This article has been written to provide background information to the release of a new historical fiction novel, Ambrosius: Last of the Romans, by Tim Walker. Download the e-book from Amazon here:-
Ambrosius Aurelianus, to give him his full name, was a high king of the Britons in the early Dark Ages, some time after the exit of the Romans in the year 410. The exact dates of his reign, chronological details and physical evidence remain scant, and we must rely on the written accounts of three monks – Gildas (c. 650), Nennius (c.750) and Bede (c. 790), as well as the more fantastical History of the Kings of Briton by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1140). The Britons shared a culture and language with similar Celtic tribes across northern Europe, a language similar to modern day Welsh.
The closest in time of the surviving accounts of events in the fifth century come from the gloomy On the Ruin of Britain by Welsh monk Gildas, written around the year 550. Here is what he said about Ambrosius:
The poor remnants of our nation… that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive.
The Roman legions marched away between 409-410 never to return, and the Britons were left to defend themselves from various ‘barbarian’ raiders – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from modern day Denmark and northern Germany, are not deemed to be invaders because they were employed to fight by an early high king named Vortigern (quite possibly a continuation of a tactic employed previously by the Romans). They clearly developed ambitions to settle having seen how green and pleasant England’s countryside was in comparison to their own salty marshes. They were also under pressure in their lands from other barbarian tribes pushing westwards.
Geoffrey of Monmouth is responsible for popularizing the legend of King Arthur and his knights, although there are earlier mentions of Arthur in the writings of Nennius in the eighth century. He more or less has a fifth century line-up of kings of Britain, starting with Constantine, who ‘wore the purple’, presumably as a provincial governor, and who was quickly murdered by ‘cruel and sly’ Vortigern. Vortigern is then defeated by Ambrosius Aurelianus and his brother Uther Pendragon. Uther then succeeds Aurelius, and is in turn succeeded by his son Arthur, with much sorcery from Merlin thrown into the mix. All of this is unproven in terms of hard archaeological facts. What happened where and when and who were the key players remain unanswered questions.
Taking up the story of Ambrosius from Geoffrey of Monmouth, we find the sons of Constantine, Ambrosius and Uther, arriving in Britain from Gaul with an army to confront Vortigern. He was already unpopular with the people for his brutal acts, constant wars and for employing Saxons to fight in his mercenary army:
As soon as news of his [Ambrosius’s] coming was divulged, the Britons, who had been dispersed by their great calamities, met together from all parts… having assembled together the clergy, they anointed Ambrosius king, and paid him the customary homage.
The brothers defeat Vortigern in battle and pursue him to his fortress, called Genoreu, where their attempt to burn him out results in his death. Ambrosius is then the unchallenged high king of the Britons, and ready to form resistance to the spread of the Saxon, Angle and Jute colonists, under brothers Hengist and Horsa.
Therefore, the Saxons, in fear of him, retired beyond the Humber, and in those parts did fortify the cities and towns… this was good news to Ambrosius, who augmented his army and made an expeditious march towards the north.
Geoffrey goes on to describe the two armies meeting in battle on a field called Maisbeli, though to be somewhere in South Yorkshire. Again, a date and exact location of this battle is unknown. Another major battle in the late fifth century between the Britons and the Saxons often mentioned is Badon Hill, but again where this is and on what date it happened, and who commanded the Briton army – Ambrosius, Uther or Arthur – remains unknown.
It is widely thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth had supplemented the written sources of information he could muster with a fanciful imagination, perhaps also setting down folk legends that had been passed by word of mouth for generations. It is a masterful work, and all the more tantalising for the sparseness of other historical evidence of those misty days after the Romans departed and before Saxon kingdoms were established.
In my historical fiction series, I have woven a family saga – the Pendragons – taken from the writings of Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey, surmising that if King Arthur was a real military leader who may have died around the year 537 at the Battle of Camlann (as mentioned in two sources), then there is 127 years of mayhem leading up to this point from the date of the Roman’s departure. My guesswork is that Vortigern ruled some time from 410-440, followed by Ambrosius, perhaps 440-470, then Uther from 470-500 and Arthur from 500-537. This is a conjectural framework for my storytelling in my three-part series, A Light in the Dark Ages.
Part one, Abandoned! tells the story of Marcus Aquilius, a half-Roman half-Briton auxiliary cavalry commander who is left behind by accident in 410 when his legion marches away from the town of Calleva Atrebatum (modern day Silchester in Hampshire). He organizes the defence of his town from a roving Saxon army, as they revert to Briton tribal leadership, and Marcus adopts his mother’s name – Pendragon.
Part two, Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (just released) is the story of Ambrosius Aurelianus, who returns to Britain in 440 as an experienced soldier to confront high king Vortigern over the murder of his father. He finds Marcus in Calleva, who, as an elder of the town, guides him through the murky political waters of tribal jealousies and divisions. In time he becomes king, that much is already told, but what happens to him, and how does the succession pass to his brother Uther?
Part three – Uther’s Destiny, is a work in progress. Together, they build up to the coming of Arthur, a story too well known to be re-told with any conviction. I choose to end with Arthur as a boy, and his destiny stretching before him. He is the intended Light in the Dark Ages; but having read about the exploits of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Divine One, I’m now of a mind to give him the title.