William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England

BOOK 1 CHAPTER 1: Of the arrival of the Angles, and of the Kings of Kent [A.D. 449]

   In the year of the incarnation of our Lord 449, Angles and Saxons first came into Britain; and although the cause of their arrival is universally known, it may not be improper here to subjoin it: and, that the design of my work may be the more manifest, to begin even from an earlier period. That Britain, compelled by Julius Caesar to submit to the Roman power, was held in high estimation by that people, may be collected from their history, and be seen also in the ruins of their ancient buildings. Even their emperors, sovereigns of almost all the world, eagerly embraced opportunities of sailing hither, and of spending their days here. Finally, Severus and Canstantius, two of their greatest princes, died upon the island, and were there interred with the utmost pomp. The former, to defend this province from the incursions of the barbarians, built his celebrated and well-known wall from sea to sea. The latter, a man, as they report, of courteous manners, left Constantine, his son by Helena, a tender of cattle(3), a youth of great promise, his heir. Constantine, greeted emperor by the army, led away, in an expedition destined to the continent, a numerous force of British soldiers; by whose exertions, the war succeeding to his wishes, he gained in a short time the summit of power. For these veterans, where their toil was over, he founded a colony on the western coast of Gaul, where, to this day, their descendants, somewhat degenerate in language and manners from our own Britons, remain with wonderful increase.
   In succeeding times, in this island, Maximus, a man well-fitted for command, had he not aspired to power in defiance of his oath, assumed the purple, as though compelled by the army, and preparing immediately to pass over into Gaul, he despoiled the province of almost all its military force. Not long after also, on Constantine, who had been elected emperor on account of his name, drained its whole remaining warlike strength; but both being slain, the one by Theodosius, the other by Honorius, they became examples of the instability of human greatness. Of the forces which had followed them part shared the fate of their leaders; the rest, after their defeat, fled to the continental Britons. Thus when the tyrants had left none but half-savages in the country, and, in the towns, those only who were given up to the luxury, Britain, despoiled of the support of its youthful population, and bereft of every useful art, was for a long time exposed to the ambition of neighboring nations.
   For immediately, by an excursion of the Scots and Picts, number of the people were slain, villages burnt, towns destroyed, and everything laid waste by fire and sword. Part of the harassed islanders, who thought anything more advisable than contending in battle, fled for safety to the mountains; others, burying their treasures in the earth, many of which are dug up in our own times, proceeded to Rome to ask assistance. The Romans, touched with pity, and deeming it above all things important to yield succor to their oppresses allies, twice lent their aid, and defeated the enemy. But at length, wearied with the distant voyage, then declined returning in [the] future; bidding them rather themselves not degenerate from the martial energy of their ancestors, but learn to defend their country with spirit, and with arms. They accompanied their advice with the plan of a wall, to be build for their defense; the mode of keeping watch on the ramparts; of sallying out against the enemy, should it be necessary, together with other duties of military discipline. After giving these admonitions, they departed, accompanied by the tears of the miserable inhabitants; and Fortune, smiling on their departure, restored them to their friends and country. The Scots, learning the improbability of their return, immediately began to make fresh and more frequent irruptions against the Britons; to level their wall, to kill the few opponents they met with, and to carry off considerable booty; while such as escaped fled to the royal residence, imploring the protection of their sovereign.
   At this time Vortigern was King of Britain; a man calculated neither for the field nor the council, but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lusts. To complete the picture, as we read in the History of the Britons, he had defiled his own daughter, who was lured to the participation of such a crime by the hope of sharing his kingdom, and she had born him a son. Regardless of his treasures at this dreadful juncture, and wasting the resources of the kingdom in riotous living, he was awake only to the blandishments of abandoned women. Roused at length, however, by the clamors of the people, he summoned a council, to take the sense of his nobility on the state of public affairs. To be brief, it was unanimously resolved to invite over from Germany the Angles and Saxons, nations powerful in arms, but of a roving life. It was conceived that this would be a double advantage: for it was thought that, by their skill in war, these people would easily subdue their enemies; an, as they hitherto had no certain habitation, would gladly accept even an unproductive soil, provided it afforded them a stationary residence. Moreover, that they could not be suspected of ever entertaining a design against the country, since the remembrance of this kindness would soften their native ferocity. This counsel was adopted, and ambassadors, men of rank, and worthy to represent the country, were sent into Germany.
   The Germans, hearing that voluntarily offered, which they had long anxiously desired, readily obeyed the invitation; their joy quickening their haste. Bidding adieu, therefore, to their native fields and the ties of kindred, they spread their sails to Fortune, and, with a favoring breeze, arrived in Britain in three of those long vessels which they call ceols. At this and other times came over a mixed multitude from three of the German nations; that is to say, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. For almost all the country lying to the north of the British ocean, though divided into many provinces, is justly denominated Germany, from it germinating so many men. And as the pruner cuts off the more luxuriant branches of the tree to impart a livelier vigor to the remainder, so the inhabitants of this country assist their common parent by the expulsion of a part of their members, lest she should perish by giving sustenance to too numerous an offspring; but in order to obviate discontent, they cast lots who shall be compelled to migrate. Hence the men of this country have made a virtue of necessity, and, then driven from their native soil, they have gained foreign settlements by force of arms. The Vandals, for instance, who formerly overran Africa; the Goths, who made themselves masters of Spain; the Lombards, who, even at the present time, are settled in Italy; and the Normans, who have given their own name to that part of Gaul which they subdued. From German, then, there first came into Britain, an inconsiderable number indeed, but well able to make up for their paucity by their courage. These were under the conduct of Hengist and Horsa, two brothers of suitable disposition, and of noble race in their own country. They were great-grandsons of the celebrated Woden, from whome almost all the royal families of these barbarous nations deduce their origin; and to whome the nations of the Angles, fondly deifying him, have consecrated by immemorial superstition the fourth day of the week, as they have the sixth to his wife Frea. Bede has related in what particular parts of Britain the Angles, Saxons and Jutes fixed their habitations(4): my design, however, is not to dilate, though there may be abundance of materials for the purpose, but to touch only on what is necessary.
   The Angles were eagerly met on all sides upon their arrival: from the king they received thanks, from the people expressions of goodwill. Faith was plighted on either side, and the Isle of Thanet appropriated for their residence. It was agreed, moreover, that they should exert their prowess in arms for the service of the country; and, in return, receive a suitable reward for the people for whose safety they underwent such painful labors. Ere long, the Scots advanced, as usual, secure, as they supposed, of a great booty with very little difficulty. However, the Angles assailed them, and scarcely had they engaged, before they were put to flight, whilst the cavalry pursued and destroyed the fugitives. Contests of this kind were frequent, and victory constantly siding with the Angles, as is customary in human affairs, while success inflamed the courage of one party, and dread increased the cowardice of the other, the Scots in the end avoided nothing so cautiously as an engagement with them.
   In the meantime, Hengist, not less keen in perception than ardent in the field, with consent of Vortigern, sends back some of his followers to his own country, with the secret purpose, however, of representing the indolence of the king and people, the opulence of the island, and the prospect of advantage to new adventurers. Having executed their commission adroitly, in a short time they return with sixteen ships, bringing with them the daughter of Hengist; a maiden, as we have heard, who might justly be called the masterpiece of nature and the admiration of mankind. At an entertainment, provided for them on their return, Hengist commanded his daughter to assume the office of cupbearer, that she might gratify the eyes of the king as he sat at table. Nor was the design unsuccessful: for he, ever eager after female beauty, deeply smitten with the gracefulness of her form and the elegance of her motion, instantly conceived a vehement desire for the possession of her person, and immediately proposed marriage to her father; urging him to a measure to which he was already well inclined. Hengist at first kept up the artifice by a refusal; stating, that so humble a connection was unworthy of a king: but, at last appearing the consent with reluctance, he gave way to his importunities, and accepted, as a reward, the whole of Kent, where all justice had long since declined under the administration of it Gourong (or Viceroy), who, like the other princes of the island, was subject to the monarchy of Vortigern. Not satisfied with this liberality, but abusing the imprudence of the king, the barbarian persuaded him to send for his son and brother, men of warlike talents, from Germany, pretending that he would defend the province on the east, while they might curb the Scots on the northern frontier. The king assenting, they sailed round Britain, and arriving at the Orkney Isles, the inhabitants of which they involved in the same calamity with the Picts and Scots, at this and after times, they finally settled in the northern part of the island, now called Northumbria. Still no one there assumed the royal title or insignia till the time of Ida, from whome sprang the regal line of the Northumbrians.; but of this hereafter. We will now return to the present subject.
   Vortimer, the son of Vortigern thinking it unnecessary longer to dissemble that he saw himself and his Briton circumvented by the craft of the Angles, turned his thoughts to their expulsion, and stimulated his father to the same attempt. At his suggestion, the truce was broken seven years after their arrival; and during the ensuing twenty, they frequently fought partial battles, and, as the [Anglo-Saxon] chronicle relates,, four general actions. From the first conflict they parted on equal terms: one party lamenting the loss of Horsa, the brother of Hengist; the other, that of Katigis, another of Vortigern's sons. The Angles, having the advantage in all the succeeding encounters, peace was concluded; Vortimer, who had been the instigator of the war, and differed far from the indolence of his father, perished prematurely, or he would have governed the kingdom in a noble manner, had God permitted. When he died, the British strength decayed, and all hope fled from them; and they would soon have perished altogether, had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who became monarch after Vortigern, quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur. It is of this Arthur that the Britons fondly tell so many fables, even to the present day; a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history. He long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war. Finally, at the siege of Mount Badon, relying on an image of the Virgin, which he had affixed to his armor, he engaged nine hundred of the enemy, single-handed, and dispersed them with incredible slaughter. On the other side, the Angles, after various revolutions of fortune, filled up their thinned battalions with fresh supplies of their countrymen; rushed with greater courage to the conflict, and extended themselves by degrees, as the natives retreated, over the whole island: for the counsels of God, in whose hand is every change of empire, did not oppose their career. But this was effected in process of time; for while Vortigern lived, no new attempt was made against them. About this time, Hengist, from that bad quality of the human heart which grasps after more in proportion to what it already possesses, by a preconcerted piece of deception, invited his son-in-law, with three hundred of his followers, to an entertainment; and when, by more than usual compotations, he had excited them to clamor, he began, purposely, to taunt them severally, with sarcastic raillery: this had the desired effect, of making them first quarrel, and then come to blowas. Thus the Britons were basely murdered to a man, and breathed their last amid their cups. The king himself, made captive, purchased his liberty at the price of three provinces. After this, Hengist died, in the thirty-ninth year after his arrival; he was a man, who urging his success not less by artifice than courage, and giving free scope to his natural ferocity, preferred effecting his purpose rather by cruelty than by kindness. He left a son named Eisc; who, more intent on defending than enlarging his dominions, never exceeded the paternal bounds. At the expiration of twenty-four years, he had for his successors his son Otha, and Otha's son, Ermenric, who, in their manners resembled him, rather than their grandfather and great grandfather. To the times of both, the Chronicles assign fifty-three years; but whether they reigned singly or together, does not appear.
   After them Ethelbert, the son of Ermenic, reigned fifty-three years according to the Chronicle; but fifty-six according to Bede. The reader must determine how this difference is to be accounted for; as I think it sufficient to have apprized him of it, I shall let the matter rest. In the infancy of his reign, he was such an object of contempt to the neighboring kings that, defeated in two battles, he could scarcely defend his frontier; afterwards, however, when to his riper years he had added a more perfect knowledge of war, he quickly, by successive victories, subjugated every kingdom of the Angles, with the exception of the Northumbrians. And, in order to obtain foreign connections, he entered into affinity with the king of France, by marrying his daughter Bertha. And now by this connection with the Franks, the nation, hitherto savage and wedded to its own customs, began daily to divest itself of its rustic propensities and incline to gentler manners. To this was added the very exemplary life of bishop Luidhard, who had come over with the queen, by which, though silently, he allured the king to the knowledge of Christ our Lord. Hence it arose, that his mind, already softened, easily yielded to the preaching of the blessed Augustine; and he was the first of all his race who renounced the errors of paganism, that he might obscure, by the glory of his faith, those whome he surpassed in power. This, indeed, is spotless nobility; this, exalted virtue; to excel in worth those whome you exceed in rank. Besides, extending his care to posterity, he enacted lawas, in his native tongue, in which he appointed rewards for the meritorious, and opposed severer restraint to the abandoned, leaving nothing doubtful for the future.
   Ethelbert died in the twenty-first year after he had embraced the Christian faith, leaving the diadem to his son Edbald. As soon as he was freed from the restraints of paternal awe, he rejected Christianity, and overcame the virtue of his stepmother. But the severity of the divine mercy opposed a barrier to his utter destruction: for the princes, whome his father had subjugated, immediately rebelled, he lost a part of his dominions, and was perpetually haunted by an evil spirit, whereby he paid the penalty of his unbelief. Laurentius, the successor of Augustine, was offended at these transactions, and after having sent away his companions, was meditating his own departure from the country, but having received chastisement from God, he was induced to change his resolution. The king conversing with him on the subject, and finding his assertions confirmed by his stripes, became easily converted, and accepted the grace of Christianity, and broke off his incestuous intercourse. But, that posterity might be impressed with the singular punishment due to apostasy, it was with difficulty he could maintain his hereditary dominions, much less rival the eminence of his father. For the remainder of his life, his faith was sound, and he did nothing to sully his reputation. The monastery also, which his father had founded without the walls of Canterbury, he ennobled with large estates, and sumptuous presents. The praises and merits of both these men ought ever to be proclaimed, and had in honor by the English; because they allowed the Christian faith to acquire strength in England, by patient listening and willingness to believe. Who can contemplate, without satisfaction, the just and amiable answer which Bede makes king Ethelbert to have given to the first preaching of Augustine? "That he could not, thus early, embrace a new doctrine and leave the accustomed worship of his country; but that, nevertheless, persons who had undertaken so long a journey for the purpose of kindly communicating to the Angles what they deemed an inestimable benefit, far from meeting with ill treatment, ought rather to be allowed full liberty to preach, and also to receive the amplest maintenance." He fully kept his promise; and at length the truth of Christianity becoming apparent by degrees, himself and all his subjects were admitted into the number of the faithful And what did the other? Though led away at first, more by the lusts of the flesh than perverseness of heart, yet he paid respect to the virtuous conduct of the prelates, although he neglected their faith; and lastly, as I have related, was easily converted through the sufferings of Laurentius, and became of infinite service to the propagation of Christianity. Both, then, were laudable: both deserved high encomiums; for the good work, so nobly begun by the one, was kindly fostered by the other.
   To him, after a reign of twenty-four years, succeeded Erconbert, his son, by Emma, daughter of the king of France. He reigned an equal number of years with his father, but under happier auspices; alike remarkable for piety toward God, and love to his country. For his grandfather, and father, indeed, adopted our faith, but neglected to destroy their idols; whilst he, thinking it derogatory to his royal zeal not to take the readiest mode of annihilating openly what they only secretly condemned, leveled every temple of their gods to the ground, that not a trace of their paganism might be handed down to posterity. This was nobly done: for the mass of the people would be reminded of their superstition, so long as they could see the altars of their deities. In order, also, that he might teach his subjects, who were too much given to sensual indulgence, to accustom themselves to temperance, he enjoined the solemn fast of Lent to be observed throughout his dominions. This was an extraordinary act for the king to attempt in those times: but he was a man whome no blandishments of luxury could enervate; no anxiety for power seduce from the worship of God. Wherefore he was protected by the favor of the Almighty; every thing, at home and abroad, succeeded to his wishes, and he grew old in uninterrupted tranquillity. His daughter Ercongotha, a child worthy of such a parent, and emulating her father in virtuous qualities, became a shining light in the monastery of Kalas in Gaul.
   His son Egbert, retaining his father's throne for nine years, did nothing memorable in so short a reign; unless indeed it be ascribed to the glory of this period, that Theodore the archbishop and Adrian the abbot, two consummate scholars, came into England in his reign. Were not the subject already trite, I should willingly record what light they shed upon the Britons; how on one side the Greeks, and on the other the Latins ,emulously contributed their knowledge to the public stock, and made this island, once the nurse of tyrants, the constant residence of philosophy: but this and every other merit of the times of Egbert is clouded by his horrid crime, of either destroying, or permitting to be destroyed, Elbert and Egelbright, his nephewas.
   To Egbert succeeded his brother Lothere, who began his reign with unpropitious omens. For he was harassed during eleven years by Edric, the son of Egbert, and engaged in many civil conflicts which terminated with various success, until he was ultimately pierced through the body with a dart, and died while they were applying remedies to the wound. Some say that both the brothers perished by a premature death as a just return for their cruelty; because Egbert, as I have related, murdered the innocent children of his uncle; and Lothere ridiculed the notion of holding them up as martyrs: although the former had lamented the action, and had granted a part of the Isle of Thanet to the mother of his nephewas, for the purpose of building a monastery.
   Nor did Edric long boast the prosperous state of his government; for within two years he was despoiled both of kingdom and of life, and left his country to be torn in pieces by its enemies. Immediately Caedwalla, with his brother Mull, in other respects a good and able man, but breathing an inextinguishable hatred against the people of Kent, made vigorous attempts upon the province; supposing it must easily surrender to his viewas, as it had lately been in the enjoyment of long continued peace, but at that time was torn with intestine war. He found, however, the inhabitants by no means unprepared or void of courage, as he had expected. For after many losses sustained in the towns and villages, at length they rushed with spirit to the conflict. They gained the victory in the contest, and having put Caedwalla to flight, drove his brother mull into a little cottage, which they set on fire. Thus, wanting courage to sally out against the enemy, the fire gained uncontrolled power, and he perished in the flames. Nevertheless Caedwalla ceased not his efforts, nor retired from the province; but consoled himself for his losses by repeatedly ravaging the district; however, he left the avenging of this injury to Ina, his successor, as will be related in its place.
   In this desperate state of affairs of Kent, there was a void of about six years in royal succession. In the seventh, Withred, the son of Egbert, having repressed the malevolence of his countrymen by his activity, and purchased peace from his enemies by money, was chosen king by the inhabitants, who entertained great and well-founded hopes of him. He was an admirable ruler at home, invincible in war, and a truly pious follower of the Christian faith, for he extended its power to the utmost. And, to complete his felicity, after a reign of thirty-three years, he died in extreme old age, which men generally reckon to be their greatest happiness, leaving his three children his heirs. These were Egbert, Ethelbert and Alric, and they reigned twenty-three, eleven and thirty-four years successively, without deviation from the excellent example and institutions of their father, except that Ethelbert, by the casual burning of Canterbury, and Alric, by an unsuccessful battle with the Mercians, considerably obscured the glory of their reigns. So it is that, if any thing disgraceful occurs, it is not concealed; if any thing fortunate, it is not sufficiently noticed in the Chronicles; whether it be done designedly, or whether it arise from the bad quality of the human mind, which makes gratitude for good transient; whereas the recollection of evil remains forever. After these men the noble stock of kings began to wither, the royal blood to flow cold. Then every daring adventurer, who had acquired riches by his eloquence, or whome faction had made formidable, aspired to the kingdom, and disgraced the ensigns of royalty. Of these, Edbert otherwise called Pren, after having governed Kent two years, over-rating his power, was taken prisoner in a war with the Mercians, and loaded with chains. But being set at liberty by his enemies, though not received by his own subjects, it is uncertain by what end he perished. Cuthred, heir to the same faction and calamity, reigned, in name only, eight years. Next Baldred, a mere abortion of a king, after having for eighteen years more properly possessed than governed the kingdom, went into exile, on his defeat by Egbert, king of the West Saxons. Thus the kingdom of Kent which, from the year of our Lord 449, had continued 375 years, became annexed to another. And since by following the royal line of the first kingdom which arose among the Angles, I have elicited a spark, as it were, from the embers of antiquity, I shall now endeavor to throw light on the kingdom of the West Saxons, which, though after a considerable lapse of time, was the next that sprang up. While others were neglected and wasted away, this flourished with unconquerable vigor, even to the coming of the Normans; and, if I may be permitted the expression, with greedy jawas swallowed up the rest. Wherefore, after tracing this kingdom in detail down to Egbert, I shall briefly, for fear of disgusting my readers, subjoin some notices of the two remaining; this will be suitable termination to the first book, and the second will continue the history of the West Saxons alone.


3. That is, a commoner. Her actual occupation has been much debated. Gibbon concluded she was an innkeeper's daughter, and others believe she was a stable maid.
4. The people of Kent and of the Isle of Wight were Jutes; the East, South and West Saxons were Saxons; and from the Angles came the East Angles, Mid-Angles, Mercians and Northumbrians.