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

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Chapter 6.7: Geoffrey, the lost document "N", its sources, and the historical Ambrosius

Fabio P. Barbieri

N does not end with Vortigern. Its narrative continues through Constans’ two brothers, Ambrosius and Uther, and reaches down to Arthur; in other words, from Constantine to Arthur, it is articulated over three generations, the second having three members, and designed to involve all the personages who tower over the misty distances of an already remote all-British monarchy. Constantine, Constans, Vortigern, and Ambrosius, are, without a doubt, historical characters; of Uther Pendragon and Arthur the least that may be said is that the inventor of N regarded them as being as historical as the others. On the other hand, they were already distant enough for their pedigrees to be forgotten. Constantine was made their patriarch because he was remembered as the first lord of Britain after the end of Roman power; therefore any dynasty of great kings of Britain had to begin with him.  It is certain that their association can only have been invented some time after the end of the Ambrosian dynasty, which was still around in Gildas' time[1].

Whenever we come across a group of three in Welsh legend we are entitled to suspect a triad; and the three sons of Constantine are a perfect Dumézilian one, extending over the three functions of holiness, warrior strength, and fertility.  Constans is a member of the religious class, and is never shown fighting (most unlike the historical Constans, the last years of whose life were spent amidst constant alarums and excursions).  Aurelius Ambrosius is the all but perfect warrior king, whose wars establish the power of the dynasty.  Uther Pendragon is a less notable warrior.  Of the battles he fights, two are at his brother’s orders, one is won following the plan of Duke Gorlois – who is soon to become Uther’s own enemy – one, against Gorlois himself, by the disorderly valour of leaderless soldiers while he is making love to Gorlois’ wife Igerna, and the last while he is helplessly ill and “half-dead”; in other words, in so far as he has any military success at all, that success is determined not by the king’s own military prowess, but by his under-king Gorlois and the mass of his followers (nameless masses of free men are typically third-function in several Indo-European triads[2]).

Uther is famous not as a warrior, but as a lover.  This is fairly untypical of Geoffrey; not many of his 99 kings have romantic legends; but Uther’s passion for Igerna dominates his story.  It leads him to civil war against his own loyal follower Gorlois; but it is also the gateway through which the future of the dynasty passes.  Once Gorlois is dead, Igerna will marry Uther, live with him without any problems, and make him the father of great Arthur and of Anna, matriarch of all later British kings.  In other words, his love is fertile; it secures the future of the dynasty, while neither Constans nor Ambrosius have heirs.  He is also associated with peace: in his time, civil peace reached – for the first time ever, claims Geoffrey – even as far as Caledonia, which Uther visited, settled, and gave laws to.  Even Uther's demand for the wife of one of his own vassals may be justified in terms of Celtic ideas: the legend of Conchobar and Cuchulainn, among others, seem to show that the king has a right to the wives of all his subjects, that he is something like a universal bridegroom; and we have seen that sexual lordship can involve illegitimate relationships, even rape (in the bitter legend of Ailill the earless and Aine)[3].  This too will obviously be a third-function feature.

This clear and perfect order is, of course, quite as synthetic as it looks.  Constans, Ambrosius and Uther were nothing like brothers and have been artificially brought together.  And the artificiality extends to every part of the legend.  Constantine is stabbed by one treacherous Pict; Constans by a crowd of Picts.  Ambrosius is murdered by one Saxon, and Uther by a crowd of Saxons.  Two heroes are murdered by the Pictish arch-enemy before the Saxons came, two by the Saxons after.  Constantine is stabbed to death in a thicket, by a single man; Constans is stabbed to death in his bedroom by a drunken crowd; Aurelius is poisoned, in his bedroom, by a single man; Uther drinks from a spring in the forest, which had been poisoned by a crowd of Saxon spies.  Picts stab, Saxons poison; two kings are stabbed, two poisoned; one stab victim and one poison victim die in their bed, one each in a wood; one of the bedroom murder victims is killed by a single man, one by a crowd, and the same goes for the forest murder victims; it is even possible to say that reckless drinking and a crowd of barbarians had been the deaths of both Constans and Uther - the one murdered by a drunken crowd, the other by drinking from a spring poisoned by a crowd of Saxons.  I imagine that the contrasting element to this reckless drinking is the reckless mercy that allows members of the defeated barbarian tribes near Constantine and Ambrosius.

The story of Uther Pendragon’s death (a crowd of Saxon spies poison a spring at which he used to drink) is so unlikely as to be off the scale.  Spies do not move in groups - there is no safety in numbers - and as for poisoning a favourite spring, this has to be the least risk-free way of killing an enemy ever devised in the history of human fiction.  Springs, by definition, have running water: how, exactly, are the killers to make sure that it remains poisonous as long as necessary, without being cleansed by the constant flow? and what about making sure that the right guy gets it before anyone else does? - one or more corpses stretched out under the trees might well help warn the sick king that the spring's waters might not do much for his health.  But this series of absurdities is necessary to the symmetry of the sequence.  If Ambrosius was (1) poisoned (2) as he was sick, (3) by a single Saxon, (4) in his own house; while N1 had had Constans (1) stabbed (2) as he was well, (3) by a crowd of Picts, (4) in his own house, and N, for reasons best known to its author, had Constantine (1) stabbed (2) as he was well, (3) by a single Pict, (4) as he was (hunting) in the forest; the symmetry therefore dictated that Uther should be (1) poisoned (2) as he was sick, (3) by a crowd of Saxons, (4) in the forest.  Which shows only that the storyteller obeyed the dictates of his peculiar self-imposed form, even when it made trouble for him[4].

I must point out that there is nothing to suggest that N1 regarded Ambrosius and Uther as sons of Constantine; the dynastic scheme is so consistent, and seems so rooted in the concerns of the person who reworked N1's pseudo-history to produce N, that we have to suspect that it was the latter's invention.  And if we assume that, in N1, the first British dynasty ended with Constans and as a result of Vortigern's corrupting influence, this would explain why the author of N, so concerned with clearing the Maximid and Vortigernid lines of any stain, would want to make Good Guithelinus the consecrator and foster-father of all British monarchy: the Vortigern of N1, polluter and destroyer of the first British dynasty, would be his exact opposite - a black stain on British history, threatening the very existence of the monarchy and defiling its sacred status by first deconsecrating a monk and then extinguishing his whole dynasty. What is more, since the historical "house of Constantine" did in fact die out with Constans, proclaimed Augustus and finally executed by Honorius, this would add to the number of actual historical features known to the author of N1[5].

(Since this story is so evidently written to prove a point, the fact that Constans’ vow-breaking is so central to it suggests that moralists of St.Gildas' kind may have made great play with it in the early years of British independence.  It seems to have been a kind of British original sin hanging over all subsequent British history.  This is the best explanation why N1 designed an elaborate plot by Vortigern, as the first of his evil acts against the sovereignty of the island.  That is, what N1 is saying is: “Constans' vow-breaking and death were indeed the beginnings of all British ills, but guess who was the real culprit?”)

The clearly artificial sequence of N, meant to tie all the members of the "House of Constantine" together as enemies, conquerors, and finally victims of the barbarians, is built on a symmetry which is a mnemonic device, designed to be remembered.  This symmetry excludes Arthur, otherwise the dominant figure in tradition, and centres on Ambrosius, not only as a character, but as a structural element.  For it can be shown that the same way of constructing characters as if out of a mathematical calculation of contributing elements is in evidence in the legend of Ambrosius’ supposed father Constantine.  The Galfridian picture of Constantine II(I) is rigorously compounded from three different sources.  Two we have already treated: (1), features of the historical Constantine III and his son; and (2), features to do with the legendary Archbishop Guithelinus, resulting therefore ultimately from the duplication of Vitalinus-Vortigern.  I therefore argue that those features which belong to neither of them are carried over from accounts of his “son” Ambrosius:

1.        from the historical Constantine III, his name, the name of his first son and their family relationship, the fact that they both died violent deaths, the fact that Constans was a monk who broke his vows to become a sovereign, their approximate date, and the fact that they represent in some fashion the beginnings of independent British monarchy;

2.        from the concept of Archbishop Guithelinus, that the Archbishop summonses him to Britain to be king, and crowns him (this is calqued on Bad Vortigern’s dealings with Constans), that he bestows on him the wife who is to be the matriarch of all succeeding kings thus rooting his rule in dynastic and national legitimacy (the reverse of Bad Vortigern's corrupting influence on the monarchy), and that he is killed by a Pict in the open, reflecting the death of Constans in N1 - by a crowd of Picts, in the royal chambers (remember our author’s constructive principles!);

It follows that the following features pertain to Ambrosius:

3.        that he was a second son in a royal family; brought up in exile[6], that he came to Britain from Armorica with a small army; that his arrival sparked an island-wide rebellion against barbarians, that he was a heaven-sent war leader, who, though young, led his rebel forces to victory after victory, that he won and insured peace; that he called a great national parliament, which signalled the restoration of the British state; and that  finally, he was murdered by one of the same barbarians to whom, after defeating them, he had shown mercy.

Between them, these three groups of features account for absolutely everything that happens to Geoffrey's Constantine and his son Constans.  It can be shown, without too much trouble, that his story is the matrix which helps form those of all the other heroes of N.  And that N imitated Ambrosius in designing his legendary Constantine means that all the features of group (3) were known as part of the story of the national hero by the time N was written.

All the Ambrosian features are found in Geoffrey’s account of Ambrosius; all but four - being a second son, the national parliament, Armorica as a specific place of exile, and the death by poison - can be matched with points or hints from Gildas.  And none are unlikely.  While Gildas does not say that Ambrosius lost an elder brother as well as his parents, there is no reason to deny it; and even if he had not lost him in eadem tempestate, there are a million ways in which a young exile, the heir of a great family, might die in Armorica in that violent fifth century of the Roman West.  However, the parallel with king Aldroenus, who refused to go to Britain but sent his younger brother Constantine, suggests to me that Ambrosius’ elder brother lived on, and that when the opportunity arose, he decided not to go back to Britain on a forlorn hope, and sent his younger sibling.  Gildas never calls Ambrosius a king.  The feature of Constantine being a second son makes no sense either in terms of the historical Constantine III (Aldroenus’ obviously Celtic name shows that he cannot have been connected to anyone called Flavius Claudius Constantinus in 407[7]) or in that of the legend of Archbishop Guithelinus; therefore, bearing in mind our author’s constructive principles, it must have been imitated from the legend of Ambrosius.  That is, it was Ambrosius himself who was believed to be a second son[8].  However, the fact that Ambrosius is made the one thing he certainly was not - the younger brother of Constans son of Constantine III - shows that the author of N knew that he was a second son, but did not know the name and identity of his elder brother.

As for the other points, summoning a national congress is a natural thing to do when reconstructing a country’s collapsed political structure.  Armorica not only is not an unlikely place of exile, it is a very likely one indeed.  Near to Britain but far from Saxon hands, remote from every major barbarian threat, yet practically beyond the reach of the Emperor of Ravenna (who might not like to find, on his territory, a claimant from Britannia, the “province fertile of tyrants” whose lords carried on the claims of the pretenders Constantine III and Constans), it is difficult to think of another province so well suited for the fallen lords of Britain.  Some Nennian manuscripts, including the quite early "Irish Nennius", do in fact call Ambrosius Rex Francorum et Brittonum Aremoricorum[9], king of the Franks and of the Britons of Armorica - a doubly anachronistic title, but one that shows a comparatively early association between the hero and the peninsula.

Knowing no more about the historical Constantine III than what he put in the legend, and knowing on the other hand that in his time the northern enemy were a scourge quite as terrible as the Saxons were to become – and that, like them, they aspired to rule the whole island – it goes without saying that the author, trying to reconstruct the beginnings of the independent Romano-British state, would have cast its founder as the hammer of the North.  Constantine fights the Picts as Ambrosius fights the Saxons; and the logical consequence is that our author, who knew that he had died a violent death, saw it in the same light as that suffered by Ambrosius at the hand of a defeated Saxon, and attributed to Constantine a similar end.

The neat chronological distinction between the reigns of Constantine and Constans, threatened by the Picts, and those of Ambrosius and Uther, threatened by the Saxons, corresponds with historical fact, and is part of a considerable amount of Galfridian material that is not matched in Nennius, but which yet matches ancient history.  The overall framework in which the House of Constantine moves is historical.  The correspondence between the historical reality of barbarian menaces and their Galfridian picture is chronologically quite precise.  Let us follow what Geoffrey has to say:

GEOFFREY GILDAS (including implicit or suggested points) AND OTHER CONTEMPORARY SOURCES
1)- The Pictish menace is at its height as Roman power runs out 1)- The Picts suddenly appear on the scene as the Romans disappear
2)- The Picts invade and devastate Britain, disarticulating its whole society 2)- The Picts invade and devastate Britain, causing a major refugee crisis and a terrible famine
3)- (see next point) 3)- Isolated British armed groups, broken apart by the initial Pictish assault, gather in various defended areas - forests, mountains, caves.
4)- A war leader appears and miraculously re-forms the previously scattered forces of Britain, which sweep to a triumphant success. The war has a religious dimension, being asked for and directed by a saintly archbishop. 4)- The forces of Britain miraculously re-gather and sweep to a triumphant success, with a strong religious dimension - the country is consecrated to God before the struggle.
5)- Two reigns (those of Constantine and Constans) and at least a generation pass. 5)- A generation (411 or so to 427/8) passes. I suspect that the Mild King had not reigned all this time, given the rise of opposition to him, and that his predecessor had been more to the taste of the Romano-British aristocracy.
6)- Vortigern usurps the throne. 6) An infaustus tyrannus usurps the throne, 427/8.
7)- Within a few years, unable to resist the Pictish threat without reinforcements, he summons the Saxons. 7)- By 430 or so, unable to resist the Pictish threat without reinforcements, he sanctions the summoning of the Saxons.
8)- In the short run, they prove very useful fighters and do most of the work, inflicting a resounding defeat on the northern enemy[10]. 8)- (We never hear of a Pictish threat again.)
9)- After some considerable time, during which St.Germanus carried out his anti-Pelagian mission[11], relations between locals and Saxons deteriorate. There is war[12], and the Saxons win by treachery (of course!). 9)- After multo tempore (about ten years) the Saxons find themselves stinted of the promised annona and the British want to drive them out. The Saxons secretly resolve on war, assault Britain without warning, and are victorious.
10)- The Saxons are left masters of the island for a long time - the time for Ambrosius to grow from a young child to a resolute adult. 10)- The Saxons are left masters of the island from about 442 to some time before 468.
11)- “Ambrosius came ashore. As soon as the news of his coming reached them, the Britons, who had been dispersed with such great slaughter [n.b.: Geoffrey seems to have missed the point that this was years before!], gathered together again from all sides, reassured… by the coming of their fellow-country-men…” and followed Aurelius Ambrosius to victory. 11)- "Then, after some time had intervened, as the most cruel robbers went home, as God strengthened the remains [of the aristocracy], to whom fled together most miserable ciues from everywhere... Ambrosius Aurelianus, the modest hero, being leader[13]... they captured more and more strength; they called the victors to battle; and Victory, with God's blessing, yelded to them".

Every historical transition that we remember from our analysis of Gildas, we find again in Geoffrey; including, most importantly, a very compatible time scheme.

The easy reaction, however – “well, Geoffrey had read Gildas” – is quite wrong.  The narrative and interpretative differences are enormous.  Geoffrey had indeed read Gildas, and made extensive use of him; but very few of these elements are clearly to be read in the older writer.  We remember the close analysis we had to carry out to discover the thread of historical sequence in his work, and it would be easy to quote scholars who, having read the same passages, came to quite different conclusions.  Reading Gildas is anything but a guarantee that anyone will even get close to Geoffrey's time scheme.  What is more, the two writers each include features – quite apart from the more obvious legendary points in Geoffrey – unknown to the other.

·         Gildas says nothing of the negotiations between Vortigern and the barbarian commander or of Vortigern’s refusal to offer him official rank because of his paganism.  Hengist asks Vortigern for the rank of “consul or princeps”, which Vortigern refuses on the grounds of his paganism and of the fact that he, Vortigern, has not yet seen enough of him, Hengist, to judge of his character.  (Hengist’s request sounds like a typical feature of late Roman politics – barbarian leaders being nominated magistri militum, supreme army commanders, in exchange for their military support.  The title was highly prized, and refusal to award it to particular chieftains, such as Alaric, could even start wars.)

  • Geoffrey does not mention the dreadful plague that forced Vortigern and his Senate to call in Saxon settlers. Yet, after the end of the war, he has Ambrosius accept the English as subjects, to settle them in the deserted and devastated parts of Britain; which was part of the rationale for Vortigern calling them in the first place.
  • Geoffrey has nothing to say about the British intention to starve the Saxons out of the country, though Gildas probably knew of it and Nennius states it quite crudely. “As they asked for food and clothing, as they had been promised[14], the British said: ‘we cannot give you food and clothing, for your number is multiplied; but go away from us, since we do not require your help’”.
  • Gildas does not specifically mention Germanus’ mission (as his theme was the perversity of British aristocracy, mention of the rise of Pelagianism was important, but its defeat was not).
  • Gildas has nothing to say directly about the defeat of the Picts in Vortigern’s time, or the Saxon role in it; the reader will remember that I surmised it from elements in his account[15].
  • The kind of "treachery" by which the Saxons gain control of the whole island is enormously different. In Gildas it amounts to the decision to fight a blitzkrieg to avoid starvation; in Geoffrey, it is a long-prepared process of stealthy takeover that involves the marriage of Vortigern to Ronwein and goes through several stages, culminating in the massacre of all the British elders at the Hill of Ambrius. Gildas' account is echoed by Nennius' chapter 36, though the rest of Nennius agrees with Geoffrey's version.
  • By the same token, the brief and savage war of Gildas is transformed into a lengthy conflict.
  • Finally, Gildas misses one capital Galfridian item: “Already no-one could tell who was a Pagan and who was a Christian, for the Pagans were associating with their daughters and their female relations”. This is a flagrantly contemporary complaint - oi! They're nicking our birds! - clearly a casus belli. Geoffrey reports this as one of the arguments offered to Vortigern by “the Britons” (that is, the majority of his people, and in particular of his nobles); it sticks out from the rest of his argument like a sore thumb and has a realistic feel that suggests that if there is any real history scattered in his brilliant prose, this must be part of it – probably an argument of the “can’t pay won’t pay” party.[16]

Whether any of these things is legendary or not, this picture simply could not have been constructed from Gildas alone.  And yet we have every reason to think that at least some of its features are accurate.  I doubt whether Geoffrey added them to N: some of them - in particular, the scheme that places the Picts as the greatest threat before Vortigern, and the Saxons afterwards - are necessary to N’s overall design.  It does not seem too bold to suggest that one of N’s sources somehow involved a fairly accurate chronological picture of Britain between about 410 and 470 - but without a correspondingly good genealogical picture.  N welded into it material drawn from accounts of Ambrosius and of Uther, from N1 (the story of Bad Vortigern), and from Gildas; and, by the use of his formidable constructive abilities, turned it all into a solid unified legend.

Whatever the date of N, the story of Ambrosius was earlier.  The legend’s peculiar regularities, especially the parallels between Constantine and Ambrosius, must depend on the known role of at least one scourge of the Barbarians; and that can be nobody but Ambrosius, attested by Gildas and unforgotten by later legend.  It seems therefore impossible to deny that those features in which Constantine matches Ambrosius are, as parts of the figure of Ambrosius earlier than N.  If, therefore, N contains an earlier account of Ambrosius which was one of the basic building blocks of the legend (as well, as we have seen, as of the *Gesta Germani), we have to ask ourselves whether we do not have the Holy Grail - a historical narrative of Ambrosius - embedded in the despised Geoffrey.

The signs are not good.  N's other major source known to us, N1, only contains a small amount of history, brilliantly rewritten into a historical fantasy that clashes with every known source from Orosius to Gildas; why should the story of Ambrosius - let's call it N2 - is any better?  We can only analyze it and see.

Gildas does not record the progress of Ambrosius' war, save for a strong suggestion that the British, early on, won an overwhelming victory.  There is therefore no reason either to accept or to reject the Galfridian description of Ambrosius’ great campaign, save of course that the enemy’s name can hardly have been Hengist.  I am however very nervous about accepting any of Geoffrey’s account of the battles of Maisbeli and Kaerconan, simply because Geoffrey is so good at battles.  Where creative ability is so vigorous, a very small source is enough to get it flowing; and therefore I am not really disposed to believe that Geoffrey had anything like an account of Ambrosius’ victories.  The chief episode of the final battle, the capture of Hengist by Eldol, is played out between two demonstrably unhistorical heroes!

On the other hand, I am disposed to credit the names Maisbeli and Kaerconan, the order in which they happened, and their effect.  These are things easily registered and transmitted in brief written records such as I have surmised elsewhere.  They are both distinctive and otherwise unknown; Geoffrey’s location of Kaerconan in Conisbrough is no doubt an infelicitous by-product of his insistence on locating the war in the North, with its climax under the walls of York.  This speaks, if anything, in favour of their historicity; the fact that Geoffrey does not even try to locate Maisbeli anywhere on the map strongly suggests that he did not invent it, but found it in his sources without sufficient explanation.

When Ambrosius allows the body of the executed Hengist to be buried by his people in their own fashion, Geoffrey lets drop a passing statement that “Ambrosius… was moderate in everything he did”.  This echoes Gildas’ uiro modesto; but there are no grounds to believe the one derived from the other, since they have nothing particular in common, in terms of formulation, of context or even of significance.  It is quite easy, as a rule, to tell when Geoffrey is making use of Gildas: either his wording is close to the point of paraphrase, or else he is clearly having a whack at some Gildasian statement he happens not to like.  Here he is doing neither; there is neither an implicit polemic against anything Gildas said - in fact, they agree - nor a close quotation; and therefore, his statement about the “moderation” of his hero makes a lot more sense as being simply what it claims to be, a casual positive comment on Ambrosius’ humane and chivalrous gesture.  Surely it was drawn from another source, parallel to Gildas only because both were commenting on the same character.  We have seen, after all, that Gildas' uiro modesto has all the air of a formula, and there is no reason why other writers describing the historical Ambrosius would not use something similar.

The problem with taking this statement to be historical is that the Hengist whose supposed burial we are talking about was a legendary figure, and the odds against anyone of that name having been the main enemy of Ambrosius are enormous.  But it would be far from Geoffrey's worst manipulation of his material to accommodate into Ambrosius’ life the figure whom he had drawn as Vortigern’s seducer and destroyer, to give him a suitable punishment and Ambrosius a suitable revenge for all the harm done to his country.  It is possible, indeed likely, that Ambrosius defeated and executed an English king[17], and then allowed him to be buried English fashion; and that Geoffrey then replaced the obscure name of Ambrosius' victim with the famous one of Hengist.  Geoffrey’s record of reckless miscegenation, invention, duplication and redating of legends[18] certainly does not argue against it; and if it sounds strange to us that the "modest/moderate" Ambrosius had an already defeated enemy executed, it so happens that his parents had been butchered by the Saxons - which Geoffrey did not know.  That is, he can be read to be reporting the revenge for a crime he himself did not know; which argues in favour of the revenge itself being historical.

Once "Hengist" has been captured and executed, the surviving English submit[19].  The best-born among them leave the town where they are besieged and (led by “Octa the son of Hengist”) approach Ambrosius and his court.  They make an act of submission and admit the superiority of the Christians’ God.  There is something very life-like about the Saxon leaders' statement that they have to believe in His power, because He had compelled so many noble men to humiliate themselves before Him (by the time the historical Ambrosius won his great victory, the Saxons had lived among Christian Britons for some considerable time, and must have been familiar with their religion).  Ambrosius feels compassion for them, and Eldadus, the best of his counsellors, recommends mercy.

Now the Pagans' ceremony of submission has fascinating parallels with that in which, in A, the legati of the slaughtered British sought at once the protection and the lordship of the Romans:

1) The British, guilty of treachery and rebellion against their legitimate Roman overlords, want Rome's protection, and, implicitly, rule, restored 1) The English, guilty of treachery and rebellion against their legitimate British overlords, surrender to "almost the last of the Romans", restoring the rule of the legitimate dynasty to Britain[20];
2)The British legati leave Britain and travel to Rome, to appear before the Roman senate 2) The noblest surviving English leave their fortress and approach Ambrosius and his assembled court on foot
3) They wear deep mourning 3) Their leader bears a chain in his hand
4) and sablones, sand or ashes, on their heads. 4) and "coarse gravel" on his head.
5) They make a formal speech of request for help (and offer submission) in proper Latin form: 5) They make a formal speech of submission (describing their distress) in proper Latin form.
6) The assembled Senate, which had heard them out carefully, accepts their submission out of compassion. 6) The assembled court hears them out carefully; Eldutus speaks for compassion and Ambrosius accepts their submission out of compassion.

The evident differences in the two rituals forbid us to suggest direct borrowing.  In A, all the legati wear deep mourning and have sand poured on their heads, equally; in Geoffrey, it is only the English leader Octa who bears the chain and the sand, while we are not told that his following of noble Saxons wear any kind of special apparel; and while in both stories the physical sign of submission and repentance is twofold, only one element is in common: the mourning clothes of A are replaced by Geoffrey's chain.  But the sequence of events, including the final mercy of the assembled victors, is so obviously parallel that we have to admit that they came from the same culture.

Now, the story of A was already old in Gildas' time, though he was probably able to understand its ritual elements; a fortiori there is no reason why this particular story should not go back to his age or earlier.  Indeed, there is a contradiction between N2’s view of compassion to the defeated, taken in isolation, and that of N as a whole.  In N2 we cannot miss the point that Ambrosius' compassion to his defeated enemies is proper and just and right; confirmed by the parallel of Gildas, in which the compassion of Rome saves Britain.  On the other hand, the overall plot of N treats compassion to barbarians as a thoroughly bad idea: if you are nice to them, they will simply kill you by stealth, and the only good barbarian is a dead barbarian.  Constantine was nice to the defeated Picts, and a Pict treacherously stabbed him; Ambrosius was nice to the defeated Saxons, and a Saxon poisoned him.

This evident ideological contradiction indicates different ages.  The story of Ambrosius accepting the Saxon surrender, which pre-existed N, treats the Saxons as defeated, incapable of further harm, and accepting their defeat: they can be integrated in the British body politic and given land to till.  By the time N was given its shape, however, belief in the value of Saxon surrender had evaporated: if they ever surrendered, it was only in order to kill by stealth.  They can never, under any condition, be trusted.  Gildas, who still does not fear a Saxon conquest, nevertheless shows a complete failure to convert or assimilate, and radical hostility between British and English.  O, whose original I have argued must come from the age of Gildas, sees Saxons as dreaded aliens, and the marriage of their princess Ronwein with Vortigern as a Satanic enchantment; though to judge from the parallel of Mag Mucrama - a terrible ancient battle - it seems to have seen them as a past rather than future terror.  The final issue of O is not the struggle between Britons and Saxons, but rather that between Ambrosius and Vortigern, with the expulsion of the latter; which suggests that the Saxon threat, however dreaded, was only seen as in some way the stage setting of the dynastic drama.  At no time in the sixth century, as we have come to know it, can the notion of accepting English submission out of compassion have been acceptable; and at no point between Gildas and Geoffrey.

When we meet this sort of thing, we have to remind ourselves of a basic point: the story exists.  We have it in the terms we have it.  We are not allowed to say that, because its views not agree with our picture of early British or Welsh culture, therefore it has no business being around; it is, and must have arisen at some point.  Now, when on Earth can the notion of praising a British warrior king such as Ambrosius for being merciful to defeated barbarians have had any currency?  There was, it's true, a comparatively brief period of friendliness between Alfred the Great and certain Welsh kings - by no means all of them - but it was a purely contingent policy with no underlying agreement, dictated by the common pagan Viking menace and the power of Rhodri Mawr.  That it should somehow have influenced the picture of Ambrosius being merciful to the English is inconceivable.  And the existence of a hugely powerful English king as a surely rather pushy ally hardly seems the sort of thing to inspire a legendary - if it is legendary - picture of defeated English warriors, without a king, throwing themselves on the mercy of the British.  Besides, I am not willing to date N so late, decades after Nennius and even longer after the *Gesta Germani.  If the latter is at all typical of the literary/narrative culture of eighth- and ninth-century Wales, such a sophisticated production as N is very difficult to imagine.

Also, the whole picture depends on an idea that to settle Saxons and convert them was, in view of Britain's exhausted state, wise and desirable: a notion which certainly would not commend itself to later Welshmen, who had seen the Saxons take their land and then become converted... and keep it anyway.  Although Geoffrey inserted, more suo, a largely legendary character, Eldadus - whose intervention in the debate on the English surrender has no match in Gildas' parallel scene - the scene of Ambrosius accepting the surrender of the English reflects the real needs of Ambrosius’ time.  Ambrosius arranged for the Saxons to settle the deserted parts of Britain.  Now Gildas shows that this was what Vitalinus had originally intended.  As the Black Legend of Vortigern arose to overlay the policies of the real man Vitalinus, it produced at least two different reasons for him to call the Saxons: the love of Ronwein and the fear of the betrayed Picts, neither of which were compatible with the statesmanlike project (which Geoffrey, like any educated mediaeval man, understood quite well) of stiffening the population of an exhausted country.

There are, indeed, indications that N2 analyzed the policies of Ambrosius in terms of succeeding in what Vortigern/Vitalinus had tried and failed.  There is a scene that startles: when Vortigern is negotiating the settlement of the Saxons with Hengist, Hengist demands official rank - "consul or princeps"[21].  Vortigern - Vortigern, the black villain of Geoffrey, who keeps magi at his court and is ready and willing to sacrifice the boy Merlin to insure his own safety! - politely says that he is sorry, but he cannot, because Hengist is not Christian.

N, otherwise committed to the Black Legend, may have incorporated here the earliest and least negative notice about the historical Vitalinus yet met.  The serious-minded Christian gentleman who is too scrupulous to admit a pagan leader to the ranks of his officialdom does not agree at all with Bad Vortigern; on the other hand, the prejudice against pagans and barbarians in official positions not only agrees with contemporary Continental Roman evidence, but raises a striking echo in Patrick's denunciation of Coroticus as a pagan in disguise, "living in the enemy ways of the Picts and the Scots".  When Patrick wrote that - in the late 430s - he worked from the assumption that "pagan ways" would not have been acceptable in a British Roman of official rank; he meant to slap officialdom in the face with the barbarian nature of the man with whom they collaborated.  Indeed, he may well have been referring to contemporary issues.  According to my interpretation, the Picts had recently been defeated by Vortigern’s Saxon settlers, whose warlord had nevertheless been refused official rank because of his religion.  There was therefore something particularly stinging about the citizenship and rank of Coroticus, this supposed Christian Roman warrior who sells baptized Christians to those same enemies which Vitalinus had to import pagan mercenaries to defeat.

The English submission to Ambrosius and his God in Geoffrey strongly hints at mass baptism - "they had to believe in the power of the Christian God, Who had compelled so many noble men to humiliate themselves"; it is not only possible but probable that the victor demanded the baptism of his new English subjects, as part of his accepting them as subjects.  (We have seen reason to suspect that the British Romans, long before the Saxon war, had forced mass baptism on the defeated Picts.)  As Vitalinus/Vortigern refused, in effect, to draw the English leader and his people into the network of relationship that was the Roman administration, it is left to Ambrosius to do so through the obliged canal of conversion.  Vitalinus' error was probably seen to be his failure to make the aliens convert[22].

These episodes are rooted in a fifth-century reality that would be neither understood nor relevant to later periods, especially if they had read Gildas with his fierce diatribe against admitting the Saxons to Britain.  The ruin of Britain states in the clearest possible terms that to admit these devilish creatures to our shores was the worst thing ever done by any British statesman; and the evidence is that, if anything, he says rather more here than he would elsewhere - his Fragments, as we have seen, show him far more willing to accept people who deal with pagans, if not necessarily the pagans themselves.  The prejudice to which The ruin appealed was not of Gildas' creation, and it follows that his period would hardly congratulate Ambrosius, let alone Vitalinus, on using Saxons, converted or not, to repopulate the island.  But N2 does[23]: the ancient narrative of Ambrosius that must have been worked into N seems to have shown a continuity in the Saxon policies of Vitalinus the usurper and of Ambrosius himself, with Ambrosius perfecting and making successful what Vitalinus had unsuccessfully started, integrating the Saxons into the commonwealth.  And the very notion that the hero of heroes, Ambrosius, might have wanted to continue Vitalinus' policies is, in and of itself, startling, given the hatred for the usurper already evident in the sixth century and that did nothing but grow throughout Welsh history.

These attitudes were dead by Gildas' time, and can never be ascribed to any later period.  They can only come from the fifth century.  At some point between Ambrosius and Gildas, Ambrosius' settlement - which almost certainly included mass baptism - collapsed, leaving the Saxons as a hated and isolated Pagan people in control of some of Britain's most fertile provinces.  I will push this further: to argue for Ambrosius far-sighted wisdom from his success in integrating the barbarians, where Vitalinus had failed, would look foolish the minute his settlement began to unravel; and as Gildas tells us, Ambrosius' initial victories were a false dawn, followed by a long cycle of wars that only finished shortly after Mount Badon.  In other words, the origin of these notices should be pushed very far back in time; maybe as far as the liberator himself.

As for why N preserved this, there are a number of possible reasons.  Firstly, of course, N2, the document of the first British victory over the great enemy, was probably very well known in his time, and he could not have constructed his historical romance without reference to it.  But even if we suppose that not every one of his readers did in fact know N2, it is clear that the purpose of N’s author was to show that mercy to barbarians was ill-considered: stressing Ambrosius’ mercy to his enemies meant showing how ruinous it had proved even to the greatest of them all.  All four foundational heroes of his version of the British monarchy, Constantine, Constans, Ambrosius and Uther, are murdered by barbarians to whom they had been either foolishly merciful or at least not sufficiently hard; and just as someone, today, might quote some document from the age of appeasement just to show how misguided it was to try to conciliate Hitler, so the author of N might have wanted to quote N2.

Either way, this has the same hallmark of subtle and capable manipulation of previously existing material which we have already seen at work superimposing Good Guithelinus over Bad Vortigern and opposing the tyrant Gratianus to the good king Constantine: only here it seems to be working with rather more consistent and extensive material, which still, even when woven into a larger whole, works to some extent against the author's purposes.  (N being written for basically Vortigernid purposes, of course, it would not have displeased the author and his Vortigernid patrons or kinsmen to show Ambrosius as a trusting fool.)

Ambrosius' great parliament, described in somewhat spurious detail by Geoffrey, is another item that must have historical features, perhaps drawn from N2 through N - though there is evidence that Geoffrey used more than one text, some quite late and full of spurious notices.  Its antiquity is certified by the fact that it was one of the features borrowed by N's legendary account of Constantine.  At some point, Ambrosius' assembly at the Cloister of Ambrius (which Geoffrey dates at Whitsun, possibly an Arthurian touch) must have been a major item of Ambrosian lore; and it seems clear that its importance had to do with its attempted reconstruction of British society and law, possibly with statutes and land-titles being dated back to it.  (If that is the case, then the lack of existing Welsh laws or other institutions claiming descent from it is significant.)  Its opening scene, with the hero consecrating himself King (“he set the crown on his head”), is not a piece of self-aggrandizement, but the first step in the deliberate re-establishment of order and degrees[24].  A nobility is re-created by bestowing lands, an episcopate by nominating archbishops to City of the Legions[25] and York, and the war dead are commemorated.

The names of the two archbishops are spurious. St.Samson, Archbishop of York - is a century too early, and a Breton to boot; the other, St.Dyfrig is “only” half a century too early.  Dyfrig, Samson and Illtyd - who, as Eldadus, turns up as Ambrosius' adviser - are all closely related in a sort of hagiographic cycle at the border of legend and history: Dyfrig, a bishop whose see may have been at Hentland in Herefordshire, seems to have had Illtyd's great monastery of Llanilltyd Fawr under his jurisdiction, and ordained the young Samson there.  All these saints have to do with territories around Monmouthshire; but Geoffrey had not read their Lives, which, as we have them, date them quite clearly by making Illtyd a contemporary of Arthur.  He probably chose their names from church dedications and local traditions, in keeping with his concern with the Monmouth area[26].  Whatever the case, however, it seems that whatever written account he had access to, did not have much by way of names: here as in the episode of the English king's burial, Geoffrey simply inserts the most famous names that come into his head - Hengist, Samson, Dyvrig.

Part 2


[1] For that matter, association with the "founder of the monarchy", Constantine III, might not even have pleased the Ambrosiads.  If Gildas is at all representative of the views of the house of Ambrosius, whose ancestor he so strongly admires, then his attack on the British usurpers of the year of three emperors, illegitimate, “not anointed through God, but by being crueller than the rest”, suggests that even if records made Constantine III the founder of the British state, the Ambrosiads might, like Gildas, have little time for such a founder.

[2] For instance: the Roman third-function god, Quirinus, is the god of men-together, co-uiri, and the adjective derived from his name, Quirites, is synonimous for an ordinary free Roman citizen.  His Germanic counterpart, Freyr, is the veraldar gođ, the god of men (ver) in generations (ald).

[3]It would therefore seem that when Elphin, in the legend of Taliesin, tells Maelgwn that his bride is as chaste as the king's, he is laying down a challenge to Maelgwn's lordship; and we notice that when Maelgwn dispatches his son Rhun with his royal mandate to tup Elphin's wife, neither she nor Taliesin seem to trust to the power of her own chastity, and they proceed to simply disguise a serving-maid in her mistress' clothes.  Thus, and not by resisting Rhun in her own person, does Elphin's wife save her chastity; why?  Obviously, because Rhun, carrying the will and magic of his royal father, has legitimate access to any woman - or perhaps any married woman - in his father's area of sovereignty.

[4]It is however possible that at least part of the influence may have been the other way: that is, the idea of the sick king sustained by the water of a single spring may be original, one of the features of the legendary Uther before he was worked into N.  It might have to do with the well-known Celtic belief in the holiness and health-giving properties of springs, and with a peculiarity of several Arthurian legends: meetings with sick kings sustained only by supernatural nourishment of some sort - in particular, the Grail.  In that case, the author of N might have worked from the notion of poisoning Uther by means of his life-sustaining holy spring, and produced, according to his narrative symmetry, the idea of Constantine.  According to this reconstruction, Constantine would be the only king without a definite death legend (in fact, it suggests that all that was known of him was that he was the first king of an independent Britain), except that he was known to have died violently; and so the symmetry dictated his being stabbed; in a forest; by a single Pict.

[5] There might be another: since the author of N1 imagines that it is necessary for Vortigern to corrupt the monk Constans and force him on the throne, even though this alienates the whole clergy, it follows that N1 knew a legitimate alternative heir whom Vortigern did not want enthroned.  This cannot have been Ambrosius or Uther; so it seems likely that N1's author had heard of the historical Constantine's younger son, Julian.  We can only imagine what N1 did with Julian: the story feature of Ambrosius and Uther being taken to Armorica belongs to the story of Ambrosius himself and cannot have applied to Julian.  Bad Vortigern probably contrived his death at Pictish or Saxon hands in some fashion.

[6]Constantine was the second son of the king of the Bretons, who count as Britons in exile.  He was born in this land of exile; Ambrosius was taken to it as a baby; the effect is the same – they were brought there and far from the island.

[7] According to Orosius (Historia aduersus paganos 7.40.4) and Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History 9.11), it was because of his name, which was held to be auspicious, that the troops selected Constantine III as emperor.  In other words, Constantinus was his original name

[8] There is a distant possibility that his being a younger brother was first invented to affiliate him to Constantine and relate him to Constans, Constantine's admitted heir, and that it then became a part of his legend and was transferred back to Constantine when N1 was constructed.  This would ask us to postulate two successive stages in the elaboration of N from N1, the first forming a fictional dynasty out of several distinguished ancient rulers of Britain, the second extending a legendary pattern to the eldest.  We have no evidence for such a transition, and I see no need for it.

[9]J.G.T.SHERINGHAM, review of Leon Fleuriot's Les origines de la Bretagne: l'emigration, in Studia Celtica 18-19 (1983-4), 379-86.

[10]This is also found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; however, Geoffrey actually goes beyond its account, which said no more than that the English settlers helped in the defeat of the Picts.  In Geoffrey, they do most of the work.

[11]In Geoffrey, this is slightly out of chronology.  If my scheme is correct, the Saxons were called, and the Pictish invasion met and defeated, a few years after Germanus’ first mission – which is obviously what Geoffrey is describing.  Nevertheless, Geoffrey is correct in dating it to Vortigern’s reign; and he cannot have drawn this dating from the Nennian legend of Germanus and Vortigern, which he rejected if he knew it at all, nor from Bede.  In other words, it seems quite likely that he had another source featuring a tolerably correct dating for the Saint.

[12]I am of course leaving out everything to do with Vortimer, who is less historical than Santa Claus.

[13]This can mean either "when Ambrosius Aurelianus was [made] leader", or “because Ambrosius Aurelianus was [made] leader”.  The ablative absolute is a broad enough construction, which can mean condition, but also cause.  It does not necessarily imply that it was Ambrosius' generalship that procured the victory.

[14]Italics mine.

[15]From my own point of view as a writer, it is not without importance that I wrote the analysis of Gildas' account of the adventus Saxonum a full two years before this passage, and before I awoke to the possible uses of Geoffrey - whom I had not read for years at the time.  The surmise about the Saxons' defeat of the Picts has therefore nothing to do with any study of Geoffrey or for that matter of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (to which, in the matter of English victories in the legendary past, I would have paid no attention), but results entirely from close study of what the Saint had to say.

[16] I am also confident that, in the points in which it contradicts Gildas, it is Gildas who is in the right.  Firstly, the picture of an unsupported usurper grubbing abroad for mercenary Pagan supporters clashes sharply with E, where the Mild King has the whole country against him, and the Ill-Starred Usurper must have been elected by general consent.  Second, Saint Gildas being factious is more truthful than M or N being blunt.  Comparison with them helps us at last to appreciate how honest Gildas is, by the standards of his time, when he admits that the Saxons had already had occasion to complain of unpaid annona - occasiones de industria colorantes.   We would never gather that from M or N; and Gildas has none of the self-justifying quality of M.  His picture of a Senate vote is much more credible than Geoffrey's picture of a tyrant calling in the aliens against his whole people's will.

[17] Or chieftain, or warlord, or whatever you like.  I have no intention of implying that the Saxons of Ambrosius’ time had a stable monarchy of Louis XIV’s type; only that there may have been a recognized leader whose fall may have smashed his followers’ morale.  And bear in mind that mere contact with Roman institutions tended to solidify the various Germanic chieftainships into permanent or semi-permanent polities, because the Roman state could only deal with “kings” - reges.

[18]Geoffrey took liberties with his sources to make Shakespeare blench. The genealogical fiction of the house of Constantine must have been old to the point of being obsolete; in order to slide it into his own picture of the long line of kings of Britain descended from Brutus, he is reduced to a fantastic piece of forgery, identifying the Custennin of some early Arthurian sources with Gildas’ Constantine of Dumnonia, turning him into Arthur’s heir, and having him followed by three more of the Five Tyrants – Cuneglasus is missing – transformed into a dynasty, father to son (it fills me with delight to think of that screaming queen Constantine of Dumnonia having a baby!). This means that he could identify no bloodline descended from the “house of Constantine”, no surviving or even recorded Ambrosiad dynasty. But since the fall of Ambrosian Britain dates to 570-620AD, and Geoffrey wrote in the 1130s, there is more than enough time for legends to both arise and become obsolete.

[19]GEOFFREY, History 8.8 (p.183).

[20]This would be true whether we take this part of the story of Ambrosius to have been written while Gildasian Britain was still in place and genuine records of Ambrosius existed, or whether we take it to have been invented along with the account of the "House of Constantine"; either way, the restoration of the rule of "almost the last of the Romani" represented the return of the legitimate ruling house after long usurpation.

[21]Geoffrey's great translator Lewis Thorpe, used to Geoffrey's constant anachronisms and inability to think outside his own century - which endows Arthur with Twelve Peers of France! - renders this as "prince or earl", seeing it as no more than one of Geoffrey's normal Classicisms concealing a thoroughly twelfth-century mind; certainly a plausible reading. On the other hand, the title of consul certainly existed in the fifth-century Britanniae, as we have seen, and continued for centuries in a variety of uses in both Wales and Brittany; and princeps almost certainly stands for army commander; a title similar to that of Magister militum which so many Germanic commanders obtained from Emperors of both east and west on the continent (cf. COLLINS Early medieval Europe op.cit. 87-88), as the Saxon commander, whatever his name, was surely aware. The scene of his demanding official status from the British sovereign and being refused because of his paganism sits well in every century and stage of culture from the 430s to Geoffrey's 1130s; but, on the whole, slightly better in the Roman world than at any other time, because of the nature of the Roman state, in which official titles, rather than possession of land or people, really made the biggest difference in rank. Hengist's following act in Geoffrey's narrative - being granted as much space as a thong made from an oxhide could encircle - belongs to universal European fable themes, and cannot be attributed with confidence to any ethnic group or time, but is certainly not historical; it is followed by the arrival of Ronwein...

[22]To make a further suggestion - admittedly resting on a number of unprovable suggestions: if we (1) accept that Patrick was making an allusion to the Saxons and the rank refused to their warlord; and if we (2) accept that the episode of Vortigern refusing official rank comes from a contemporary report of Ambrosius' policies, referring to Vitalinus' refusal to grant the Saxon leaders official rank on account of their religion - a report which, however close to Ambrosius' time, would be a minimum of three or so decades later than Vitalinus' refusal itself; we can conclude that the demand and refusal of official rank had been a major policy issue, debated in Britain loudly enough for Patrick in Ireland to hear of it (he should also have heard of the threatened Pictish invasion and the Saxon auxilium that turned it away, so as to have some idea of what the State owed the Saxons), and still remembered decades later as one of Vitalinus' policy failures, reversed by Ambrosius. This would be in keeping with contemporary continental politics, in which the role and rank of barbarian and semi-barbarian warlords in the Roman state was a very major policy issue; and might perhaps have some relevance to the British attitude as reported in Nennius 36 - "go away, for we have no more need for you"; that is the Saxons can, according to the law-mad Romano-British, be dismissed at will (a ghastly mistake), and this must have meant that they had no official rank or standing in the commonwealth. This is speculation with no direct evidence whatever, but it does agree with other Roman experiences of the time.

[23]If we accept my view about N1 and N2 as sources of N, it is worth pointing out that, if - and I say if - N2's suggestive idea that the Saxons were to be settled in the deserted areas of Britain does in fact hearken back to Vitalinus' original policy of doing just that, then it contradicts N1's implicit denial that any plague had ever weakened the Britanniae in front of a resurgent Pictish enemy, or justified sending for the Saxons and settling them in areas left defenceless. This might explain why N himself, using N1 as a source for the time of Vortigern/Vitalinus and N2 as a source for Ambrosius, knows nothing of the plague; perhaps the original of N2 did.

[24]On the other hand, I think that this scene is unhistorical. If Ambrosius had an elder brother, it is likely that that elder brother was the ranking king or emperor. I will give other reasons to think so in the same chapter.

[25]To Geoffrey, this means Caerleon-upon-Usk, which boasts the most impressive Roman remains in Wales; but if there is any history in it, it is likelier to mean Chester.

[26]It is however possible that their misdating may depend on a fabulous misinterpretation of the birth-date of Gildas. See below, bk.9, ch.1, note 10.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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