Ambrosius Aurelianus: The Last Roman Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized on January 4, 2012 by thenewbede

Late Roman nobles. An illumination from the 5th century Vergrilius Romanus, possibly published in Britain. The purple cloaks denote their ranks.

Well, let me begin by apologizing to those who may have been coming here expecting some new post and finding nothing (and yes, I realize those viewers are very few). I could say that school projects, a job search, my motherboard getting fried blacker than a junkie’s brain, and the holidays are taking up all of my time, but I’m not going to turn to excuses. I admit it, I’m too lazy, but that does not mean I’m not going to not try. So let’s get started on the right foot. Now, where was I? Oh yes…Ambrosius…

To know and understand Ambrosius is to know and understand Britain during the “Dark Ages” or “Late Antiquity”, or whatever we academics feel is appropriate these days. In truth, the facts of this period are so muddled, conflicting and debatable that many books and academic courses tend to just skip from the end of the Western Roman Empire to the Anglo-Saxon period! Either way, it was the period immediately after the Roman Withdrawal from the island (if one believes they really withdrew), so I’ll refer to it as the Post-Roman period. The period after 570, when the collective Germanic tribes known as the Anglo-Saxons (or proto-English) began to politically, culturally and geographically dominate the majority of the island will be referred to as the Early Saxon period.

The problem with this dating classification is that researchers are still unsure of where the native Romano-Brythonic period ended and the new Saxon period began. Currently there are two schools of thought concerning Post-Roman Period. The first draws from the extremely sparse recorded evidence, which weaves the traditional saga of a land beset by invaders from every direction. To deal with the greatest threat coming from the northern Pict tribes, the British high king invited Jutish mercenaries (labeled “Saxons” by Gildas) to settle in Kent and repel these invaders[1]. After the Picts were pushed back, the Jutish-Saxon leaders demanded more land and tribute, which the British were unable to meet. The ensuing Saxon Revolt led to over a century of warfare, with periods of victory and defeat for both sides, until the major Saxon victory at Deorham in 577[2] extended Saxon dominance to the Severn, giving the proto-English tribes control over all but the northern and westernmost regions of Britain.

While the one side stands behind epic tales of invasion and conquest, the other camp argues that there was no great Saxon invasion at all, only gradual migration and assimilation. These researchers place their theoretical foundations upon the archaeological and physical record, rather than the written sources. Sadly, the situation is compounded by major deviation between both records. According to Britain AD, for example, Francis Pryor demonstrates the lack of change between farmlands dated to the post-Roman period and that of the Germanic period, suggesting little to no change in agricultural practices from the end of the Roman period onwards.[3] The lack of mass graves and identifiable Romano-British artifacts at such sites likewise argues against “ethnic cleansing” in these areas.[4] As a result, many researchers such as Pryor and Thomas Green view the “Saxon Advent” as a Germanic acculturation or “germanization” that had begun centuries before the Roman withdrawal and led to the creation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the late 6th to the 11th centuries.

That is not to say, however, that no Germanic settlement occurred, nor was there a lack of conflict. Evidence suggests a significant level of settlement in Lincoln and southeastern Yorkshire[5], a region mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum as the location of several battles between “Briton” and “Saxon” war bands. While 5th and 6th century Romano-British artifacts are scarce and wanting, ample evidence of Proto-English weaponry, pottery, jewelry, and other cultural symbols exists. British hill forts, most of which were dismantled and abandoned during the Roman occupation, underwent massive renovation and refortification from Northern Wales to Cornwall during this period[6]; though against whom these fortifications were rebuilt against remains unclear. What all this suggests is that while the traditional view of a massive German invasion may prove false, this was a time when regional and civil conflict coincided with a Roman to German paradigm shift. It is possible that Gildas, our primary written source from the period and region, viewed civil and local conflicts between pro-Brythonic and pro Germanic parties of largely British populations as a war between British natives and “pagan” Saxon invaders; which he claims was followed by turmoil between local “tyrants”. Into this historically pliable period arise the names of semi-legendary heroes: Germanus, Hengist, Horsa, Vortigern, Vortimer, Otcha, Cerdic, Arthur, and Ambrosius.

Of all the names mentioned above, only Ambrosius, Germanus (and possibly Vortigern) can be historically validated. Ambrosius is named in Gildas’ De Excidio Britannaie (c.535), Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum (c.730), The Historia Brittonum (c. 825), and he is woven into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historic Historia Regnum Britannaie (c. 1125). Gildas, the only source existing from within living memory of Ambrosius and the Post-Roman period, described him as “a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive.”[7] According to both Gildas and Bede, Ambrosius took charge in the turmoil that engulfed the island, leading the Britons against “the enemy” in conflicts “till the year of the siege of Badon-hill, when they made no small slaughter of those enemies”[8]. Ambrosius, however, was never specifically mentioned as the leader of the Britons at this victory; and from the 9th century onwards, the credit became ascribed to Arthur, establishing the bedrock of the eventual Arthurian romance. The legacy of Ambrosius and the pseudo-historical beginnings of the Arthur myth, then, are intertwined. Some researchers, namely Frank Reno, suggest that Ambrosius and Arthur was the same person, or that Arthur was a mythical composite figure based on the career of Ambrosius and others.[9]

While researchers (with a few exceptions, namely August Hunt[10]) acknowledge that Ambrosius existed, a contemporary record of his life, origins, or even his ultimate fate, does not. The Historia Brittonum offered Ambrosius’ beginnings, here called Embrys, as a fatherless child who prophesied a British victory over the Saxons for the king Vortigern.[11]  Both the various rescensions of the HB and Geoffrey of Monmouth claim that Ambrosius became the “king above all kings”[12] or high king after Vortigern, Monmouth provides his end by having him poisoned by a Saxon enemy.[13] The only reliable source of the elements of Ambrosius’ biography comes from Gildas, who states that Ambrosius’ parents “for their merit were adorned with the purple”, who had “kind been slain in these same broils”.[14] While his end remains unsure, Gildas assures that “his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain victory”[15]. The “purple” that his parents wore “for their merit” denotes a consular or senatorial ranking, and the name Aurelianus suggests they were members of the Aurelii, a Roman gens that included several emperors and high ranking imperial officials. Despite a lack of exact details, we can be sure that Ambrosius was born to a family who either by hereditary or personal achievement held some form of position in the Roman government either during or immediately after the Roman withdrawal from the island. He became a leader amongst the Britons against “the enemy”, whose exact nature and identity are still unclear, and he had descendants who continued to rule in Britain after him. Though Gildas was by no means an unbiased chronicler, of the leaders his jeremiad names, Ambrosius was the only one the author described in a favorable light, suggesting his leadership was admired by at least some of the Britons, including those within the Celtic clergy.

Despite the obvious importance of Ambrosius’ life and career within the context of Late Roman and British history, the immensity of the enigma surrounding the life of this figure is surpassed only by the lack of research or publication of any study on the man. Aside from a few books dealing with European and British history immediately after the Roman collapse, Ambrosius’ name only appears in publications concerning the historical validity of King Arthur. Is it possible to separate Ambrosius from the Arthur myth in order to shed light on both the man and the Post Roman world in which he lived, or is he forever connected to the medieval legend which he may have helped to inspire, or perhaps even directly inspired?

While the Arthur figure will eventually figure into these posts, for the time being I shall devote whatever knowledge, either as artifact or written word, primary or secondary resource, that may help to finally illuminate a life that has been shadowed by history. I have no exactly how long this study will take, nor can I promise a consistent posting schedule, but it WILL happen. I don’t know if anyone will bother to read this, but if you do choose to follow, it should prove as entertaining as it is informative. I’m going on the search for long lost kings and queens of Dark Age Britain. How can you not have fun doing that?

The diocese of Britain, before the Roman withdrawal. The Historia Brittonum refers to the area around Lindum (Lincoln) as "Linnuis".

[1] Gildas, De Excidio Britannaie, pg. 30

[2] Anglo Saxon Chronicle

[3] Pryor, Francis, Britannia A.D., pg. 242

[5] Historia Brittonum, pg. 79

[6] PRN 54554, “Cadbury Castle-Post Roman Settlement, South Cadbury”,  14 May 2003

[7] Gildas, pg. 33

[8] The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum,  

[9] Reno, Frank D., The Historic King Arthur, pg. 339;  “O, Ambrosius, Ambrosius, Wherefore Art Thou Arthur?”

[11] Historia Brittonum, pg. 28

[12] ibid., pg. 168

[13] Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regnum Brittaniae,  pg. 264

[14] Gildas, pg. 33

[15] ibid.


And Now, Your Starting Lineup…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 17, 2011 by thenewbede
As I said in the last post, history and the past are two separate things.
So many men and women ruled separate parts of the British Isles that it's
impossible to chronicle them all. I will attempt, however, to focus on the
lesser known rulers of Britain (i.e. England, Wales and Scotland) between
the period of Late Antiquity (that's the "Dark Ages" for you laymen)and the
High Middle Ages, roughly 410-c.1300.
The kings and periods I have chosen to highlight are not only rather 
unfamiliar to generally known history, but are also kings that authentic 
historical importance, but who also lived in misunderstood or lesser known
periods. I can assure you, however, that each offers a unique and 
entertaining story.
So, without further ado, here are the five British rulers this blog will
focus on:

1. Ambrosius Aurelianus
-With the end of Roman rule in Britain, the island’s 
Romano-British population centers came under threat from Irish and Pictish 
raiders, from Germanic settlers, and from conniving rulers from within. 
When these outside forces and tyrants such as Vortigern led the Britons to 
call out to dying Rome for help, only one answered--Ambrosius Aurelianus, 
the surviving son of a late Roman consul. It was under Ambrosius’ 
leadership that a British counterattack ultimately lead to a temporary 
check in Anglo Saxon expansion and settlement, and paved a way for the 
basis of the “Heroic” or “Arthurian” Age in Britain. Recent archaeological 
findings across Britain also paint a much different picture of the island 
in Late Antiquity: The Britain of Ambrosius’ time was not one of total 
darkness and roaming barbarian warbands, but a thriving culture and society 
keeping the light on as the rest of the world grew dark.

-Faustus--Gallic Chronicle
-Gildas--De Excidio Britanniae
-Venerable Bede--Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum
-Nennius--Historia Brittonum
-Hoxne Hoard
-Notitia Dignitatum
-letters of Sidonius Apolinarius
-Jordanes’ Gothic History
-Geoffrey of Monmouth--Historia Regnum Britanniae

2.  Arthur-The myth of Britain’s Once and Future King is one of the most 
endearing aspects of British culture and identity. Given King Arthur’s 
magnitude, historians since the 12th century have tried to reconcile the 
royal myth with historical fact. The truth, however, is that the familiar 
tradition has almost nothing to do with authentic truth. That is not to 
say, however, that the Arthur figure has no factual basis. With studies 
into the Old Welsh legends stretching from the 7th to the 14th centuries, 
the chivalric monarch Geoffrey of Monmouth created gives way to the myth 
of the war leader and soldier, a hero whose very name was synonymous with 
battle and bloodshed. 
With that layer peeled back, the use of primary sources and modern analyses 
of the texts to get past the classic medieval pageantry, a valid contender 
for the historical leader at the battle of Badon emerges from the legacy of 
Ambrosius. This is the shadowy figure that may be labeled, if only for a 
lack of a real name, as Arthur.

-Faustus--Gallic Chronicle
-Gildas--De Excidio Britanniae
-Venerable Bede--Chronica Majora and Historia E
-David Dumville--The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal Lists
-P.C. Bartrum-Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts
-Nennius--Historia Brittonum
-Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
-Geoffrey Ashe--Quest for Arthur’s Britain/Discovery of King Arthur
-Hoxne HoardàAurelius Ursicinus
-Procopius--History of the Wars (The Vandal Wars)
-Notitia Dignitatum
-Geoffrey of Monmouth--Historia Regnum Britanniae
-Mike Ashley--The Mammoth Book of King Arthur
-Anierin--Y Gododdin
-Elegy of Geraint
-Culhwch ac Olwen
-Dream of Rhonabwy
-Pa Gur Porthaur?
-Mawrnad Cynddylan

3. Athelstan-The first true King of Britain, with a dominion stretching 
from Scotland to the Welsh coast and the English Channel, Athelstan 
built upon his grandfather Alfred’s success in uniting the English people 
by bringing the Norsemen of Northumbria, the Scots, and the Welsh under 
his authority…yet he hardly has a mention in modern textbooks! Why does 
this great warrior, unifying statesman and  patron of the church tend to 
remain hidden in the historical shadows between Alfred the Great and 
Ethelred the Unready?

-William of Malmesbury--On the Deeds of the English Kings
 -The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle--The Battle of Brunanburh
-The Annals of Ulster
-Michael Wood--In Search of the Dark Ages
-Snorri Sturluson- Egil’s Saga
-Paul Hill--The Age of Athelstan
-Mike Ashley--The Mammoth Book of King Arthur

4. Eric Bloodaxe-With such a memorable moniker, it is surprising that 
Eric Haraldson is not one of the better known Vikings, let alone rulers 
in Dark Age England. If a saga of his life was composed, it does not 
survive today, but a tentative biography can be pieced together from 
separate sources. From them emerges the saga of a warrior whose exploits 
stretched from Norway to Spain, and who for short time had separate reigns 
as king of Norway, the Hebrides, and as the last Norse king of an 
independent Northumbria. 

-William of Malmesbury
-Roger of Wendover--Flowers of Histories
-The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
-Life of St. Oswald
-John of Wallingford--Chronicle
-Egil Skalagrimsson--Egil’s Saga
-Liber Vitae
-Michael Wood--In search of the Dark Ages
-Snorri Sturluson--Heimskringla

5. Edgar the Atheling-The death of the childless Edward the Confessor 
and subsequent Norman victory in 1066 made Harold Godwinson the last 
Saxon king of England, right? According to the sources, England’s 
surviving Saxon nobility met in London, and there declared Edgar, a 
distant cousin of Edward the Confessor, as the new king.  Before 
William the Conqueror’s arrival and coronation, Edgar escaped abroad. 
In the coming years he would become head of a Saxon resistance, guerilla 
fighter, and even possibly a crusader,  acting as a constant reminder to 
the new Norman ruling class that their conquest of England was not 

-Anglo Saxon Chronicle
-Orderic Vitalis--The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis
-William of Malmesbury--A History of the Norman Kings
-The Domesday Book

6. The Dauphin Louis/Louis VIII: Louis I of England? -- Despite the 
lingering feelings some might harbor, most Englishmen have come to more or 
less accept England’s conquest by the Norman French in the fateful year 
1066, and they acknowledge with pride what that conquest did to pave the 
way for the eventual British empire. What most know, however, is that a 
second French occurred and was almost successful. During the devastating 
last years of King John’s cruel lands, the English barons invited a French 
prince to take the thrown they accused John as having forfeited through his 
actions. In the two years before Henry III succeeded his father, many 
members of the Anglo-Norman nobility invited the Dauphin Louis (later Louis 
VIII of France) to London to pay him homage and fight against John’s 
Flemish mercenaries. 

-Matthew Paris--Chronica Majora, II
-Ralph of Coggeshall--Chronicon Anglicanum
-David Carpenter--Struggle for Mastery
-Warren Lewis--King John
-Frank McLynn--Richard and John: Kings at War

I will focus on each individually, but of course there will be some overlap
(such as with Ambrosius and Arthur, as well as Eric and Athelstan). The
list of sources posted under each reflects my general collection at the 
moment,and I do intend to expand these lists when necessary, with as 
many primary straight from the horse's mouth sources as I can.
I invite any and all readers to comment and critique what I post here. 
If you have more relevant information, don't hesitate to share it.
Also, feel free to send me the names of any kings or queens you think 
should be included, and I'll decide if they should appear here or not.
Well, my body, soul and mind are now equally exhausted. Until next time!
-The New Bede

Long Live the Kings

Posted in Uncategorized on September 15, 2011 by thenewbede

England's Darling and Conqueror: Aelfred (Alfred) and Guillame (William), who both set the standards for kingship in England

The many Williams, Henrys, Richards and Edwards populate our memory 
of British Medieval and pre-modern history. Heroes such as Alfred 
the Great, Edward III, and Henry V offered the paradigm of leadership 
in various guises; while weak kings such as Ethelred the Unready and 
Stephen, as well as the tyrants William II and John, stand forever as 
stains on the royal legacy. Then there are those like Richard the 
Lionheart and his descendant Richard III, whose exploits are 
interpreted in either positive or negative lights, depending on the 
current perspective of researchers. Finally, there is Britain’s mythic 
hero king, Arthur, whose life and deeds some researchers still attempt
to fit, usually in vain, into historical context. Even kings whose 
largely uneventful reigns came and went are remembered in the plays 
of Shakespeare and other forms of media.

But what of the monarchs in between these? What of the kings whose 
written sources and coinage prove they existed, but rarely, if ever, 
earn them a mention in modern text books? More importantly, WHY are they 
not remembered? Thankfully, certain sources, some well-known and others 
obscure, shed light on the influence these rulers had in their own time, 
and the legacies that may or may not survive today. Some of these leaders
set a new paradigm for kingship, while others shed light on the “official”
 histories of their predecessors and successors.

By studying those rulers whose lives were not portrayed through some form 
or another in general history and royal pageantry, a clearer history of 
Britain’s past emerges. This is a past that involves not just warrior kings, 
but the lives of those they lived alongside.

What emerges from careful study will surprise a good deal of people: Harold 
Godwinson was not the last Saxon king of England, Alfred the Great's 
grandson achieved more than any king before him, and there was a second 
French invasion! All that, and a few "better known" rulers as well, such as 
timeless old Arthur (who was not English, possibly not even a king!) 

This post has actually taken me the majority of the day to write, due to a 
mix of sloth, other priorities, and my own uncertainty. I've started other 
blogs that have floundered and died, again for various reasons. I have to 
ask myself why I’m doing this, what am I and, since this is meant to be 
public, the rest of the world, supposed to get out of it? 

There’s a love for the mystery of Dark Age and Medieval history, of which 
I hope I am not the one who suffers. I also think, however, that it can go 
beyond that. History and the past are not necessarily the same thing. 
History is written not necessarily by the victors, but by those with the 
power, which can either be the few ruling select, the limitations set by 
society, or the general public itself. As a result, men and events, no 
matter how great or small, tend to disappear. In a way, I get a chance 
that few men,even other historians, get to do: I bring the dead, whole 
worlds even, back to life.There is pleasure in that, speaking for the dead,
as they cannot speak for themselves. Hopefully this will appeal to one and 
all; and if it does not, it will be all the sweeter for those with a 
passion for long gone eras of heroism.

The peaceful looking effigy atop king Athelstan's tomb at Malmesbury. During the 10th century, Athelstan became the true ruler of a united England, indeed a united Britain; but good luck finding his name in a text book!