Aurelian family

The Aurelian family had a large role in King Arthur’s time and over previous centuries. It began in the 270s. K.O. Morgan, writing in the Oxford Mini-History of Britain, vol 1, said “In 274, Britain was brought back under the [Roman] central government when the Emperor Aurelian eliminated the Gallic Empire.” (‘The Gallic Empire’ was Iberia, Gaul, Britain, and the part of Germany west of the Rhine which had separated and been independently ruled.)

The link from Emperor Aurelian to the British Aurelians is the ancient reference* to a fifth-century leader called Ambrosius as a man “whose father wore the purple”. Only Roman Emperors were said to have “worn the purple”; but the word ‘father’ can be heard as meaning ‘forefather’.

This Ambrosius is the rival whom Vortigern defeated, according to a record included in the Historia Brittonum, at the Battle of Wallop in 428.

You could say he was walloped. However, another reference there is to Vortigern restraining his ambitions from “fear of Ambrosius”. So evidently he was walloped only partially. I have said in another post that Vortigern was de-facto Governor of Maxima Caesariensis, the Roman Province comprising south-east England. Wallop was in the Winchester civitas and quite close to the Province’s border with the western province called Britannia Prima. I reckon this Ambrosius may well have been Governor of Britannia Prima in the second quarter of the fifth century.

But what has this to do with the Aurelian name? The answer is that his son is known to history, thanks to Gildas, as Ambrosius Aurelianus. His floruit was around 480. In legend, this second Ambrosius is described as “the boy without a father” – obviously because his father, the first Ambrosius, was dead, most likely having been killed in battle; equally obviously, a fatherless boy who stood out from the crowd of such boys by virtue of his aristocratic lineage. This Aurelian Ambrosius is known in Celtic stories as Emrys Wledig: Emrys being his Celtic name that was Latinised to Ambros (+ the grammatical ending ‘ius’); ‘Wledig’ being a title denoting a great ruler. Perhaps he too was Governor of Britannia Prima…. though the distribution of Ambros-derived place-names suggests he may have carried the fight against Saxon raiders/invaders well to the east. John Morris’s map, on page 101 of “The Age of Arthur” (2001 edition), shows five such places in Britannia Prima – but eleven in Maxima Caesariensis, seven of them in or just outside Essex in a cluster suggesting that Ambrosius held a frontier to keep the Saxons of Essex out of ‘Calchfynydd’, the Kingdom whose name means ‘Chalk Hills’ centred on the chalk hills now called The Chilterns. **

Two later Aurelians are known to have been prominent. One is King Cynan Aurelian of Powys, who ruled that large kingdom in the west Midlands and mid-Wales in the early-middle part of the sixth century. He is known both from a Taliesin poem praising his warrior achievements and from a section of Gildas’s diatribe which attacks him as grossly degenerated morally from his illustrious grandfather Ambrosius Aurelianus. The other is St. Pol Aurelian, a contemporary of King Arthur, who was the benefactor who commissioned the strengthening of the old wattle church (the vetusta ecclesia) of Glastonbury Abbey with wood, and who worked as a Christian leader in Brittany.



* I think it’s in the Historia Brittonum.

** There is also one Ambros- placename in Oxfordshire, which was not in Maxima Caesariensis in Roman times. But this place had probably been acquired by the Silchester civitas soon after Ambrosius Aurelianus’s time by Cerdic, the governor/king who, as I have shown in my post on Cerdic, made conquests in Oxfordshire in c500CE to secure the left bank of the Thames for his kingdom which already included a large stretch of the right bank.


King Arthur’s 2nd to 5th Battles – Bulbarrow Hill Site Visit

This month, February 2017, I visited the area I had identified four years ago as where King Arthur fought his second to fifth battles. In my post “King Arthur of Somerset: early battles above the River Divelish”, I explained that the Historia Brittonum “says Arthur’s four battles on the borders of Lindinis were ‘above the river which is called Dubglas’,” and that “linguists inform us that the name Divelish can have derived from Dubglas. The River Divelish rises on the N Dorset Downs south of Ibberton.”

The location is far more spectacularly credible than I had imagined as the site of Arthur’s early skirmishes to prove his worthiness to rule the Kingdom of Lindinis by defending its southern border.

In what is now deeply rural north Dorset, two miles south of Ibberton, the rim of Bulbarrow Hill gives large vistas to southward over the valleys below. Any general who had command of south Somerset but needed to guard against enemies from his south would want to control and defend Bulbarrow Hill. Correspondingly, Bulbarrow defended would be extremely difficult to conquer from the south with anything less than overwhelming force.

Today there is a sign informing us that this scenic location is on the “Wessex Ridgeway” long-distance footpath. The footpath is a recent creation; but the ridge, one can truthfully say, is as old as the hills, and the sign tells us that it was “used by traders and invaders”.

There is even an Iron Age fort on the ridge, called Rawlsbury Camp (a mile west of the sign), about 500 metres from one of the sources of the River Divelish. King Arthur’s base for his second to fifth battles? The pieces of the jigsaw fit together: credible purpose, credible strategically, credible linguistically[1]. One can’t prove it, of course, but it would certainly make sense.


[1] Equally so, incidentally, if the anciently Dubglas-named river be the stream flowing from Higher Ansty (below Rawlsbury) southwards through Dewlish, as others have suggested.



Glastonbury Abbey’s Twelve Hides

What is the origin of Glastonbury Abbey’s unique “Twelve Hides”? From earlier in its existence than there are records of, Glastonbury Abbey claimed to own “twelve hides” of land that were excluded from the king’s jurisdiction and land taxes.

Why? What was special and different about Glastonbury as distinct from any other Abbey that had manorial judicial privileges?

I have shown here earlier that the original church on the present Abbey site was most probably built in the  440s CE, though due to twelfth century reconstruction in situ this cannot be proved scientifically.

Archaeology indicates that the earliest colony of monks was also in the fifth century, butnot next to the church; it was on the Tor. So why were the people in one place and the church in another?

In the same blog post, I gave reasons for reckoning that the church came first. In another posting  I explored the esoteric symbolism of the Seven Holy Islands, of which Glastonbury was one, and the line from the northernmost, Nyland (also called Andrewsey), to Glastonbury Abbey. It is a pretty safe bet that the Abbey church was built where it was because the location was already a holy place.

St. Patrick, who was very probably Abbot in the 450s, arrived in Glastonbury already a master craftsman at the insidious art of occupying and Christianising the most sacred sites of the Druids, such as the Hill of Tara and Ard Macha (Armagh) in Ireland. He would surely have been well aware of the sanctity of the Tor, which is venerated by Pagans and other native tradition derived faith groups to this day. And, being the son of a Roman high official of Lindinis (the Roman civitas that included Glastonbury), Patrick would have had ready access to the area’s King (or civitas Governor – de-facto ruler, anyway) Cador. One suspects that Patrick bent Cador’s ear to secure the Tor for his Christian monastics.

Glastonbury in the fifth century was a peninsula; Rahtz and Watts (as referenced in my Seven Holy Islands post) say the dry land limit was approximately today’s 10-metre contour. The narrows that define the peninsula were at Havyatt (see Note 2 of that post), a place-name whose combination of Celtic (hav) and Saxon (yatt) elements demonstrates its antiquity (in contrast to the all-English names that are entertaining treasure-hunt-clues to the Templars’ “Somerset Zodiac”).

It is an intelligent guess, which accommodates both the ancient legends and modernly identified ley lines, that the whole Glastonbury peninsula delineated by that 10-metre contour and Ponters Ball, plus the other six of the Seven Holy Islands, comprised the Druids’ sacred Summerland, the symbolic outer representation of Annwn, the Otherworld to which we go at death and where we live between lives on Earth; and that Abbot Patrick was eager to secure this special sacred area for Christ’s church and therefore obtained the ownership of both the peninsula and the other six Holy Islands for his monastic community, that this was the whole of the original land they had, and that these lands, because they were the symbolic Annwn, were already exempt from royal jurisdiction when under Druid control, and the exemption simply transferred, along with the sanctity, to Patrick’s Christians – the mundane basis for their mystique-wrapped special status centuries later.

It is also reasonable to suppose that the Saxon conquerors heard the sacred territory’s name translated to them as “Summer Land” and applied this to the whole surrounding district also, calling it Somersaeta – the land settled (saeta) by the Summer, or Somer, people.

Could the Glastonbury peninsula itself, then,  be the “Twelve Hides”? The measurement is strikingly credible. A “hide” is the main Saxon unit of land. It was supposed to be the amount of land that would support one self-sufficient household. The Celtic “tref” is equivalent. Its area therefore varies with land quality. The Isle of Wight, which is 381 square kilometres, is the most precisely measurable of the districts whose number of hides is recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672CE; it was assessed as 600 hides: so on that island, which has few barren or unfarmable areas, the average hide was 63.5 hectares. Rahtz and Watts’s suggested fifth-century Glastonbury peninsula measures between eight and nine square kilometres, so if it comprised twelve hides its average hide size would have been slightly larger: about 70 hectares. As the peninsula included the steep-sided Tor, Wearyall Hill, Stone Down Hill, and Edmund Hill, it seems fully realistic to figure that the average hide size would have been larger than on Wight[1] – although in any case, if 12 was already regarded by Christians as a holy number when the peninsula was chartered as “12 hides”, even if the peninsula was by mundane calculation 13 or 14 hides, its number could have been adjusted to twelve for symbolic elegance.


[1] Wight has high hills too, but is proportionately much less hilly.

Taliesin, royal bard and spiritual master

Taliesin, the Shakespeare of his day. Taliesin, Britain’s best-known, best-loved person in the sixth century. Taliesin, almost the last of the Druids, for their honour, status and influence was being destroyed by the Christian ascendancy before his eyes, and he left no successor. Taliesin, almost unknown today save to literature-loving Welsh speakers and us few long in pursuit of knowledge of sixth century Britain.

Two strands wrap around the figure of Taliesin like a caduceus: poems; and magical myth. Taliesin was a bard; more specifically a “primary bard”, meaning – in the culture of sixth century Britons – a composer of original poetry, who also set it to music, and at royal diplomatic banquets sang it, accompanying himself on the harp, to the king in whose service he was dedicated, with a duty to lionise his king’s conquests. More than a mere poet laureate, he was the king’s spiritual adviser; with power, in special circumstances, to command his actions.

And not just a bard but the bard: Taliesin won the title “chief bard of Britain”.

He was also, esoterically, a master yogi. The name, or rather title, ‘Taliesin’ can be translated “radiant brow”, but its inner meaning is that his wisdom eye (which is between the eye brows) is radiant with Christ (iesin, like Iesus) Consciousness.

Some of his poems survive, and have been translated into English too. 200 years after his time, many were written down, probably in the scriptoria of Christian monks; and naturally in the orthography of the scribe’s time – which provides latitude for scholarly assertions of inauthenticity, for some scholars would have us believe that the date of writing is the date of composition.

Poppycock. The culture at the kaer (castle, fort, royal residence) of sixth-century kings in Britain was oral. Taliesin composed and memorised his poems; likewise any “secondary bard”, a bard who would re-cant those poems later, learned them by heart. Memory, not writing, was the means by which culture was transmitted in early-medieval Celtic Britain; much wisdom in that, in an age before printing or paper when the means of writing was expensive and written documents could only be copied laboriously one copy at a time in longhand, and therefore were easy to forge, to doctor, to accidentally miscopy, and also all too easy to destroy through fire, acts of war, or casual indifference. Taliesin’s poems will have been passed down through the generations by secondary bards, their rhythms, alliterations and part-repeated lines facilitating their memorisation.

True, not everything attributed to Taliesin is his. Other poems were written in later centuries in his name by people who it seems were accepted as belonging to his school. But there are poems extant only in sixteenth century form whose genuineness is more credible than some that betray evidence of ninth century orthography. I consider the content and style, and the inner meaning, to be more reliable guides to the authenticity of a ‘Taliesin’ poem than the apparent date it was first written down.


The magical story of Taliesin – Hanes Taliesin – begins with the goddess Ceridwen stirring her Cauldron over her cooking fire. Ceridwen is the triple-goddess in her form as elder or ‘crone’. Her Cauldron is the source of everything, for she is God in the aspect of Creator.[1] At this point, the Cauldron is the source of poetic inspiration (awen in Welsh) and of all wisdom and knowledge. She has her son Gwion Bach (which might be translated “Little Man-ling”) stir and watch the pot. Accidentally, three drops fall from the Cauldron onto Gwion’s thumb, and he sucks his thumb. With this act he becomes filled with all knowledge – and, seeing danger ahead for himself, scurries.

There follows a magic hunt, in which Ceridwen chases Gwion, Gwion shape-shifts into a hare, then an otter, then a bird, and Ceridwen shape-shifts in pursuit. Gwion then becomes an ear of grain and Ceridwen turns herself into a hen and eats him. The symbolic meaning is fairly transparent: Gwion, archetypal Human Person, acquiring a little wisdom, flees from fire (the cauldron) via earth (hare), water (otter) and air (bird), all of them changing forms within the great cosmic delusion of Creation (hence, “shape shifting”); but the Divine Mother is in constant pursuit, ever coaxing Her child back to Herself. Eventually, the Human becomes totally humble, submitting himself into a state of being (one grain) in which he can be wholly absorbed into the Divine Consciousness[2]…….

…..and, as often happens in story when grain is a symbol, he is reborn. The Hanes Taliesin tells us that Gwion now spends nine months in the womb of Ceridwen and is then reborn as Taliesin. Ceridwen wills neither to keep him nor to kill him, so she leaves him in a basket by Gwyddno’s royal salmon weir.[3] There he is found by Prince Elffin, son of King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion.

Elffin is frustrated. He was there, allowed to fish for salmon for the first time in his life, and instead of catching any he caught this darned baby. The baby Taliesin immediately sings Elffin a poem, in which he proclaims himself “loquacious though not yet able to speak” (reminiscent of Krishna’s comparably surprising day-of-birth speech to his father), informs him “I was once little Gwion Bach but now I am Taliesin”, and promises the young prince that he will one day be worth more to him than even as inconceivably big a day’s catch as three hundred salmon.

Surely, what this is describing symbolically is an initiation rite for Elffin. Gwyddno’s title Garanhir – “Crane Legs” reveals that he was a Druidic esoteric initiate; his personal ‘royal salmon weir’ makes sense as an inner means in his consciousness to capture wisdom rather than a convenient barrier across the River Dyfi; and Prince Elffin being allowed to fish there for the first time symbolises the Druids’ secret techniques for developing deepest mystical wisdom being revealed to him at a ritual initiation – a water ‘baptism’[4]. Elffin’s finding there this person who has the supreme state of Christ/Taliesin consciousness, but catching no salmon, expresses, as ever in symbols, that Elffin on the one hand has, as yet, no wisdom of his own, but on the other hand has been given a gift far greater than just the initiation he was expecting: he has been introduced to his Guru – the spiritual master who will lead him to his own Enlightenment ~ notwithstanding the earthly role Elffin must first perform: with Gwyddno’s blessing, Elffin brings Taliesin up as his foster-child.[5]

The Hanes Taliesin legend ‘explains’ Taliesin’s genuine precocious gifts as a bard and spiritual giant.

At this turn, the Hanes Taliesin legend merges into the life of the historical Taliesin, for there is no evidence to contradict the statement that the future Chief Bard of Britain indeed grew up under Elffin’s guardianship at the royal kaer in Aberdyfi.

Taliesin made his first mark on history as a 12-year-old boy, in “The Contention of the Bards”, where he rescued Elffin from prison and knocked off his pedestal the brutal, egotistical, and all-too-real King Maelgwn of Gwynedd[6]. As the best ‘boy outsmarts man’ story since David and Goliath, the Contention of the Bards requires a separate article on this blog.

Since Taliesin accurately prophesies the manner and imminence of Maelgwn’s death, which the Annales Cambriae record as occurring in 548[7], it is fair to date the Contention of the Bards to (more-or-less) 547CE.

By coincidence (for those who believe in coincidence), 547 is also the calculated date of the reference to Taliesin, as a bard ‘coming to prominence’, in a side-note made by some Celt on his copy of a document otherwise comprising a list of the regnal lengths of the first few Anglian kings of Bernicia, a document which was later copied into the Historia Brittonum.

So we have Taliesin’s birth year, give or take a small margin of error: 535. Significantly, the Annales Cambriae date for the death of King Arthur is 538. There is therefore a straightforward explanation for the at first sight odd fact that there is no early legendary enmeshment between Taliesin and King Arthur: the two lived in different regions – Taliesin was to serve in three or four kingdoms, but never in Lindinis – and different time periods.

And Geoffrey of Monmouth never muddied those waters. Taliesin does not appear in Geoffrey’s (so-called) History of the Kings of the Britons.

Taliesin grew up in Ceredigion and maybe spent a few years serving King Elffin there after the Contention as well. Soon enough, though, he emigrated to the much larger kingdom of Powys (to which, indeed, Ceredigion may have had to pay cattle tribute as a ‘client’ kingdom). He became bard to King Brochwel, whom he called “my muse”, and afterwards to his successor King Cynan Garwyn.

Then, probably in the 560s and on Cynan Garwyn’s death, he moved north. One poem in praise of King Gwallawc of Elmet, undisputedly Taliesin’s, has survived, so it may be that his first northern home was Elmet, a kingdom whose capital was York and which included at least the old West Riding of Yorkshire, and maybe also across to the coast around Scarborough and southwards to Derby.

Long-term, though, his home was to be Rheged, a kingdom which comprised SW Scotland, Cumbria, and NW Yorkshire. He could well have lived over two decades in Rheged, as court bard to King Urien. The largest number of poems undisputedly his are those celebrating Urien: as for example victor in a Battle of Wensleydale (ystrad gwen), and as Lord of Catraeth (seemingly a major conquest of his off another king). Celebrating Urien’s lordship, he refers to the delights below his Catraeth kaer of doleu defwy, the Swale’s meanders; the Swale’s loop and twists by Reeth fit the description, as of course does the name Reeth; and the complex site on the hillside a mile to the SW of those meanders, called Maiden Castle, was any or all of kaer, metalworkers’ town, shrine, and fort. Brigantes Nation[8] has identified seven dykes which defended Maiden Castle in addition to its own ramparts, mostly from the east but also two on High Harker Hill to protect it from attack from above.

A story of Urien’s death tells of his being killed by a rival on his own side while besieging Lindisfarne in 590. This is difficult to believe as there was nothing on Lindisfarne at that date. Besides, if it had been so, cultural custom means there would be a Taliesin lament in Urien’s honour. The date, 590, is more credible than the supposed manner of death.

The last reference to Taliesin as a living person is by Aneirin in about 594. In his famous poem Y Gododdin, the phrase ‘Taliesin understands’ implies that he was still alive. Perhaps he died shortly after that disaster at Catraeth, at the – for the times ripe old age of – about sixty. Ceredigion tradition says he was buried at bedd Taliesin, near the coast road south of Machynlleth. The site lacks evidence of any sixth-century burial; Ceredigion, though, is undoubtedly where in the imagination a memorial to Taliesin most properly belongs.


[1] She is also the patron goddess of Cirencester, Caer Ceri, the capital of the Province of Britannia Prima in the fourth and fifth centuries which comprised Wales, the South-West peninsula, and western parts of the Midlands.

[2] There are parallels with the Garden of Eden story and, more directly, with the similar (but less masked) allegorical story of the poem Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson.

[3] Salmon is a symbol of wisdom in the culture of sixth-century Britain. Salmon seasonally swim upstream against the current; this, for the Druids, was a neat outer symbol for the need of the spiritually advancing initiate to reverse the normally downward flow of chi (subtle life energy) in the body and cause it to flow upwards towards the higher chakras in the brain.

[4] The Welsh word for baptism, bedyd, meant initiation before the Christians adapted it.

[5] There is also a myth cycle featuring Gwyddno and Elffin set in Gwaelod, a supposed district of Ceredigion. Its hero is Seithenyn, an outwardly foolish, esoterically wise, servant of King Gwyddno. I intend to write a commentary on it here in due course.

[6] The earliest spelling of the name of this king is Mailcun, but he is nowadays usually referred to by the later name-form Maelgwn.

[7] On my calibration: see my post here on calibrating the Annales Cambriae, 21st September 2013

[8] A group interested in northern England’s Celtic past.

Vortigern, Hengist, and 446 and all that

Vortigern’s deal with Hengist – you give me soldiers to fight my enemies and I’ll give you Thanet to settle in – was not the crazy and disastrous choice Gildas has us believe. In NW Europe in the 440s, such deals were normal.

As warlord of SE Britannia, Vortigern had no better choice. Aetius, Rome’s powerful man in western Europe, had done just such a deal with the Alans in 440-442 and another with the Burgundians in 443. A few years later he made a similar agreement with Attila the Hun.

In 446, Rome under Aetius was fighting on three fronts – NW Iberia, Brittany, and Belgium. He hadn’t got men to spare for Britain. Rome didn’t have an army other than its foederati, hired warriors like the Alans – and Hengist. Aetius could even have advocated Hengist to Vortigern as an ally. Rome-lover Gildas would not have published that even if he knew it to be true.

Attila the Hun changed sides in 451 and attacked Gaul. Hengist followed Attila’s example, expanding his power in Britain by fair means and foul at Vortigern’s expense.

However, the Historia Britonnum records that Vortigern’s son Vortimer regained all of Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of course does not mention this, but its dates of what is in there suggest that Vortimer’s successes were in the 460s, his final driving of the Saxons out of Kent most likely happening in c465-468. So the results of Vortigern’s deal in 446 were not perdurable; it was events after 468 that came to gradually determine the future of what, centuries later, would be England.

In symbolic language typical of the culture of fifth century Britons, it is reported that when he died, five years after his last victory, Vortimer instructed that his head be displayed facing the ocean at Richborough; and that this was not done. Decoded, the meaning is, at minimum, that the Saxons came back: Vortimer’s successes, alas, were also ephemeral. His severed head should have been a talisman threatening any Saxon who dared to attack Kent, but it (symbolically), or more literally the Kentish defences militarily, was inadequate.

Only in outline is the next stage of British history clear. The exact political structure is not known, but it is almost safe to say that eastern coastal districts remained under Anglo-Saxon control from Deira (East Yorkshire) south as far as East Anglia, and probably Essex too. In 473, Saxons were able to slaughter citizens and carry off booty in the largest Saxon raid of the entire fifth century. After that calamity, Ambrosius Aurelianus, presumably Governor of Britannia Prima, perhaps a descendant of the Roman Emperor Aurelianus (270-275), became chief warlord of southern Britain, and led the Britons valiantly against the Saxons, with some measure both of unity and of success.

The presence of a line of Ambrs- place-names running north-east from Amersham suggests that he held a line of defence there against English attackers coming from Essex and East Anglia. The northern Home Counties were successfully defended and became the Kingdom of Calchfynydd (meaning: Chalk Hills i.e. Chliterns).

Two other Ambrs on the South Downs in west Sussex (Ambersham near Midhurst and Amberley to the north of Arundel) and one in Kent (guarding the Medway crossing somewhere near Maidstone) suggest that he also fought effectively in that area. In this context it is significant that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle identifies battles in Sussex in 477, 485, and 490. It implies that the Saxon side won, though not decisively in 477; silently hints at the probability that they lost in 485; and claims a decisive victory in 490.

490 (or possibly early 491) of course was also the year of the famous British victory at Mount Badon, attributed to King Arthur. Gildas implies that there was when he wrote his “Ruin and Conquest of Britain” (c530) an agreed frontier between the Britons and “our enemies in the east”. It is credible to suppose that the fall of the fort of Pevensey resulted in this frontier being negotiated in c491 as a cease-fire line with Sussex on the Saxon side and Calchfynydd on the Britons’ side.

One can only speculate about the possibility of a Briton-ruled salient between the North Downs and the Thames. The place-name Eccles is elsewhere associated with sixth-century Christian presence under Briton control; there is an Eccles north of Maidstone. Other Christian-suggestive place-names further west in this putative salient include Esher, Godstone, and Godalming.

In any case, the frontier kept its stability for 60 years. But it began to frazzle about 550; and the definitive English conquest of Britain came in the 570s when four calamitous battles (571, Bedford; 577, Dyrham, above Bath; 578, York; and 580, Weedon Bec, Northants) pulled many rich lands of what was once Britannia into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before 570, Britain was an essentially Celtic-ruled island, despite the presence of English-ruled kingdoms around the eastern and southern coasts. After 580, whatever remained under Celtic control would never again be more than a “Celtic fringe”. The fruits of battle victories in the fifth century were ever precarious and temporary; it was those Angle and Saxon victories in the 570s that were decisive, setting Britain on the never-reversed course for its English future.






Vortigern: Regional Warlord, Not Britannia-Wide

Vortigern is typically thought of as ruler of all of (sub) Roman Britain through the middle half the fifth century. In reality, this is most implausible. When the Roman Legions left in 409, Britain has been divided into four Provinces for over a century; there is no evidence behind the unification assumption.

As Roman power weakened, prevalent conditions in western Europe pulled towards small kingdoms. Only from the seventh century onwards did Britain’s small kingdoms start to habitually become overrun by bigger ones.

It is surely significant that historical evidence linked to Vortigern and his son Vortimer identifies several battles against Saxons in Kent, one of which resulted in a retreat to London, concessions to Saxon control (at different times) of Thanet, all of Kent, and Sussex and Essex, and a victory over Britonnic rival Ambrosius at Wallop in Hampshire; but that the only other recorded location of either political or military activity for Vortigern or Vortimer is Belgium, where, having driven the Saxons out of Britain completely, Vortimer arrived with 10,000 men and was disastrously defeated. (This expedition in c468 makes Vortimer, I suggest, the prime candidate for the mysterious Riothamus, “Thames king”.)

This geographical pattern is indicative of the area controlled by Vortigern having been the Province of Maxima Caesariensis. There is room for argument about that Province’s exact boundaries – I argue that the northern boundary was close to that of present-day Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire and thence to the Wash, see my post of 31st March 2013 on “Gildas’s 28 Cities”, [1] – but certainly the major part of the Province was all the parts of Britain just mentioned.

Another sign pointing in the same direction is that although Vortigern won the Battle of Wallop in 428, the record says he remained afraid of Ambrosius. This only makes coherent sense if Ambrosius had a power base elsewhere in Britain than Vortigern’s and substantial enough for him to be a threat to Vortigern.

Nothing is directly known about this Ambrosius. What is known is that according to Gildas, half a century later another Ambrosius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, became a powerful leader somewhere in Britain; and that at the time of Gildas’s writing, c530, his grandson Cynan was a king in western Britain. Combining the works of Gildas and Taliesin enables Cynan’s kingdom to be identified as Powys, which was the successor state to the Roman civitas (city-district) centred on Wroxeter. It approximately corresponded to Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Montgomeryshire, and Radnorshire. Another scion of this family prominent in the historical record is the sixth century Christian leader Pol Aurelian, who studied at St. Illtyd’s seminary at Llan Illtyd Fawr (now Glamorgan; then in the Kingdom of Gwent), strengthened the structure of the Old Church at Glastonbury Abbey, and founded the monastery at Leon, Brittany, where he became known as St. Pol de Leon. Considering this geographical provenance in his lineage, it is a reasonable possibility that the Ambrosius who was a forbear of these Aurelians and a potential threat to Vortigern was a, perhaps the primary, ruler in western Britannia, i.e. of the Province of Britannia Prima. Roman Britannia Prima included everything from the civitas of Wroxeter and those of Cirencester, Ilchester, and Dorchester, westwards.

Place names derived from Ambrosius[2] are suggestive of Ambrosius Aurelianus’s spheres of governance and of combat. Several are in Britannia Prima: one in SE Wales; others in the southeast of the province – Worcestershire, and Amberley near Stroud. One, Amesbury, is just on the Maxima side of the provincial boundary which ran across Salisbury Plain. These scattered ‘Ambros’ place names are consistent with the supposition that Ambrosius’s powerbase was the Aurelian heartland of Britannia Prima.

Several other Ambros- names form a line running more-or-less SW to NE from Amersham. By the time Ambrosius Aurelianus came to power (in 479 according to one of the Irish annals), most of the former Province of Maxima Caesariensis had passed into Saxon control. The exceptions were the Silchester civitas (approximately north Hampshire and pre-1974 Berkshire), which emerges into post-Roman history as the ambiguously Saxo-Britonnic kingdom of the Gewissae – cf my identifying the true location of Netley and Cerdic’s earliest conquests on the north bank of the Thames near Oxford in my post of 7th June 2014 ; and the civitas-becoming-kingdom of the tribe known to the Romans as the Catuvellauni[3].

This kingdom is known later on as Calchfynydd in Welsh, and as Cilternsaetna in Anglian English, its name recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672; both words denote ‘the people of the chalk hills’, i.e. the Chilterns. It was a substantial kingdom ruled by Britonnic kings until it was defeated at the Battle of Bedford in 571; it will have been reduced to at most a rump by the further defeat in 580 at Bannaventa (the Roman walled town near Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire) when King Cadog was slain.

It may be that Ambrosius Aurelianus and these two Britonnic kingdoms worked together in the 480s to contain Anglo-Saxon expansion. The Ambros place-names are along what could well have been the western edge of the English kingdoms of Essex (which included London and can be presumed to have also included what later became Middlesex) and East Anglia, which is suggestive of a line of defence and boundary between those English-controlled territories and Calchfynydd, a boundary which Ambrosius Aurelianus successfully held militarily; a boundary in due course agreed by treaty and respected for the first 70 years of the sixth century.[4]

Besides western Britannia being Aurelian territory and not Vortigern’s, there is also a good indication that another of the four Provinces was not under Vortigern’s suzerainty. There are king-list genealogies in the text Bonedd y Gwyr Gogledd (the Descent of the Men of the North) for various successor kingdoms in what in the fourth century had been Britannia Secunda, the northern Province which included everywhere between Hadrian’s Wall and the Trent except East Yorkshire and (probably) Nottinghamshire. They are all headed by Coel Hen (the king immortalised in nursery rhyme as Old King Cole) and Keneu. The inference is that for a few decades after 409 those two kings held some degree of sovereignty over the whole Province, before kingdoms such as Rheged (based at Carlisle) and Elmet (based at York) became fully separated and de-facto autonomous. None of these genealogies mention Vortigern.

The remaining Province was the relatively small Flavia Caesariensis, which I argue [28 Cities] approximated to East Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, easternmost parts of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire. There is brooch evidence of early Anglian warrior presence within this area, but no battles recorded by either Britonnic or Anglo-Saxon sources. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the hypothesis that the Province passed peacefully into Angle control, maybe indeed as early as before 440[5], has to be considered credible. The lack of disruption to agricultural practises shown by archaeological exploration at Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the peaceful transition hypothesis.

As has often been said, an absence of evidence is not convincing evidence of absence, least of all in a period as thin on evidence of anything as the fifth century. Nevertheless, three important patterns – the record of Vortigern’s battles and political actions across one Province, Maxima Caesariensis; the absence of evidence of any activities by him in Britannia’s other three civilian Provinces; and the presence of evidence in two of those Provinces of other men in control, and the hint, at least, of Saxon control in the third – point in one direction only. The rational inference is that Vortigern was supreme ruler – in the Roman structure the de-facto Provincial Governor – of Maxima Caesariensis, and only of Maxima Caesariensis.






[1] My analysis puts East Anglia and the Fens in Maxima. I know of no reason to suppose that Vortigern’s rule extended to those two civitates; it may be that they became effectively Anglo-Saxon ruled within a generation of thedeparture of the Legions.

[2] See Morris, The Age of Arthur, map p101.

[3] Or at any rate, most of it. The Roman civitas capital St. Albans and the nearby town of Hertford may have become Anglicised long before the rest of the civitas’s territory including Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and part of Oxfordshire fell under Anglian rule.

[4] Morris’s map also shows three Ambros place-names in Sussex and one in Kent. These do not fit tidily into any theory. Perhaps Ambrosius Aurelianus won battles in those areas.

[5] The Gallic Chronicle of c441 said that Britannia had ‘passed into the hands of the Saxons’. This date is thorny for historians because of Vortigern’s granting rule over Thanet to the Saxon Hengist, after Aetius’s failure to send troops to his aid in 446. That event was presented both by Gildas and by Bede, drawing on Kentish sources, as momentous, not because Saxon warriors like Hengist helping a ruler of Britons was new – they’d been doing so for a century or two – but because the concession of Thanet was seen as the first bit of Anglo-Saxon rule over part of what was to become England, and the thin end of a wedge: thirty years later, all of SE England was under Saxon rule.

Maybe, though, 446 was the watershed “Coming of the Saxons” ONLY in the south-eastern districts ruled by Vortigern. Beyond doubt the Chronicle’s statement was an exaggeration: neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence suggests any areas of Anglo-Saxon control in two of Britain’s four Provinces at that time, Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda.

Equally though, I know of no reason to suspect the highly-respected Chronicler of writing nonsense. The region most likely to have been already under Anglo-Saxon control by 440 is the eastern coastal counties from East Yorkshire through Lincolnshire to the Peterborough area and East Anglia, plus lands on either side of the lower Trent, which was the Angles’ original ‘Mierce’ (meaning: borderland, c.f. modern German maerchenland), so named long before ‘Mercia’ came to mean a large Midland kingdom. This region includes West Stow (near Bury St Edmunds), the site of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village which is indicated to have been in that location in 440; it also includes Hessle. Two-thirds of it had been in Flavia Province.

Glastonbury Zodiac – Ancient Magic or Modern Fantasy?

          The Glastonbury Zodiac is a supposed reflection in the landscape of central Somerset of the stars in the sky that form the signs of the zodiac. Mrs Maltwood discovered it nearly a century ago. Mary Caine elaborated the discovery in a book of journeys of her own delicious imagination through millennia, Celtic lore, and her Fabulous Land of No Coincidence. She showed, too, that a planetarium can be scaled to trace the actual stars exactly over the zodiac signs in the Glastonbury Zodiac. By contrast, Philip Rahtz, the archaeologist, described it as a Rorschach test: it exists more, or less, depending on the eye of the beholder. People of a scientific bent tend to regard the alleged landscape zodiac as eyewash.

          Caine claimed, or at least speculated, that the Zodiac was created by ancient Sumerians…. despite there being neither evidence nor folklore to suggest that Sumerians visited the Britannic Summerland. Serious antiquarians cast grave doubt on the possibility of such antiquity on the grounds of climate and vegetation change during the intervening 6000 years.

          So is the Zodiac a nice new legend for Glastonbury’s esotericists to play with, but one with no pre-20th century foundations? Caine found many curious connections between names of relevant landscape features such as villages, ponds and streets and the signs of the Zodiac that they outline, ones that it stretches credulity to suppose were all due to “chance”. Tellingly, though, with the exception of half of one word, Havyatt, these nominal coincidences are all in English. If the landscape Zodiac were ancient, surely a considerable fraction of the names that Caine saw as signing its presence would have been Celtic? Somerset abounds in Celtic and part-Celtic names from Langport to Quantock, Camel to Glastonbury.

          Havyatt itself means “gate (yatt, old English) to the summer (hav, Celtic) land”. That the Celts of Somerset held the Glastonbury peninsula, with an eastern boundary at Havyatt, as a holy symbolic representation of the Otherworld or Summerland, land of eternal summer, is easy to believe; so too, that the origin of the name Somerset is this sacred Summerland, its meaning extended by English conquerors from just the peninsula to the whole surrounding kingdom. Hav- here has, however, no necessary zodiacal significance.

          There is a huge internal clue to the likely true origin of the Glastonbury Zodiac. The sign of Cancer is drawn not by a crab but by a ship. Caine truthfully says that zodiacs do not usually have ships, then eagerly leads her readers to understand that this was King Solomon’s ship, and makes a link from that to King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.

          Quite so. And who, in the thirteen and a half centuries’-long English-speaking era of the history of Glastonbury, had a special interest in King Solomon’s temple? The Templars, of course. The Templars also had a love of hidden trails. They controlled large parts of Somerset, with plenty of opportunity to establish names for physical features and to create and name hamlets: some lands in their personal ownership; others by controlling Glastonbury Abbey which owned the land. They spent some of the Abbey’s money on practical landscape work to improve the yields of its land. And it was they who created the stories of the Quest for the Holy Grail and of the Knights of the Round Table. The “Round Table” is recognisable as symbolic language for the zodiac.

          The Templars had both the means and the motivation to design the zodiac representation into the landscape of Somerset. They left their own unique signature on it in the shape of a ship. Conclusion: the Glastonbury Zodiac is neither ancient nor modern, it was designed and constructed by the Templars; possibly as a means to an initiation rite, possibly primarily for entertainment.

          As with much else in these blog posts, my conclusion cannot be proved for certain. I simply put it forward as the explanation that most credibly accounts for the existence and stellar accuracy of the Glastonbury Zodiac, the names in English which served as clues to medieval Questers who sought to identify the Signs, and the otherwise inexplicable representation of Cancer by a ship.