Hengist is in many ways the other half of Vortigern’s story, especially as it intersects with Arthurian legend.

But that’s not all there is to Hengist—maybe. There’s a Hengest mentioned in something called the Finnsburg Fragment and also in Beowulf, in which a scop (bard) tells the story of the Battle of Finnsburg. Though, even in Beowulf, the tale is abbreviated, as if it was an allusion to a story the audience would be expected to know.

Between the two, they describe Hnaef (a Danish prince) visiting his sister’s husband Finn (a Frisian or Jute) for the winter. Some dispute occurred, resulting in a night attack on Hnaef and his men. Hnaef and Finn’s son were both killed in the battle. Hengest took over Hnaef’s war band and negotiated a deal with Finn. But that deal was breached in some way and in revenge Hengest attacked and killed Finn and his men.

Now, it’s far from certain that this Hengest of legend is the same Hengist hired by Vortigern. But it certainly presents some interesting dramatic possibilities. Neither one appears to be someone who took broken promises lightly. And that’s what seems to have gone wrong between Hengist and Vortigern, according to tradition.

The History of the Britons, written in the 9th Century, has it that three ships of exiled Germanic warriors arrived in Kent. That they might have been exiled is interesting given the story about Hengest killing his host, above. This would have been sometime between 445 and 450. The History doesn’t mention Vortigern inviting them, but it does say that he welcomed them and gave them the island of Thanet (the eastern tip of Kent), on which they had landed. (Thanet would have been an island then, though it isn’t now.) Vortigern then agreed to supply them with clothing and food in exchange for their military help against his enemies. So far, a fairly standard foederati agreement. But it was difficult for Vortigern to keep that agreement.

Check the map. If true, Vortigern would be trying to send supplies through enemy territory. The Belgae and Attrebates held the territory to the south of the Thames while the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes held the area to the north of the river and may have had a foothold to the south of London as well (Surrey). Vortigern wasn’t on good terms with any of them. In fact, they’re the best candidates for the enemies he wanted Hengist and his men to fight for him.

In any case, when Vortigern failed to deliver the promised supplies, Hengist rebelled. The first battle, at Aylesford in Kent seems to have been against Vortigern around 455. The next battle in about 457 was at Crayford possibly against Vortigern’s son, Vortimer. At any rate, Hengist seems to have been the undisputed ruler of Kent from this point.

His two later battles, in about 465 and 473, are more difficult to place and the opposing British forces are not named. It could have been Vortigern or Vortimer. Or against tribes neighboring Kent—the Catuvelauni or the Regni. The gap makes me think that it’s possibly a separate campaign, either against other Britons trying to oust Hengist or a war of expansion on Hengist’s part. If at least one of those battles was against the Regni, it would potentially be consistent with Gildas’s claim that Ambrosius turned back the Saxon advance.

In about 488, Oisc succeeds Hengist as king of Kent. Oisc is sometimes said to be Hengist’s son, but it is equally likely that he was the leader of a band of recently-arrived Jutes.

Vortigern, Part 2

I was going to write about Hengist, but it turned out most of what I had to say to start was really at least as much about Vortigern. So, I guess this is Vortigern Part 2.

Supposedly, Vortigern invited Hengist and his men into Britain. This isn’t actually as crazy as it sounds. The Romans had made extensive use of federated troops. This often meant groups of “barbarian” mercenaries who were permitted to settle within the empire in return for military service. After Rome had hired such foederati as the Vandals and the Visigoths, bringing a few Saxons, Angles, or Jutes into Britain may not have seemed like such a stretch.

However, the traditional idea that Vortigern brought them in to protect against the Picts . . . I have a lot of trouble with that notion. Even if Vortigern were in fact High King—which he wasn’t because the Romano-Celtic Britons could never have agreed to that—it still wouldn’t make sense. See, the Picts were all the way up in the northern and eastern portions of what is now Scotland. And Kent, the territory of the Canti, where Hengist landed . . . well that’s all the way down in the southeastern corner of what is now England. (See the map below.)

Now, I’m no military strategist, but it just makes better sense to me to put the defense closer to the potential enemy. The Romans left a very well-maintained wall (roughly indicated on the map) with forts and towers for just that purpose. Of course, Hadrian’s wall is well beyond Vortigern’s territory. Still, siting his defenses along his northern border, not the place farthest away from the threat, would seem more logical to me. That is, if the Pict’s were the threat.

However, as I mentioned last week, archaeology suggests that other British tribes had already started hiring Germanic troops and settling them along their tribal borders. In fact, the Catuvellauni might have done so first—a tribe with a history of expansionism that was a potential threat to Vortigern. Plus the Catuvellauni had tried to take Kent before the Romans came and they may be responsible for a string of Saxon settlements south of the Thames in what is now Surrey.

If the “northern threat” he was defending against was his neighbors, the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes . . . well, that makes some sense. Though, his eastern border would have made more. Clearly, I’m going to have to come up with some reason for Vortigern to even be paying attention to Kent, let alone hiring mercenaries to settle there. I have a couple of ideas to play with.


And now I’m going to start (I think) a series of posts on the major characters of this version of the Arthur legend. At least as they’ll appear in my story.

As I’m currently writing it, Merlin’s Gambit will start during the time of Vortigern and Ambrosius. Vortigern was quite possibly an historical character and Ambrosius almost certainly was. They may well have been roughly contemporaneous.

The “best” historical reference for that time that we have is Gildas, writing within a couple of generations of that time. Gildas was a sixth-century British monk, likely born and/or living somewhere in south Wales. He eventually moved to Brittany. In his own writing, he claimed to have been born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill–the battle in which Arthur is supposed to have decisively defeated the Saxons, but he never mentions Arthur. He also wasn’t writing a history, but a diatribe on the rulers of his time who weren’t living up to the example set by their predecessors in keeping the Saxons back. The title of his work, translated, is On the Ruin of Britain and he didn’t have much nice to say about any of the sixth-century rulers.

Gildas doesn’t name Vortigern, though his “superbus tyrannus” may be a play on Vortigern’s name which means something like “high king”. The superbus tyrannus, at any rate, is the one Gildas blames for letting the Saxons into Britain. Archaeologically, this seems a little unfair. It looks like several different regional rulers were using Saxons–or Angles, or Jutes–to defend their borders. Nevertheless, Vortigern certainly gets the blame in virtually all of the tales and he’ll get at least a share of it in mine, too.

Southern Britain Map New

I’ve included the map for reference.

To the extent that anything can be determined about Vortigern after about 1500 years, it looks like his power base would have been the area around Gloucester, or the territory of a Romano-Celtic tribe called the Dobunni and extending up the Severn Valley into the part of Wales that would later become Powys (territory of the Cornovi). He likely also exerted some political influence over other parts of Wales as well. And there’s good historical reason for bad blood between the Dobunni and the, in Roman terms, civitas to the south of them, the Belgae because the Romans had taken land away from the Dobunni to create the civitas of the Belgae (which is the likely center of Ambrosius’s power).

How Vortigern also held power of any kind in Kent (on the far southeastern corner of England and on the other side of the territory of several rival tribes) is a little trickier. I’m going to have to work a bit on that part. But all the legends claim it was Vortigern who invited Hengist and Horsa into England and that they landed in and eventually were given or took control of Kent (territory of the Canti). Kent became the first foothold of a Saxon (or possibly Jutish) kingdom in England.

But there’s some good drama in Vortigern’s story. He was, supposedly, married to Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus (a very historical person who took legions and militia from Britain in the late 4th century in a failed attempt to make himself Emperor of Rome). Later, presumably after Sevira’s death, he is supposed to have become enamored of Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, ceding Kent (which wasn’t his) to Hengist in exchange for Rowena’s hand in marriage.

In some versions of the story, Vortigern is killed in battle with Ambrosius.

Yep, my story is definitely starting with Vortigern–or, actually, with Merlin trying to deal with and influence Vortigern.


I missed posting yesterday. I just got busy. Oh, well, better late than never–or even later.

I’ve done a map for Merlin’s Gambit to help keep me on track as I write the story.

Southern Britain Map New

I’ve noted, as well as I can, the locations of the various tribes of southern Britain in the fifth century. And the places I think may be of importance tot he story.


I’ve done it again, haven’t I. Almost a month since my last post. All I can say is that I’ve been head down in research.

And it’s paid off. I now have a shape, a plan for at least the first part of my story that feels . . . if not actually historical, then historically possible. Well, except for the dragons, of course. But they’re kind of the inspiration for my version of the Arthur legend, so the dragons stay.

But I now have a more-or-less historical basis in which to set my story, which won’t resemble the usual tradition in several ways. It simply isn’t plausible for Arthur to be King of all Britain. There wasn’t any such thing until after England and Scotland were joined under one crown–well over a thousand years after Arthur could have existed. There wasn’t even a King of England until Alfred the Great (one of those Saxons whose ancestors Arthur would have been fighting against) at least 300 years after Arthur.

And it’s not really plausible that Arthur was somehow defending all of what would become England, either. So this story is going to have a much smaller geographical reach. But the research has given me a good idea of the general area in which a Vortigern and an Ambrosius might have been operating. And why they might have been enemies. And an idea of where to slot my Arthur into that context. So, we’ll see how this works out. I think I’m even going to figure out how to have Arthur born in Tintagel, though not, of course, in the way Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote it.

This doesn’t mean my research is finished. Far from it. Mostly it’s going to change direction. I need to get more background for the world building. What would these people wear? What kind of houses would they live in? What would they do when they weren’t fighting?

And, I’m probably going to have to do a similar research on the Saxons, but that can come later. For now, I’m ready to carry on with the story.



It’s been a little while since I posted, hasn’t it?

Well, some of that is because I’ve been writing. Not making any speed records, here. But I actually am writing. I’m also still doing research for this one.

Part of the goal is to get as reasonably close to history as practical–at least the history of the times, since there is no historical documentation of Arthur at all. That’s important because I mean to carry the story and at least Merlin forward beyond Arthur’s time. But Arthur’s time, to the extent that any part of the legend has a real basis, is the fifth century–the Dark Ages. And the reason it’s called the Dark Ages (beyond the fact that daily life almost certainly did get grimmer than it had been during Roman times) is that there just isn’t a lot of historical documentation. Archaeology to the rescue. Except that mostly what archaeology has turned up complicates the legend.

Before the Romans, the native Celtic Britons had been organized into dozens of small, tribal territories more likely to fight each other than the invading Romans. Which, of course, the Romans exploited. And the Romans had mostly left that ground-level organization in place, and just put a layer of Roman administration on top of it. So, when the Romans left, the Britons naturally fell right back into their tribal territories–and their inter-tribal warfare. And it’s most likely that several of those small tribal “kingdoms” hired Saxon or other Germanic warriors to help them out against their neighbors. Who then also hired Saxons to fight on their side. So the image of Arthur uniting the Britons to expel the Saxons is just not realistic.

And, at the same time, I want to keep enough of the legend that it is recognizable, but without all the flourishes that later writers, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, and Thomas Mallory added. Though, I am keeping Merlin even if Geoffrey of Monmouth mostly made him up. Just, well, my Merlin will be very different than Geoffrey’s.

I will not, for example, be using the story of Merlin disguising Uther so Uther can get into Tintagel and spend the night with Igraine. Sorry, but I’ve never liked that story and I like it less now. Frankly, it’s rape, since no one asked Igraine what she thought about it. And that’s not the kind of story I write. Anyway, having just written a couple of books inspired by the legend of Hercules it’s impossible not to notice that it’s basically a direct copy of the Greek myth of Hercules’s birth. Which I also didn’t use.

Right now, I’m writing the part where Merlin discovers there’s a dragon under Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern is trying to build a fort on top of the hill.

Oh, yes, there will be dragons.

I’ve gotten a very little bit of writing done. I know exactly how this next scene goes, so there’s not much excuse. Except that, with a bit of help, I finally accomplished something I’d been trying to do for some time.

See, one of the things about living in an old house is, sometimes, old appliances. The washer and dryer are/were not less than 25 years old and probably closer to 30. The washer still works, with a couple of tweaks, but the dryer had given up the ghost more than a year ago. It’s okay. Clotheslines still work, in some ways better. (Well, except when it’s raining.) The mud room/utility room/pantry/laundry room is about 5 1/2 feet wide by roughly 11 feet long. And the dryer was smack in the middle of one long wall taking up 30 inches of the 5 1/2 foot width of the room. Bad enough when it was useful.

I wanted it out. But I couldn’t get the gas valve (which hadn’t been turned off probably since the dryer was installed) to budge. Finally had to ask for help. But it’s done now. The dryer is out. The washer stays, for now. But eventually I’ll replace it with a combination unit that is both washer and dryer. Still a bit of cleaning and reorganizing to do. (The only thing the dryer had been used for recently was a flat surface to put things on.) But that tiny room feels enormous with that beast out. And coming in the back door doesn’t feel nearly so crowded.

So, now, maybe I can stop fussing with trying to get that out and settle down to write. Hopefully.

Before and After pictures:

Another Step

celtic dragon_46947764

Progress so far has been slow on MERLIN’S GAMBIT. But this week for the first time I have made notes in the document of what happens in this chapter and the next. This might not seem like much.

I’m a discovery writer. I don’t outline. Except that I usually have these notes for three to five chapters ahead in my work in process. So, this one is beginning to come to life as more than just a concept and a starting point.

After a long drought, it feels good.

While I continue to stew over various stymied home projects, I have made some progress on MERLIN’S GAMBIT–in a way.

In expanding my research, I came across something that was just too perfect to pass up. But using it meant starting the story a little later. It’s okay, the opening scene actually can be pretty flexible that way. So, I just rewrote a portion of dialog to make it fit the new time period.

Merlin’s Gambit is an alternate history (well, sort of) with dragons. And, well, I’ll just post the historical note that precedes the first chapter:

In the year 383, Britannia had been part of the Roman Empire for nearly four hundred years. Among other things, this meant the Britons enjoyed the protection of the Roman legions against raids by groups the Romans considered barbarians—the Irish from the west, the Picts from the north, and the Saxons from the east. In that year, the commander of the legions in Britannia, a man named Magnus Maximus, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. He took most of the legions with him to the continent to conquer Rome—or at least a significant portion of it. And he succeeded, for a while, ruling Britannia, Gaul, Hispania, and North Africa. Until he tried to add Italy to his domain and in 388 Emperor Theodosius I captured and executed Maximus and his son, though his daughters, Maxima and Sevira, were spared.

Britannia continued as part of the Roman Empire, though with reduced legions, until the year 410. An exceptionally cold winter a few years earlier had caused the Rhine River to freeze over and the barbarians who had been pushing at the northeastern borders of the Roman Empire poured across into Gaul. In 410, under the leadership of Alaric, the Visigoths sacked Rome itself. And the last remaining legions in Britannia were withdrawn, leaving the Britons on their own to defend against renewed raids. Britannia fractured into small kingdoms, echoing the Celtic tribal domains that had existed before the Romans came. But, with the experience of being part of the Roman Empire, they recognized that they needed someone to lead a common defense against the barbarians.

Little real history comes down to us from fifth-century Britannia, but there are legends. So many, many legends. Among them is one that claims that Magnus Maximus had married Elen, a Welsh princess. And that, when he left to make himself emperor, he left the sovereignty of Britannia to her father. Legend also says that Sevira, married a man named or called Vortigern, which, interestingly, means “high king”. Vortigern, though, made a serious mistake and it fell to an even greater legendary figure, Arthur, to preserve Romano-Celtic Britannia for his time.

Okay, so it took three days, but my computer is up and running–and recognizing me–again. Most of that time was making a backup of all my files before trying anything else. Carbonite backs up up everything, but I’ve not yet tried to download any of those files and a redundant backup on One Drive won’t hurt anything.

After that, the first recommended fix scared me to death, but it worked. Scared me because I know just enough to know that editing the registry is generally a very, very bad idea. But, like I said, it worked.

Now, I’m engaged in trying to find a user manual online for a (apparently) sixteen year old string trimmer. Yeah, no luck so far. I think I need to replace the string but without the user manual . . . .

Next I need to find out what I need to do to fix the really big string trimmer–the one that looks like a lawn mower but isn’t. It was smoking the last time I used it. And, even if it wasn’t really hard to find repair shops, etc., open right now, I don’t stand a snowball’s chance you know where of getting that monster into my trunk or, really, anywhere even a couple of inches off the ground.

Meanwhile, the only grass cutting tool I have is a pair of grass shears.

So far, I have not gotten any more real writing done, but at least I have been thinking about the story.