Were Hengest and Horsa Real?

fascinating

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,373
Without wishing to reignite old debates, this is not strictly true. The overwhelming prevailing opinion within academia is that Hengest was not a real person. He is not considered a suspect at all, let alone the prime one. The greater use of multidisciplinary approaches and a move away from both narrative history and the study of early medieval history in an entirely insular context has led to a radical reappraisal of the post-Roman centuries.

Outside academia, I accept that people are far more ready to believe that Hengest was real and that the deeds attributed to him in our written sources are true. However, for the most part, that belief is rooted in the academic consensus of previous generations, which reached its high water mark in the 1970s and which has been steadily in retreat ever since. As more and more earlier scholarship falls out of copyright and/or is made available for free online, the easier it becomes to get a snapshot of how things were seen in the post-War years, rather than how they are seen now. Getting up to speed with current thinking means getting hold of expensive academic textbooks or journals which are often not freely available (or available for free) outside academic libraries.

No-one is saying that everyone has to accept the new consensus, but it is important to flag up that it exists.
How can they say with any real conviction that Hengest was not real? Of course, it is understandable to suspect that he and Horsa were not real persons, but there again we are 1500 years away from when they were supposed to exist.
 
Nov 2008
1,402
England
Word on academia street is, if it wasn't Hengest it was someone who looked very much like him. Someone spooked the inhabitants of Canterbury and caused them to abandon the town in a panic.
I`m afraid, Haesten, the inhabitants of Canterbury had long gone before Hengest, or his look alike, turned up at the traditional date of 449 AD. The town had been in steep decline since the late fourth century, although there is a little archaeology for the early fifth century. Dover, surprisingly, seems to have been abandoned by the end of the fourth century, and a couple of villa sites in Kent managed to continue into the early fifth century, but on a much reduced scale, showing a change of use. Possibly squatters or similar folk.
 

Haesten

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,924
The Canterbury Treasure was buried sometime after 402, Hengest and Horsa were most likely horse soldier federates hired to protect that part of Kent. Much more likely auxiliary cavalry would be hired to defend against raiders than channel pirates.
 
Nov 2008
1,402
England
The Canterbury Treasure was buried sometime after 402, Hengest and Horsa were most likely horse soldier federates hired to protect that part of Kent. Much more likely auxiliary cavalry would be hired to defend against raiders than channel pirates.
Hengest and his warband as a mobile, horse mounted force is possible, but there is no evidence to support the idea or, come to that, disprove it. What the written sources do suggest, and it seems logical, is that Hengest and his retinue were hired mercenaries who fell out with their British paymaster and seized a part of Kent.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,621
Westmorland
How can they say with any real conviction that Hengest was not real? Of course, it is understandable to suspect that he and Horsa were not real persons, but there again we are 1500 years away from when they were supposed to exist.
If you check out my first posts in this thread (which you'll find very early on), you'll find a summary of the arguments against the historicity of H&H. This represents the current mainstream academic position. That doesn't necessarily mean it's right, but you do need to be aware of it if you have an interest in this subject. I named a number of commentators who you might like to start with.

We've had this debate a number of times on this forum over the years, so I don't really want to have it again. Everyone will just be repeating their positions. Our debates are all 'out there' for you to look at if you are so minded.
 
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Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,621
Westmorland
a couple of villa sites in Kent managed to continue into the early fifth century, but on a much reduced scale, showing a change of use. Possibly squatters or similar folk.
There is some interesting work being done on this whole question of squatter occupation. Increasingly, we are being asked to question the notion that (for example) smashing a crop drier through a mosaic floor necessarily represents a process of abandonment and reoccupation. Tamara Lewit and Roland Prien have both worked on this issue (generally using continental villas as their subject matter) and James Gerrard has made a number of useful observations about the situation in Britain.

The thing to bear in mind about villas is that they were a bit like Georgian country houses - the homes of a landowning elite. Those elites made their money from a 'big farm' model, in which large yields of crops were sold through imperial trade networks. In Britain, that basically meant growing grain to feed the Roman army. As the integrated Roman economy faltered and then collapsed, the flow of goods and money which underpinned the whole system vanished. Just as erstwhile Georgian country piles were broken up or turned into tourist destinations due to economic change in the 20th century, so the villas were hit by the loss of the big contracts. Their occupants had to radically rethink how space was used and it might even be the case that some of the villas in the south were adapted to function like the timber halls we see in the post-Roman west - as the caput of the local strong-arm with his retainers around him.
 
Nov 2008
1,402
England
Their occupants had to radically rethink how space was used and it might even be the case that some of the villas in the south were adapted to function like the timber halls we see in the post-Roman west - as the caput of the local strong-arm with his retainers around him.
After the troubles in the second half of the fourth century, Roman Britain suffered a severe economic depression from which it never recovered. There may well have been attempts by some landowners to adapt to the situation, but using villa`s as military headquarters seems unlikely. They were simply not designed to perform a military function, but a town, however decayed, still had fortifications and these towns were situated on the road system.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,621
Westmorland
After the troubles in the second half of the fourth century, Roman Britain suffered a severe economic depression from which it never recovered. There may well have been attempts by some landowners to adapt to the situation, but using villa`s as military headquarters seems unlikely. They were simply not designed to perform a military function, but a town, however decayed, still had fortifications and these towns were situated on the road system.
I don't think anyone suggests that villas ever had a military function per se, but as large, multi-roomed structures, they could be adapted to operate as something other than a single family home. We know that villas were reused and adapted, which I suppose is inevitable if their reason for being had dissipated. The argument runs that some landowners may have taken steps to protect their status locally once the institutions of State (law courts, the army etc) were no longer there to do it for them. That basically meant having your retainers close to hand and although that doesn't make a villa a fort any more than the open-country timber halls of the north were forts, it might well suggest that villas and halls could serve the same function as communal foci for a leader, his retinue and their dependents. I haven't quote made my mind up about the theory, but it's food for thought, especially as there is general agreement that sub-Roman elites existed in the villa zone, even if (as I suspect you might argue) they only survived long enough to invite federates in who then took over.

I suppose the problem with towns is that the longer the wall circuit, the more men are needed to defend it effectively. Some towns in Gaul saw the building of new walls in the late Roman period which effectively saw the creation of smaller, fortified settlements within the old footprint of the town. We also know that small, late Roman towns on the Continent could effectively be defended against 'barbarians' on the outside. That doesn't appear to have happened in Britain, where the old wall circuits remained the only putative defences. It's difficult to see how, shorn of trained soldiery who knew how to use artillery and of masons who knew how to build defensive outworks, shrinking populations in the large towns where the fabric was falling into disrepair could have hoped to hold it against a sustained attack. I've often wondered if this is why the northern forts which were occupied into the fifth century were eventually abandoned in favour of open country sites. A timber hall might be burned on the odd occasion, but leaving it to its fate and then rebuilding it when danger had passed may have involved significantly less work than trying to maintain the defensive integrity of a fort built for 500 men with all their horses, kit and stores.
 
Nov 2008
1,402
England
It's difficult to see how, shorn of trained soldiery who knew how to use artillery and of masons who knew how to build defensive outworks, shrinking populations in the large towns where the fabric was falling into disrepair could have hoped to hold it against a sustained attack.
I tend to believe with the breakdown of central authority in post-Roman Britain, and the possible fragmentation of the province, the fighting forces would have resembled militias not trained cohorts. The defence of town walls, even in a dilapidated condition, is not that difficult, particularly in the attackers have no specialised siege equipment. Surprising as it may seem, Edward I`s mighty castle of Conway had a garrison of just 30 men.
I still believe any local elite, or warlord, hoping to control a region would have chosen a town. Those towns were situated on the junction of the road systems, and that would have been advantageous for the control of a large tract of the surrounding countryside. I believe the conditions in Britain, say from 430 onwards, would have resembled to a degree Gascony during the first decades of the Hundred Years War. Jonathon Sumption`s first two books on that conflict, Trial by Battle and Trial by Fire, are well worth reading to get an idea of the breakdown of government which happened in western France from the start of the war in the 1330`s until 1360. Furthermore, the recruitment of mercenaries became quite common during that conflict, and it is possible, perhaps probably, that warring British warlords recruited Saxon mercenaries to help fight their local wars. I believe it was more of case of many Hengests being recruited rather than just one.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,621
Westmorland
I tend to believe with the breakdown of central authority in post-Roman Britain, and the possible fragmentation of the province, the fighting forces would have resembled militias not trained cohorts. The defence of town walls, even in a dilapidated condition, is not that difficult, particularly in the attackers have no specialised siege equipment. Surprising as it may seem, Edward I`s mighty castle of Conway had a garrison of just 30 men.
You make a good point here. Border peles were designed to be held by two or three men (although they were a lot smaller than a Roman city), but I suppose Severinus is evidence for the relative security which townspeople could derive from Roman walls, even when the limes were overrun.

I still believe any local elite, or warlord, hoping to control a region would have chosen a town. Those towns were situated on the junction of the road systems, and that would have been advantageous for the control of a large tract of the surrounding countryside.
I can see that this is a very plausible hypothesis. Do we have any positive evidence for it? I'm thinking about the construction of large halls (like at Wroxeter?) and the fourth and fifth century modifications to forts along Hadrian's Wall, which saw things like gate-blocking and the strengthening of old stone walls with earth ramparts. One could perhaps point also to the attested early medieval polity of Ergyng, which takes its name and presumably its territorial extent from the later Roman small town of Ariconium (modern Weston Under Penyard). Perhaps Gwent us another example, given that it takes its name from Caerwent? I know we disagree about Lincoln, but Green's work (building on earlier work) plausibly argues for a post-Roman British Christian centre in the old town.

I believe the conditions in Britain, say from 430 onwards, would have resembled to a degree Gascony during the first decades of the Hundred Years War. Jonathon Sumption`s first two books on that conflict, Trial by Battle and Trial by Fire, are well worth reading to get an idea of the breakdown of government which happened in western France from the start of the war in the 1330`s until 1360.
I shall check that out. I suspect that this might be a topic on which we can find some agreement. I don't link the collapse of towns to violent invasion, but I do believe that the economic and administrative collapse of the early fifth-century created problems more far-reaching than any raid could manage. Essentially, local magnates no longer had the apparatus of state to back them up. The whole system might have tottered on until it became clear that Rome was never going to re-establish control in Britain (which I think would have been increasingly obvious after the 440s), but thereafter the men in power had a choice. They either had to slip away or attempt to preserve their power, which could only be done by the direct recruitment of retainers who could then be used to strong arm everyone else into delivering up food and other renders. I think this is probably the kernel of both the Anglo-Saxon and British warbands we see in the sixth-century.

Furthermore, the recruitment of mercenaries became quite common during that conflict, and it is possible, perhaps probably, that warring British warlords recruited Saxon mercenaries to help fight their local wars. I believe it was more of case of many Hengests being recruited rather than just one.
Undoubtedly that happened in some cases (notably early Wessex, as per my earlier posts in this thread), but migration had to have been more complicated than that. Was it about fighting wars or maintaining one's position? Either way, different areas of the country would have had different experiences of migration. Germanic warriors here, poor farmers over there. So, plenty of Hengest-type figures (although, I stil argue, no one Hengest), but also plenty of refugees, farmers and so on.

My issue with mercenaries is that if I was an ertswhile civilian decurion trying to keep (for example) post-Roman Carlisle running, I'd be wary about inviting people in that I couldn't control. If I had absolutely no fighting men of my own and knew that those I was paying to fight for me owed no loyalty, I'd be wondering who was going to protect me from them? I'd only think about installing mercenaries if I knew (or hoped) that my immediate retainers, who did owe me some loyalty, would stick up for me, even if they weren't able to prosecute whatever venture I had in mind on their own. So, although I can buy the federates argument (at least for some places), I don't buy the ancillary notion that the Britons were too feeble to look after themselves. For centuries after the adventus, huge tracts of the country in the north and west were still under the contol of cuturally British groups. If they were using federates (or if Germanic migrants had settled amongst them, which I believe they did), their culture was long strong enough to subsume that of the newcomers.