Rowena

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Rowena

Birthdate:
Birthplace: Jutland, Denmark
Death: Died in Kent, England
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Hengest, King of Kent and Elsa, Queen of Kent
Wife of Vortigern, King of the Britons
Sister of Hartwaker, King of the Saxons; Æsc, King of Kent; Ebusa and Osta of Asgard

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About Rowena

Rowena

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For other uses, see Rowena (disambiguation).

Rowena was the daughter of the Anglo-Saxon leader Hengest and a wife of the Briton High King Vortigern, according to British legend. Described as a beautiful femme fatale, she won her people the Kingdom of Kent through her scheming seduction of Vortigern. Rowena is unknown in contemporary records, causing modern historians to regard her story as fictional.

[edit] Etymology

The name Rowena does not appear before Geoffrey's Historia, and neither it nor its cognates "Rowan" and "Rhonwen" were widely used given names before modern times, likely because Rowena was considered a negative character.[1] Walter Scott used the name for the beautiful Saxon heroine of his novel Ivanhoe in 1819, the love interest of the title character, and by 1850 the name was in use in the United States.[1]

Possible explanations for its meaning include a Latinized form of an Old English name meaning "fame and joy", formed from the words hroð (fame) and wynn (joy).[2] Another suggestion is that it might have derived from the Welsh, where the name is "Rhonwen" (rhon + wen meaning "fair lance"), but this is possibly only a guess based on similarity of pronunciation.[1]

Rowena and her story are not mentioned in old English sources such as Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The various differing spellings of Rowena's name make its origin unclear, and it may very well come from Welsh. The Welsh name Rhonwen means "Bright Spear"; alternately, the name might be related to rhawn (horsehair), which might be significant given her father and uncle's association with horses.[3] The name itself was unrecorded before Geoffrey used it and he may have invented it.[1]

[edit] Attestations

She is first mentioned without name as the beautiful Saxon daughter of Hengist in the Latin Historia Brittonum. Following the arrival of Hengest and Horsa at Ynys Ruym, now known as Thanet, Hengest negotiated with the British High King Vortigern for more land. At her father's orders Rowena gets Vortigern drunk at a feast, and he is so enchanted by her that he agrees to give Hengist whatever he wants if he allowed her to marry him as his second wife. (The fate of Vortigern’s first wife Sevira is unclear). The text makes clear this desire for a pagan woman is a prompting by the Devil. Hengest demands the Kingdom of Kent, which Vortigern foolishly grants him. This agreement is a disaster for the Britons and allows the Saxons to strengthen their foothold in Britain considerably.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's work Historia Regum Britanniae ("The History of the Kings of Britain"), ca. 1138, was the first to give Hengest's daughter a name: Rowena, though the spelling varies widely. In Geoffrey, Vortigern usurps the throne of Britain from the rightful king Constans. Geoffrey claims the drunken seduction of Vortigern created the tradition of toasting in Britain. Vortigern's friendly dealings with the Saxons, especially his allowing even more settlers to join them, causes his sons by his first wife to rebel. His eldest son Vortimer takes the British throne and drives out the Saxons, but he is poisoned by Rowena, who assumes a wicked stepmother role. Later the Saxons kill all the British leaders at the Night of Long Knives, sparing Vortigern because of Rowena. According to the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern "and his wives" were burned alive by heavenly fire in the fortress of Craig Gwrtheyrn ("Vortigern's Rock"), "in north Wales", but Rowena/Rhonwen is not named directly in the passage.[4]

In the Welsh Triads and medieval Welsh poetry, Rhonwen, "the Mother of the English Nation" is an everlasting example of Saxon treachery and paganism.[3] Geoffrey's Rowena with her use of seduction and potions probably forms a basis for villainesses in later Arthurian legend like Morgan le Fay and can be compared with his portrayal of good British Queens like Cordelia and Marcia. There are also connections with the story of Queen Gwendolen and Estrildis, another beautiful German princess. She is also a character in William Henry Ireland's play Vortigern and Rowena.

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Rowena's Timeline

449
449
Briton
????
Jutland, Denmark
????
Kent, England