Recorded in British history by Gildas Badonicus and Bede, and later modified by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Aurelius Ambrosius, the key focus of this website is Ambrosius Aurelianus, conflated with King Arthur, but historically is a figure of Roman royalty praised in The Historia Brittonum as the great fifth-century king of the British nation.
FIFTH-CENTURY BRITON KING
0, Ambrosius, Ambrosius! wherefore art thou Arthur?
When John Steinbeck began writing The Acts of King Arthur, his goal was to translate Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur into Modern American English. Thinking that his quest would be a short-term project, he commented in his letters.
I have a feeling this will go very fast. (Steinbeck, John 1975, 297)
Three years later his attitude had changed to
The field and subject of King Arthur is so huge, so vague, so powerful and eternal, that I can’t seem to mount it and set spurs (Steinbeck, Elaine et.al. 1975, 607).
He finished only a segment, which was published twelve years after his death (Steinbeck, John 1975, 296).
The intimidating magnitude of legends which Steinbeck experienced, however, pales in contrast to the quest for King Arthur’s enigmatic historicity. Anyone who rejects such a quest has no concept of history, legend, reality or truth. De La Rouchefoucauld reminds us that history never embraces more than a small part of reality and truth, and Jean Markale remarks that we can look for evidence either in history or in legend, for both will give us clues of reality. It is important, therefore, to heed admonitions from unbiased experts who counsel us to accept fault or oversight, and to refrain from rejecting the totality of a manuscript because of its sporadic impurities.
The reality and truth we seek is provided by both history and legend, so both must be considered as a complement to the other, not a contradiction. A modern researcher, therefore, must not assume ancient manuscripts are sacrosanct or free of error. Reality and truth must be extracted to the best of one’s ability, and then the researcher is obliged to raise a red flag if he discovers a discrepancy in any manuscript which distorts validity.
Over the centuries, literally thousands of books about the legendary King Arthur have been published, while interest in King Arthur’s historicity has increased only during the last five decades. The earliest manuscript providing sketchy British history was penned by Gildas Badonicus in the fourth decade of sixth century (Note 1), but he writes nothing about a historic King Arthur. At the beginning of the seventh century, the bard Aneirin wrote a lament about a fierce battle in which "Gwarwrddur glutted black ravens on the ramparts, but he was no Arthur" (Canu Aneirin LI-LIV), a poetic style meaning that the Celtic chieftain killed many enemies, but he was not as distinguished as Arthur. That terse reference created a conundrum which twisted British history for four centuries.
Like Gildas, the historian Bede does not record the name Arthur. The name Arthur resurfaces in the ninth century when Nennius includes in the Historia Brittonum twelve battles fought by this obscure hero (Nennius HB 56). Although the Historia provides valuable information about Roman Britain in the fifth century, it epitomizes the need for the above admonition concerning history and reality. In an enlightening analysis of §56, Leslie Alcock raised a red flag when he uncovered serious distortions of what seemed solid historical facts.
To remain unbiased, the title, "The Campaigns of Arthur," should be stricken because it was added in the 1800s. Alcock writes that the version of Section 56 in The British Historical Miscellany (folio 187A) must begin thusly:
At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain. On Hengest’s death, his son Octha came down from the north of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from him are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen.
The new segment was then intended to begin with a red-drop capital: (Alcock 1973, 55, 59).
The blank space in the original suggests that a new topic was to follow; that is, the topic of Hengest and his clan was not linked to Arthur or the battlelist of the fifth century; an enlumineur did not insert the decorative “T” for the introductory sentence (Note 2). In addition to the errors Alcock points out, the passage “On Hengest’s death . . .” must be changed to "On Horsa’s death . . . (Note 3)” and Hengest’s clan was not Kentish, but East Anglian, the enemies whom Gildas Badonicus refers to as the "oriental sacrilegorum” (Gildas DE 24.1).
These blunders profoundly changed British history. In the Preface to the Historia Brittonum, Nennius apologizes for sounding like a chattering bird or an incompetent judge, writing that he has made a heap of history, and unfortunately in this instance, he did. But he must be regarded as a true amanuensis who used five sources (Nennius HB ) to compile the history, and must have naively copied an extract mentioning Arthur from Aneirin’s poem, inadvertently setting it in the fifth century.
C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor are the vanguards who come to the rescue. In From Scythia to Camelot, they identified the Roman commander Lucius Artorius Castus as Præfect of the Sixth Legion, who was assigned to Britain in the second century. He was quartered at York, and his mission was to protect the borders of Hadrian’s Wall from barbaric invaders. This Artorius is convincingly the Arthur recorded in Aneirin’s poem (Littleton and Malcor 1994, 23, 62-63). In two separate articles written in The Heroic Age, Linda Malcor offers solid evidence of several battlesites in the vicinity of York and Hadrian’s Wall which should be attributed to Lucius Artorius in the second century (accessed March 1, 2005). Although he was not a king, he was the Romano-Briton dux bellorum whose identity was misinterpreted in The Historia Brittonum. Monmouth perpetuated the error, and just about everyone thereafter followed suit. Finally, the question of Ronald Millar’s satire, Will the real King Arthur please stand up? (Millar 1978) has been answered: Lucius Artorius Castus is standing.
The firestorm surrounding King Arthur’s historicity, however, did not intensify until the twelfth century when three other manuscripts appeared almost simultaneously. The Brut Tysilio and the Book of Basingwerke Abbey are fragmented, whereas Monmouth’s book is quite detailed, and its alluring attraction over the centuries has created nearly two hundred variants of his manuscript. Monmouth cites his major source as the notorious very ancient book, but he undoubtedly borrowed Arthur’s battlelist from Nennius and extracted material about Hengist, Vortigern, and the story of Ambrosius, all who are historically linked to the fifth century. Then, atypical for someone who claims to be an amanuensis, Monmouth abandons the genealogical “House of Constantine," invents the character of Merlin who is an offshoot of Ambrosius, and embraces the misplaced Arthur. The historic King Arthur did not rise from the proverbial ashes of legend, because the spate of legends didn’t appear until after Geoffrey’s book; the quest for Arthur of Britain must focus upon an era prior to Aneirin.
Although it’s a dreadful sacrilege to utter, it must be done. A historic King Arthur cannot be found in the fifth century. Nennius can be exonerated for overlooking the Arthur of an earlier era, but Monmouth’s transgression is unforgivable because through his manipulation he distorted history by creating fictitious characters and in the process consigned a great British hero of the fifth century, Ambrosius Aurelianus, to oblivion.
Monmouth’s "House of Constantine" is a convoluted segment tainting a crucial era of British history. It must therefore be condemned to the wrecking ball. Only after the air clears can a new house, the House of Constantius III, be constructed for a fresh perspective identifying not Arthur, but Ambrosius Aurelianus.
Monmouth’s genealogy, built on a foundation of straw, involves eight figures: 1) Constantine who marries an unnamed 2) Briton wife; 3) Constans, 4) Aurelius Ambrosius (Ambrosius Aurelianus), and 5) Utherpendragon who are allegedly their three sons; and 6) Anna and 7) Arthur who are supposedly sired by Utherpendragon. The eighth is a blatant Monmouth creation, Merlin. Constantine (Note 4) and Constans are father-son who invade Gaul in 407 and are killed in 411, at least a decade prior to Monmouth’s genealogy. Because of the conflation, those two names should be stricken.
Another oddity is that Monmouth didn’t give a name to Aurelius Ambrosius’s (Ambrosius Aurelianus’s) brother until much later in the story when Ambrosius is dead and Uther acquires his own name from Merlin’s oracle upon seeing a ball of fire in the sky which takes the shape of a dragon. There are no sources which indicate Ambrosius Aurelianus had a brother, and interestingly only the Fates can guess how Anna and Arthur materialized. When Utherpendragon and his mysterious offspring are stricken, only two individuals remain in Monmouth’s genealogy-an unnamed Briton wife, and Aurelius Ambrosius (Ambrosius Aurelianus). In the middle of writing “The House of Constantine,” Monmouth breaks off his narration and inserts “The Prophecies of Merlin” which has no bearing on British history.
On the other hand, the Roman genealogy begins with the marriage of Constantius III to Honorius’s half-sister Placidia, who bears him two children. Associated with British tradition, Gorlois and Ygerna are Duke and Duchess of Cornwall who bear a son named Cador. After Gorlois’s death, Utherpendragon and Ygerna have a son named Arthur. Cador and Arthur are half-brothers.
Based upon a theory proposed by R. G. Collingwood (1923, 297-301), Emperor Honorius attempts to reclaim Britain shortly after the birth of Placidia’s two children, ostensibly by sending Constantius to the island as Comes Britanniarum.
If this premise–as interpreted by the standards of De La Rouchefoucauld–is accepted as truth, then–as Markale claims–we can glimpse reality. However, in order to trace this phantasmagoric hero Ambrosius through the maze of manuscripts, proper names at this point must be replaced by epithets. In many manuscripts, Pendragon is commonly synonymous with Uther or Utherpendragon, but in order to avoid confusion, Pendragon should be used only to identify Ambrosius’s father on the island, whose concubine was Ygerna of tradition. Its simplest literal definition is "Head Dragon" or "Chief Dragon." An overzealous Celticist might assume that the former literally means the head of a dragon, but any Welsh dictionary lists pen- as "head, top, end, mouth, or chief" (Note 5). This is an appropriate epithet for Constantius III, since he was Supreme Commander and the cavalry’s blazon was a dragon.
Uterpendragon–not Utherpendragon–is an epithet which describes Ambrosius Aurelianus in history, and Arthur in legend. Despite fervent objections by some, Uter is a Latin affix which manifests itself in the English word “uterine,” meaning “born of the same mother but by a different father.” Historically this means Ygerna and Constantius had a son named Ambrosius Aurelianus, not Arthur. In tradition, Ygerna and Gorlois had a son named Cador. Hence, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Cador were half-brothers, not Arthur and Cador. The genealogy for Constantius thus indicates that both Valentinian III and Cador are Ambrosius Aurelianus’s half-brothers. This also infers that epithetically, Constantius would have acquired the title of Pendragon on the island, but not on the continent.
For some reason, Monmouth refers to Ambrosius Aurelianus as Merlin. The Historia Brittonum elaborates upon this wizard motif when Ambrosius Aurelianus confounds Vortigern’s wizards. A covert suggestion is that Ambrosius Aurelianus, in his early years when he was exiled in Brittany, was sheltered by Druids, and acquired some of their supernatural powers. This would explain why Ambrosius Aurelianus was so feared: he was the son of a Roman consulibus, he was endowed with druidic powers, and he became a competent military leader. In dread, Vortigern gave Ambrosius Aurelianus "his fortress and kingdoms, then fled to the north (Morris, 1980, 31). The same sections in the Historia Brittonum tell the story of Emrys, a key epithet which is also used heavily in the Tysilio. It translates to the equivalent of “emperor” or “king.” Riothamus is a crucial figure in continental history who strikes at the core of Arthuriana and requires a more detailed explanation. There are only three brief notices of him. One reference is found in Charles Mierow (1908 63, 74) (Note 6). The second is by Ernest Brehaut (1916, 35), (Note 7) and third is in Anderson’s translation (xiii 35) (Note 8). Leon Fleuriot and James Campbell both regarded Riothamus as an epithet for Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Briton king from across Ocean (Ashe 1987, 53, 113). In The Discovery of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe follows Monmouth’s fiction trail and claims that Riothamus was an epithet for Arthur, and established his entire case in one short paragraph (Ashe 1987, 113-114). Ashe’s case, however, is refuted in The Historic King Arthur and can be summarized on five counts.
1. Admittedly, Gildas doesn’t call Ambrosius Aurelianus a king, but he does acknowledge him as Roman royalty, and a victor, but Gildas does not even recognize an Arthur.
2. Nennius likewise does not call Arthur a king, even in the spurious §56 where Nennius refers to Arthur as a dux bellorum.
3. Why Ashe labels Ambrosius Aurelianus’s kingship as "legend" is mystifying. Ambrosius Aurelianus is verified by both Gildas and Bede, whereby an Arthur of the fifth century is not. As a copyist, Nennius records that Ambrosius Aurelianus was the great king among all the kings of Britain, and the only interpolated word in that passage is the word "great." In that same passage, Ambrosius Aurelianus had the power to grant kingdoms to Paschent (Stevenson 1964, 39, footnote 34).
4. Ambrosius Aurelianus is not merely a "landholder" as Ashe claims. Although a modern Welsh dictionary defines gwledig as a landholder, the term as it was used implies royalty and rank, exemplified by five independent sources (Note 9).
5. Indeed, the name Ambrosius Aurelianus does not appear in either history or legend on the continent, but neither does Ashe’s King Arthur. In the continental manuscripts, the epithet Riothamus is not attached to a proper name but identifies him only as a Briton king from across Ocean, and "king" must be emphasized. These epithets augment Ambrosius Aurelianus’s persona, but none indicates what caused Ambrosius Aurelianus’s name to metamorphose into “Arthur.” One, however, might suggest the conflation attached to the constellation Ursa Major. The Greeks identified this constellation with the nymph Callisto, placed in the heavens by Zeus in the form of a bear together with her son Arcas as a “bear warder.” There is a tenuous link which scholars have made between Cuneglasus and the “bear rider” in Gildas’s manuscript. A number of researchers have latched onto these epithets and created the equation that Arcas translates to the Welsh arth meaning “bear which became Arctos and other variants. A close association with Ursa Major is the constellation Bootes (Bo-‘ot-eez), whose brightest star, Arcturus, never sleeps or drops below the horizon. Arcturus as an epithet for Ambrosius Aurelianus would emphasize the importance of this great and powerful Briton king. As an aside, perhaps, because the star Arcturus never “sleeps,” Arthur became known as the “once and future king who never dies, but is sleeping in a cave, waiting to be summoned once again to human activity.” Supported by convincing evidence that the name “Arthur” was extracted from the name Lucius Artorius Castus of the second century, which of course leads to the realization that there was no factual “King Arthur” to be found anywhere in the fifth century, the only historical king recorded during that era in Briton history was Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas Badonicus and Bede correctly identified that king, but Nennius assigned the enigmatic battle list to an Arthur of an incorrect era, and that error caused Artorius Castus of the second century and Ambrosius of the fifth century to be conflated. Evidence has also shown that several of the battlesites can be traced to Artorius Castus and his command at Hadrian’s Wall. However, the last battle in the list, Badon Hill, must be attributed to Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas Badonicus supplied an accurate date (near the end of the fifth century), and other surviving manuscripts such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Roman history of Britain, Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, and Sidonius show that Hengist, Horsa, Octha and their clan, plus a host of other historical figure, lead to the assertion that the battle at Badon Hill was fought during the last half of the fifth century. Similarly, the Camlann Strife cannot be attributed to Artorius Castus. The strife at Camlann is recorded in the Annales Cambriae and is assigned the date of 537, a date which controversially is sometimes listed in the year 502 or 521. (See Anglo-Saxon Chronicle>Preface for a reconciliation of dates.) Ambrosius Aurelianus would be the individual whom Layamon had in mind when he wrote that the fays enchanted “Arthur” as a child and claimed his “death would be long deferred.” John Steinbeck’s assessment of Arthuriana was right on target: the field and subject of King Arthur is huge, vague, powerful and eternal, particularly when legend and history meld for a glimpse of truth and reality. Ambrosius Aurelianus can take a bow and share Briton honors with Lucius Artorius Castus.
(Reno 1996, 117-119) suggests that Gildas Badonicus penned the De Excidio circa 541 A.D.
2. Although this at first seems trivial, the separation between the battles of Arthur and Hengist’s involvement forfeits Arthur’s link to the fifth century, which is Hengist’s era, but not Arthur’s.
3. Horsa was slain in the year 455 A.D., and after that Hengest succeeded to the kingdom with his son Octha (Garmonsway 1990, 12).
4. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 6, page 388, the Briton usurper Constantine was more formally known as Flavius Claudius Constantinus. Constantine the Usurper–who was bestowed the title of Caesar–and his son Constans appear in Roman history, such as in Arther Ferrill’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, pages 100-101, 104, 115, and 117-119. Constantius III, who was Emperor Honorius’s Supreme Commander, captured Constantine, and in transit to Ravenna, the usurper was beheaded.
5. An overzealous Celticist wrote on internet that Uter meant “leather bag,” which when linked with Pendragon would be Leather Bag Head Dragon. He failed, however, to look at the correct affix in Cassell’s dictionary, where there are two “uters” listed, one pronounced with a long “u” meaning an animal-skin bag, and the other, pronounced “Ooter” giving rise to our English word uterine. Ambrosius and Cador are half-brothers.
6. (Mierow 1908, 74): “Now Euric of the Visigoths perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their king Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of Biturges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against [Riotimus’s forces] with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riotimus, king of the Brittones, before the Romans could join him. When [Riotimus] had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighboring tribe then allied to the Romans.”
7. (Brehaut 1916, 35): "The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the villages of Déols." 8. (Anderson 1963). The importance of Sidonius’s letter to Riothamus is that he provides the date of A.D. 496. See also (Reno 1996, 286-293, and Reno 2000, 70, 73, 115, 276-277). Chambers (1964, 176) translates the term as wledig, guleticus; Morris (1980, 31) as Emrys the Overlord; and again (1989, 206) as gwledic, supreme ruler of the land, and a third time (1989, 220) as gwledic, ruler of a country; (Rhys (1996, 104) writes, “It is a significant fact that, with the exception of Arthur, those who seem to have succeeded for supreme power here [in Britain] when the Romans left are always styled in Welsh literature gwledig, instead of being described by a title signifying emperor or the familiar office of king.” Chadwick (1965, 45-46)uses the terms Emreis, Guletic, “Romanized ruler of south-western Britain” Gantz (1987, 190) uses the term emhyr and defines it as “Emperor, perhaps not originally a proper name.