Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hengist

HENGIST (d. 488), joint-founder with his brother Horsa (d. 455) of the English kingdom of Kent, belonged to a leading family of the Jutes, settled in the peninsula of Jutland, where they held land as far south as the river Sley, which runs into the sea near Schleswig. In early traditions their ancestry is traced back to the gods. Witta, who is described as their grandfather, and, according to Beowulf, ‘ruled Sueves,’ is supposed by Sir James Simpson to be the Vetta, son of Victi, whose burial is commemorated by the inscription on the Catstane at Kirkliston, between six and seven miles from Edinburgh. The suggestion is ingenious, and it is clear from Ammianus Marcellinus that Saxons, a name that might fairly be taken to include Jutes or Angles, were in Scotland, leagued with the Picts and Scots, about 364, a date at which it is quite possible for the grandfather of Hengist to have been alive. Kemble suggested, on the other hand, that not only their ancestors, who are traced back to Teutonic divinities, but Hengist and Horsa themselves, were mythical. The word ‘Hengist’ means a horse, and in the names of the hero's family ‘names of horses’ form a distinguishing part of the royal appellatives. Thus the whole story, it is suggested, may spring out of some prehistoric worship of horses. But there is sufficient contemporary evidence of the existence of Hengist and Horsa as human beings to make this theory untenable. The absence, however, of any contemporary accounts of their careers in Britain makes their biography largely matter of conjecture.

According to the best authority, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ Hengist and Horsa arrived in 449 at Ebbsfleet in the parish of Minster in the Isle of Thanet ‘in aid of the Britons,’ with a few followers in three ships. Bede, who wrote nearly three centuries after the event, following a vague hint of Gildas, asserts that they came by invitation of Vortigern, king of South Britain, to aid in repelling the invasion of the Picts and Scots. Like the ‘Chronicle,’ Bede gives the year of their coming as 449. Nennius, the reputed author of the ‘Historia Britonum,’ who collected the legends on the subject current among the Welsh in the latter part of the eighth century, would seem with less probability to fix the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in 428, and says that they and their followers were exiles from their own country. Vortigern, according to all the early accounts, received the strangers hospitably, and assigned to them the Isle of Thanet for a habitation. Bede and Nennius agree in stating that when the news of their reception reached their original home very many others came to join them, until the whole of Kent was occupied. The story, as elaborated from Welsh sources in the ‘Historia Britonum,’ and by Geoffrey of Monmouth, represents that Hengist sent for his daughter and gave her to Vortigern in marriage in exchange for the whole of Kent, and that Hengist's son Aesc or Oisc, and Horsa's son Abisa, afterwards arrived with a fleet of forty galleys. But it is probable that the whole legend of Vortigern's relations with Hengist, even including the original invitation, is a myth concocted and kept alive by the Welsh to account with least discredit to themselves for the beginnings of their extermination at the hands of the Teutonic invaders. It is almost certain that there were settlements of Jutes, or of tribes nearly akin, in Kent before 449, but it is possible that on Hengist's arrival about that date Vortigern recognised their settlement, and gave it something like formal sanction (cf. Freeman, Historical Essays, 1st ser. 36 sq., and his Norman Conquest, i. 9 sq.)

That in 455 a vigorous attempt was made to expel them by Vortigern, which was partially successful, is confirmed by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.’ One victory was certainly gained by the natives at Aylesford, where Horsa was killed, but the victors (according to Nennius) lost one of their leaders, Catigern, a son of Vortigern, to whose memory it is supposed that Kits Coty House was erected, while Horsa is said to have been buried about four miles further north at Horsted, where there are still a number of large stones which may have once formed part of the ‘monumentum insigne’ spoken of by Bede. Some antiquaries, influenced by Bede's statement that the monument was in the eastern part of Kent, locate it at Stonor, but Bede was a north-country man, and not likely to be accurately informed in the matter.

Two other victories by the Britons, viz. on the river Darenth and at Folkestone, or more probably Stonor in Thanet, are reported in the Welsh legends, with the result that Hengist returned home and founded (according to Frisian legend) the town of Leyden. Shortly after (the Welsh legends continue) Vortemir, Vortigern's eldest son and Hengist's chief foe, died; whereupon Hengist, trusting to his influence over Vortigern, came back, and succeeded in making a permanent settlement, which was rendered more secure by the treacherous murder of three hundred British at a meeting to discuss terms of peace, and by the capture of Vortigern at the same time, for whose ransom Essex, Sussex, and Middlesex were surrendered. But these events are not mentioned in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ and are doubtless legendary fabrications. All that seems positively known of Hengist after the battle of Aylesford is that he gained three decisive victories, with the aid of his son Aesc or Oisc, over the Britons, namely: at Crayford in 457, when the Britons forsook Kent; at ‘Wippedesfleote,’ so called from the death of one of the Jutish thanes, Wipped, in 465; and at another unnamed place, probably in south-east Kent, in 473, when ‘the Welsh fled from the English as from fire.’

In 488 Hengist died, and was succeeded by his son Aesc or Oisc, but little is known of the kingdom of Kent or its rulers till the arrival in 597 of Augustine, who found Ethelbert [q. v.] king. Ethelbert is said to have been son of Eormenric, grandson of Oisc, and great-grandson of Hengist.

[Gildas, Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Bede; Henry of Huntingdon in Monumenta Historica Britannica, in which work see also the Historia Britonum ascribed to Nennius and T. D. Hardy's general introduction. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Britonum largely follows Nennius. The modern authorities are: Turner's Anglo-Saxons, i. 234; Lappenberg's England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, i. 67; Palgrave's History of the Anglo-Saxons, p. 28; Elton's Origins of English History (1890), pp. 344–69; Skene's Celtic Scotland, i. 146, 149, 189; Guest's Origines Celticæ, ii. 147; Green's Making of England, p. 270; Kemble's Saxons in England, i. cap. i.; Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, iv. 1711–13. See also Hasted's Kent, ii. 69; Archæologia Cantiana, viii. 18; Mallet's Northern Antiquities, p. 79.]

C. T. M.