|Rowena, wife of Vortigern
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 Monmouths 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
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 Vortigerns heart'.
Besotted, Vortigern married the girl and gave Kent to
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.
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.
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.
Marriage to Rowena
the pagan woman (Ronnwenn baganes) is
added to the list of Vortigerns 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.
Rowenas 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:
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.
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
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
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
History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis
Thorpe, (Penguin, St Ives 1966).
- Geoffrey of
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.:
Legendary History of Britain, Geoffrey of
Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and its
early Vernacular versions, (Berkeley 1950).