The facts of his life are unknown, but according to Bede (writing nearly 300 years after the events in question), he and his brother Horsa were mercenaries for the British ruler Vortigern, hired to fight against the Picts. Following his victories over the Picts, Hengest invited more immigrants from Germany to settle on Great Britain and then rebelled against Vortigern because the Britons refused to make an agreed payment, establishing himself as king in Kent. Both Hengest and Horsa are described as being Jutes, and sons of a Jutish chief named Wihtgils.
The actual historical existence of both Hengest and Horsa has been called into question numerous times, with many historians labeling these two as legendary 'divine twins' or culture heroes along the order of Romulus and Remus. It is perhaps more likely that Hengest, meaning 'Stallion' in Old English (in modern German and Dutch 'Hengst' is still the word for a stallion), was an honorific for an actual warlord, while Horsa was a later accretion to the story, perhaps as a misreading of a gloss in a manuscript that was written to define the name Hengest as meaning 'horse'.
Later accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Historia Britonum, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and Wace's Roman de Brut add further details from tradition and legend about Hengest's career. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates his death to 488, but does not provide a cause. According to some tellings of the Arthurian legend, the British king Uther Pendragon killed him.
Hengest is a character in the Fight at Finnsburg narrative mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and the Beowulf poem. In these texts, Hengest is a Danish warrior who takes control of the Danish forces after the prince Hnæf is killed, and succeeds in killing the Frisian lord Finn in revenge for his lord's death. The events in these accounts had a historical basis, and have been supposed by historians to occur in approximately 450 A.D. This makes these events contemporary with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, though what connection (if any) exists between the two Hengests is unknown.
Nevertheless, some have speculated that the two Hengests are one and the same. A point against this theory is the fact that one Hengest is described as a Jute and the other a Dane, though this does not serve as a conclusive disproof, as distinctions between adjacent groups (both Jutes and Danes lived in Denmark) were sometimes vague.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
- Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
- The Historia Britonum, attributed to Nennius
- Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae
- Wace's Roman de Brut
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