British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Interesting Events in Early British History

Ambrosius Aurelianus - AD c.438

Ambrosius Aurelianus was the leader of the Britons, whose impact on his time must have been significant, although it is clouded by much uncertainty. We know of him since he is mentioned in four early texts. First, he is mentioned in "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae", a sixth century diatribe against the lazy and apathetic British people and five corrupt British kings, called "contemptible principalities", written by the monk, Gildas. Gildas says that Ambrosius, alone, is worthy of praise among his countrymen for his leadership of the British counteroffensive against the invading Anglo-Saxons. He is credited with standing against the tide of invasion and heartening his countrymen by his own courage.

Gildas refers to him as a "Roman", which could have been a statement of political inclination rather than ethnic origin. He also says that his father "wore the purple", possibly a reference to descent from an emperor, or maybe his father had the rank of senator. Gildas goes on to say that the Saxon advance was halted, altogether, by a stunning British victory at Mt. Badon, believed to have been fought around the year 500, but stops short of naming the commander of the home forces. Subsequent centuries have given that credit to Arthur, but, as Gildas never mentions Arthur at all, it is possible to interpret him as referring to Ambrosius.

Our second reference to Ambrosius comes from The Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk of the monastery of Jarrow, in "A History of the English Church and People." In a statement which seems to support Gildas, Bede calls him "Ambrosius Aurelius, a modest man of Roman origin, who was the sole survivor of the catastrophe in which his royal parents had perished." Bede tells us that "under his leadership the Britons took up arms, challenged their conquerors to battle, and with God's help inflicted a defeat upon them."

Nennius, monk of Bangor, was the early ninth century compiler of the eclectic bunch of material known as the "Historia Brittonum", an interesting document of uncertain historical reliability. Nennius seems to write about two different Ambrosius's. In the first case, he refers to a clearly legendary Ambrosius as being a fatherless child who displayed prophetic powers before Vortigern (this Ambrosius was later transmogrified by Geoffrey of Monmouth into the Merlin of Arthurian notoriety). Nennius also says that Ambrosius was a rival whom Vortigern dreaded, and, in a later passage, calls him "the great king of all the kings of the British nation."

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his imaginative "History of the Kings of Britain", calls him Aurelius Ambrosius, links him with Merlin, and has him as the heir to the throne of Britain. Geoffrey says that when King Constans was murdered by the usurper, Vortigern, Ambrosius and his brother, Uther, were smuggled to Brittany to gain strength to return to campaign against Vortigern. In time, Ambrosius defeated Vortigern, warred successfully against the Saxons and had their leader, Hengist, killed. According to Geoffrey, Vortigern's son, Paschent, eventually had Ambrosius poisoned.

Whether Ambrosius was a king of the Britons, a war leader against the Saxons, a Briton, a Roman, all of the above or none of the above, we don't know for sure. Some have thought that Ambrosius and Arthur are really one and the same, others that he was Arthur's uncle. The truth is probably that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a genuine, heroic, fifth century, Romano-British war leader, some of whose own exploits have been applied to the legend of King Arthur.

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