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

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Chapter 3.2: Ambrosius, his father and the politics of Britain before 429

Fabio P. Barbieri

In 410 the curtain falls on connected accounts of the history and constitutional asset of Britain, and does not rise again until the source of Nennius ch.66, who has Vortigern being crowned king of Britain in 425. As this book will show, the date is demonstrably wrong; anyway, Professor Dumville's formidable authority has convincingly demolished the Nennian dating schemes, and the same expert considers the whole of ch.66 "certainly corrupt". Dates from contemporary sources include the first journey of St.Germanus to Britain (429), the arrival of Palladius as first bishop of the Irish (431), the Saxon revolt (442) and the participation of a British force in a war around the Loire (468); hardly enough to supply a framework, but it is around these dates that we have to reconstruct British history in the fifth century.

The period we are talking of lasted roughly 33 years. The Rescript of Honorius dates to 410, that black year of the West; and a Gallic Chronicle written in 452 dates the Saxon victories so vividly described by Gildas at 441-442[1], and is supported by a later one from 511[2]. The relatively brief duration must be kept in mind: it limits the amount of historical events we can propose or imagine. 33 years, we know from our own experience, are enough to change our world till it is almost unrecognizable; but there are limits. For instance, it is quite possible that the whole period may have been compassed by the rule of two kings.

Gildas is our only real source, but he hardly tells everything, let alone give a connected narrative. We see this period in sudden flashes: a great victory over the Picts; a deposed royal couple; prosperity, brief and ill-fated; an unsettled political landscape in which lay and ecclesiastic grandees squabbled while serious political and religious issues went begging for attention; a proud tyrant, rich and corrupt and stupid like Pharaoh in the days of Isaiah; a terrible plague; the summoning of a council; and, sitting quietly in the wings, a modest hero waiting for the moment his country shall have need of him.

For this we cannot blame Gildas: his public clearly had a very good idea of the previous century, and needed no more than allusions to bring it to life. Our best way to investigate his allusions is to look at the ideas that underlie his descriptions; and to strengthen our conclusions with as many other sources of information as we can manage to find.

Gildas saw Britain as one single sphere of sovereignty, if in his Celtic-influenced framework of over-kings and under-kings. At the head of the public he addresses, though scarcely glimpsed, are those descendants of Ambrosius Aurelianus whose degeneracy from their ancestor's nobility he mentions with regret and shame. He is so humiliated by their deterioration that he can barely bring himself to mention their faults. He is vague about the numbers, individual characters and rank of the Ambrosiads of his time, though clear that his hero's family were badly failing to measure up to his memory.

Although he does not belabour the point, it is surely a warning to these degenerate descendants that Gildas makes very little of Ambrosius' undeniable royal blood. Ambrosius was of the highest possible birth: his parents had "worn the purple", had a rank equivalent to that of Emperor (purple was the imperial colour, remembered to this day in the heraldic purple and gold of the city of Rome). This can only mean that he had been king of Britain. It is unimaginable that anyone not of sovereign national rank should take on himself to wear purple: it would be an intolerable insult to his superior. Only the ultimate king, whose sovereignty was free and unsubjected to any superior control, could. When Gildas says that Ambrosius' parents "had, beyond the shadow of a doubt, put on the purple", purpura nimirum indutis, he can only mean one of two things: either they had been lords of one independent state within Britain, with no superior all-British power over them, or else that all of Britain - at least, all of post-Roman Britain - was one such state, and that they were king and queen over it. And we have already rejected the idea of single states within Roman Britain; ergo, Ambrosius' parents had reigned over "the Britains", successors to Constantine III's imperial claim.

In most of our history being a lawful king's son and heir would be title enough to the kingship; Gildas, however, says next to nothing of this and certainly fails to argue that it entitled Ambrosius to lead the nation. The impression we are left with is that it is at best a subsidiary reason, and, at worst, has nothing to do with it. Ambrosius' rank comes from his prowess in war and his political ability to unite the ciues, the legitimate citizens of Britain, against the common Saxon foe. It is not because he was a king's son, Gildas seems to be saying, that he became the national leader in those dreadful and stirring days: his historian only stresses how those of the "citizens", ciues, of the island, who had not fled, fallen or submitted to the Saxons, gathered to the "modest hero" - uiro modesto - like bees fleeing to the beehive in the face of a gathering storm - another typically marvellous Gildasian image that makes the "last, almost, of the Roman nation" - qui solus forte Romanae gentis... superfuerat - the natural refuge and indeed the home of all the homeless, desperate, scattered ciues.

In no other passage does the point come across more clearly that, to Gildas, the man and the office are not separable. As the rectores incarnate the power of Rome or of the king just by being there, so too Ambrosius is at once the king and the kingdom. It is not the apparatus of a kingdom, an army, an institution of any sort, that is the natural refuge of the frightened, scattered, helpless ciues; it is the man Ambrosius. Ubi ego, he might say, ibi Britannia - or rather, ibi Roma, since part of the point is surely that he was "almost" the last Roman of the full blood left in Britain, the last descendant of that once-terrible breed brought in to rule the isle after the leaena dolosa had been hunted down long ago. The ciues resort to Roman blood as bees resort to their own hive, for, as bees in the sheltered and ordered world of the hive, under its shadow they are at home.

If there is any way in which blood tells, therefore, it is that Ambrosius is, not so much the son of an individual royal father, but rather the noblest of the survivors of the storm. Roman blood makes him a natural leader, but had more Romans of the full blood been left alive and in Britain, there would have been more candidates to supreme leadership[3]. It is clearly for this reason that Gildas is so little impressed by his royal descent and has less to say of it than any of us would: in the world of Gildasian Britain, far removed from the realities of Rome, Roman blood is as it were a talent pool for kingship and leadership, and any man with it in his veins is a possible king. It is the equivalent of blue blood, only more so: there seems to be less distinction between royal and simply aristocratic blood than in any historical European monarchy.

The main role of Ambrosius' parents is that of victims. The only other thing we are told about them is that this noble couple had died "in the same storm", that is at the hands of the Saxons. It is not as sovereigns that we are invited to think of them, but as part of the pity of the times: come from such a high estate - indeed, nimirum, they had been endowed, indutis, with the purple - and slain among their plundered wealth by some odious raider of no rank or name, a mere offscouring of the "barbarian lioness", probably in that dreadful first Saxon rush of revolt whose flames licked the very western ocean. This tragic loss binds Ambrosius with every other Briton who has ever lost kin and friends at the hands of the barbarians; and it may be that this share in the common grief is what makes him fit to lead them.

Indeed, there is something strange about the mention of Ambrosius' royal parents - a sense that Gildas and his sources may have been somehow ashamed of them. Gildas' assertion that they had been "verily and indeed" - nimirum, a very strong confirmation intended to answer any challenge - been given the purple, sounds as though answering doubts about their legitimacy. And the unusual verb induere for "taking the purple" - being crowned - has, as John Morris pointed out[4], an overtone of taking it without due qualification, of being unsuited to it. Induere means "to wear in the manner of an ordinary dress"; sumere (which is, according to Morris, the ordinary term, purpuram sumere, for "Coming to the throne") means "to take over as due to you, or as properly paid, to acquire legally". Gildas uses the one verb and not the other, accompanying it with that strong asseveration, nimirum, that all but invites doubt; to use his own language, excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta.

We have had many occasions to notice the clarity of Gildas' vocabulary. There is no question of sloppy phrasing with him; if he speaks of Ambrosius' father with a sort of nervous catch in his voice, there must be a reason. We have to conclude that Ambrosius' father was not remembered as a good king. And in the light of Gildas' undoubted allegiance to the memory of Ambrosius, there can be no doubt that the reasons to play down his parents' part in British history were serious. Had he had occasion to make them heroes, he would have taken it. The tradition that his parents were an unsuitable royal couple must have been embedded in the material, so well known and well recorded that Ambrosius was not able to make use of his descent to legitimize himself.

We must realize that what we see is the long-term result of dynastic propaganda and ideology. The idea that Gildas has of Ambrosius is the result of the idea that Ambrosius himself fostered among his people. Wherever he came from, it is clear where he ended up: on the throne of Britain[5], the unchallenged leader of all the ciues, all legitimate dwellers on the island (as opposed to barbarous outsiders such as Picts, Scots and Saxons, who had no right to be there). And there never was a sovereign however good, or however bad, who did not give himself an ideological justification; propaganda is a natural by-product of political power. As Ambrosius won his war and was remembered with love and admiration long after his presumable death date, we must assume that his propaganda was successful; and when we see him through the eyes of Gildas, we see him largely as he and his court wished him to be seen.

A number of peculiarities in Gildas' account virtually tell us the story. The parents of Ambrosius "had worn the purple". They were still alive when the Saxon war started, but had nothing to do with the calling of the Saxons, which was the work of a "tyrant of evil fate", infausto tyranno. Therefore Ambrosius' father had lost the throne. The word "tyrant", superbus tyrannus, infausto tyranno, strongly suggests usurpation; in late classical Latin and Greek, a tyrannus was an usurper.

A couple of manuscripts of Gildas identify this “evil-starred tyrant” with Vortigern, the king of Britain who, according to Bede and all subsequent legend, summoned the Saxons to fight the Picts. Vortigern is a proto-Welsh word meaning "over-tigern", over-kinglet. Until the present study, the difference between the inferior and defeated teyrnedd and the superior and victorious gwledig, was not clear; and therefore scholars, taking tigernos to be a generic royal title, had taken Vortigern to simply mean “high king”, “emperor”, lord of all Britain. In point of fact, however, the idea that to be an over-teyrn was at all honourable is at least dubious. Can it be honourable to be the highest of a dishonourable group, or to count as the ultimate (vor) of royal inferiority (tigernos)? We have seen that, to Gildas, the tyranni are by nature treacherous, rebellious, servile, and defeated; and that Taliesin does all he can to avoid calling his master a teyrn, reserving the title for defeated enemies. That the overlord of all Britain should be called the “Over-teyrn” suggests the same illegitimacy that Gildas found in Maximus, the seed of tyranni, assaulting two legitimate emprors.

This is the real meaning of the name that succeeding ages stuck on the overthrower of Ambrosius’ father - he was a teyrn, not a gwledig. But if "Vortigern" overthrew Ambrosius' father, he did not kill him; the deposed royal couple lived on until they died, not at his, but Saxon hands. That the Saxons targeted them suggests that they were living on estates of their own and were big enough targets for a raid; or perhaps (as we will see) that they had particularly deserved Saxon hatred.

Finally, Gildas' emphasis that Ambrosius' father was a legitimate king - even if the purple did not fit him well - suggests that his legitimacy had been authoritatively challenged and denied; that is, it suggests that he was subjected to some sort of impeachment-like process that struck at his title to be king. And as we know that he lost the throne, we must assume that this process was successful; that is, that such authorities as existed in Britain pronounced that he had not been validly crowned[6].

This raises an echo in an extraordinary expression of E, the anonymous British Christian author from whom Gildas drew his chapter 21. E was particularly upset by two things: on the one hand, the lawless years of usurpation (406-410): "Kings were anointed not through God but because they were more cruel than the others; and shortly afterwards, they were slain by the anointers without an examination towards truth, others still more grim having been elected." Non pro ueri examinatione? "Without an examination towards truth?" This can only mean a court of law; and the complaint that Kings were slain "without an examination towards truth" must imply that such an "examination", had it happened, would have made everything all right - which suggests the remarkable notion that claimants to the imperial Roman throne might be arraigned for trial, even for their lives, if the cause was just enough! This certainly is a departure from imperial Roman practice - to put it no more strongly.

On the other hand E has no high opinion of contemporary legal practice either. It does not seem to curb the most outrageous sexual crimes[7], but only allows contemporaries to indulge in endless lawsuits, every neighbour making dishonest claims against every other. The British aristocracy of this period, says this unknown prophet, dedicated all the time it could spare from the neglect of their religious duties to the pursuit of vain envy and false claims on their neighbour's property. To his horror, the Church is as busy in legal sharp practice as everyone else. He goes on to diagnose total moral bankruptcy, with right and wrong being seen as no different, if indeed wrong is not to be called preferable, and the Church, too busy with its own temporal business, failing altogether to set a standard. And there is a case that particularly engages his sympathies: the fate of a mild and religious sovereign - milder and more religious, at least, than the rest (eorum mitior et ueritati aliquatenus propior) - who became universally detested as the ruin of Britain (quasi Britanniae subuersorem). Is this not reminiscent of the fate of Ambrosius' father, as we reconstructed it from Gildas' words at a quite different point in his story, in a passage that owes nothing to E?

We should notice that E does not seem to have more than moderate sympathy for the king himself. He does not make a saint of him (and if he is referring to Ambrosius' father, a written testimonial to his character would certainly have been played up both by his son and by Gildas), but only says that he was rather better than the rest - a bit milder, a bit closer to the truth. His main point is how dreadful Britain has found, in the past, to overthrow kings. To him, as to Honorius and Jerome, the careers of Marcus, Gratianus and Constantine III were the classic instance of British treachery and disloyalty. And now, I argue, decades after the fall of Constantine, these "British diseases" manifested themselves again, against the Mild King; it had been too much to hope that they had ever gone away.

More and more facts confirm that we are speaking of a national sovereign. The appeal to Britain's terrible past and the complaint about the vices of the whole island, imply the whole country in the rebellion against him; the words Britanniae subuersorem, the overturner, the ruin of Britain, indicate that, in the eyes of his enemies, this monarch had the power to ruin the whole island - which is best explained by assuming that he was its king. Indeed, since there is at least an emotional connection between the story of the anointed and slain Grim Kings and that of the anointed and overthrown Mild King, the whole passage works best if we understand the lot of them in this light: all the "kings anointed" of the chapter should be understood as kings of all Britain.

It is even possible that the ritual of anointing was reserved for kings of all Britain alone, so that Gildas (or his source) did not feel that he had to explain their rank once he had mentioned their anointing. Gildas tended to equate Britain with Biblical Israel, and he would remember that Saul, David and Solomon had been anointed kings over all the twelve scattered tribes - tribes which had, before, even fought among themselves - and that the ritual of anointing was Samuel's God-given sign of authority, unifying all Israel. But when the Grim Kings were anointed, God was not present as He was when Samuel chose David.

The proceedings suggested by E supply the missing link to Gildas' account of Ambrosius' parents. Ambrosius' father was overthrown, but not murdered, and an idea was fostered that he had never been a legitimate king in the first place. The Mild King was dethroned by a process that attacked his legitimacy; in other words, by a legal process. They acted "without respect", sine respectu, complains E. And here we see why E was so bitter about the British propensity for litigation and abuse of the legal system: as far as he was concerned, disloyal and litigious subjects, all too practised in legal trickery, had unfairly used a legal process to depose a decent sovereign for the worst of reasons. But, at the same time, his words prove that a vigorous and powerful legal system was a major feature of the Britanniae.

The overthrow of the Mild King emerges as the centrepiece of his polemic, tying together all his polemical strands[8] - the abuse of the law; the absence of a sense of right and wrong; the failure of the Church's leadership; and, looming in an already distant yet clearly remembered and dreadful past, the terrible example of what rebellion and disloyalty could do to the country. Read the bulk of ch.21 again; is it not the case that, without this central argument, the denunciation tends to fall a bit flat - a string of apparently unrelated and somewhat general charges expressing little more than an ill-tempered dissatisfaction with the mores of a rich society? And is it not the case that if you place the pitiful case of the deposed king at their centre, many of these charges gain in power, in weight, and in significance?

We have the picture of a man called to be king; rich, without the least doubt, brought up in the courtly traditions of the late Roman Empire, a gentleman and a Christian; not, perhaps, with any great personal quality; possibly dithery, possibly irresolute, possibly too obsessed with religious scruples at a time when the country - surrounded by Scots to the west, Picts to the north, Franks and Saxons to the east, and a still active if crumbling Roman Empire to the south - simply could not afford them. Exasperated and exhausted by poor leadership and a religiosity most of them could not understand (remember E's insistence on their complete indifference to what was pleasing or displeasing to God), the ruling classes force a showdown. The Church, who had perhaps anointed him king (our author complained that the older usurpers had not been properly anointed, which suggests this was an abuse which had since been put right[9]), may have hemmed and hawed, dodging, in our author's view, the responsibility she had to her anointed, ignoring, in other words, a clear moral demand; the army made known that it would support a change of ruler, whether by peaceful or by violent means (everyone's weapons were turned against the king, in a period in which some degree of Roman army organization must still have been in place); and at a memorable session of the highest legal body of the land, our unfortunate, harassed, unsupported king was put through some kind of legal charade that negated his legitimacy, and left the way clear for a stouter-hearted candidate to be anointed in his place.

There are hints that E may have written at different stages, some just before, some after the king's fall. The sentence about the year of three emperors sees the legal process as a safeguard against the tyrannical and illegitimate overthrow of kings; no anointed king should be overthrown "without an examination for the truth". The legal process is basically a good thing. On the other hand, E's fierce account of a litigious, immoral and disloyal society makes the legal system no more than the avenue to make false claims stick and beggar your neighbour, a corrupt and corrupting receptacle of selfish aggression to which a corrupt Church leadership is the first to resort; a jaundiced view, and one that hints at a fundamental disappointment. It seems likely that between writing the former passage, and the latter, the law had disappointed E. The king had fallen; and E had changed his view of that over-litigious legal system. It is even possible that the hounded king or his supporters - for the existence of our author proves that he had them - may have sought judgement themselves in a last attempt to survive the storm, since the complaint about Kings being executed "without an examination for the truth" has more than a whiff of pleading about it: he is an anointed king, E might be saying, don't kill him in secret - try him in a court of law. If that was the case, they were brutally let down: the court found for their enemies. The records of that disappointment may well have remained part of the patrimony of the Ambrosiad house, to be used again later against the father's enemies, when the son came back to save his father's kingdom.

That he was afterwards allowed to live on, perhaps in some luxury[10], to be raided and slain by the Saxons, does seem to chime with the basically harmless, incompetent and irresolute personality we have found reason to suspect in him. Put it simply, "Vortigern" saw no reason to fear him. Usurping successors do not often allow their predecessors to live on undisturbed in the style of prosperous gentlemen; not unless they feel confident of their position and power. It may have been, however, that his contemptuous treatment rankled, and that the very self-assurance implicit in it may have contributed to the image of the Proud Tyrant which the Ambrosian party undoubtedly fostered at a later date. But as his fall was becoming inevitable, or maybe after he had fallen, a furious church writer let loose with a stinging criticism of the plotting, disloyal, quarrelsome aristocracy; the drunken, corrupt, conniving clergy; and the general inability of the British to stick to the straight and narrow, their relativistic contempt for the very notions of right and wrong.


[1]Apart from John Morris' meritorious work in dismantling Bede's mistaken date for the first settlement of the Saxons in Britain, 449, it should be axiomatic that a contemporary chronological source such as the Gallic Chronicle should have priority over Bede, who, however much of a genius, wrote three centuries later and had absolutely no dated sources for this period. Age of Arthur, 39-40.

[2]This latter shows no knowledge of the British recovery under Ambrosian leadership, and I am provisionally minded to believe that its 442 entry comes from the Chronicle of 452 or some other source now lost: the compiler copied an entry, but had no knowledge of his own to add.

[3]It is worth pointing out that the inevitable effect of such a doctrine in real life would be sedition and disunity, for anyone who could, whether legitimately or spuriously, claim "Roman" blood, would be apt to feel "as good a gentleman as the King, only not so rich", and refuse to acknowledge authority. The only ideological defence against this sort of attitude would be to assert that only one, or at least a very few, bloodlines, really carried the precious genes; and that is in fact what seems to have happened in Gildas' time - this is surely the point of asserting that Ambrosius was "almost the last of the Romans". Even so, that would not prevent other bloodlines, such as the lords of Dumnonia, claiming Roman descent off their own bat; nor, for that matter, would it stop disaffected branches of the royal family itself setting up their own stalls - as they did if I am right about Aurelius Caninus. In short, the doctrine of the inevitable royalty of Roman blood is inevitably bound to bring about political instability; and it seems to have done just that.

[4]Notes to 25.3, in WINTERBOTTOM, Gildas op.cit. What a pity that Morris' misinterpretations, flights of fancy and absolute cloth ear for legend and myth, always presented with an infuriating arrogance, should be so densely interspersed with brilliant, sometimes miraculous observations such as this! One would feel so much easier if his work could be simply dismissed; but it can't.

[5] Actually, we will see that there is evidence that he had an elder brother who was the actual emperor or imperial pretender. But whether or not this was the case, it was for his dynasty that he fought and won, and it was his dynasty that - as Gildas makes clear - was regarded as hallowed by his deeds.

[6]A question: how had the doubt about his legitimacy managed to survive and be remembered in Gildas' age? Certainly by written sources; for instance, if there were king-lists in existence, he may have been deleted from them, or listed as an usurper. When we examine the legends about Vortigern, we will find that, in some quarters, the assertion that Ambrosius' father was not a legitimate king of Britain was still being repeated as a fact in the later sixth century.

[7]Almost certainly, a son marrying his father’s widow. The passage quotes ICorinthians 5.1, which denounces just such an act among his Greek converts. To Christians, this would be incest.

[8]Except for the incestuous marriage of stepson and stepmother with which he opens his complaint - or so it seems from Gildas. But that might have been a pointed comment on some individual member of the opposing party.

[9]To push the guesswork a bit further, it seems possible that the anointing of the king in a ceremony imitated from Biblical precedent might have something to do with the "dedication of the British nation to God" which preceded the victory over the Picts in A. The Jews asked for a king to unify the Twelve Tribes when they were threatened beyond endurance by Moabites, Philistines and Ammonites - a situation which will have reminded contemporaries of the pagan Picts' deadly threat. I imagine a great national ceremony enthroning a leader and leading, perhaps, to the gathering of the armies, scattered in those montibus, speluncis ac saltibus, into one effective force that crushed the enemy. But easy though it is to imagine, imagination is all it is.

[10] See Appendix III, “Aurelius Ursicinus at Hoxne”.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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