The Three Vigorous Ones of Britain
One of the lesser known and unsung heroes of the legend and mythology of the Britons was Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester. Although mentioned in History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth he is largely unknown but his story tells of treachery and revenge in wild, wild times. He was also known as Eldol the Mighty and was also mentioned in the Triads of Britain by Iolo Morganwg, as one of the Three Vigorous Ones of Britain. The other two were Gwrnerth of the sharp shot, who shot and killed the greatest bear that had ever lived using a straw arrow and Gwgawn of the mighty hand. Gwgawn alone rolled the Stone of Maenarch, which normally needed sixty of the strongest oxen to move it, from the bottom of the valley to the top of the mountain.
Eldol gained his place as one of the vigorous three because he survived the terrible event in the history of the Britons known as the Treachery of the Long Knives by fighting his way free. He also joined with the new King of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius and burnt the traitor King Vortigern in his tower. Then he fought for Aurelius against the Saxons dueling with and capturing alive their warlord Hengist bringing him to face the justice of the King of the Britons.
The Treachery of the Long Knives
The event that became known as the Treachery of the Long Knives happened when Vortigern, the King of the Britons invited the Saxon warlord, Hengist to a peace conference at a monastery on the mythical Mount Ambrius on Salisbury Plain. All participants were supposed to attend unarmed and this rule was strictly followed by the Britons. However, Hengist had ordered his chieftains to conceal a long knife in their clothing to use at his command. They were to act in a peaceable and friendly manner and socialize with the Britons putting them at ease. When Hengist gave the agreed signal the Saxons stabbed the nearest Briton to them. This act of treachery resulted in the deaths of most of the leading Britons. Only Eldol and Vortigern of the Britons survived the attack. Eldol found a wooden stave which he used with deadly effect to kill six hundred and sixty Saxons in a desperate fight between the setting of the sun and darkness before fighting his way to a horse and escaping to his home town of Gloucester.
Vortigern was purposely spared on the orders of Hengist because he was married to his daughter, Rowena, but also to draw ransom from and to manipulate further. In return for his life Hengist demanded all of the fortified towns and places of the Britons be handed to him. With no other choice Vortigern agreed virtually handing over the rule of Britain to him. This event profoundly affect the ability of the Britons to resist the Saxons as they were now virtually bereft of experienced leadership and no strong places. Vortigern, in an attempt to keep himself safe, looked for a site where he could build a place of strong refuge now that Hengist had all the fortified places of the Britons.
Merlin and the Two Dragons
At one site he made continued attempts to build a tower but the works would keep falling down overnight. He was advised by Merlin that underground was a pool of water and that was what was making the walls fall down. In the water there were two dragons; one red and one white that had been imprisoned there many, many, years ago in another age by KIng Lludd.
Merlin advised Vortigern to drain the pool and the dragons were revealed and set about fighting each other. The red dragon drove out the white after a long and violent struggle. Merlin told him this represented the victory of the Britons over the Saxons and advised him that he saw two deaths for him. One from the Saxons and one from the Britons but he could not say which would come first. He also prophesied the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius who would unite the Britons and be crowned their king. He would drive out the Saxons and come looking to avenge his father and elder brother who had been murdered by Vortigern when he usurped the throne. He made it clear his fate was sealed and the only question was who would get to him first.
Eldol and the few nobles who were left who had not been present at the massacre of the Britons by Hengist stepped up to take the leadership of the Britons and now joined forces with Aurelius recognising him as the rightful heir to the throne and making him their King. They wanted him to drive out the Saxons first and then bring Vortigern to justice for bringing them in in the first place but Aurelius refused insisting Vortigern would be dealt with first. Eldol paid homage to him and told him how he had survived the Saxon treachery and of those who had fallen.
The Burning of Vortigern
Aurelius listened sympathetically but made it clear he wanted to defeat Vortigern first saying,
“See, most noble duke, whether the walls of this city are able to protect Vortigern against my sheathing this sword in his bowels. He deserves to die, and you cannot, I suppose, be ignorant of his desert. Oh most villainous of men, whose crimes deserve inexpressible tortures! First he betrayed my father Constantine, who had delivered him and his country from the inroads of the Picts; afterwards my brother Constans whom he made king on purpose to destroy him. Again, when by his craft he had usurped the crown, he introduced pagans among the natives, in order to abuse those who continued steadfast in their loyalty to me: … Now, therefore, my countrymen, show yourselves men, first revenge yourselves upon him that was the occasion of all these disasters; then let us turn our arms against our enemies, and free our country from their brutish tyranny.” (1)
Wasting no more time, Aurelius and Eldol then put on their armour together intent on the destruction of Vortigern. Aurelius set siege engines to work to break down the walls of the defenses but these failed. Determined to waste no more time he ordered the moat be drained and filled with wood and combustible material and set ablaze. He commanded his archers to let fly burning arrows into the stronghold that found plenty of fuel. Vortigern was burnt to death in the tower of his last refuge along with his wives.
Defeating the Saxons
With Vortigern defeated the King of the Britons turned his attention to Hengist and the Saxons and moved his army northwards to confront him. Hengist realised he had to fight the Britons head on or risk becoming trapped. To motivate his men he pointed out that they had the advantage in numbers telling them this would ensure victory. Then he moved his army to a place where he knew the Britons would have to pass through hoping to take them by surprise. However, Aurelius had anticipated this and quick marched his men to confront the Saxons before they were ready. He had given each regiment strict instructions and would himself lead the cavalry in a charge on the Saxon positions.
This had been the moment that a Eldol the Duke of Gloucester had been yearning for ever since the Treachery of the Long Knives. His big hope was to find Hengist on the battlefield and engage in single combat to the death with him. Many of the Britons also had old scores to settle against the Saxons and were determined to avenge the crimes they had committed against them. Even so, the Saxons were still a powerful army and to defeat them would require a massive effort by the Britons.
With the arrival of the Britons the battle was quick to flare up and raged with unrestrained ferocity from both sides. Eldol scoured the field searching out Hengist but the fighting was to thick and fierce and in the fray it was impossible to find him. Despite urging his men on and presenting a fine example of bravery and leadership Hengist realised the Britons had gained the advantage and led his men in a retreat to the town of what is now Conisburgh.
Again Hengist resisted taking his army into the city fearing Aurelius would lay siege to it preventing escape. He knew his Saxons were still a powerful force and he marshalled them and regrouped outside the town and prepared them to face the Britons outside the town. His thinking was that he would rather defeat them in outright battle of force a way through and escape heading for Scotland, or to their ships on the coast.
Aurelius wasted no time and attacked the Saxons on arrival and there began a most terrible and bloody battle. The Britons attacked with all their might hoping to overpower the Saxons who fought back courageously. Seeing the ferocity of the Saxon defense Aurelius sent in cavalry against them breaking their ranks and preventing them from regrouping and causing confusion. This disarray encouraged the Britons who attacked now with greater ferocity.
Aurelius again urged the cavalry against the Saxons driving them before him. Eldol fighting on foot leading the infantry took the fight to the Saxons killing all in his path but always seeking out his deadly archenemy, Hengist. Eventually the two met face to face and a deadly duel followed. Hengist was a skilled swordsman and as ferocious as any warrior and Eldol the champion of the Britons now had his wish come true and while the battle raged all around them the two fought one another in a ferocious duel.
At times Hengist drove forward against his opponent but Eldol parried blow after blow and through the power in his arms and body and the steel of his will fought back. Hengist recovered and again with his swordsmanship began to take the advantage but at that moment the arrival of a fresh contingent of cavalry led by Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall gave renewed energy to the Britons and Eldol surged forward and managed to take a strong grip on the war helmet of Hengist and catching him off balance pulled him into the ranks of the Britons.
A clamour rose among the Britons for Hengist to be killed immediately. Eldol refused telling them that Hengist would face the justice of Aurelius Ambrosius, the King of the Britons. He had him bound in chains and taken from the battlefield to await the justice of the king. With Hengist now in their hands the Britons gained great heart and fought harder. Although the Saxons had lost their general and great inspirational leader they continued to fight on but gradually, lacking his direction they were steadily and surely pushed back until they were forced to flee for their lives.
The Vengeance of Eldol
With the Britons victorious Aurelius decided to rest his army in Conan driving out any remaining Saxons. Then he gave orders for the dead to be given a proper burial and tended the wounded of his own army and rested his troops. To help him decide the fate of Hengist he called a council of his lords and bishops and had Hengist brought before him. Eldad the bishop of Gloucester and the brother of Eldol stood up and said,
“Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.” (2)
Aurelius and all those present unanimously agreed that this would. Therefore, Eldol led Hengist from the council and executed him as had been decided. King Aurelius Ambrosius who always showed respect to others ordered that earth should be raised over the body of Hengist as was the traditional burial practice of the Saxons in their homeland. So it was that Eldol who had survived that terrible night of Saxon treachery came at last to wreak his vengeance on his archenemy, Hengist and become one of the mightiest heroes of the Britons.
© 12/07/2016 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright zteve t evans
- [PDF] History of the Kings of Britain – York University (1) Pages 125 -126; (2) Page 130
- Triads of Britain (1807) by Iolo Morganwg, translated by William Probert
- First image by James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Second image James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons