The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1797.
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'General history: Britons and Saxons', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1, (Canterbury, 1797) pp. 44-62. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-kent/vol1/pp44-62 [accessed 29 February 2024]
Britons and Saxons
THE ROMANS having thus abandoned Britain, with an intention to return no more, the Scots and Picts no sooner heard of it, than landing in swarms from their leather vessels, they committed greater ravages than ever, destroying all with fire and sword. Next they resolved to attack the wall, which had been lately repaired, and soon made themselves masters of it, the Britons betaking themselves to slight, and their enemies pursuing them, made a dreadful havoc of the fugitives, taking possession of their towns, which they found deserted by the inhabitants. As they met with no opposition, they overrun the whole country, making a general havoc and devastation, which bred a dreadful famine. (fn. 1)
This was productive of new mischiefs, and a kind of civil war among the Britons themselves, who were obliged, for their support, to plunder and take from each other the little the common enemy had left them. At last, the famine became so general, that the Britons which remained were obliged to betake themselves to the woods, and subsist by hunting, and in this deplorable condition they continued some years. The Britons had at this time kings of their own; but they raised such only to the throne as were remarkable for their rapine and cruelty, and these were frequently murdered, and worse men chosen in their room.— Thus at variance among themselves, and at the same time pressed with famine, and pursued by a merciless enemy, they had recourse once more to the Romans for assistance, writing to Ætius, who was then consul the third time, and governed the western empire, almost with absolute sway, in order to move him with compassion. But Ætius, who was then in Gaul, either could or would not afford them the least assistance; the emperor, Valentinian the Third, then being under great apprehension of a war with Attila, which threatened the whole western empire. The Britons, now despairing of any relief from the Romans, and reduced by their misfortunes to the utmost extremity, knew not what measures to take to free themselves from their unfortunate circumstances. Great numbers of them fled to Armorica, where those Britons who attended Maximus into Gaul are supposed to have settled; others submitted to the Scots and Picts, purchasing a miserable subsistance with everlasting slavery; and some few, sallying out in parties from the woods and caves, sell upon the enemy while they were roving up and down the country, and cut many of them in pieces. The Picts, from the famine and misery of the country, had no inducement to continue longer in it, and therefore withdrew themselves to those parts about the wall, which were either abandoned by the Britons, or inhabited by such as had submitted to their new masters; and the Scots returned home. The Britons, having now some respite, began to cultivate their lands again, which produced an amazing plenty; but the luxury and ease attendant on it, plunged them into the utmost excesses of vice and debauchery; in the midst of which, these nations, returning with incredible fury, put all to the fire and sword, and soon again reduced this unhappy people to the utmost extremity. (fn. 2)
In their distresses, as the only possible remedy of their calamities, the Britons had, at a general assembly, elected Vortigern as their chief or superior monarch over the whole nation, as one who should manage the war for them, and direct the whole of their affairs against the common enemy. But the discord that now reigned between many of the states prevented any good effect that might happen from this choice; several of their great men, having fortified themselves in different parts, acted as kings; and all these petty tyrants, jealous of one another, far from acquiescing in the above election, fought only to destroy this monarch, in hopes of being chosen in his room. In this state of confusion it was impossible for any of them to subsist long. Vortigern, who had been thus chosen king, was a proud, covetous, debauched tyrant, regardless of the public welfare, though he was chosen merely for the purpose of promoting it. However, being at this time roused by the clamours of the people on all sides, and alarmed for his own preservation, he summoned a meeting of the chief men of the nation, to consult on the proper means of delivering the country from the calamities it then groaned under. In this assembly, the Britons, almost distracted and without hope at their distressed condition, resolved upon an expedient the most pernicious that could be imagined, and what in the end, proved the utter destruction of the nation. This was to invite the Saxons to come over to their succour, a people at that time famous for their piracies and cruelties, and dreaded, even by the Britons themselves, as death itself. (fn. 3)
The Saxons were, according to the most probable opinion, a colony of the Cimbrians, that is, of the inhabitants of the Cimbrian Chersonesus, now Jutland, who, finding their country overstocked with inhabitants, sent out, much about the same time, three numerous companies to seek new settlements. To one of these companies was afterwards given the name of Suevians, to another that of Franks, and to the third the name of Saxons. The Suevians took their rout towards Italy, the Franks advanced to Belgic Gaul, and the Saxons possessed themselves of the whole country between the Rhine and the Elbe, and afterwards, by degrees, extended the conquests along the coasts of the German ocean, and when the Britons sent to implore their assistance, they were masters not only of the present Westphalia, Saxony, East and West Friesland, but likewise of Holland and Zealand. The first place these people settled in, on their leaving the Chersonesus, was the present duchy of Holstein, which is thence called the antient feat of the Saxons. Be- tween this country and the Chersonesus, or Jutland, dwelt a people known even in Tacitus's time, by the name of Angles. According to this account which is copied from Bede, the Angles inhabited that small province in the kingdom of Denmark and duchy of Sleswick, which is called at this day Angel, and of which the city of Flensburgh is the metropolis.— Hengist and Horsa came from this country of the Angles into Britain, which from thence was called Anglia. (fn. 4)
At the time the Saxons came out of the Chersonesus, in quest of new settlements, they were joined by the Angles, who, in process of time, became one nation with them. Hence they are, by most authors, comprised under the general name of Saxons, though they are distinguished by some by the compound name of Anglo-Saxons. Some time after the Saxons, Franks, and Suevians had left the Chersonesus, the Goths, having driven out the Cimbrians that were remaining, made themselves masters of that peninsula, which was thenceforth called Gothland, or Jutland, from its inhabitants the Goths, or Jutes. Great numbers of these Giotæ, or Jutæ, mixing with the Saxons and Angles, came over with them from time to time, to share in their conquests, and settling with them, were esteemed afterwards as one and the same people; but being so few in number, they lost the name of Jutes, and together with the Angles, were compounded under the general name of Saxons; but they were not known to the Romans till the latter end of the fourth century; Eutrophius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and the poet Claudian being the first Roman writers who make mention of them. They were looked upon to be the most valiant of all the Germans, both for greatness of mind, strength of body, and a hardy constitution, The Romans dreaded them above all others, because their motions were always sudden, and their courage and activity terrible to them. They were remarkable for their chastity, and in their persons for their tallness, symmetry of parts, and exactness of features. They wore their hair hanging down their shoulders; their cloaths were short close coats; and their armour long spears. When they stood, they leaned upon little shields, and wore a sort of knives hanging before. But earlier they used to shave their heads to the very skin, except a little above the crown, and wore a plate round their heads. (fn. 5)
This Sidonius Appollinaris plainly intimates in these verses, lib. viii. epist. 9.
"Istic Saxona cærulum videmus
Adsuetum antè salo solum timere,
Cujus verticis extimas per oras
Non contenta suos tenere morsus
Altat lamina marginem comarum.
Et sic crinibus ad cutem rescissis,
Decrescit caput, additurque vultus."
Here 'twas we saw the purple Saxon stand,
Us'd to rough seas, yet shaking on the land.
The frozen plate, that on their crown they wear
In one great tuft drives up their bushy hair;
The rest they keep close shav'd; and thus their face
Appears still bigger, as their head grows less.
Camd. Britt. p. clxii.
They were admirably skilled in naval affairs, and by their long and continued piracies, had inured themselves so to the sea, that it might almost be said, they dreaded the land. They annoyed the coasts of Britain and France, even as far as Spain, to such a degree, that it was found necessary to guard the shores with officers and soldiers, appointed for this purpose, against any attempts they might make upon them, and these, for that reason, were called Counts of the Saxon shore. But notwithstanding this, by the help of their nimble fly-boats, called ciults, in English, keels or yawls, they contrived very frequently to plunder our coasts. When they put to sea in these boats there were as many pirates as rowers; they were all at the same time both masters and servants, all taught and learned in this their trade of robbing. In short, the Saxon was the most terrible enemy that could be engaged. If he took you unawares, he was gone in a moment; he despised opposition, and certainly worsted you, if you were not well provided. If he pursued, he undoubtedly caught you; if he flew, he always escaped. Shipwrecks, so far from frightening him, hardened him. These people did not only understand the dangers of the seas, but were intimately acquainted with them. If they were pursued in a tempest, it gave them an opportunity of escaping; if they were pursuing, it secured them from being discovered at a distance. They readily ventured their lives among waves and rocks, if there were any hopes of surprising their enemy. It was their custom always, before they weighed anchor and set fail homewards, to take every tenth captive and put them to death, by equal and exquisite tortures, and this was owing to superstition; after those that were to die were got together, they pretended to temper the injustice of putting them to death by a seeming equity of lots.
The Saxons were so strangely superstitious, that whenever they had any weighty matters under debate, they were, besides their soothsaying, principally directed by the neighing of horses, which they looked on as the surest presage. To foretell events of war they used to take a captive of the nation against which their design was, and to oblige him to fight a single combat with some one of their own country: each was to fight with the arms of his own nation, and by the issue of it they concluded which side would conquer. (fn. 6)
Their religion was much the fame as that of the other northern nations. Among their chief gods were the Sun, the Moon, the celebrated Woden, his fon Thor, his wife Friga, or Fræa, Tuisco, Theutates, Hesus, and Tharamis. These three last are mentioned by Lucan, as is Tuisco by Tacitus. To the Sun and Moon were consecrated the two first days of the week, called from them Sunday and Monday. Tuisco was the founder of the German nation, and to him was consecrated Tuesday. The next idol was Woden, whom they efteemed as their god of battle; his sacrifices were men, and the fourth day in the week was consecrated to him, and was from him called Wednesday. Several places in England take the original of their name from this idol, particularly Wodensborough, or Winsborough, in this county. Thor, the god of the air, who was thought to have storms, winds, showers, and fair weather at his disposal, had Thursday consecrated to him, and was of more estimation among them than most of the reft; they believed his power and might to be wonderful, and that there were no people throughout the whole world that were not subjected to him, and did not owe him divine honor and worship. Friga, the next, was the goddess of pleafure, who had the fixth day allotted for her worship, and thence called, from her, Friday. The feventh day, or Saturday, was facred to the idol Seator, otherwife called Crodo. (fn. 7) The Saxons had, besides thefe, feveral other deities, to whom they paid great veneration, and among others the goddess Eostre, to whom they sacrificed in April, which was thence by them stiled Easter Monath, or the Month of Eostre; and hence the Saxons retained the word Easter even after their conversion to the christian religion, appropriating it to the solemn festival, which we celebrate in commemoration of our Saviour's refurrection. (fn. 8)
The Angles, as we read in Tacitus, as well as the other neighbouring nations, worshipped Herthus, that is the mother earth, as believing she interested herself in the affairs of men and nations. (fn. 9) For a more particular account of the worfhip the Saxons paid to their gods, and the sacrifices they offered to them, the reader is referred to Wormius, Verstegan, Isaacius Pontanus, and other German and Danish writers. As to their government, the country subject to them was, according to Verstegan, divided into twelve provinces, each of which was governed by a chief, or head, accountable to the general assembly of the nation. By this assembly a general was chosen in time of war, who commanded with almost a sovereign power; but his authority ceased as soon as the war ended.
It is time now to resume the thread of our history, and return to the landing of the Saxons on this island.
The expedient of inviting the Saxons hither being approved of in the general assembly of the Britons, messengers were immediately dispatched into Germany, to offer them advantageous terms, provided they would come over to their assistance. The Saxons were highly pleased with their proposal, the more as they were foretold by their soothsayers, that they should plunder the country to which they were called, for the space of an hundred and fifty years, and quietly possess it twice that time. Having therefore fitted out three long ships, called, in their language, chiules, they put to sea under the conduct of Hengist and Horsa, the sons of Wetgiffel, greatgrandson of the celebrated Woden, from whom all the royal families of the Saxons derive their pedigrees. (fn. 10) These arriving at Ippedsfleet, now called Ebbsfleet, in the Isle of Thanet, a little to the north of Richborough castle, about the year 449, (fn. 11) were received there, both by the prince and people, with the greateft demonstrations of joy. A league was immediately concluded with them, by which they were to defend the Britons against all foreign enemies, and were to have in return the Isle of Thanet allotted to them for their habitation, besides pay and maintenance, which event fome place a few years sooner, others a few years later; Bede and Flor. Worcest. place it in 450, as does archbishop Usher. Historians have not told us what was the number of these Saxon auxiliaries, but it could not be above 1500, since they all came over in three ships, and it cannot well be supposed, that any of these ships carried more than 500 men. The Saxons being thus put in possession of the Isle of Thanet, King Vortigern did not suffer them to continue long there without employment, but led them against the Scots and Picts, who were advanced as far as Stamford in Lincolnshire, where a battle was fought, in which the latter were utterly routed, and forced to fave themselves by a precipitate flight, leaving the Saxons in possession of the spoil and booty they had taken. (fn. 12) After which they so constantly defeated the enemy, that being discourged by these frequent overthrows, they abandoned their conquest by degrees, and retired into their own country, dreading nothing so much as meeting with the Saxons. (fn. 13) The more Hengist saw of the fruitfulness and wealth of the island, the more he was captivated with it; and observing the inhabitants to be enervated with luxury, and addicted to ease and idleness, he began to entertain hopes of procuring a permanent settlement for his countrymen in Britain. Having therefore, artfully persuaded Vortigern of the danger he was in, not only from a fresh invasion of the Scots and Picts, but from the insolence of the Britons themselves, he advised him to secure himself from the impending storm, by sending for more Saxons, and strengthening himself with their numbers against all his enemies. This he readily consented to, and Hengist at the same time acquainted his countrymen with the fruitfulness of the island, and the effeminacy of the inhabitants, inviting them to share with him in his good success, of which he had not the least reason to doubt. (fn. 14)
The Saxons readily complied with this invitation, and arriving in seventeen large ships, in the year 450, the year after Hengist landed, being as Hector Boethius says, 5000 in number, besides wives and children, made up, with their countrymen already in the island, a considerable army. With this supply came over Oesc, or Esk, Hengist's son, and, if Nennius is to be credited, Rowena, his daughter, with whose charms king Vortigern was so captivated, that, divorcing his lawful wife, he married her, after having, with much difficulty, obtained the consent of her father, who pretended to be much averse to the match, by investing him with the government of Kent. (fn. 15) Though Hengist had a good body of troops in Britain under his command, he did not think it sufficient for the execution of his determined object, the conquest of the whole kingdom. He therefore led the king, by degrees, to seek of his own accord the thing he wished for most himself, namely, the sending for a greater number of Saxon troops, by exaggerating the dangers that threatened him on all sides, particularly from the discontents of his own subjects, who freely vented their complaints against them both. This new reinforcement of Saxons, being the third, came over in forty ships, in the year 452, under the conduct of Octa and Ebusa, the son and nephew, or, as others will have it, the brother and nephew of Hengist. They arrived at the Orcades, and having ravaged there, and all along the northern coast, the countries of the Scots and Picts, made themselves masters of several places beyond the Friths, and in the end, obtained leave of the king to settle in Northumberland, under the specious pretence of securing the northern parts, as Hengist did the southern; after which, encroaching still on the king's favor, Hengist sent by degrees for more men and ships, till the countries from whence they came were almost left without inhabitants. The numbers of the Saxons being by these means greatly increased, they began to quarrel with the Britons, demanding larger allowances of corn and other provisions, and threatening, if their demands were not complied with, to break the league and lay waste the whole country. The Britons were surprised at these menaces, and though they were fearful the Saxons were powerful enough to do what they threatened, yet they refused their demands, and desired them, if they were not contented, to return home, since their numbers exceeded what they were able to maintain.— This answer, however just and reasonable, at the same time it provoked the Saxons, gave them the opportunity of putting their long wished-for design in execution; wherefore, having secretly concluded a peace with the Scots and Picts, they began to turn their arms against those they came to defend, and over-running the island destroyed every thing with fire and sword, wherever their fury led them. Most of the public as well as private buildings were leveled with the ground: cities were pillaged and burnt; priests slain at the altars, and people without distinction of age, sex, or condition, slaughtered in multitudes throughout the land. Some of the unhappy Britons, who escaped the fury of the Saxons, took refuge among the rocks and mountains in Wales and in Cornwall; great numbers of them either perished with hunger, or were forced by the extremity of famine to abandon their asylum, and delivering themselves up, preserved their lives at the expence of their liberty; some, crossing the sea, took shelter among foreign nations, and those that remained at home suffered inexpressible calamities, in perpetual apprehensions, and want of necessaries. (fn. 16) — In the mean time, the Britons, looking on the partiality which king Vortigern had continually shewn the Saxons as the principal cause of their miseries, and provoked at his cowardice and inattention to their welfare, deposed him; for though they left him the title of king jointly with his son Vortimer, yet all the command and royal power was conferred on the latter, whom they thus raised to the throne; who being a brave and valiant youth, undertook the de- fence of his distressed country; this happened in the year 454. (fn. 17)
It was about five years after the first landing of the Saxons, that the Britons, under the command of Vortimer, began to make head against them. Several bloody battles and skirmishes were fought between them, as both the Saxon and British writers agree, though they differ greatly, as well as to the time of these engagements, as the success of them, as they stood affected to either side. Vortimer having assembled his forces, led them against the Saxons, and had his first encounter with them on the banks of the Darent, in this county; in which it seems probable the Saxons were worsted, as they retreated from their enemy, who followed them to Aylesford, where a bloody battle was fought between them, in the year 455, the success of which remained equal a long time, though at laft the victory fell to the Britons. In this sharp engagement Horsa, brother to Hengist, and Catigern brother to Vortimer, fought hand to hand, and were both killed on the spot. (fn. 18) The former was buried on the eastern side of the Medway, at a place which from him still retains the name of Horsted; and Catigern still nearer to the field of battle, (from which it seems likely, that the Britons remained masters of it,) in the parish of Aylesford, where it is supposed that rude monument, somewhat in the manner of Stonehenge, was erected over him, which remains to this day, and is called Kitscotyhouse, which is, as some interpret it, Catigerns-house. For some space round about the hill, near which this battle was fought, there are large stones dispersed over the lands, some standing upright, and others thrown down by time, which, no doubt, were placed there in memory of some who fell in this noted encounter. Some have imagined these stones were brought from the quarry on the other side of the river Medway, at six miles distance; but there was surely no occasion for this superfluous trouble, when there were quarries both at Sandling and Allington, within two miles of the spot. Others have imagined them to be the product of neither, but to be rather of the pebble kind, with which this part of the country abounds; one of this sort appears to lye in its natural bed of earth, at the top of Boxley-hill, close to the Maidstone road at this time.
Vortimer still followed the retreating Saxons, and coming up with them again on the sea-shore, near Folkestone, fought a third battle with them, between that place and Hythe; and, gaining a complete victory, drove them into the isle of Thanet. There is much difference among writers as to the place where this battle was fought; some asserting it to have been at Wippedesflete, now Ebbsfleet, in Thanet; but as the Britons drove the Saxons, after this battle, into that island, the field of battle could not be in it. Nennius and others say, it was fought in a field on the shore of the Gallic sea, where stood the Lapis Tituli, which Camden and Usher take to be Stonar, in the isle of Thanet; but Somner and Stillingfleet, instead of Lapis Tituli, read Lapis Populi, that is, Folkestone, where this battle was fought. What adds strength to this last conjecture, are the two vast heaps of skulls and bones piled up in two vaults under the churches of Folkestone and Hythe; which, from the number of them, could not but be from some battle. They appear, by their whiteness, to have been all bleached, by lying some time on the sea shore. Probably, those at Hythe, were of the Britons, and those at Folkestone of the Saxons. It happened in the year 456; and the year following Vortimer died. (fn. 19) By these continued scenes of slaughter, both sides were so much weakened, that for some time after neither invaded each others territories.
The Saxons having thus withdrawn themselves to the country that had been granted them by Vortigern, that is, to Kent and Northumberland, remained quiet there till after the decease of Vortimer; who died, as our historians tell us, after a short reign of less than five years; and they add, that upon his death-bed, he desired to be buried near the place where the Saxons used to land, being persuaded, that his bones would deter them from making any attempts there for the future; but they buried him elsewhere: Matthew of Westminster says, at London; Nennius and others say, at Lincoln. Hengist was no sooner informed of his death, than he returned with a numerous body of Saxons; and landing, in spite of all opposition, fought several battles with the Britons, under the command of Vortigern; who, upon the death of his son, Vortimer, had been restored to the throne. In one of these battles, which was fought in the year 457, at Crecanford, now called Crayford, in this county, the Britons were overthrown, with the loss of four thousand men, which obliged them to abandon Kent, and to retire to London; from which time only Hengist is said, by some, to have taken on himself the title of King of Kent, eight years after the first arrival of the Saxons in Britain. (fn. 20) The only circumstance that could have saved the Britons, proved, through their unreasonable factions and animosities, their utter ruin. For Aurelius Ambrosius, second son of Constantine, having landed with a considerable body of forces from Armorica, through the favor of Aldroen, king of that country, Vortigern and his party, considering him as an usurper, who was come to seize the crown under colour of defending it, raised all the forces they could, and determined to carry on the war against him, as a more dangerous enemy, if possible, than the Saxons themselves. Both sides having at length wrought themselves up into the utmost fury, a civil war ensued, which lasted seven or eight years; (fn. 21) and thus the miserable Britons, always a prey to their intestine divisions, instead of uniting against the common enemy, destroyed one another. At length, the wisest of both parties, considering these dissentions would be the cause of their common ruin, put an end to them by parting the kingdom. Vortigern had the eastern, and Ambrosius the western part of Britain, excepting those parts in the possession of and inhabited by the Saxons; which divisions were separated from each other by the Roman highway, called afterwards Watling-street.
The civil dissentions among the Britons having been thus appeased, both parties united against their common enemy, the Saxons. This war was carried on with various success, till both parties, wearied out with continual losses, without the advantage or prospect of conquest on either side, began to shew inclinations for peace, which was very soon concluded between them, probably upon the terms that each should keep the country they already possessed. Hengist, who had from time to time entertained hopes of possessing the whole island of Britain, was now forced, after a twenty years war, to give them up, and to fit down in appearance contented with Kent, and some few other small districts. Not that he really was so; he still continued a prey to his unbounded ambition, and resolved in his mind to compass by fraud and treachery, what he could not attain openly by force of arms. For which purpose, every thing he did seemed to shew his sincere intention of living in perfect union with the Britons, and to keep up a good understanding between the two nations. The princes had frequent intercourse with each other; and as a mark of his peaceable and contented disposition, he invited Vortigern, whose attachment to pleasure he was well acquainted with, to a splendid entertainment. Vortigern went thither, attended by three hundred of his prime nobility, and unarmed, as not suspecting any treachery; but towards the end of the feast a quarrel being designedly raised by Hengist, the Saxons starting up at a signal given, dispatched each of them his next man with daggers, or short swords, which they had concealed for this purpose. (fn. 22) Vortigern alone was spared, as Hengist had commanded, and being detained as a prisoner, was forced, as a ransom for his liberty, to surrender up to the Saxons a large tract of land bordering upon Kent, which Hengist added to his former territories. This was afterwards divided into three provinces, and peopled with Saxons; that part which was planted eastward with regard to the rest they named East-sexa, or Seaxe, now Essex; that which was south of the same, Suth-seaxe, or Sussex; and that which was in the middle between them, Middel-seaxe, now Middlesex. From this time there will be no occasion to follow the Saxons in their several motions through the other parts of Britain, nor to take notice of the calamities and distractions which prevailed in them for some years. It is sufficient to mention, that henceforward the Saxons spread themselves more and more over the whole face of Britain, and made hasty advances towards that firm establishment in it, which they had been so many years contending for, and that whenever there are any transactions between them and the Britons, in which the kingdom of Kent is concerned, they will be taken notice of below, in the account of the reigns of the several Kentish monarchs.