Saelferth and Sigeferth were two prominent members of the Secgan tribe. They are only mentioned in the Finnesburg Fragment and the poem Widsith. All we can tell for certain is that Saelferth was a king and Sigeferth a landless wrecca.
On top of this, I suggest in this essay that the Secgans may have been an original name of the Saxons. Furthermore, I posit the idea that the mysterious East Saxons took their name not only from the Secgans, but that both Saelferth and Sigeferth influenced the names of the East Saxon kings for hundreds of years. Quite why this is, however, remains a mystery.
What is the evidence for Sigeferth and the Secgans?
The one and only source for Sigeferth is the Fight at Finnesburg Fragment which is of uncertain provenance, but seems to tie up with the Finnesburg episode in Beowulf. However, Beowulf does not mention Sigeferth or the Secgans.
In addition to the fragment, the 8th century poem Widsith mentions the Secgans in a list of peoples and their most famous kings. All I can add to these two small sources is name similarities to try and divine where the Secgans were and who Sigeferth was.
Fragment: Fight and Finnesburg
Sigeferth is mentioned in two sections of the fragment near the beginning. The first outlines who is where in the defense of the hall, and the second is a short introductory speech by Sigferth telling the attackers who he is and what their fate may be.
Original Old English (Translation by Tolkien/Bliss):
Da aras [of raeste rumheort] maening (when many a valiant retainer)
Goldhladen thegn, gyrde hine his swurde, (decked in gold, rose and buckled on their sword)
Tha to dura eodon drihtlice cempan, (to the doorway went the noble warriors)
Sigeferth and Eaha, hyra sword getugon, (Sigeferth and Eaha, drawing their swords)
“Sigeferth is min nama,” cweth he, “ic eom Secgena leod, (“Sigeferth is my name,” said he,
Wreccea wide cuth; faela ic weana gebad, (I am a Secgan lord, a widely known wrecca;)
Heardra hilda; the is gyt her witod, (many old woes and bitter battles have I experienced;)
Swaether thu sylf to me secean wylle.” (here you shall meet whatever fate you seek from me.”)
Who was Sigeferth – Secgan lord and adventurer
Lines 13-15: The first mention of Sigeferth in the fragment merely tells us that he ran to defend one of the doors of the hall alongside a man called Eaha. We can recreate the moment – they got up from whatever they were doing be it feasting, talking, or sleeping, put on their sword belts, and then drew their swords as they approached the door. Their wealth is shown by the gold they wore though we know not what was gold.
In being inside the hall, we know Sigeferth is on the same side as Hengist, Ordlaf, and Guthlaf, as well as with Hnaef son of Hoc. In Widsith Hnaef is said to be the most famous leader of the Hocings, but in the fragment and episode, he’s a prominent Dane or Half-Dane related to the Scylding dynasty. His sister is married to their host at Finnesburg – Finn.
The conflict at the Fight at Finnesburg is between rival factions of the Jutes (Eotena). These were in Frisia under the protection of King Finn. Those inside the halls were the Jutes allied to the Danes including a Danish leader (Hnaef) and those who attacked them were probably Jutish exiles who resented pro-Dane traitors.
Lines 24-27: We learn more about Sigeferth in the second mention and indeed hear his own words as he challenges those who oppose him at the door. Here he describes himself as Secgena leod – translated as a prince by Tolkien, but I feel more of a lord as we do not know his lineage. What we do know is that he is no king.
Furthermore he calls himself a wrecca. The precise meaning of this word is interesting. Tolkien translates it to mean an adventurer. However, it may be more complex than that. It’s etymology may lay in the same ballpark as wreck, wreak, and writhe – meaning ultimately to twist. Perhaps someone who shakes things up or a kind of landless warrior of good birth (a ronin of sorts).
He notes he’s a seasoned warrior who has met with much sorrow. Of course we have no idea of what these battles or sorrows are, but we can assume given he’s a wrecca that it included family strife at home – perhaps being forced out of his homeland as many others had been (Hengist for example) and into a life of adventure and war.
Whatever his backstory, he’d ended up with the Halfdanes under the leadership of the famous Hnaef son of Hoc. During the fight Hnaef would die along with his nephew, the son of Finn. We do not know if Sigeferth died during the fight, but he is not mentioned again.
The survivors were then led by Hengist who made peace with Finn and the Jutes who’d attacked them until winter passed. Once spring had come, Hengist and his forces, which may or may not have included Sigeferth, attacked Finn – killing him and taking Hnaef’s sister back to her homeland.
What we believe is that after the fight, Hengist ends up in Britain where he becomes a sword for hire of the British tyrant Vortigern. Eventually he betrays Vortigern and sets up his own kingdom of Kent. We can only speculate as to Sigeferth’s path if he survived the Fight at Finnesburg.
What does Widsith say about Saelferth and the Secgans?
The full coverage of the Secgans lies in just two words in the Widsith poem. They are:
In English we’d say, Saeferth the Secgans. For context, this is in a list of the greatest rulers of the northern peoples known to the poet Widsith. Many of the peoples are known today, but many are lost in the past. I’m not going to undertake an investigation into who is who here, it’ll take too long, but I will do it soon.
So all we know from Widsith is that there was a well-known group called the Secgans and that they had a king named Saeferth. He is placed near the Thuringians, Swedes, Ymbras (Jutes?), and the Lombards.
It is not possible to draw too much out of this. The Lombard ruler of note is Sceafa, who is probably synonymous with Scef Scylding of Danish fame. In these legends he and the Lombards came out of Scandinavia and roamed south. I place Scef around 250 AD and the sudden migration of the Heruli (if I ever finish my translation of Beowful, you’ll see why). However, Lombard traditions go back to the time of Christ – 9-16 AD at the earliest, so it’s hard to mesh the two together entirely.
Ongentheow of the Swedes is datable – to around 515, which is long after the Fight at Finnesburg and more in the time of Beowulf. His royal family is said to have been the Scylfings. The Ymbras king was Sceafthere who also shares a similar name element. The Ymbra were related to a group better known from hundreds of years earlier – the Ambrones. This tribe, along with the Teutons and the similarly named Cimbri, rampaged through Europe and the Roman Republic before meeting a tragic end.
Basically, we have Saeferth wedged between two northern peoples in Jutland and Sweden, plus two peoples in Gaul and Bavaria. The times do not mesh up either, possibly ranging from 250 AD to 515 AD. All we can say is that Widsith attests to the existence of the Secgans.
Were Sigeferth and Saeferth the same person?
It also gives us a name – Saeferth, who may be of use to us. His name is quite close to that of Sigeferth in the fragment. This naturally led Tolkien and others to wonder if the two were in fact the same person. I believe not.
Why would the feel so? Tolkien, via Alan Bliss’ work (p.30), states that the fact Heregar and Heorogar are the same person that Sigeferth and Saeferth may be the same person. This is tenuous even though ancient names do get changed and mangled.
Instead I’d posit that Sigeferth was a man of his time – around 440-50 AD, at the time of the Fight at Finnesburg, and was therefore a contemporary of Finn et al. However, he was just a wrecca – a landless lord and adventurer and not a king. The Widsith list is of great men and does not mention Hengist as a lord. Therefore, I posit the idea that Saeferth either came before Sigeferth or after, but was definitely related and of the same people.
Are the Secgans and the Saxons the same people?
One of the curious things about the Secgans is that while they’re noted in two sources, we have no idea where they lived or who they were. Or do we?
In my discussion of Saeferth’s position in Widsith, I noted we cannot guess the time or location of the different peoples around Saeferth. His context is not helpful within the poem. Nor do we get any help from the Finnesburg fragment.
Therefore all we have is the name – Secgan. Secg means sword, so we can define Secgan as people or brotherhood of the sword. It’s a nice name and is more of a nickname than an ethnic group with deep tribal origins.
We should also consider the fact that a major so-called group of Northmen are missing from Widsith. There are Jutes and Angles, Thuringians and Swedes etc, but there are no Saxons. Now the term Saxon is said to be derived from their Seax blades.
Given we have no Saxons in Widsith, it might be the case that the Saxons were once called Secgans and that the two have been accidentally separated. After all, the meanings and the sounds are pretty close, so could be the same people. To see if this is the case, let’s take a deeper look at the Saxons; especially the East Saxons (more on them later).
Where does the name Saxon come from?
When we think of the term Saxon, we tend to think of Saxony – a region of modern-day Germany. However, Saxony is a back-creation. That is to say that Saxons migrated out of Britain (probably during the age of Arthur when the British held the English back) and into Germany. They took their name with them.
We do not have direct evidence of the Saxons prior to the formation of the Saxon kingdoms in the 5th and 6th centuries. However, from the 3rd century onwards, southeast Britain was protected by the Litus Saxonicum – the Saxon shore forts. Originally this was thought to have been a Roman defense against the Saxons; however it may be more complex.
The forts were built in stages and it is hard to pin down exactly when the Saxon shore system was developed. It may have been an ad hoc provincial defence system which was regularized by military reformers such as Stilicho in 397.
These forts ranged from east Hampshire/West Sussex around the British coast to Essex and East Anglia. Most were to be found in East Sussex and Kent. The lack of in-land defenses combined with Germanic settlement evidence suggests that germanic peoples were invited in as laeti (barbarian communities) to settle and defend the areas.
Which part of the Litus Saxonicum was most densely populated?
As a result, the Litus Saxonicum was of the saxons not against the saxons. I posit that the germanic tribes of the Litus Saxonicum came to view themselves as Saxons; perhaps therefore as Secgans. This self-identification may have existed prior to the fall of the Roman Britain or were consolidated in the post-fall era (410-50).
So now we turn our attention to the most likely part of the Litus Saxonicum. First, I’ll look at Romano-Saxon finds. It’s worth noting of course that not much survives time, not all buried evidence has been found, and just because a body is buried with items of Germanic origin does not mean they were Germanic themselves.
That being born in mind, Myers (p.88) plots a map of Germanic find spots. They are spread over southeast and eastern Britain with some inland penetration. However, the most dense area of Romano-Saxon finds (pottery) is in the area of the East Saxons (until then the old tribal area of the Trinovantes). So let’s look at whether the Secgans were East Saxons.
Was Sigeferth an East Saxon?
There is enormous regularity in the names of East Saxon kings. Before I give the list, it’s probably best to explain this a little. One of the chief poetic forms in Old English was alliteration. Today, when we think of alliteration, we think of a chain of words with the same starting letter. However, in names and forms, to the Old English, this meant a repeating sound or name element – much how we confuse the 17 Japanese letters with 17 syllables in a haiku.
Old English king lists often included children with repeated elements of their father’s or ancestor’s names. Most names were split into two elements and either could be repeated from father to son. In most king lists this altered over time with fashion, but while the East Saxon kings were obscure, their lineage was conservative name-wise.
The East Saxon King List
Here’s the East Saxon king list from the last king down to the first (as they recorded it):
Sigeric II (829-837) (possibly in exile in Mercia?)
Sigered (798-825 – last king of Essex)
Sigeric (c.758-98) (son of Selered)
Swithred (c.746-58) (grandson of Sigeheard)
Selered (also called Saelred – c.709-46, but 715-38, jointly with Swaefbert)
Offa (705-09 jointly with Swaefred)
Sigeheard (694-709, jointly with Swaefred)
Saebbi (664-695, jointly with his cousin, Sighere 664-683)
Swithhelm (660-64 – brother Swithfrith – both brothers of Sigeberht the Good)
Sigeberht the Good (653-660) (father of Sighere, possible son of Sigebald)
Sigeberht the Little (623-53 – confused lineage)
Saeward (616-23 – father of Sigeberht the Good + joint rule with Sexred?)
Saeberht (604-16 – father of Saeward and Sexred)
Aescwine ? – c.587)
In addition to these names, Stenton (p.53-54) also notes the following names:
Sigebald (actually Seaxbald father of Swithhelm?)
Seaxa (also called Seaxneat or on the continent, Saxnot)
In Stenton’s genealogy, Seaxa is the son of Sledda and enters into the line that way. However, the main king lists do not mention Sigefrith, Selefrith, or Sigebald. We do have Seaxa though. He was the brother of Saeberht and son of Sledd and Ricula (daughter of Eormenric of Kent).
According to genealogies, Seaxa was the father of Sigeferth, grandfather of Seleferth, and great-grandfather of Sigebald.
Who are the Pre-Historical Kings of Essex?
It is my contention (though I may not have invented it – please let me know who did) that Old English genealogies followed a pattern which included a founding God, a name related to the name of the dynasty, a name relating to the name of the kingdom, and significant heroes from the group’s past or those they identified with.
The three most common name elements are covered in the pre-historical lineage by Sigefugl, Swaeppa, and Seaxnet. We also have the famous Offa, king of Angeln, included – he’s included in Widsith alongside Saeferth of the Secgans. Bedca could be related to Becca of the Banings. While Becca is grouped with the Goths and Huns, their rulers – Attila and Eormunric turn up in English tales later on, so why not Becca too?
Antsecg, Gesecg, and Seaxnet
This leaves Antsecg, Gesecg, and Seaxnet. They give us the most tantalising glimpse of the Secgans. Our word Saxon is usually derived from Seaxnet – brethren of the seax. A seax as a small fighting blade between a knife and a sword. Secg, as we saw above, is also a word meaning sword.
In the lineage of the East Saxons, not only do we have the seax of Seaxnet, we have two secgs – Antsecg and Gesecg. There is no evidence nor mention of these two outside of the genealogies. All I can say is that they both end in secg (sword), and so could be hints to the Secgan past of the East Saxons.
What does the name evidence tell us?
When looking for circumstantial evidence linking the names Saeferth, Sigeferth, and Secgan to the East Saxons we find elements of all three.
Saeferth: Seaxa, Saeward, Saebbi, Saelred, plus with W inclusion you get S(w)aeppa, S(w)aefred and several swi- names.
Sigeferth: Plenty of names alliterating with Sige- including Sigebald, Sigefrith, two Sigeberhts, Sigeheard, two Sigerics, and a Sigered.
Secg: Prehistoric legendary names Antsecg and Gesecg.
We can say that the names of Sigeferth and Saeferth echo down into East Saxon kings and nobles plus we see echoes of the Secgans in their ancestry list. The name evidence suggests to me a strong connection with both of these people and the Secgans. It’s not definitive proof of course, but it is an extremely strong suggestion.
When did the Secgans rise and who was Saelferth?
The honest answer is I do not know when the Secgans arose or who Saelferth was. My only suspicion might be what Ammianus Marcellinus termed the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ of 367. This was a chaotic incident late into Roman Britain and involved all manner of peoples.
Now, I must note that the Litus Saxonicum was already in existence even if it was not named so until later (we don’t know exactly when the name was applied to the region). So we know there were already Germanic laeti in the region prior to the conspiracy.
With that background in mind, the conspiracy played out like a well coordinated attack. Soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall rebelled and let northern Picts and Caledonians run south. At the same time Irish raiders attacked the northwest while Saxons came in from the southeast. Franks and other Saxons also attacked northern Gaul.
Julian, the Roman emperor at the time, noted that one of the Saxon tribes who attacked Britain was the Chauci. This speech is also the first undisputed mention of the Saxons as a people. If Saelferth was a predecessor of Sigeferth, and if he was super famous among the English, then it stands to reason he did something pretty outstanding. Leading a major raid on a Roman province would do that.
Of course there is no evidence to suggest that Saelferth had anything to do with this. He may have been famous for some other reason. However, I do feel given he that he probably preceded Sigeferth and that the latter was an experienced warrior by the 440s, that he was active around this time.
Widsith does mention Ermanaric of the Goths who died in 376, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Saelferth was from this time. Attila was active in the mid-5th as were many others noted in the poem. I’ll do some more research and will see if anything turns up.
Sigeferth is not the most mysterious of characters mentioned in the fragment or in Beowulf, but who he was, who his people were, and his relationship to the rest of the northern world is shrouded in the entropic mists of time.
I believe, based on the evidence of the fragment, on Widsith, and the name evidence, that the Secgans formed out of Germanic laeti sent to the land of the Trinovantes. They formed the Secgan people, possibly on return to Germanic lands or in their new land themselves.
One of these great leaders was named Saeferth – perhaps he led an uprising there against their Roman or post-Roman overlords. This could’ve been in the 4th or 5th centuries, but his actions were enough for his name to be passed on down through the generations in Essex as with Sigeferth. The Secgan name almost completely disappeared in the more Latin name Saxon. Is any of this plausible, what do you think?
Ammianus Marcellinus, 380s, Res Gestae (barbarica conspiratio)
Myers, J.N.L., 1986, The English Settlements, The Oxford History of England, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pollington, S., 2003, The Meadhall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon Books, Ely
Stenton, F.M., 1971, Anglo-Saxon England, The Oxford History of England, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Tolkien, J.R.R., & Bliss, A., 1982, Finn and Hengest, Harper Collins, London
Unknown, Fight at Finnesburg fragment