Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Story of Vortigern

T HERE had been a battle at the Ford of the river Wye between Griffith, one of the Princes of Wales, and the West Saxons. The Welsh had won the day, not a little by the help of the young Prince Constantine, who had come from the British kingdom of Cumbria, in the hope of marrying the sister of Prince Griffith. As they sat at the feast after the battle, the talk of the chiefs turned upon the old days when the Britons dwelt in peace in their land before the Saxons from the Eastern seas had come to vex them.

"Tell me," said Prince Constantine, turning to Hoel the minstrel, "tell me how these troubles began. I have heard the tale as it is told in my own country, and I would willingly hear it as it is told in yours."

"Prince," said Hoel, "I can refuse nothing to so valiant a fighter; but it is a tale of sorrow and wrong, and ill suited for a feast."

"Speak on," said Constantine; "your story shall teach us to grow wiser and better."

"Know then," said Hoel, "that for a time after the Romans left us, things went well in Britain."

"Stay," cried the Prince, "you must pardon my ignorance; but tell me why these Romans left us. Did we drive them out?"

"Not so," answered the minstrel; "they needed their armies elsewhere, for they were themselves hard pressed by their enemies. Well, as I said, things for a time went well. But our fathers had forgotten how to fight, nor did they rightly know how to govern themselves. And hence came our troubles. These began with King Constans, a good man, doubtless, but one who, having been a monk, cared little for the things of this world, and committed all the affairs of his nation to a certain noble, Vortigern by name. This man was possessed with a great ambition, having it in his mind to become King himself. To this end he laid his plans.

"First he asked the King to give him the charge of his treasures and of his strong cities. 'Your enemies, Sir,' he said, 'have the purpose of invading Britain, and I would keep these things safe for you.' The King granted him his request, not suspecting any evil; but Vortigern put into these strong places men of his own choosing, who would be ready to do what he desired.

"Next he said to the King, 'I hear that the Picts are about to attack us, bringing with them allies from beyond the sea. Now my counsel is that you increase the number of your own guard.'  'Do as you will,' answered the King. 'Have I not left all things to you?'  'Then,' said Vortigern, 'the best men that we can have for this purpose are the Picts themselves. I will hire a hundred of them, for they will not only serve as a guard, but will also spy upon their own countrymen, if they should have any design against us.' Constans consenting, as he consented to all things, Vortigern hired these Picts, receiving them into the King's household, and feeding them sumptuously, and giving them many gifts.

"After he had thus won their hearts, he said to them, 'I have it in my mind to leave this island of Britain, and to look for a better estate elsewhere. Here my revenues are so small that I cannot support even fifty men, much less a hundred.' The Picts said to one another, 'Why do we suffer this man to live? Why do we not kill him, that Vortigern, who is far worthier than he, may have his crown?' Thereupon they broke into the chamber of the King, and slew him. His head they cut off, and carried it to Vortigern. But he, pretending that the thing was done without his knowledge, commanded that they should be bound and put to death. There were some, however, who believed that he was guilty in this matter. The Picts also desired to avenge the slaying of their countrymen. And besides these things, the young brothers of King Constans, who had been carried across the sea by their tutors when the King was killed, were now preparing to return and to claim their kingdom by force of arms. Thus it came to pass that Vortigern was in great straits.

"Being in this condition, he heard that three galleys, full of armed men, had come to the coast of Kent, under the command of two chiefs, Hengist and Horsa by name. Vortigern commanded that these strangers should be brought into his presence. When they had come, he asked them of what country they were, and for what purpose they had visited his kingdom. The chiefs made this answer, 'It is the custom in our country, that from time to time, when the number of our people is greater than the land can feed, our princes gather all the youth of the nation into one place. This being done, they cast lots who shall go into other lands wherein they may earn their own livelihood. This year the lot fell upon us, and we are come hither to offer you our service.'

"To this Vortigern answered, 'I am rejoiced at your coming. I am hard pressed by many enemies. If, therefore, you will help me against them, I will entertain you honourably in my kingdom, will give you good wages for the present, and will settle you hereafter on lands which you can cultivate for yourselves.'

To this the new-comers gave their consent. Not many days afterwards the Picts invaded Britain with a great army, and Vortigern went against them with his men, taking with him the Saxons, for so the strangers were named. In the battle that was fought the Britons had scarcely need to do anything, for the Saxons, by their own strength, turned the Picts to flight. Vortigern now gave to the Saxons certain lands in the east country.

"Thereupon Hengist said to him, 'You have yet many enemies, my lord. Shall I send for more of my countrymen, for of a surety we shall need them?'  'Send for as many as you will,' said Vortigern, 'they will all be welcome.' Then Hengist spake further: 'I have yet another thing to ask. You have given us land sufficient; suffer us also to build a fortress, which may be called after my name, for this is an honour which is my due, seeing that you or yours commonly possess it.' Vortigern answered, 'This may not be; you are strangers and pagans, and know not the customs of the land. Were I myself inclined to it, my nobles would not suffer it.'

"To this Hengist answered, 'Give me so much as this, O King, to wit a piece of land so large as may be surrounded by a bull's hide, with which I may do what I will.'

" 'Let it be so,' said Vortigern.

"Then Hengist cut up a bull's hide into thongs; these he fastened together in one piece, and surrounded with it a piece of land which he had chosen for himself as being the most strongly placed in the whole country. This was afterwards called Thong Castle.

"After this the messengers which Hengist had sent to his own country returned, bringing with them eighteen ships full of the bravest soldiers that they could find. These the King took into his service; and at the same time went to see the castle which Hengist had built for himself.

"Being here entertained at a royal banquet, he was waited upon by Hengist's daughter, Rowena, for she had come with the fresh company of warriors, having been sent for by her father. She had come out of her chamber, carrying in her hand a golden cup full of wine. This she offered to the King, making at the same time a low courtesy, and saying, 'Lord King, I will drink your health!' Then she drank to his health, and the King also drank to her. Now Rowena was very fair, and the King loved her greatly, so that he would have her father give her to him for wife. This Hengist, by the advice of his lords, consented to do. 'Only,' he said, 'you must give me for her your kingdom of Kent.' This the King consented to do, bringing upon himself thereby great hatred from his nobles and from his three sons, for he had three by his former marriage that were now grown to manhood.

"And now more and more of the Saxons came from over the sea, the King either inviting them, or at the least suffering them. At this the Britons were so much disturbed that they took away his kingdom from him, and set Vortimer his eldest son to rule in his stead. Vortimer was a very brave and skilful soldier, and conquered the heathen in many battles till they were well-nigh driven out of the country. But this worthy Prince was cut off in the flower of his days, for his step-mother Rowena contrived that a draught of poison should be given to him, from which draught he died.

"When Vortimer was dead, the Britons restored the kingdom to Vortigern, and he, his wife urging him, sent a message to Hengist that he should return to Britain. 'Only,' he said, 'come back with a small company of men, lest there should be strife between you and my people.'

"But Hengist took no heed to this counsel, but brought as great a multitude of men as he could by any means gather together. At this King Vortigern and his people were greatly troubled, and were resolved to oppose them by force of arms. Of this resolve Hengist heard by means of his daughter, and thought how to deceive the Britons and their King. This they did in this fashion. A messenger came to Vortigern and said, 'Hengist has brought all his host with him, thinking that Vortimer was yet alive, and being minded to make himself secure against their attacks, But now that he knows for certain that Vortimer is dead, he submits himself and his people to your arbitration. Cause such as you will to stay, and send such as you will away.'

"This pleased Vortigern, for being ruled by Rowena his wife, he desired that Hengist should remain in Britain. It was therefore agreed that the chiefs of Britain and the Saxons should meet together at a certain place that is now called Amesbury, for the settling of these matters. But Hengist comnmanded his followers to hide long knives under their garments, and when he should say the words, 'Draw your daggers!'  to slay each man his neighbour. Thereupon whilst they were talking together Hengist got hold of Vortigern by the cloak and cried, 'Draw your daggers!'  Thereupon the Saxons fell upon the princes of Britain, who suspected no such thing, and so carried no arms, and slew them to the number of four hundred and sixty.

"As for Vortigern, Hengist did not slay him, but kept him in prison, nor would release him till he had yielded up as the price of his liberty all the chief and strongest places in Britain. As for this unhappy Prince, when he was released he departed into the western parts of the island, much repenting that he had brought the heathen Saxons into the island of Britain. Nor did he escape due punishment, for Ambrosius, son of Constans, having been anointed King over Britain, sought to avenge upon him his father's death. And this he did, for having found him shut up in a very strong tower, and failing to take the place in any other way, set fire to it and consumed it and all that were in it. Thus did Vortigern die."

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Boadicea (continued)  |  Next: The Story of King Arthur
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.