Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Story of the Coming of Hengist and Horsa

V ORTIGERN now became king, for he was so powerful that none of the other princes dared to oppose him. But the Picts and Scots were very angry when they heard how their friends had been treated. They resolved to avenge them and at once made war on the Britons. They defeated Vortigern in many battles, and killed more than half of his soldiers.

The Britons were in despair. Then Vortigern called all the nobles and princes together in council, to discuss what was best to do.

At this time there were really no very clever men among the nobles of Britain. They were all in great fear of the Picts and Scots, and they had no good counsel to offer. Vortigern therefore was able to do very much as he liked.

"We must have help," he said, "if we are not to be thoroughly conquered by these wild barbarians from the north. The Romans will not help us. We must ask some one else. Across the sea, called the North Sea, there is a great country called Germany. The people who live in this country are Saxons. They are very brave and valiant fighters. Let us send over to Germany and ask the Saxons to come and help us."

Then all the nobles and princes said, "That is good advice; let it be done."

So Vortigern sent messengers to Germany with promises of money and land to the Saxons, if they would come to fight against the Picts and Scots. The Saxons were very glad to come, and soon there appeared sailing over the sea three ships, filled with some of their strongest and bravest men. Their captains were two brothers, called Hengist and Horsa. Both these names, in the old Saxon language, mean horse. They were so called because they were strong and brave.

The Saxons landed in Britain in 449 A.D. And little did the Britons think that they had come, not only to help, but to conquer them.

As soon as the strangers landed, Vortigern led them northward to fight the Picts and Scots. There was a terrible battle. Both sides fought with the fiercest bravery, and on both sides many soldiers were killed. But in the end the Saxons had the best of it, and the Picts and Scots were driven back to their own country.

The Britons were greatly delighted, and rewarded the Saxons with money and lands. Then Hengist and Horsa, seeing what a fine country Britain was, resolved never to go away again. They resolved rather to stay and conquer it for themselves.

So they first told Vortigern that Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, the brothers of the dead King Constans, were coming to fight against him, and then they advised him to send over to Germany for more soldiers.

Vortigern was very much afraid of the dead king's brothers, so he said, "Send messengers to Germany and ask whom you like to come. I can refuse you nothing, since you have freed us from the Picts and Scots."

Then Hengist said, "You have indeed given us lands and houses, but as we have helped you so much I think you should give me a castle and make me a prince."

"I cannot do that," replied Vortigern. "Only Britons are allowed to be princes in this land. You are strangers and you are heathen. My people would be very angry if I made any one but a Christian a prince."

At that Hengist made a low bow, pretending to be very humble. "Give your servant then just so much land as can be surrounded by a leather thong," he said.

Vortigern thought there could be no harm in doing that, so he said, "Yes, you may have so much." But he did not know what a cunning fellow Hengist was.

As soon as Vortigern had given his consent, Hengist and Horsa killed the largest bullock they could find. Then they took its skin and cut it round and round into one long narrow strip of leather. This they stretched out and laid upon the ground in a large circle, enclosing a piece of land big enough upon which to build a fortress.

If you do not quite understand how Hengist and Horsa managed to cut the skin of a bullock into one long strip, get a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. Begin at the edge and cut the paper round and round in circles till you come to the middle. You will then find that you have a string of paper quite long enough to surround a brick castle. If you are not allowed to use scissors, ask some kind person to do it for you.

Vortigern was very angry when he learned how he had been cheated by Hengist and Horsa. But he was beginning to be rather afraid of them, so he said nothing, but allowed them to build their fortress. It was called Thong Castle, and stood not far from Lincoln, at a place now called Caistor.

While this fortress was being built, messengers were sent to Germany for more men. They returned with eighteen ships full of the bravest soldiers they could find. In one of the ships, too, was a very beautiful lady. This was Rowena, Hengist's daughter.

Soon after these soldiers and this beautiful lady arrived, the castle was finished. Then Hengist gave a great feast and asked Vortigern to it.

Vortigern came and admired the castle very much, although he was still rather angry with Hengist for having cheated him about the land.

Towards the end of the feast, Rowena came into the room, carrying a beautiful golden cup in her hands. Vortigern stared at her in surprise. He had never seen any one so pretty before. He thought that she must be a fairy, she was so lovely.


Rowena came into the room carrying a beautiful golden cup.

Rowena went up to Vortigern, and kneeling before him held out the cup, speaking in the Saxon language.

Vortigern did not understand. "What does she say?" he asked Hengist.

"She calls you 'Lord, King,' and offers to drink your health. You must say, 'Drinc heil,' " he answered.

Vortigern said "Drinc heil," although he did not know what it meant.

Rowena then drank some of the wine and handed the cup to Vortigern, who drank the rest.

Then Vortigern made Rowena sit beside him. They could not talk to each other because he could only speak British and she could only speak Saxon. But they looked at each other all the more. Vortigern loved Rowena. He loved her so much that he wanted to marry her.

This was just what Hengist had hoped would happen. He knew he would have a great deal of power in Britain when his daughter was queen. But at first he pretended to object, and only consented at last as if it were a great favour. He made Vortigern give him the whole of Kent, too, in return for allowing him to marry Rowena.

When the people heard that the King had married a Saxon lady, they were very angry. Vortigern had been married before, and his sons, who were now men, were very angry too. But the Prince of Kent was most angry of all, when he heard that his land had been given to the Saxons.

Hengist, seeing how angry the Britons were, thought it would be safer to have more of his own people round him. So he sent over to Germany for men, and almost every day more and more Saxons landed in Britain. And Vortigern loved Rowena so much that he allowed her father Hengist to do anything he liked.

But the Britons did not mean to let their country be conquered a second time, so they rebelled against Vortigern and chose his son Vortimer to be king.

Vortimer was young and brave, and loved his country. Under his leadership the Britons fought so well that they soon drove the Saxons away. Horsa was killed in one of the battles, and soon afterwards Hengist and most of his soldiers took their ships and fled back to Germany. They left their wives and children behind them, however, which looked very much as if they expected to come back again some day.

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