A Man of Heart – the scribe’s story

LIAM GUILAR continues his epic of early Britain

The story so far. In the 5th century Vortigern’s attempt to hold the imperial province of Britannia together has been defeated, not by external enemies but by British rebels led by Vortimer, his eldest son. Vortimer is a devout Christian and has invited the Pope to send an embassy to restore the church and combat the Pelagian heresy. What follows is the first half of Chapter ten which loosely follows the fifth Century Life of Saint Germanus . You can find chapters 2-9 on the Brazen Head. The complete story has been published as A Man of Heart, by Shearsman UK (January 2023), available here

At the court of Vortimer the King

Above, bare wooden beams.

The hall is badly lit, too many

shadows confuse the walls.

The candle complicates the page.

There’s a broken wreckage of a man

beyond the table, out of sight,

but he knows he’s on his knees,

the shadows can’t disguise

how uncontrolled his sobbing has become.

Two armoured men are looking carefully

at the wall behind him.

‘For your skill with words,’

said his superior,

‘you will join the Papal mission.

You will travel to Britain.

You will record everything.’

Only now he understands

it was curse not compliment.

Here words slither and slop,

like the entrails of a corpse

he has to carry to its grave.

‘Who saw the King today?’

the officer enquires.

The scribe indicates he cannot hear the man’s reply.

The guards move, the man sobs.

‘The pagan woman, the Earl of Gloucester,

slaves, attendant lords…

hand poised, aware the sentence is unfinished.

The officer leans forward. ‘Who else?’

Like a secret heard by accident,

so soft, if a voice could hide, his does:

‘Your masters.’

The two armed men stare at the wall

The scribe puts down his stylus.

They have questioned slaves

who revealed nothing before they died.

There are several court officials

who saw the King in their daily duties

but each swears he saw nothing

and no one saw him without others present.

There were still many wished to see him.

Not like that.

Remembering the last time he saw Vortimer,

writhing, frothing at the mouth,

fouling himself, screaming.

Lupus of Troies enters. ‘The King is dead.’

He indicates the scribe should write the news.

The guards remove the witness,

as Germanus of Auxerre re-enters;

Bishop, on an embassy to combat heresy,

ex-governor, ex-general, proto-saint.[i]

The scribe has travelled with these two,

has become alert to the way they rarely say

that water’s wet. Their silence has

so many meanings but they navigate

the alternatives and rarely get them wrong.

He is aware the words he writes dress

one version of the truth and send it

marching off towards the future

while other possible interpretations

loiter round the edges of the page

like unwanted slaves at an auction.


‘Every Lord who heard his welcome speech

has to be a suspect.’

‘It was poison.’

‘Domestic or foreign?’

‘Impossible to tell unless the vial is found.’

‘And that’s impossible?’

The drama of silence. How can there be meaning

without interpretation in what’s unsaid?

The words he writes across the parchment

have no spaces, but here so much happens in the gaps.

Face blank, he moves the words across the page

and later, perhaps tonight, perhaps at the ugly hour,

staring into nothing, curled into himself

a long way from his home,

imagining all the ways a boy can die,

he will wonder if he hasn’t just recorded a confession

and signed his name to his own death warrant.

He knows what wasn’t written down.

Germanus rests his hand,

so very gently on his shoulder.

If he touched the hand, the ink might blot,

might suggest to an observant scrutineer,

‘Here something happened.’

‘We came to root out heresy.’

They have been arguing.

Germanus is troubled by the inquest.

‘Pope Siricius debarred from holy orders

all who after baptism held administrative posts

or served in the army, the civil service,

or had ever practised as barristers.’

Lupus searches for the appropriate quotation.

He knows this man is closer to his Christ

than anyone he’ll ever meet.

But his literal reading of the gospels

is a cliff on which every ship must wreck.

His Christ never ruled a kingdom;

or had to deal with heretics and raiders;

or arbitrate between contenders for a throne.

He finds the appropriate quote

in his well-trained lawyer’s memory:

‘These powers have been granted by God

and the sword has been permitted

for the punishment of the guilty-

those who wielded it were not blameworthy.’[ii]

‘My Christ,’ says Germanus, quietly,

‘came to save the poor and wretched.

He bought a message of hope and charity.

How can I love my neighbour

and send him to be tortured?

What kind of lover sends their friends

to the executioner?’

‘A disappointed, saddened one?’

The ruthless governor, the iron fisted general,

the lawyer who could kill with words,

flashes to reanimate the bag of bones

and Lupus, despite himself, steps back.

‘Faith does not deal in dialectics.’

The scribe watches, wonders why this,

why now, and why this pause?

He watches Lupus, waiting, saying nothing,

until Germanus shrugs and they both smile.

He can hear the wooden walls

settle. He can hear the fire.

He can hear, outside, voices

and lamentations. Someone repeating:

‘The King is dead. Vortimer the King is dead.’

A gesture indicates the scribe should write again.

‘Where is the woman?’

‘Fled from the court my lord.’

‘And Gloucester?’

if you listen, and ignore the shock,

it’s there, the faintest trace?

Amusement? In the voices.

‘Outside, trying not to pace.’

‘Better bring him in then.’

Somewhere in northern France, months earlier

A young man on his knees

in the cold austerity of his cell.

Rare visitors, three much older men:

one white haired, chicken necked,

dressed only in a tunic and a mantle

despite the time of year:

his holiness, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.

The other tall, solid, well-fed:

Bishop Lupus of Troies.

‘They are sent by our Holy Father in Rome

to combat the Pelagian disease in Britain.

They need a scribe to record their victory.

You have been chosen,’ said his superior,

who seemed small beside the others,

‘for your skill with words,

your beautiful calligraphy.’

And the sin of pride was his.

Thinking, of course, I am the best

and it is just that I am recognised

after the years of being slighted

by the other scholars.

They will watch me leave.

They will see I have been chosen.

He had not been outside his community

since he entered as a child. He had not seen

beyond the familiar sky line,

the terrifying open space

stretching before, behind, above.

They plodded towards the coast.

It was the ash end of the winter,

cold lurked in the morning

and a wind that shrank skin against bone

blew over the flat dead fields.

Reports of bagaudae made them cautious.

Incongruous discrepancies:

‘An historic Papal mission to save Britannia’s soul’

sounded grand on parchment, but

two old men, a boy, some servants

and a bunch of bored and scruffy soldiers.

They had sheltered in a ruin,

the walls liquid stains

on a darkness with no boundaries,

full of furtive noises. 

Shivering at the edge of light

scattered by their feeble fire,

he knelt for the comfort of prayer,

startled by a strange mewling sound

he recognised as his own voice.

The darkness split. Imploded.

A voice in his head screamed silence

and a vague stain appeared

suggestive of a man in chains.

Stones rose, began to pelt the travellers

who scuttled for shelter, except for Germanus.

‘What ails you? Why do you harm us?’

The stone storm falters into sounds of stones falling.

Germanus strides towards the ruin, passing the boy.

‘Follow child.’ He pauses at a pile of rubble,

speaks quietly, knowing the soldiers had come.

‘Bring light, dig here.’

Two rotted bodies, still in chains.

‘Thieves,’ said Lupus, ‘condemned men.

Dumped like the rubbish that they were.’

Germanus was offended.

‘Images of the Almighty, made in his likeness

should not be so mistreated. Find something

we can use for shrouds, bury them properly.

We will pray for their souls. ‘

The two bishops square off against each other.

One strong, virile, the other bent and old.

Neither speaks until Lupus smiles and bows.

Next morning the boy had stumbled over Germanus,

who was grinding barley for his breakfast,

dressed only in his hair shirt.

Lupus had servants to make him comfortable.

Germanus slept on the cold ground,

a faded military cloak for blanket.

But the old man was friendly,

keen to know the boy better.

‘My father left me with those monks

when I was barely five years old.

He would have sold me off to pay a debt

but couldn’t find a buyer in our village.’

Germanus sees,

bewildered, frightened and alone

a timid child in a hard bare cell.

‘God sees through you.

You were terrified of being wrong

so you learnt to be correct.

The library was home, the classroom

and the daily rituals offered certainty.

Applause substituting for affection.

Approval and your teacher’s admiration

as compensation for your peer’s contempt.’

Skewered, the boy looks away,

remembering the casual nastiness of boys

who had agreed he was the victim.

‘But you fell in love with words,’

continues Germanus.

‘The way they could be marshalled

to march away from ambiguity

and took a sour delight

watching boys who bullied you

being bullied by their teachers

because they were slow, and stupid

and didn’t know one case from another.

It’s alright child. You’ve done no wrong.

There is no grammar of divinity.

Language like the evening fire

only illuminates so much.

God exists beyond the pale glow

of human reasoning. Only fools

believe they understand his ways.

He had a plan for you and here you are.’

The boy looks beaten.

And because Germanus

can manage a robust kindness:

‘Do you have any questions?’

‘What is this Pelagius? Child, he was a British fool

who thought a man might find his way to Grace

without the help of God. Much that he said…

Much that he said was good.’ The old man’s

mottled hand moved the mortar slowly,

the rough barley crackling between the stones.

The disturbing bustle of their camp

distanced by the creased and speckled hands.

‘Pelagius said: A man must try to live a sinless life,

and if he fails, it is his own fault.’


‘Child, where is God in this? For Pelagius,

a man stands or falls alone. He doesn’t need

God or the Church. Nor can priest absolve the man

or give him penance. One sin damns you to hell.

Where is Christ’s charity in that?’

What manner of man is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?[iii]

First sight of the sea; a sullen border

between dark land and empty sky.

His shot nerves torn ragged.

The smell and noise and restlessness

of the wharves had no grammar, and then

the pointless rage of heaving waves

pushing and crashing and trying to erase their tiny ship.

He had clung to the rail and prayed

as the world lurched, rolled and staggered,

until, opening his eyes, he saw

right at the bow, Germanus

drenched in the rise and fall

like the saviour rising from death

shedding the green water,

hands raised, arms outstretched

and he will swear on the holiest of relics

on his chance of salvation

and on his faith in the risen Lord

that Germanus of Auxerre

ordered the sea to be calm.

And the sea obeyed him.


They watched the riders coming down the beach

and he was frightened by the powerful grey horses;

teeth, hooves and sweating muscle,

and their armoured riders, more beastly than their mounts.

He knew their type; animals who could not reason,

or be reasoned with. A casual indifference to other’s pain.

He remembered men like this, riding through his village,

their arrogance, their twisted humour,

the ease in which they warped from indolence to rage.

Burnished armour, banners scraps of sudden colour on the breeze

and when the herald had established their identities

the riders moved aside to allow a young man on foot.

Dressed in gold brocaded silk; the kind of man, he thought,

who looks at home in silk. Not much older than himself,

but confident and eager. ‘Where is the King?’

asked Lupus, affronted by this lack of protocol.

‘I am Vortimer, ruler of this kingdom.

Vortigern is my father, a failed King his subjects drove away.

He brought in heathen people. They broke our laws,

defiled our women, corrupted our good customs.

We have destroyed their army, driven them to their ships.

In this new land we worship the true God.

With your help we will rebuild His church.

Every worthy man shall have his place,

and every serf and slave will be set free.

Church lands I will entrust to you.

Every widow will be exempt the tax

upon her husband’s legacy.

We will help you root out heresy

and crush all heathen practice.

Hengist, who will rot in hell,

has lead my father into folly, corrupted him,

used his daughter to confuse him,

until he turned his back upon the church.

You are welcome fathers,

together we will rebuild this battered island.’[iv]

‘I thank the Lord who made this world

and put such holiness herein,’ said Lupus.

But as they stumbled up the stony beach, the scribe

overheard him ask Germanus,

‘Did you see the reaction? His retainers?’

Germanus struggling on the shingle,

stopped and muttered, ‘A holy fool.

Not long for this world.’

Gloucester describing the rebels to Lupus of Troies

Champions of the church?

Don’t make me laugh.

Gobshites and wide boys

chancers on the make

jumping at an opportunity.

A patrician elite

suddenly without the power,

influence and prestige

their fathers had inherited

following a strutting fool

who talked a good war.

Men who squirm at discipline,

who dislike Vortigern’s desire

to protect the weak,

his willingness to deal

ignoring faith and place of origin.

They did not remember his ferocity.

How he stacked the corpses,

devastated towns, left nothing,

not a dog nor rat alive. They think,

he has outlived his usefulness.

Theirs is this new world

and they forget who made them possible.

They cluster round Vortimer,

like rot on an open wound.

His father’s son, and little more.

He owes his status to his name

donated, unrequested but

without that gift, incompetent.

A fool no one would tolerate.

Nice enough to have around

but not one to be followed.

The great men of the kingdom

no longer deferential,

no longer asking his opinion

have left him to his bitterness

and this pretence of a court.’

Vortimer, talking with a British bishop

‘The heretics will meet. They will debate.’

Gloucester entering the room like he’s storming a redoubt,

shattering the conversation. ‘She’s coming here?

With an escort and safe conduct?’

‘She comes seeking instruction in the Christian faith.

She asked for my permission to remain here with my father,

and for my father’s sake, I have agreed.’

‘Kill her,’ says Gloucester.

The bishop is still framing his response 

when Vortimer, sounding

so much like his father;

‘And that would be her introduction to Christianity,

if you were her instructor?’

‘She will ride through an avenue of severed heads

to reach your gates, and some of them were relatives.

You placed a bounty on her head. Is that yours?’

The bishop skilled in diplomacy,

tired of their bickering:

‘Your objection was her faith?

She comes here to be baptised.’

‘My lord the King

rebelled against his father

because he favoured pagans.

If she is baptised,

why are we fighting Vortigern?’

Vortimer, offended by Gloucester’s tone,

speaking in his own voice:

‘We will treat her with respect.

She will be baptized.

You will not harm her.’

To be continued

[i] Germanus of Auxerre is the most ‘historical’ of all the characters in this story. He did exist and he did travel to Britain to combat heresy in 429. His miracles, recorded below, are in the Life of Saint Germanus, written down in the late 5th century. Typically for The Legendary History, the chronology is wayward. If Hengist landed in 449/450 he arrived twenty years after Germanus had left.

[ii] Lupus is quoting Pope Innocent 1’s reply to an enquiry on this matter.

[iii] The Gospel of Mark, 4:41

[iv] Vortimer’s speech here, which follows Laȝamon, is one of  Laȝamon’s most astonishing additions to his sources.

The hunt for Merlin

The story so far (Chapters 2-8 inclusive have all previously been published on this site, starting here). The complete poem has just been published as A Man of Heart, by Shearsman.

Mid 5th century Britain. After the legions have withdrawn, the island is facing civil war, a growing number of external enemies and a steady tide of pagan migrants looking for land.

Vortigern has been appointed to protect what’s left of Roman Britain. The precarious balance of power he had established has been destroyed by a British revolt, led by his son. He retreats towards the hills with his wife and the remainder of the Field army.

At this point, the late 12th century narrative I’m following slides into a different version of the past, and any connection with History as understood in the 21st century is lost.  

LIAM GUILAR‘s continues his epic of post-Roman Britain

The Hunt for Merlin

Vortigern, his wife and retinue

have retreated to the green hills

with the grey mountains at their back.

The wizards tell him where to build.

Each day the workmen sweat to raise a wall;

during the night the walls collapse.

(Seven times, not three as you’d expect).

The wise-men mumble together then announce

they need the blood of a fatherless boy.[i]

Find him, they thunder, sprinkle his blood

and your fortress will be impregnable.

Rowena, astonished by stone buildings,

seeing magic in the masons’ every move,

understands the fact of sorcery.

Vortigern, patient, muses:

four centuries of Roman stone

and now we cannot build a wall?

He sends men hunting down the hill

into the wooded valleys.

In the unmeasured space between

an end and a beginning, along a ridge,

scraped drop on either side, to the summit.

Looked down at broken clouds, across to distant,

unknown, crumpled peaks. The valley;

inept geometry of distant fields,

a path falling off the ridge towards the track

that followed the scrawl of infant river.

Companions wearing mail,

thick woollen cloaks, dark red,

held at the shoulder with an ornate brooch,

only their eyes visible in the helmet’s gilded face,

reading the boundaries, a line of trees,

a stream, a standing stone.

Saw the rustler’s pathway peeling off the ridge

to meet the hammered track

leading to the cluster of round huts,

pointed roofs and sagging thatch,

fenced space, the drift of smoke.

The perfectly ordinary settlement.

Entering the village, they walk into a silence

abrupt as the chill slap of a breaking wave.

No child is playing. No woman singing at her work.

Painted figures, fading on the grey wall of the cloud.

No one runs away, or screams, or sounds alarum.

No one is reaching for an axe. They stop.

They watch. They follow, herding the strangers towards

the largest hut, white walls blotched

beneath the inept cone of sagging thatch.

The chieftain waits to greet them,

wrapped in a bear skin, the skull as hood.

The messengers stop to admire the skin,

trying to frame a compliment.

The old man nodded. ‘Old ways.

My dad took me down into the trees.

Gave me a spear, said, good luck son.

Come back with a bear skin or don’t come back.’

They step into the hut.

‘You have come for the child.

He says you will take him to his woman.’

Behind the fire, in the gloom,

a dark stain, small and indistinct.

Something catching the light flicks,

golden. ‘Do not deny your mission.

He knows what happened, what will happen’

-The shape moved, seemed larger-

‘could happen.’

This man, who as a child

went after bear, alone,

armed only with a spear,

is terrified.

A girl came to the entrance.

The boy stood up and left with her.

‘I have sent word to his mother.

She will travel to the King.

We have sheltered the abomination

and in return, he has shown us what we are.

True, he has given us dominion

over the peoples of the valley.

He has kept our cattle healthy,

our crops abundant. Terrified,

our neighbours pay us tribute,

sacrifice their daughters to his lust,

give us gold and precious things

from places far beyond

the eastern limit of the Empire.

Glass bowls, jewelled cups,

silk filigreed with gold.

At first we gloated over our success,

and wallowed in the excess of desire.

But then we realised the price we paid.

We have done foul things at his bidding.

But we have seen him part the clouds,

make running water turn to ice in summer.

He has raised a hand and brought down hail,

fist sized, to smash our enemies

and ten feet from them not one of us was touched.

We have done too much to keep him happy.’

Outside someone was sobbing.

‘You are the King’s men.

That makes you loyal and brave.

You stayed when all the others ran.

Take the boy to Vortigern the King

He rarely speaks, he seldom asks…’

The old man’s voice was melting.

‘I would rather face a bear again,

with only these old hands,

than risk the anger of that child.

But warn your King, tell him: take care.

The child will give him anything he wants

but his price will be beyond imagining.

When news spreads that he is gone

our enemies will devastate this village,

take not one slave, touch not one woman.

They will kill everyone and then

erase this stinking cess pit from the landscape.

When they arrive, we shall not fight.

Death will bring a fine forgetting.’ 


The villagers gathered in the fog,

the women clutching their children,

like failed approximations of the living.

The men stranded in poses of dejection.

The chieftain led them along the path

towards the rising hills. As the ground

sloped steeply upwards he left them.

‘You will need a week to reach your King.

By then, if your mind is still intact,

you will believe everything I’ve said.’

On the first day,

they followed the track upstream to the ridge

in fog so thick they never saw the sun.

The boy did not speak.

He didn’t greet them in the morning,

nor wish them well at night.

On the second day they picked their way downstream,

the slopes of scree like broken shards of fog,

scattered in shining fields that clattered away downhill.

On the third day he said;

‘We will go no further in this valley.

My enemies are waiting. 

We must climb that ridge.

On the other side is a village,

where there are horses.

You will kill their owners,

then you will take me to my woman.’

Vortigern had trained them well.

Their plan was clear and simple.

Entering the settlement, first

they would ask for horses

in the King’s name. Then

they would offer to pay.

If this was refused, then,

and only then, the killing would begin.

The boy had other plans.

Eyes closed, swaying, lips mumble,

hands move, an unexpected squall

drives rain against the window

and blurs a clear view. Or on high ground

the clouds move in so fast the outlines disappear

and there’s only vagueness and sudden dark.

Swinging axe and stabbing spear,

cutting through to the surprise

of scattered bodies, bloodied edge.

They were saddling the horses.

‘Where is the boy?’

‘With the women.’
‘I thought we killed them all?’

‘We did.’

There was the rain

and somewhere was the night.

Each man huddled in his own cloak

and endured the darkness

until the boy made a pile of sticks.

A movement of his hands, a black flame,

tinged silver at the edges,

sprang upward like an army

leaping from its place of ambush.

They huddled closer. No light,

but their sodden cloaks began to steam,

their frozen hands unclenched.

The wood was not consumed.

The escort saw the landscape

as passage, difficult or easy;

shelter, safety, risk. The boy?

Scree was the outrider of his enemies,

the scattered boulders sentries for his army,

waiting for the signal to advance.

Only the water was patron and friend,

escorting him towards his woman.

In the woods their passage slowed.

He must greet every tree he passed,

laying his palms flat on each trunk,

lips moving to shape words no one recognized.

If no blossom sprang beneath his hands

that was worse than the making of fire.

3. Merlin’s Mother

Care has worn her face into perfected sorrow.

But even in the habit of a nun,[ii]

she is sensuality incarnate,

a delirious possibility of carnal bliss.

‘Tell me lady, who is the father of this child?’

‘I am a King’s daughter, Conan was his name,

before the Saxon’s came, before they killed him.

I do not know the father of this child.’

‘You were raped? No? So tell me, lady,

tell me, how did you get this child?’

Rowena wraps her cloak around the sobbing woman,

leads her away from the armoured men,

settles down to listen, seeing images.

…summer flies in clouds above the shattered brightness of the pool.

Girl children playing: armoured guards like dirty statues in the shade

along the rocky shore.

‘Beneath my father’s palace a stream snaked between the trees

and upstream of where it cut the path leading from the fort

our childish secret place, a spring running from a carved grey stone,

with swirling snakes coiling around an open mouth

and a broken headless statue.

(We blushed the first time that we saw it, erect, enormous.

Imagine that? And other silly chatter).

My slave girl trying to be important,

told us pagans worshipped this forest god, this half-man, half-goat,

and if a maiden, toying with herself, close to this place of power,

spoke his name three times, he would appear and pleasure her.

No one believed her rubbish.

We were children,

girls in their white shifts splashing in a pool,

drifting through the summer heat.

A long hot summer.

Maybe five years after we had found the stone.

The river shrivelled to a chain of stagnant ponds.

 Unmarried, un-promised

with maids to the river bank.

Tents in the shade of the trees.

Guards? Of course.

On the hottest night,

aware of sweat beading and running

like grazing insects,

aware of my own body,

humming its lust.

 Images of a future husband,

a constriction in the throat,

the heat became intense.

I murmured the god’s name,

opened my eyes to the golden man,

the carving of Priapus come to life.

His eyes blazed golden in the shade.

The frost burn of pleasure.

All night delirium, the rhythms of flesh,

exhausted, weeping with delight, I fell asleep.

In the morning, in the river, trails of blood,

signs of the night’s excesses

but no signs anyone had slipped into my tent.

That afternoon I dreamt

church doors were shut against me.

I saw the priest and congregations

stone a woman in the field

and knew that she was me.

But until the Golden Man returned,

my body crooned for him.

 My mind a swamp of images of what we’d done.

3 nights the Golden Man appeared and played with me.

3 nights of ecstasy I’ll never know again.

Then no more.

I prayed for him. I prayed to him, but the nights were a rack

and I despised the sunrise confirming that he had not come.

I sickened. After three days, my clothes were tight

and food was hateful to me.

In three weeks I gave birth:

 a child with golden eyes.

As they laid it on my breast,

he smiled at me and said:

‘Daddy sends you greetings

You will not meet again.’

And that lady is how I got my child.

Must I stay ‘til it arrives?’

‘You fear your own son?’

‘Speaking his crimes would rot my mouth.

Remembering them is penance enough.’

Rowena let her go.

Vortigern asks: ‘Is it believable?

She wouldn’t be the first maid

who snuck away to meet her lover

and then made up such a story

when she found out she was pregnant.’

‘No. Her fear is genuine.

Whatever he did is so foul she won’t speak it.’ 

4. A Fatherless Boy

The messengers, staggering, 

bring the boy before the King.

Like a dead bird on a wire

animated by the breeze,

a stain gaining definition

as it strikes, the boy,

brushing aside the soothsayers,

swooping towards Rowena.

‘Blessed is the well below the valley.’

He strokes her breast. She recoils,

hands tying invisible knots, speaking

words that no one present understands.

The boy stumbles, recovers, laughs,

brushing flies from his face.

Reluctantly, he turns to Vortigern.

An old man’s voice,

with rust at its edges

and rot at its core.

‘I have loosed the bands of Orion.

I can summon leviathan.

He will make a covenant with me.

I have gone down to hell

and freed the rider in the clouds.

When he’s enthroned upon his mountain

he will bow before me as my slave.

I can harness the unicorn to the plough.

I can make you Emperor.’

‘Of what?

The Empire’s gone.’

‘It can be rebuilt.

For you.

For a price.’

‘And you want my soul?’

‘I wouldn’t wipe my arse on it.

I want your wife.’

Vortigern hears Rowena hiss,

senses she has stepped back,

holding seax in a steady hand.

‘She doesn’t want you.’

‘Look fool!’ Vortigern sees his province,

refined to a detailed map.

To the south, the shrinking stain

of Vortimer’s rabble and across the Channel,

the scum filled puddle of The Boys’ growing horde.

The black plague of uncountable ships,

swarm the coast, or burrow up river

like maggots attacking a corpse.

‘Give me your wife.

I will annihilate your enemies.

I will be a tempest in a field of corn.

The plans that they have nurtured,

their dreams and ambitions, I will ruin

as they watch, like patient farmers

as hail destroys their crops,

announcing their starvation.

Give me your wife.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Time thickens like a river freezing.

There is only the voice;

a wind from nowhere,

and the images of burning homes,

pestilence, atrocities, famine.

Vortigern sees his kingdom.

The dead lie where they fell,

crops rotting in the fields,

the starving cattle wander free.

He could see misery,

surging over the land and drowning it.

‘I can put an end to this.

That’s what you want;

peace, order, stability.

Give me your wife.’

He sees himself in gold embroidered silk,

seated on a marble throne,

in a many columned hall.

The cities flourishing again,

merchants on the roads,

ships safe in the harbour. He hears

the grateful people speak his name.

No enemies, assassins

outrage or complaints?

This time, he laughs.

The ice breaks.

The river moves.

‘Child, this is not yours to give.

There will always be wars. Always

people who starve while others feast.’

‘You will die alone.

The sky will rain fire.

You will be vilified

for eternity unless

you give me your wife.

They will debate your name

and your existence.

Your life will be obscure,

your death will be unknown

unless you give me your wife.

She is blessed amongst women.

The fruit of her womb will be the Messiah:

a Warrior King to end the Saxon threat,

reconquer Rome and found a Reich

to last a thousand years.

His name will never be forgotten.

Nor will mine.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Vortigern dwarves the chubby boy;

a foul vagueness slithered from a cave,

shrivelling in the unaccustomed light.

‘Go your way.

Take this gold,

my thanks

for the lesson.’

‘We will not meet again,

Vortigern Dead King.

I could have saved you.’

‘No,’ he says,

with the conviction of a rock.

‘No, you could not.’

5. The end of the province of Britannia

Morning, and the mist filling the valley below,

clouds streaking the sky like smoke plumes

streaming from the distant peaks. The sun

cold, bright and ruthlessly indifferent.

His officers accumulate around the wagon.

A baffled Rowena stands beside him,

leaning into whatever happens next.

The remnants of Britannia’s last Field Army.

Faces he remembers from the day they left for Lincoln[iii].

He knows them all; their families, their stories,

which one can improvise, who imitates a wall,

who plays it safe, who takes a chance. 

‘Some of you are angry. Some feel betrayed.

You think you would have danced

to your crucifixion if a comrade could be saved.

We have all lost friends who gave their lives

so we could live. You think I’m selfish

because I wouldn’t trade this woman to a child

to save the province.’ He heaved a sack towards them.

‘There is all the coin that’s left.’ He threw a second,

two malignant lumps shifting as they settled.

‘And there’s the plunder; gold rings, armbands, torques…’

the list is endless and irrelevant, dismissively

he waves his hand towards the chests beside him.

‘The royal treasury. The province. Britannia.

That’s all that’s left of what we swore to serve.

But what we swore to serve

meant so much more than that.

I will not sacrifice another life

for two bags full of shiny trash.

Divide it now amongst yourselves.

See that no man feels aggrieved.

Those who wish to leave: go home.

Or you can take an oath to follow me.

I will not ask you to do anything

I have not asked before,

but I will make you rich,

and give you lands for your old age.’

The sound of swords being drawn,

the rustle of kneeling men.

Later she finds him, on a fallen trunk.

The twisted branches of the stubborn trees

behind him like a web the boy had spun

to trap a king.

‘You are a strange man, Vortigern Cyning.

Locrin locked a woman up and lost his kingdom.

You risked the loss of yours to set one free.

The two sacks are untouched in the grass

and not one man has left.’

‘We’ve clung to the old titles;

adepts of a failed dispensation,

whose rites and formulas

belong to history, repeating

an incantation that’s familiar,

habitual, comforting,

when it’s obvious the gods

have long since left the temple

and the words no longer work.

It’s a strange new world

we’re stepping into;

clean, cruel and honest.

At least until we discover

new reasons for hypocrisy.’

[i] Laȝamon describes this advice as ‘leasing’ (lies.)  The shift from bishops and priests to wise men and soothsayers is in his text.

[ii] Another one of Laȝamon’s anachronisms. The story of Merlin’s birth and conception follows his version.

[iii] See chapter 4

More information about Laȝamon’s world and work, as well as the two published volumes in this project can be found at www.liamguilar.com

The good old days?

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 TwoThreeFour,  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. 

The wife

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’

‘Wyrde gebræcon’

‘Burgstede burston’

‘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.

Enter Gorlois[v]

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.

Chapter Six. The Wedding

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 TwoThreeFour 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. 

Set up

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,

abandoned conversations.

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.

Wedding celebrations

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

casting another.


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.

Chapter Five – An age of wood

This is Part Five of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Part One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters TwoThree and Four in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, visit 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. Their immediate, shared problem is an army of Picts. In the long term, Hengist’s desire to establish a kingdom must bring him into conflict with the Britons. He is scheming to ensure the conflict will be fought on his terms. Vortigern’s desire to save the Province will bring him into conflict with Hengist, but also with Vortimer, his eldest son and those Britons who resent his even-handed rule, while happily benefitting from it. The story of Thongcaester in this chapter marks the continual shift in the Legendary History between possible history and the world of folk tales.

Snap shot of Hengist

‘Fuck me’, said Horsa,

‘that’s a lot of paint.’

The Pictish horde, a festering

howl of painted bodies, surging

towards the silent lines,

stopping, stepping back,

closer each time,

building the rhythm

of their final charge.

‘We should pray now to Woden, god of all battles?’

‘If you wish’, replies Hengist. ‘I’m betting on our Roman.’

No speeching, no boasting,

no threats of discipline.

Vortigern had explained what needed to be done,

trusting his soldiers would do it.

And wonder of wonder, they trust him.

Hengist admires the choice of ground.

The limited front negates the Pict’s numerical superiority.

The lack of slope, conventionally a disadvantage,

leaves the cavalry who loiter on the flanks

an open field to move across.

The pitch perfect voice steeling the ranks.

In an avalanche of noise, the Picts attack.

‘Hold your lines!’ says the voice.

The Picts shatter like glass hurled against a wall. 

Brothers in Arms

After they destroyed the Picts

and massacred the survivors,

after they hunted raiders in the west,

after the spoils had been divided.

‘You’re staring at your spear,’ said Hengist, ‘is something wrong?’

‘It would look better’, says his brother, ‘with his head on it.‘

Hengist smiles. ‘The Picts and Scotti, they are worthy enemies?’

Horsa thinks about it, nods, ‘Bold fighters, yes, strong warriors.’

‘In every battle that we’ve fought’, says Hengist, tiptoeing,

‘we’ve been outnumbered but we’ve held the field,

yet lost so few in doing so?’ Horsa, still imagining his spear

adorned with Vortigern’s head, nods, admitting this is true.

‘We gave him our word that we will serve.’

‘Was it still our word in their birdy babble?

We told our people we would find a home.

How is this home if we don’t give the orders?’

‘Everyone but god takes orders.

Fifty of the best fighters these islands have seen

are sparrow fart in a thunderstorm

if we inherit his enemies and turn

his former friends into our foes.

Either we finish off his enemies

and slaughter all his friends

so you can decorate your spear.

Or we serve him well,

bait our trap and when he’s caught

the hired hand becomes the master’s equal

and our grandsons give the orders.’

‘So we’re sending for my niece?’

‘Soon’, says Hengist, ‘soon,

I’ll be sending for my daughter.’

Vortigern lectures his eldest son on recent history

‘Four hundred years the legion kept us soft.

They broke the tribes, removed

their expertise with point and edge.

Head hunters once, we worried about status,

cultivated roses, practised Latin,

patronised the makers of Mosaic floors.

The legions kept the peace and fought the Empire’s wars.

They were the turtle’s shell and we the soft

delicious flesh barbarians dreamt

of feasting on. Now the legions have gone over

and left us on our own. The forts are empty,

the watchtowers home to nesting birds.

The weapons we kept hidden, heirlooms,

are a language we’ve forgotten how to speak.

Time washed us up, defenceless and alone,

like a turtle stranded on its back.

Now the predators are moving in.

Until we train an army, we hire muscle.’

‘These men are pagans, father.

What kind of world will you build with their help?

We should exterminate them all

and build God’s kingdom on their bones.’

‘Oh child, your Jesus loves us all?

He cares and is compassionate?

He is a just and loving God?

Did your mother deserve her fate? 

What terrible crime could she commit

to earn such terror and such pain?

Do you believe the Gods are even handed?

Prayer will not drive the raiders back.’

‘You favour them.

I have no land. I have no income.

I have no household of my own.

They point at me and say,

There goes Vortimer nithing.

His father does not trust him.’

‘What is there in what I’ve done

suggests I do not trust you?’

‘You will not let me fight beside you.

You are keeping me from glory.’

‘There is no glory fighting pirates.

I want you to gather Britons

who are willing to fight.

I want you to help Gloucester train them.’

‘Help him? I am your son.’

‘And you have no experience,

no skill, no proven aptitude.

What do you know of training fighting men?

Survival depends on our success.

This is not a time for-self-appointed experts.

Do this and I shall give you land:

and income for your household.’

‘And should I refuse to second Gloucester?’

Vortigern, saying nothing, leaves.

Snap shot of Hengist #2

Gods roll their dice, or fortune cranks her wheel.

You choose your metaphor to regulate the chaos.

Despite the fragile palisade and ditch,

it’s just another village; the usual beehive huts,

wattle fences, pigs, angry dogs. Hardworking adults.

Dirty children looking up to see the sky collapse.

It’s in Vortigern’s path, where and when it needs to be.

Held by some sad fool who calls himself a King,

who thought he could defy the call to Lincoln.

A stash of weapons and some looted goods

are all excuse he needs to make this place a name

to go before the army to infect his enemies with fear

and curdle resolution. The name will mean,

terrifying cruelty; it will translate annihilation.

Warriors slipped off the leash are happy to oblige.

Vortimer sits on the hillside, with two bound captives.

They will carry the news. They will spread the virus.

Horrified, he had protested to his father:

‘You’re letting pagans murder Christians.’

‘Treason is a crime that must be punished,

regardless of the gods they claim to serve.’

Hengist, bloodless, arriving with Keredic.

‘He has a wife and daughter.’ The irrelevance

confusing father and son into baffled silence.

‘He wants to know if the King is married?’

‘My mother is with God and all his saints.

She worshipped Christ.’ ‘Where was He then

when I buried what was left of her?’

‘Raiders? Saxons?’ ‘Britons,

scratching at old tribal sores.

She wasn’t British.’ Hengist bows.

‘He says he’s sorry for your loss.’

Sincere, but qualified,

even in translation.


Success following success, the age of stone

gives way to wood. See Vortigern the King,

now seated on his wooden throne,

in a wooden hall, smoke filled and dim.

The shadows threaten. The council has dissolved,

he is the one the people look to for solutions

But they remember their grandfathers despised the younger man.

Those who were punished forget how they had sinned.

The sons of those rewarded forget their loyal fathers bled

to earn the lands and titles they inherited.

Vortigern can hear death sharpening her scythe,

scraping in his dreams, the endless ‘help me’.

The whining of the privileged, the weeping of the poor,

silenced as Hengist went down on one knee.

‘Lord’, he said, ‘we have served you well.

We have wives, children, but no home.

We have kept the promises we made.

I ask for land to settle as our own.’

Vortigern, touching the coin he wears,

‘You will dig a ditch and build a palisade.

You will invite your family and your allies

you will forget the promises you made.’

‘We gave our oath that we would serve.

We served, we all bled, many died.

I do not ask for much.’ ’Good dog’,

I’ll give you land,’ Vortimer replied.

The understudy claiming the performance.

He is stepping out to claim the light.

The assembly shoals. Some out of curiosity,

some keen to see the son and father fight.

The King, enthroned, watching,

inscrutable. His silence a surprise.

Gloucester tugging the boy’s sleeve,

whispering, ‘My lord this is unwise.’

‘If it is my land’, this to his father,

‘then I can give it to your dog without your leave.

He only needs enough space for a kennel.

I will give you’, and he pauses,

like a comedian anticipating his applause,

‘as much as you can cover with a flayed bull’s hide.’

Hengist, ignoring insult and insulting laughter,

listening to Keredic, asks: ‘Covered by?

Repeat his promise, but contained in.’

No one notices the switch of verbs.

‘Now make him swear, on all that he holds holy,

that he will give to me as much land

as can be contained within a flayed bull’s hide.’

This nit picking, detracting from his moment,

infuriating Vortimer: ‘I swear by God

and all his saints, by Holy Mother Church,

upon my mother’s grave and on

God’s wounded hands and feet and side

I will give this heathen as much land

as can be contained within a flayed bull’s hide

and freely give him leave, to host as many

as can stand or sit and shit in it.’

Smirking applause from the sycophants,

who may live long enough to learn that Hengist

should not be underestimated.

Or insulted. Nor should Vortigern.

Adolf picking at his cloak

won’t look at anyone.

Hengist, his brother, and their retinue

trailing a growing entourage of British Lords

who thought the joke too good to miss,

wander through Vortimer’s possessions

with a calculated insolence

that worried only Gloucester.

Until they found a hill, wrapped in a river bend,

with steep slopes falling to the water

a fresh spring, clear views, a wood nearby.

While the others camped and drank,

and waited for the punch line to the joke,

the brothers sauntered down the river to the sea.

When they returned they flayed a bull,

to Vortimer’s confusion gave the hide

to the most skilled of all their leather workers,

who sharpened his knives,

and cutting the thinnest of lines,

made a single, long, unbroken thong.

As the onlookers grew silent,

Hengist marked out his new property.

Saxons were soon digging a ditch

building a palisade, hauling timber,

hammering together a fine high hall

for fire and feast and fellowship

and huts, for families, for the ale maker,

a smithy with a forge, wattle fences for the kine.

With a speed the Britons would ascribe to magic,

the Saxons to their own hard work and skill,

the hill was cleared and Hengist’s new home built.

He called it Thongcaester, lest Vortimer forget.

It was not as big as Pevensey or Porchester.

but big enough. Then he sent for his wife

and his sons and his daughter.

Before the wedding

There’s thunder in the east.

Gloucester walks with Vortigern

through the ruins of a villa

and the flicking of the first drops

of a welcome summer shower.

Given jobs that he does well,

Adolf has been generously rewarded,

the benefits of obedience

outweighing the temptation to rebel.

The journey here, past ruined temples,

ruined homes, strung together 

by ruined roads reminding Vortigern of Ovid.

So much changes; so little stays the same.

But he is wary of bad metaphors.

Landscapes are not people. 

Gloucester is a stouter version

of the up and coming man

most likely to succeed.

Translating his personal ambitions

to devotion to the public cause;

the restoration of the Council,

the unification of the Province.

But hard to tell if he has changed

or if his new clothes are just old clothes

dyed and cut a different way.

‘The Boys?’[i]

‘Are not a problem, yet.’

‘They blame you for their brother’s death.’

‘His retinue got drunk and slaughtered everyone.’

‘A retinue of Picts that you had trained.

‘He sent me away.

When he realised

I‘d stand beside the Council.

When he couldn’t pay,

they killed him.’

‘They claim it was a ruse

to make the Picts afraid,

to force them to rebel.

Because you wanted to be King.’

‘And then I killed them all?

I cleaned up the mess, remember?’

‘To cover up your crime.’

‘That’s not what happened.

What other news?’

‘Hengist’s wife and daughter have arrived.’

A silent Vortigern admires the broken wall

where a rose bush has grown wild.

‘He’s going to pitch her at you.

At this great feast in his new hall.’

What would the owner of this rose

think of the incomers

who built their cooking fires

upon his mosaic floor?

‘We pay him for his service: he’s our servant.

I marry his daughter: he becomes our ally.

My father in law. Our equal.’

‘If you turn her down, he’ll revolt.

The word is fifty keels have landed.’

‘Seventeen. I had them counted.’

‘Seventeen or fifty. Fifty Picts did Constantine.’

The tide rolls in.

There is no dam, dyke, ditch

will keep it back.

What’s seventeen keels,

each day twice as many land

scattering incomers along the coasts

families moving inland

some intent on mayhem

others looking to settle.

If we do not find a way

to make them part of us

they will make us irrelevant.

Take the title, become the title.

The obligations of the office

before personal desire?

‘He will expect a Morning Gift.’

‘Then give him Thanet. It’s already his.

It’s not like she’s deformed,

or old. They say she’s stunning.

You get to break her in.

Teach her a trick or two.’

Golden hair incongruous

against the bishop’s bony knees.

‘I’m marrying a woman or a horse?’

His awkward attempts at blokiness rebuffed

Gloucester withdraws, hurt and baffled,

like a puppy that’s been kicked.

Vortigern watched as summer rain

streamed off the roof. Someone

loved this garden. I had a wife.

The daughter of a Roman General

who had no time for flowers.

She liked things, pretty things.

She married me to guarantee

the hard bright pretty things

and we could have grown old

in comfortable indifference.

Take the title, be the title.

Do what needs be done.

‘And the Church, and the British Lords?

When they hear their King is fornicating

with a heathen, when they see the pagan,

Hengist treated as their equal?’

‘What they think won’t matter when we’re safe.’

‘Outrage is a pastime for the lazy.

A wedding will be one more faggot

for the funeral pyre.

She converts before we marry.’

‘The Bishops won’t baptise a Saxon.’

‘How long would it take

to dunk her in a river

and mutter the usual spells?’

‘Marry the girl. Hengist won’t revolt.

When The Boys return, we’ll have an army.’

How beautiful a garden after rain.

The intensity of colour, the clarity of scent.

Gloucester’s red cloak shrinks into the dusk.

An army I can trust? Unlike the one you’re training?

The word is Gloucester, you’re talking to The Boys.

If you make me choose,

I’d rather stand by Hengist than against him.

Vortigern returns to the rose bush.

Sweet smell of sadness and regret

after the rain, with the light fading.

[i] The sons of Constantine the King, who fled to Britany after their father and eldest brother were assassinated.

Adolf of Gloucester goes to the Wall

This is Part 3 of LIAM GUILAR’s still-being-written epic of Britain. Chapter 1 was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and you can read Chapter 2 in the previous issue of The Brazen Head.

The story so far: 449 AD. The Roman province of Britannia is tottering. The Legions have long gone and raiders and civil war are becoming endemic as central authority breaks down. The Ruling Council has sent Adolf of Gloucester1 on a mission to establish contact with the new war lords in the North and call them to a meeting. After that he is to continue further north to investigate the rumor of a lost legion. The Council intend to use such an army to protect the province. Adolf has other plans. Adolf’s main rival is called Vortigern. You can find out more about Vortigern and the Legendary History at www.liamguilar.com

Chapter Three: Playing Dress up in the Ruins.

Gloucester goes north

Ghosts on the great north road

moth-eaten capes, tarnished brass:

pretend Romans on a fading track

its edges blurred, the landscape

creeping back, erasing the affront.

The old Cursus Publicus.

No one waited with a change of horses

to speed them on their errand.

No patient slaves were waiting

to lead them to a bath house.

Stunned groups struggling south,

unable to say where they were going.

Some with belongings. Some

begging for food, or running

at the first sight of armed men.

The worst were those too tired to run

who simply stood or sat and waited.

All day darkness, and the sky fouled with smoke,

as though the north itself were burning.

They were grateful for the rain.

An abandoned temple gave them shelter.

Gloucester imagines ordered lines

stepping towards the incoherent mob.

Discipline against barbarian chaos

the grateful blood stained victors

chanting their general’s name.

A legion at his back? Why not?

It worked for Constantine.

His men are camped outside.

More scared of ghosts than rain.

But in this world of broken shadows

even the ghosts are now afraid.

You’ve met these two before:

History’s statistics.

They are there to prove how great the victory

how terrible the defeat. Until recently

nobody bothered with their stories.

They’ve been around since wars began.

They’ll grumble on until there are no wars.

Two faces in the firelight, sharing food.

Veterans of the service, though the service

in their eyes, is looking very shabby.

‘All punishment and no discipline.

Innocent or guilty, capable or clumsy

makes little difference to this Adolf.’ 

‘When that rider came…’

…’The gibberer?’ ‘Him.’

‘What did he say?

A raiding party running for The Wall?’

‘Burdened with loot and captives.’

‘Wagons loaded down with loot he said.’

‘Pushing wagons loaded down with loot.

But Gloucester says They’re heading east.

Our orders take us west.’ ‘That’s true though isn’t it?’

‘Yes, indeed it is, but consider this.

Can you imagine Vortigern letting them escape?

Or being insulted at that hill fort

and turning tail? He’d have burnt it round their ears.’

Two days earlier….

The hill fort had been recently reoccupied.

The path rose, cutting a labyrinth of bank and ditch

until they were confronted by a well-made wall.

Everything was squared, trim, and even.

They waited in the shadow of the gate house

Then a voice, like the north wind coming off a glacier,

speaking British in defiance of their uniforms and banners.

‘Is Vortigern the Thin amongst you?’2

‘I am the Magister Militum,

Count of the Saxon Shore.’

‘Pretty titles for these ugly times.’

‘The Council summons you to London.’

‘Whatever your titles meant

when you left home,

here you are unwelcome.

There is no legion at your back,

nothing to ratify your idle names.

We can slaughter you and no one

no one, will come to bury you

let alone avenge your deaths.

Turn back, we will not follow.

Go home, we know the place

to break a column of toy soldiers

but we have better things to do.

‘We should have burnt it down around their ears.

They have sent a boy out on a man’s errand.’

The Risen Christ

Gloucester continued north.

Torch light and candle light

lamplight and firelight

and never enough light

to stop the darkness

infecting everything

so the edges blurred.

A marching camp, smoke rising,

the usual signs of occupation.

The bank is sagging underneath the wooden wall.

The platform like a discarded party streamer. 

No man could hold his ground on such a footing.

From a gate tower creaking in the breeze,

the watchman said, ‘No more than four.’

Gloucester and the Proconsul

are escorted to a timber building

with not one right angle in the joints.

In the middle, facing the smouldering fire,

whoever calls himself king of this rank and smoky space. 

A cloak of raven’s feathers, bright rings, armbands, native paint.

The protocols of embassy and messenger are swept aside.

He insists they kneel. When they refuse, he rises:

‘I am the risen Christ and you will worship me!’

Only the years of discipline stop Gloucester’s laughter.

This silly little man in this squalid little barn:

Christ how the world has shrunk

if fools expect such folly to be taken seriously.

The women are attractive, desirable but hesitant.

Eager to please their messiah. The apostles

are playground bullies in patchwork armour.

The proconsul is a bald, grey bearded man

who in his youth…etc. etc.

But now has the power…etc, etc.

It’s all implied and understood.

‘We’re all familiar with the law.’

‘This is the law,’ said the kinglet,

his fist smashing the bewildered face.

He asks the sprawling body:

‘Who will enforce your law?’

He knifes the writhing man.

‘I will’, he says, in the bloody silence

that is so profound, you can hear it

hold its breath and bleed.


Gloucester grabs a log from the woodpile

and swings it hard against the Saviour’s head.

Blowing the hunting horn around his neck,

his men break through the flimsy wall.

The risen Christ and his disciples

soon lie scattered on the dirty floor.

The Wall

Impressive but redundant marker,

of a boundary the land ignored.

Camped at a central fort,

Gloucester waited for his scouting parties.

Men sent out along the roads

or following The Wall in both directions.

Stopping in the little villages.

Abandoned huts,

cooking fires still smouldering.

Rarely a furtive native,

perhaps an ancient man or woman

left behind when all the others

had taken to the heather.

Gloucester, in the rain,

supervising his fort’s repair

imagines ranks stepping into incoherent mobs.

The disciplined advance into barbarian chaos.

The grateful victors chanting their general’s name.

His command is leaking men.

Even here, snuggled into winter quarters,

riders don’t return, and patrols sent to find patrols

find nothing. No one. The land is empty. 

Did you dream about the other

who would solve your problems?

The pay rise you deserved

to cancel out your debts.

Did you clasp the lotto ticket

dreaming of your new life

if they called your numbers?

Did you throw it in the bin

and swear you’d never bet again?

Or did you keep on betting

long after common sense had called a halt,

and there was nothing in the bank

to fuel the fantasy but a bruising desperation.

Another party rides towards the turf wall further north,

along a broken road no one has bothered to repair.

The surface fractured by the travellers’ wheels

is best avoided. On the hills, blocked culverts,

force the streams to flood and wash away the terrace

and the road it balanced. Beyond all that

right on to the end of marching

past the broken watch towers and abandoned forts

to ditch and bank and sometimes rubble

where squatters huddle in the outline of a camp,

sheep graze and the indifferent, stupid cattle

trip on the remnants of a barracks floor

that once held 30,000 men

and housed the Emperor himself.

Standing on The Wall,

waiting for patrols,

he scans the bleak upland.

It doesn’t roll, it heaves.

The burnt look of moorland

the gullies and abrupt valleys

too untidy for his taste.

No straight lines except the roads

confidently heading south.

Here, at its northern limit,

the whole ruined empire echoing behind him.

Over there the chaos that slighted Rome,

source of the tidal surge threatening to drown them all.

News from the South.

Vortigern this. Vortigern that.

His fifty Germans had erased a raiding party

then seized their ships.

He’d want a Triumph next.

What were fifty tribesmen to his Legion,

forcing the channel crossing,

following their choice of Caesar.

It worked before.

The Western Empire could be saved.

The sun crawls over the horizon,

then slides, embarrassed, to the west.

Winter, immobility and failure,

creep towards him, deaf to threat or reason.

Days when the demented wind

battered them, assaulting roof and wall

while the horizontal rain trashed

anyone who dared to stand outside.

The world was dissolving in rivers of slime.

His soldiers slithered and flopped

as if some magic had removed their bones.

Soon winter would invest the fort,

forcing them indoors to brood beside their fires

and analyse his failures. 

Vortigern this. Vortigern that.

Questions. Disappointment.

The patrols encounter roads

that fade into the heather,

ruins in the glens, tracery of walls,

fear and incomprehension

and neither had an answer.

No violent opposition.

Until one shepherd, caught on the run,

shaking with fear, stammered:

there was a fort in the north west:

it had been repaired.

‘In Wood or stone?’

So much hung upon the answer.

He didn’t know. It was a story he’d been told

by a drover he’d been drinking with.

He wouldn’t even swear that it was true.

Far from any road, overlooking a river

that drained hills to the north.

Playing dress up in the ruins

They watched, while rain was turning into sleet,

the great gate shaking in the wind.

There were guards on the wall.

So they retreated to the ruined vicus                                                                                          

where traders and camp followers had sold their wares

unwrapped their eagle, donned their fathers’ uniforms

and moved in line towards the gate.

It opened, men in armour moving out

a legion on the march. Adolf saw the future:

the roads busy, the towns thriving,

but no legion ever staggered,

ragged arsed into a line that bent.

He rode closer playing Roman.

There was nothing Roman or Imperial on view:

patchworks of rust and improvisation.

Someone whose faded plume suggested rank

stepped forward. Braided hair leaked

from the badly polished helmet.

Only the little gimlets of his twinkling eyes

broke the bearded, tattooed face.

He spoke a mix of Pict and Legion

Gloucester struggled to translate.

Inside the fort, the walls contained a rubbish tip.

Once neatly ordered barrack blocks were patterns in the mud.

Dirty children squabbled in the wreck of the Principia.

Dirty women moved amongst the dirty huts.

Removing bits of armour with relief,

the garrison was every other native they had met.

‘They said that you would come for us,

the oldies.

They said: “The bastards sailed without us.

They’ll return.’’

We buried the last of them so long ago.

My father’s father. Take us back to Rome.

Take us to the bath house and the forum.

The oldies said that Caesar would reward our loyalty.’

They celebrated in the wooden barn

that once had housed the grain.

Perhaps they thought it was a feast.

Perhaps, they thought that this was how

the legions honoured their important guests.

So Gloucester lied about his errand. Pretended

Rome was still unscathed, the Empire

sound but still in need of loyal troops.

Would they drill for him tomorrow?

Those who weren’t too drunk turned out.

He counted less than fifty,

some too old to stand up straight.

Echoes of empire in mangled Latin.

Their drill was comically inept,

like little boys playing dress up

in a misremembered game.

They were no use to anyone.

He couldn’t take them with him.

But they wouldn’t let him leave.

So Gloucester gave instructions.

They rode away.

The wooden buildings smoking in the rain.

The bodies piled into a heap.

The glory that was Rome

left for the raven and the wolf.

  1. Adolf is one of Laȝamon’s oddities. Although he is a British hero, he has a very German name []
  2. He is ‘Vortigern the Thin’ in Welsh tradition []