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Author Topic: History vs. Folklore: The Battle of Aylesford, Horsa and the White Horse of Kent  (Read 20929 times)

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Offline HuMcCulloch

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Here is a photo of the right panel of the BM's Franks Casket, which, as I noted below, has been identified by AC Bouman and Simonne d'Ardenne as representing Hengist (or Hengest) as a stallion (AS hengist or hengest), mourning his deceased brother Horsa after the 455 AD battle of Aegelesthrep (Ayesford).



Although 4 of the 5 panels of the Franks Casket are in the British Museum, the right panel somehow ended up in the Bargello Museum in Florence, and the BM has only a cast of it on display.  The above photo is of the original in the Bargello.  (The upstairs room where it is displayed is only open to the public during the tourist season.) 

Offline HuMcCulloch

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Leofwine --
   Thanks for your excellent post on the battle of Aylesford, Nov. 6, 2011!  Have you published this somewhere yet?  It compiles a lot of very interesting material, and I would like to quote you and learn your sources. 
   In particular, what is the source for your statement that an ancient burial was found during the construction of Fort Horsted?  C. Plummer, in a note to his 1896 edition of Bede's EH, states that Horsa was buried in a "flint heap" at Horsted after the battle, so it sounds as though this is the same burial.  He wrote as if the tumulus were still there, even though the Fort had been begun in 1880, but perhaps he had visited the site years before he wrote.   
   My interest in Aylesford arises from the right panel of the British Museum's Franks Casket, which A.C. Bouman and Simonne d'Ardenne convincingly argued depicts Hengist as a dejected stallion (AS hengist), mourning Horsa after his death at Aegelesthrep, usually identified with Aylesford.  They argue that Horsa is both the miniature person in the burial mound before "Hengist", and the strange horse-man-spirit creature seated on a mound at the left.   The runic text begins, "Here Hos (= Horsa?) sits on the sorrow-mound."  My own theory is that the warrior facing "spirit-Horsa" is Hengist himself, now as a man visiting Horsa's grave long after his death  See Wikipedia "Franks Casket" (which I've added to significantly) and my webpage at http://www.econ.ohio-state.edu/jhm/arch/FranksCasket/ .
   I'll be visiting England from the States in early July, and look forward to visiting Fort Horsted as well as Kits Coty per your post!   
 

Offline davpott

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Gildas was an almost contemporary record of the emergence of a new era. It was written circa AD 540, the date for the start of the saxon settlement is generally accepted to be AD 449.While he inadvertently gives us a glimpse into the fifth century Britain it is written primarily as a religious tract. If it hadnít had been it would not have come down to us. With that in mind it and a bit of effort it is possible to read through his religious diversions and unravel the story.

 Gildas; De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain)

23. Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel! Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the self same roof. Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh. A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in their ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favourable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same. They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but alas! more truly against it. Their mother-land, finding her first brood thus successful, sends forth a larger company of her wolfish offspring, which sailing over, join themselves to their bastard-born comrades. From that time the germ of iniquity and the root of contention planted their poison amongst us, as we deserved, and shot forth into leaves and branches. the barbarians being thus introduced as soldiers into the island, to encounter, as they falsely said, any dangers in defence of their hospitable entertainers, obtain an allowance of provisions, which, for some time being plentifully bestowed, stopped their doggish mouths. Yet they complain that their monthly supplies are not furnished in sufficient abundance, and they industriously aggravate each occasion of quarrel, saying that unless more liberality is shown them, they will break the treaty and plunder the whole island. In a short time, they follow up their threats with deeds.
 24. For the fire of vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean. In these assaults, therefore, not unlike that of the Assyrian upon Judea, was fulfilled in our case what the prophet describes in words of lamentation; "They have burned with fire the sanctuary; they have polluted on earth the tabernacle of thy name." And again, "O God, the gentiles have come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled," &c. So that all the columns were levelled 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 midst of 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;* and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if, indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into the high heaven by the holy angels. So entirely had the vintage, once so fine, degenerated and become bitter, that, in the words of the prophet, there was hardly a grape or ear of corn to be seen where the husbandman had turned his back.
25. Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation. "Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou dispersed us." Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says,--"With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven," that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.
26. After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity. And yet neither to this day are the cities of our country inhabited as before, but being forsaken and overthrown, still lie desolate; our foreign wars having ceased, but our civil troubles still remaining. For as well the remembrance of such terrible desolation of the island, as also of the unexpected recovery of the same, remained in the minds of those who were eyewitnesses of the wonderful events of both, and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. But when these had departed out of this world, and a new race succeeded, who were ignorant of this troublesome time, and had only experience of the present prosperity, all the laws of truth and justice were so shaken and subverted, that not so much as a vestige or remembrance of these virtues remained among the above-named orders of men, except among a very few who, compared with the great multitude which were daily rushing headlong down to hell, are accounted so small a number, that our reverend mother, the church, scarcely beholds them, her only true children, reposing in her bosom; whose worthy lives, being a pattern to all men, and beloved of God, inasmuch as by their holy prayers, as by certain pillars and most profitable supporters, our infirmity is sustained up, that it may not utterly be broken down, I would have no one suppose I intended to reprove, if forced by the increasing multitude of offences, I have freely, aye, with anguish, not so much declared as bewailed the wickedness of those who are become servants, not only to their bellies, but also to the devil rather than to Christ, who is our blessed God, world without end.

YonderYomper

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You can see why all the most notable people of this area appear on the Rochester Bridge Trust rolls thereafter... Get me that hill!

Offline Leofwine

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As far as the Britons not having the hill... there are a number of reasons, but the biggie is that the Anglo-Saxons already had it!  It is also possible that they hoped to make a surprise attack, not realising the full mobility of the early Anglo-Saxon warbands, or that they believed they had a sufficient superiority of numbers to carry the fight.

As to why they tried to take it back, the answer is simple. They had to if they wanted to regain control of Kent. History is full of such do-or-die situations. Sometimes they pay off (Agincourt, D-Day, etc), sometimes they don't (Hastings, Arnhem, etc.)  If the Britons had managed to reach the top of the hill unopposed the situation would have been reversed, with the Anglo-Saxons facing the uphill struggle. In that case history would remember it as a bold and effective attack by the Britons.

As to leadership/judgement of the Britons, they had both good and bad leaders, but sadly they were busy trying to fight a series of what we might now call civil wars in addition to fighting off a foreign invader. They were heavily criticised for this by their own people in the following century or so, most notably by the monk, Gildas.

It does seem that they failed to learn from their mistakes though. In the fifth century they invite in Germanic mercenaries to fight for them, but fail to keep them under control and find their mercenaries becoming their conquerers. Then, after a few decades someone organises them enough to stem the tide (Arthur, or at least his model(s)), so they begin squabbling amongst themselves. To boost their armies they hire mercenaries from amongst those same enemies, who take the opportunity to scout out the British half of the country during such employment, learning the strengths and weaknesses of various leaders, towns, forts etc. When they have suitably weakened themselves through internecine warfare they are surprised when the mercenaries (and their relatives from the oversea homelands) turn on them and the take the rest of the land they want from them!
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YonderYomper

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Thanks for taking the time to answer those points.

Just can't fathom how the native Britons found themselves not in possession of that hill in the first place...Just walking around it, and certainly having been raised here, you'd think anyone would appreciate the importance of it strategically... and not give it up for anything.

And what could make them think they could take it back, considering the points you've made?

History gives a very poor impression of the ability and especially the judgement of the Briton's leadership.


Offline Leofwine

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Firstly, The name Hengist/Hengeist/Hengest (as it is variously spelt, depending on where you look), do you think this could have some kind of significance derived from the German word Geist- spirit, as in Zeitgeist... like the spirit of the horse, or something like that; Is it the same word (piece)?

As I understand it  the Old English from 'hengest' means stallion, but the original Old German is 'hengst' in turn derived from Indo-European roots. Interestingly in Medieval German 'hengist' was a word for a gelding, very different to  the 'stallion' of Old English.  The word Geist (again to my understanding, I may be wrong) is etymologically identical to the English ghost (from a Common Germanic word 'gaistaz') but in German has retained its full range of meanings -  mind, spirit, or ghost (as opposed to the English version - the spirit of a dead person.)  However, I don't think it has anything to do with the name Hengest.


Secondly, what can not have failed to impress anyone who has visited the Coty, and Blue Bell Hill area when walking up it, is just how steep it is!  Even going up the longer, shallower inclines is a task in itself... what are the practicalities of getting an army up there to fight, and can this tell us anything about likely routes taken to get there, or the actual site of battle (let alone getting stones up there from anywhere else!)?

The practicalities of an attack up a hill like that are simple - it is extremely difficult for the attacker and offers great advantage to the defender on the higher ground!!!  Which would be precisely why the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders chose it as their point to defend.  They knew the Britons would cross there as it was the only practical crossing point for miles. In our modern world of good roads and many bridges we sometimes forget the restraints mother nature put on moving large numbers of people in the past. Once across the ford (probably a fairly tiring exercise in its own right) the attacking Britons would have probably had very limited choices of route. They could have marched along the river bank via Wouldham, towards Rochester and avoided the steep hill, but that was, at that time, probably mostly marshy or scrubby woodland, very impractical for armies. This second choice would have the Prehistoric trackway that ran about halfway up the hill, which would have offered a better, but still not ideal for an army. The third choice was the Roman road which ran to the top of the hill (approximately where the road still runs today) which was designed for moving armies along, so what the best choice, despite the gradient. From the position on the top of the hill the Anglo-Saxons would be able to quickly judge which route the British commander was going to take as they are a long way apart nearer the river, converging as they approach the hill. From the top of the hill it would be no trouble to move your troops to intercept either route long before the attackers got there.  All in all it shows how well the Anglo-Saxon commander chose his ground to fight.  Such a position would also have given a smaller number of well trained warriors an advantage over a much larger conscripted army with lower levels of discipline and training.  In real terms, the Anglo-Saxons had probably won the battle before the Britons had even crossed the ford, and the fact that the accounts of the battle make it such a close run thing at first probably speaks for a British commander of considerable skil and/or a vastly larger British army.


Thirdly, when considering the origins of the megaliths, it's often a question of whether the builders quarried the stone locally, or from afar... but could it also be that the builders of the monuments took the stones from other, pre-existing sites, like the tombs of the ancestors of the vanquished, after all, it saves them the work of cutting new stone.  You see this with the pyramids at Giza, with most of what used to cover them being found in newer buildings, and other recycling of old buildings... should we not consider these more ancient builders just as likely to do this as more recent peoples, and at least a possible source of the stones at Kit's Coty?

Prehistoric monuments are not my area of expertise so I'm just going to point at davpott's excellent answer to that one!
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YonderYomper

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Thanks on that point Davpott,

It answers that question for me about getting the stones there. No way they'd get them up the hill, even with horses or oxen pulling- although it offers a funny thought if they had, as to why Little Kit's Coty is further down the hill, as the chaps remembered their labours the first time round, and thought, well we liked this guy as a leader, be he wasn't that great... let's just build it here at the bottom of the hill!"

It just occured to me that it's an impressive statement to those you've beaten, to take what was sacred to them, and "bury it" in your own new structure... and wondered if older artefacts may have been incorporated into more recent buildings, effectively "lost" in plain sight.

Offline davpott

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As a sort of update there was an article on the BBC at around 6.30pm this evening in which those interviewed made a case for Beowulf being based on Sheppey rather than in Denmark.  The presenter mentioned this would be on i-player and the BBC site.  I couldn't find a link (sorry) but did anybody else, and is anybody placed to comment?

The BBC link to the programme. The piece starts at about 19.55 . It will only be available for the next few days http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01qtcyy/Inside_Out_South_East_18_02_2013/

Offline davpott

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Thirdly, when considering the origins of the megaliths, it's often a question of whether the builders quarried the stone locally, or from afar... but could it also be that the builders of the monuments took the stones from other, pre-existing sites, like the tombs of the ancestors of the vanquished, after all, it saves them the work of cutting new stone.  You see this with the pyramids at Giza, with most of what used to cover them being found in newer buildings, and other recycling of old buildings... should we not consider these more ancient builders just as likely to do this as more recent peoples, and at least a possible source of the stones at Kit's Coty?

 The sarsen stones used in Kent are natural rocks found at the top of the downs. There is an abundant quantity nearby on the top of the downs of Bluebell Hill. It can also be found in hill wash on the scarp side of the downs as a result of erosion following clearing of the woodland early in the Neolithic period ( c4000-c2500 BC). Of the Stour valley long barrows only 'Julliberrie's grave' has so far been excavated however none are believed to have been constructed using sarsen stones. To me that suggests their function was more important than what they were constructed from.

The Medway long barrows are believed to have been constructed c 3900-3800BC. That is the first time in the British Isles that sort of technology or knowhow existed to build such structures. At the start of the Neolithic period the population for England is estimated to have been around 100,000 (that's less than the population of Maidstone district council area). Even by the end of the Neolithic the population had probably little more than doubled over the course of c2500 years. So throughout the entire period there would have been little or no land pressures to prompt large scale warfare. And there is so far no evidence of Neolithic constructions being distroyed (in prehistoric times at least), indeed on the contrary ancient sites have often been adapted for modern usage during subsequent periods. 

Offline linyarin

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Though I think I may have seen descendants of Grendel's line on Sheppey.....
Ouch!

 :)

YonderYomper

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Hello Leofwine,

Just read all the posts on this thread, and immensly appreciated it all.

A couple of questions, or wonderings I'm curious to know your opinion on:

Firstly, The name Hengist/Hengeist/Hengest (as it is variously spelt, depending on where you look), do you think this could have some kind of significance derived from the German word Geist- spirit, as in Zeitgeist... like the spirit of the horse, or something like that; Is it the same word (piece)?

Secondly, what can not have failed to impress anyone who has visited the Coty, and Blue Bell Hill area when walking up it, is just how steep it is!  Even going up the longer, shallower inclines is a task in itself... what are the practicalities of getting an army up there to fight, and can this tell us anything about likely routes taken to get there, or the actual site of battle (let alone getting stones up there from anywhere else!)?

Thirdly, when considering the origins of the megaliths, it's often a question of whether the builders quarried the stone locally, or from afar... but could it also be that the builders of the monuments took the stones from other, pre-existing sites, like the tombs of the ancestors of the vanquished, after all, it saves them the work of cutting new stone.  You see this with the pyramids at Giza, with most of what used to cover them being found in newer buildings, and other recycling of old buildings... should we not consider these more ancient builders just as likely to do this as more recent peoples, and at least a possible source of the stones at Kit's Coty?

Offline Leofwine

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I've not heard the article, but I suspect his arguments for that are tenuous at best, and that for every argument he can make for Sheppey there are 100 much more convincing ones for it all being based in the Baltic!   

Though I think I may have seen descendants of Grendel's line on Sheppey.....
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Offline davpott

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I've got a feeling this is Dr Paul Wilkinson promoting his new book.

Offline yeoman

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As a sort of update there was an article on the BBC at around 6.30pm this evening in which those interviewed made a case for Beowulf being based on Sheppey rather than in Denmark.  The presenter mentioned this would be on i-player and the BBC site.  I couldn't find a link (sorry) but did anybody else, and is anybody placed to comment? 

 

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