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For other uses, see Rowena (disambiguation).
Vortigern and Rowena, by William Hamilton

Rowena /rˈnə/ was the daughter of the Anglo-Saxon chief Hengist and a wife of Vortigern, King of the Britons, in British legend. Presented as a beautiful femme fatale, she won her people the Kingdom of Kent through her treacherous seduction of Vortigern. Contemporary sources do not mention Rowena, which leads modern historians to regard her as fictitious.


The name "Rowena" does not appear in Old English sources such as Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th-century Historia regum Britanniae (in various spellings, including Ronwen, Renwein, and Romwenna), and may represent a medieval Latin corruption of some lost Germanic or Old English name.[1] Another possibility is that it comes from the Welsh, where the name becomes Rhonwen, and could be connected to the word rhawn "horsehair", which might be significant given her father and uncle's association with horses,[2] but this is simply conjecture based on similarity of pronunciation.[1]


Historia Brittonum[edit]

She is first mentioned in the 9th-century Latin Historia Brittonum (traditionally attributed to Nennius) as the lovely unnamed daughter of the Saxon Hengist. Following his brother Horsa and his arrival at Ynys Ruym (modern Thanet), Hengist negotiates 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, he agrees to give her father whatever he wants in exchange for permission to marry her (the fate of Vortigern's first wife, Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus, is not specified). The text makes clear that the British king's lust for a pagan woman is a prompting by the Devil. Hengist demands the Kingdom of Kent, which Vortigern foolishly grants him. This agreement proves disastrous for the Britons and allows the Saxons to strengthen their foothold in Britain considerably. According to the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern "and his wives" (Rowena/Rhonwen is not named directly) were burned alive by heavenly fire in the fortress of Craig Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern's Rock) in north Wales.[3]

Geoffrey of Monmouth[edit]

Geoffrey of Monmouth's work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, circa 1138) was the first to give Hengist's daughter a name, Rowena, though the spelling varies widely by manuscript. According to 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 Treachery of the Long Knives, sparing Vortigern because of Rowena.

With her use of seduction and potions, Geoffrey's Rowena (a character whom the scholar Edward Augustus Freeman described as "a later absurdity")[4] perhaps served as a basis for later Arthurian villainesses such as Morgan le Fay, and can be contrasted with his positive portrayal of British queens like Cordelia and Marcia. Another similar character is Estrildis, the rival of Queen Gwendolen, also a beautiful Germanic princess.

Welsh tradition[edit]

In the Welsh Triads and medieval Welsh poetry, Rhonwen is "The Mother of the English Nation" who personifies Saxon treachery and paganism.[2]

Later adaptations[edit]

She was a titular character in William Henry Ireland's play Vortigern and Rowena (1796). Her name was later borrowed by Sir Walter Scott for the beautiful Saxon heroine in his historical novel Ivanhoe (1819), after which it came into use as an English given name.[1] (Presumably due to the original legendary Rowena's character flaws, her name was not commonly used until after the appearance of Ivanhoe.)[1]

Rowena Ravenclaw is also one of the four founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter series. She is Scottish.

She also appears as a Scottish witch in the 10th season of the TV series Supernatural.


  1. ^ a b c d Friedemann, Sara L.; Mittleman, Josh (10 August 1999). "Concerning the Names Rowena, Rowan, and Rhonwen". Retrieved 16 January 2008. 
  2. ^ a b Vermaat, Robert. "Rowena, wife of Vortigern". From Retrieved September 29, 2007.
  3. ^ Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, ed. John Morris (Phillimore, 1980), p. 33.
  4. ^ Onomasticon Anglo-Saxonicum, p. 404, at Google Books