Ambrosius Aurelianus, the second son of the
Emperor Constantine, was known to the Welsh as Emrys
Wledig (the Imperator) or Emrys Benaur (the
Golden-Headed). Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us how he was still a young child when
his teenage brother, Constans' short-lived reign came to
an abrupt end. With his father executed and his brother
murdered, little Ambrosius, along with his brother,
Uther, was bundled up and taken across the Channel to the
safety of the court of his cousin, Budic I of Brittany.
Here he grew up, while the evil Vortigern reigned in Britain, but always Ambrosius
planned to return and claim his rightful inheritance.
His chance arrived some years later.
Ambrosius returned to Britain, landed at Totnes (Devon)
and it may be at this point in history that he clashed
with Vitalinus (probably Vortigern or a supporter) at the
Battle of Guoloph (Nether Wallop in Hampshire) as
recorded by Nennius. This may have resulted in Victory
for Ambrosius who was, at some point in history, "given
all the kingdoms of the western side of Britain" by
Vortigern. Ambrosius was, however, unsatisfied with such
a compromise and the struggle between the two continued
for most of his life. Vortigern's pro-Saxon policies
eventually led to his downfall though and, (probably) in
the late 450s, the British people finally rallied behind
Ambrosius. Vortigern was hounded into taking refuge in
his mountain strongholds. While under siege at
Caer-Guorthigirn (Little Doward, Herefordshire), the
fortress was miraculously struck by lightning. Vortigern
and his entire garrison were burnt to death.
After Vortigern's death, Ambrosius was
conciliatory towards his sons and let them keep their
lands in Buellt, Gwerthrynion, Gwent and Powys. Despite
this magnanimity, King Pasgen of Buellt &
Gwerthrynion later rebelled against Ambrosius and twice
attempted to overrun Britain with help from the Saxons
and the Irish. The main Anglo-Saxon forces had retired
North of the Humber and Ambrosius met Hengist in Battle
at Maesbeli and then Conisburgh (Caer-Conan).
Later he besieged Octa and Osla at York (Caer-Ebrauc).
All were defeated, but Ambroius let them settle their
people in Bryneich (Bernicia).
Ambrosius is credited, by Geoffrey,
with the building of a monumental stone circle, the
"Giant's Ring" (possibly Stonehenge or Avebury)
on Mount Ambrius as a memorial to those massacred by the
Saxons at the "Night of the Long Knifes" during
King Vortigern's reign. He was buried there himself after
being poisoned by a Saxon at Winchester (Caer-Guinntguic).
Ambrosius was certainly an historical figure as
recorded by his near contemporary commentator, St.
Gildas. In his "Ruin of Britain," the monk
describes how the Saxons rampaged through the country
before they "returned home". Then:
"The remnants (of the
British)...take up arms, and challenge their victors to
battle under Ambrosius Aurelianus. He was a man of
unassuming character, who, alone of the Roman race,
chanced to survive the storm in which his parents, people
undoubtedly clad in the purple, had been killed. Their
offspring in our days have greatly degenerated from their
ancestral nobleness. From that time the citizens were
sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy...up to the
year of the Siege of Mons Badonicus."
Added to this are the comments of the 9th century
chronicler, Nennius, who, in-line with Geoffrey, recorded
Ambrosius as one of the chief dreads of King Vortigern.
Nennius also describes Ambrosius as a young boy without a
father, called to help Vortigern out during the building
of his fortress at Dinas Emrys (see Vortigern), a role
later taken on by Merlin. He ties the period down by
implying that Vortigern's reign had begun by at least
425, and that Ambrosius fought at Guoloph twelve years
later. This is most interesting for it poses a bit of a
problem. Many people take Gildas' reference to Mons
Badonicus to imply that it was Ambrosius, rather
than the usually attributed King
Arthur, who was the commander at the famous
battle of Mount Badon, the decisive British victory over
the Saxons around 495-500. In the year 495, Ambrosius
would have been at least 74 years old, and it would,
indeed, be difficult to imagine a man of this period
living to such an age, let alone wielding a heavy sword
and leading a mounted charge against the Saxon positions.
So what is the solution?
There isn't a definitive one, but some have solved the
problem by postulating two men named Ambrosius; the
elder, whom Vortigern dreaded, and the younger, the hero
of the British resistance of the mid-to-late fifth
century and the victor of Mount Badon. This is certainly
possible. . .as there seem to have been a number of
people with the same name in those days (ie. Maximus,
Constantine, etc.). Why not two Ambrosii?
The more likely possibility, though, is that there was
just one Ambrosius. Arthur may indeed have been the real
commander of the victory at Mount Badon; or perhaps as "the
great king among all the kings of the British
nation," Ambrosius Aurelianus could have been
the aging overall supreme commander of the engagement,
with the function of front line battle leader going to a
younger man, perhaps Arthur.
Geoffrey Ashe (1980) A Guidebook to Arthurian
Gildas Badonicus (c.540) The Ruin of Britain.
Peter C. Bartrum (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary.
E.K. Chambers (1964) Arthur of
Ronan Coghlan (1991) The
Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends.
Jack Lindsay (1958) Arthur and his Times.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) The History of the Kings
John Morris (1973) The Age of Arthur.
Nennius (c.829) The History of the Britons.
John Rhys (1901) Celtic Folklore.
Hugh Williams (1901) Gildas.
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