This is chapter Seven 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, Five and Six 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 Britain. After the legions have withdrawn, the island is facing civil war and a growing number of external enemies. It is also experiencing a steady tide of pagan, Germanic migrants looking for land.
Vortigern has been appointed to protect what’s left of Roman Britain. Following standard imperial practice, he has employed Saxon mercenaries led by Hengist. Together they have defeated the immediate threat of an army of Picts and a Northern rebellion and stabilised the province. Vortigern has married Hengist’s daughter.
A united province could withstand any invader, but Vortigern faces growing resistance from his own people, potential betrayal by his own officers, and a simmering threat to his leadership from the exiled sons of Constantine. Before travelling to a meeting with the Northern Lords, he has to ensure the South West is safe. He uses his travels to gather information about his province.
This brief chapter ends part one of the book.
The Britons object
‘Now listen to us, our lord the King,
listen to the advice of your councillors,
Bishops and book learned men,
chieftains and their men at arms.
You have bought disaster and evil upon yourself.
You have favoured heathens, abandoned God’s laws,
and fornicated with a foreign, pagan woman.
We beg you, for the sake of peace,
and God’s favour to your people,
cast them off, drive them out.
If you will not do so, we will drive them from the land
and cut them down, or die in the attempt.’[i]
Vortigern took the speaker’s sleeve,
gently between his thumb and finger.
‘Such fine brocaded silk.
Boots of finest Cordovan.
I see your wealth: I see no scars.
How will you fight with Hengist and his people?
You could not stop the rabble
who plundered your homes,
stole your wives and daughters,
dragged your sons to slavery.
You ran away and hid,
then crawled back on your bellies,
sniveling round your huts
as though your tears could put the fires out.
How will you fight these people,
when you could not fight without them?
No raider dares come south.
The crops are in, the cattle fed.
Where there was famine we have brought relief.
The traders bring the wine you drink,
the silk you wear. Men go to sleep
expecting they will see the morning.
What else do you require?’
‘We want them gone. They are a plague
corrupting everything they touch,
a filth that should be scoured from our land.
When they exhaust their pigs, they chase our women.
Their women whore themselves for pleasure,
leading our young men to perversion and damnation.
Their grunting language hurts our ears.
Their disgusting customs foul our country.’
Keredic helps Vortigern to collect stories
Wondering what atrocity I’d be forced to witness,
I followed the Thin Man at Hengist’s insistence.
A slave does not demand an explanation.
Nor does he ask what’s in the cart
that slows armed riders to a painful crawl.
A scattering of huts,
angular and box like,
not the usual beehives.
There was no ditch or palisade.
They did not run away.
A tall blonde man, an axe in hand
strode towards us; Wes Þu hal.
He hadn’t heard of Vortigern
or was a brave man who didn’t flinch.
The cart is brought forward.
Inside there’s the carcass of a pig
and jars of wine and mead.
‘Tell him, if he cooks this,
I will share it with him.’
The man is impressed.
‘What does he want?’
Vortigern replies: ‘Stories’.
The pregnant girl
This was my family’s land, but my brother went with Constantine.
We never heard from him again. Mam died soon after.
One day this old man and his two sons appeared.
Tad was glad to have some help about the place
even if we couldn’t understand a word they said.
The boys worked hard. The old man knew his stuff
where sheep and pigs and cattle were concerned.
When the coughing sickness took their father,
tad asked the boys to stay. When he was dying,
he left our land to them. This bump will be our second child.
Their cousins are arriving soon. More workers in the fields.
More arms when neighbors try to filch our cows.
We were desperate.
First year we grew nothing.
The rain was late, the frost came early.
Scrabbling on marginal land
I’d have whored my starving bones
for the leavings from their table
to feed the children.
But the local big man gave us food,
suggested we move here.
Fed us through the winter.
We’ll repay him with a pig this year.
And when it comes to fighting
my man’s arm will pay our debt.
We were lucky.
My sister and her daughter went begging at another villa’s door.
They stripped them both and beat them to the boundary.
She died soon after, but not before
they burnt her house, enslaved her children,
killed her man then went down on their knees
to thank their loving god.[ii]
At first I couldn’t understand
I jumped at any sudden noise.
At night it was so quiet
I couldn’t sleep.
He’d go off to work
and he’d come back!
Days, then weeks and months,
when no one died.
Vortigern asks questions
Inside their well-built house,
Vortigern admires the skill
of the woman’s weaving;
the well-made cloth.
He touches the solid jointed wood,
admires the functional designs
sees that an age of wood
might have its own attractions.
Curiosity is an appetite he can’t appease,
like the golden lady,
asking questions about everything.
Nothing is beyond his interest.
‘What is his name?’
It is not a slave’s place to disobey,
but I do say If I ask him that
he will recite his genealogy all the way to Woden
and the pig will be burnt before he’s finished.
‘Call him hlāford, it is an honorary title.’
‘And the woman?’ ‘Hlǽfdige.’
‘Ask him why he came to Britain?’
‘He says, my children.’
But he knows that’s not enough.
‘There was only so much land;
bad for crops and worse for cattle.
We’d heard the ground is fertile here
and if a man stays clear of strife
his children have a future.’
We left them to their pigs and fields.
The Thin Man paused on the hill,
overlooking the farm. Now, I thought.
Now they all die. But he said,
to me, to the slave,
to the less than nothing;
‘You can teach a soldier to be brave.
Train him well, he’ll stand his ground
when his drinking partner from the night before,
is split open and his guts are tangling his feet.
But you can’t teach the heroism of parents
faced with a sick child or a failed crop,
or the courage of migrant families.
Why should these people be my enemies?’
The broken work of giants[iii]
Vortigern moves around the country,
listening, making others listen.
Heading west after the wedding,
with Hengist and Rowena,
to visit his estates.
Her reaction to his villa.
How easily she was lost indoors;
hesitation entering any room,
hand reaching for her knife.
The way she was confused by corridors.
He heads off track towards
the largest building he had ever seen.
But the portico, with its broken columns,
its neck-wrecking upward reach,
was an immediate affront.
He overheard her muttering with her father:
‘Wrætlic is þes wealstan’
‘brosnað enta geweorc.’[iv]
Hengist had remained outside.
She crept into the building, dwarfed and daunted.
Her escort, Hengist’s hand-picked, finest killers,
like frightened dogs nosing into a bad place.
Where the walls had fallen,
they left the escort and went on alone
over rubble and shadows,
hearing the scrabbling echoes of startled beasts
in the rattling echoes of their footsteps
‘till they emerged into the great pool;
the vast chambered emptiness of it.
Steam rising from the dark grey waters,
ribboned silver where the sunlight,
streaming through the broken ceiling
fifty feet above their heads,
patterned the water’s surface, flicking the walls.
He heard her muttering ‘giants’ and ‘magic’.
Ignore the memory of her body,
and the knowledge she had used that knife
to carve more than her meals.
He saw that he had frightened her and was ashamed.
Sit on the steps that lead down to the water,
explain, the way your grandfather explained,
how Baldud King, doomed by the rotting of his flesh,
came here, and bathed, and was made beautiful and whole.
How Romans came and bult a temple to Minerva
and prayed to her then let their slaves
scrape, pummel and then massage them clean.
Take her hand, explain the building and its functions.
Evoke the voices and the rituals,
memories from your granddad’s childhood,
and learn your explanation is another fairytale
no more credible than her mutterings
of vanished giants and sorcery.
He wanted to take her in the pool,
watch her wide-eyed wonder at its warmth,
but there was no time for self-indulgence.
Stepping into daylight, Saxons standing upright,
shaking away the shadows,
Hengist’s hand-picked killers once again.
They parted ways, Rowena, for her safety,
returning to her uncle in the east,
while Vortigern and Hengist headed west
to meet the man who had united
Dumnoni and Durotriges
and was now acknowledged as their leader.
Clean upright walls, no tiles missing on the roof,
memory made real in the present,
the strangeness of it lost in its familiarity.
The floors had been repaired, the garden tended.
The water feature was still working.
The room he waited in was someone’s library.
His hands hovered near the scrolls
but he resisted the urge to take one out,
drift on the beauty of carefully chosen words.
God save all bookish men, thinks Vortigern,
perhaps their time will come again.
A time for Latin poetry and dinners,
evenings in the garden, making plans,
knowing talk of literary sinners.
Gwendolin mustered Cornwall,
trashed her husband and his army
then ruled Britannia with an iron fist
disguised as women’s hands.
Has he fallen for the story?
Is he looking to the west
for a saviour who will rise?
So enter Gorlois.
A neat man, a tidy man.
A pious, praying man.
Gloucester said he looks so young
he could be taken for the 12 year old
he’d married to secure his future. Now
the western tribes acknowledge him as leader.
But the western tribes are so much landfill
if Vortigern decides they need to be subdued.
Given small commands, he’s been methodical,
imaginative and ruthless. Trustworthy,
obvious, but vague around the edges.
Impatient with stupidity. Often tactless.
Ambitious. Capable. But Loyal? Possibly.
Gorlois waits, doing his version of inscrutability.
Impassive as a figure painted on a wall:
‘Loyal soldier waiting for his orders.’
‘You can read? Good.’
Vortigern hands him two sealed scrolls.
‘Not now. Later. That one first.’
‘We head towards a gathering of the northern lords.
I’m giving you the land south of the Severn’s Mouth.
All forces west of Tamar are under your command.
You are to fortify the land and keep the raiders out.
Make sure the trade routes to the continent
stay open.’ He stops. There’s nothing else to say.
If Gorlois is intelligent he knows what needs be done.
If not, then telling him just wastes the time.
But the wall painting doesn’t speak.
Vortigern can hear the small unhurried sounds,
the breathing of his guards,
knows he cannot laugh, not now.
God save me from these amateur theatricals.
Gorlois kneels. And he could say;
Screw you, the West’s already mine;
Thank you, I’m honoured;
I am too young. I am not worthy;
I will repay your trust. Instead, he says
‘I accept.’ As though he had a choice.
Gloucester to his messenger
Take this to The Boys.
You will find them in Gaul,
where rivers flow uphill, springs geyser blood,
the dead walk home from battle fields
and mad dogs gambol in their wake.
Take my message. Tell them: soon.
End of Part One
[i] This first section is a close version of Laȝamon’s lines. He doesn’t identify the speaker. Vortigern’s reply is not Laȝamon’s.
[ii] See ‘The Landowner’ in A Presentment of Englishry.
[iii] The idea that Roman ruins were the work of Giants, ‘enta geweorc’, occurs in Old English poetry.
[iv] The first two lines of ‘The Ruin’. Literally: This stone work is wonderful/ fate broke it/the fortified place is broken open/ the work of giants, decaying. (A less literal translation would do justice to the music of the lines.)
[v] Gorlois’ story is told in part three of A Presentment of Englishry.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head