The Medway Megaliths Part 1: The enigma of the White Horse Stone

The White Horse Stone is shrouded in legend. It is located in the Neolithic funerary complex that we today call the Medway Megaliths, and was once possibly part of a chambered long barrow of which no other traces remain. Until recently it was one of a pair of megaliths that stood close to the Pilgrims Way in North Kent, the chalk ridge that comprises the northern limb of the Wealden anticline, but the Lower White Horse Stone was destroyed in the nineteenth century, leaving the upper White Horse Stone alone and isolated. To add insult to injury, now it can only be reached via a slip road behind a petrol station, cut off by the racing traffic of the A229 dual carriageway that links the M20 with the M2, part of the extensive motorway network that divides Kent. And just below it the Eurostar train emerges from a tunnel cut into the chalk as it speeds down towards Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel.

White Horse Stone, author’s photo

Isolated and lonely it might be, yet dating back to around 4000 BC, it is an important piece of our heritage, placed at the very beginning of the arrival of the farmers from Europe who brought with them the knowledge of agriculture.  These people were said to be semi-nomadic, yet near the stone was found the remains of an early Neolithic longhouse that was used 3780 – 3530 BC and was most likely a domestic residence. Another chambered long barrow was found nearby containing human remains and could have shed more light on these apparent contradictions, but sadly this has also been destroyed.

If the Neolithic ancestry of the stone has many unsolved elements, the legends become more complex when linked to a more recent invasion, this one involving the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon people, again from continental Europe. Around 409 AD, the last of the Romans withdrew from Britain, leaving a vacuum soon to be filled by tribes from Germany, including the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, some of whom had already begun to settle during Roman times. The takeover was gradual and not uniform throughout the country; it could have begun in Kent, certainly the legend describing the foundation event say it was.

White Horse Stone from side, author’s photo

There are different sources for the story, and each tell a slightly different version, but the gist is as follows. Vortigern, King of the Britons, needed assistance to fight the Scottish Picts who frequently launched raiding parties into his territory. He invited the Angles to come to his aid, and in due course (449 AD),  the brothers Horsa and Hengist arrived at Ebbsfleet to serve as mercenaries. They were said to have arrived under the banner of a ‘rampant white horse.’ [1] In return for their services, they were given supplies and land on the Isle of Thanet, and in time they sent back home for more aid, causing more Angles, Saxons and Jutes to arrive in large numbers. According to Nennius in the ‘History of the Britons,’  Vortigern had bitten off more than he could chew and tried to get rid of them, but to no avail. At any rate, Hengist’s daughter Rowena came over and Vortigern fell in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. In return, Hengist asked for Kent, which Vortigern granted even though it wasn’t strictly his to give. This made Vortigern unpopular, and he was forced into hiding by his own people. His son Vortimer turned against Hengist and Horsa, engaging them in battle and driving them back, back dying himself in the process.[2]

The Wooing of Rowena, by A. S. Forrest – Our Island Story, Public Domain

Eventually, Hengist and Horsa, now reasonably established, sent Vortigern a message of peace, and invited him to a feast where the Saxons and Britons could meet. Here a great act of treachery took place, deepening the drama of the story. Hengist’s men concealed knives ‘beneath their feet’ and murdered the unsuspecting Britons in what is known as the Treachery of the Long Knives, though they did spare Vortigern. [3]

According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, in 455 AD, Vortigern faced the brothers at Aylesford in Kent, where a decisive battle was fought. [4]The Saxons were victorious though Horsa was killed. Hengist went on to found the kingdom of Kent with his son, marking the beginning of Saxon rule. Horsa, according to legend, was buried by the White Horse Stone, over which was draped his banner.

In old English, Hengist and Horsa mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’ respectively, and Bede in his version of the story charts their geneology back to Woden, the great Norse god.[5] Both the Norse and Anglo-Saxon languages are Indo-European in origin, and have inherited aspects of Indo-European mythology, cleaving it to fit their own time and place. Two of the central tenants of this proto-mythology were founding brothers, or divine twins, and they were often associated with the horse, the most sacred animal in Indo-European cosmology. There are many examples of divine twins who founded nations, including Romulus and Remus in Rome, Aggi and Ebbi of the Danes, and Ibur and Aion of the Lombards .[6] And in all of the legends, one of the founding twins must die, as does Horsa in this case.

Folkestone White Horse

There is no evidence of course that he was actually buried beneath White Horse Stone, but the association stills lingers on. His emblem was adopted by the Jutish kingdom of Kent, the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and the rampant white horse is still today the emblem of Kent. In this way the story of Horsa, Hengist and Vortigern can be seen as an Anglo-Saxon foundation myth, similar to Romulus and Remus in the foundation of Rome. Not to be taken literally, but seen as a sacred and part of a greater cosmology. What Horsa and Hengist as German immigrants would have made of Brexit we do not know, but the constant presence of the Eurostar train beneath the stone is certainly a reminder of our deeply European connections, and one which they appear to stand guard over today.


[1] Richard Verstegan ‘Restitution of Decayed Antiquities.’

[2] Nennius,’Historia Britonum’

[3] Nennius, Historia Britonum

[4] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles

[5] Bede ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation’

[6] ‘Hengist and Horsa,’ Wikipedia (accessed 30.5.2020)

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