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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a self-made cartoon. This blog discusses  on how Eldol of Gloucester led Hengest by the nose…

Escaping the Night of the Long Knives with a stick

In my previous blog on an Anglo-Saxon anecdote, I discussed the story of the original Night of the Long Knives, when the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon leader Hengest ordered his Saxon followers to kill their British neighbours (You can read up on this here). Not all the Britons were killed that night, however, as  the ever-reliable Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155) tells us in his Historia Regum Brittanniae [The History of the British Kings]. Geoffrey  reports how one Briton escaped (using a stick) and made sure that Hengest would get his comeuppance. This is the story of Eldol of Gloucester.

Eldol escaped the treacherous Anglo-Saxon onslaught by grabbing a wooden stick and “[i]f anyone approached him, he struck him so hard that his limbs would break and he would be dispatched straight to Hell. Eldol smashed heads and arms and shoulders and legs, inspiring the Saxons with great terror.” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, bk. VI, ch. 16). Before he managed to escape, Eldol had killed seventy men with his stick.

Leading Hengest by the nose

At a later date, Hengest and his Saxon troops ambush a British army, led by Aurelius Ambrosius (the uncle of King Arthur). Among the Britons, we find Eldol and he and Hengest come to blows:

O how these men were mighty in battle above all others! As they deal stroke after stroke to each other, sparks flew up from their blades like thunder and lightning. For a long while it was unclear which of the two possessed the greater strength: first Eldol would press forward and Hengest would fall back, then Eldol would lose ground while Hengest prevailed. (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, bk. VIII, ch. 6)

Then, Eldol decides to play dirty:

“He seized Hengest by the noseguard of his helmet and, exerting all his strength, dragged him back behind the British lines. With the greatest joy, Eldol then cried aloud: ‘God has granted my wish! Press on, soldiers, press on! […] Victory is now within your grasp! With Hengest defeated, you have won!’” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, bk. VIII, ch. 6)


Eldol leads Hengest by the nose.

Eldol eventually cuts off Hengest head and rejoices some more.

The English idiom “to lead someone by the nose” means ‘to force someone to go somewhere’. People will tell you this phrase goes back to “the fact that a cow is sometimes led by rope attached to a ring in its nose”. You now know better…

Works referred to:

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. M. A. Faletra (2008)

If you liked this post, you may also like An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives


The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Rings of Power

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the Rings of Power used by Sauron to gain dominion over those who would wear them…


Good guy Sauron meme (source)

“hringa fengel” (Beowulf, l. 2345): the original ‘Lord of the Rings

Why does Sauron give rings to the elves, men and dwarves he wants to control rather than any other object? The answer may be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, one of the texts Tolkien studied closely.

In Beowulf, kings are often described with metaphorical phrases such as “sincgyfan” [giver of treasure] (l. 1012a),  “sinces bryttan” [distributor of treasure] (l. 1922b) and “goldgyfan” [giver of gold] (l. 2652). Rulers were thus associated with the dispensing of treasure and, more specifically, rings, as suggested by the use of the term “beaga bryttan” [distributor of rings] (ll. 35a, 352a) in the same poem (incidentally, the Old English word beag ‘ring’ is related to present-day English bagel). Other Anglo-Saxon poems, too, attest to the idea that kings were supposed to hand out rings: the wisdom poem Maxims II, for instance, holds ” Cyning sceal on healle / beagas dælan” [a king must share out rings in the hall]. Rulers handed out treasure to their followers as a way of establishing a bond of reciprocal loyalty: the king would give treasure in return for loyalty and service. What Sauron aims to do with the Rings of Power, then, is a perverted version of this medieval idea of treasure-for-loyalty.

The title The Lord of the Rings may also find its origins in the terms used for rulers in Beowulf.  The eponymous character of the poem – King Beowulf himself – is called the “hringa fengel”, a phrase which neatly translates to ‘lord of the rings’:


Beowulf, ll. 2345-7 © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius A. xv, f. 185r (source)

Oferhogode ða         hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan         weorode gesohte,
sidan herge;         no he him þa sæcce ondred

[The lord of the rings (Beowulf) then disdained that he should seek the wide-flyer (the dragon) with a troop, a large army; he did not fear the battle for himself.]

An inscribed ring from Anglo-Saxon England: The Kingmoor Ring

The One Ring, inscribed in Tengwar with part of the Ring verse (“One ring to rule them, etc.”), bears some resemblance to a group of early medieval, Anglo-Saxon rings with runic inscriptions. One of these is the ninth-century Kingmoor Ring, currently in the British Museum. This runic ring is inscribed with what has been interpreted as a magical spell: “ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpon” on the outer rim and “tol” on the inside. The text is, for the most part, magical gobbledegook, but shows some similarities to a charm found in an Old English medical text that deals with stopping the flow of blood. As such, scholars have assumed that the ring may have functioned as a medical amulet (see, e.g., Page  1999, pp. 112-113). Interestingly, the Kingmoor Ring is linked to various other Anglo-Saxon runic rings bearing a similar inscription: the Bramham Moor Ring and the Linstock Castle Ring. Could this group of magical rings be the source of inspiration for Tolkien’s Rings of Power?


Left: The One Ring (source). Right: The Kingmoor Ring © Trustees of the British Museum (source)

Why doesn’t Isildur destroy the ring when he has the chance?

A last point concerning the Rings of Power that has a decidedly medieval ring to it is Isildur’s stated reason for refusing to throw the ring in Mount Doom. Elrond tells the fellowship in Rivendel that he and others had tried to persuade Isildur to destroy the Ring, but the latter ignored their pleas:

But Isildur would not listen to our counsel. ‘This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 2)

Here, Isildur refers to the early medieval legal principle of weregild. The term is Old English for ‘man-price, man-money’ (Old English wer is still there in werewolf, man-wolf). Weregild was the compensation for a murder (or some other mischief) in order to avoid a bloodfeud. Tolkien himself gives the following explanation of this principle that is found in many early Germanic law codes:

the offending party could ‘settle the feud’ by payment, and various elaborate scales of value were drawn up. this payment was called wergild: each man according to his status had a price. (J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf, pp. 165-6)

So, there you have it: Isildur uses a medieval reason not to dispose of a ring (itself possibly inspired by a group of medieval rings), which had been used by Sauron in a manner not unlike medieval kings. And all that in a book which may take its name from a phrase in a medieval poem. There is more medieval in Middle-Earth than you might think!

The information in this post is expanded from material I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here). If you liked this post, you may also be interested in The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Thror’s Map

Works referred to:

  • Page, R.I., Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge, 1999)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (London, 2014)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)


Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects

In order to make their film sets conform to the historical periods they are supposed to depict, designers often draw inspiration from actual, historical objects. One of the little joys of being an Anglo-Saxonist is recognising some of the objects you study in the background of your favourite TV series and movies. Here are three examples.

Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom (BBC; 2015-)

The creators of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century Wessex, have tried to create a set that is as historically accurate as possible (as they will tell you here; though, judging by this clip, where they say they spent a lot of time to find out “what kind of paper” they used in early medieval England, we may need to take this with a grain of salt!). One prop that is particularly interesting is Alfred’s sceptre with the bejeweled cross (see image below), which shows some similarities to the seventh-century whetstone/sceptre found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.


Left: Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom © BBC. Right: Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre © Trustees of the British Museum (source)

Like the original Anglo-Saxon object, Alfred’s sceptre has a base with four bearded faces, each facing in a different direction. These four faces on the Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre have been associated with a four-faced Slavic deity called ‘Svantovit’, not the sort of thing a pious Christian like Alfred would be comfortable wielding, one might say.

The Sutton Hoo helmet and Byrhtferth’s diagram in Merlin (BBC; 2008-2012)


Left: Helmet in the back of Arthur’s room in Merlin © BBC. Right: Replica of Sutton Hoo helmet © Trustees of British Museum (source)

Another Anglo-Saxon object found at the famous ship burial of Sutton Hoo made its way onto the set of BBC’s Merlin: The Sutton Hoo helmet. This particular headgear is a ‘historicon’ par excellence and can be found on virtually every book cover of anything related to Anglo-Saxon England. In BBC’s Merlin, the helmet can be spotted in the bed chamber of young Prince Arthur (see image above). While this is a nice touch, this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon helmet seems oddly out of place in the bed chamber of a legendary British leader that supposedly lived in the 5th or 6th century. Not as ahistorical, however, as the thing hanging on another character’s wall…


Left: Gaius and a diagram on his wall in Merlin © BBC. Right: Byrhtferth’s diagram © Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17 (source)

The court’s physician Gaius appears to have received some of his medical training from a document from even further ahead in time. On his wall, we can see a diagram that is commonly ascribed to Byrhferth (c. 970-c.1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk of Ramsey Abbey. The diagram reveals how various groups of four (the four elements, the four ages of man, the four wind directions, etc.) all correspond to each other – a visualisation of the harmonious nature of the universe (find out more here). The diagram in Gaius’s room, then, is a nice attempt at bringing in an actual medieval object, albeit about five centuries too soon!

The Franks Casket tapestry in Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952)

When I watched the movie Ivanhoe (1952), I was most impressed by the wall-hanging behind the big table in the house of Cedric the Saxon. This tapestry shows a colouful scene, surrounded by what appear to be runes. On closer inspection it turns out to be one of the scenes depicted on the eighth-century, Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket. This whale bone box, currently in the British Museum, can truly be called multicultural, since it depicts scenes from diverse traditions, including Weland the Smith, the Adoration of the Magi and Romulus and Remus. .

The scene so colourfully depicted on the tapestry in Cedric’s house is the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 AD (depicted on the rear panel of the Franks Casket). While the use of colour may strike one as odd, it is assumed that the Anglo-Saxon casket was originally full-colour as well. I wonder whether this particular prop is still lying around somewhere, in some long-forgotten MGM storeroom; if so, I will gladly reserve a place for it on my wall!


Top: Franks Casket © Trustees of the British Museum (source). Bottom: Tapestry in Ivanhoe © MGM

If you are interested in the use of medieval stuff in TV series and movies, you may also want to have a look at my blog about the use of Old English in film: Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Ælfthryth of Wessex in Ghent

During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Belgian town of Ghent, once home to Ælfthryth of Wessex, daughter of Alfred the Great.

Medieval Ghent and the patron saint of beer

Belgium is the beer capital of the World and the patron saint of beer, Saint Amandus (c. 585-675), played an important role in the foundation of what is now the city of Ghent.  According to the eighth-century Vita Amandi (the text of which can be found here), Amandus experienced a lot of hardship when he tried to convert the pagan inhabitants of the Ghent area: he was thrown into the river Scheldt several times and needed royal body guards to act out his missionary activities. After reviving a convicted criminal, however, Amandus was accepted by the local populace and he founded two monasteries in the area: Ganda (now St Bavo Cathedral) and Blandinium (now St Peter’s Abbey).

The City of Ghent grew around these two monasteries and became one of the main hubs of medieval Flanders. The abbeys attracted various important people to Ghent, such as the biographer of Charlemagne, Einhard (c. 775-840), who served as a abbot of both monasteries. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (c. 735-804) may also have visited Ghent and  wrote a little distich about a church devoted to Bavo, a disciple of Amandus and a recluse at Ghent:

Haec loca sanctificet venerandus Bavo sacerdos ,

Discipulus vita patris condignus Amandi (PL 101, col. 755d)

[May Bavo the venerable priest, a disciple of the venerable father Amandus, sanctify this place]

Present-day Ghent still bears witness to its rich medieval past, with its many medieval buildings, which include its ‘three towers’: the belfry, St Nicholas’s Church and St Bavo’s Cathedral. Top of the bill is the Gravensteen, the medieval castle of Ghent that looks like it belongs to the set of Game of Thrones or any other medieval-esque fantasy series. While the present Gravensteen dates back to the twelfth century, its foundations were laid by Arnulf I (c. 890–964), count of Flanders and, interestingly, grandson of Alfred the Great.


Ye Old Medieval Castle. Gravensteen, Ghent.

Ælfthryth of Wessex (d. 929), countess of Flanders

Arnulf I was the son of Ælfthryth of Wessex, the youngest daughter of King Alfred the Great. Relatively little is known of Ælfthryth, apart from the report in in Asser’s Life of King Alfred that she was educated along with her brother Edward at the royal court and that she had a particular interest in Old English poetry:

…and to the present day they continue to behave with humility, friendliness and gentleness to all compatriots and foreigners, and with great obedience to their father. […] they have attentively learned the Psalms, and books in English, and especially English poems, and they very frequently make use of books. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, c. 75)


Baldwin the Bald and Ælfthryth of Wessex, 16th-century depiction. © KIK-IRPA, Brussels (Belgium), cliché KM792 (source)

Her gentleness to all foreigners would have come in handy, since she was married off to Baldwin ‘the Bald’ (d. 918), the count of Flanders. The couple spent most of their days in Ghent and  got four children, one of which was Arnulf I, who first built a fortifaction where the Gravensteen now stands. But Ælfthryth’s legacy stretches beyond Arnulf I: she is also one of the ancestors of William the Conqueror (whose wife Matilda of Flanders would have been Ælfthryth’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter). In fact, that makes even England’s present-day queen, Elizabeth II, a descendant of Ælfthryth’s (Wikipedia evidence here – Ælfthryth would be her 29th Great-Grandmother).

Under a parking lot

Ælfthryth and Baldwin both supported St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent and were buried there, side by side. Unfortunately, their graves have not survived – the area where they would have been buried is now an underground parking lot; a fate not uncommon to members of English royal houses.


Ælfthryth’s final resting place, now an underground parking lot in front of St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent.

This was part two of an ongoing series of blogs on the adventures of the Anglo-Saxons on the other side of the North Sea; you can read the first part here: Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Adelbertusakker, Egmond

Works refered to:

  • Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
  • PL = Patrologiae cursus completus, series Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne, 221 vols. (Paris, 1855–1864)


An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses  one of the events during the Adventus Saxonum, the conquest of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

The Night of the Long Knives

‘The Night of the Long Knives’ is now commony associated with a particularly violent political purge in Nazi Germany in 1934. Originally, though, the term denotes an event in Anglo-Saxon history, first reported by the Welsh historian Nennius in his ninth-century Historia Brittonum. Nennius reports how Hengest (one of the equine brothers that led the first shiploads of Angles, Saxons and Jutes) invited the British ruler Vortigern to a meeting where the British leaders and the Germanic mercenaries might come to a perpetual friendship. The rules are clear: weapons were not allowed and the Britons and Saxons would sit happily side by side. It was, however, a trap.

[Hengest] ordered three hundred Saxons to conceal each a knife in his shoe, and to mix with the Britons; “and when,” said he, “they are sufficiently inebriated, and I cry out “Eu nimet saxas” [Hey, draw your knives! The Saxons are called Saxons because of their long knives, called seax], then let each draw his knife and kill his man.”

The king with his company, appeared at the feast; and mixing with the Saxons, who, whilst they spoke peace with their tongues, cherished treachery in their hearts. Each man was placed next to his enemy.

After they had eaten and drunk, and were much intoxicated, Hengist suddenly shouted “Eu nimet saxas!” and instantly his men drew their knives and rushing upon the Britons, each slew him that sat next to him. (Nennius, Historia Brittonum, c. 47; trans. adapted from Giles, 1841)

Three hundred Britons died that day, but Vortigern escaped with his life (although he had to pay a hefty ransom). According to some later chronicles, one other Briton also managed to survive (after chancing upon a stick!),  but that is another anecdote!


An Anglo-Saxon ancedote: The night of the long knives.


Nennius, Historia Brittonum, trans. J. A. Giles (London, 1848), available here.