The Grail Code 
Ambrosius the Wizard

Ambrosius Aurelianus, you may recall, was the one Briton in all of history about whom Gildas had anything good to say. He was the noble Roman who pulled together a workable army from the scattered remnants of the British. Ambrosius saved Britain from despair: with him in charge, it began to seem possible to fight the English hordes.

We might expect that Ambrosius would be a powerful figure in legend, but in fact there doesn’t seem to be much about him in the early medieval stories. A few place names may preserve his memory, but, on the whole, the only hero in Gildas’ history seems to have been eclipsed in legend by Arthur.

Unless, of course, we’re looking for the wrong sort of character. From reading Gildas, we get a notion of Ambrosius as a powerful general who restored something like Roman order to the British forces—a figure, in other words, much like the legendary Arthur.

But we did find an Ambrosius in Nennius: that strange little boy who seemed to know everything. At first glance, he doesn’t look at all like the great general Ambrosius Aurelianus in Gildas. But if we take a closer look, we might find a couple of hints that they could be the same character.

First, although Nennius’ story begins with Ambrosius as an unknown boy, by the end of it he’s in charge of “all the kingdoms of the western part of Britain.” Just as Vortigern is beginning his final downward spiral, Ambrosius has acquired a big chunk of the country. The chronology would be about right for the real Ambrosius Aurelianus, who would have been a young man in the reign of Vortigern, and must have begun to establish his reputation (and his power base) at about that time.

The second thing to note is his ancestry. In Nennius, the boy Ambrosius comes from a line of Roman consuls. Now, Gildas tells us that the parents of Ambrosius Aurelianus were “clothed with the purple,” meaning that they were of the very highest rank of Roman society. Ambrosius Aurelianus was not just a noble, but a Roman noble: Gildas takes pains to make that clear. The boy Ambrosius in Nennius is distinguished in exactly the same way.

Nennius had read Gildas, so he’s not an entirely independent source. It’s conceivable that Nennius, having heard a story of the magical boy Embres—Ambrosius in Latin—connected it with the character of the same name in Gildas, and filled in the details about his ancestry from what Gildas said.

On the other hand, it is just possible that Nennius was, in his usual way, simply recording what he had heard or read without spending much time editing it. I say “in his usual way” because it seems to be characteristic of Nennius not to put much effort into making his narrative consistent. He finds two completely different and contradictory stories of Brutus, the eponymous founder of Britain, so he gives us both with no attempt to reconcile them. He introduces the second simply by announcing, “I have found another account of this Brutus in the old books of our elders.” Again, he gives us two completely contradictory accounts of the end of Vortigern, separating them with “Now others have said otherwise.”

Changing the details of a story to make it fit better doesn’t seem like Nennius’ style.

So we’re left with the possibility that there were strange stories circulating about Ambrosius Aurelianus—stories that painted him less as a warrior than as a prophet and a wizard.

And why have we spent so much time with Ambrosius—even if he was a wizard? For a simple reason: because we’re about to look at Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey repeats Nennius’ story of Ambrosius and the dragons. But he adds one interesting detail. In Geoffrey, Ambrosius has a second name: Merlin.

2 Responses to “Ambrosius the Wizard”

  1. Maureen Says:

    A really good general has plenty of knowledge of what goes on beyond ordinary ken (intelligence from spies), exceptional foresight and forethought, and the ability to surprise the enemy and do what seems impossible, just like magic. Some people are just so good they’re spooky, and if Merlin was the kind of Roman who wasn’t above suggesting that he had some sort of supernatural power… Well, a wizard and a general aren’t that far apart. You can also see a supersmart and wily guy going insane for a while after a bad loss that was his fault.

  2. Clintaurlinus Says:

    Very intersting! It’s about time someone come forth and try to dissolve the clutter and nonsense that surrounds this timeless legend. In my opinion it does seem that Merlin and Ambrosius were the same person. It is also interesting to note that the Welsh and Saxons each had different names for high kings of that period. It may be possible that Myrvlynn may also be another name for a ruler, or over king. Guortygyrn and Guortymyrr are also treated in this manner. Ernestus which may be true name of Guortygyrn, is an example of how the welsh and saxon used other names to classify the kings or rulers of their time. Guortymyrr’s life also seems to parallel with Ambrosius’s.

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey