Vortigern’s Rule: The Treachery of the Long Knives


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’s Successes

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.

Eldol Escapes

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.

Vortigern Flees

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.

Nazi Germany

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

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Copyright November 15th, 2017 zteve t evans


The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons


Vortigern and Merlin and the Two Dragons – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Arthurian realm of legend and romance destiny and fate play essential parts in many of the legends and stories.  The practise of some writers from the Romances back to Geoffrey of Monmouth to link to earlier works and legends often gives a sense that the main characters and events are governed by some supernatural force that shapes destiny and fate. Events that happened many years and sometimes centuries earlier, become linked to important events in later legends and stories returning to the fore after lying dormant. One of these events involved two important players in the Arthurian world, both having played a part in shaping the destiny of Britain before Arthur was even born.  These two were Vortigern who usurped the throne of Britain and a young Myrddin Emrys, also known as Myrddin Ambrosius or Merlin.  Vortigern gained infamy and a reputation for treachery and weakness and Merlin became the sorcerer, counselor and soothsayer of the kings of Britain in his time.

Fate and destiny combine in strange ways and an event from the distant past resurfaced to cause King Vortigern a problem he could not have foreseen and the only person who could solve this was the then young and unknown Merlin.  The two were brought together on Dinas Emrys where Merlin was inspired to make one of his most famous prophecies on the fate of Britain.  Sometimes  called the Prophecy of the Two Dragons or  The Prophecy of Merlin, it reveals the coming of Arthur and the future of Britain, making  him the leading soothsayer and sorcerer of his time.

Vortigern’s Fortress

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the Treachery of the Long Knives, when the greater part of the nobility and leadership of the Britons had been brutally and treacherously murdered by Hengist and his Saxons, the wise men of King Vortigern, advised him to seek out a place where he might build a fortress as a place of safety to retreat to.

After searching what remained of his realm for a safe and suitable site he finally chose a rocky, wooded, hill about one mile from what is now called Beddgelert in Gwynedd, Wales, that rises to a height of about 250 feet above the valley of the River Glaslyn.  This hill was once called Dinas Ffaraon Dandde or fortress of Fiery Pharaoh, and later became known as Dinas Emrys which means fortress of Ambrosius.

Thinking he has found a good site Vortigern gave the command for the work on building the walls of the fortress to commence.   His builders worked hard building walls and towers in the daytime but no matter how far they progressed in a day, when they came back the next morning, they would find the previous day’s work in a heap on the ground.  Although the builders used all their skills and knowledge and worked as hard as they possibly could during the day, each morning they would return to find the previous day’s work once again in a pile on the ground. This went on for many days until Vortigern was obliged to seek help from his wise men. According to Nennius, a 9th century monk and writer, his wise men informed him that that he would have to seek out a young boy. “not conceived by a mortal man”. who would be sacrificed and his blood sprinkled in the mortar of the stonework in the hope of appeasing what ever dark power was hindering the construction of the fortress.

Myrddin Emrys

Vortigern sent his messengers out across the land seeking out such a boy.  After many days and much searching, one of the messengers returned with a boy named Myrddin Emrys or Merlin Ambrosius, who was the only boy they could find “not conceived by a mortal man”.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, 1137) says that Merlin was believed to have been the the son of an incubus, or demon and his mother was mortal and was a nun.   With the incubus representing Satan and the nun representing Jesus Christ, or God, he had been born from two opposing powers.  As such he was said to have inherited the wisdom, knowledge and powers of both of these forces.  He was brought before Vortigern who told him the fate he intended to inflict upon him.  Geoffrey says,

“A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?” “That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”

However, according to Geoffrey, Merlin was not intimidated by Vortigern.  Instead, he spoke with power and authority, demanding to know where he had got this idea from. He then declared to Vortigern he would reveal the real reason why the construction of the fortress was unsuccessful.


Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern – By Unknown illustrator. Per Nigel Morgan Survey, probably London, 1250 or earlier. Style of Matthew Paris, but not him. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Prophecy of the Two Dragons

Geoffrey of Monmouth then gives the following account of Merlin’s interview with Vorigern and his wise men,

“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?” “My wise men,” answered the king. “Order them hither,” returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;” then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement:” they acknowledging their ignorance, “there is,” said he, “a pool; come and dig:” they did so, and found the pool. “Now,” continued he, “tell me what is in it;” but they were ashamed, and made no reply. “I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;” they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions,” What is in the vases?” they were silent: “there is a tent in them,” said the boy; “separate them, and you shall find it so;” this being done by the king’s command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;” they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; “consider attentively,” said the boy, “what they are doing.” The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king,”

The wise men of Vortigern had no idea of what any these signs meant and could not hide their ignorance.  With growing confidence Merlin told them their meaning and then made a famous prophecy about the fate of Britain,

“I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.”

Merlin then explained that the problems with the construction were actually caused by the two sleeping dragons waking up and fighting each other.  He explained the Red Dragon represented the defenders of Britain which although exhausted and appearing defeated would eventually rise up and repulse  the White Dragon of the invading Anglo-Saxons.   He told of the coming of Arthur who he referred to as the Boar of Cornwall which would be the emblem on his banner and prophesied that six kings descended from Arthur would rule before the Anglo-Saxons returned to rule over Britain.

Then Merlin told Vortigern that he was not destined to build his fortress on this site.  He told him that fate had given the ownership of the hill to himself and told Vortigern he must seek elsewhere for a suitable site.  Vortigern followed Merlin’s advice and eventually settled on Cair Guorthegirn whom some scholars think may be Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed, but it is not proven and there are several other candidates. This was to be the place Vortigern met his death when it was burned down by Ambrosius and Uther, two brothers who attacked him out of revenge for killing another of their brothers who had been king.

For the defenders of Britain the prophecy of the two dragons was a momentous event, giving hope and inspiration for those who lived in those times to carry on the fight and was an important moment in the destiny of Britain and he went on to make further prophecies concerning the future of Britain beyond Arthur’s time. However, as with many other important events in the Arthurian world the seeds of this event were sown may centuries earlier before even the Romans ruled by a King of Britain named Lludd Llaw Eraint in the Mabinogion who in Geoffrey’s work is believed to be King Lud.

Lludd Llaw Eraint

The tale of Lludd and Llevelys from the Mabinogion reveals how these two dragons came to be placed in the pool on Dinas Emrys centuries earlier to be found later in Vorigern’s time and inspire the prophecy of Merlin.  In this tale Lludd and Llevelys are two brothers.  Lludd ruled Britain while Llevelys ruled Gaul.   There came a time when Britain was afflicted by three terrible plagues.  The first plague was that of the Coraniaid. The second was the plague of the two dragons.  The third was caused by a giant who would keep stealing the provisions from the royal stores.  It is the second plague that explains how the two dragons came to be entombed in the pool on Dinas Emrys.

The Plague of the Two Dragons

According to the tale they were placed there by Lludd acting on the advice of his brother, because they had caused Britain great fear and anxiety.   The story goes that every year on the eve of May Day a terrible shrieking scream was heard throughout the length and breadth of the realm which was caused by two dragons fighting each other.   One of the dragons was red and the other was white.   When the White Dragon fought the Red Dragon it caused it to make the fearful, shrieking cry.  It was this terrible scream that was heard throughout the country searing into the very hearts of the people causing great fear and anxiety among them.  The scream was so awful it caused strong men to wax pale and fall weak, women would lose their babies, and young men and maidens would become bereft of their senses. Furthermore, all creatures, plants and trees, waters and the earth itself became barren and infertile.  The plague was finally defeated when Lludd following the advice of his brother Llevelys set a trap for the dragons capturing and containing them.  He then buried them under the pool on Dinas Emrys which at the time was deemed to be the safest part of his kingdom.

His brother had advised Lludd that to capture the dragons he would need to dig a pit in the exact center of his kingdom.  After taking measurements from all corners of his realm Lludd determined that the center lay in a place now called Oxford.  He placed a cauldron of mead in the bottom of the pit and covered it with a sheet of satin.  To begin with the dragons took on the shape of terrifying animals and fell about fighting each other by the side of the pit. Then they transformed into huge winged beast and fought each other in the air.  Finally they exhausted themselves and transforming into pigs fell from the air landing on the covering of a satin sheet which gave way and they fell into the cauldron of mead.  Drinking the mead they fell into a stupor and fell asleep. Lludd then wrapped them up in the satin sheet and placed them in a stone coffin and took them to Dinas Emrys where they were placed under the pool on the hill.

Destiny and Fate

Centuries later Vortigern, seeking out a site to build a fortress, chose Dinas Emrys. There he encountered problems securing the foundations and sought to remedy this. According to his wise men he needed to sacrifice a boy “not conceived by a mortal man” and sprinkle his blood in the foundations.   Vortigern found such a being named Myrddin Emrys who made his famous prophecy and was to prove instrumental in ensuring the destiny of Britain unfolded.  This is how destiny and fate often come together to work in strange, unforeseen ways in the legends and romances of King Arthur.

© 05/07/2017 zteve t evans

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Copyright July 5th, 2017 zteve t evans

The legendary Brutus of Troy, first king of Britain

According to medieval legend the founder and first king of Britain was the Trojan exile known as Brutus of Troy, who was said to be the descendant of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. This claim was first documented in a ninth century text the Historia Britonum attributed to Nennius, followed by an account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Histori Regum Britanniae, in the 12th century. Brutus does not appear in classical works and is not regarded as being a historical figure by most historians.

In a hunting accident when Brutus was in his teens he killed his father with an arrow and was punished by being exiled from Italy. Brutus left Italy and traveled among the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea and spent time in Gaul, founding the city of Tours. Eventually with a band of followers he arrived in Britain defeating the few giants that populated the country. Naming the country after himself and reigning over it until his death. His sons were to split Britain into three parts to rule over. Read more Continue reading