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The Generations of Ambrosius
part 3: Ambrosius Aurelianus

Michael Veprauskas

 

Exactly when Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus, son of Ambrosius the Elder (Aurelius Ambrosius), was born is unknown. There are however, several indicators that allow an educated guess within a decade or two. If, as most sources suggest, he was active in the British counter-offensive of the 460's, he could hardly have been born earlier than 420, and most likely after 430. According to the testimony of Gildas, Ambrosius' parents "had been slain in these same broils",[1] likely placing the death of his father to circa 441-445.[2] If Geoffrey of Monmouth can be trusted to have drawn upon some authentic traditions regarding Aurelius Ambrosius, the comet that appeared at the time of his death[3] was most likely seen in the winter of 442/43.[4] A celestial sign occurring at the time of death of an important notable, is exactly the type of material likely to be preserved by tradition.

I have elsewhere stated that the incident of the "boy without a father", actually alludes to Ambrosius Aurelianus.[5] This individual would be the same as the "Merlin Ambrosius" of the History of the Kings of Britain.[6] He was evidently in his youth at the time, presumably in hiding after the death of his father, and sought out by Vortigern. By this time Vortigern had problems of his own, the Saxon unrest, causing him to fear for his own safety. This would date this incident to the 440's. Adulthood in a Roman sense occurred at age 16, after which the young Ambrosius would hardly have been referred to as a "boy without a father". The available data indicates that his birth likely occurred in the mid to later 430's.

Another task is to determine the likely span of his activities. At the time of Gildas' writing, c. 540, Ambrosius' grandchildren where active. "His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence."[7] In other words, they were adults, probably in positions of power and authority, and had demonstrated their "capabilities" over a sufficient enough period for Gildas to arrive at this conclusion. Positions of leadership would also explain why their activities were sufficiently known to Gildas. Given, typically, 30 years for a generation, and that his grandchildren were no longer youths, Ambrosius Aurelianus could hardly have died before the 470's or 80's and still have passed on the privileges of family name. Such recognition typically involves noteworthy achievements occurring over a significant span of time.

Of course, these estimates do not take into account the likelihood of a "premature" death, given the times! However, the direct testimony of Gildas,[8] the prevalence of Ambrose place names across the breadth of southern Britain,[9] the finality of the eventual victory by the British,[10] and the fact that the subsequent peace spanned generations,[11] are indicators of a long and active life for Ambrosius Aurelianus. To all this, we must add the obvious family name recognition still present in the time of Gildas. Such accomplishments take time and a life of 50+ years (c.435-485) would not be unreasonable. If indeed, he was related to the family of St. Ambrose, a life span of 55-60 years would be common.

In his Greater Chronicle (Chronica Maiora) Bede apparently reached a similar conclusion, placing the activities of Ambrosius Aurelianus during the 17 year reign of the eastern Roman Emperor Zeno (474-491). Due to his misdating of the Adventus, however, the commencement of Ambrosius' activities are recorded 15-20 years later than they should be.

According to Nennius, Ambrosius was found by Vortigern's men in the "field of Aelecti in the district of Glevesing" playing with some friends.[12] This localizes the incident to the area between the Usk and Rumney in Monmouthshire.[13] Interestingly, this places the location of his attempted concealment well removed from Maxima Caesariensis; seat of the recent Saxon revolt and where Vortigern may have attempted to route out followers of Aurelius Ambrosius. It also locates him in an area where the Roman way of life and traditions carried on for a considerable length of time; up to the early 6th century.[14] People there with both influence and a pro-Roman stance were obviously willing to help the Ambrosii. After the young Ambrosius boldly proclaimed his true origin to Vortigern, the latter apparently had a change of heart or feared retaliation, and Ambrosius was not harmed.

Concerning the aftermath of Ambrosius the Elder's death and Vortigern's failed policies Gildas laments:

"In just punishment for the crimes that had gone before, a fire heaped up and nurtured by the hand of the impious easterners spread from sea to sea. It devastated town and country round about, and, once it was alight, it did not die down until it had burned almost the whole surface of the island and was licking the western ocean with its fierce red tongue ...All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams; laid low, too, all the inhabitants - church leaders, priests and people alike ..."[15] 

With the ensuing death of Vortimer and a failed peace conference, Ambrosius became part of the British counter offensive against the Saxons (c.455-60), and soon, one of its leading lights. He exuded an air of dignity and confidence; people followed. This was the man of whom Gildas says:

"Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm".[16]

According to Gildas, the active role of Ambrosius commenced, "after a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home".[17] That is following a period of respite during which the British had time to recover from the shock and devastation caused by Saxon raiding and looting. Home in this context, refers to settlements in the eastern portions of the isle, in Kent, on either side of the Wash, and Norfolk.

In summarizing events that stretched over several decades, Gildas further states:

"From then on the victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in his people the Lord could make trial(as he tends to) of his latter day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus) pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth, as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed."[18]

As shown by John Morris' study of Ambrosii name places, Ambrosius Aurelianus' strategy took the form of defensive strongholds, punitive raiding, and patrolled lines of demarcation between the British and Germanic settlers. It further attempted to isolate the discrete groupings of Germanic settlers, so they could be handled individually.[19] Behind the fixed points of defense, it is very likely that a highly mobile, quick reaction force was established. This force could rapidly shift from one battle front to another as needed. Similar in scope and purpose to the command of the Comes Britannarium of the old Roman Empire, it would of necessity consist of cavalry - and need a young, daring, and ambitious commander - a dux bellorum, to lead it. Concerning Ambrosius' role in events that followed the death of Vortimer, Vortigern's eldest son, William of Malmesbury informs us:

"When he (Vortimer) died the strength of the Britons diminished and all hope left them. They would soon have been altogether destroyed if Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans who became king after Vortigern, had not defeated the presumptuous barbarians with the powerful aid of the warlike Arthur."[20]

This defensive policy proved both successful and enduring, securing a measure of peace and prosperity to the British lowlands and over much of what had been the old Roman province of Maxima Caesariensis. Writing about 475-480, Constantine of Lyon - the biographer of St. Germanus, mentioned that Britain was "prosperous".[21] Success breeds recognition, and in the course of these events, Ambrosius was recognized as High-King over much of southern Britain and the former domain of Vortigern. In the words of Nennius, (Ambrosius) "was the great king among the kings of Britain".[22] William of Malmesbury states he "became king after Vortigern",[23] i.e. High-King. But, there were clearly other kings.

As High-King, his authority probably lay somewhere between that of Vortigern and the later paramount kingship held by Maeglwn of Gwynedd. He seems to have been on amicable terms with the surviving descendants of Vortigern, and it is implicitly stated that he granted Vortigern's third son Pascent "the two provinces Builth and Guorthegirniam" in which to reign.[24] Indicating that Ambrosius' influence stretched from the east coast, probably centered about St. Albans and London, to modern Wales.

During intervals of respite from war with his Saxon neighbors, Ambrosius Aurelianus tended to the needs of his countrymen. Geoffrey records a tradition of the founding of the "cloister of Ambrius":

"... on Mount Ambrius, for it was Ambrius, so they say, who had founded the monastery years before."[25]

The location is modern day Amesbury, which in the ninth century was know as Ambresbyrig, "the burh of Ambrosius". The Ambrosius referred to here may in fact have been the Elder Ambrosius, whom Geoffrey conflates with his son. While the Elder Ambrosius may have laid the foundations of the monastery, Ambrosius Aurelianus certainly continued to support both the establishment and the Christian way of life.

It is in north-west Wales, at Dinas Emrys, that Ambrosius was especially remembered in Welsh folklore as "Embres gueletic".[26] The term implies a landed ruler, or over King. A late Welsh tradition by the fifteenth-century poet, Rhys Goch Eryri, states that his head was buried there after his death.[27] The tradition implies its use as a talisman to ward off the return of raiding Irish. Similar traditions involving Bran, Vortimer, and others indicate that for this form of talisman to work, the individual must have achieved undisputed success in his lifetime. The Elder Ambrosius had helped formulate a plan for the security of this section of Britain in conjunction with the old British provincial council. His son, by uniting the British, continued the successful policy. Apparently, success was total, for the next Irish invasion consisted of Christian missionaries - a fitting tribute to the Ambrosius line.

Descendants of Ambrosius Aurelianus

A very curious feature of Nennius' History Brittonum, and of all prior and subsequent British and Welsh historical records, is what they all lack - a detailed genealogy of the Ambrosii. Vortigern's descent is traced some 12 or more generations by Nennius.[28] In the Historia Brittonum and elsewhere, the kingdoms established by his various sons are recorded for many more. Nennius records many genealogies of the neighboring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and an appendix to the most well preserved manuscript of the Historia Brittonum, the Harleian #3859, contains many more British and Welsh genealogies. Should not Ambrosius, a man who received both a benevolent nod from Gildas and the praise of Nennius have been awarded this basic recognition? Why is there no genealogy of the individual who was instrumental in salvaging the British Celtic nation; one who was both a Christian and a defender of the faith?

In all probability there were multiple factors that contributed to the silence of the geneological record. One possibility, previously mentioned, is that he was an import from the patrician class of the Roman Empire. He had no British ancestral roots for the genealogists to draw upon. Nor could he become an adopted son of Britain, like the earlier Magnus Maximus, due to the specific mention of his being "Roman" by such authorities as Gildas and Nennius.

Another important reason for the lack of geneological data concerning the Ambrosii is that the subsequent generations apparently failed to thrive. In Gildas' eyes, Ambrosius' descendants were somewhat degenerate. It appears that neither his sons nor grandsons achieved any form of High-Kingship in Britain, or accomplished anything of note. At the time of Gildas' writing, Maeglwn of Gwynedd was paramount among the British Kings, not one of Ambrosius' grandchildren. Maeglwn probably acquired this title at the time of his ascent c.520-26. The era between Ambrosius Aurelianus and Maeglwn saw the flowering of a certain "tyrannus", and not a son of Ambrosius. In all likelihood, Ambrosius' heirs merely maintained small kingdoms in the southern and midland parts of Britain. Several of these may have been centered around surviving Roman civitates such as Silchester, Old Sarnum, and St. Albans.

If the scathing criticism of Gildas regarding present day kings and rulers also applies to Ambrosius' descendants, then they were probably in as much competition with each other as the still quiessant "Saxons". Their kingdoms continued beyond the time of Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Brittaniae, some well into the second half of the sixth century. They have left no written record of the achievements and reigns of their princes and kings, nor was the local bardic tradition sufficiently active to preserve their names for posterity.

The other likely source of information regarding Ambrosius' descendants, the church, does not remember them in flattering terms (Gildas). As royal lines failed during the 5th and 6th centuries, it was customary for surviving members to enter the religious life. No record of this exists for the descendants of Ambrosius. Apparently, the latter generations of Ambrosii failed utterly or were very worldly. In all likelihood, had their deeds and reputations been of sufficient magnitude in any context, their generations would have been preserved in the later Welsh heroic tradition.

Part 4: A Brief Chronology

The Generations of Ambrosius part 3: Ambrosius Aurelianus is Copyright 2003, Michael Veprauskas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Michael Veprauskas

Notes

[1] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #25.
[2] This estimate is based on the Gallic Chronicles of 452 and 511, and their corresponding entries for c.441.
[3] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, vii.14-15.
[4] Alfred Anscombe, Notes & Queries, 1928.
[5] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, sections #40-42.
[6] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, vi.19.
[7] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #25.
[8] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #26: Concerning the counter offensive initiated by Ambrosius, Gildas states: "From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of this latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not." This statement implies an extended period of activity (and hence life) for Ambrosius Aurelianus.
[9] John Morris, The Age of Arthur, pp.99-101.
[10] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #26. The battle of Badon Hill is stated to be, "... pretty well the last defeat of the villians, and certainly not the least."
[11] According to Gildas' text, he wrote some 44 years after Badon. During this same period, the peace between the British and the "villians" continued.
[12] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #41.
[13] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, J.A. Giles translation, footnote to section #41.
[14] John Morris, The Age of Arthur, pp.207-208.
[15] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #24.
[16] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #25.
[17] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #25.
[18] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #26.
[19] John Morris, The Age of Arthur, pp.99-101.
[20] William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum, translated by J.A. Giles.
[21] Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #25.
[22] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #48.
[23] William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum, translated by J.A. Giles.
[24] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #48.
[25] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, viii.9.
[26] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #42.
[27] Encyclopedia of the Celts, entry on Ambrosius.
[28] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #49.


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