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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

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.