This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 18th April 2018 titled, British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons
This is the story of the legendary Aurelius Ambrosius, a King of the Britons in the 5th century AD. According to some medieval writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the uncle of the famous King Arthur, who would later take the crown. Most accounts say he was a modest, just, and determined man who exercised self-discipline in all of his ways. He was a skilled warrior both on horseback and on the ground; an inspiring leader of men and an outstanding military tactician and general. Aurelius harbored a burning hatred for King Vortigern, who had usurped the crown of the Britons from his family. Vortigern had, however, been betrayed by his Saxon allies, resulting in the deaths of many of the ruling Britons in an incident known as “The Treachery of the Long Knives.” With the Britons defeated and under Saxon tyranny, Aurelius Ambrosius with his brother Uther returned to free their countrymen and reclaim the crown of the Britons. Presented here and drawn from several sources listed below is the story of how Aurelius defeated Vortigern and the Saxons led by Hengist to become King of the Britons, restore law and order, and begin the process of rebuilding a wounded and shattered nation.
The Burning of Vortigern
While the Saxon takeover of Britain was unfolding, in exile, Aurelius Ambrosius was making a name for himself in the battles of Armorica, and his fame spread across Europe. Finally, after meticulous preparation, he arrived on the shores of Britain at Totnes with his younger brother Uther, at the head of a powerful invasion force of Armorican cavalry and footmen. Word of the coming of Aurelius and his brother spread rapidly across Britain. The few war leaders and nobles that were left after ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives‘ had been scattered and leaderless, but were now united under the banner of Aurelius, burning for vengeance. They came together from all parts of Britain to join with him and brought together the clergy, who anointed him the King of the Britons.
The Britons wanted to attack Hengist immediately but Aurelius overruled them. Instead he was intent on first wreaking vengeance on Vortigern, and led the Britons to his last stronghold. Aurelius was joined by Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, the only British noble of those present, apart from Vortigern, to have survived ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives‘. Once his army had taken up their positions, Aurelius gave the command for the great siege engines to set to work. Though these laboured long and hard, they could not break through the walls. After all attempts had failed, Aurelius gave the order to burn the tower. Ordering wood to be piled around it and set on fire, his archers fired burning arrows into the stronghold, where they found plenty of fuel. There was no escape for Vortigern: along with his wives and followers, he perished in the flames.
The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius
The arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius to take the throne of the King of the Britons put fear into the hearts of Hengist and his Saxons, who was well aware of his reputation. Hengist knew full well that, being the rightful heir to the throne of Britain, Aurelius had right on his side. He also knew all about his prowess as a warrior and military strategist and he feared Aurelius above all his other enemies.
As Aurelius made his way north, Hengist realised he had to fight. He urged his warriors not to fear Aurelius, telling them his Armorican horsemen were few and that the army of the Britons numbered less than ten thousand, while pointing to their own superiority in numbers. Having greatly motivated his men, Hengist set them in battle formation at a place he knew Aurelius would have to pass through, thinking to catch him by surprise and unprepared. Aurelius anticipated this however, and instead of being caught out, marched his men with more vigour to meet the Saxons and provoke open conflict. He gave each regiment their orders and would himself lead the Armorican cavalry into a frontal attack on the Saxon line.
For Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, this was the moment he had been waiting for. Ever since the mass murder of the British nobility, he had been hoping to engage Hengist in single combat where there would only be one winner. All of the Britons in that battle had scores to settle. They were determined to avenge the wrongs done to their homeland by the Saxons — who were still a formidable and dangerous fighting force — and drive them out of their country. The scene was set for a grim and bloody battle for supremacy, with the prize being the control of the island of Britain.