Generations of Ambrosius
Michael Veprauskas takes a look at 'Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus'
Exactly when Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus, son of Ambrosius the Elder (Aurelius Ambrosius), was born is unknown. There are however, clues that will enable us to make an educated guess within a decade or so. If, as most sources indicate, he was active in the British counter-offensive in the 60'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 dating the likely death of Aurelius Ambrosius to circa 441-445. 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 death2 was most likely seen in the winter of 442/43.3 A celestial sign occurring at the time of death of an important notable, is exactly the type of material the old chronologers would have recorded and/or passed on as folk legend. Another clue is that at the time of Gildas' writing, c. 540-545, Ambrosius' grandchildren where active "His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence."4 In other words, they were adults and probably in positions of power and authority. This would explain why their activities were brought to Gildas' attention. Given, at most, 30 years for a generation, Ambrosius Aurelianus could hardly have passed on before the 470's or 80's. If he was indeed related to the family of St. Ambrose, a life span of 55-60 years would be common. This of course does not take into account the dangers of a "premature" death, given the times! I have stated elsewhere my belief that the incident of the "boy without a father",5 actually alludes to Ambrosius Aurelianus. This individual would be the same as the "Merlin Ambrosius"6 of the History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was evidently in his youth at the time, presumably in hiding after the death of his father, and sought out by Vortigern. Vortigern by this time had problems of his own due to the Saxon unrest, and had cause to fear for his own safety. These facts would tend to date the incident c.443-45 and thus put Ambrosius' birth c.433-38. (Adulthood in a Roman sense occurred at age 16.) This date fits quite well with all the above listed "clues", and would give a probable life span of 50+ years.
According to Nennius, Ambrosius was found by Vortigern's men in the "field of Aelecti in the district of Glevesing"7 playing with some friends. This localizes the incident to the area between the Usk and Rumney in Monmouthshire.8 Interestingly, this would place the area of attempted concealment of Ambrosius well removed from old Maxima Caesariensis, where the new Saxon troubles where brewing and where Vortigern may have tried to route out followers of Aurelius Ambrosius. But, 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.9 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 ..."10
About 455-60, Ambrosius became part of the British counter offensive against the Saxons, 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".11
According to Gildas, the active role of Ambrosius took place "after a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home",12 that is during a period of respite when the British had a spell to recover from the devastation caused by Saxon raiding and looting. Home in this context, refers to their 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."13
As shown by John Morris' study of Ambrosii name places,14 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. 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 says:
"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."15
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. Success breeds recognition, and in the course of these events, Ambrosius was recognized as High-King over much of the old domain of Vortigern. In the words of Nennius, (Ambrosius) "was the great king among the kings of Britain".16 William of Malmesbury states he "became king after Vortigern",17 i.e. High-King. But, there were clearly other kings.
Ambrosius' High-Kingship role was probably somewhere between that of Vortigern and the later paramount kingship held by Maelgwn 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"18 in which to reign. This clearly shows that Ambrosius' influence spanned from the east coast, centered about London, to Wales. In the periods 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."19
The location is modern day Amesbury, which in the ninth century was know as Ambresbyrig, "the burh of Ambrosius". The Ambrius referred to was most likely the Elder Ambrosius (whom Geoffrey conflates with his son), who laid the foundations of the monastery. Ambrosius' continued interest alludes to ongoing support for the establishment and the Christian way of life.
It was in north-west Wales, at Dinas Emrys, that Ambrosius was especially remembered in Welsh folklore as "Embres gueletic".20 This term implies a landed ruler, or over King. A late Welsh tradition by the fifteenth-century poet, Rhys Goch Eryri, states that after his death his head was buried there.21 This was presumably a talisman to ward off the return of raiding Irish through Ambrosius' blood connection with his father. The Elder Ambrosius had helped formulate plans for the security of this section of Wales in conjunction with the old British provincial council. Apparently, it was a total success, for the next Irish invasion consisted of Christian missionaries - a fitting tribute to the Ambrosius line.
|© Michael Veprauskas 2001. All Rights Reserved.|