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Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is just your enemy too. In the early part of the fifth century, Roman occupants withdrew from Britain to defend Gaul and Italy from the invading barbarian tribes. They left behind a defenseless land with an uncertain future. The lack of a strong government and military presence sent the country spiraling into chaos. Bands of Picts, who dwelled on the north side of Hadrian’s Wall, began raiding villages on the south side. They took food, slaughtered countless Britons, and robbed the local homes and churches. Without the support of the Roman legions, British chieftains felt they could not stop the plundering and raids. So, they hired Saxon mercenaries to come over and quell the troublesome people of the north. They soon learned to regret their decision.

Not much is known about the details concerning the events, but according to tradition and the Venerable Bede, the story goes something like this . . .

In about 425 there lived a king named Constans, who had as his most trusted adviser the lord Vortigern. The king had lived his life in a monastery and therefore knew nothing of the affairs of state. So Vortigern managed the country on his behalf. It didn’t take long for Vortigern to figure out that if he ran the country, he might as well be king. He concocted a plan to usurp the throne from the pious King Constans.

Vortigern first persuaded the king to put the treasury in his care and then asked for control of the cities and their garrisons. He convinced the king that the Picts planned to invade and would be aided by the Norwegians and the Danes. Vortigern told Constans that the best way to avoid this would be to fill the court with Picts who could act as spies against their own people. The real reason Vortigern wanted to pack the court with Pictish nobles was that he knew they could be easily bought. When they arrived, Vortigern treated them with favoritism. Once he had their loyalty, he told them that he planned on leaving to seek his fortune, as he could not live off of the measly allowance the king provided him. The outraged Picts decided to take action against the king. They broke into his bedchamber and cut off his head. Vortigern played the part of the grieving friend well. He ordered the execution of all involved in the crime. This played well with the Brits, but when word got north to the Picts, they wanted revenge.

Vortigern not only had to contend with the fact that he had made an enemy of the Picts, but he also had made an enemy of Constans’ two brothers, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon. (They both had fled to Brittany, but returned to play a part in the story later.) Hengist and Horsa, two Saxon leaders, appeared off the coast of England in what likely was supposed to be a raid. The Saxons landed in Kent with a band of fully armed warriors. Rather than gathering men to repel their invasion, Vortigern saw this as an opportunity. He invited the two Saxon bands to fight for him in exchange for land and money. It seemed like the perfect match.

Together, the trio won many victories over the Picts, and in return Vortigern granted Hengist land in Lincolnshire. Hengist told Vortigern that to keep the enemy at bay he must send for more men from Germany. He was given permission to do so. As if that were not stupid enough, the king also made Hengist an earl and allowed him to build a castle stronghold. The newly appointed earl named his castle Thongceaster.

If you think Vortigern acted foolishly so far, just wait. It gets worse. Vortigern fell in love with Rowena, the beautiful daughter of Hengist, and asked for her hand in marriage. Hengist agreed, but only if the king would give him the county of Kent to compensate for his loss. All involved totally ignored the fact that Kent already belonged to Earl Gorangon, who was also sworn to Vortigern’s service and must have been furious. Vortigern then appointed his newly acquired father-in-law as his chief adviser. He also gave Hengist’s sons land between Hadrian’s Wall and the southern part of Britain as a buffer between the raiders and his own people. While all this was happening, the number of Saxons settling in Britain increased daily. They owed loyalty only to Hengist. It became clear to every Briton except Vortigern that Hengist planned to take over.

When the British nobles voiced their concerns to Vortigern he ignored them. But if things continued, the nobles realized they would lose all of their lands to the Saxons. So, they declared Vortigern’s son Vortimer their king. Vortimer immediately set about driving the Saxons away. He fought and won many battles. In one of those battles, Horsa, the other leader who had arrived with Hengist, was slain. Many Saxon warriors had to flee back to Germany, often leaving their women and children behind. The family members left behind were usually enslaved. Soon all of the Saxon warriors and leaders were back across the Channel. Upon hearing of all this, Rowena decided to take revenge on Vortimer and had him poisoned. When news of Vortimer’s death reached Hengist, he raised an army and set sail back to Briton. When he arrived, he sent a message to Vortigern, who was king again. Hengist told him that the army had been brought over to deal with Vortimer, and he claimed he was unaware of Vortimer’s death. The two leaders arranged to meet with their top barons at Amesbury Abbey to negotiate terms. Tradition was that no one brought weapons to a negotiation. The British nobles obeyed the tradition, but the Saxons did not. Once the meeting had begun, Hengist and his men pulled out their daggers and cut the throats of the unarmed Britons.

At this point, the story slips into legend, with tales of Merlin the wizard woven throughout. Vortigern did not die in the massacre, but was killed later by Ambrosius, the exiled son of Constans. The legend does have a ring of truth to it, if only a literary one. It conveys the feelings of betrayal that the Britons felt toward the Saxon invaders, and it provides archaeologists and historians with a possible explanation for the sudden shift of power and the mass migration of the Saxons. The tale also offers a moral. So for all you men and women out there with plans of world domination, take a lesson from Vortigern, not to mention Rome: Never hire someone to fight your enemies. And if you do so, don’t allow them to achieve greater strength in numbers. The leader with the biggest army almost always ends up as king.

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