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Vortigern is associated with an Ambrosius Aurelianus. This personage, said to be a Roman, is the most famous figure in Dark Age British history prior to Arthur. Why? Because he is credited with having united the Britons in a successful defense of the country against the Saxons, who from Vortigerns time had, according to the traditional account, pillaged and conquered at will.
There are three major problems with accepting this Ambrosius as a contemporary of Vortigern. First, he cannot have been a Roman and been in Britain during or after Vortigerns rule. The withdrawal of the Romans is firmly dated at c. 409 A.D. Vortigerns ruling dates, depending on the sources consulted, are anywhere from twenty to forty years after the Roman withdrawal.
Secondly, the Historia Brittonnum tells us that Ambrosius fought a battle against a certain Vitalinus at a Guoloph or Wallop, thought to be the Hampshire Wallop. This Vitalinus is listed in the Historia Brittonum as the grandfather of Vortigern. This means that Ambrosius has wrongly been placed in the time of Vortigern. He actually belongs to the time of Vitalinus, who was probably of the 4th century.
The father of the famous 4th century St. Ambrose bore the name Aurelius Ambrosius. This man was, furthermore, the prefect or governor of Gaul (Gallia). Britain, Spain and Gaul were in the Gallic prefecture. So, we have here a historical figure named Aurelius Ambrosius who not only was a Roman, but who could have had something to do with military operations carried out in Britain in the 4th century.
There is good reason to believe that St. Ambrose himself bore the name Aurelius. To quote from Kevin Coyle, University of Ottawa, via the ELENCHUS mailing list:
"Jones' Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire gives no second name for the bishop of Milan. Nor, so far as I know, does Paulinus of Milan's Vita. Ambrose may have belonged to the gens Aurelia, as we know that he was related to Symmachus [Quintus Aurelius Symmachus]; an inscription in Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres (no. 1800) refers to him as *Aurelius Ambrosius*. It's true that there is a debate over the Ambrose referred to in the inscription. Those who think it's Ambrose junior [St. Ambrose] point out that a dedication to St. Nazarius is involved. The point may be moot: if Ambrose senior belonged to the gens Aurelia, so did the son, and vice versa."
One other factor strongly indicates that there is no good historical reason for accepting a 5th century Aurelius Ambrosius in Britain. Vortigerns only interaction with Ambrosius, or Emrys Guletic (Prince Ambrosius) as he is called in Welsh tradition, is in a folktale localized at Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd.
Other than Dinas Emrys, there appears to be no site in Britain which can be shown to contain the personal name Ambrosius. The association of Ambrosius with Amesbury is incorrect (see below). Of Croft Ambrey, a large hill-fort in Hereford and Worcestershire, place-name experts draw a blank. Ambrey is not recorded in the early sources and no etymology has been offered (information courtesy Paul Cavill of The English Place-Name Society and John Freeman of The Herefordshire Place-Name Society). In any case, excavations at Croft Ambrey show that the fort was not inhabited after c. AD 48 (THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO PREHISTORIC ENGLAND AND WALES). Ambresbury Banks in the Epping Forest of Essex was not called Ambresbury Banks until AD 1670; before this (AD 1299) the fort was "castrum de Eppynghatthe" (information courtesy Chris Chandler, National Monument Record of England).
Ambrosius may even have been placed at Guoloph/Wallop because of the proximity of this stream to Amesbury. As Geoffrey of Monmouth did much later, Ambrosius's name was fancifully associated with Amesbury. The town name does not, in fact, seem to contain the personal name Ambrosius. Its etymology is instead as follows:
Ambresbyrig c AD 880 charter then various spellings to Amblesberie in Domesday. Almost certainly a personal name Ambre or Aembre cognate with the Old German Ambri, hence Ambre's burgh. [Chris Chandler of the RCAHME.]
The Place-Names of Wiltshire (EPNS, 1939) says this of Amesbury (on p. 359):
"It is impossible to go beyond the suggestion . . . that we have to do with a personal name Ambre, ∆mbre [the ∆ is OE aesc] cognate with the recorded OGer [Old German] Ambri. Hence possibly 'Ambre's burh' . . . "
This etymology is accepted by A.D. Mills in his Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford, 1991).
Andrew Deathe, Salisbury Museum, adds the following:
From what I can find it would appear that the earliest manuscript mention is a document from around 1000 AD that is actually a copy of a manuscript from around 880 AD. This gives the name Ambresbyrig. This would point to a person known as ∆mbre or similar as you know. Ekblom suggests Eammer or Eanbeorht as other possibilities to Ambri. All are Saxon names. The idea that Amesbury derives from Ambrosius first occurs in the late Medieval period and, to my mind, is bound up with the Geoffrey of Monmouth story that Stonehenge is a memorial to the Britons who fought the Saxons nearby. Personally I think that it is very unlikely to have any foundation in truth. Medieval writers tended to look for a story to fit the facts when writing history, rather than facts to fit the story!
Paul Cavill, The English Place-Name Society, concludes:
All the early forms for Amesbury have the medial -b-, but no form has any extension that would justify derivation from Ambrosius. The person., if it is one, would seem to be Ambre, cf. Ombersley.
More harm is done to the case for a 5th century Ambrosius/Emrys in Wales when we take a closer look at the Dinas Emrys story.
The Historia Brittonum relates that Emrys is found as a boy at Campus Elleti or, in Welsh, Maes Elleti, in Glywysing, i.e. Glamorgan. This Field of Elleti is believed by Welsh scholars to be in the Ely valley. According to Professor Hywel Wyn Owen of The University of Wales, Bangor,
Ifor Williams (in _Enawau Lleoedd_, 40, Liverpool 1945) suggests that the root of Elei is leg-, meaning "dripping, slow-moving", from which comes Welsh llaith, "damp". Llaith is cognate with English "to leak", and the word "lake".
The initial E- of Elei could be explained by an el- prefix, "much", which would give us a meaning the "very slow-moving" river. Elleti would appear, therefore, to be a form of Elei which displays the terminal of llaith
The ancient Welsh poem _Pa Gur_ tells us of three wizards, one of whom is Mabon, who are styled the "vultures of Elei". This Elei is likely the Ely Valley, the probable location of the Campus Elleti of Ambrosius.
Ambrosius as a Latin adjective means the Divine or Immortal One. As such, it could easily have been confused with Mabon, the Divine Son, known in the Roman period as Apollo Maponus. We have just seen how the Ambrosius found at Campus Elleti in the Ely Valley of Mabon was a boy, like Mabon himself.
Mabon was equated with the ever-youthful god Lleu in Welsh tradition. That this is so is demonstrated by the placement of the two gods in death at the same place. According to the Mabinogion tale Math Son of Mathonwy, Lleu is found as the death-eagle in the oak tree at Nantlle (Nant Lleu) in Snowdonia not far from Dinas Emrys. And one of the Stanzas of the Graves reads:
The grave on Nantlles height,
No one knows its attributes
Mabon son of Modron the Swift.
When Vortigern has Emrys the Divine or Immortal One taken from a valley in which Mabon is found and places him in the Gwynedd of Mabon/Lleu, it seems quite certain that we are not dealing with the historical Gallic governor of the 4th century, but with a god.
I would add that Campus Elleti of Mabon/Emrys is reminiscent of the Irish Bri Leith, the Grey Hill or Hill of Leith son of Celtchar. This is the old Ardagh Hill, now Slieve Golry (Sliabh gCallraighe) near Ardagh, Co. Longford. Until recent times, Ardagh Hill was an important local Lughnasadh (Irish Lugh = Welsh Lleu) station.
In the Irish Etain story, Midir takes Oengus Mac Og, i.e. Oengus the Young Son, the Irish equivalent of Mabon the Divine Son, from Bri Leith as a result of a ball-playing incident, to Uisnech, the center of all Ireland. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stonehenge hard by Amesbury, a place associated with Ambrosius, was erected with stones taken from Mt. Killarus in Ireland , i.e. Killare at Uisnech.
And who is the person who dwells at Uisnech? Echu Ollathir, who is none other than the Dagda, the god who is the real father of Oengus mac Og.
So, the Dinas Emrys or Fort of Ambrosius in NW Wales would appear to be a relocation for Amesbury, supposedly the Fort of Ambrosius on Salisbury Plain, right next to Stonehenge. By saying that Stonehenge was made of the stones of the Irish omphalos at Uisnech, Geoffrey of Monmouth was saying, in effect, that Stonehenge was the sacred center of England.
The 13th century English poem 'Of Arthour and of Merlin', tells us that Vortigern's fruitless attempt to construct his castle takes place not at Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd, but on the plain of Salisbury, i.e. at Stonehenge/Amesbury.
Geoffrey of Monmouth proceeded to further confuse the story of Ambrosius, a Roman governor of Gaul mistakenly identified with a Welsh god, by identifying both with the Northern Myrddin or Merlin. Hence we find Merlin or Merlin Ambrosius in the Dinas Emrys story of Emrys/Lleu/Mabon, this time returned to its location at Amesbury near Stonehenge. In addition, Merlin is placed at the springs of Galabes, Geoffreys attempt at the Guoloph of the commander Ambrosius.
In conclusion, we can only say that there is no good reason for supposing that Vortigern and Ambrosius were contemporaries. Instead, the Ambrosius mentioned by Gildas as having military success in Britian must have been the 4th century Gallic governor of that name.
Ambrosius is Copyright © 2005, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: August Hunt
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