Aurelian the Divine
Ambrolius, Ambrose, Ambrosius Aurelius, Aurelius Ambrosius, Aurilambros, Aurlis Brosias, Embres, Emreis, Emrys
Also known as Emrys and historically ‘the Last of the Romans’.
A historical British war-leader, first mentioned by Gildas. Noting that Ambrosius was of Roman descent, Gildas praised him for organizing the Britons and routing the Saxons in the chaotic years following the Roman departure of Britain. His 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 Gildas’s diatribe, and later sources were to have Arthur continue the resistance that Ambrosius began.
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 agrees with Gildas in one passage that Ambrosius was of Roman blood (specifically, the son of a Roman consul). Nennius’s tale om Emrys, however, revolves around the belief of Emrys as a fatherless child.
King Vortigern was informed by his advisors that his fortress of 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.
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’s chronicle, from 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 Ganarew, 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.
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.
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae | Gildas, c. 540
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum | Bede, 731
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Gesta Regum Anglorum | William of Malmesbury, 1125
The Birth of Merlin, or The Childe Hath Found His Father | Attributed to William Shakespeare and William Rowley, 1662
The Fairy of the Lake | John Thelwall, 1801