It is fairly clear that the last Roman commander in Britain at the time of the Roman withdrawal in the early fifth century was a soldier known as Coel Hen. His name has survived in the English nursery rhyme Old King Cole. He may have founded some kind of local dynasty in southern England. Then it seems a warlord called Vitalinus came to dominate at least part of Britain, and he was known as the "Vortigren", which means supreme leader. Without Roman troops the Pictish tribes in what is now Scotland were making increasingly bold raids into the province of Britannia. To try and control these attacks, the Vortigren is supposed to have contacted Hengest, a fearsome mercenary from Friesia, an area in northern Germany. Hengest was hired, and he arrived on what was then the east Kent island of Thanet possibly with his brother Horsa, and a band of men. This arrival is described in one of the oldest examples of English literature, Beowulf
Then came three keels driven into exile from
Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa
and Hengest...Vortigren welcomed them,
and handed over to them the island that in
their language is called Thanet, in British
To commemorate this event, or at least this story, a full size replica long ship, called the Hugin, was built in Denmark and rowed over to England in 1947. After its landing at Broadstairs, Hugin was placed on the cliff top at Cliffs End, Pegwell Bay, where it remains. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on the Hugin.
Hugin is free to visit. There are some toilets close by, although they were closed when we visited. The ship is close to the pleasant beach at Broadstairs. It is not clear where Hengest and Horsa - if that's what the Saxon leaders were called - came ashore. It could have been at Broadstairs, or at any of the sandy bays around the east coast of Thanet, or perhaps in the estuary of the Stour, which comes out at Pegwell Bay.