Treachery of the Long Knives

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Podcast Transcript

According to legend, sometime in the 5th century, a king of the Celtic Britons named Vortigern hired Anglo-Saxons mercenaries to help him fight his domestic enemies to hold his grip on power. 

His plan worked really well. Until it didn’t. And then it blew up in his face. 

Learn more about the Treachery of the Long Knives on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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The island of Great Britain was originally an island that was inhabited by Celtic people. It was later conquered by Rome and became a Roman province.

Yet, the people who live on that island didn’t end up speaking a Celtic or Romance language. They ended up speaking a language that belonged to the Germanic family of languages. 

The following story might have had something to do with how that happened. More on that in a bit.

The events in question date back to the late 5th century. This is a period of British history that has some major holes. The roman empire had collapsed and nothing had really arisen to take its place. There were many warlords and kings who vied for power. 

This was the period of time when, according to legend, King Arthur would have ruled. So pretty much everything from the period is questionable. 

One of the rulers at the time was a warlord named Vortigern. He was the leader of the Britons in the wake of the Roman collapse. From what accounts we are told, he got to this position via a lot of duplicity and skulduggery.

Supposedly he had wormed his way into a position of influence with the Romans and took advantage of that to usurp the throne. The two rightful heirs were a pair of young brothers named Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, who were sent overseas. 

Vortigern having assumed the throne had a hard time holding on to power. He was constantly dealing with incursions from the Picts and the Scots in the north. He was also dealing with the potential of an armada joining the two brothers to take back the throne. 

His solution to deal with these problems was to hire mercenaries. 

Hiring mercenaries wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. It has been done throughout history with various levels of success. 

Vortigern contracted out the work to two Saxon brothers by the names of Hengist and Horsa. They would bring in Germanic mercenaries to fight off the Picts and Scots on behalf of the Briton king. 

In exchange for their services, Vortigern offered the Saxons the Isle of Thanet to settle on. Today the island is a peninsula in the County of Kent, but 1500 years ago it was an island separated by a 600-meter channel.

The Saxons brought over at least eighteen warships full of warriors and probably over time many more. There was something else that Hengist brought over with him. His daughter Rowena. 

Rowena was by all accounts beautiful and Vortigern was smitten with her.

One evening at a banquet hosted by Hengist, Rowena reportedly got Vortigern so drunk that he offered Hengist anything he wanted for Rowena’s hand in marriage. 

Hengist asked for the entire Kingdom of Kent because of Rowena’s royal lineage, and supposedly Vortigern agreed. 

The Saxons now had a foothold on the island of Britain. 

Also, supposedly at this banquet, Rowena taught Vortigern the German custom of toasting. Supposedly, when a Saxon raised their drink and said “Wacht heil!”, you had to raise your drink and respond “Drinc heil!”. This supposedly is how the tradition came to Britain.

Over time, the Britons became jealous of the favoritism shown to the Saxons by Vortigern and they rebelled. Specifically, Vortigern’s eldest son Vortimer led a rebellion against his father and dethroned him. 

His brother Catigurn dueled with Horsa, the brother of Hengist, and they both died. 

Vortigern and the Saxons were eventually pushed back to the island of Thanet. Hengist asked Vortigern to have a meeting with Vortimer, the now king, and while they were meeting, the Saxons slipped away and went back home.

However, the Saxons were not done. Rowena was still with Vortigern and Vortimer eventually died. Rowena convinced Vortigern to invite Hengist back to Britain and secretly sent a message to her father that Vortimer had died. 

Not wanting to waste an opportunity, Hengist rallied an army of 300,000 and a fleet of ships to transport them. 

You can’t really hide an army of 300,000, and soon the Briton nobles began to express their outrage at what they saw as a betrayal. 

Rowena passed word of this to her father and he switched his plan. He sent a message to Vortigern that he only assembled such a large army because he thought Vortimer was alive. What he agreed to do was hold a peace conference where the Saxon leaders would meet the Briton leaders unarmed, and then Vortigern could pick which Saxons would stay and which would return home. 

The meeting took place on the Salisbury Plain, which is also home to Stonehenge. 

The Briton nobles arrived dressed in their finery, without weapons or armor. The Saxons also arrived without armor and apparently without weapons. 

They ate and drank and had a good time. 

However, at the appointed moment, Hengist stood up and shouted Nemet oure Saxas”, which was in the Saxon language that Britons couldn’t understand. It meant “get your knives”

At that moment, all of the Saxons present pulled out knives hidden in their boots and stabbed the Briton who was closest to them. The orders were to kill everyone, men and women, and totally wipe out the entire Briton nobility.

Everyone save for one person: Vortigern. 

Because of his relationship with Rowena, he was spared, and instead, he was held hostage. 

The event became known to history as the Treachery of the Long Knives.

The 300,000 Germanic invaders all landed on Britain and that was the beginning of Anglo-Saxon hegemony. 

….or so the legend goes. 

Because everything I just mentioned might never have happened. In fact, it almost certainly didn’t happen at the level of detail that I mention. 

The earliest mention of this event was in the Historia Brittonum which was written 400 years after the supposed event took place. Likewise, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about it in the Historia Regum Britanniae in the 11th century.

Most historians don’t even know if Vortigern was even real. Some suspect that Vortigern might just have been a title, not the name of a person.

Regardless if it is fact or fantasy, the Treachery of the Long Knives has become a part of history. 

In 1934, a series of Nazi political killings were known as the Night of the Long Knives. 

In 1964, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan fired seven members of his cabinet, which was also known as the Night of the Long Knives. 

There have been several other occasions in history where something unexpected happens quite suddenly, usually firings or murders, which is referenced by the term “long knives”. 

Sort of like how any political scandal now is given the suffix of “-gate”.

So the Treachery of the Long Knives is one of those historical stories that have relevance, even if it is or isn’t true. The historical record from 5th century Britain is so bad, that we’ll never really know what parts of the story are true if any.