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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Family of Vortigern > Rowena

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The Family of Vortigern
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Rowena, wife of Vortigern
Robert Vermaat

Rowena was the second wife of Vortigern after Sevira (daughter of Magnus Maximus), of whose fate nothing is reported. However, Vortigern's most famous wife has always been the daughter of hengist. Who was she? Do we know her name for real? Did she really poison one of Vortigern's children and what happened to her in the end?


Rowena is first mentioned by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB 6. 12-14), though this version of her name is a fairly modern one. Geoffrey calls her something alike to Ronwen, but there are many different versions; Renwein, Renwen, Roawen, Rowen, Rouwein and Ronven. Other variants are Renua (Vita Merlini), Romwenna (late version of the Capitula to the Historia Brittonum), Ronwen (Triad 37R) and Ronnwen (Triad 59). Though a Saxon original may have been Hrotwyn, there is nothing in Anglo-Saxon literature or legend to fall back on. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has Ronixen.

Though Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give her a name (in the Historia Regum Britanniae), he is not consistent. In his Vita Merlini, she is strangely enough not the daughter, but the sister of Hengist! This oversight of Geoffrey is not explained. The truth behind her person is therefore in doubt as there are no English legends available, which is strange of such importance to the English origin-legend.

If on the other hand the name is a Welsh invention, the maning becomes very clear. 'Ron-Wen' means 'Bright Spear', a good suggestion to get the picture of a slim and blond girl. 'White Dress' might also be a possibility. The name might also be related to ‘rhawn’ (horsehair), not implausible when connected to her father (Hengist - ‘stallion’) or her uncle (Horsa - ‘horse’). Henry of Huntingdon was convinced of the Welsh origin of her name. Interestingly enough, Welsh poets called Rowena ‘mother of the English nation’. Though it seems merely legendary, this is in fact an argument for the primacy of the Welsh in Britain. In this way, they could claim supremacy, for the father of the English would thus have been Vortigern! Alas, no offspring of Vortigern and Rowena has been recorded, apart from a son named Gotta (a monk), who was sometimes mentioned.


Rowena was first mentioned by the Historia Brittonum as the (anonymous) daughter of Hengist. Her father plotted with her to get Vortigern and his interpreter drunk, until they were ‘thoroughly soaked’ (et saturati sunt nimes). Geoffrey of Monmouth later added that Rowena mixed his drinks (diverso genere potus inebriatus), after which 'the devil entered Vortigern’s heart'. Besotted, Vortigern married the girl and gave Kent to Hengist.

Historia Brittonum , chapter 37

... they returned with sixteen vessels, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist. And now the Saxon chief prepared an entertainment, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter, having previously enjoined his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale, that they might soon become intoxicated. This plan succeeded; and Vortigern, at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask. Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in English, Centland, in British, Ceint, (Kent.) This cession was made without the knowledge of the king, Guoyrancgonus, who then reigned in Kent, and who experienced no inconsiderable share of grief, from seeing his kingdom thus clandestinely, fraudulently, and imprudently resigned to foreigners. Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.  

... et reuersi sunt cum ciulis sedecim, et milites electi uenerunt in illis, et in una ciula ex eis uenit puella pulchra facie atque decorosa ualde, filia hencgisti. postquam autem uenissent ciulae, fecit hencgistus conuiuium guorthigirno et militibus suis et interpreti suo, qui uocatur ceretic et puellam iussit ministrare illis uinum et siceram et inebriati sunt et saturati sunt nimis. illis autem bibentibus intrauit satanas in corde guorthigirni, ut amaret puellam, et postulauit eam a patre suo per interpretem suum et dixit: omne quod postulas a me impetrabis, licet dimidium regni mei. et hencgistus, inito consilium cum suis senioribus, qui uenerunt secum de insula oghgul, quid peterent regi pro puella, unum consilium cum illis omnibus fuit, ut peterent regionem, quae in lingua eorum uocatur canturguoralen, in nostra autem chent. et dedit illis guoyrancgono regnante in cantia et inscius erat, quia regnum ipsius tradebatur paganis et ipse solus in potestatem illorum clam dari, et sic data est puella illi in coniugium et dormiuit cum ea et amauit eam ualde.

Historia Regum Britanniae, Book VI, chapter 12
Vortigern marries Rowen, the daughter of Hengist.
In the meantime, the messengers returned from Germany, with eighteen ships full of the best soldiers they could get. They also brought along with them Rowen, the daughter of Hengist, one of the most accomplished beauties of that age. After their arrival, Hengist invited the king to his house.. Here he was entertained at a royal banquet; and when that was over, the young lady came out of her chamber bearing a golden cup full of wine, with which she approached the king, and making a low courtesy, said to him, "Lord king, Wassail!" The king, at the sight of the lady's face, was on a sudden both surprised and inflamed with her beauty; Vortigern being now drunk with the variety of liquors, the devil took this opportunity to enter into his heart, and to make him in love with the damsel, so that he became suitor to her father for her. It was, I say, by the devil's entering into his heart, that he, who was a Christian, should fall in love with a pagan. By this example, Hengist, being a prudent man, discovered the king's levity, and consulted with his brother Horsa and the other ancient men present, what to do in relation to the king's request. They unanimously advised him to give him his daughter, and in consideration of her to demand the province of Kent. Accordingly the daughter was without delay delivered to Vortigern , and the province of Kent to Hengist, without the knowledge of Gorangan, who had the government of it. The king the same night married the pagan lady, and became extremely delighted with her; by which he quickly brought upon himself the hatred of the nobility, and of his own sons.

A troubled marriage

Marriage to Rowena ‘the pagan woman’ (Ronnwenn baganes) is added to the list of Vortigern’s sins and crimes. Triad 37 R mentiones him, beguiled by Rowena, disclosing the burial-place of his son Vortimer, who had been buried ‘to keep the Saxons from Britain’. This was a variant on the legend about Bran, whose head was buried to ward off invaders, and who was dug up in turn by Arthur. Rowena’s relation to her stepson Vortimer is less clear. The Historia Brittonum fails to connect them in any way, Vortimer falling in battle. Geoffrey however builds a romantic legend, whereby the false stepmother poisones her husbands firstborn (we might look for a very ancient theme here) to restore Vortigern to the throne.


Rowena's possible death may also be mentioned in the Historia Brittonum:

Historia Brittonum , chapter 47

Again Vortigern ignominiously flew from St. Germanus to the kingdom of the Dimetæ, where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guothergirn. The saint, as usual, followed him there, and with his clergy fasted and prayed to the Lord three days, and as many nights. On the third night, at the third hour, fire fell suddenly from heaven, and totally burned the castle. Vortigern, the daughter of Hengist, his other wives, and all the inhabitants, both men and women, miserably perished: such was the end of this unhappy king, as we find written in the life of St. Germanus.


et iterum guorthigirnus usque ad arcem guorthigirni, quae est in regione demetorum iuxta flumen teibi, ignominiose abscessit. et solito more sanctus germanus eum secutus est et ibi ieiunus cum omni clero tribus diebus totidemque noctibus causaliter mansit et in quarta nocte arx tota mediae circa noctis horam per ignem missum de caelo ex improuiso cecidit ardente igne caelesti; et guorthigirnus cum omnibus, qui cum eo erant, et cum uxoribus suis defecit. hic est finis guorthigirni, ut in libro beati germani repperi.

Could we really suppose that Rowena followed Vortigern to his death? Hardly. Therefore, though no source reports her final fate specificly, I would venture the guess that after the betrayal at Stonehenge, Rowena returned to her father, leaving Vortigern to his fate.


  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Gottfried's von Monmouth Historia Regum Britanniae, mit literar-historischer Einleitung und ausführlichen Anmerkungen, und Brut Tysylio, altwälsche Chronik in deutscher Uebersetzung, A.S. San Marte, (Halle 1854).*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, (Penguin, St Ives 1966).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, History from the Sources VIII, (Chichester 1980).
  • Tatlock, John S.P.: The Legendary History of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and its early Vernacular versions, (Berkeley 1950).

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