Ambrosius Aurelianus was,
according to the later legends, the High King of the Britons after Vortigern.
reality of his role is clouded by much uncertainty, his impact on this period in Britain's
history was significant.
The early references
He is mentioned in four early texts, the first and oldest of
which is De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a sixth century diatribe against the
lazy and apathetic British people and five corrupt British kings, called
"contemptible principalities". It was written by the British monk, Gildas, who says that
Ambrosius, alone, is worthy of
praise among his countrymen for his leadership of the British counteroffensive against the
He is credited with standing against the tide of invasion and
heartening his countrymen by his own courage, and he seems to have done much to prevent
the early break-up of Celtic Britain in the face of an overwhelming Teutonic onslaught.
It is possible that he was behind the construction of the Wansdyke
as part of his efforts.
Gildas refers to him as a "Roman", which clearly implies his continuation of
Roman methods of organisation and operation. It also reflects on his family and
background, as he seems to have been brought up in a very typically upper class Romanised
British environment, the son of Ambrosius the Elder and his young wife.
Gildas goes on to say that the Saxon advance was halted by a stunning
British victory at Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon), which is believed to have been fought
around the year 496.
This victory so stunned the Teutons (probably under the overall
leadership of Ælle of the South Saxons
at this time), that an entire generation of peace was bought for the British.
borne out in archaeological evidence which finds a sudden cessation of Saxon advances in
the south until the mid-sixth century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also goes very
quiet at this stage.
Gildas stops short of naming the commander of the home forces at Badon, but subsequent centuries have given that credit to Arthur. This is entirely
possible, as Ambrosius would have been at the height of his powers in the third quarter of the fifth
century, and by 496, a replacement is more than likely, with Arthur fitting the
bill as the then battle leader of the Britons, and perhaps High King.
Our second reference to Ambrosius comes from The Venerable
Bede, an eighth century monk of the monastery of Jarrow, in the well written 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."
That refers to
the Saxon foederati revolt which occurred in the early 440s, and spread terror
throughout southern Britain, persuading much of the aristocracy to emigrate to the more
stable Armorican kingdoms. 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, a monk
living in Bangor, was the early ninth century (supposed) compiler of an eclectic mass of
material called the Historia Brittonum.
This is a fascinating document of
uncertain historical reliability, and was the first serious attempt after Bede to put down
the history of the Britons onto paper. Nennius seems to write about two different
Ambrosius', quite possibly confusing the later High King with his father,
Ambrosius the Elder.
In the first case, Nennius refers to a clearly legendary Ambrosius as being a
fatherless child who displayed prophetic powers before Vortigern (he could well have got
his references confused here as this refers to the life of Myrvin, the later Merlin of
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain).
Nennius also says
that Ambrosius was a rival whom Vortigern dreaded - but this has to refer to
the elder Ambrosius, as this man is described having fought Vortigern at the
battle of Guolloppum (Cat Guolph, Wallop in Hampshire) in around 437 or 438,
when internecine warfare broke out between the two rival factions.