Who Was Ambrosius Aurelianus in 5th-Century Britain?

Around the year 495, an army of Britons and assimilated Romans won a decisive victory over a force of Anglo-Saxons on a battlefield either in Bath, Badbury Hill or Dorset. This battle, known as the Battle of Badon Hill, was said to have been masterminded by a man who went by the name Ambrosius Aurelianus. The battle, itself, is deemed to be fairly historical, but the man who led the Britons to victory has been buried under myth and legend.

In the 6th century, a monk named Gildas wrote that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a man possibly descended from Roman royalty, who became a king of Britain and was a major rival to Vortigern, another quasi-mythical figure said to have been High-King of the Britons at the time. Gildas also attributed the victory of the Britons at Mount Badon (or Badon Hill) to Ambrosius’ leadership.

Later, another monk by the name of Bede (c. 673-735) also wrote about the reign of Ambrosius. Bede did not connect him to Vortigern, but his account of the king aligned with Gildas in most other areas. He wrote that Ambrosius Aurelianus was born from Roman royalty, and that he rallied together an army of Britons to defend against the influx of Anglo-Saxons. Like Gildas, Bede also claimed that Ambrosius won the day at the Battle of Badon Hill.

By the 8th and 9th century, another writer named Nennius reintroduced the narrative of a rivalry between Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern. From there he elaborated, claiming that Ambrosius had the gift of prophecy. When Geoffrey of Monmouth took up the story in the 12th century, the reign of Ambrosius had bloomed into an elaborate folk tale. Geoffrey wrote that Ambrosius Aurelianus was the brother of Utherpendragon—making him the uncle of the legendary King Arthur. Geoffrey went on to claim that Ambrosius eventually defeated and killed Vortigern. The victorious king then turned against the Anglo-Saxons and defeated them in battle, after which an assassin brought his reign to an end with the use of poison.

So, who really was Ambrosius Aurelianus? In short, we don’t know for sure. Yet, like most myths and legends, there is often a sliver of truth hidden under all of the extravagant folklore.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Detail of miniature from the New Minster Charter, 966, showing King Edgar flanked by the Virgin Mary and St Peter, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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