Hengist and Ambrosius
Divested of a portion of the dramatic character which Jeffery has given to his narrative, the facts are these. Aurelius Ambrosius is made king by the Britons, then oppressed by the Saxon power. Hengist, with a large army prepares to fight with him in a held called Maisbeli, through which he knows that Ambrosius intends to pass. Ambrosius marches with his army thither, knowing that Hengist was prepared to meet him. A great battle is fought in that field, in which Eldol duke of Claudiocester distinguished himself on the side of Ambrosius. The Saxons are defeated, and Hengist flies to Caerconan now called Cunungeburg. Ambrosius pursues him, slays some of his troops in the pursuit, and makes slaves of others. I shall just observe upon this part of the narrative, that this account of the pursuit is scarcely consistent with the belief that by Maisbeli Jeffery intended those level lands on the left bank of the Don between Coningsborough and Mexborough, for if that had been the scene of the battle there would have been but a very short pursuit of the flying army. The historian proceeds: when Hengist saw that Ambrosius followed him, he would not enter the town, oppidum, but getting together his people in order, he prepared for a second battle. When Matthew of Westminster tells this same story, he makes an interval of two years between the first and second fight. In other respects Matthews´s narrative agrees with Jeffery´s, and he uses the very words of Jeffery. In another battle with Ambrosius the Saxons would have been successful had not a troop of Armoric horsemen arrived. Eldol and Hengist come to an encounter in single combat. Eldol takes Hengist by the nose-hole, nasale, of his helmet, and drags him from amongst his people, who are then entirely routed, and fly in all directions. Octa, the son of Hengist, flies to York; and Eosa his kinsman to Alud. Ambrosius having thus gained the victory, he took urbem Conanti, Coningsborough, and remained there three days. He ordered the dead to be buried, and the wounded to be taken care of. It next became a question what should be done with Hengist. Eldad bishop of Claudiocester, brother to Eldol, when he saw Hengist standing before the king, ordered the rest to be silent and spoke thus: “Though all should vote for the liberation of this man, yet would I cut him in pieces;” comparing himself to Samuel and Hengist to Agag. Upon this, Eldol took a sword, led him out of the city, and cut of his head. But Ambrosius, a mild and gentle man, ordered him to be decently buried, and a mound of earth to be raised over his body according to the custom of the Pagans. The history proceeds to relate how Ambrosius then led his army to York, when Octa immediately surrendered himself.
The question is, whether this can be taken as a portion of authentic history, unsupported as it is by any correlative evidence with that of Jeffery, for all other persons who have mentioned it appear to have only repeated what he has told. The year 489 is the period assigned to the death of Hengist. For the events of the fifth century we have scarcely any authority worth regarding beside the Saxon Chronicle and Bede. From the Chronicle we learn that Hengist and Horsa, sons of Whitgils, great-grandson of Woden, came into England A.D. 449. We have an account of various transactions in which one or both of them were engaged, bringing down their history to the year 473. From that time we hear no more of Hengist. There is not a word respecting the place or the manner of his death. When his history is dropped by the Chronicle, Hengist was engaged in active warfare with the Britons far from the kingdom of Kent; and, in near accordance with Jeffery, the year 488 is assigned as the date of the accession of Esc, successor of Hengist in the kingdom of Kent. The name of Ambrosius is not found in the Chronicle, but was known to Bede. In the sixteenth chapter of his first book we have what may be taken as a general relation of the events told with more particularity by the Monmouth historian. Bede´s account is, that the Britons recovering a little from what they had suffered from the Saxons, came out of their hiding places, and chose for their leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman, and, as Bede was informed, the sole survivor of the Roman inhabitants of Britain. Under his command the Britons gained a signal victory over the Saxons, and the war was continued between them with various success,
usgue ad annum obsessionis Badonicae montis,
which he fixes A. D. 492. This is the account given by Bede 1 We may wish that he had inserted one word more, and told us where Ambrosius obtained that signal victory. But we cannot but observe that in both these great authorities we have a correspondence with the narrative of Jeffery. Hence the great and hitherto undetermined question arises, has Jeffery, availing himself of the traditionary consequence of Coningsborough, filled up the outline presented him by Bede with inventions of his own? or are we to receive what he relates as matter of genuine history?
XI. Near the castle wall is a mound of earth, but now scarcely to be discerned, called Hengist´s Tomb, which is maintained to be the identical tumulus which Jeffery informs us was raised over the body of Hengist. This is no modern invention, for it is so denominated by Camden. If tradition have faithfully carried down the occasion of the throwing up this green mound, the question of the death of Hengist may be considered as settled. But it may be, that some person has led the people of Coningsborough to annex this name to the mound, having himself read of the event in the pages of Jeffery.
XII. Lastly, that unique remain, the keep of the castle, has been referred by an antiquary of great name to a period long before the time of Hengist. Mr. King, in his Munimenta Antiqua, refers it to the days of Cartismandua, and to artists working on Phoenician and Phrygian models. His recollections of the edifice are not always correct. He places his heathen idols in niches which a slight inspection may shew to have been intended for far other purposes. And his inferences are often very unsatisfactory. Buildings erected for defence, whether in Europe or Asia, must necessarily possess some common features. Nevertheless we owe much to Mr. King for having shewn us how to examine and describe a remarkable edifice such as this is. But, in respect of its age, it is impossible to enter the little chamber in the eastern buttress, without feeling that we are in a room which was consecrated to Christian devotion, and that therefore it could not have been erected before the light of Christianity had beamed upon our island. But there is something at Coningsborough of higher antiquity than the keep; and that is the earth-works which form the basis of the keep and of the walls by which the court-yard of the castle are surrounded. These works, when they are contemplated with every thing of masonry removed, are seen to be of the same construction with the works at Bradfield, Wincobank, Mexborough, and Laughton. There is an area approaching in form to an ellipse on a natural eminence, surrounded by a mound, and a conical tumulus near one of the foci. To the aera to which these works are to be referred, must be referred also what I would call the original castle of Coningsborough, an earthen fortress in which no hammer ever was raised. What that aera was has never yet been determined, but they may have been fortresses raised originally for the protection of the Northumbrian, or perhaps the Brigantian, frontier. And this, it may be observed, agrees well with the supposed early consequence of Coningsborough.
The age of the keep and the age of Coningsborough are two quite different questions. The structure of the keep is undoubtedly full of curiosity and wonder. By whomsoever designed and built it was one of the strangest conceptions which ever entered the mind of an architect. The architecture of the two chimney-pieces and of the chapel in one of the buttresses, is like that of the reign of Henry II. It might, if necessary, be referred to an earlier period, but none can deny that it resembles what appears in edifices which belong to that reign. 2 I add, and it is now for the first time brought to bear upon this curious question, that an endowment was settled upon the priest of a chapel within the castle by Hameline earl of Warren, half brother to king Henry II. He died in 1202.
I annex a minute description of the whole edifice from my own repeated personal examination.
1 Bede appears to have followed Gildas, who speaks of the successes of the Britons under Ambrosius Aurelianus, c. 25, innearly the same terms. He says nothing of Hengist by name, or of the scene of the victory which Ambrosius gained over the Saxons. We may observe, however, that the representation which Gildas gives of the transactions of those times agrees with Jeffery. He shows the Saxons successful till Ambrosius took the command, and gained a signal victory over them; after which followed alternate victory and defeat to the Britons.
2 In some of its details it bears a strikiig resemblance to the castle of Hedingham in Essex, particularly in the form of its loop-holes and windows, the position of its slender shafts, and the ornaments of their capitals. The erection of that castle has been referred to the first or second of the Veres Earls of Oxford.