Were Hengest and Horsa Real?

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
We still need to be cautious because these are studies and not conclusive, that is not written in stainless steel. The Weale, Weiss study of 2002 was interesting, suggesting a possible mass migration of much more than 50%.
That 50% was for a smaller area but was confirmed when reexamined in the subsequent wider study - ranged between 24.4 and 72.5% (mean 54.1%). But, these are males only and based on modern populations. Mark Thomas, who was on Mike Weale's team tells me that treatment of data is robust and it certainly has never been challenged on technical grounds. People have questioned interpretation, ie, how we arrive at that data. Weale makes this clear:

"We note, however, that our data do not allow us to distinguish an event that simply added to the indigenous Central English male gene pool from one where indigenous males were displaced elsewhere or one where indigenous males were reduced in number." It still leaves therefore 3 possible models open. Each one needs to be interrogated.

Although the article is dated 2017, it refers to the Leslie study of 2015, which is the one I quoted:

"We estimate the proportion of Saxon ancestry in C./S England as very likely to be under 50%, and most likely in the range 10% ‐ 40%." The point about this is that is across the entire genome. If an anglo saxon male had a son with a british female, the son looks 100% anglo saxon if you look at the male specific part. If you look at all of it, it is 50:50.

Anyway, in my opinion the invasion/migration of Germanic peoples from the continent had to be large enough to cause the native population, whatever their number, not only to change their language, but also their religion and culture.
That's true and the modern data is not disputed. It's the mechanism by which the transition happened that is interesting because it isn't uniform throughout England.

Anyway, Authun , our views are converging and seem to be close. Is our little war over?
There never was a war :) When new data contradicts old models, we create new models which can be tested. That data can then be interrogated for suitedness of fit. If the new data is a bad fit for the model, the model is rejected and new models must be created and they, in turn, tested.
 
Last edited:
Aug 2011
1,626
Sweden
I have read a lot of discussion lately about King Arthur and whether or not he is an actual figure, but I wasn't able to find a thread discussing Hengest and Horsa. I have read some theories on Hengest in particular and whether the story involving him is a myth, but I'd like to find out what people on this forum think.

One theory in particular I have read that I find very interesting is that the Hengest mentioned in the Beowulf poem is the same Hengest that conquered parts of Briton.

Thoughts?
Well, I certainly feel that Hengist and Horsa were real people and not some mythological horse twins. There are real persons named Hariso on at least two inscriptions which probably is the closest variant to Horsa you can find. In the case of Hengist one very similar name was Anagast, who was magister militum in the east Roman army around 469, the very same time period when we read about Hengist in Britain. This at least indicates that Hengist was a personal name at the time.
 
Last edited:
Nov 2008
1,421
England
Well, I certainly feel that Hengist and Horsa were real people and not some mythological horse twins. There are real persons named Hariso on at least two inscriptions which probably is the closest variant to Horsa you can find. In the case of Hengist one very similar name was Anagast, who was magister militum in the east Roman army around 469, the very same time period when we read about Hengist in Britain. This at least indicates that Hengist was a personal name at the time.
There are two traditions about Hengest in Anglo-Saxon literature. There is the story in the Finnisburh Fragment and Beowulf, telling of an ancient feud. The other tradition found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Nennius has elements of folklore about it. Stephen Pollington in his book, The Elder Gods, considers the authenticity of Hengest to be plausible, but he is rather ambivalent in his analysis. Richard North, the academic, although regarding Hengest as legendary, considers the possibility that he introduced the cult of Ingwe into Britain. To delve further into that, I need to acquire North`s book, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, and also to study in more depth the myths of Northern Europe.
 

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
This may well tie in to your assertion that the Scandinavians played a fairly considerable part in the Adventus Saxonum.
Well, not my assertion. John Hines started it. The Scandinavian Character of Anglian England in the Pre-Viking Period anf of course Sutton Hoo is stylistically very similar to the Vendel Period Sweden and Beowulf, although english, depicts events abroad with Geats and Danes, as if they were very familiar to the english.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,659
Westmorland
Its important to remember that they are all looking at different things and in different ways but it's all pointing to a significant but not overwhelming level of migration - significant enough to replace the language and culture leaving little trace of the former. For me, that's the interesting aspect - how does that happen?
It seems to me that we might start by not drawing such a clear distinction between our 200,000 migrants and our 1-2 million Romano-Britons. Pretty much every model works on the tacit assumption not only that these groups were culturally distinct but they they maintained their cultural distinctiveness down the centuries. The former premise is reasonable enough, but is the latter premise quite so reasonable? If all we have to back it up is a single reference in Ine's law codes, are we not clutching at straws?

Our models also seem to work on the tacit assumption that Germanic culture in Britain came off the boats in toto with the Anglo-Saxons. Is that a reasonable assumption? I don't think so.

There is an increasing recognition of cultural 'zones' in Late Antiquity. Lowland Britain appears to have had a long relationship with the North Sea littoral whereas upland Britain, to the north and west, appears to have been more part of an Irish Sea zone. It seems to me to be no coincidence that the cultural dividing line between the 'Anglo-Saxon' and the 'British' areas of the country closely respects this longstanding cultural dividing line. It is also interesting that many of the characteristics which we think of as 'Anglo-Saxon' (notably burial with grave goods) appear to be new innovations of the post-Roman period.

I think we'd do better if we considered 'Anglo-Saxon' culture to be the expression of a new identity in southern and eastern England created during a time of profound social change and influenced in part by the migrants who came here (whether as farmers, conquerors or whatever), but more by developments on the Continent, which basically saw a Roman world replaced with a German one. Just as in Gaul, anyone who was anyone eventually became a Frank (to paraphrase Guy Halsall), so anyone who was anyone in lowland Britain eventually became an Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon was the local medium through which one could assert a new, Germanic-flavoured identity. This might help us explain some of those oddities, such as why the distribution of early Anglo-Saxon material in Wessex is very close to the distribution of late Roman material (and why areas with no villas also appear to have had no AS cemeteries).
 

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
It seems to me that we might start by not drawing such a clear distinction between our 200,000 migrants and our 1-2 million Romano-Britons. Pretty much every model works on the tacit assumption not only that these groups were culturally distinct but they they maintained their cultural distinctiveness down the centuries.
There are models, including most models of acculturation, that do not suggest culturally distinct groups. Härke suggested over three decades ago that Britons may possibly be found in graves in a germanic context. At that time, he was positing skeletal heights as a possible indicator. Models based on Ine's laws are just one type, based on one period in one part of England. As Härke wrote in Medieval Archaeology in 2011:

"It is now widely accepted that the Anglo-Saxons were not just transplanted Germanic invaders and settlers from the Continent, but the outcome of insular interactions and changes. But we are still lacking explicit models that suggest how this ethnogenetic process might have worked in concrete terms. This article is an attempt to present such a model from an archaeological perspective, but with an interdisciplinary approach. The focus is on the role of the native British population and its interaction with immigrant Germanic groups. As a result, the model envisages two broad phases in the creation of the Anglo-Saxons: an ethnically divided conquest society in the 5th/6th centuries in which immigrants and their descendants practised a form of 'apartheid' in order to preserve their dominance; and a phase of increasing acculturation and assimilation of the natives in the 7th/8th centuries that laid the foundations of a common English identity. "

It is those models that interest me. I am not wedded to any paticular one. New models need to be created and then tested for suitability of fit with the existing data.

Our models also seem to work on the tacit assumption that Germanic culture in Britain came off the boats in toto with the Anglo-Saxons. Is that a reasonable assumption? I don't think so.
But we have examples of that. Rahtz sumamrised a conference held with some 50 famous archaeologists about West Heslerton and published in Antiquity : " it was generally seen more as one of continuity of place, with a dichotomy between ‘late Romans’ and the new settlers; " and "No links could be found between the late Roman pottery and the Anglian that followed - nothing ‘sub-Roman’; the general impression is still of a social and economic collapse in the latest 4th-early 5th century, with a parallel collapse of Crambeck and other pottery industries."

That does not mean that this was the case everwhere but, whatever models are created elsewhere, this data has to be taken into account, either as part of the same model or by acknowledging the existence of several models.

It is also interesting that many of the characteristics which we think of as 'Anglo-Saxon' (notably burial with grave goods) appear to be new innovations of the post-Roman period.
I'm not too sure what you are getting at here because one of the indicators of anglo saxons is the pottery found in the large cremation cemeteries. There are many unfurnished inhumations in various configurations, prone, flexed and Härke has suggested that some of these might be britons. The furnishings tend to be more a badge of rank rather than an indicator of ethnicity.

Anglo-Saxon was the local medium through which one could assert a new, Germanic-flavoured identity.
That's what needs to be turned into testable hypotheses which can be interrogated against the available data.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,659
Westmorland
There are models, including most models of acculturation, that do not suggest culturally distinct groups. Härke suggested over three decades ago that Britons may possibly be found in graves in a germanic context. At that time, he was positing skeletal heights as a possible indicator.

But we have examples of that. Rahtz sumamrised a conference held with some 50 famous archaeologists about West Heslerton and published in Antiquity : " it was generally seen more as one of continuity of place, with a dichotomy between ‘late Romans’ and the new settlers; " and "No links could be found between the late Roman pottery and the Anglian that followed - nothing ‘sub-Roman’; the general impression is still of a social and economic collapse in the latest 4th-early 5th century, with a parallel collapse of Crambeck and other pottery industries."

I'm not too sure what you are getting at here because one of the indicators of anglo saxons is the pottery found in the large cremation cemeteries. There are many unfurnished inhumations in various configurations, prone, flexed and Härke has suggested that some of these might be britons. The furnishings tend to be more a badge of rank rather than an indicator of ethnicity.

That's what needs to be turned into testable hypotheses which can be interrogated against the available data.
Harke's work is always interesting, but notwithstanding that he allowed for Britons to inhabit Anglo-Saxon graves, he still sought to argue contemporaneous cultural distinctiveness between Britons and Anglo Saxons. So, he'd argue that the Anglo-Saxons were the tall ones ('gracile' was the rather nice word I seem to recall he used) or the ones buried with weapons and he argued for a period of apartheid lasting several hundred years. Under his model, fifth- or sixth-century Britons couldn't become Anglo-Saxons in the same way that fifth- or sixth-century Gallo Romans could become Franks.

The point about AS culture is not that it is different to Romano-British culture (because it undoubtedly is). What I am challenging is the assumption that the Germanic newcomers to Britain were the sole means of agency by which Germanic culture came to Britain. If we accept that lowland Britain was long plugged into the Late Antique world of Gaul and beyond, cultural or other changes observable in Gaul and beyond in the fifth-century are likely to have impacted on Britain, even if no Anglo-Saxon migrants had ever come here.

They did come, of course. But to test the hypothesis, let's look at the distribution map of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. As Halsall remarked, what is odd is that the westward edge of these cemeteries only moves about 50 miles over the course of a couple of centuries or more. They pop up quite far west almost immediately, but go little further. We see a thickening of these cemeteries in areas where they were always found, but not a westward spread. Halsall wondered if that might point at a re-fortification of the Fosseway, but that doesn't get off the ground, as the westward edge of the cemeteries doesn't actually follow the Fosseway line for much of its length. And what are these little groups of Anglo-Saxons doing so far west at a time when our traditional, militaristic orthodoxies tell us that they were still slogging through East Anglia and the Home Counties? Federates? All of them? What I think we are seeing - and it would have to be tested using ancient DNA - is the deliberate and conscious adoption of a new burial right we now think of as Anglo-Saxon (and the adoption of a Germanic culture) across a wide swathe of lowland Britain. It starts small - a scattering of cemeteries here and there - and represents the formation of new identities and the influence both of new ideas coming in from the Continent and of new ideas coming from Continental migrants (the original Anglo-Saxons).

I know this will be an extremely unpopular theory on a site like Historum, where the old certainties of war and conquest still hold the floor, but I think we should at least consider whether there is room for something different.
 

Haesten

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,926
Harke's work is always interesting, but notwithstanding that he allowed for Britons to inhabit Anglo-Saxon graves, he still sought to argue contemporaneous cultural distinctiveness between Britons and Anglo Saxons. So, he'd argue that the Anglo-Saxons were the tall ones ('gracile' was the rather nice word I seem to recall he used) or the ones buried with weapons and he argued for a period of apartheid lasting several hundred years. Under his model, fifth- or sixth-century Britons couldn't become Anglo-Saxons in the same way that fifth- or sixth-century Gallo Romans could become Franks.

The point about AS culture is not that it is different to Romano-British culture (because it undoubtedly is). What I am challenging is the assumption that the Germanic newcomers to Britain were the sole means of agency by which Germanic culture came to Britain. If we accept that lowland Britain was long plugged into the Late Antique world of Gaul and beyond, cultural or other changes observable in Gaul and beyond in the fifth-century are likely to have impacted on Britain, even if no Anglo-Saxon migrants had ever come here.

They did come, of course. But to test the hypothesis, let's look at the distribution map of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. As Halsall remarked, what is odd is that the westward edge of these cemeteries only moves about 50 miles over the course of a couple of centuries or more. They pop up quite far west almost immediately, but go little further. We see a thickening of these cemeteries in areas where they were always found, but not a westward spread. Halsall wondered if that might point at a re-fortification of the Fosseway, but that doesn't get off the ground, as the westward edge of the cemeteries doesn't actually follow the Fosseway line for much of its length. And what are these little groups of Anglo-Saxons doing so far west at a time when our traditional, militaristic orthodoxies tell us that they were still slogging through East Anglia and the Home Counties? Federates? All of them? What I think we are seeing - and it would have to be tested using ancient DNA - is the deliberate and conscious adoption of a new burial right we now think of as Anglo-Saxon (and the adoption of a Germanic culture) across a wide swathe of lowland Britain. It starts small - a scattering of cemeteries here and there - and represents the formation of new identities and the influence both of new ideas coming in from the Continent and of new ideas coming from Continental migrants (the original Anglo-Saxons).

I know this will be an extremely unpopular theory on a site like Historum, where the old certainties of war and conquest still hold the floor, but I think we should at least consider whether there is room for something different.
Federates - All of them - is the most likely explanation. The language change with no Brythonic influence would be impossible in your conversion model.
Isca Augusta had been stripped of troops and abandoned by the time of the Notitia Dignitatum, federates would have been brought in to replace the regular troops.