Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Dinas Emrys

“Ambrosius Fort,” “Fort of Ambrosius”
Dinas Emreis, Eryri

Dinas Emrys is the Welsh name for a hill fort on the southern fringe of Snowdownia, in Nant Gwynant, two miles north-east of Beddgelert, Gwynedd. This wooded hill can be found just below Llyn Dinas.

Historically, Dinas Emrys was an ancient hillfort that dates back to the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, built around 1000 BC. The hillfort consists of defensive walls and structures, typical of such settlements during that period. Archaeologal evidence suggests that the site was inhabited for many centuries, possibly up until the Roman occupation of Britain.

However, the site is best known for its connections to Welsh mythology and the legends of Merlin.

Vortigern, a fifth-century warlord and ruler of parts of Britain, wanted to build a fortress on the hill of Dinas Emrys but faced difficulties as the walls kept collapsing. In desperation, he sought advice from his advisors, who suggested that in order to stabilize the site, he needed to find and sacrifice a boy with no natural father and sprinkle his blood on the ground. Ambrosius was considered ideal, for he was supposed to have been born without a father, the offspring of an incubus. Nennius calls the child Ambrosius – the Ambrosius in question is Ambrosius Aurelianus, known in Welsh as Emrys gwledig (gwledig ‘prince’ or ‘land-holder’). However, Ambrosius managed to prevent his own execution by the claim that a subterranean pool containing dragons under the tower were the cause of the problem. Draining the lake revealed a red and white dragon, whose subsequent battle portended Vortigern’s eventual defeat. Vortigern gave the castle to Ambrosius and fled to the north.

This is the original Welsh view of the lad’s identity. Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, makes him out to have been the young Merlin, explaining away “Ambrosius” as an alternative name. Here Merlin tells Vortigern that the white dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the red dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern. A later legend follows Geoffrey, asserting that before Merlin left the neighborhood he hid a golden, treasure-filled cauldron, which will be found only by the person for whom it is intended. The Welsh called the mountain Eryri, and legends of Merlin’s treasure, buried deep within the mountain, survive to this day. Archaeology has shown occupation of Dinas Emrys in the fifth century, including a household that actually did contain a pool. Merlin subsequently dealt with the red and the white dragons and built his own fortress on the hill-top.

As to how the dragons became confined there, the story of Llud and Llefelys in the Mabinogion gives details. When Llud ruled Britain, a scream, whose origin could not be determined, was heard each May Eve. Llefelys, King of France, furnished the information that it was caused by battling dragons. The scream would be uttered by the dragon of the British nation when it was about to be defeated. The dragons were captured and buried at Dinas Emrys.

There are still some earthworks of the ancient fort to be seen on this site, which has its main entrance on the northern side of the hill. Traces of a ruined tower some 36 feet by 24 feet have been found on the summit. There was a Roman building, and nearby there actually was a pool. During the second half of the fifth century, a platform of ground above a swampy hollow was built on and occupied by a prosperous household, seemingly Christian. Presumably, at some unknown stage in legend-weaving, the chief occupant was said to have been Ambrosius. This localization of the name and story may have been due to a prior association with Vortigern, the other main character. A tradition recorded in the seventeenth century tells of a combat in the valley below between a giant and a warrior, Owein, who was a son of the Roman emperor Maximus. Since Vortigern supposedly married one of this emperor’s daughters, Owein – who figures in a Triad – would have been his brother-in-law. A lost dynastic saga, only a fragment of it preserved by Nennius, may have brought King Arthur himself to these parts.

Nearby lies a circle of tumbled stones roughly 30 feet in diameter, which is said to be a mystic ring in which the battling dragons were contained. At one time the fort was known as Dinas Fforan – “the Fort with High Powers.” Merlin’s treasure is apparently hidden in a cave at Dinas Emrys, having being placed in a golden vessel in the cave, along with his golden chair. Merlin then rolled a huge stone over the entrance of the cave and covered it with earth and grass. Tradition state that the discoverer of the treasure will be “golden-haired and blue-eyed.” When that person comes near to Dinas Emrys, a bell will be heard, inviting him, or her, into the cave, which will open of its own accord the instant that person’s foot touches the stone covering the entrance.

A youth living near Beddgelert once searched for the treasure, obviously wanting to give himself a head start in life. Taking a pickaxe with him, he climbed to the top of the hill and started to dig on the site of the tower. A soon as he did, unearthly noises began to rumble beneath his feet and the whole of Dinas Emrys began to rock like a cradle. The sun clouded over and day became as night. Thunder roared over his head and lightning flashed all around him. Dropping his pickaxe, he ran for home, and, when he arrived, everything was calm, but he never returned to retrieve his pickaxe.

Not far from Dinas Emrys is Cell-y-Dewiniad – “The Grove of the Magicians.” There was once a grove of oak trees at the northern end of a field here under which Vortigern’s counsellors were said to meet to discuss the events of their times. They were buried in an adjacent field, at one time each grave being marked by a stone, a white thorn tree annually decorating each with falling white blossoms.

Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138