British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 3: Aurelius Ursicinus at Hoxne

Fabio P. Barbieri


On the River Waveney, not far from the Roman road from Caistor (Norwich) to London, lies the ancient village of Hoxne, which has long been known for a legend of a Christian king fleeing the Pagans in vain, betrayed by the glitter of his gold, captured and martyred.  The story goes that on the road from Hoxne to Cross Street - a neighbouring village bearing the traces of both Roman civilization and Christianity in its two names, although it lies some way off the main via strata - King Edmund of East Anglia hid from the Danes under a bridge after a great defeat.  A newly married couple detected the glimmer of his gold spurs in the water and gave the alarm, and the king was captured and murdered.  He cursed the bridge, and from then on it was forbidden for newly-married couples to cross it on their way to church.  The bridge was called the Goldbridge from then on, and the king's golden armour was said to shine in the water from time to time[1].

Hoxne was not a part of the earliest stratum of the legend of St.Edmund.  Its first redaction by Aelfric (about 955-1020) located the king’s last battle and death at Haegelisdun.   Wherever this place might be – in modern English it might give something like Hailston - Haegelisdun cannot possibly be identified with Hoxne, whose name is ancient - first registered in the Domesday Book, that is a few decades after Aelfric - and confusing to philologists[2].  Aelfric's account of King Edmund is held to be a hodge-podge of hagiological commonplaces, but such an item as where he died is likely enough to be historical, since it would be so easily transmitted by means of single annalistic entries.  In fact, there is no reason not to think that Hoxne became attached to the cult of St.Edmund exactly because of the legend of the Christian king betrayed to the pursuing pagans by the glitter of his gold.

In 1992, Hoxne suddenly became famous for the most spectacular Roman treasure hoard ever found in Britain: almost 15,000 coins (of which no less than 565 were gold solidi) and hundreds of the most amazing, exquisite precious objects, many for personal and daily use - spoons, a pepperpot, ear cleaners - but of silver and gold.  Even the padlocks of some of the smaller boxes in which the treasure was stored were of silver (it was buried ready packed in handsome wooden boxes with metal fittings, which suggests either that it had been packaged ready to be moved, or that it was already being carried away when an emergency forced the fleeing party to bury it).  The coins are dated up to 408, but that could date the treasure to any time after that.  It cannot however be dated to any time after the first Saxon revolt, which placed East Anglia in a Saxon grip that seems never to have been broken even by the most powerful British kings; and, as we have seen, I am certain that that revolt is dated correctly to 441-442.  Until then, such evidence as we have makes Britain particularly prosperous, and certainly this astonishing treasure does nothing to contradict the notices of E in Gildas and of Constantius.

It amounts to this: that at some point between 408 and 442, someone accumulated this treasure - or rather, the treasure of which this was surely only a part - in what is now East Anglia; that at some point, he or they buried it; and that they never were able to come back to claim it - which, given its enormity, was only conceivable if he or they were dead or permanently exiled, with absolutely nobody - not a retainer, not a henchman, not a surviving relative or local friend - to come back to look for it.  The treasure is not only enormous, but personal: many of its items were marked with such names as Faustinus, Iuliana, Peregrinus, and Siluicola; and there were objects of art and beauty that nobody who had taken the trouble of commissioning them would ever care to lose.  Even the spoons were glorious little things, deliciously shaped and delicately decorated, that glimmer and shine from photographs.  This strongly argues that the disaster against which the owners tried to provide by burying their treasure - and which prevented them from recovering them - was the Saxon revolt.  Previous pirate raids were not likely to effect such a complete separation between owners and treasures, such total impossibility to reach them.

This is visibly different from other British Roman hoards, not only in being the greatest, but also in another respect: it is by far the "finest and most conclusive of all putative Christian treasures... All twenty-four inscriptions are undoubtedly Christian.  A Chi-Rho appears on two spoons, and a monogram cross appears on two sets of tableware and on a necklace, while another spoon carries the expression uiuas in Deo, may you live in God[3]."  One of the pepper-pots appears to be made in the likeness of the Empress Helena, whose cult as a Saint was just then gaining ground, not least thanks to St.Ambrose of Milan, the first known source to ascribe to her the finding of the True Cross.  This constant Christian theme (there is, admittedly, a Hercules wrestling Anthaeus) is out of keeping with what may be gathered from earlier or contemporary hoards, where the occasional Christian theme mingles merrily with secular or outright pagan scenes, and a Bishop may make a gift to a Church of a precious and showy silver lanx (rectangular plate) with not a single Christian design on it.  (St.Patrick to the British bishops: "Maybe we are not of one flock and one shepherd".)

So: we have a royally rich household, providing the richest hoard yet found in Britain, which was nevertheless certainly only a part of their wealth; of unusually strong Christian convinctions; driven out of East Anglia beyond recovery by the triumphant revolt of the pagan Saxons; leaving behind, surely against their will, a minor fortune (and that is only what we have recovered); and with some slight suggestion of devotion to, or at least reading of, St.Ambrosius of Milan.  This is at the same spot where, 1300 years later, legend tells of a Christian king fleeing victorious Germanic pagans with a fortune in gold (which peasant imagination casts as a golden armour), betrayed to his enemies by the glimmer of his wealth, and foully put to death.  Then we know from Gildas that the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus - whom Geoffrey of Monmouth, a source more authoritative than once thought, calls by the rather more credible Aurelius Ambrosius - lost the imperial throne of Britain on account - among other unstated failings - of his excessive devotion to a stoutly Catholic brand of Christianity, which was shown among other things by naming his second son after the famous and not uncontroversial patron Saint of Milan: but that he was allowed to retire to his estates and live there in the style of a landowner - one of those immensely wealthy Roman landowners some of whose villae, according to Morris, were of a scale comparable to Blenheim Palace - until he was butchered with his wife and probably other members of his household, by the rebellious and triumphant pagan Saxons.

Can we go further?  Oh yes we can.  The name most frequently found on the treasure - on no less than ten spoons - was that of Aurelius Ursicinus, probably the head of the family, whose family name seems to be the same as that of Geoffrey's Aurelius Ambrosius and of Gildas' Aurelius Caninus.  Of the two versions of the hero Ambrosius' Roman name, there really seems to be no reason to prefer that of Gildas to that of Geoffrey; to the contrary, Ambrosius seems a most unlikely family name, and there is every reason to believe that it was a personal name bestowed on the Mild King's second son in memory of the great saint beyond the Alps.  Roman historians more steeped than myself can tell what the likelihood is that the same area - Britain should hold two separate high-ranking families, both using the name Aurelius: but it does not seem coincidental that the Aurelius of the Hoxne hoard, who never returned to dig out his precious objects, should be apparently datable to the time of the revolt.

Hoxne is not on the Roman road to London, but it is only a couple of miles away; it is the kind of place where people wanting to follow the road, but unwilling to be seen on it, would hide at night.  And the Norwich area, from which the road comes, has an Arminghall, that is *Amer-inga-healh, "nook of land of the men of Ambrosius".  Of the several Ambres- place-names in England, this is the only one known to me which includes his -ing, his tribe or family; and it is quite distant from the others, in a land of early and enduring Saxon settlement.  In other words, Saxon memory attributed that particular settlement, far though it was from the territory which Ambrosius may have been thought to dominate - which, to judge by the number of Ambres- place-names in Essex, stopped somewhere near the Orwell - to the kin of the great and terrible king.  That the name only describes a healh, a nook of sheltered land, suggests that the real ham or centre of the tribe or kin - the putative *Armingham - was somewhere else, now lost[4]; but the *Ambresingas are located in Norfolk and nowhere else on the map of England, in spite of the wide spread of Ambres- names from Worcestershire to Sussex.  No doubt the great king would subsume, in Saxon eyes, the memory of his father, and if he had a claim to land deep in Saxon territory, that claim might become famous.

Do we believe that the memory of a Christian king butchered by pagans could have lived on for so long among the common people of Hoxne?  Yes we do.  The legend is not of a common kind, and I doubt that its topoi could all be found in Stith Thompson’s guidebooks.  What is more, there is a geographical focus for it which might explain its survival: the bridge, the site of the king's unfortunate discovery, which would obviously become known as a martyrium.  We know from Gildas that a number of martyrs' shrines was known to exist within Saxon territory in his time, and that, separately, the Saxons still had with them slaves - that is, surely, bondsman tenants - with a recognizable Christian identity.  We know from the letters sent by Augustine to Gregory the Great forty years later, and from Gregory's responses, that at least one shrine of a local martyr, one Sixtus, not known to Augustine, was still a focus of pilgrimage and Christian ritual of some sort in Kent, even though Kent had been Saxon for decades if not centuries.  Nothing easier, then, than to imagine that the place of the Mild King's fall should become the focus for a native cult, concentrating the sense of identity of the surviving Christians of the east under their pagan masters on the image of a virtuous and unfortunate ruler who fell long ago.  Pilgrimage cults such as that of the Kentish Sixtus are not only important, binding regions together socially, but profitable, featuring considerable exchange of the market-fair kind; and their participants would certainly do everything possible to keep them going, even under heathen or hostile kings.  The cult, an enduring social institution, rather than any indefinite, semi-mystical phenomenon of "peasant memory", would justify the survival of the story[5].

In short, I believe that the name of Ambrosius' father was Aurelius Ursicinus; that he was the Mild King, dethroned in 427-428 but allowed to live on in imperial yet Christian splendour on his estates; that, caught by surprise by the Saxon uprising of 442, he tried to flee with the treasures of his house; that he was caught, for some reason to do with his gold, at Hoxne, and murdered along with his wife; that his house scattered to the four winds, or fled to Armorica, where they remained for a quarter of a century; that his second son Ambrosius invaded Britain and largely recovered the country; that the location of his father's estates in Norfolk were still remembered in his time, a quarter of a century later, and received some lustre by the connection with him; and that in spite of his victories, he was unable to locate and recover at least a part of his father's buried treasure.  It remained in the ground until it reappeared 1550 years later, to give silent witness to the splendour of even a dethroned Romano-British imperial house.

Notes


[1]WESTWOOD, Albion op.cit.183f.

[2]Hoxne, in A.D.MILLS, Oxford dictionary of English place-names, Oxford 1998.

[3]JENNIFER LAING, Roman art and society, Stroud 1997, 37f.

[4]If we take the figure of St.Edmund to have replaced that of Ambrosius' father at Hoxne, it is perhaps not without significance that a Roman town associated with St.Edmund, Caistor St.Edmund, lies only a mile or so west of Arminghall.

[5]Some instances show that an oppressed or even suppressed religious identity can last for centuries in isolated rural areas.  The kakure Kirishitan or "hidden Christians" of Japan hid from the savage anti-Catholic persecution of the late 1500s until to the forced opening of Japan to the West in the mid-1800s, and I am informed that in recent years a few hundred families in Spain have revealed themselves as Muslim, survivors of the expulsion and persecution of the Moriscos in the 1550s.  Even more remarkable is the survival of a tiny and isolated Waldensian community in Calabria, still modestly thriving today in spite of having suffered, in the savage religious struggle of the seventeenth century, a determined and thorough attempt at genocide by Calabria's former colonial masters, Spain (I well remember reading an eyewitness account of Spanish soldiers slitting the throats of every man, woman and child in the village and piling up mountains of corpses).  If such small rural communities could survive centuries of murderous persecution, what are the odds on the survival of a Christian identity in Saxon-held lands? The one thing that Gildas does not tell us is that the Saxons ever persecuted Christians already conquered; and if you think what a powerful argument this would have been for the Crusade he advocated, this must mean that they did not. It is extremely likely that some sort of residual Christian life went on among the conquered Romano-British of East Anglia; as seems confirmed, among other things, by the mysterious name of Felixstowe, "sacred place of Felix", an indubitably Roman name pertaining to a place-name which is among the most ancient in the area. This Felix is best explained as a local martyr, later replaced by the better known St.Felix, founding bishop of East Anglia.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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