The Bloody History of Broadstairs
Described as ‘quaint,’ ‘pleasant,’ even ‘sleepy,’ the town of Broadstairs in Kent is not usually associated with the chaos and destruction of Vikings, yet the whole town leans towards Viking Bay. Much like other beaches on the Isle of Thanet, its name is intrinsically linked to its history.
Viking Bay won the Seaside Award in 2018 and is regularly listed as the chief attraction of Broadstairs. Whilst there are plenty of things to see and do in the town, thousands flock to the beach throughout the summer to enjoy the sun, sand, and sea. Yet what does it have to do with Vikings?
According to a mix of history and legend, in 449AD Vortigern, King of the Britons, hired Viking mercenary brothers Hengist and Horsa to help fight the Picts and Gaels in Scotland. The Norse brothers landed at Ebbsfleet in Pegwell Bay, likely at the same location Julius Caesar did when the Romans first invaded Britain, and travelled north to help with the military campaign.
Hengist and Horsa were gifted warriors who reportedly defeated the Picts wherever they encountered them. This is perhaps unsurprising, as according to their family tree their great-great-grandfather was Woden, the all-father of Viking mythology also known as Odin.
To thank them for their service, Vortigern gifted the brothers the Isle of Thanet. They settled here, making Broadstairs (at the time known as Bradstow or ‘broad place’) their base, but wanted more—as was the Viking way. After sending for reinforcements, the brothers proceeded to invade Kent.
What followed was several years of bloodshed and bitter war as Hengist and Horsa waged a campaign from the river Wantsum out into the rest of Britain. Then in 455AD, six years after first arriving on our shores, the brothers finally faced their onetime ally, King Vortigern, at the Battle of Aylesford. The brothers had reached the Medway, and Vortigern would not let them proceed any further.
The battle was a long and hard-fought one, with many casualties on both sides. The most notable death was Horsa. Hengist, now without his brother, was forced to retreat, but returned with his son Esc in Horsa’s place at the head of his army. Two years later at the Battle of Crayford, Hengist and his forces killed four thousand Britons.
Hengist decided to employ a new tactic and invited Vortigern to begin border negotiations. Rumour has it that Hengist initially insisted they come to his home in Broadstairs, but Vortigern refused as it was at the far end of Hengist’s territory. Instead they agreed to meet on Salisbury Plain for talks, though it would quickly descend into one of the most shocking events in Ancient British history that would later inspire the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, now known as the Treachery of the Long Knives.
Before the meeting, Hengist told all his generals to place long knives in the soles of their shoes, under their feet, so, when he gave the signal, they could draw concealed weapons. That allowed them to meet without bearing arms, eliciting trust from the Britons.
Vortigern arrived with three hundred elders from the various tribes throughout the South East. Although initially a tense meeting, after much alcohol and meat and shouting the group became more affable, particularly Vortigern who was flirting with Hengist’s daughter. At this point, when all seemed well, Hengist called out to his generals to draw their blades, and they did, murdering all three hundred elders as Vortigern watched in horror.
Hengist had Vortigern chained and bound, and demanded he surrender Kent. In return for his agreement, he would receive his life, his freedom, and the hand of Hengist’s daughter in marriage. This would bind Vortigern to Hengist and ensure their territorial pact remained in force.
Hengist went from being gifted the Isle of Thanet to becoming King of Kent. He and Vortigern maintained a shaky truce throughout their lives. Some years later, Vortigern and Hengist’s daughter died when “fire fell from heaven and engulfed the castle.” Meanwhile Hengist passed away and his kingdom was inherited by his son.
1,500 years later, in 1949, a replica Viking longboat rowed across the North Sea and landed in Broadstairs, on the then-called Main Sands. Crowds flocked to see these Viking warriors in full costume arrive, and the boat was pulled ashore. The beach was renamed Viking Bay, and the boat itself displayed at Pegwell Bay, near to where Hengist and Horsa first landed, where it still stands today.
If ever you are tempted to think of Broadstairs as ‘quaint,’ ‘pleasant,’ or even ‘sleepy,’ remember its violent past, its Norse links, and its role in Hengist and Horsa’s conquest of Ancient Britain. Viking blood still flows through the town.