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