Ambrosius Aurelianus

Ambrolius, Ambrose, Ambrosius Aurelius, Aurelius Ambrosius, Aurilambros, Aurlis Brosias, Embres, Emreis, Emrys

Also known as Emrys and historically 'the Last of the Romans'. He governed Britain in the last half of the fifth century and helped stem the tide of Saxon advance in the days immediately prior to Arthur.

King Vortigern was informed by his advisors that his fortress at Snowdon - the walls of which kept collapsing each night - could only be built if its foundation was first splattered with the blood of a fatherless child. Vortigern's envoys, searching for such a child, came to the town of Elledi in South Wales, where they heard a bully taunting Emrys for having no father. Upon interrogation, Emrys' mother admitted to an immaculate conception, and Vortigern's men hauled him before the king. Emrys halted his execution by showing Vortigern that an underground lake lay beneath the site of the fortress. Within the lake, they found a chest which contained a cloth with a red and white worm. As Vortigern and his soldiers looked on, the worms fought, and the white defeated the red, which signified, Emrys said, the coming defeat of the Britons by the Saxons. Vortigern bestowed Snowdon upon Emrys and fled north. Curiously, we learn in another passage that Vortigern was afraid of Emrys. Clearly, a memory of historical events has been uncomfortably merged with legendary material in Nennius's account.

In Geoffrey's narrative, Aurelius and his brother Uther are sons of King Constantine. As children, they live after Constantine's death at the Breton court, where their guardians have taken them to keep them safe from the usurper Vortigern. Growing up, Aurelius becomes renowned for his generosity, truthfulness, and skill with weapons. He returns to Britain with Uther, lands at Totnes in Devon, and the Britons acknowledge him as their rightful sovereign.

Finally, Paschent (Pascentius), Vortigern's son, made war against him and had him poisoned by a a Saxon named Eopa. He was allegedly buried within the Giant's Ring which Merlin had built - a stone circle better known today as Stonehenge. According to the fifteenth-century poet, Rhys Goch Eryri, his head was buried beneath Dinas Emrys. Legend has it that, when Ambrosius commissioned Merlin to build his monument on Salisbury Plain, the wily old magician simply brought it over from Ireland, though modern science tells us that by that time the stone circle had been standing for 3.000 years or more.

A historical British war-leader, first mentioned by Gildas - Ambrosius Aurelianus is the only fifth-century Briton actually named in the De Excidio of Gildas, written during the 540s or thereabouts. Gildas tells of Saxon mercenaries settling in Britain under the aegis of a superbus tyrannus, or 'preeminent ruler', with whom Vortigern is usually identified. The Saxons revolted, raiding and ravaging everywhere. Their onslaught caused a migration of Britons overseas (the reference here is to the move to Armorica in northwest Gaul, which began the conversion of part of it into the Lesser Britain, or Brittany). Finally, the marauders withdrew to their settlements in the east of the island. Then, says Gildas, the surviving Britons recovered and launched a counteroffensive. Gildas praised him for organizing the Britons and routing the Saxons in the chaotic years following the Roman departure of Britain.

Gildas presents him as a 'Roman', the son of parents who had 'worn purple' and died in the Saxon devastation. 'Wearing purple' suggests an emperor but could mean merely that his father was of senatorial rank, like many imperial citizens of all nationalities. Gildas puts his counterattack after the British emigration, which can be roughly dated to the late 450s, so that the counterattack itself doubtless began in the 460s. Ambrosius period of activity was likely somewhere between 435 and 460. He may have led a pro-Roman faction that contended with King Vortigern, and it is not impossible that he became some kind of king after Vortigern's death. Gildas does not mention Vortigern's death or the end of his career, and it is possible (though not likely) that he was the British commander at the decisive battle of Badon. In any event, he is one of the few characters noted favorably in Gilda's diatribe, and later sources were to have Arthur continue the resistance that Ambrosius began.

The allusion to Ambrosius as a Roman has no ethnic content and probably points to a political leaning. Across the Channel in the northern Gaul, a general named Aegidius had been attempting (with no help from the hapless emperors) to uphold the imperial system against barbarian pressures. His son Syagrius carried on his work, ruling from Soissons and at some point adopting the remarkable title 'king of the Romans'. Though Britain was now outside the Empire, there are indications that the Britons who made new homes in Armorica may have done so through the agreement with these authorities; and the proimperial campaign of the king called Riothamus a few years after shows that the dominant Britons of the 460s had Roman rather than barbarian sympathies.

According to Gildas, Ambrosius's action against the Saxon settlements led to a period of doubtful warfare, culminating in a British success at the siege of Mount Badon somewhere about the year 500. Nothing shows when he ceased to be active personally. It has been thought that he was still in command at Badon, but Gildas does not name the commander on that occasion, and the only individual who is ever connected with it - admittedly, not till centuries afterward - is Arthur. In general, the rally that Ambrosius launched is associated with Arthur, too. Early materials shed no real light on the relations between them but hardly support the theory that they are the same person under different names.

Bede, writing almost 200 years later, repeats Gildas's account, but Nennius, at the beginning of the ninth century, shows the modifications that centuries of legend made to Ambrosius's character. Using the Welsh form Emrys, Nennius mentions Ambrosius in the Historia Brittonum. Confusingly, he ignores him as a leader of anti-Saxon resistance, allotting that role first to Vortimer and later to Arthur. Ambrosius is spoken of as a rival whom Vortigern feared and then, after Vortigern's death, as a king holding paramountcy over lesser rulers. The only episode dealing with him at length is legendary - a story that introduces him in his youth as having prophetic gifts, displayed before Vortigern. At the end of it, he is made to say that his father was a Roman consul: perhaps an echo of Gildas, though it conflicts with the rest of the tale, which depends on his father being unknown.

In the same passage, Nennius calls him Emrys gwledig and says that Vortigern, awed by his prophecies, gave him the overlordship of western Britain - thus (it would seem) starting him on the career that made him formidable. Here, Nennius may at least be recording his true status, rather than when he calls him a paramount king. Emrys gwledig is the way Ambrosius is styled in Welsh tradition generally. The word gwledig comes to mean simply 'prince', but its basic sense is 'land-holder'; and in its application to fifth-century figures it reflects a political reality of the time. Parts of Britain were governed by army commanders vested with regional powers. Ambrosius appears to have been one of them. Nennius is probably wrong to locate him in the west, which would mean essentially Wales. In some notes at the end of Nennius's main text, Ambrosius is stated to have fought Vitalinus (otherwise unknown) at Wallop in Hampshire, twelve years 'from the reign of Vortigern' - a phrase taken to mean from the reign's beginning, which the same notes assign to 425. This suggests that he was asserting authority over the south or some part of it in 437. If so, he was already middle-aged at the time of his generalship against the Saxons, and he can scarcely have been the Britons' leader at Badon.

William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury's chronicle (1125) ignores Nennius's tale and links Ambrosius, for the first time, to Arthur. Calling him the "lone survivor of the Romans", William says that Ambrosius ruled Britain after Vortigern, and that he drove out the Saxons with the aid of Arthur, apparently Ambrosius's general. The idea of Ambrosius and Arthur as contemporaries does not recur until Thelwall's The Fairy of the Lake (1801).

Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle (c. 1138) developed the most enduring biography of Ambrosius. Geoffrey assigned Nennius's tale of Emrys to a character largely of Geoffrey's own creation - Merlin - and retained Gildas's and William's picture of Ambrosius as a noble Roman warrior. The son of King Constantine, Ambrosius and his brother Uther were forced to flee Britain after their father was assassinated and their older brother, Constans, was foisted to the throne by a power-hungry Vortigern. They found harbor with King Budec of Brittany (Budicius). When they came of age, Ambrosius and Uther led an army to Britain, and Ambrosius was almost immediately anointed as king. He destroyed Vortigern at the siege of Ganerew, and soon defeated and executed Hengist and the Saxons at the battle of Conisbrough. He then defeated and banished Octa, Hengist's son, and set about constructing a new Britain.

He commissioned Merlin to bring the Giant's Dance - a circle of enormous stones - from Ireland to Amesbury. During the expedition, a new threat arose when Pascentius, Vortigern's son, allied with King Gilloman of Ireland. Ambrosius was assassinated when one of their agents, a Saxon named Eopa, visited his court posing as a doctor. He was buried in Amesbury under the Giant's Dance, and his brother Uther became king. Ambrosius was Arthur's uncle.

After Geoffrey's chronicle, Ambrosius disappeared from legend and romance for some time. The authors of the Prose Merlin and the Vulgate Cycle renamed him Pendragon. He resurfaces in the seventeenth century, most notably in The Birth of Merlin (1662), a play attributed apocryphally to Shakespeare, in which his marriage to a Saxon maiden named Artesia jeopardizes the security of his kingdom and causes a rift between Ambrosius and Uther.

A Welsh Triad of uncertain provenance calls Ambrosius a fleet-owner. Conjecturally, he assembled shipping for the movement of Britons to Armorica, which developed from a flight of refugees into a more considered colonization, though not yet on a large scale. Some kind of British fleet existed in 468, when the army of the 'king of the Britons' called Riothamus crossed to the Continent. Fleuriot has argued that this king actually was Ambrosius Aurelianus, 'Riothamus' being a title. He draws attention to Breton place-names with Aurilian in them, and to traces of a tradition locating Ambrosius temporarily in Brittany. But there is no real evidence for Ambrosius's having held the sort of kingship implied, and a supervisory role in the overseas settlement would be enough to account for the facts. In Welsh, the name Ambrosius becomes Emrys, and many Welshmen are still so called.

As to his position in the anti-Saxon campaign, Alcock plausibly pictures him as appointed to supreme command in the service of a high king, one of two or three who apparently reigned in Britain during the fifth century. He may be commemorated by a few place-names, such as Amesbury in Wiltshire, originally Ambres-byrig. In the Late Roman period, military forces were occasionally called after their leaders or nominal leaders. Ambrosius's men might have been the Ambrosiani; their chief's name could have been given to bases they used.