The story tells of those who led
Of one who fought and one who bled
Of one who died and made his bed
Upon the White Horse Stone.
With the sound of modern pace
In eyesight of the modern race
There sits in strong and silent grace
The ancient White Horse Stone.
And people who have never heard
Of how their land was won by sword
Place not their hand nor give their word
Upon the White Horse Stone.
But there are those who know its worth
This sacred site of Nation’s Birth
And celebrate the English Earth
Where grows the White Horse Stone.
There has been very little written in the history books about the White Horse Stone, but from what has been written along with local folklore a mythology around the stone has built up.
It is said that Horsa, one of the two leaders (the other being his brother, Hengest) of the Anglo-Saxon-Jutish invasion in the 5th century was slain during the Battle of Aylesford and is variously said to have been laid upon the stone, buried beneath the stone or his banner was laid upon the stone (which has also been known as ‘The Kentish Standard Stone’).
What is not clear is whether the original White Horse Stone was the upper or lower of the two standing stones in the area, but with the destruction of the lower stone in 1823 the upper stone became the only contender for the title it holds to this day.
Hengest and Horsa (Stallion and Horse) originally served the Celtic King Vortigern as mercenaries and fought in campaigns against the picts. We need to turn to various sources from antiquity to build a picture of the events around Hengest and Horsa:
Historia Britonum – Nennius
31. Vortigern then reigned in Britain. In his time, the natives had cause of dread, not only from the inroads of the Scots and Picts, but also from the Romans, and their apprehensions of Ambrosius.
In the meantime, three vessels, exiled from Germany, arrived in Britain. They were commanded by Horsa and Hengist, brothers, and sons of Wihtgils. Wihtgils was the son of Witta; Witta of Wecta; Wecta of Woden; Woden of Frithowald; Frithowald of Frithuwulf; Frithuwulf of Finn; Finn of Godwulf; Godwulf of Geat, who, as they say, was the son of a god……..Vortigern received them as friends, and delivered up to them the island which is in their language called Thanet, and, by the Britons,……..The Saxons were received by Vortigern four hundred and forty-seven years after the passion of Christ….
36. After the Saxons had continued some time in the island of Thanet, Vortigern promised to supply them with clothing and provision, on condition they would engage to fight against the enemies of his country. But the barbarians having greatly increased in number, the Britons became incapable of fulfilling their engagement; and when the Saxons, according to the promise they had received, claimed a supply of provisions and clothing, the Britons replied, “Your number is increased; your assistance is now unnecessary; you may, therefore, return home, for we can no longer support you;” and hereupon they began to devise means of breaking the peace between them.
37. But Hengist, in whom united craft and penetration, perceiving he had to act with an ignorant king, and a fluctuating people, incapable of opposing much resistance, replied to Vortigern, “We are, indeed, few in number; but, if you will give us leave, we will send to our country for an additional number of forces, with whom we will fight for you and your subjects.” Vortigern assenting to this proposal, messengers were despatched to Scythia, where selecting a number of warlike troops, they returned with sixteen vessels, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist. And now the Saxon chief prepared an entertainment, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter, having previously enjoined his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale, that they might soon become intoxicated. This plan succeeded; and Vortigern, at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask. Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in English Centland, in British, Ceint, (Kent.). This cession was made without the knowledge of the king, Guoyrancgonus who then reigned in Kent, and who experienced no inconsiderable share of grief, from seeing his kingdom thus clandestinely, fraudulently, and imprudently resigned to foreigners. Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.
38. Hengist, after this, said to Vortigern, “I will be to you both a father and an adviser; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust: if you approve, I will send for my son and his brother, both valiant men who at my invitation will fight against the Scots, and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called “Gual.” The incautious sovereign having assented to this, Octa and Ebusa arrived with forty ships. In these they sailed round the country of the Picts, laid waste the Orkneys, and took possession of many regions, even to the Pictish confines.
At this point Nennius digresseses and when he returns to the subject of Hengest and Horsa they are enemies of their hosts.
Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation – Bede
In a short time, swarms of the aforesaid nations came over into the island, and they began to increase so much, that they became terrible to the natives themselves who had invited them. Then, having on a sudden entered into league with the Picts, whom they had by this time repelled by the force of their arms, they began to turn their weapons against their confederates. At first, they obliged them to furnish a greater quantity of provisions; and, seeking an occasion to quarrel, protested, that unless more plentiful supplies were brought them, they would break the confederacy, and ravage all the island; nor were they backward in putting their threats in execution……they plundered all the neighbouring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and covered almost every part of the devoted island. Public as well as private structures were overturned; the priests were everywhere slain before the altars; the prelates and the people, without any respect of persons, were destroyed with fire and sword; nor was there any to bury those who had been thus cruelly slaughtered. Some of the miserable remainder, being taken in the mountains, were butchered in heaps; others, spent with hunger, came forth and submitted themselves to the enemy for food, being destined to undergo perpetual servitude, if they were not killed even upon the spot some, with sorrowful hearts, fled beyond the seas. Others, continuing in their own country, led a miserable life among the woods, rocks, and mountains, with scarcely enough food to support life, and expecting every moment to be their last
Historia Britonum – Nennius
43. At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and thrice enclosed them with it, and beset them on the western side. The Saxons now despatched deputies to Germany to solicit large reinforcements, and an additional number of ships: having obtained these, they fought against the kings and princes of Britain, and sometimes extended their boundaries by victory, and sometimes were conquered and driven back.
44. Four times did Vortimer valorously encounter the enemy; the first has been mentioned, the second was upon the river Darent, the third at the Ford, in their language called Epsford, though in ours Set thirgabail, there Horsa fell, and Catigern, the son of Vortigern; the fourth battle he fought, was near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea, where the Saxons being defeated, fled to their ships.
There is much debate over whether or not Hengest and Horsa actually existed as people or whether they were symbolic deities or even just the white horse banners under which the Germanic groups fought.
Notes on the Folklore and Legends Associated with the Kentish Megaliths – John H. Evans
…Since the names of Hengest and Horsa mean ‘gelding and mare’ it has been suggested that they refer to the war standards or war effigies of the invaders, and not to actual persons. It would be interesting to trace the origin of the story that Horsa bore a White Horse emblem, for it fits in remarkably well with the other implications of the legend….
…..We cannot digress here into the subject of the Horse-Cult, but readers will doubtless be aware of the ancient sanctity of the animal; alike among Kelts and Teutons, white horses were considered sacred, and only a priest among the pagan Saxons could ride a white mare. Carvings of horse-heads on the gables of roofs in Denmark are still called Hengest and Horsa, and represent the guardian deities. Thus the fall of a White Horse banner at Aylesford would represent the death of Horsa.
The earliest known reference to the White Horse banner in relation to Hengest and Horsa comes from a book called ‘Restitution of Decayed Antiquities’ from 1605 by Richard Verstegan. The book shows an engraving of Hengist and Horsa landing in Kent in 449 under the banner of a rampant white horse. This is still used today as the county flag of Kent
Whatever the truth, the White Horse Stone has, for many, come to be the symbolic birthplace of the English nation and for Odinists and other Germanic heathens it represents the coming to these lands of their faith and their Gods.