folk knowledge had preserved the idea of the place being the site of the burial of an important Anglo-Saxon warrior.

As we can see from these details, the story as told in the folk tales may not be one hundred percent historical fact, it remains in general just a good tale, but contained within it are details which can be paralleled in archaeological and historical sources. It seems that despite later additions and embellishments, these folk memories may contain kernels of what would have once been hard, historical fact. The description of the battle above could easily fit, in general terms, the course of a battle between Germanic and British forces, even if the leaders were not these illustrious figures from legend, but were in fact men whose names are now long lost to us.

Following this battle, several others are recorded in the Chronicles, spanning a period of twenty years or so before Kent was conquered to its greater extent, a full generation. Some continental sources suggest that this conquest may have taken nearer half a century to complete, but as seen earlier, the dating of these earlier events in the Chronicles may be suspect. A gap of anything from 10 to 50 years between the Battle of Aylesford and those that secured Kent, Crecganford and Wippedesfleot, have been suggested based on archaeological finds and continental sources. However, the general pattern of a major battle to secure the major part of Kent, followed by a series of subsequent ones to expand and secure the borders seems likely to follow actual events. The dating of events probably becomes somewhat more secure as we move into the reign of historic Kings such as Aesc/Oisc and Ochta rather than the legendary leaders such as Hengest and Horsa. Whilst it may be possible that Hengest and Horsa were the first leaders, it is equally likely, maybe more likely, that the first leaders were men whose names are now lost to us.
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