By Noel Sylvestre (1847-1915) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Treachery and Betrayal
The Treachery of the Long Knives was a legendary event that was allegedly inflicted upon the unsuspecting British King Vortigern and his chieftains by the Saxon mercenary leader Hengist in the 5th century. It was seen as a supreme act of treachery and betrayal by the Britons and is mentioned in the 6th-century work Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius. Later Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century in his work Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) presents a slightly different version. The work presented here is drawn from both versions.
Hengist and Horsa
The legend tells how after Vortigern had usurped the crown of Britain he turned to the Saxons led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa for help in fighting the Picts and Gaels who were ravaging his kingdom. The Saxons proved an effective fighting force driving out his enemies. As a reward for their services he gave them the Isle of Thanet, Kent, as well provisions and gifts in gratitude.
Despite being richly rewarded the Saxons were not satisfied with the land and gifts and had a bigger game plan in their minds which they kept secret from Vortigern. They wanted Britain to rule for themselves and had a plan to get their way. Hengist and Horsa cleverly manipulated Vortigern into allowing them to bring in more of their people from overseas in the pretense of helping to secure Britain from its enemies. They were hugely successful in battle and in return for their services in securing his kingdom they successfully persuaded Vortigern to grant more land and let them bring in more of their people.
Vortigern had become infatuated with the daughter of Hengist whose name was Rowena. Hengist gave her to him in marriage to curry favor, reinforce his web of deception and to have another hold over Vortigern. All along he had loftier designs and all the time was planning and plotting to overthrow Vortigern and take control of Britain. Vortigern allowed more and more Saxons into Britain giving them land in the north of the country to protect the rest of Britain from raids from Scotland, but as their numbers grew so did their power. The growing power of the Saxons and the increasing dependence of Vortigern on them and the favor he showed to them began to concern some of his own warlords including Vortimer his son. With backing from other British nobles and barons, he took the crown and attacked the Saxons finally defeating them after four battles.
Vortimer fought the Saxons courageously and successfully while his father remained with Hengist. During one of the battles, Horsa was killed and some accounts say it was by Catigern, another of Vortigern’s sons. Some accounts say they met in battle and fought in a duel killing each other, though it cannot be verified. After Vortimer had successfully driven out Hengist and the Saxon, he was poisoned, allegedly by Rowena, who was now his step-mother, being the wife of Vortigern and the daughter of Hengist. After the death of his son, Vortigern retook the crown of Britain and at Rowena’s request invited her father back to Britain in a private capacity. He gave permission for him to bring a small and limited armed entourage to provide protection for him and his servants. Hengist had feared Vortimer but hearing that he was dead instead of bringing a small entourage assembled an army of three hundred thousand warriors and built a fleet of ships to carry them to Britain.
When the news of such a vast warlike army reached Vortigern and his princes and barons they were angry and vowed to fight and drive them from Britain. Rowena sent a message warning her father that the Briton’s intended to fight and Hengist set about making a new plan. He considered several different approaches and in the end settled for a great show of peace towards Vortigern and the Britons.
He sent envoys to Vortigern with a message of lies claiming that he had not raised such a great army to stay with him or threaten Britain. The reason he claimed to have brought them was that he believed Vortimer still lived and he feared he would be attacked by him. However, now he had received news confirming his death and therefore he proposed that he put himself and his army to the judgment of Vortigern. It would be up to him to decide who and how many should stay and who and how many should return home. He further proposed that if this plan was agreeable to Vortigern that he should decide a time and place where they could meet and discuss the details together.
The Treachery of the Long Knives
Vortigern was pleased with the proposal and accepted. He had been unhappy that Hengist and his people had been driven out by his son and sent a message back with the envoys saying they would meet at the monastery of Ambrius on the kalends of May which were near. The peace discussions would take place at a banquet where the matters would be discussed peacefully no weapons were to be carried.
With these matters agreed, Hengist invented a new more villainous plan and ordered that all his men were to conceal a long knife in their clothes at the banquet. When the wine was flowing and the Britons suitably relaxed he would shout, “Nemet oure Saxas”. His men would then stab the nearest Briton to them. With this villainy in mind, Hengist and his Saxons attended the conference at the appointed time and place. When he deemed it an appropriate time he shouted his command which the Britons not knowing their language did not understand. His Saxons took out their long knives and stabbed the nearest unarmed and unsuspecting Briton. While this was taking place Hengist took Vortigern prisoner.
The Saxons killed all except one of the unsuspecting and unarmed Britons who had come expecting to talk peace. Nevertheless, although surprised and unarmed they fought bravely and ferociously and succeeded in killing a great number of Saxons before the fell. Only Eldol, Earl of Gloucester got away having found a wooden stake which he used with deadly effect as a weapon fighting his way to a horse and escaping. He would later join up with Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther to take revenge on both Vortigern and Hengist. He held Vortigern responsible for bringing in the Saxons and whose foolishness had allowed the massacre. He hated Hengist the Saxon leader and perpetrator of the bloodbath as enemy of Britain and betrayer of good faith.
According to Nennius three hundred were killed but Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed as many as four hundred and sixty of the ruling barons and nobility of Britain had been killed and these were buried by bishop Eldad who gave them a Christian burial near the monastery of Ambrius near Salisbury. This had been a disaster for the Britons and had a profound effect on the British psyche. It derived them from many of their barons and war leaders making it possible for Hengist to effectively take control of the country virtually unopposed.
Hengist now with Vortigern at his mercy demanded that he give to him the strongholds and fortified cities of Britain or be killed. With no other choice, Vortigern gave Hengist everything he demanded. With Britain effectively bereft of leadership, Hengist marched his army to London laying waste the countryside along the way and occupying that city. With London secure, he then took Winchester, York, and Lincoln burning and raising towns and villages along the way.
When Vortigern saw the destruction the Saxons wreaked upon Britain he fled to Cambria having no other idea of what to do knowing he could not stand against them. Calling together his wise men he asks their advice. After consulting together they agreed he should find some strategically defensive place where a strongly fortified tower could be built that would offer him safety, for now, he had no safe place to stay anywhere in Britain. The place he chose was believed to have been Dinas Emrys but it did not prove to be a good choice as the building works kept tumbling down.
The Prophecy of Merlin
It was here Merlin comes to play an important role in the affairs of Britain. Merlin prophesied that there were two dragons, one red and one white, buried in a pool under the foundations which was the reason why the walls fell down. Furthermore, it was here that he prophesied the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther the rightful heirs to the crown of Britain with an invasion force to reclaim the throne from him. With news of their arrival, the surviving war leaders flocked to his banner and Aurelius was made the king.
Significantly, Merlin also prophesied the defeat of the Saxons by the Boar of Cornwall, the symbol of Arthur Pendragon, who would eventually be king. He told Vortigern he needed to find another site for his fort and that he faced two deaths. One from Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther when they caught up with him. The from the Saxons and Merlin told him he did not know which it would be. It so happened that Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, with the help of Eldol, caught up with him first burning him and his wives to death in their stronghold. They would then turn their attention on Hengist and succeeded in defeating the Saxons.
Once Britain was at peace, King Aurelius instructed his brother Uther and his adviser, Merlin to bring him the Giant’s Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland. After Uther had defeated the Irish king Merlin transported the Giant’s Dance to Britain and installed it at Ambrius. There it made a fitting monument to the victims of the Treachery of the Long Knives. Both he and Uther were buried there when their time came both and both were killed by treachery and the term became synonymous with betrayal and deceit through the ages.
The term was believed to have been adapted to describe a purge that took place in Nazi Germany from 30 June to 2nd July, 1934 and called The Night of the Long Knives. This was a series of extrajudicial killings of leading members of the Nazi’s own paramilitary organization, the Sturmabteilung but also known as the Brownshirts, because of the color of the clothes they wore. Hitler believed the Brownshirts had become a threat to his political power and the purpose of the murders was to strengthen his grip on power in Germany. Such was its power that variations of the term are still used to describe sudden political purges around the world yet there is no proof that the event ever took place.
© 15/11/2017 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright November 15th, 2017 zteve t evans
- [PDF] NENNIUS – History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum … – York University
- [PDF] History of the Kings of Britain – York University –
- Treachery of the Long Knives – Wikipedia
- Historia Brittonum – Internet History Sourcebooks Project
- File:The murder of Raymond Trencavel.jpg – From Wikimedia Commons – By Noel Sylvestre (1847-1915) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons