Thursday, May 16, 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 before she 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.  

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