Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Hengist's daughter becomes an evil murderous step mother

This post is about Laȝamon's version of the story of Hengist’s daughter with a passing glance at Wace. 

(The names can be confusing so unless quoting I will continue to call Hengist’s daughter Rowena.  Vortigern’s son is called Vortimer. Translations from Wace are Judith Weiss’. Quotations from the Brut are taken from the excellent online 'Corpus of Middle English prose and verse' .) 

Going back to the sources sidesteps other people’s summaries. Plodding through the versions can reveal aspects of a well-known story other readers might not have noticed because they were looking for something else. 

As the story moves from Geoffrey’s Latin to Wace’s Anglo-Norman to Laȝamon's English we can watch the medieval storytellers at work. We can read their source, and then look at what they did with it. I’m going to leave this for the next post.


It’s obvious that Wace, reading Geoffrey, visualised Rowena as he was reading. She doesn’t just move from the chamber to the feast, she is beautiful, and well-dressed and he tries to describe her:

La Meschine ot le cors mult gent
E de visfu bele forment
Bele fu mult et avenant
De bele groisse e de bel grant;
Devant le rei fu, desfublee,
Qui merveilles l‘ad esgardee

(The girl had a fine body and very beautiful face; she was fair and comely, handsome in shape and size. Uncloaked she stood before the king who could not keep her eyes off her.)

She stood before the King ‘desfublee’ sounds so sleazy that it seems a pity it just means ‘without a cloak’.

Wace reinforces the speed of Vortigern’s infatuation:

Le jur l’ama si l’out le seir 
(he fell in love with her in the morning and had her in the evening) 

He also emphasises Rowena’s status as stepmother. At the wedding, he states that Vortigern had a wife who was dead, and names his three sons. When Rowena organises the death of Vortimer, she is ‘cum mal marastre’ like a wicked stepmother. But this stepmother is not fighting for her own children, she acts because her father has been exiled. 


Laȝamon's major additions to her story are two-fold. The first is that he imagines what happens in the chamber before she walks into the feast with the Wassail cup: the second is that in his version, rather than organising Vortimer’s death, she murders Vortimer in a twisted repetition of the Wassail ceremony. 

He also ties the story together. Laȝamon's answer to the question that hung over Nennius’ version of the story ‘Why are you telling us about this girl’? is that because of her, Vortigern favours the Saxons over his own people, is vulnerable to Hengist’s manipulation, and endangers his people and himself by turning away from Christianity. This is reinforced in a number of speeches he adds to Wace.   

Laȝamon habitually expands on Wace. He adds detail and direct speech.  Picking up Wace’s stepmother comment he states that Vortigern’s first wife was a very Christian woman. 

He also sees things differently. When Rowena arrives in the poem, unlike Geoffrey and Wace he does not mention her appearance. She is Rowena, ‘his daughter, who was most dear to him’. This is consistent with Laȝamon’s habit of seeing people as identities whose definitions depend on their relationships and social roles. He acknowledges her appearance at the feast episode, but in place of Wace’s description quoted above he writes ‘The beautiful Rowena sat beside the king ‘. 

Laȝamon’s first major addition to her story is that he imagines what happens in the chamber beforeshe walks into the feast with the wassail cup.

She is, above all else, Hengist’s daughter, and Hengist is aiming her at Vortigern like a King seeking missile. Wace wrote that she was beautifully dressed. In Laȝamon, Hengist enters the chamber and gives orders to ensure she is beautifully dressed: 

he heo lette scruden; mid vnimete prude.
al þat scrud þe heo hafde on; heo weoren swiðe wel ibon.
heo weoren mid þan bezste; ibrusted mid golde.

She is then led before the king by high born men. It’s hard to imagine how she could be more of a passive object.

The major change that Laȝamon makes to her story ties several strands of the narrative together and makes her Vortimer’s killer. She moves from passive, obedient object to treacherous murderer. 

The Question of Religion 

The real divide in this narrative is not ethnic: Briton vs Saxon, but religious. All three writers are horrified that a Christian king weds a pagan woman. All three maintain the devil entered Vortigern. 

Laȝamon expanding on Wace, manages to sound horrified. The implication from Geoffrey onwards is that if Rowena had converted, if Vortigern had insisted on the conversation of the Saxons under his command, there wouldn’t be a problem. 

Laȝamon makes the point explicit when the Britons give Vortigern an ultimatum which is not in Wace. 

The anonymous speakers state that Vortigern's crime is that he bought disaster and great evil upon himself. He has bought in heathen folk. He has abandoned God’s law for the foreigners and will not worship God. If the heathens take over, they will not keep him as king for very long if he is still a Christian. The speech ends, ‘Then you will be damned on earth, and your wretched soul shall sink down to hell, then you will have paid the price for the love of your bride’. 

Vortigern rejects their criticism. He states that Hengist is his father, that Rowena is his beloved wife. He has sent for Hengist’s son Octa. In a startling comment he calls the Saxons wine deore…dear kinsmen.

This is not good history, but it makes sense in the story. 

When Vortimer the son takes over, he is a good king, Britain's darling,  not only because he thrashes the Saxons in battle, but because he rebuilds the churches and re-establishes Christianity. He ends a long speech to Saint Germain, who he has invited from Rome to straighten out the church in Britain, by repeating the claim that through his daughter Rowena, Hengist has lead his father astray.

Rowena now considers what she could do to avenge her father who Vortimer has driven out of the country. And Laȝamon moves the problem of her religion into an opportunity she is willing to exploit. She starts sending gifts and messages to Vortimer, saying that she will become a Christian if she can stay with Vortigern. 

For his father’s sake, Vortimer agrees on condition she observes the Christian faith.

She turns up wherever he is, willing to accept the Christian faith. Vortimer is delighted, and very soon dead. 

In a twisted version of the wassail story she offers him wine. But she has concealed poison, in ‘ane guldene ampulle’ beneath her breasts, and having drunk half the wine in the goblet, while Vortimer is laughing at what she’s said, she poisons the rest of the wine and gives it to him. 

After he has been poisoned, she orders her servants and followers to saddle up and they steal out of the town. Travelling by night they reach Hengist’s fortress at Thongchester, where they lie to Vortigern that his son is planning to attack him. 

And telling that lie is the last thing Rowena does in the poem. She is no longer involved in recalling Hengist, or sending him secret messages before the massacre on Salisbury plain. Why Laȝamon leaves out these further examples of her swikfullness is a mystery. 

Hengist saves Vortigen from the massacre on Salisbury plain ‘Because he has suffered great misfortune and he has my fair daughter as his queen..’ but what happens to her after the death of Vortimer is of no interest to the poet.

If her father aims her at Vortigern, like the spear that may have once given her her name, she conceives and plans the murder of Vortimer entirely on her own. 

Rowena moves from the nameless girl of Nennius’ slander to the wicked woman whose only independent action is to kill, treacherously, ‘Britain’s Darling’.  Poisoning is not an uncommon way of removing Kings in the Brut. There is a range of female characters in the English Brut.  They are never simply either passive or evil and the Brut seems freer of clerical misogyny than one might expect, but Rowena is presented as particularly evil, not because she's a woman, but because of what she does and how she does it.  

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Prittlewell prince: Britain's Tutankhamun

Ok, so it's stupid headline but this the story is  fascinating...

A sixth century Anglo-Saxon burial...The website in the link below allows you a virtual tour of the reconstructed burial tomb and has linked to intelligent commentary on the finds.

The Guardian's report with pictures of the finds are here:

If the dating is right, this was a high status Anglo-Saxon who was buried, as a Christian, BEFORE St. Augustine arrived.

On reflection, what 'scientific dating technique' is so accurate that it can date this tomb incontrovertibly to the 580s... and where did they find the information about 'Saebert’s younger brother Seaxa'?

(And yes, the Guardian headline is ridiculous but if it grabs your attention who cares.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

What was the name of Hengist's daughter 3/4

If you thought the answer was Rowena, read on….

The Bibliography.

When Geoffrey of Monmouth picks up the story three hundred years after Nennius, the ‘Good Vortigern’ version has probably disappeared and telling an anecdote that did little more than vilify the ancestor of a forgotten dynasty would have been pointless. (For Nennius's version see previous post.) 

In the narrative arc that Geoffrey had skilfully created, the girl had to do more than serve the booze and be bedded by the King if he were to avoid the story teller’s nightmare when the audience asks, yes, but why did you tell us that?   

Geoffrey drops the incest story (if he ever knew it) and the incidents with St. Germannus, and then gives the girl a name and an active role to play. To the question, ‘Why did you tell us this?’ he manages to suggest that she is instrumental in the fall of Britain. She is no longer simply an example of Vortigern’s lack of sexual control. She exploits her influence and position to support her father and her people. 

The Name

Tatlock listed six versions of her name in six of the surviving mss: Renwein, Renwen, Roawen, Ronwen, Rowen, Rouwein, Ronven. It’s easy to overlook the fact that however you spell it, the name is not Germanic. 

Ron Wen makes sense in Welsh as ‘Slender/white spear’ but as Tatlock pointed out, it makes no sense in a Germanic language. It’s been suggested that Rowen is a British attempt at an English name Hrothwyn, but that seems strange since both Hengist and Horsa remain resolutely English and Ronwen, not Rowan is the older form. Tatlock couldn't find it anywhere as a proper name. Rachel Bromwich pointed out that the name occurs nowhere else. It is not found in any other Welsh source except as the name of Hengist’s daughter. 

(For sanity’s sake, I’m going to refer to her as Rowena except in direct quotes.)

Her new role.

In this new version, Rowena arrives in Britain with Saxon reinforcements. We are told her beauty is ‘second to none’.  She serves the drink, but Geoffrey introduces the Wassail episode, fleshing out Nennius’ feast. Approaching the king with a golden cup full of wine she says, ‘Laford King Wacht heil’ (Even in Geoffrey’s Latin the quote is in Middle English).  Vortigern turns to his interpreter who explains the custom. She says, ‘Wasshail’, he replies ‘Drink hail’, takes the goblet, kisses her, and then drinks. Repeat as required.

It may be a ‘folk motif’; it may have mythological significance (in later Welsh tradition ‘R. the Pagan Woman’ is seen as the progenitor of the English); it may be an origin story for a drinking custom current in Geoffrey’s time; it may be all of the above, but it’s guaranteed to bring the girl to the King’s immediate physical attention. It succeeds.

They are married in haste, and Hengist, in consultation with his brother and advisers asks for Kent in return. 
So far, Nennius with additional details. 

The wedding infuriates Vortigern’s leaders and sons. But as soon as she has been ‘handed over’ Hengist is now in a position where he can speak ‘as your father in law’. More Saxons are invited to Britain, and settled in the north. The Britons, alarmed by the influx of pagan warriors, protest to Vortigern but ‘Vortigern was completely opposed to accepting his people’s advice, for, because of his wife, he loved the Saxons above all the other folk’.

Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, is appointed king and is not only successful in battle against the Saxons but begins restoring churches. Oddly the latter detail is the catalyst for Rowena’s first semi-independent action. 'Semi' because in Geoffrey’s story the devil and evil spirits are active:
‘A certain evil spirit which had found its way into the heart of his step-mother Renwein immediately became envious of this virtuous behaviour of his and inspired her to plot Vortimer’s death’.   

She researches poisons and then has him killed, having corrupted one of his servants with innumerable bribes. This is not in Nennius but does provide a reason for Vortimer’s sudden death.  

After Vortimer’s death, the Britons restore Vortigern to the throne. ‘At the request of his wife’ he sends messengers to Hengist in Germany, to ask him to return to Britain. Vortigern asks him to come secretly with a few men. Hengist returns with three hundred thousand warriors. Learning this, Vortigern and the princes of the realm decide to oppose him. ‘The daughter of Hengist sent messengers to tell her father of this decision and he in his turn considered what he could do best to counteract it’.

This is her last action in the story, nor is she mentioned again. Geoffrey drops Hengist’s statement that the Saxons will protect Vortigern during the massacre ‘for the sake of my daughter’. Geoffrey makes no reference to anyone else dying with Vortigern in his tower. 


In this version then, Rowena plays a more direct role in the fall of Britain.  She is responsible for Hengist’s growing influence over Vortigern, for the death of Britain’s heroic defender, and for the information that pushes Hengist towards the treacherous slaughter of the Britons. 

What Geoffrey finds most shocking is not Vortigern’s uncontrolled sexual desire, or the fact he’s ready to trade Kent for the girl, but the fact that she is a heathen. Having repeated Nennius’ claim that the devil enters Vortigern’s mind, Geoffrey interrupts the narrative ‘I say that Satan entered his heart because, despite the fact that he was a Christian, he was determined to make love with this pagan woman’.  

In Geoffrey’s version, the enormity of this is emphasised by a triple movement in the narrative. When Hengist first appears, Vortigern comments negatively on his faith. When Hengist later asks for land, Vortigern refuses the request because Hengist is a pagan. The extent to which Vortigern is overwhelmed by his desire for the girl is thus emphasised when he makes no objection to her faith. The implication being that if he had insisted on her conversion before the marriage, it would have been acceptable. 

Rowena, clothed with a variety of names, and now playing an active role in the fall of Britain, will have her story fleshed out and finalised by Wace and Laȝamon. The structure of Geoffrey’s narratives suggested a pattern. Laȝamon makes the pattern explicit and raises Rowena from a nameless server of drink to a conniving murderer. Which will be the third and final post. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Reviews of Michael Aiken's 'Satan Repentant' and James Harpur's 'The White Silhouette'

'Satan Repentant' and 'The White Silhouette' are two very different books of poems squished into one published review. You can read it here.

The question a review doesn't seem to answer:

Would you recommend either book?

Yes, I'd recommend them both.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Who was Hengist's daughter Part 2

In which she first appears, silent, serving the booze.

Hengist’s daughter first appears in the Historia Brittonum, which may or may not have been written by ‘Nennius’ and is dated to the early decades of the 9thCentury. 

She is not given a name. Hengist holds a banquet for Vortigern and tells his daughter to serve the alcohol. When Vortigern is drunk, Satan enters into his heart and makes him desire the girl. He asks for her and offers half his kingdom in return. Hengist asks for Kent, the deal is struck and Vortigern marries her. The girl disappears from the story. Later, we are told Vortigern favoured the barbarians ‘because of his wife’, and even later Hengist saves him from the massacre of the British leaders ‘for my daughter’s sake’. When, St. Germanus prays Vortigern to death in his tower, ‘he dies with all his wives’.

That’s all. 

More words are spent on Vortigern’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter or on the confused and equally pointless encounter with Merlin. 

Although four centuries separate the story from the time it’s set in, historically, its bones are not improbable. If the leader of a group of mercenaries had a daughter, he might marry her to his employer as a way of improving his own situation.

But the Historia Brittonum reads like an accumulation of anecdotes. And this anecdote sounds like a shard of a folk tale. The only thing we learn about her is that she is beautiful and she is Hengist’s daughter. Her only recorded action is to serve drinks at a banquet. She has no character. She’s not an Eve type, tempting Vortigern. The devil enters his  heart. Her sole value lies in her relationships to men: Hengist's daughter, Vortigern's wife. It’s not even possible to call her a passive object of desire: she has no opinions or reactions. She does not speak. 

However, if the bones of the story are not improbable, the details are. The audience is asked to believe that the ruler of Britain, a hard-headed war-lord, is so smitten by this girl at their first meeting, that he will trade half his kingdom, alienate his supporters and his sons, risk his life and position and put himself in Hengist’s debt so that he can get her into bed as fast as possible. That does seem improbable. 

It has been suggested that by the ninth century there were two versions of Vortigern’s story circulating amongst the British storytellers. In one he is an honoured ancestor. In another a villain who is responsible for the downfall of Britain. 

The Good Vortigern story eventually disappears. There’s no reason to think Geoffrey of Monmouth knew it had existed. 

The story of Hengist’s daughter makes sense as vilification, if Nennius was supporting his patrons by blackening the reputation of the ancestor of a rival dynasty. For the clerical, Christian writers of the middle ages, sex was dangerous. Excessive, uncontrolled sexual desire was an obvious external marker of an evil character.

Vortigern’s inability to control his desire for Hengist’s daughter is mirrored by his inability to control his desire for his own, with whom he has an incestuous relationship. Both relationships indicate the flawed moral character of the man. As vilification it makes sense, as history, it’s an almost irrelevant slur.

But in this folk tale, the nameless girl might signify Vortigern’s failure as a ruler in other ways. Not only is he is dangerously incapable of controlling his desires but he inverts the relationship he should have with his mercenary. He asks permission when he could demand, offering to buy the girl from his inferior, putting himself in the subordinate position. 

I don’t know which marriage customs are supposed to be operating here but there’s no sense that Hengist is offering any dowry to the bridegroom.

From this limited beginning, the story will be expanded, first by Geoffrey of Monmouth, then by Wace and Laȝamon. It’s possible to watch each storyteller interpreting the story he inherits. The later writers obviously felt something important was happening but in seeking for narrative coherence and significance in their sources, they made explicit what is not suggested in the original. By the time Laȝamon was finished with her, Hengist’s daughter, named and acting of her own volition, will be an essential part of a recurring pattern that structures the Legendary History. 

Which is the next post in which she gets a name and does more than serve the drinks.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Who was Hengist's daughter?

A Presentment of Englishy ends with a poem that looks forward to the story of Vortigern, Hengist and his daughter.

The Matter of Britain
(Western Britain, 450 AD).

Mog the Magnificent
in his daub and wattle hut
lord of the scattered rocks
and the wind scarped ridge
watching the sheep he’s counted
penned on the wet hillside.
The members of his retinue
huddled round the fire,
dozing. The harper
droning stories of Vortigern
Hengist and Rowena.

They say it’s easier to look into the sun
Than look at her. They say,
she is the dawn and when she rises day begins.

Vortigern, traitor,
expert in evil,
skilled in deceit
sold his country
for a pagan witch.

Hengist, a cunning man,
a secret, silent, scheming
man, who pimped
his daughter for a crown
he could have seized.

But I was there when Rowena walked into the hall.
She lifted up the goblet, ‘Wes þu hal, Vortigern cyning’
and I swear, Hengist had pitched her at the son
at Vortimer. She swerved. She chose
and with that choice swerved history and Britain fell.

Anyone who reads A Presentment carefully will know that that last italicised section should not be taken seriously as historical fact.

But who was Hengist’s beautiful daughter?

In the next post, her earliest appearance in ‘The Matter of Britain’.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

'A Presentment of Englishry' is now available for purchase online

A Presentment of Englishry is now available from the American, British and Australian Amazons, as well as from the bookdepository, direct from the publisher and from the shop on