Vortigern’s Rule: Rowena’s Poison

Rowena was the legendary Anglo-Saxon temptress who captivated Vortigern, King of the Britons.  Her father was the Anglo-Saxon chief Hengist and she was mentioned in the Matter of Britain.  She is often seen as a femme fatale who deliberately set out to seduce and captivate the King of the Britons to gain influence for her father and her people.  She is mentioned by Nennius in Historia Brittonum (History of Britain) in the 9th century and Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) written about 1136 and by Wace in Roman de Brut between 1150 – 1155. Although she is not a well known figure she played an important role in the fate of Vortigern and Britain in the years before the birth of King Arthur.   She played a large part in manipulating and undermining Vortigern for the benefit of her father Hengist and her Anglo-Saxon people.  Presented below is a retelling  of the story of Rowena according to Wace.

Hengist

Vortigern the  King of the Britons had employed the Saxon warlord Hengist to aid his defense of his realm and had been well pleased by the fighting prowess he and his warriors had shown in his service. Hengist, thinking that his service was worthy of reward went to him and requested a portion of land that could be encircled by the thong of a bull.  Within this circle he proposed to build himself a stronghold he could use as a base to serve the King of the Britons better and Vortigern had agreed. Hengist built his stronghold which became known as Thong Castle or Vancaster and asked permission of Vortigern to bring more warriors over from Germany to serve the King under his direction. In due time there came from Germany to the shores of Britain eighteen war galleys each filled with fighting men at arms but also carrying a rarer and more valuable cargo.   With them they had brought Rowena, the fair and beautiful unwed daughter of Hengist.

Rowena

To celebrate the building of his stronghold and the arrival of the ships Hengist invited Vortigern to a banquet in his new hall.  Hengist wanted to show off his new stronghold and for him to see the warriors who would man it, but there was also another reason. Vortigern was duly impressed by the stronghold and by the warriors who he accepted into his service. As the banquet progressed and as the wine flowed, from her chamber appeared the beautiful Rowena, dressed in the finest of clothes and bearing a golden cup overflowing with wine.

Walking gracefully up to Vortigern she knelt before him and offered him the cup saying,

 “Washael, lord king!”

Although Vortigern was most enthralled by this vision of loveliness kneeling before him and offering him a brimming cup of wine he did not understand her language.  Therefore he turned to Redic a Breton who understood the Saxon tongue for interpretation. Redric told him,

“The maiden saluted thee courteously, calling thee lord. It is the want of her people, sire, that when friend drinks with friend, he who proffers the cup cries, ‘Washael,’ and that he who receives answers in turn, ‘Drinkhael’. Then drinks he the half of this loving cup, and for joy and for friendship of him who set it in his hand, kisses the giver with all fair fellowship.” (1)

Therefore, Vortigern smiling at Rowena took the cup saying,

“Drinkhael”

and drank half the cup returning it to drink and kissed her. This Saxon custom of toasting would eventually become popular throughout the land.  A cup would be offered saying “Washael,” with the receiver saying “Drinkhael,” and the two sharing a kiss.

Vortigern had been drinking heavily and Rowena was an exceptionally beautiful women. She was also one of the most most sort after princesses in Europe. Now she stood before Vortigern finely and elegantly dressed and he feasted his eyes upon her and he was smitten. He was in a most merry and sociable mood and because of the wine his wits were dulled and as she knelt smiling before him offering him the golden cup, Vortigern, the King of the Britons fell under the spell of Rowena, the daughter of Hengist the Saxon.  Vortigern was a Christian and Rowena a pagan and any such thoughts of lust or marriage should have been strictly taboo but he was well and truly hooked.

Vortigern and the Devil

It was said the devil entered into him that night.  Vortigern could see no shame or wrong in her and lust burned hot in him.  He wanted her more than anything else and he begged Hengist for her hand in marriage.  After consultation with his brother Horsa and his other chieftains Hengist agreed on condition that Vortigern give to him the province of Kent as her dowry.

Without hesitation or consulting with his own advisers and nobles Vortigern readily agreed. Hengist was not slow in claiming Kent and forced out the incumbent lord named Garagon who Vortigern had neglected to inform of his loss creating much resentment among his nobles.

They now saw their King married to a pagan and showing a greater liking to them and their pagan ways than to his own countrymen who were Christians.  With Rowena as his wife and Hengist his father-in-law, Vortigern did indeed begin to give more favor and preference to the pagan Saxons causing great concern among the nobles of the Britons.

Saxon Reinforcements

Hengist was quick to take advantage of the the hatred the Britons now held against Vortigern and himself and went to him seeking to bring in reinforcements from Germany telling him,

“… men hold thee in hatred by reason of me, and because of thy love they bear me malice also. I am thy father, and thou my son, since thou wert pleased to ask my daughter for thy wife. It is my privilege to counsel my king, and he should hearken to my counsel, and aid me to his power. If thou wilt make sure thy throne, and grieve those who use thee despitefully, send now for Octa my son, and for my cousin Ebissa. There are not two more cunning captains than these, nor two champions to excel them in battle. Give these captains of thy land towards Scotland, for from thence comes all the mischief. They will deal with thy foes in such fashion that never more shall they take of thy realm, but for the rest of thy days we shall live in peace beyond the Humber.”  (2)

Vortigern agreed giving his permission to invite as men men as would fight for him. Hengist duly summoned his kinsmen to bring all who would follow them and they brought with them a fleet of three hundred ships filled with Saxon men-at-arms.  So many came that the Britons became concerned that a takeover by stealth was happening and when Vortigern dismissed their concern they went to his son Vortimer.

This new influx of Saxon warriors enraged the British nobles who began to talk darkly about their king.  Soon their anger and resentment turned to open revolt. Vortimer, Vortigern’s eldest son from his first wife,  took the leadership of the rebels and was joined by his younger brothers Caligern and Pascentius. The rebels made Vortimer, King of the Britons and he led them in a series of four battles eventually forcing the Saxons from the mainland. Vortigern chose to stay with his new wife Rowena and his father-in-law throughout the fighting and would not disown Rowena and her father Hengist or speak against the Saxons. As far as he was concerned they had served him bravely and faithfully and he stayed among them while his sons and the Britons led by Vortimer attacked and harassed them.

The Battles of Vortimer

Vortimer was a brave and skilful general and  drove the Saxons from the fortified towns, defeating them in four battles. In the first battle he defeated them on the banks of the Darent.  The second was fought at the ford near Aylesford. In the third battle Catigurn and Horsa dueled killing each other and in the fourth Vortimer pushed the Saxons back to the sea confining them to the isle of Thanet. There he harried them daily from his ships cutting off all supplies and exit.

Hengist, knowing they were trapped, sent Vortigern to his son to negotiate a safe passage from the island back to Germany for him and his Saxons.  While the negotiations were ongoing and with the Britons distracted Hengist and his Saxon warriors took to their ships in haste, leaving the women and children behind and escaping back to Germany.

With the Saxons gone the realm of the Britons was now at peace and Vortimer set about rebuilding the damage to the churches and the cities that the Saxons had been responsible for.  He rewarded those who had fought for him and restored Christianity and the laws of the Britons.

Rowena’s Poison

Rowena hated Vortimer for driving out her father and restoring Christianity.   She kept in touch with him while he was in Germany,and treacherously instigated the poisoning of Vortimer.   Realizing he was dying Vortimer called his barons together and shared out the treasures he had won and then with his last words said,

“take into your service warriors not a few, and grudge not the sergeant his wages. Hold one to another, and maintain the land against these Saxons. That my work may not be wasted, and avenged upon those who live, do this thing for their terror. Take my body, and bury it upon the shore. Raise above me such a tomb, so large and lasting, that it may be seen from far by all who voyage on the sea. To that coast where my body is buried, living or dead, they shall not dare to come.”  (3)

After this he died but the barons, perhaps foolishly ignored his burial wish and buried him in London.  Although this was the end of Vortimer it was not the end of the Saxon wars.

Once again Vortigern was made King of the Britons with Rowena one of his queens. She persuaded him to invite her father back bringing with him a small personal guard. Instead, Hengist on hearing his arch foe Vortimer was dead, raised an army of three hundred thousand warriors and built a fleet of ships in preparation for the invasion of Britain.

As soon as news of this development reached Vortigern and his barons they vowed they would meet the invaders in battle and drive them from their shores.  Through Rowena, Hengist learned of this intent and rather than risk open battle he decided to try a more devious approach that involved making a great show of supposedly peaceful intentions.  He sent ambassadors to Vortigern explaining that he had only raised such a vast army because he feared attack from his son Vortimer who he thought was still alive.  Since then he had now received news confirming his death and proposed to leave it up to Vortigern’s discretion who and how many should be returned home to Germany.   He then proposed that if Vortigern was in agreement that he should choose a time and place where they could meet together unarmed and in friendship to discuss any problems and make a peace treaty together.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

This suited Vortigern and he agreed and a peace conference was organised between the two parties scheduled for the kalends of May at at the monastery of Ambrius on Salisbury Plain.  The two sides were supposed to meet unarmed and in good faith to work out a peaceful solution to their problems. Maybe Vortigern was still under the spell of Rowena but he trusted Hengist completely and the Britons arrived unarmed.  Hengist was not so trusting of the Britons and had other designs in his mind. He  ordered that all of his followers should conceal in their clothing a long knife with which they were to attack the Britons with at his signal. As the conference got underway the wine and beer began to flow and the Saxons acted in a friendly and sociable way towards the Britons encouraging them to drink.  When Hengist deemed the time was right he gave the order for his Saxons to attack the nearest Briton. He spared Vortigern but the only other British noble to escape death was Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, who in a mighty effort fought his way to a horse and escaped.  This treacherous event had a profound effect on the Britons who called it The Treachery of the Long Knives because  it left them virtually leaderless in the face of the Saxon takeover.

Hengist had spared Vortigern because of his marriage to Rowena but also because he wanted to extract ransom, forcing  him to give him all of the fortified towns and places in Britain in exchange for his life. With the most part of the nobles of the Britons massacred the country was now controlled by the Saxons.  With all of the fortified places in the hands of Hengist, Vortigern was forced to seek somewhere to make a refuge for himself and Rowena and those few who still followed him.

The Death of Vortigern and Rowena

The world had turned against him and soon he was to hear news of the arrival in Britain of an invasion force led by Aurelius Ambrosius, the rightful heir to the throne of Britain and his brother Uther.  They were determined to regain the crown of Britain that Vortigern had usurped and joined by Eldol and the remaining Britons they besieged him in his hastily built stronghold and finally burnt it to the ground killing him and Rowena.

© 26/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2018 zteve t evans

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From the Mabinogion: The Dream of Macsen Wledig

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This was article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com 30/11/2017,  titled British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig written by zteve t evans.

British Legends:  The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig

The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the Mabinogion tells the story of how the Emperor of Rome experienced a dream in which he traveled to Wales, then met and became obsessed with a beautiful maiden named Elen. It is a story telling of a mythical past with legendary heroes involved in extraordinary adventures, that many people feel resonates today. The tales were created from traditional and existing works, using both written and oral sources, and were not original works. They were often reworked to reflect current issues, and are seen by many as an interpretation of a mythical past age while also providing an interpretation of the present. Presented here is a retelling of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ from The Mabinogion Vol. 2 by Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and Lady Charlotte Schreiber. 

Macsen Wledig

Macsen Wledig was an emperor of Rome who had thirty-two vassal kings in his retinue. One day, he proposed that they all join him for a day of hunting. The next day, bright and early, he set off leading the party into the countryside to a beautiful valley that a river flowed through on its way to Rome. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the party hunted throughout the valley until midday. With the sun at its height, Macsen Wledig suddenly began to feel very tired and ordered the party to take a break while he slept by the river.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

His servants made a shelter for him out of shields, made a place on the ground for him to rest his head. Then they left him in peace and he lay down, and as he fell asleep a strange dream came to him. He found himself following the river along the valley, and eventually reaching its source at the foot of a mountain that was as high as the sky. He travelled on over the mountain, and on the other side found himself travelling through a fair country which he deemed the most beautiful in the world. Travelling on, he came across the wellspring of a river and followed it towards the sea where it grew into the widest river he had ever seen.

The City by the Sea

Standing majestically at the mouth of the river was a fair city that was enclosed by the walls of a massive castle. Its tower and turrets reached high into the sky, and many flags and banners of all colours and designs fluttered gaily in the breeze. Below the castle wall in the mouth of the river lay a great fleet of ships. The greatest and fairest of these had planks of gold and silver, and a bridge of white whale bone spanned the distance from the harbour side to the ship. Macsen Wledig found himself walking slowly over the bridge to stand on the ship. As soon as he was on board, the bridge of bone raised itself and the ship set sail towards the distant horizon to an unknown destination. After many days, the ship came to a beautiful island and lay at anchor.

The Fairest Island in the World

In his dream, Macsen Wledig went ashore and explored the island; travelling through its forests and valleys and crossing mountains and moors from coast to coast. Never before had he seen its like, and he thought it the fairest and most beautiful island in the world. Eventually, he came to a place in the mouth of a river where a majestic castle looked out over the sea. He went down to the castle and entered through its gates. Inside, he found the fairest hall he had ever seen. The walls were studded with gems of all kinds that glittered and shimmered in the sun, and the roof was of gold and gleamed gloriously.

Inside the Golden Hall

Stepping inside the hall, Macsen Wledig saw many fine pieces of furniture and rich decorations wherever he looked. On the far side of the hall, he saw two young men engaged in a game of chess on a wonderfully ornate chessboard. Sitting in a chair of ivory by a pillar of stone was a man with a rugged face and wild hair. On his head, he wore a diadem of gold and on his fingers were rings of precious metals set with gemstones. Golden bracelets adorned his wrists and arms, and around his throat he wore a torc of gold. Although the man was seated, it was clear he had a powerful physique and bearing, and he was engaged in the task of carving chess pieces.

Sitting before this strange man on a chair of burnished gold was a maiden whose beauty was more dazzling than the sun, and Macsen Wledig was almost blinded by her radiance. In his dream, she rose from her chair and he rose from his and they threw their arms around each other.  Then they sat down together, and their faces drew closer, and they sat together cheek to cheek and were poised to kiss.

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Raven and the Haida People

The Haida people are native to areas of British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA. The  the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, is considered to be their heartland especially the two main islands.  The Haida tell many wonderful stories featuring Raven who in their mythology, legends and traditions is seen as a provider and bringer of light to humanity while also being a trickster.  It was Raven who was the transformer, healer and magician and yet is often presented as being greedy, lustful and mischievous. Yet despite these contradictions Raven is very much a cultural hero of the Haida.

Raven and the First People

In one creation myth they tell that before Raven all of the world was one enormous flood. The myth tells how there was once a time when there was nothing but water everywhere. One day Raven became bored and spread his wings and flew.  As he flew the waters began to recede. When Raven became hungry land was formed and Raven  settled on it and found food.

One day Raven heard strange noises coming from a shell.  This both intrigued and confused Raven. The strange sound from the clam became louder and more frantic and so Raven having a fine singing voice thought he would sing to it in the hope of soothing whatever was making the noise.  So Raven sung to it and eventually a small but extraordinary creature broke out of the shell. Indeed, it was a very peculiar with two legs, a head that was round and covered at the top in long black hair and soft skin. Unlike Raven it had no wings and no feathers.   This creature was the very first of the First People and more came from the shell and all of these were male.

To begin with Raven was intrigued but gradually grew bored with them and thought about putting them all back in the shell. Then he decided he would look for some females to keep all of these males company.   It so happened that Raven found some more people who were inside a another shell. Setting them free Raven discovered they were female people. He was enthralled as he watched how male and female interacted with each other and began to feel protective and responsible towards them.

Creation Myths

The Haida have other versions of  tales that tell how the world was created such as the one that follows.  There was a time when the world was just sky and water and in the water was a reef where the first beings lived.  The greatest of these beings lived upon the highest part of the reef and looked down on the lesser beings who lived on the lower parts of the reef.

Raven flew over the reef looking for a place to settle but could see no room to land. Therefore he decided to fly to the sky country and there he found the daughter of a Chief who had a young baby.   In the darkness of night Raven stole the child with the intention of taking its place as Raven Child.

Raven Brings the Sun, Moon and Stars

There is a very old story that tells how Raven brought the Sun, the Stars, the Moon and fresh water and fire to the world to benefit the people.  It tells how in the the beginning of the world the guardian of the Sun, Moon, Stars, fresh water and fire was Gray Eagle. He hated people and hid beneficial things from them. He hid the Sun, the Moon, the Stars and fresh water and fire from them and the people were cold and lived in darkness.

In these early days of the world Raven was pure white and he fell in love with the daughter of Gray Eagle who thought him very handsome in white.  One day she invited him to visit her in her father’s longhouse. When Raven arrived he saw that the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, along with fresh water were all hanging up around the sides of Gray Eagle’s home. When he knew no one was looking he stole them and also took a burning brand from the fire and flew out of the smoke hole in the roof  with his loot.  Flying up high in the sky he hung the Sun up and its light flooded out over the Earth lighting and warming  he day. In fact there was so much light he could see far enough to fly out across the ocean to an island situated in its middle .  When the Sun wet down he hung up the Moon and Stars in different parts of the sky and by this light he flew back to the land carrying the fresh water and the firebrand.  

When he reached the land he found what he thought was a good place and dropped the fresh water.  Where it landed on the ground became the source of all of the freshwater that creates all of rivers, lakes and  streams in the world today.

Raven flew on holding the flaming brand in his beak and as he flew the smoke from the fiery brand flowed over his snowy white feathers turning them black. As he flew the brand burnt smaller and smaller and eventually it began to burn his beak and Raven was forced to drop it.  The burning brand fell from the sky and crashed into rocks and instantly concealed itself inside of them. This is how the sparks that appear when two stones are struck together got in the stone and why we can make fire from them.

As for Raven he lost his white plumage after it was covered in soot from the firebrand and that is why today all of his feathers are black.

© 11/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 11th, 2018 zteve t evans

Haida Tales: Raven and the Coming of the Salmon

The Haida are a native North American people living around Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands and parts of Alaska.  Their territory spans between British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA.  As islanders they lived in a rugged landscape with abundant wildlife and cedar forests, and developed an affinity with the sea which also provided food for them.  Over the centuries their environment helped to shape a rich and wonderful culture. One of the products of that culture was a mythology that produced stories that explained how the natural world around them worked.  Many of these stories feature Raven who has a twofold nature of being a provider bringing benefit to humans or a trickster. Presented here is a retelling of one of those stories.

The Coming of the Salmon

Long ago among the Haida people a little girl had a magnificent dream.  She dreamed of a beautiful fish that she had never seen before.  When she awoke from her dream she cried because she wanted the beautiful fish so much.  Her father who was an Haida Chief asked her why she cried and she described the fish to him.  However, he could not help her because he had never seen such a fish and did not know where to find one.  So he went among his people and described the fish to them and asked them if they knew where he could find one. The people had seen plenty of fish of many different kinds but they had never seen a fish like the one his daughter described in her dream and could not help him.

Meanwhile his little daughter continued to cry and cry and cry for what no one could give her.  She cried so much her health began to fail. Her worried father called a Great Council of the medicine men and chiefs from the neighboring villages to seek their help. They all came and sat around the fire in his great lodge.  After all the formalities were over he told them of the dream that was upsetting his little girl.  He described the fish to them as she had told him and asked if they knew anything of it.

All the chiefs and all of the medicine men listened carefully to what he said. They thought long and hard but none of them knew anything of the big, beautiful, fish or where it could be found.  Then one medicine man stood up and after paying his respects tothose present said,

“Our Chief’s daughter weeps for something from a dream that we have never seen.  None of us have seen a fish likes she describes. There are many fish in the waters and some are big but not as big as she describes.  If we could find such a fish our people would benefit greatly. Maybe there is one among us who knows where such a big and beautiful fish can be found.”

Then one very old and  wise medicine man stood up and after paying his respects to all present said,

“With the agreement of this council I will go to the cedar trees where my good friend Raven lives and ask him for his counsel.   He is very wise and knowledgeable and I ask permission to bring him before the Council and seek his advice.”

All of the chiefs and the medicine men agreed so he went to Raven to ask if he would attend the council and bring his wisdom to bear on the problem. Raven agreed and returned with his friend the old medicine man who sat before the council with the wise bird perched on his shoulder.  Thus spoke Raven,

“I know the fish in the dreams of the daughter of the chief. I know its name and where it lives.   She is dreaming of a big and beautiful fish called a salmon. These fish live a long way from here at the mouth of a great river.   The Haida people are my friends and so I will fly far and swift and I will bring back a salmon.”

With that Raven flew fast and hard high up in the sky until he saw far below the mouth of a mighty river opening into the sea.  Circling around he saw swarms of salmon swimming in the sea. Swooping down quickly he caught in his claws the small son of the Salmon Chief and flew quickly back to the village of the Haida people with the fish in his talons.

The Salmon Chief was shocked at the loss of his son and sent out scouts who leapt high in the air out of the water and saw the direction in which Raven flew.   The Chief Salmon called together his people and they followed their scouts in pursuit.

Arriving back at the Haida village Raven dropped the salmon before the young daughter of the chief.  Immediately on seeing the fish she stopped her crying and laughed and clapped her hands in delight. Then Raven told the old medicine man that many, many, salmon now followed him and would soon be swimming into the mouth of their river.

The medicine man then told the counsel what Raven had said and it was decided that a great net would be woven ready for their arrival.  When the salmon swam into the mouth of the river many of them were caught in the net. To keep all of the salmon from escaping the people passed a leather thong through their gills tying one end to a large boulder and the other to the people’s great totem which was a living cedar tree.  They named it ‘Nhe-is-bik’ and carved the images of a Thunderbird, a chief, and a salmon upon it.   This was the beginning of a magical event that happened from then on every year as the salmon returned looking for their lost son.

© 04/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2018 zteve t evans