Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Fire in the Sky - Ambrosius Aurelianus, Last of the Romans

This piece is based around the passages which concern Ambrosius in Rosemary Sutcliff's novels, The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Sword at Sunset (1963). In neither book is he the main protagonist. That honour falls to his two companions in this story, Aquila in The Lantern Bearers and Artos (Arthur) in Sword at Sunset. But Sutcliff, in my view, saves some of her richest and most atmospheric writing for Ambrosius, and I have always suspected that he held some deep, perhaps spiritual, significance for her. Take this description from The Lantern Bearers, for instance:

'His eyes, under brows as straight as a raven's flight pinions, were not the eyes of the Little Dark People, that were black and unstable and full of dreams, but a pale, clear grey lit with gold that gave the effect of flame behind them.'

I hope I have done justice, in this foray into fan-fiction, to Sutcliff's historical imagination and also to Ambrosius himself. He stood strong against external invasion and inner disintegration and restored peace and good government to southern Britain after Rome withdrew. He paved the way for his successor, Arthur, to stabilise and expand the realm further, and more importantly to set in motion that great body of myth which has fired our national imagination since and has, I believe, its highest fulfilment ahead of it still.

* * *

I am Ambrosius, High King of Britain. Tomorrow, when the sun reaches his zenith, I shall depart from the circles of this world and cross over into the Great Light, where the God beyond the gods will welcome me home, heal my sickness, and give me rest and respite before I am called down into service again.

For it comes to me clearly, this winter's night, that I have achieved two things only in my three-score years. I have held the pass and built a bridge - rolled back the darkness and relit the Roman light - so that the next High King, Artos (I hope), has the platform and stage he requires to free us from Saxon, Pict and Scot once and for all.

Politically speaking, it has to be Artos, though due to his irregular parentage I cannot name him successor. No-one else - though some claim purer birth - is capable of binding the tribes together and banishing the enemy. I have done what I could in this matter. I have given both Roman and Celt a vision to live for and die for. We have restored the ancient Kingdom in the South, and the Saxons have fled to the eastern fringes. But they have not been expelled and reinforcements arrive every day. Picts and Scots harass us to the North and West. We have laid a foundation but nothing more. It will take one like Artos - a hero, a leader, an inspirer of men - to preserve and build on our work. And that is why I must die at once. Suddenly, with no time to plan the succession. Our survival hangs by a thread. This is no time for dynastic squabbles. An unprecedented, co-ordinated attack will fall on us this summer. All our spies say so. With the stakes so high, men will rally around Artos, our renowned Count of Britain, out of necessity. The Council will undoubtedly see that he is the only man to lead us and save us.

I am, in any case, a sick and dying man, and this is why I have returned at my end to a place dear to me in my beginning - this woodland lodge to the north of our capital, Venta Belgarum (which the Saxons call Winchester). It was here that my father, Constantine, took myself and my brother, Utha, with him on his hunting expeditions, though in truth I was old enough to come only once, when I was nine. That was the happiest month of my life, but it all turned to ashes when my father was slain that very summer and Venta set ablaze in Vortigern's coup. The chaos and agony of that burning, blood-red night - the flames, the smoke, the screams - have stayed with me always. They will be with me tomorrow when the royal stag's twelve-pointed tine rips through my groin. I had not heard the tale of the sack of Troy at that time, but when I did, I felt like a brother to young Ascanius, shepherded to safety by his father, thrice-great Aeneas, that high and noble Trojan who founded our holy city of Rome. But our father was dead. Utha and I were spirited away by a handful of loyalists to northern Cymru and our grandmother's lands in the mountains of Arfon. There, on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa, we mourned our dead and gathered our strength until that glad day fifteen years later when we marched on the South and won back our father's city.

Dinas Ffarraon, we called our mountain hideaway. The Fortress of the High Powers. It is a good name, and I miss that blessed patch of Cymric rock and earth. For I am a man of two worlds - the Roman and the Celtic - and this is my blessing and my curse. Our grandfather, Maximus, was a Spaniard by birth and lieutenant to the great Theodosius. When, a hundred and thirty four years ago, the Picts stormed the Wall and set northern and middle-Britain ablaze, it was Maximus and Theodosius who beat them back and slowly, steadily restored order. When Theodosius returned to Rome, Maximus stayed and married a princess of the northern Cymru, thereby winning the loyalty of both the Roman and the Celtic parties. Flushed with success, he made himself Emperor and set out for Italy to vanquish his rivals. And there he perished, but he left behind a son, Constantine, our father. And when the province was stripped of its Legions, Constantine swept down from Arfon and routed the Saxons, ruling in the Roman style for thirty years from Venta. And that was the world that Utha and I, the children of our father's old age, were born into.

I greatly admired, as a boy, our city's order and precision. It counterbalanced my often colourful imagination. I was on affectionate terms with every piece of granite, stone and marble in the city - columns, statues, squares, Praetorium, Basilica - so perhaps it is no wonder that it is my triumphant return there, when we took the Durobrivae Bridge nigh-on forty years ago, that stands out now. How often have I lived it again in my mind, that raw, slate-grey, sleet-spattered morning. I was shocked, I recall, by the city's appearance - weeds running riot and pavements strewn with masonry - but the people cheered and lined the streets and gave me a royal and hearty welcome.

'I knew your father, Sir,' an old man called as he tossed a branch of glowing winter berries under my horse's hooves. 'I served under him in the old days.' I rewarded him with a smile and a coin and would have given him more if I could. But that night, around the fire, with Aquila and the others, I remember how struck I was by the sadness and vulnerability in my voice. 'They remembered me for my father's and my grandfather's sakes,' I said. 'One day they may remember me for my own.'

For a moment it felt like I no longer belonged in the old, familiar Governor's Palace I had been so happy to reclaim earlier that day. I wished, to be honest, I was somewhere else - high up in the cloud-capped peaks of Arfon, close to the stars, with time and space to pray and reflect on the past, present and future of my own life and the life of this sacred isle.


Artos, Aquila and I spent the night gone by roasting chestnuts over the brazier, as I had done so merrily so long ago with Utha and my father. The windows glittered with frost, but I felt warm and content inside, at ease with myself, my companions, and the world. When the time for serious talk came, Artos understood at length the method in my madness and then, I'm not sure why, Aquila - my longest-serving comrade - wandered over to the window and told us there was fire in the sky beyond the hill called Ink-Pen. Artos shot up. 'Saxons!' he cried as Aquila opened the window. But swiftly they saw that this was none of their doing. It was the Crown of the North my brothers in arms were gazing upon. The famous Northern Lights.

I pushed back my chair, shuffled across the tesserae, and was astonished at what I saw. Many times, in years gone by, have I observed the Northern Lights from the flanks of Yr Wyddfa. But nothing on this scale - nothing so wide, bright and high as this - a curving, flame-red scimitar of light, arching up from behind the hill, conquering first a quarter, then a third, then half of the sky. Banners and streamers of blue, green and gold - brighter than the moon and stars combined - flared out into the night like heralds of Mithras, god of battles and victory and invincible Lord of Light.

A deep sense of peace and reassurance came down on me. Here was a sign from the Most High God that my intuitions were true and I was departing at the right time and leaving the country in safe and inspiring hands. And so, if folk do remember me in the future, it will not be for my father's sake, nor for my own, but for my successor's, and from where I am now at the the end of my life, having spent fifty years dragging Britain back from the abyss, that is a happy prospect indeed.

'Yes,' I said to my friends. 'There will be many pointing to the North and bidding each other look tonight. And later, all Britain will say that there were strange lights in the sky on the night before Ambrosius Aurelianus died.'

Artos went white. He had not, I think, realised until then that I intended to die so soon. I am, after all, the only parent he has known, for Utha, his father, perished on the tusks of a boar when he was three years old. His mother (who was not Utha's wife) died when he was born, so I took him in and he has been as a son to me ever since - an unanticipated, but receptive, diligent and exceptionally gifted son. So it is a sorrowful parting for me as well, I who gave up thought of wife and child to focus everything I had - mind, body and soul - on the salvation and resurrection of Britain.

The lights outside began to fade, but in myself I felt some measure of strength and vigour return. There was nothing more to do now. I had done what needed to be done and was blessed and fortunate enough to have done it well. I had fulfilled my fate and was now going gladly to the fulfilment. 'I think that the frost will not be hard enough to spoil the scent tomorrow,' I remarked casually.

'Ambrosius,' cried Artos. 'Don't be playing the madman! You could never last an hour's hunting!'

I walked back to the brazier, picked up a flagon of wine, turned to my comrades and smiled, holding the flagon up high. 'Brothers, I drink to tomorrow's hunt. Good hunting and a clean kill.'

And as I stood there before them, I felt a glow and a shine about me and knew that the Lords of Life would take what little strength I had left and squeeze it into the handful of hours that it will take to bring down the royal stag tomorrow.

No, I do not think the frost will be hard enough to spoil the scent. I shall mount my horse and the company will be amazed at the speed and ferocity of my riding. Some might even hope that my illness is passing - and that will be partly true - but it would be better to say that I am starting to transcend my sickness. And I will drink in everything I see, hear and feel as I ride - sun, sky, hills, trees, my horse beneath me, my dear ones around me - until we bring the noble beast to bay and I leap off my horse, brandishing the King's knife and claiming the kill as my own. We shall look each other in the eye then, the stag and I, not as hunter and hunted, but brothers and sovereigns - monarch to monarch - then as the blade plunges into his breast and his antlers tear through my innards, I will catch a glimpse for an instant of the world that awaits me, and Aquila and Artos, having sprinted through the bracken to disentangle my body, will find, I am sure, a look of surprise on my face.


  1. Terrific read. The last paragraph is particularly poignant (and beautiful). You have inspired me to learn more about this historical figure.

  2. Many thanks, Frank. I'm delighted you found value in the piece.