Hengest and Horsa

One of my long standing pet peeves about Anglo-Saxon studies is the absolute dearth of study of Hengest and Horsa, reputed to be the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain. The usual excuses — that there isn’t enough information on them and they are not historical– are utter rubbish. Since when does a character need to be historic for primarily literary scholars to deal with him? There is more known about Hengest and Horsa than most of the figures in Beowulf, about whom there is endless ink spilled. Even Vortigern has his defenders , where are those who study Hengest?

So lets start with the supposed lack of sources:

  1. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is the first to mention Hengest in his relation to the Kentish royal family and in listing him within their royal genealogy.
  2. Historia Brittonum (825, alas the link is a poor cobbled together translation) gives a very long and detailed account of Hengest and Horsa, including the first description of battles between Hengest and Horsa and the Britons from the British viewpiont. Also a different version of the Kentish royal genealogy. It also includes the first references to Vortigern and Hengest’s daughter and the ‘night of the long knives’ motif.
  3. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 875-900) also list Hengest in genealogies and a variety of dates, including battles with the Britons from the English viewpoint.
  4. Anglican Collection of genealogies dates from about 850, a couple generations after the genealogies of the Historia Brittonum.
  5. Armes Prydain Fawr (‘The Great Prophecy of Britain’) Welsh poem from the time of Aethelstan. Mentions Hengest and Horsa in its recounting of the marks against the English, section II out of IX.
  6. Beowulf and the ‘Fight at Finnsburg’ give accounts of Hengest before coming to Britain.
  7. Welsh triads refer to Hengest and Horsa, if I recall correctly.
  8. The Matter of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, (Welsh) History of the Kings, Wace’s Roman de Brut, and Layamon’s verison, etc.

I just don’t get the lack of interest. There are far more sources in different types of texts (chronicles, genealogies, poetry) than most other early English figures. The Kentish genealogy starting uncharacteristically with Hengest is one of the best to track the development of royal genealogies (Bede, HB, and Anglican collection, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in that order of age). You can track the development of a legendary and literary figure from Bede to modern Arthuriana. Oh..perhaps that’s the rub… you might get an Arthurian lurgy (or cooties).


8 thoughts on “Hengest and Horsa

  1. I think you’re right… it’s the fear of Arthurian Lurgy. I looked at them a little in a Celtic studies class (I think we were supposed to be looking at Vortigern, but I was even then falling under the Anglo-Saxon spell. But Vortigern is associated with Arthuriana, and Anglo-Saxonists like to think they’re above such fluffy topics.
    Perhaps, too, because the Vortigern/Hengest-Horsa story gets rehashed so often by Arthurianists, with H&H being the Bad Guys, Anglo-Saxonists prefer to avoid them and stick to characters less defamed?

  2. It’s an interesting observation that you’ve made, Michelle. It does seem like somebody should work on this. Are we supposed to think that everything in _Beowulf_ actually happened as it was recounted? It’s not the historical aspects of the characters that hooks us in the first place, is it? I remember first encountering Old English and being struck not by the history but by the fascinating stories about ancient peoples. In fact, it’s that sense of the fantastic stories that still lures me in so often.

    Perhaps there should be a definitive study of all the sources and stories of Hengest and Horsa. No doubt the sources, analogues, and general work on these two figures could lend to quite the work of scholarship. Perhaps it would even start a new (and needed, apparently) trend in the Anglo-Saxon field!

  3. I’d be happy to make some stuff up about H&H for a story someone tells someone else in my novel 😉

    On a slight tangent, I vaguely remember reading somewhere, long ago (in Stenton? can’t remember…) that ‘Vortigern’ wasn’t a name but a title. Do you think there’s any substance to that?

  4. Hey, Michelle. Very interesting post.

    There are a few good treatments of Hengest and Horsa, though most of them are older. You might want to look at Nicholas Brooks’s Anglo-Saxon Myths: State and Church, 400-1066 which was published in 2000. He includes a chapter on Hengest and Horsa, specifically stating the scholarly neglect of these figures as his motivation. I’ve only skimmed it, but it looks interesting.

    Also, it’s worth noting that there is no widespread agreement that the Hengest mentioned in Beowulf is meant to represent the Hengest who led the migration, though many scholars have certainly wished hard that the two figures be the same. 🙂

  5. Yes, there are a few older orphan chapters here and there. I think I’ve seen Brook’s chapter which is a reprint of an old article, I think. Isn’t that a collected studies book? Anyway, all of the chapters I’ve seen just rehash the same old, all English material. The big problem is that no Anglo-Saxonists will apparently bring themselves to look at Welsh materials. Problem is that there is really as much or more in Welsh materials as English. What rubbish…. afraid of Welsh cooties? Afraid of doing some research outside of their comfort zone? There are English translations that are good enough for this type of research. Its the same type of discrimination the English have had against the Welsh since….since the time of Hengest! There is something a little warped when the English actually prefer to think their ancestors are capable of genocide rather than have to deal with the concept of British/Welsh ancestry or have to think of the Welsh as their cousins.

    On Beowulf, although I don’t keep up with the endless ink spilled on it, I don’t think there has been much treatment of Hengest since Tolkien. It should still be examined in the context of other Hengest material. Considering that Beowulf is about the last Anglo-Saxon age source for Hengest, by then he was full on a legendary figure, so again whether its a reference to a historical figure doesn’t matter. Legendary figures morph all over the place. Look at the morphing of Arthurian figures. King Arthur is King Arthur even if the two stories don’t jive in any other way. (On a side note, a study of Arthur’s English opponents hasn’t been systematically done either as far as I know. Usually it is Octha or some version of him like Ossa Long Knife who is the first in Britain from Bernicia according to the genealogies, but in modern literature sometimes its Aelle of Sussex – here no doubt influenced by Bede’s Bretwalda list. I’m sure there is a stray story of Hengest, and most oddly I know of one Victorian story where its Oswald of Northumbria!)

    Yes, highly eccentric, I know Anglo-Saxonists think of Arthuriana as fluff…. but on what basis really? Literature is literature, and legend is legend. These same Anglo-Saxonists will whine about how little non-Christian Old English literature there is. No doubt that is part of the allure of Beowulf, that it was at one time thought to have pre-Christian elements. That is no longer the standing theory — thankfully– but its still what brings in much of the interest. It is at least set in pre-Christian times. 😉

  6. A lot of the references quoted in this discussion for the hsotory of Horsa and Hengist are in the ninth century years after the so called events. A many of them are descredited not only beacuse of the time in which they were written but also because there is a belief that there is state political and religious political motovation behind them. The view point is that the sources lack credibility.

  7. I am intrigued by your pieces on Ossa, and on Hengist. I had not realised, or had forgotten, that in some stories Ossa, early leader of the Saxons, and Arthur’s opponent at Badon, was associated with Bernicia rather than with Kent.
    I thought I had to go through the sources and see which region had the prior claim to this hero.
    What I seem to see is several interwoven streams of tradition which elaborate the story on each retelling.
    In the first telling the protagonists are nameless. Gildas in the 540’s tells how a proud tyrant, with the advice of his council, invited in the fierce Saxons to the eastern parts of our island to oppose the incursions of the Northern nations. When the Saxons revolt they are countered by a campaign led, at least at first, by Ambrosius, culminating in the siege of mount Badon against unnamed opponents. “Eastern parts “is vague – but to fight the Picts and Scots from a base in Kent seems eccentric. I would have guessed a base near York or on Hadrian’s Wall would have been more sensible.
    It is in the 700’s that we first learn names. The Ravenna Cosmographer tells us that there are Saxons in Britain who came from Old Saxony with their leader Ansehis. Ansehis is likely a mistranscription of Anschis. And Anschis is a significant name.
    If we remember how much different words could look in different dialects – in later centuries Viking Olaf corresponded to Anglo-Saxon Anlaf, skirt to shirt, Olga to Helgi and so on- there is no doubt that this name is the same as Oesc. Oesc however became an archaic name and was later replaced in the West Saxon dialect by Aesc, and in the Anglian dialect by Ossa or Oese. In Kent the unfamiliar name Anschis was rendered by the more meaningful Hengist. Possibly Ochta is also a duplication of the same name.
    It is in the 700’s that we also first encounter the name Arthur. Adomnan tells us of Arthur son of Aedan mac Gabran. That Arthur now begins to be a popular name amongst the Scots and Northern Britons is perhaps a sign that stories were being told about him.
    This is not to say that either Oesc or Arthur were really people. Good cases have been made that Os and Ans were names for God, related indeed to the word Aisir. And that before Arthur was put forward as leader of the Britons against the Saxons he had been a many storied giant killer, monster slayer, and harrier of Hell , celebrated in Cornwall, and with no particular relation to history.
    The many Os- names in both Northumbrian dynasties, even when there is no genealogical connection, and which goes beyond vowel alliteration, shows that Os was as popular amonst the Northern Saxons as Arthur among the Northern Britons.

    It is with Bede’s History in 731 that We first find Oesc linked to Kent. From information supplied, probably from Abbot Albinus, from Kent, we get the story that the first leaders of the Saxons were Hengist and Horsa, Jutes, who, through three eponyms of the Isle of Wight – also Jutish, were descended from Woden. Hengist is supposed to be ancestor through Oesc of Aethelbert. But Bede was misled.
    Kirby has shown, in “The Earliest English Kings” that the genealogy and chronology of Aethelbert as told to Bede just won’t hold up. There are just not enough generations to stretch the centuries, and the dated contradict reliable information from Gregory of Tours. The story of Aethelbert’s descent from Woden is made up by Kentish monks. Later the Kentish Kings’ claim to be Oiscingas is accepted but countered by a Northumbrian genealogy which makes Oese, grandfather of Ida, the son of an Ur Aethelbert as if to say that the Bernicians were the senior Oescing line.
    And it is with Bede’s History that the proud tyrant also is shown to have gained a name- Vortigern, perhaps just a translation into Welsh of Gildas’ appellation for him.

    The multi storied many layered tradition never stops developing.
    It was in the 8th century that most elaboration took place. I think it was then that most of the stories alluded to in Widsith and Beowulf were elaborated, as well as those that are lost only to suface many centuries later in texts like the “Life of the Two Offas”. In 796 Alcuin wrote to the bishop of Lindisfarne demanding “Quis Igeld cun Christo”. The rich aristocratic monks of Northumbria had not only been taking up the fashionable long hair and clothing of the pagan Scandinavians, they had also been enjoying songs of the pagan heros. And this,Alcuin implies had begun before the first (recorded) Viking atrocities. But the monks were not just passive listeners to such tales – they must have made new poetry themselves. This is clearly shown in the collections of genealogies from this time. Not only Hengist appears there, but also Finn Focwalda, changed for a genealogy into Finn Godwulfing, an Ur Offa who like the historical Offa marks out a frontier, has a wife whose name has been blackened, and has Ur West Saxon subordinates in Shleswig, and in the Bernician pedigree not only an oese but an Yngvi too. These stories were not elaborated by illiterate oral poets but by highly educated monks interacting not only with Danish traditions but well able to make use of written histories. Widsith else agrees too well with the classical Roman texts though centuries of shifting of the ethnic mosaic kalaidoscope must have taken place. And there are several details in the poems that could only have come from Classical and Carolingian historians – but in the poems well out of time and space. Most unexpected is that the heroes in one version of the story could be told as heros in a retold version. From such a mileu came probably many more stories of Hengist, of Finn, of Oesc, of Offa.

    And eventually, certainly by 833 with the Historia Britonnum, Vortigern also gains more stories. Sons whose names are modelled on his own, a daughter so that a woman can once again get blame. And descendants form those who mark themselves of from gwynnedd by making Vortigern a good guy.

    Oh dear, I think I’ve written too much and not come to any conclusion. Well I won’t write any more. I’m going to read the stories collected with the Mabinogian.

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