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kings of Kentlocked

(act. c. 450–c. 590)
  • Barbara Yorke

kings of Kent (act. c. 450–c. 590), rulers in Kent, held power in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom roughly coterminous with the modern county of Kent, from its foundation to the accession of King Æthelberht I (d. 616?). The traditional founders of the Kentish royal house are the two brothers Hengist (d. 488?) and Horsa (d. 455?). Bede identified them as the leaders of the Germanic forces invited to Britain by Vortigern, as described by Gildas, and he calculated that they had arrived in 449. By the ninth century an elaborate saga existed describing the history of the relations between Hengist, Horsa, and Vortigern which appears in attenuated form in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in rather more detail in a ninth-century Welsh compilation, known as the Historia Brittonum, where the defeat of the British is attributed in part to Vortigern's love for Hengist's daughter. Superficially the chronicle narrative in particular appears convincing, with named battles and protagonists. But even stripped of the names of personalities and places, the notion of the originally peaceful settlement of Germanic contingents in a military context may be supported by the archaeological evidence. In Kent, and other parts of southern Britain, apparently peculiarly Germanic inhumation burials can be dated to the first half of the fifth century, and the goods found in them include belt furniture of a kind worn by Germans in Roman military service. That such mercenary captains should turn on their erstwhile employers is highly plausible. The chronicle relates that Hengist and Horsa fought Vortigern at 'Ægelesthrep' in 455, with the result that Hengist became king; Horsa was slain in the battle and Bede reports that a monument bearing his name could be seen in the eastern part of Kent.

In spite of such details it seems very likely that Hengist and Horsa were mythical founders rather than real personages. Their alliterating names recall other founding figures of Indo-European legend such as Romulus and Remus. The names mean 'stallion' and 'horse', and the possibility that they were in origin equine deities receives some support from accounts that in nineteenth-century Saxony protective roof-finials in the shape of horse-heads were known by their names. The Hengist who appears in Old English poetry as a Jutish leader is no doubt intended to be the same person as the founder of the Kentish royal house, for Bede says that the Germanic settlers in Kent were of Jutish stock. However, the literary references cannot be seen as independent confirmation of Hengist's existence as a real person, as they may have been influenced by the development of his legend within England.

Hengist is said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have succeeded to the kingdom in 455 with his son Æsc (d. 512?), and successful battles against the British are recorded at 'Creacanford' in 456, at 'Wippedesfleot' in 465, and in an unrecorded location in 473. In 488 Æsc became king in his own right—presumably Hengist is supposed to have died—and is said to have reigned for twenty-four years. Bede believed that Hengist's son was in fact called Oeric, but that his cognomen was Oisc (cognate with Æsc) and that the kings of Kent were known from him as the Oiscingas. The name Æsc or Oisc seems to mean 'god' and the possibility must therefore be allowed that he too is a thinly disguised deity. Possibly Oeric is a genuine progenitor with whom the name of Oisc (Æsc) came to be associated, but in view of the dubious company he keeps it becomes very difficult to accept the battles cited for him and his equally problematical 'father' in the chronicle as reliable accounts of the early history of the kingdom of Kent. Oeric's son is said by Bede to be Octa (fl. 512?), although in another version of the Kentish royal pedigree, in the so-called ‘Anglian collection’ of genealogies, it is Octa (Ocga) who is the son of Hengist and Oisc (Oese) who is the grandson. No activities are recorded for Octa, though his reign would have begun in 512, according to the chronicle reckoning for the length of Æsc's reign.

It is only with the third generation from Hengist that there appears an individual who can with some certainty be identified as a king of Kent. The son of Octa (Bede) or Oese (Anglian collection) was Eormenric (fl. 550x600) who was the father of Æthelberht, the first king of Kent whom Bede discusses in any detail. Gregory of Tours, writing of the marriage of the Frankish princess Bertha, daughter of King Charibert, to Æthelberht, describes him as 'the son of a certain king in Kent' and that is the only reference which definitely implies that Eormenric ruled as king (Gregory of Tours, 4.26). The marriage is not the only evidence for strong Frankish influence in Kent during the sixth century. Grave-goods from Kentish cemeteries show not only the acquisition of luxury goods made or acquired through Francia, but also the adoption of Frankish fashions of dress and other ways of displaying status. The first element of Eormenric's name is uncommon among Anglo-Saxon personal names, but relatively common in Francia, and so may be further evidence for Frankish influence in the time of his parents. Such influence may have gone beyond that of trade. Various Frankish sources and some of the correspondence connected with the mission sent by Pope Gregory to Kent in 596 may imply a degree of Frankish overlordship of Kent in the second half of the sixth century, perhaps aided by the fact that people from Kent seem to have settled within Francia in the vicinity of Boulogne.

Eormenric's reign cannot be dated precisely. Bede believed that Æthelberht succeeded to the throne in 560, which by implication would be the date of Eormenric's death. But Gregory of Tours's statement that Æthelberht was not yet king of Kent when he married Bertha implies that the 560 date cannot be correct, for Bertha was not born until some time between 561 and 568 and Gregory seems to have believed that Æthelberht was still a (filius regis'son of the king') at the time he was writing in 589. Even if it is allowed that Gregory may not have been fully informed on the Kentish succession, Eormenric's reign must be placed in the second half of the sixth century.

Sources

  • ASC, s.a. 449, 455, 456, 465, 473, 477, 568
  • D. N. Dumville, ‘The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists’, Anglo-Saxon England, 5 (1976), 23–50
  • N. Brooks, ‘The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent’, The origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, ed. S. Bassett (1989), 55–74
  • Gregory of Tours, The history of the Franks, ed. and trans. L. Thorpe (1974), bk 4. p.26; bk 9 p. 26
  • I. N. Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (1983)
  • B. A. E. Yorke, ‘Gregory of Tours and sixth-century Anglo-Saxon England’, The world of Gregory of Tours, ed. K. Mitchell and I. Wood (Leiden, 2002)
  • B. A. E. Yorke, Kings and kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England (1990)
  • L. Oliver, The beginnings of English law (2002)
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)