c.450 to 512. Legendary foundation of Kent

Bede names the British ruler who "first" invited the English, Vortigern, and reports that the leaders of the Angles, or Saxons, were called Hengest and Horsa. Bede adds that a monument to Horsa still exists in eastern Kent, and that the kings of Kent were descended from Hengest's son Æsc, from which it is normally deduced that Hengest and Horsa landed in Kent. In fact, Bede does not say what land they held, and if they were imported to deal with Irish and Pictish incursions as Gildas suggests, they might more plausibly have been settled in the north of Britain. But later tradition claimed them as Kentish, and saw them landing at Ebbsfleet in Thanet (so the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum).

The Ravenna Cosmographer, writing perhaps at the same time as Bede, says that the Saxons arrived in Britain led by their prince Ansehis. This name looks like a blundered Continental form of Æsc and suggests that in one version of the story it was Æsc, not Hengest and Horsa, who led the Saxons to Britain. This raises the possibility that Hengest and Horsa were mythical founding figures, divine twins like Romulus and Remus, rather than real people. (Pairs of brothers with alliterating names also led migrations in accounts of the Lombards and Vandals; see Turville-Petre, p.274.) The Old English poem Beowulf includes cryptic references to a character called Hengest, perhaps a Jute, who played a key role in a dispute in Frisia between the Danes and the Frisians. This Hengest might afterwards have led his band of followers across the sea to Britain, but the existence of an alternate tradition that the Saxons were led to Britain by Æsc, and the fact that the kings of Kent trace their descent to Æsc, not to his more famous father Hengest, suggests that Hengest and his brother Horsa (who is not named in the Frisian conflict) were added on to the Kentish royal genealogy to give the later Kentish kings a link with the legendary Germanic past. This process of improving the king's pedigree can be seen at work in the West Saxon royal genealogy, which in the 7th century probably went back to Woden (Bede, HE, i.15); but by the 9th century had been extended back from Woden through several other Germanic heroes and then into Biblical figures and finally to Adam (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 855; see further Sisam).

On closer inspection, Æsc seems no more secure as a historical figure than Hengest and Horsa. Jordanes, writing a history of the Goths, notes that the people at the head of the Gothic genealogies are called demigods, that is Ansis, because of their victories. Ansis is another Continental variant of Æsc, and if as seems likely "Æsc" is a word meaning "divine hero" rather than the name of a real person, we are faced with the embarrassing possibility that Æsc might himself have been a later addition to the royal genealogy, and that the first sixty years of Kentish history, from the landing in about 449 to Æsc's death in 512, carefully recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are completely fictitious.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hengest and Horsa landed in or shortly after 449, at the invitation of Vortigern. In 455 they fought against Vortigern at Aylesford, and Horsa was killed and Hengest and Æsc succeeded to the kingdom. In 456 Hengest and Æsc fought the Britons at Crayford, and after a great slaughter the Britons deserted Kent and fled to London. In 465 Hengest and Æsc defeated the Britons at Wippedesfleot (unidentified), and in 473 again at an unnamed place. In 488 Æsc succeeded to the kingdom (and presumably therefore Hengest died), and he was king of the people of Kent for 24 years.

It should be noted that Æsc succeeds to the kingdom twice, once in 455 and once in 488: this rouses further suspicions that the account is an attempt to graft together different origin legends. It is also unfortunate that the same pattern, a landing (449) followed six years later by the establishment of a kingdom (455) and almost forty years later by the death of the father and the passing of the kingdom to his son (488), is repeated exactly in the account of the foundation of the West Saxon kingdom (494/5, 500, and 534; for West Saxon complications see entry on 495 to 594). It seems unlikely that the two kingdoms developed at so precisely the same rate, and one or both accounts should probably be dismissed as origin legend instead of sober history. It is worth noting that a similar sequence of four battles (three of them named, and one of these leading to Horsa's death) appears in the account of the foundation of Kent in the Historia Brittonum, but in that case the battles end not with the flight of the Britons but with the defeat and flight of the English. The tradition that there were four battles in the early history of Kent is thus well established, but already in the 9th century it has been taken out of whatever historical context it may have had and used to support opposing pro-English and pro-British views of the past. Eleven hundred years later, we have no means of saying which interpretation is correct, if indeed the four battles were ever part of history and not just part of origin folklore like the arrival in three ships.

The history of Kent that we can actually recover begins not with Hengest and his son Æsc in the mid-5th century, but with Irminric and his son Æthelberht in the mid-6th (see entry on c.575).

N. Brooks, "The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.55-74

P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41

K. Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies", Proceedings of the British Academy 39 (1953), pp.287-348

J.R.R. Tolkien, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode (London: 1982)

J.E. Turville-Petre, "Hengest and Horsa", Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-7), pp.273-90

B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: 1990), pp.25-27