Page images
[blocks in formation]

to record; and the calm of the conquered has been mistaken for the silence of the dead.

The Welsh accounts tell us that when the Roman troops were withdrawn, the island split up into a number of separate states, under the presidency of a king whose dynasty had reigned originally at Gloucester. At first the country had been overrun by the Picts and Scots, but the invaders, although aided by Saxons, were overthrown in a great battle near Flint, A.D. 429, in which St. Germanus led on the British forces, freshly baptized and shouting Halleluia. An interval of prosperity followed, during which the fruits of the earth abounded as never before; but the people were unworthy of their happiness, and family treasons, murders, and incests disgraced the royal houses.3 The public crimes were scourged by a fresh invasion; the Picts and Scots poured down from the north, and harried the country as far as Lincolnshire. The weak and wicked Vortigern called in the aid of Saxon mercenaries; and these, under Hengist and Horsa, lent effectual aid. But the Saxons desired a settlement, and obtained leave to buy as much land as an ox's hide would cover: they cut up the hide into thongs, and enclosed the foundations of a castle. Vortigern affected the company of the treacherous strangers, and pledged them with Drincheil and Was-heil at their feasts. One day the goblet was offered him by the chiefs' sister, the yellow-haired Rowena. Vortigern was struck by her beauty, and for love of the fair pagan, yielded up the province of Kent to her brothers. Then the Britons rose in anger against their king, and were headed by his own son, Vortimir. In three great battles Vortimir defeated the host of the Saxons, three hundred thousand strong, slaying Horsa, and driving them out of the island. But Rowena remained at the court; by her treachery Vortimir was poisoned; and his weak father recalled the beaten enemy. Hengist had

1 Nennius, c. 49.

2 Bede, H. E., lib. i., c. 20. It is highly probable that Saxons did appear early off the coast of Wales. Hengist, some years later, is said to have recalled his son Ochta from the Hebrides.-Nennius, cap. 38.

3 Hist. Gilda, c. 21.

[blocks in formation]

learned by experience to dread the edge of the British sword. He invited the British chiefs, three hundred in number, to a conference; mead flowed plentifully, but the Saxons kept themselves sober, till, at a sudden signal, "Ye Saxons, seize your swords," they sprang on their guests and murdered them. Vortigern alone was preserved that he might ransom his life by the cession of territory; and he basely gave up the provinces of Essex and Sussex without a blow. But his crimes had drawn down the anger of God and St. Germanus. Once for forty, and afterwards for three days, the Saint and the British clergy fasted and prayed for the King's conversion. At the end of that time he was still impenitent, and fire from heaven consumed him with all his family.'

The Saxon account is more simple. When the Romans had left the island, the degenerate Britons were unable to resist the attacks of the Picts and Scots. Vortigern, therefore, called over the Æthelings, Hengist and Horsa, who came with three ships, bearing each the warriors of a nation, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. The axe and sword of the Teutonic warriors prevailed easily against the pike and javelin of the Keltic barbarians, and the Picts, who had penetrated to Stamford, were routed and driven back. But as recruits from the continent poured in to swell the ranks of their countrymen, the Britons took alarm at their numbers, and withheld provisions. Then the Saxons, who had already resolved to wrest the country from their feeble allies, united themselves with the Picts, overran the island, laying waste the towns and slaying the people; and finally divided it among themselves-the Jutes taking Kent and the Isle of Wight; the Angles, Anglia; and the Saxons, Essex and Wessex. Of defeats sustained from the natives, the Saxon annalists know or record nothing.

These narratives, even stripped of palpable additions, are

1 Henry of Huntingdon, lib. ii. Nennius, 31, 49. The stories of the oxhide and of the treacherous massacre are old Thuringian legends.--Florence, vol. ii., p. 101. Probably a Thuringian colony had settled among the Saxons. 2 Saxon Chronicle. Bede, H. E., lib. i., c. 15.



clearly not quite historical. Vortigern "of the repulsive mouth," as Welsh annalists call him, was remembered by his countrymen with a bitterness which led them to father the crimes of Gerontius on him, and which may have coloured the rest of his history. The three hundred thousand Saxons of the British account are like the three keels of the Saxon narrative, a mythical number, underlying, perhaps, a real national division. Moreover, the dates assigned to the battles occur suspiciously at regular intervals of eight years. Now, eight was

a sacred number among the Saxons. It is probable, therefore, that the whole chronology of the war was constructed in the ninth century, or whenever the Saxon chronicle was written. But this uncertainty as to details, and numbers, and dates, throws an air of doubt over the whole history. The very names of the Saxon chiefs have been considered forgeries; though Horse and Mare are not more singular than Leo, or Ash, or Wolf.

The truth seems to be, that the history of the more civilized south, coloured and distorted by the prejudices of two hostile nations, has been taken for the history of the island. A probable tradition tells us that a few years after the Roman rule had ceased, "the Romans collected all the treasures that were in Britain, and some they hid in the earth, and some they carried into Gaul." It is likely that these Romans were residents not yet naturalized in the country, who, when the legions withdrew, would be excluded from office, which they had probably monopolized, and would find themselves a despised and persecuted minority. But the departure of these men would not affect the Latin character of the towns where consuls were still elected,3 and where Roman laws prevailed. It, however, allowed the native chiefs to resume an absolute sovereignty among the rural clans of their respective districts. This would be acknowledged by the towns; and a federal presidency might be

1 For instance, Hengist's victories are dated 449, 457, 465, and 473. See Lappenberg's Gesch. Eng., Band. i., p. 81.

2 Saxon Chronicle, A. 418.

3 Nennius, c. 42.



obtained by a single chief, such as Vortigern, over the whole of the south. But Roman civilization and Keltic barbarism could not be fused under a weak native prince; and the struggle of the Teutonic settlers in the eastern counties with the Kelts of the west was only a question of time. Its decision seems to have been precipitated by a Pictish invasion and permanent occupation of the north; the Kymric tribes of Yorkshire, under their chief Cunedda, giving way before their uncivilized kinsmen, poured into North Wales, and displaced its Gaelic inhabitants.1 The tribes of Wales in like manner overran the midland districts of England, drawing into their ranks the hardy countrymen of the villages, and storming, burning, or starving out the towns. A king like Vortigern, whatever his ancestry, would sympathize with the taxpaying portion of his subjects, and be compelled, for his very existence, to repress the forays even of his clansmen. His crime was that, having Kymric blood in his veins, he threw himself on the side of the Romanized provincials, or Loegrians, as they are called for a time. In his employment of Saxon mercenaries there was nothing unusual; every Roman emperor had followed the fatal precedent of Valens; and it is probable that the Saxon tribes of Anglia would suggest the calling in of their countrymen to resist a foe who threatened them in the heart of Lincolnshire. A marriage with the Pagan Rowena, though it shocked the sensitive faith of a later age, had nothing in it to astonish the fifth century; it is in itself as possible as that the Britons were jealous or the Saxons treacherous. But, in accepting the main features of the story, it is important to bear in mind that it only refers to a small portion of the island. The kingdom of Hengist was probably bounded by Kent. Kent itself consisted of two districts, whose limits were very much those of its old dioceses. The eastern division the Jutic chief obtained by peaceable cession, and the

1 Vestiges of the Gael in Gwynedd, pp. 40-46.

2 From the character of the skulls found there, it seems probable that Wroxeter fell in this manner.




great towns, such as Canterbury, Rochester, and Dover, retained their corporate liberties by a compact with the new sovereign; Jute and Briton lie together in common burial-grounds.1 West Kent was the scene of an obstinate conflict, which lasted for years, and ended with the flight of many of the natives to London, where the walls of the great commercial city protected them. But small as it was, the invader's success had two important results. It ruined his brother-in-law, who, having lost his prestige, withdrew to his native principality in the west. And so brilliant a triumph attracted other invaders, who now poured in upon different spots of the coast, and fought out little kingdoms for themselves, till the island was Saxonized.

The south coast was the first subdued. Ella landed in Sussex, and besieged the capital, Andredes-Ceaster, where Pevensey now stands. But Sussex was one of the parts of the island where Roman influence had been least felt; it had retained a royal line of its own, which was partially independent of the præfect in London. The citizens trusted in the strength of their walls, which defied escalade, and against which the Saxons could bring no artillery. But the invaders sat grimly down before the town, beating off the light troops who assailed them from the field; and when famine had incapacitated the citizens for defence, the enemy entered, and slew man, woman, and child. Their rage did not even spare the city walls, and only a few ruins, which have now disappeared, showed in the twelfth century where Andredes-Ceaster had stood.

Passing by the legendary Port, who conquered at Portsmouth, as a later age inferred from the name of the place,


1 Wright on Municipal Privileges-Archæologia, vol. 32. There are some other traces of British residents in Kent. In 741 A.D., Dunwalh, evidently of British extraction, is butler to king Ethelbert II. of Kent.-Palgrave's Eng. Comm., cclxviii. Some two centuries later, a Maielbrith Macdurnan expounds a copy of the Gospels given to the church at Canterbury.-Davies, Philolog. Trans., No. v., 1857.

2 Henry of Huntingdon, lib. ii.

3 That there was, however, a Saxon descent at Portsmouth, is proved by a Welsh poem.-Villemarqué, Bardes Bretons, pp. 1-23.

« PreviousContinue »