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Dinas Emrys:
Vortigern and Ambrosius

Robert Vermaat

Dinas Emrys, high above Llyn DinasThe hillfort of Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, Gwynedd, has always been connected with Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose praises were sung by Gildas in the sixth century. It is hard to explain where this connection originated. The name of ‘Emrys’ is indeed a Welsh version of the Latin Ambrosius, but that alone fails to identify the original Emrys with the historical Ambrosius. Quite a lot more famous is the legend of Vortigern, the boy Emrys and the White and Red Dragons at Dinas Emrys. How much, if at all, of this legend is actually true? Was Dinas Emrys really named after Ambrosius Aurelianus? Did Vortigern really uncover any Dragons? First, a look at the sources.


This legend, first related through the Historia Brittonum in the early ninth century and therefore quite old, tells us about the futile exploits of the British king Vortigern. This tyrant, as he is described with contempt, was on the run from his enemies (either the Saxons, St Germanus or the sons of the king he murdered) and tried to build a stronghold in the outer regions of the land:

'Nennius', Historia Brittonum, chapter 40

40. But soon after, calling together his twelve wise men, to consult what was to be done, they said to him, "Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom; there build and fortify a city to defend yourself, for the people you have received are treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by stratagem, and, even during your life, to seize upon all the countries subject to your power, how much more will they attempt, after your death!" The king, pleased with this advice, departed with his wise men, and travelled through many parts of his territories, in search of a place convenient for the purpose of building a citadel. Having, to no purpose, travelled far and wide, they came at length to a province called Guenet; and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus, they discovered, on the summit of one of them, a situation, adapted to the construction of a citadel. Upon this, the wise men said to the king, "Build here a city; for, in this place, it will ever be secure against the barbarians." Then the king sent for artificers, carpenters, stone-masons, and collected all the materials requisite to building; but the whole of these disappeared in one night, so that nothing remained of what had been provided for the constructing of the citadel. Materials were, therefore, from all parts, procured a second and third time, and again vanished as before, leaving and rendering every effort ineffectual. Vortigern inquired of his wise men the cause of this opposition to his undertaking, and of so much useless expense of labour? They replied, "You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose."  

et postea rex ad se invitavit magos suos, ut quid faceret ab eis interrogaret. at illi dixere: in extremis fines regni tui vade et arcem munitam invenies, ut tu defendes; quia gens, quam suscepisti in regno tuo, invidet tibi et te per dolum occidet et universas regiones, quas amaras, occupabit cum tua universa gente post mortem tuam. et postea ipse cum magis suis arcem adipisci venit et per multas regiones multasque provincias circumdederunt et illis non invenientibus ad regionem, quae vocatur guined, novissime pervenerunt; et illo lustrante in montibus Hereri tandem in uno montium locum, in quo aptum erat arcem condere, adeptus est. et magi ad illum dixere: arcem in isto loco fac, quia tutissima a barbaris gentibus in aeternum erit. et ipse artifices congregavit, id est lapidicinos, et ligna et lapides congregavit et cum esset congregata omnis materia, in una nocte ablata est materia. et tribus vicibus iussit congregari et nusquam comparuit. et magos arcessivit et illos percunctatus est, quae esset haec causa malitiae et quid hoc evenerit. at illi responderunt: nisi infantem sine patre invenies et occidetur ille et arx a sanguine suo aspergatur, numquam aedificabitur in aeternum.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, book VI, chapter 17
At last he had recourse to magicians for their advice, and commanded them to tell him what course to take. They advised him to build a very strong tower for his own safety, since he had lost all his other fortified places. Accordingly he made a progress about the country, to find out a convenient situation, and came at last to Mount Erir, where he assembled workmen from several countries, and ordered them to build the tower.

This fort or ‘tower’ did not stand, as each night the foundations failed and the structure collapsed. To remedy this, his druids advised Vortigern to seak a boy ‘without a father’ and sacrifise him on the spot. This boy, when found, turned out to be called ‘Emrys’.

'Nennius', Historia Brittonum, chapter 42

42. A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, "Why have your servants brought me hither?" "That you may be put to death," replied the king, "and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it."


et in crastino conuentio facta est, ut puer interficeretur. et puer ad regem dixit: cur uiri tui me ad te detulerunt? cui rex ait: ut interficiaris et sanguis tuus circa arcem istam aspergetur, ut possit aedificari.

"Who," said the boy, "instructed you to do this?" "My wise men," answered the king. "Order them hither," returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: "By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;" then turning to the king, "I will soon," said he, "unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement:" they acknowledging their ignorance, "there is," said he, "a pool; come and dig:" they did so, and found the pool. "Now," continued he, "tell me what is in it;" but they were ashamed, and made no reply. "I," said the boy, "can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;" they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions," What is in the vases?" they were silent: "there is a tent in them," said the boy; "separate them, and you shall find it so;" this being done by the king's command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, "There are," said he, "two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;" they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; "consider attentively," said the boy, "what they are doing." The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king, "I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress."


respondit puer regi: quis tibi monstrauit? et rex: magi mei mihi dixere. et puer dixit: ad me uocentur. et inuitati sunt magi et puer illis dixit: quis reuelauit uobis, ut ista arx a sanguine meo aspergeretur? et nisi aspergeretur a sanguine meo, in aeternum non aedificabitur? sed hoc ut cognoscat is, quis mihi de me palam fecit? iterum puer dixit, modo tibi, o rex, elucubrabo et in ueritate tibi omnia satagam; sed magos tuos percunctor: quid in pauimento istius loci est? placet mihi, ut ostendant tibi, quid sub pauimento habetur. at illi dixere: nescimus. et ille dixit: comperior: stagnum in medio pauimenti est; uenite et fodite et sic inuenietis. uenerunt et foderunt, et ruit. et puer ad magos dixit: proferte mihi, quid est in stagno? et siluerunt et non potuerunt reuelare illi. et ille dixit illis: ego uobis reuelabo; duo uasa sunt et sic inuenietis. uenerunt et uiderunt sic. et puer ad magos dixit: quid in uasis conclusis habetur? at ipsi siluerunt et non potuerunt reuelari illi. at ille asseruit: in medio eorum tentorium est, separate ea et sic inuenietis. et rex separari iussit et sic inuentum est tentorium complicatum, sicut dixerat. et iterum interrogauit magos eius: quid in medio tentorii est? et iam nunc narrate, et non potuerunt scire. at ille reuelauit: duo uermes in eo sunt, unus albus et unus rufus; tentorium expandite. et extenderunt et due uermes dormientes inuenti sunt. et dixit puer: expectate et considerate quid facient uermes; et coeperunt uermes, ut alter alterum expelleret, alius autem scapulas suas ponebat, ut eum usque ad dimidium tentorii expelleret, et sic faciebant tribus uicibus: tamen tandem infirmior uidebatur uermis rufus et postea fortior albo fuit et extra finem tentorii expulit; tunc alter alterum secutus trans stagnum est et in tentorium euanuit. et puer ad magos refert: quid significat mirabile hoc signum, quod factum est in tentorio? et illi proferunt: nescimus. et puer respondit: en reuelatum est mihi hoc mysterium et ego uobis propalabo. regni tui figura tentorium est; duo uermes duo dracones sunt; uermis rufus draco tuus est et stagnum figura huius mundi est. at ille albus draco illius gentis, quae occupauit gentes et regiones plurimas in brittannia, et paene a mari usque ad mare tenebunt, et postea gens nostra surget, et gentem anglorum trans mare uiriliter deiciet. tu tamen de ista arce uade, quia eam aedificare non potes, et multas prouincias circumi, ut arcem tutam inuenias, et ego hic manebo.

"What is your name?" asked the king: "I am called Ambrose (in British Embresguletic)," returned the boy; and in answer to the king's question, "What is your origin?" he replied, "A Roman consul was my father".


et rex adolescentem dixit: quo nomine uocaris? ille respondit: ambrosius uocor, id est, embreis guletic ipse uidebatur. et rex dixit: de qua progenie ortus es? at ille: unus est pater meus de consulibus romanicae gentis.

Then the king assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain; and departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a city which, according to his name, was called Cair Guorthegirn.


et arcem dedit illi cum omnibus regnis occidentalis plagae brittanniae et ipse cum magis suis ad sinistralem plagam peruenit et usque ad regionem, qua uocatur guunnessi, adfuit et urbem ibi, quae uocatur suo nomine cair guorthigirn, aedificauit.

This story contains nothing historical and was either adapted to explain an earlier existing name (that of Emrys), or it travelled to the region together with the name, which stuck there. We have no records which confirm either explanation. It must be said, however, that the story continued to change: Emrys became Merlin, while Ambrosius himself appeared as the (adult) enemy of Vortigern! This tends to make us doubt the legend as an original one, and I think it therefore more likely that the story existed as a Celtic theme and was adapted to fit the characters. But while we may fully discard the story (no druids, no dragons, no Merlin), the characters and the existing name and probably the plot remain to be explained - why did the story exist in this version?Vortigern and the Dragons at Dinas Emrys

To try and make any sense of this story, we must take it apart in its several components; the legend of the dragons and the sorcery, the 'claim' of ownership and finally the name.


First the legend, which in all likelyhood came first. It consists of two elements, the first that of the famous fighting dragons, the second that of the sorcerors that need to spill innocent blood.


This tale is most famous for the strange story of two red and white beasts, which are concealed in this fortress. The origin of this legend is (or is refelected in) the legend of Lludd and Llefelys. These were two brothers, who solved the Plagues of Britain, one of them being a scream raised every May-eve that caused much damage. The reason, as the brothers found out, were two fighting beasts, a red and a white one from a foreign people. Lludd managed to catch them and buried them both in the strongest place in Britain. While hidden there, no plague could touch the land. The name of this fort was Dinas Ffaraon Dandde, but later it was called Dinas Emrys.

The problem with this 'core-legend' is that the oldest version of the manuscript that relates it (Llanstephan MS 1, 1225-50) already postdates Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention the version of the Historia Brittonum that I printed above. This means that, though the elements of the story (such as the dragons) may be much older (as Bartrum believes), the reference to Dinas Emrys may not be original. The beasts are also not explicitly dragons, but also serpents, or even just worms, which makes them allegorical rather than symbolical. When they are disclosed by Vortigern, they resemble in no way the original beasts concealed by Lludd. This story is also reflected in the later Welsh Triads, where it was already connected to Vortigern:

Three Concealments and Three Disclosures of the Island of Britain:
The third: the Dragons which Lludd son of Beli buried in Dinas Emrys in Eryri.

Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain:
The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which Lludd son of Beli concealed;

And they were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed.
And it was Gwrtheyrn the Thin who disclosed the Dragons;

Concluding, we may discard the dragons as original part of this legend.


Another typical and out-of-place element to this story is that of the 'wise-men' or sorcerors involved. The connection of these to Vortigern is out-of-place, for Vortigern, who consults them, has never before been accused of paganism. This is strange because every other vice has been called upon to damn his character. But suddenly, he consults 'his' druids, who immediately suggest a human sacrifice. By the looks of it, this suggests that the element is foreign - either it belongs to a different and much older (pagan Celtic) story, or the whole story belongs to a different age. This part of the legend, whose origins are possibly strongly influenced with Irish material, I have described in more detail in Saints on the move, as a discussion about wandering stories. He we find, for instance, a Foirtgirn involved with a magician and a saint - St Columba in the sixth century! In short, as we can see from similar stories involving kings, sorcerors and saints, these elements were quite common around the Irish sea. We can debate whether we are dealing with just one story, whose elements got involved in other stories, or with independent Celtic or other cultural elements.

One of the oldest must be the story from Exodus, where Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh:

Exodus, chapter 7, 8-13:

8-And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
9-When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.
10-And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
11-Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
12-For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods.
13-And he hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.

This immediately draws the attention to the original name of the fort: Dinas Ffaraon Dandde, the 'fort of the Fiery Pharaoh'. Did this name attract a story where battling sorcerors battled it out with snakes? Or did it attract a connection with Vortigern (see below), who was almost certainly mentioned by Gildas, using this title?

The same judgement can be made regarding all three stories referred to here: all seem equal, but in fact all are different. For instance, as the story of St Columba dates from the sixth century, the Irish person named Foirtgirn involved there may be a totally different one from the Vortigern mentioned by 'Nennius'. Altogether, I sense that the element of the king that consults sorcerers against a victorious innocent (holy man/saint/boy) is as foreign to Dinas Emrys as is Ambrosius Aurelianus, and I opt for the explanation that it was a wandering story that attached itself to the core, already present.


The element that seems most out of place is that of Vortigern passing away the whole or the western parts of Wales to an at best seemingly inexperienced boy, in any case a total stranger, at any rate an enemy, or at worst a demon-begotten sorceror! Even if we would take this tale at face value, it makes no sense: how would Ambrosius ever have acquired the right to the whole of Wales, or even better, where did Vortigern get the right to give it all away?

A battle over Sovereignty

Although this article touches on the elements of the tale, it is mainly concerned with the place, Dinas Emrys, and the reason why this wandering tale came to be attached to it. However, I would like to add a few words about a possible explanation behind the tale itself. Fabio Barbieri has posed a daring and unconventional theory about the elements of this tale, the comparison between the versions of it (Nennius’ Historia Brittonum vs. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae) and the possible meaning of the allegory. Barbieri thinks that the ‘building of the castle’ stands for Vortigern’s attempts to restore Britain’s defence policy. The two dragons can hardly represent Saxons (white) and Welsh (red) because they and their situation seem too modern a concept. Barbieri thinks therefore they represent Vortigern (red) and Ambrosius (white) , both equal in their claim to the sovereignty of Britain. Vortigern, defeated, has to leave Britain in the hands of Ambrosius, although all see and recognise that it was his to give away. But once he handed it over, Vortigern is powerless and flees from refuge to refuge. Barbieri suggests that both Nennius and Geoffrey used an alternative original, Geoffrey blackening Vortigern’s name considerably more than Nennius.

I might add that this equal right of Ambrosius, combined with Gildas’ enigmatic remark of his parents wearing ‘the purple’, might well be seen as at least the glimpse of a contemporary notion that Ambrosius was of royal stock. Purely speculating of course, we might think that his parents were related to Roman Imperial families – the usurper Constantine III comes to mind.

The Hereditary Claim

The next explanation of the legend is of course the hereditary claim. The concluding part of the story is the gift, which must explain the name of the fort, Dinas Emrys. Vortigern, as we're told, is grateful for the advice of the youth, leaves and renders him control of all the western lands! This seems totally out of proportion, therefore it must be researched. One should probably look at the legend as a means of corroborating the claim of a family to the ownership of a piece of land or the right to rule there. In this case, the fact that Vortigern ‘gave’ Dinas Emrys to the boy Emrys should be interpreted as description of a legal gift. Vortigern, somehow, had the rights to Gwynedd. One theory is that all of this was purely legendary: Vortigern, called Pharaoh by Gildas, would have been wrongly associated with Dinas Emrys through its apparent original name: Dinas Ffaraon Dandde (above). A better explanation is that he was related to the usurper Magnus Maximus by marriage (see more on this below), and therefore could give it all away quite legally.

This gift would have given Ambrosius’ descendants the right to rule the area, but at the same time acknowledged the line of Vortigern as the senior partners, i.e. the ’givers’ of the land. In other words: Ambrosius’ family ruled the land, but they had aqcuired that right from the line of Vortigern! This is both revealing and mystifying. On the one hand, nothing seems at odds with such an explanation - the later claim in the Historia Brittonum that Pascent received his kingdom largente Ambrosio (by permission of Ambrosius) is very much like such a claim. That these claims exist means that both dynasties were involved somehow, and lends credence to their historicity. On the other hand, this information about both the region and the seniority cannot be reconciled with what we know of Ambrosius and Gwynedd.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, or rather what sparse detail is known about him from the works of Gildas, can’t be connected to one single region in Britain. The simplest reason for this omission is that his teritory was probably conquered by the English at an early date, so that details of his rule had no chance to enter any genealogy. Mostly though, his name is connected with the southeast, especially Wiltshire, which is the centre (especially Amesbury near Stonehenge) for a group of Ambr-, Embr- or Ambros- placenames. These names mightDinas Emrys, a natural fortressbe connected with a Late Roman or Sub-Roman territory ruled by this family. Apart from a possible name in eastern Wales (Croft Ambrey, an Iron Age hillfort), none of these names occur outside the Midlands and the south, which we would expect if this family had any connections in Wales (below). Another explanation is that his descendants died out at an equally early date. Anyway, apart from ‘Dinas Emrys’, no connection seems to exist with Gwynedd.

Vortigern, on the other hand, is indeed connected with Gwynedd, for example through a group of Gwrtheyrn-names around Tre’r Ceiri on the Lleyn Peninsula. These did originally seem strangely out of place for Vortigern as well , since he too was much more active in the east, the Welsh borders and the south, which makes the story of Dinas Emrys look too far out of place to be taken seriously. But on the other hand, when this story is indeed a reflection of a tradition which would give the Vortigern dynasty the same seniority in Gwynedd as it seems to have had in Powys and Buillt-Gwrtheyrnion, this would explain a lot. Did Vortigern rule or ‘own’ the region as we believe he had rights to central and southern Wales? And did Ambrosius’ family rule southern Snowdonia or even the whole of Gwynedd before the Cuneddan dynasty arrived?

If so, why would the Historia Brittonum, which was both very much in favour of the ‘second Dynasty’ of Mervyn Vrych (which supplanted the Cuneddan line) and anti-Vortigern (whose descendants claimed ‘southern’ Powys) support the seniority of Vortigern in this case? Unfortunately, Ambrosius did not leave descendants, or at least no genealogy is known of him (except maybe for Aurelius Caninus, which does not help us one bit), neither is anything known of a possible connection with Gwynedd.

Politics and Migration

This leads us to the next possible explanation: we can try our own assumptions about how Ambrosius could have received the region ‘through Vortigern’ and how me might have lost it subsequently through a reconstruction of the political background - the Cuneddan Migration:

  • As part of the Cuneddan migration.
    We are told by the Historia Brittonum and the Harleian Genealogies that Cunedda drove the Irish from north Wales, which was the purpose of his migration in the first place. But if Cunedda migrated as early as the late fourth century (the Historia Brittonum gives a date of 146 years before the
    death of Maelgwn Gwynedd which roughly results in the date of 388 AD for the supposed migration), this explanation makes hardly any sense for a context of either Vortigern or Ambrosius. Only when we would explain the ‘sons’ of Cunedda as his commanders or even as later eponymous interpolations would we have any room for an Ambrosius that received the area as part of the Cuneddan migration. Ambrosius, the ‘son’/general of Cunedda? If so, he could no longer be identified with the Ambrosius that fought Vitalinus at Guoloph, and even less with Ambrosius Aurelianus. Other evidence that speaks against such an explanation is the absence of an ‘Emrys’ as the ethymological origin of a subsequent region (as Cunedda’s other ‘sons’ did) or the absence of more placenames in the region (as discussed above).

  • Before the Cuneddan migration.
    Even if we would accept the Cuneddan migration to have taken place during the reign of Vortigern (whether or not he was the instigator) before the middle of the fifth century, this would strengthen the role of Vortigern, but create even less purpose for an Ambrosius, since the time left before the Cuneddan takeover would be very short indeed. As I have described
    elsewhere, the accession of Vortigern is fairly certain to have occurred around 425 AD, and Cunedda’ s migration is dated mostly to the 430s. This would leave some room for a short rule of the line of Ambrosius, but not much. The only explanation that I can think of would be that the families of Vortigern and Ambrosius had a falling out at a later date, after which they clashed in 437 AD on the field of battle at Guoloph (Wallop in Hampshire). It is my interpretation that Vortigern won that battle (since the ill-fated ‘peace-conference’ with the Saxons may have taken place at Amesbury), and maybe as a consequence he gave Gwynedd away to another clan, that of Cunedda.

  • Another region.
    If these explanations seem too frivolous for the reader, I can only think of one other alternative. This is that Cunedda migrated to a different area originally; Ambrosius was presented with part of Gwynedd, possibly only Snowdonia or even less (to account for the lack of Ambros- placenames), and Cunedda received other parts of north Wales. Only later, when the Cuneddan dynasty had conquered all of Gwynedd at the expense of both the Irish settlers and the descendants of Ambrosius, did the genealogists change the paperwork and rub out anyone not of the Cuneddan line. This did happen before, as the example of the 'lost' princes named by both Gildas and the battle of Dyrrham in 577 AD proves. As a result of this ‘brainwashing’, the memory of Ambrosius’ takeover did all but die off, apart from a romantic reflection in a popular story about a magician, a pair of dragons and a tyrannic old man whose reputation was to be further damaged anyway. This last part was enough of a reason for the Historia Brittonum to include it.

This leaves us with the enigma - what did really happen in Gwynedd between Vortigern and Ambrosius? Apart from stating lamely that the legend travelled there from elsewhere, I don't have an answer. We must look elsewhere.


The last element leads us to the ethymological purpose - a name exists; where did it come from? Either the name ‘Emrys’ means nothing more than ‘enclosure’ (according to Allcroft, but which I find extremely unlikely, as it does not exist elsewhere in Wales), or there was indeed an Ambrosius who owned or (re-)built the fort. In that case he was the member of a local family, which might have existed here during the Roman occupation or shortly after, which is clearly indicated by the Latin form of the name. Since we have no information at all, we might infer that this Ambrosius was indeed the same as Gildas’ Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose floruit must be the later decades of the fifth century.

Dux Gewissorum

As we have seen, Vortigern was made a Dux Gewissorum by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In my article about Gwent, I have tried to show that this title might be explained by a reference to either the original name of the group that was later referred to as the West Saxons, or else a reference to a region, probably that of Gwent. Gwent was adjacent to Vortigern’s ancestral lands in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, but this does not mean that he ruled Gwent as well. Geoffrey has made the connection, by making Magnus Maximus the son-in-law of an Octavius of Gwent, but that may have been totally apocryphical, and only meant to explain Geoffrey’s notion of such a connection.

Vortigern had a close association with Magnus Maximus, married as ne was (according to Welsh history) to Maximus' daughter Sevira. We also know of a historical connection between Magnus Maximus and Gwynedd, from where possibly the unit of the Seguntienses came (a unit of Late Roman infantry named after the fort of Segontium, Caernarfon), who fought with him until his defeat by Theodosius in battle near Aquileia (388 AD). Through this marriage, Vortigern would have ‘inherited’ Maximus’ lands in Wales. Or at least, that was the view later. In fact, it may be possible that such a connection between Vortigern and Maximus existed originally only for Gwynedd, and travelled only later to Gwent. Though no genealogical links between Vortigern and Gwynedd exist, this would be easily explained by the Cuneddan migration. However, such a connection could explain the apparently strange incident at Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern suddenly ‘gives’ away not only the fort of Dinas Emrys, but the whole of western Wales.

There are even theories that explain the ‘Regio Guenessi’ (where Vortigern flees to before the wrath of Germanus, according to the Historia Brittonum) was a district in Lleyn rather than the usual ‘Gueneri’ or Ganarew just to the north of Monmouth. In that case the connection would rest solely upon a tradition built upon a wrong interpretation of a single name.

Dinas Emyr

An alternative to this theory, though based on the same principle of mis-interpretation, is the connection between Vortigern and Dinas Emrys as based on a mis-representation of the name of the fortress. As we have seen above, the total lack of any place-names associated with Ambrosius in Wales make it rather difficult to take the connection between Ambrosius Aurelianus and Dinas Emrys seriously.

Though it needs a bit of speculation, I would put forward the suggestion that Dinas ‘Emrys’ was in fact originally called Dinas ‘Emyr’. The names are of such similarity that I believe such a proposal can be allowed. But what or who was this Emyr? The only person with that name can be connected to Gwynedd, and even to Dinas Emrys. Emyr as a noun means ‘emperor’, ‘lord’ or ‘king’. This points to a title of a man of power, but it is not certain how much power. The only person with such a name is Emyr Llydaw. His name is first mentioned by the Stanzas of the Graves in the Black Book of Carmarthen (stanza 38: Emer Llydau, father of Beidawg Rhudd). This reference remains vague, even more so because of loads of later saints that are added to his offspring. Brut y Brenhinedd substitutes Emyr Llydaw for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Breton king Budic, but this seems totally disconnected from the earlier references.

A somewhat clearer picture emerges when we determine the meaning of his epithet ‘Llydaw’. Llydaw was almost always referred to as the regular Welsh name for Brittany or Armorica. The name appears as OW Lettau in the Life of St Cadog, and is also used there for the immigrants to Gaul under Magnus Maximus. The Latin version was Letavia, and inhabitants were called ‘Letavians’ or Lledewig. Maybe this identification is what started the above substitution in Brut y Brenhinedd. However, when we combine Emyr, i.e. the noun ‘king’, etc. with Brittany, we arrive at a descriptive name: Emyr Llydaw, ‘the ruler of Brittany’. This is surely what led the author of Brut y Brenhinedd to his substitution, so is seems allowed to use the same mechanism, but to arrive at a different conclusion. I will get back to this point.

Llydaw: Gwent or Gwynedd?

Back to Llydaw and Gwynedd. The name Llydaw also occurs in Wales, as Llyn Llydaw in Snowdonia, close to Dinas Emrys. It has been suggested that Llydaw in Gwynedd gave its name to Brittany, as did Cornwall to Cornouaille and Devon to Dumnonée. There is even a connection to Gwent, because Llydaw has also been associated with a region in Brycheiniog, supposedly where the gwyr Llydaw (‘men of Llydaw') came from (in the tale of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’). The Life of St Padarn mentions that Caradog Freichfras (son of Ynyr Gwent) extended the borders of his kingdom, which are usually said to have incorporated parts of Gwent, Archenfield and Radnorshire, into Letavia. This would correspond much better with the neighbouring Brycheiniog than with Gwynedd or even Brittany!

Again, we are thrown back on a seemingly unsolvable riddle that seems to connect Vortigern both to Gwent and Gwynedd. Like Vortigern, his father-in-law Magnus Maximus was connected to Gwynedd, but also to Gwent: his (semi-)legendary offspring appears in both areas. So does Vortigern, whose descendants are in Gwent, but not in Gwynedd, which however has many places associated with his name. And when he starts to flee across Wales, the stories have him run from the one to the other. Maybe we ought to conclude that both are correct, or maybe that by the time these stories were first put to paper, both regions had become so entangled that no-one knew which had been the original.

Owain Finddu

The final piece in this equation of Dinas Emrys with Dinas ‘Emyr’ is the equally semi-legendary figure of Owain Finddu. This shadowy character is a knight at Arthur’s court (Owen of the ‘Black Lips’), but he is mentioned earlier as Owen ap Macsen Wledig. In Triad 13 he is one of the ‘Three Chief Officers of Britain’, which might indicate a Roman office? After all, late Roman britain knew the three great military commands of the Dux Britanniarum, the Comes Litus Saxonicum and the Comes Britanniarum, who all commanded large forces. Could this be a throw-back to those times?

His mother is either Ceindrech ferch Rheiden or Elen Luddog (Llydaw), but both times their husband and his father is Macsen Wledig. Now the net seems to close: Macsen Wledig was the emperor Magnus Maximus (AD 383-88), who usurped the throne in Britain, crossed over to the continent, but was later defeated and killed by the emperor Theodosius. He is the legendary ‘founder’ of the British colonies in Brittany, and figured in many Welsh pedigrees. Maximus was closely connected to Gwynedd, for the Roman unit based at Segontium (Caernarfon) accompanied his army to the continent. Using the same logic as Brut y Brenhinedd, could Maguns Maximus not be the ‘ruler of Letavia’ that is behind the name ‘Emyr Llydau’?

After his death, another usurper sprang up, bearing the name Eugenius (W. Owen), which may very well have been the link for the later ‘kinship’ between the legendary figures Owain Finddu and Macsen Wledig. When he was indeed a Late Roman general, he could have held one of the three military commands of the Late Roman forces in Britain, as his predecessor seems to have done. Owain is also very much connected to Gwynedd, as later a legend has him fight to the death battling a giant (Eurnach Gawr) near Beddgelert, the village closest to Dinas Emrys. His grave is said to have been between Dinas Emrys and Llyn Dinas. The circle has closed: both Magnus Maximus and his ‘son’ Owain can be found to have been strongly connected to the area of Dinas Emrys. Could therefore the name originally have been Dinas Emyr, ‘the fort of the emperor of Brittany’ ? I believe it could have been.

Vortigern and Dinas Emrys

If the above is correct, and the name of the fort was corrupted from ‘Dinas Emyr’, how should this explain the story of Vortigern and Ambrosius? Simply by association.

I believe that the name of the fort came first, possibly even as early as the late fourth century, as a result of the involvement of Magnus Maximus with the area. If there was a more personal reason for him that warranted such a name for this hill-fort (like that it was rebuilt by him), it has become lost. Neither would I want to guess at which point the name of Dinas ‘Emyr’ became corrupted to Dinas ‘Emrys’, but I believe it was later rather than sooner (below).

During the following centuries, while the corpus of stories and legend of both Vortigern and Owain grew, they were both (but separately) associated with Magnus Maximus and hence also to Gwynedd. Both names reached this area in that way, but Vortigern (as his son-in-law) probably long before Owain (as his ‘son’). Vortigern, however, had his own set of associates (such as Hengist or Vortimer), one of them being Ambrosius, who was his adversary in history, and his persecutor and successor in later legend.

With all these elements in place, I propose that it was at this point that the fort became named ‘Dinas Emrys’, after the Ambrosius that it in various ways was connected to Vortigern. However, I would not totally exclude the possibility that the corruption went before that, and that the travelling of the legend of Vortigern to Dinas Emrys was already facilitated by the name-change that had come before. By the ninth century however, Vortigern and Ambrosius had become firmly attached to Dinas Emrys. The story did not change much after that, apart from the adding of Merlin and thus the incorporation into Arthurian legend.


Summing up all the elements discussed above:

  • There is a fort called Dinas Emrys, of which we know it was earlier named differently, possibly Dinas Ffaraon or Dinas Ffaraon Dandde.
  • In this fort, Vortigern asks magicians to reveal a secret.
  • This secret is two fighting snakes or dragons.
  • The secret revealed, Vortigern passes the fort and all the territory around it to the best magician, which is (the boy) Ambrosius, hence the name of the fort.

However, all these elements together make for a nice fairy-tale, but offer no logical explanation as to any reality behind the tale, if at all. The elements can be taken apart, however:

  • The 'dragons' at the fort are taken from a much older or at least a different story, that of Lludd ap Beli Mawr, which may have been originally connected to this fort, or travelled to it later when the Welsh world shrunk.
  • The consulting of the magicians is odd for Vortigern, and may thus represent a more common and much older element as well, which we find both in earlier (Bible) and later (St Columba) stories. In both is a connection to Vortigern.
  • An original name may have been ‘Dinas Emyr’, which became corrupted to ‘Dinas Emrys’. This Emyr was Emyr Llydaw, the ‘ruler of Letavia’, a.k.a. Magnus Maximus, who can be historically pinned to Gwynedd. He is connected to the pedigree of Vortigern.
  • The fort seems to have been named after Ambrosius, but none other such names appear in Wales. The name may therefore have been different, and the present one may rest solely on the primarily unrelated connection of Ambrosius to Vortigern.
  • The fort was primarily ‘given’ to Ambrosius to explain the name (since it was not Ambrosius that built it). It could have been 'presented' to him in the first place because Vortigern had 'inherited' the lands of Macsen Wledig, and therefore was the rightful owner. However, I do not believe the statement that the whole of western Wales was given to Ambrosius by Vortigern. That would clash with almost anything we do know about either of them, but especially because of the lack of placenames derived from Ambrosius found in Wales, as discussed above. That could be remedied by inventing another name for Ambrosius (as some modern writers have done), but that would be impossible to prove and therefore serves no purpose.

Concluding the conclusion, we may now accept that the only element of any possible historicity is the presence of Vortigern in the area. We may discount Ambrosius wholly, since his role seems created purely by a corrupted name and his association with Vortigern.


  • Allcroft, A.Hadrian (1908): Earthwork of England, Prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, and Mediaeval, (London).
  • Bartrum, P.C. (1966): Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, (Cardiff).
  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (Cardiff).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, trans.R. Ellis Jones, ed. A.Griscom, (London 1929, repr. 1977).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Laing, Lloyd Robert and Jennifer Laing: A Guide to Dark Age Remains in Britain, (London 1979a).
  • Matthews, John & Michael J. Stead : King Arthur's Britain, (Blandford 1995).

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