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The hillfort of Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, Gwynedd, has always been connected with Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose praises were sung by Gildas in the sixth century. It is hard to explain where this connection originated. The name of Emrys is indeed a Welsh version of the Latin Ambrosius, but that alone fails to identify the original Emrys with the historical Ambrosius. Quite a lot more famous is the legend of Vortigern, the boy Emrys and the White and Red Dragons at Dinas Emrys. How much, if at all, of this legend is actually true? Was Dinas Emrys really named after Ambrosius Aurelianus? Did Vortigern really uncover any Dragons? First, a look at the sources.
This legend, first related through the Historia Brittonum in the early ninth century and therefore quite old, tells us about the futile exploits of the British king Vortigern. This tyrant, as he is described with contempt, was on the run from his enemies (either the Saxons, St Germanus or the sons of the king he murdered) and tried to build a stronghold in the outer regions of the land:
'Nennius', Historia Brittonum, chapter 40
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum
Britanniae, book VI, chapter 17
This fort or tower did not stand, as each night the foundations failed and the structure collapsed. To remedy this, his druids advised Vortigern to seak a boy without a father and sacrifise him on the spot. This boy, when found, turned out to be called Emrys.
'Nennius', Historia Brittonum, chapter 42
This story contains nothing historical and was either adapted to explain an earlier existing name (that of Emrys), or it travelled to the region together with the name, which stuck there. We have no records which confirm either explanation. It must be said, however, that the story continued to change: Emrys became Merlin, while Ambrosius himself appeared as the (adult) enemy of Vortigern! This tends to make us doubt the legend as an original one, and I think it therefore more likely that the story existed as a Celtic theme and was adapted to fit the characters. But while we may fully discard the story (no druids, no dragons, no Merlin), the characters and the existing name and probably the plot remain to be explained - why did the story exist in this version?
To try and make any sense of this story, we must take it apart in its several components; the legend of the dragons and the sorcery, the 'claim' of ownership and finally the name.
First the legend, which in all likelyhood came first. It consists of two elements, the first that of the famous fighting dragons, the second that of the sorcerors that need to spill innocent blood.
This tale is most famous for the strange story of two red and white beasts, which are concealed in this fortress. The origin of this legend is (or is refelected in) the legend of Lludd and Llefelys. These were two brothers, who solved the Plagues of Britain, one of them being a scream raised every May-eve that caused much damage. The reason, as the brothers found out, were two fighting beasts, a red and a white one from a foreign people. Lludd managed to catch them and buried them both in the strongest place in Britain. While hidden there, no plague could touch the land. The name of this fort was Dinas Ffaraon Dandde, but later it was called Dinas Emrys.
The problem with this 'core-legend' is that the oldest version of the manuscript that relates it (Llanstephan MS 1, 1225-50) already postdates Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention the version of the Historia Brittonum that I printed above. This means that, though the elements of the story (such as the dragons) may be much older (as Bartrum believes), the reference to Dinas Emrys may not be original. The beasts are also not explicitly dragons, but also serpents, or even just worms, which makes them allegorical rather than symbolical. When they are disclosed by Vortigern, they resemble in no way the original beasts concealed by Lludd. This story is also reflected in the later Welsh Triads, where it was already connected to Vortigern:
they were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these
Concluding, we may discard the dragons as original part of this legend.
Another typical and out-of-place element to this story is that of the 'wise-men' or sorcerors involved. The connection of these to Vortigern is out-of-place, for Vortigern, who consults them, has never before been accused of paganism. This is strange because every other vice has been called upon to damn his character. But suddenly, he consults 'his' druids, who immediately suggest a human sacrifice. By the looks of it, this suggests that the element is foreign - either it belongs to a different and much older (pagan Celtic) story, or the whole story belongs to a different age. This part of the legend, whose origins are possibly strongly influenced with Irish material, I have described in more detail in Saints on the move, as a discussion about wandering stories. He we find, for instance, a Foirtgirn involved with a magician and a saint - St Columba in the sixth century! In short, as we can see from similar stories involving kings, sorcerors and saints, these elements were quite common around the Irish sea. We can debate whether we are dealing with just one story, whose elements got involved in other stories, or with independent Celtic or other cultural elements.
One of the oldest must be the story from Exodus, where Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh:
Exodus, chapter 7, 8-13:
the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
This immediately draws the attention to the original name of the fort: Dinas Ffaraon Dandde, the 'fort of the Fiery Pharaoh'. Did this name attract a story where battling sorcerors battled it out with snakes? Or did it attract a connection with Vortigern (see below), who was almost certainly mentioned by Gildas, using this title?
The same judgement can be made regarding all three stories referred to here: all seem equal, but in fact all are different. For instance, as the story of St Columba dates from the sixth century, the Irish person named Foirtgirn involved there may be a totally different one from the Vortigern mentioned by 'Nennius'. Altogether, I sense that the element of the king that consults sorcerers against a victorious innocent (holy man/saint/boy) is as foreign to Dinas Emrys as is Ambrosius Aurelianus, and I opt for the explanation that it was a wandering story that attached itself to the core, already present.
The element that seems most out of place is that of Vortigern passing away the whole or the western parts of Wales to an at best seemingly inexperienced boy, in any case a total stranger, at any rate an enemy, or at worst a demon-begotten sorceror! Even if we would take this tale at face value, it makes no sense: how would Ambrosius ever have acquired the right to the whole of Wales, or even better, where did Vortigern get the right to give it all away?
A battle over Sovereignty
Although this article touches on the elements of the tale, it is mainly concerned with the place, Dinas Emrys, and the reason why this wandering tale came to be attached to it. However, I would like to add a few words about a possible explanation behind the tale itself. Fabio Barbieri has posed a daring and unconventional theory about the elements of this tale, the comparison between the versions of it (Nennius Historia Brittonum vs. Geoffrey of Monmouths Historia Regum Britanniae) and the possible meaning of the allegory. Barbieri thinks that the building of the castle stands for Vortigerns attempts to restore Britains defence policy. The two dragons can hardly represent Saxons (white) and Welsh (red) because they and their situation seem too modern a concept. Barbieri thinks therefore they represent Vortigern (red) and Ambrosius (white) , both equal in their claim to the sovereignty of Britain. Vortigern, defeated, has to leave Britain in the hands of Ambrosius, although all see and recognise that it was his to give away. But once he handed it over, Vortigern is powerless and flees from refuge to refuge. Barbieri suggests that both Nennius and Geoffrey used an alternative original, Geoffrey blackening Vortigerns name considerably more than Nennius.
I might add that this equal right of Ambrosius, combined with Gildas enigmatic remark of his parents wearing the purple, might well be seen as at least the glimpse of a contemporary notion that Ambrosius was of royal stock. Purely speculating of course, we might think that his parents were related to Roman Imperial families the usurper Constantine III comes to mind.
The Hereditary Claim
The next explanation of the legend is of course the hereditary claim. The concluding part of the story is the gift, which must explain the name of the fort, Dinas Emrys. Vortigern, as we're told, is grateful for the advice of the youth, leaves and renders him control of all the western lands! This seems totally out of proportion, therefore it must be researched. One should probably look at the legend as a means of corroborating the claim of a family to the ownership of a piece of land or the right to rule there. In this case, the fact that Vortigern gave Dinas Emrys to the boy Emrys should be interpreted as description of a legal gift. Vortigern, somehow, had the rights to Gwynedd. One theory is that all of this was purely legendary: Vortigern, called Pharaoh by Gildas, would have been wrongly associated with Dinas Emrys through its apparent original name: Dinas Ffaraon Dandde (above). A better explanation is that he was related to the usurper Magnus Maximus by marriage (see more on this below), and therefore could give it all away quite legally.
This gift would have given Ambrosius descendants the right to rule the area, but at the same time acknowledged the line of Vortigern as the senior partners, i.e. the givers of the land. In other words: Ambrosius family ruled the land, but they had aqcuired that right from the line of Vortigern! This is both revealing and mystifying. On the one hand, nothing seems at odds with such an explanation - the later claim in the Historia Brittonum that Pascent received his kingdom largente Ambrosio (by permission of Ambrosius) is very much like such a claim. That these claims exist means that both dynasties were involved somehow, and lends credence to their historicity. On the other hand, this information about both the region and the seniority cannot be reconciled with what we know of Ambrosius and Gwynedd.
Ambrosius Aurelianus, or rather what sparse detail is known about him from the works of Gildas, cant be connected to one single region in Britain. The simplest reason for this omission is that his teritory was probably conquered by the English at an early date, so that details of his rule had no chance to enter any genealogy. Mostly though, his name is connected with the southeast, especially Wiltshire, which is the centre (especially Amesbury near Stonehenge) for a group of Ambr-, Embr- or Ambros- placenames. These names mightbe connected with a Late Roman or Sub-Roman territory ruled by this family. Apart from a possible name in eastern Wales (Croft Ambrey, an Iron Age hillfort), none of these names occur outside the Midlands and the south, which we would expect if this family had any connections in Wales (below). Another explanation is that his descendants died out at an equally early date. Anyway, apart from Dinas Emrys, no connection seems to exist with Gwynedd.
Vortigern, on the other hand, is indeed connected with Gwynedd, for example through a group of Gwrtheyrn-names around Trer Ceiri on the Lleyn Peninsula. These did originally seem strangely out of place for Vortigern as well , since he too was much more active in the east, the Welsh borders and the south, which makes the story of Dinas Emrys look too far out of place to be taken seriously. But on the other hand, when this story is indeed a reflection of a tradition which would give the Vortigern dynasty the same seniority in Gwynedd as it seems to have had in Powys and Buillt-Gwrtheyrnion, this would explain a lot. Did Vortigern rule or own the region as we believe he had rights to central and southern Wales? And did Ambrosius family rule southern Snowdonia or even the whole of Gwynedd before the Cuneddan dynasty arrived?
If so, why would the Historia Brittonum, which was both very much in favour of the second Dynasty of Mervyn Vrych (which supplanted the Cuneddan line) and anti-Vortigern (whose descendants claimed southern Powys) support the seniority of Vortigern in this case? Unfortunately, Ambrosius did not leave descendants, or at least no genealogy is known of him (except maybe for Aurelius Caninus, which does not help us one bit), neither is anything known of a possible connection with Gwynedd.
Politics and Migration
This leads us to the next possible explanation: we can try our own assumptions about how Ambrosius could have received the region through Vortigern and how me might have lost it subsequently through a reconstruction of the political background - the Cuneddan Migration:
This leaves us with the enigma - what did really happen in Gwynedd between Vortigern and Ambrosius? Apart from stating lamely that the legend travelled there from elsewhere, I don't have an answer. We must look elsewhere.
The last element leads us to the ethymological purpose - a name exists; where did it come from? Either the name Emrys means nothing more than enclosure (according to Allcroft, but which I find extremely unlikely, as it does not exist elsewhere in Wales), or there was indeed an Ambrosius who owned or (re-)built the fort. In that case he was the member of a local family, which might have existed here during the Roman occupation or shortly after, which is clearly indicated by the Latin form of the name. Since we have no information at all, we might infer that this Ambrosius was indeed the same as Gildas Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose floruit must be the later decades of the fifth century.
As we have seen, Vortigern was made a Dux Gewissorum by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In my article about Gwent, I have tried to show that this title might be explained by a reference to either the original name of the group that was later referred to as the West Saxons, or else a reference to a region, probably that of Gwent. Gwent was adjacent to Vortigerns ancestral lands in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, but this does not mean that he ruled Gwent as well. Geoffrey has made the connection, by making Magnus Maximus the son-in-law of an Octavius of Gwent, but that may have been totally apocryphical, and only meant to explain Geoffreys notion of such a connection.
Vortigern had a close association with Magnus Maximus, married as ne was (according to Welsh history) to Maximus' daughter Sevira. We also know of a historical connection between Magnus Maximus and Gwynedd, from where possibly the unit of the Seguntienses came (a unit of Late Roman infantry named after the fort of Segontium, Caernarfon), who fought with him until his defeat by Theodosius in battle near Aquileia (388 AD). Through this marriage, Vortigern would have inherited Maximus lands in Wales. Or at least, that was the view later. In fact, it may be possible that such a connection between Vortigern and Maximus existed originally only for Gwynedd, and travelled only later to Gwent. Though no genealogical links between Vortigern and Gwynedd exist, this would be easily explained by the Cuneddan migration. However, such a connection could explain the apparently strange incident at Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern suddenly gives away not only the fort of Dinas Emrys, but the whole of western Wales.
There are even theories that explain the Regio Guenessi (where Vortigern flees to before the wrath of Germanus, according to the Historia Brittonum) was a district in Lleyn rather than the usual Gueneri or Ganarew just to the north of Monmouth. In that case the connection would rest solely upon a tradition built upon a wrong interpretation of a single name.
An alternative to this theory, though based on the same principle of mis-interpretation, is the connection between Vortigern and Dinas Emrys as based on a mis-representation of the name of the fortress. As we have seen above, the total lack of any place-names associated with Ambrosius in Wales make it rather difficult to take the connection between Ambrosius Aurelianus and Dinas Emrys seriously.
Though it needs a bit of speculation, I would put forward the suggestion that Dinas Emrys was in fact originally called Dinas Emyr. The names are of such similarity that I believe such a proposal can be allowed. But what or who was this Emyr? The only person with that name can be connected to Gwynedd, and even to Dinas Emrys. Emyr as a noun means emperor, lord or king. This points to a title of a man of power, but it is not certain how much power. The only person with such a name is Emyr Llydaw. His name is first mentioned by the Stanzas of the Graves in the Black Book of Carmarthen (stanza 38: Emer Llydau, father of Beidawg Rhudd). This reference remains vague, even more so because of loads of later saints that are added to his offspring. Brut y Brenhinedd substitutes Emyr Llydaw for Geoffrey of Monmouths Breton king Budic, but this seems totally disconnected from the earlier references.
A somewhat clearer picture emerges when we determine the meaning of his epithet Llydaw. Llydaw was almost always referred to as the regular Welsh name for Brittany or Armorica. The name appears as OW Lettau in the Life of St Cadog, and is also used there for the immigrants to Gaul under Magnus Maximus. The Latin version was Letavia, and inhabitants were called Letavians or Lledewig. Maybe this identification is what started the above substitution in Brut y Brenhinedd. However, when we combine Emyr, i.e. the noun king, etc. with Brittany, we arrive at a descriptive name: Emyr Llydaw, the ruler of Brittany. This is surely what led the author of Brut y Brenhinedd to his substitution, so is seems allowed to use the same mechanism, but to arrive at a different conclusion. I will get back to this point.
Llydaw: Gwent or Gwynedd?
Back to Llydaw and Gwynedd. The name Llydaw also occurs in Wales, as Llyn Llydaw in Snowdonia, close to Dinas Emrys. It has been suggested that Llydaw in Gwynedd gave its name to Brittany, as did Cornwall to Cornouaille and Devon to Dumnonée. There is even a connection to Gwent, because Llydaw has also been associated with a region in Brycheiniog, supposedly where the gwyr Llydaw (men of Llydaw') came from (in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen). The Life of St Padarn mentions that Caradog Freichfras (son of Ynyr Gwent) extended the borders of his kingdom, which are usually said to have incorporated parts of Gwent, Archenfield and Radnorshire, into Letavia. This would correspond much better with the neighbouring Brycheiniog than with Gwynedd or even Brittany!
Again, we are thrown back on a seemingly unsolvable riddle that seems to connect Vortigern both to Gwent and Gwynedd. Like Vortigern, his father-in-law Magnus Maximus was connected to Gwynedd, but also to Gwent: his (semi-)legendary offspring appears in both areas. So does Vortigern, whose descendants are in Gwent, but not in Gwynedd, which however has many places associated with his name. And when he starts to flee across Wales, the stories have him run from the one to the other. Maybe we ought to conclude that both are correct, or maybe that by the time these stories were first put to paper, both regions had become so entangled that no-one knew which had been the original.
The final piece in this equation of Dinas Emrys with Dinas Emyr is the equally semi-legendary figure of Owain Finddu. This shadowy character is a knight at Arthurs court (Owen of the Black Lips), but he is mentioned earlier as Owen ap Macsen Wledig. In Triad 13 he is one of the Three Chief Officers of Britain, which might indicate a Roman office? After all, late Roman britain knew the three great military commands of the Dux Britanniarum, the Comes Litus Saxonicum and the Comes Britanniarum, who all commanded large forces. Could this be a throw-back to those times?
His mother is either Ceindrech ferch Rheiden or Elen Luddog (Llydaw), but both times their husband and his father is Macsen Wledig. Now the net seems to close: Macsen Wledig was the emperor Magnus Maximus (AD 383-88), who usurped the throne in Britain, crossed over to the continent, but was later defeated and killed by the emperor Theodosius. He is the legendary founder of the British colonies in Brittany, and figured in many Welsh pedigrees. Maximus was closely connected to Gwynedd, for the Roman unit based at Segontium (Caernarfon) accompanied his army to the continent. Using the same logic as Brut y Brenhinedd, could Maguns Maximus not be the ruler of Letavia that is behind the name Emyr Llydau?
After his death, another usurper sprang up, bearing the name Eugenius (W. Owen), which may very well have been the link for the later kinship between the legendary figures Owain Finddu and Macsen Wledig. When he was indeed a Late Roman general, he could have held one of the three military commands of the Late Roman forces in Britain, as his predecessor seems to have done. Owain is also very much connected to Gwynedd, as later a legend has him fight to the death battling a giant (Eurnach Gawr) near Beddgelert, the village closest to Dinas Emrys. His grave is said to have been between Dinas Emrys and Llyn Dinas. The circle has closed: both Magnus Maximus and his son Owain can be found to have been strongly connected to the area of Dinas Emrys. Could therefore the name originally have been Dinas Emyr, the fort of the emperor of Brittany ? I believe it could have been.
Vortigern and Dinas Emrys
If the above is correct, and the name of the fort was corrupted from Dinas Emyr, how should this explain the story of Vortigern and Ambrosius? Simply by association.
I believe that the name of the fort came first, possibly even as early as the late fourth century, as a result of the involvement of Magnus Maximus with the area. If there was a more personal reason for him that warranted such a name for this hill-fort (like that it was rebuilt by him), it has become lost. Neither would I want to guess at which point the name of Dinas Emyr became corrupted to Dinas Emrys, but I believe it was later rather than sooner (below).
During the following centuries, while the corpus of stories and legend of both Vortigern and Owain grew, they were both (but separately) associated with Magnus Maximus and hence also to Gwynedd. Both names reached this area in that way, but Vortigern (as his son-in-law) probably long before Owain (as his son). Vortigern, however, had his own set of associates (such as Hengist or Vortimer), one of them being Ambrosius, who was his adversary in history, and his persecutor and successor in later legend.
With all these elements in place, I propose that it was at this point that the fort became named Dinas Emrys, after the Ambrosius that it in various ways was connected to Vortigern. However, I would not totally exclude the possibility that the corruption went before that, and that the travelling of the legend of Vortigern to Dinas Emrys was already facilitated by the name-change that had come before. By the ninth century however, Vortigern and Ambrosius had become firmly attached to Dinas Emrys. The story did not change much after that, apart from the adding of Merlin and thus the incorporation into Arthurian legend.
Summing up all the elements discussed above:
However, all these elements together make for a nice fairy-tale, but offer no logical explanation as to any reality behind the tale, if at all. The elements can be taken apart, however:
Concluding the conclusion, we may now accept that the only element of any possible historicity is the presence of Vortigern in the area. We may discount Ambrosius wholly, since his role seems created purely by a corrupted name and his association with Vortigern.
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