This is chapter Six of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Chapter One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters Two, Three, Four and Five in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, see www.liamguilar.com
The story so far. Mid Fifth Century; Hengist and his brother Horsa have sailed to Britain where they have been taken on as mercenaries by Vortigern, the newly appointed leader of the Province. Having defeated an army of Picts, Hengist has tricked Vortigern’s son into giving him land where he has built a stronghold.
Holding a feast to celebrate its completion, he intends to use the opportunity to introduce his daughter, Rowena, to Vortigern.
At which point I part company with the Medieval Story Tellers. I don’t believe a hard-headed war lord would throw away everything he’d worked for in his rush to get his hands on his servant’s daughter. While the story of the King who throws away his kingdom for ‘the wrong woman’ repeats throughout medieval versions of the Legendary History, it’s hard to find an historical ruler of Britain before the thirteenth century who did it.
The Wasshail ceremony, central to the story of Vortigern, is possibly a memory of a very old English custom.
Hengist’s hall, the feast raucous.
New arrivals at the long benches;
long haired, eager, boastful,
beside their wary British guests.
Behind a door, a room in candle light[i].
Shadows, female laughter. The maids
circle, bob and fuss, like dull moons
orbiting a blazing star. Rowena the still
pensive centre as clothing is adjusted.
They have sprinkled gold dust in her hair.
A jewelled necklace drags attention to her breasts.
A golden belt shows off her slender waist
and amplifies the outward flare of hips.
Hengist, watching from the door, sees her
for once, as any man sees any woman.
Knows lust will strangle Vortigern
and side step all his calculations.
Swats the unwanted images
that flicker bodies rutting on the furs.
What father wouldn’t trade his daughter for a kingdom?
What daughter wouldn’t for a crown?
But when she leaves this room,
she is no longer Hengist’s daughter
but the Wife of Vortigern the King.
Time to take the jewelled cup.
Surprised by her own fear,
thrown from this busy room
alone on the anticipated shore.
The boat has gone and left her here
in darkness. In the distance
Aestrild’s ghost grows restless[ii].
Her hands betray her, spilling wine.
The maids cower, apologizing.
While they clean the cup she will not look at him.
The second time her hands don’t shake.
No words. She moves towards the door.
If you would call her back, now is the time.
Hall-noise heralds the death of Hengist Father.
Who knew this could be so painful?
That she was beautiful,
no one who saw her will deny.
That it was beauty in excess
of human expectations,
all who saw her will attest.
That she was clever,
brave and loyal,
is yet to be revealed.
As she entered the riot of the hall,
she infected it with silence.
A ripple of turning heads,
Every man who saw her wanted her
but as she moved towards the King,
through the swamp of their desire,
their lust was spittle on a white-hot blade.
And though she moved with the grace of a swan on still water
he was a scarecrow staring at a golden avalanche
and she was the tidal wave bearing down on a mud brick wall.
She kneels before him and lifts the cup:
‘Lauerd king wæs hæil; For þine kime ich æm uæin.’
He looks up and she is sunlight exploding in his face,
shattering thought, making everything background
only except her face in focus, the world its dull penumbra.
Turning to Keredic, who mistranslates shock
as linguistic incompetence
and launches into cultural explanations:
‘It is a custom, in the Saxon’s land
where ever a company gathers to drink,
friend greets friend and says:
Dear friend, be well. The other says, Drinc hail.
The one that has the cup, he drinks it up.
The cup’s refilled. He gives it his companion
and when the cup is brought,
they embrace each other thrice.
This is the practice in the Saxon’s land.
and thought a noble custom throughout Germany.’[iii]
Take the cup, kiss her, drink.
Her breath brushes his cheek.
Her soft lips taste of wine and metal.
Four story tellers all agree[iv]
this is where the Devil puts in an appearance
to mess with Vortigern,
overwhelming his common sense
with lust for a pagan girl.
It’s the adjective that horrifies.
A different Vortigern, emerging from his private earthquake,
green eyes, watching him, soft lips, another drink.
Stumbling out of incoherence,
he understands the myth of the medusa;
how looking at a woman can turn a man to stone.
He has to ask for something he could take:
his servant’s daughter. The power inversion
obvious to both of them, so to preserve the niceties
they pretend this was an accident,
that both of them are taken by surprise.
(No laughing please, this should be serious.)
My daughter? You want to marry her?
Vortigern pretends it is desire that speaks:
how beautiful etc, how desirable etc…
(As if it mattered what she looked like.)
Who would have thought, at his age,
he would be honoured.
Hengist pretending he must ask his brethren.
Then the haggling when they both know Kent
and Thanet are her bride price.
But Vortigern rejects the script.
Her Morning Gift, lands in the west,
in the hill country to its north.
Fine cloths, jewels from the east,
horses, saddles, oils. ‘Kent
is not mine to give.
Thanet’s already yours.
But if your sons will follow me
I will give them all the land
between the turf wall and the stone.’
And that shocks Hengist.
Master Wace wrote: ‘He desired her in the morning when they met,
and had her that same night.’ Our Priest, horrified;
‘There were no Christian rites, no priest nor bishop,
he had her in the heathen fashion
took her maidenhead, defiled himself.’
But you don’t expect twelfth century clerics
to sympathise with physical desire.
Or recognise a business proposition.
They will always blame the woman.
There will be a celebrant and a venue
appropriate for the ritual.
After the prayers and public promises;
feasting, dancing, speeching, drinking,
obligatory fornication with or without an audience.
‘After the feast they slept together’
is how Welsh story tellers described a wedding.
Was she frightened?
Embarrassed by your greed,
or did her own lust
shade the colour of her eyes?
Did you come to trade?
Or did you come to conquer?
There was a door, there must
have been a door. A room
with fittings, shapes, colours.
There was her body, a blur of
detail, memories, green eyes.
Reduced to naked ape with thumping heart.
The gravity of need, the greed of flesh for flesh.
Then clothed, walking in the daylight world
to find the keys to the castle have been pawned.
Bank, ditch and palisade redundant
and in the inner room, behind the locked door,
watched by the sleepless guard who lets no body enter,
there’s a stranger in the dimmest corner
and a version of yourself you do not own.
Maelgywn of Gwynedd murders every woman
who shares his bed, refusing to accept
the obligations the act implies.
(And still finds willing takers
convinced the risk is worth the prize).
Cunnedagus of the Demetae
gives such women to his retinue.
He was petrified.
Then she stepped out of her clothes,
stepped towards him,
breaking one spell
Familiar words in unfamiliar accents,
soft, golden, fragrant, warm.
We are not children playing in a sandpit
ruling our private universe
with plastic armies that can be replaced,
where cities made of sand can be destroyed
and then rebuilt, forgetting that the adults
will call us in and put an end to all our games.
The world won’t wait for us.
While bodies are engaged,
the mind in search of answers
slips into the darkness
where the Latin titles drift
like burnt pages on the breeze,
past broken statues of dead men
whose names have been forgotten;
through ruined halls and shattered walls:
discarded answers that no longer satisfy.
No matter how delirious the frenzied shoving match
(soft, fragrant, warm) the mind drifts on alone,
in the high passes above the snowline,
looking down into the valleys
to the interminable journey
and fading fast the certainty
that there is an end to travelling
where the answers can be found
soft fragrant adequate and warm.
Stay with me?
He leaves the golden marvel on the furs
and searches for his clothes.
She stretches, mutters, ‘Stay with me.
Sleep here.’ He hesitates.
Locrin tightening his belt,
steps outside the earth house
into the frost of a winter’s morning,
as the whalebone doors slide shut
on his desire.
The great gates of Tintagel grinding shut
behind a man who runs
before his lover can discover who he is.[v]
Both wanting to say, take me back,
before the fog has lifted from the river
or the ice has melted on the castle gate.
Their minds are filled from dawn to dusk
with fantasies of welcome;
blinking, baffled, overjoyed,
as the great gate swings open
the whalebone door is moved aside,
as if the hind will greet the hound
that runs it down to rip its throat out.
He is not suffering from their disease.
Flesh calling to the memory of flesh,
promising oblivion and pleasure.
But there are things he has to do.
[i] This scene, where Hengist watches his daughter being decked out in her finery, although expanded here, is Laȝamon’s addition to his sources.
[ii] Aestrild’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2020). Rowena hears it in Chapter one and it haunts her.
[iii] From ‘It is a custom’ to ‘Germany’ is a loose translation of Laȝamon. Even in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier Latin version the words of the ceremony are given in a form of English. It’s possible the custom is very old and also possible it is the origin of ‘wassailing’.
[iv] Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Laȝamon. The implication in all four is that had Rowena been baptised first, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Vortigern makes this point in the previous chapter.
[v] Locrin’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry, Uther’s in the next part of this project. Both men endanger their kingdoms through their infatuation.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head