NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

Hengist the Saxon

Algis, Angis, Anglins, Anguis, Angus, Anguys, Augbis, Augis, Aughis, Engis, Engist, Hangins, Hangist, Hanguis, Hanguist, Hengest, Hengistus

A semi-legendary Saxon chieftain credited in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the impetus for the Saxon conquest of Britain. He has an important role in the Arthurian chronicles, and is mentioned by Bede, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, among others. Bede traces his descent from a Saxon god, and names his father as Wihtgils.

Hengist took service as a mercenary, against the Picts and the Irish, with King Vortigern. He brought with him his brother, Horsa and they settled in Kent c. AD 449, the first Anglo-Saxon settlers/invaders in Britain. Hengist was originally a leader of the Jutes, and thus he and his brother are said to have come from Jutland.

Vortigern married Rowena (in some sources, Sardoine), Hengist’s daughter and Hengist became King of Kent – one step closer to his goal to be the King of Britain. Hengist summoned a large Saxon army to his new kingdom and Vortigern allowed the immigration because he believed that Hengist’s army would help protect Britain from Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon – who were poised to invade from Brittany. The Triads call Vortigern’s decision to admit Hengist to Britain one of the Three Unfortunate Counsels of the Island of Britain.

Vortigern and the British soon became aware of Hengist’s plan to conquer Britain. Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, defeated Hengist in battle, he fled with his Saxons to Germany. Vortimer died soon afterwards. Vortigern recalled him and Hengist returned with 300.000 men and persuaded Vortigern to summon all the British leaders to a meeting at Salisbury, where he were to sign a treaty at Ealing or Ambrius. There he had the entire company massacred. Hengist and his men took Vortigern prisoner and ransomed his life for the countries of Essex, Sussex and Middlesex.

According to Nennius, Hengist died soon after this conquest and was succeeded by his son Octa. Geoffrey, however, contends that Hengist lived to plague Ambrosius when he became king, but was finally defeated and captured at the battle of Conisbrough. He was then executed by Eldol, the Earl of Gloucester. In the Vulgate Merlin, Hengist tries to murder Uther in his tent, at night, during a lull between battles. Uther, warned of the plot by Merlin, was armed and ready, and he slew Hengist after a short struggle. Merlin does not mention Octa, but says that Hengist’s kinsmen, led by Aminaduc, invaded Britain during Arthur’s reign.

In Richard Hole’s Arthur, Hengist is alive during Arthur’s reign. Aided by the three Fatal Sisters, he adopts Arthur’s likeness and tries to rape Inogen, Arthur’s wife. He is attacked and slain by his own warriors, believing him to be Arthur.

An interesting variation occurs in the fourteenth-century Short Metrical Chronicle, where Hengist is praised as one of Britain’s most noble kings. According to this text, he ruled Britain for 150 years, united the island, and conquered parts of France. His reign is placed between those of King Belinus and King Lear. In the Prose Brut, ‘England’ is derived from his name.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a medieval list of Saxons in Britain), places his death in AD 448, but does not say how he died. Some of his earlier history may be gleaned from the Anglo-Saxon poems Beowulf and The Fight at Finn’s Burg. These mention a Hengist who may be identical with the invader. He was a follower of Hnaef, King of the Danes. When they were visiting Hnaef’s brother-in-law, Finn Focwalding, King of the Frisians, a fight occurred and Hnaef was killed. Hengist became the leader of Hnaef’s followers and entered the service of Finn, but later killed him.

Hengist, who is nowadays generally regarded as a historical figure, is credited with sons named Hartwaker (who was thought to have succeeded him as ruler of German Saxony and to have reigned from AD 448-480); Octa, Æsc (who might identical with Eosa, a cousin) and Ebissa, and daughters called Ronwen and Sardoine. However, the latter appears to be a Latinisation of her true name, for, in various sources that appear to adhere to accepted Anglo-Saxon spellings, the name of Hengist’s daughter who became Vortigern’s queen is given as Hrothwina. In Dryden’s King Arthur, he has a son named Oswald.

See also
Schulda | The Legend of King Arthur
Urd | The Legend of King Arthur
Verandi | The Legend of King Arthur

Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum | Bede, 731
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle | 9th century
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Unknown (the pre-Arthurian period) | Baudin Butor, c. 1290
Prose Brut | Late 13th century to late 15th century
Arthour and Merlin | Late 13th century
Short Metrical Chronicle | 1307
King Arthur; or, the British Worthy | John Dryden, 1691
Arthur, or the Northern Enchantment in Seven Books | Richard Hole, 1789