Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tolkien, the Battle of Finnsburg and Hengest

by Richard Denning

Battle of Finnsburg c445 A.D

Tolkien the Scholar

The Hobbit and The Lords of the Rings have quite rightly made Tolkien famous as the creator of Middle Earth. Indeed, to many those books far exceed his achievements as a Scholar.

Yet of course Tolkien was in fact a Professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies at Oxford for many years, and in that time he contributed extensively to the study of the period before and after the Anglo-Saxon (the English) race migrated across the North Sea to create a land that would one day be called England.

He would often lecture on the Battle of Finnsburg and pieces of epic poetry which are called The Fragment and the Episode. His argument was that these stories were not fiction but related to actual historical events: a real battle somewhere in what is now Holland, one of whose participants was Hengest, who, legend has it, led the first Anglo-Saxons across the sea to Kent.

Battle of Finnsburg: Background

The Battle of Finnsburgh may have taken place in the court of Finn—one of the Kings of the Frisians (a tribe that lived in what is now Holland).

Finn had a body of Jutes in exile in his land and serving him.  The battle happened when the Jutes blood enemies, the Danes, arrived.

Jutes - A Tribe from Jutland, North Denmark. One of the 3 main Anglo-Saxon Tribes that would migrate to Britain.

Danes - invaders who maybe conquered Jutland sending some into exile, creating the basis for a blood feud.

The theory Tolkien put forward was that Finn, King of the Frisians had married Hildburh the sister of Hnaef, a Danish Prince and son of Hoc the Danish King.

Hnaef went to visit his sister in Frisia and was invited to sleep in the main hall. One of Hnaef’s chief followers was an Angle (another Anglo-Saxon tribe originally from Denmark) called Hengest.

Finn had by then employed some exiled Jutes as warriors. The Jutes hated the Danes who had conquered their land.

The Jutes attacked the Danes in the hall and after a long siege broke in and killed Hnaef. Finn was obliged to back up the Jutes, but most of his warriors died.

Hengest agreed to a truce with Finn but was eventually reminded of his oath to avenge Hnaef’s death and renewed the fighting, killing Finn and destroying Finnsburgh, then taking Hnaef's sister home to her people.

Soon after this Hengest and his brother Horsa were invited into Britain as mercenaries—according to legend, the first of the English. Did this battle win him fame or notoriety and so lead to the invitation to go to Kent?

Battle of Finnsburg: The Evidence

Evidence for the Battle of Finnsburg come primarily from two pieces of Anglo-Saxon text called The Fragment and The Episode

The Fragment

This is a short, 50 line long section of epic poetry that was discovered in 1705 in  Lambeth Palace.  It starts abruptly in the middle of the action and ends also abruptly.  Yet it gives us a description of a conflict that has already burst into bloodshed.

The fragment  describes a young prince called Hnæf who along with around sixty of his men is besieged within a great hall. It goes on to name some of the participants and some of the actions in  the ensuing battle including talking about one of the attackers who is killed.  It specifically mentions that the attacker is from Frisia.

The Episode

The greatest and also one of the earliest of the epic poems in Old English is of course Beowulf which tells the story of a legendary hero who fights the monster Grendel and his mother as well as a dragon.

At one point in the epic a bard, scop or court poet  relates the tales of the Battle of Finnsburg. The language use implies that the listener would already know something of the battle—meaning that to a 7th or 8th century audience the battle was familiar.

The scop's story  starts with Hildeburh, daughter of the Danish King Hoc and brother to Hnaef lamenting the loss of her brother and her son through Finn, King of the Frisians who was also killed in the fighting.

The picture given is that of a battle between Danes on one side and Jutes and Frisians on the other and where there are heavy losses on both sides. It is this tale from which we hear of the peace deal struck between Hengest (left in charge of the Danes after Hnaef is killed) and Finn. Later a warrior places a sword on Hengest’s lap. The sword may have been that upon which Hengest swore fealty to Hnaef. The implication was that Hengetst was duty bound to renew the fighting to avenge Hnaef.

In the ensuing fighting Finn and his entire remaining force are destroyed in what is called the Frisian slaughter. After this the Danes return home led by Hengest

The same man?

Tolkien and other scholars have speculated that Hengest of the Battle of Finnsburg is the same as the Hengest who led his men across the sea to Kent, the first of all the Anglo Saxons (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry below).

A.D. 449. This year ...Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet, first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. …. They then sent to the Angles and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons and the richness of the land.  (Anglo –Saxon Chronicle)

For most people these poems are obscure references to legendary times, but to Tolkien and other scholars The Fragment and the Episode are part of the earliest history of England, relating to the background of one of the founders of the earliest English Kingdom, Kent.

Many scholars will say that we have little evidence of Hengest and Horsa and really cant be sure of any of this, but in the accounts of the battle of Finnsburg I believe you see part of what led Hengest to go to England. Did he make his name in this fight? Did he make enemies to avoid? Did he loose face at the Danish court and choose to gamble all on an adventure across the sea?

The Fragments and the Episode tease and suggest answers but don't quite tell enough. But we can have fun speculating.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.



  1. Very interesting - as always with your posts Richard.

  2. What a great read. I'll have to look for this book. My personal interests are more 10th and 11th century but Tolkien has the clout to make me look here.

    1. Its fairly heavy accademic stuff - based around his lectures notes for degree level anglo saxon studies so its not easy reading but Tolkien is heavy on the detailed analysis.

  3. Riveting stuff Richard. I've always felt that Hengest had some basis in history and not just legend. The Hengest of legend has always been larger than life and sounds pretty much like the man in these stories.

  4. I wrote my MA dissertation on the Fragment, and my PhD (for which Tolkein was one of the external assessors) on the Finn Episode. I've always inclined to Tolkein's view that the Hengest of the Finn story and the Hengest of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are the same man, and I think the main reason the Finn Episode appears in Beowulf is that the story would already be familiar to the Beowulf audience. Anglo-Saxons seemed to enjoy being reminded of stories they already knew, preferably with a new twist - in this case, telling the story from Hildeburh's pov rather than as a straightforward heroic tale, as it is told in the Fragment. (And I do think it's high time someone made a new search for the original Fragment manuscript - and any more pages of it - in Lambeth Palace Library!)


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