Hengist and Horsa: A new Light on the Old English foundation legend
I am finalising the research on a piece on the legendary Anglo-Saxon culture-heroes 'Hengist and Horsa' arguing that their origin may lie in a misreading of a Kentish place-name which also provides us with a definitive answer to where exactly the Romans landed in their invasion of AD43 as well as disproving the currently held theory on the landing place of St Augustine in AD597.
From The Ford of the White Horse –
New light on the old English legend of Hengist and Horsa
“No spot in Britain can be so sacred to the Englishman as that which first felt the tread of English feet” so said the Oxford historian J R Green. But what if the place has been misidentified for over a millennium?
According to legend Hengist and Horsa were the first English leaders invited by the British king Vortigern to help defend the shores from the Picts after the Roman legions had left. Legend states that these brothers landed at Ebbsfleet on the south of the isle of Thanet – and ever since this spot – now marked by the cooling towers of Richorough power station – has born the sacred honour. Hengist and Horsa, the legend says, rebelled against their Celtic overlord and ended up seizing what was to become England. In this book I will show that this event is far from historical – that it stems from a Celtic invasion myth that has been entwined around a dim memory of the Roman invasion of Britain – and I will show that it can be relocated from Ebbsfleet in Thanet to the Roman invasion site of Richborough – questioning both our sense of English origins and history. What’s more, I will show that it was also here, not on the Isle of Thanet, that St Augustine landed to convert the English in 597AD.
Beginning with the legend of Hengist and Horsa I will show how the story of these two brothers, both of whose names mean horse, reveals rich seams of earlier myths beneath its historical veneer. I will show how the Kings of Kent looked on these figures as ancestors of the royal line, and from these the royal white horse symbol of Kent originated. But looking at Dark Age history we find a number of clues that these figure-heads are more than they seem. And that looking at Dark Age sources we can identify a number of battles involving them (the ‘ford of Epis’ or ‘RitherGabail’ – usually translated as Ayelsford in Kent) which I will argue were at the Roman port of Richborough near Sandwich ancient Rutupiae – that derives from an ancient Celtic name meaning ‘ford of the horses’...
The Anglo-Saxon chronicle tells us that in 449AD the brothers Hengist and Horsa arrived on British soil from the Continent. Tradition tells us that they were invited by a tyrant named Vortigern as mercenaries to fight the Picts who were terrorising Britain from north of Hadrian’s Wall. Hengist and Horsa, however, after being granted lands in Kent, rebelled against their overlord – inviting more shiploads of Saxons who would in time drive out the native Romano-Britons and establish the Kingdom that would become England.
This legend has to a greater extent been seen as factual, and the landing spot of these brothers, Ebbsfleet on the east coast, is today marked by a nearby Viking ship at pegwell bay, sailed from Denmark in 1949 to celebrate the anniversary of their arrival.
But what if the location of this landing spot is incorrect and in following clues to its original whereabouts we were to uncover proof that the arrival of these brothers was not history but an invention based on a misreading of an ancient text?
My argument will proceed as follows:
1. Regarding the name ‘Ebbsfleet’ located in modern-day Thanet, I will show that the place-name is pre-Saxon and is present in the Roman name for the settlement (and once port) of Richborough a mile north-west of Sandwich. Richborough was the site of the Roman invasion of 43AD, and in latin was known as Rutupiae or Ritupis.
2. The name Rutupiae comes from a Celtic word for ford, (modern day Welsh ‘Rhudd’) plus an element ‘upis’ which can be explained by a later Welsh chronicle that refers to the site as ‘Episford’. Epis, I will argue is derived from an old Celtic word for horse, epos. This is seconded by the same Welsh Chronicles translation of Episford into ‘Rithergabail’, the first element being ‘ford’ and ‘-ergabail’ meaning ‘of the horse/cavalry.
3. The name Rutupiae, ford of the cavalry/horses, suggests this was a name given to the place following the arrival here in 43AD of the Roman invasion force, with its large number of cavalry units. This is especially important once it is realised that often this word was used to express ‘invasion’.
4. From the above it follows that the word ‘Ebbsfleet’ derives from the same ‘Epis’; but what is interesting is that the Saxon church built at Richborough was known as Fleet church. From this I will conclude that the ‘Ebbsfleet’ where Hengist and Horsa first arrived was the old Roman port of Rutupiae, with its towering walls – a likely place to put a mercenary force, and on the road (Watling Street) direct to Canterbury and London.
5. As the Anglo-Saxon chronicle shows evidence of the invention of personages to explain placenames (Porta for Portsmouth, for example) I will argue that similarly a person was invented to explain the placename ‘Epis’ in Ebbsfleet. This person does appear on the earliest Anglo-Saxon records – he is Ebissa, a relation (sometimes son) of Hengist. Strangely he seems to disappear from later genealogies.
6. I will argue that Ebissa, this invented character, appeared in the early chronicles, but because his name was derived from Celtic, a gloss was inserted in such genealogies to explain it to Saxon readers – therefore it would have appeared Ebissa (Horsa – ‘horse’) or Ebissa (Hengist – ‘stallion’). In time this was misread so that both name and gloss were seen as separate personages, though in some cases the gloss alone was kept, and Ebissa disappeared from memory.
7. It will only remain to show how this horse-named character soon accrued elements of a myth common in both the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon spheres – that of the twin-horsemen who conquer new lands – and so the legend of Hengist and Horsa was born. There does remain one other possibility, however – that such a legend had always been attached to this strip of coastline, where invasions had taken place throughout history and pre-history, and that the name Rutupiae might in some way refer not to the Roman conquest but to an earlier mythical arrival, and that Ebissa (or Epos) may have originally been some prehistoric culture bringer or god. What seems to hint at this is the fact that he is often twinned with a figure named Octa. It is a long-shot but the first element, Oc, is close to the Celtic ‘Eoch’, again meaning ‘horse’; the second element, ta/da could mean ‘god’. But maybe we are in danger of creating a figure, once more, out of names.