Wednesday, June 13, 2018


The Drury and Andrews Map of the Vespasian’s Camp and Stonehenge area (1773). The north, north-easterly and southern sections of the Camp show no evidence of landscaping. Blick Mead can be located under the ‘U’ of ‘Countess Farm’. [Courtesy]

Nikolai Tolstoy, in his The Mysteries of Stonehenge: Myth and Ritual at the Sacred Centre (Amberley Publishing Limited, Sep 15, 2016), has proposed that the original name preserved in the place-name Amesbury (Ambresbyrig, 'Ambr's burg') was either Ambiorix or Amborix. I only now found out about this because the idea had occurred to me just the other day.  Belatedly, as it turns out! I must give precedence to Tolstoy for this notion.

Interested readers can see what he has to say here:

In the past, I had treated of the Amesbury name in some detail.  I recently posted that information in the following blog article:

Although I did not publish it, I also made an attempt to connect the Amesbury name with the Celtic *ambri-, a word used for rivers (e.g. the Amber in Derbyshire).  I did so given the spring complex discovered at Vespasian's Camp at Amesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth's story about the water poured over the stones of nearby Stonehenge having miraculous healing properties. Alas, it made no sense to suggest such a derivation, as Amesbury is on the Avon, a very ancient Celtic river-name from *abona-.  Hence there was no reason to foist another river-name on the location.

The best recent treatment of the personal name Ambiorix is to be found in In this source Ambiorix is given an etymology that differs from the standard view.

The name Ambiorix is generally interpreted as
‘king of the enclosure’ (Gaulish ambio-rix), or
sometimes – with the same formal analysis –
as ‘king of the surrounding (area)’.37 The
Norwegian Indo-Europeanist Frederik Otto
30 Schrijver 1991, 29-31: ‘One might assume that aper resulted from *h1pr-o-, with vocalization of *h1-.’ Another possibility
for this vocalization is offered by analogy with caper ‘buck’ (ibidem, 30).
31 Proto-Indo-European (PIE) had three consonants called laryngeals of which the exact (phonetic) nature is still debated.
In reconstructions these are often written as *h1, *h2 en *h3, or *H when it is not clear which of the three should
be reconstructed. A probable interpretation of these reconstructed phonemes is that they were a glottal stop and an
unrounded and a rounded laryngeal (or pharyngeal) consonant respectively, similar to the ‘throat sounds’ which
occur is Arabic. *i and *u in this reconstruction represent the consonants y (as in English you) and w (as in water)
respectively. For more details, see for example Beekes 1995, 142-148 (and passim).
32 Delamarre 2003, 193-194. For the PIE reconstruction and further cognates, see Philippa, Debrabandere & Quak 2003-
2009, II, 498 (s.v. ‘ijf ’). As an aside, it is interesting to note that in Lithuanian this word (ievà) is used to denote the
alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus).
33 Sterckx 1994. For the personal names, see Delamarre 2003, 193.
34 See for example Schönfeld 1965, 62, who refutes a suggested Germanic influence in the name Catuvolcus.
35 Delamarre 2003, 111, 327. The literal meaning of Welsh cadwalch is also ‘war-falcon’. It is a compound of Welsh cad
‘war’ and gwalch ‘falcon’.
36 Schrijver 1995, 116-130.
37 Delamarre 2003, 41-42, 260-261. Toorians 2000, 72. Lambert 1995, 114-117.
– 114 –
Fig. 8: Side of a Neolithic
menhir of Macquenoise
(Hainaut). Inscription of
supposed Late La Tène age,
with mention of IVIIRICCI,
which is understood to be
the name of Iverix, ‘king of
the yew tree’. (Copyright
and information Herman
Clerinx – see Cerinx 2009,
Atuatuca 4 binnenwerk_J_Roman Glass A4-2 5/10/12 10:55 Pagina 114
Lindeman suggested a different etymology for
Ambiorix which has the attraction of good
Indo-European parallels and which is more
convincing from a semantic point of view. In
Lindeman’s interpretation, *ambio- in the
name Ambiorix is not itself a representative of
the Gaulish preposition ambi- ‘autour, alentour,
des deux côtés’ but rather the reflex of an
ancient compound containing this preposition.
In Lindeman’s analysis, it is the reflex of
‘an old Indo-European compound of the root
*peH3- ‘to protect’ with the preposition
*H2mbhí-’. In what we might loosely call
‘Western Indo-European’ this would develop
into something like *ambhipo-, which in Celtic
(with loss of Proto-Indo-European *p) results
in *ambio-. Like its cognate forms in Vedic
Sanskrit (abhi-pá), the meaning of this compound
in Celtic may be assumed to be ‘protector,
ruler, master, king’.38 Since this word
became virtually homophonous in Celtic with
the preposition ambi- and may no longer have
been recognised as a compound noun itself,
‘the word *-ríg ‘king’ was added to create a new
compound *ambio-ríg-’.39 This process is quite
normal in the development of languages where
words tend to lose their semantic transparency
through homophony or other developments
within the language. To my mind this new
interpretation by Lindeman gives us a better
and more likely etymology for Ambiorix than
the previous one presented in most handbooks
and by Delamarre in his Gaulish dictionary.40
At first sight, the translation yielded by this
new analysis of Ambiorix would be a rather too
literal and fairly tautological ‘ruler-king’. A
translation like ‘protector, ruler’ would be
more correct.
Thus, of the four ‘Eburonian’ names known
from the time of Julius Caesar, the fourth – the
enigmatic Aduatuca – can now also be accepted
as Celtic. Its meaning is ‘place of the prophet’
or, to avoid Biblical associations, ‘place of the
soothsayer’. For the interpretation of eburos as
‘yew’ in the name Eburones, we should include
in our analysis the extralinguistic argument of
suicide by means of the yew. Following
Lindeman, the personal name Ambiorix can
now be analysed slightly differently to give a
more precise interpretation. For the name
Catuvolcus, Peter Schrijver has removed the
last remaining formal objection to equating it
with later Welsh cadwalch. With this result, it
is of course tempting to suggest that the
Eburonians were a people speaking a Celtic
language in around 55 BC, and there is no suggestion
whatsoever of a Germanic language
being involved (fig. 9).

However, it is definitely 'King of the Enclosure' that should interest us most in the context of Amesbury with Stonehenge hard by. The enclosure in question would be a round one, as *ambi- has the following meaning:

preposition (around) *ambi-, SEMANTIC CLASS: grammar, Galatian ; CIb. Ambi-; ambi-, SEMANTIC CLASS: 6 ‘around’, Gaulish Ambi- ‘around’, Early Irish imb-, imm- ‘around’, Scottish Gaelic im-, SEMANTIC CLASS: 12 ‘about’, Welsh am-, em-, ym- ‘around’, Cornish am-, em-, ym-, om-, SEMANTIC CLASS: 16 ‘around’, Breton am-, em- ‘around’ 

Now, whether Ambr could have come from an Ambiorix or Amborix is debatable.  Mostly, it comes down to chronology.  According to Dr. Simon Rodway of The University of Wales,

"If Ambiorix > Emyr, then it must have undergone the following changes: Ambiorix > *Embiorix > *Embr > *Emr > Emyr. If we follow Jackson’s dating, then Ambiorix would have become *Embr in the second half of the fifth century. Of course it’s possible that the name could have been borrowed into English earlier than that. As for the Amborix of Elis Evans, he’s working backwards from Emyr. He’s right that the /io/ makes things difficult, but he doesn’t say what he thinks *ambo is."

Rodway added, almost as an after-thought:

"As for a form *Ambr < Ambiorix, this shouldn't be entirely ruled out, I suppose, due to (a) uncertainty about whether or not io would block double affection, and (b) the fact that there are scattered instances of words which have resisted affection for unclear reasons (listed by Jackson in Language and History)."

The most interesting thing to me about this possibility is that Stonehenge and Amesbury were squarely in Belgic territory.  The Gaulish Ambiorix was of a Belgic tribe.  While I'm not trying to say that there is any kind of relationship between the British and Gaulish personages, it is certainly conceivable that the name may have had significant currency among the Belgae.  Still, the Gaulish Ambiorix was never caught by the Romans (see and One might imaginatively construct a scenario in which this great chieftain escaped from the Continent to join his Belgic brothers in Britain.


Conceivably, Ambiorix in the context of Stonehenge may have been an eponymous founder of Amesbury.  It is not impossible that the name came to be used as a title for whoever was the reigning monarch at the site.  Finally, we know of Celtic divine names ending in rix or rigos, 'king', so we could tentatively postulate that the deity of Stonehenge was referred to honorifically as 'King of the [Round] Enclosure.'  These ideas are not mutually exclusive.  A sacred king might well have been seen as a personification of the deity. True, we might expect for a sub-Roman British population in southern England to be thoroughly Christian.  Yet local traditions die hard and are often melded almost seamlessly with new doctrine.

I have no problem accepting Tolstoy's idea that this Ambiorix of Amesbury came to be confused by the Welsh with the name Ambrosius (Embreis, Emrys).  As I've pointed out before, the Gaulish governor Ambrosius Aurelianus was never in Britain.  Nor was his son, St. Ambrose.  But we can expect the occurrence a King of the [Round] Enclosure at Stonehenge.

Thus when we are told an ancestor of Vortigern fought an Ambrosius at Wallop Brook/Danebury Ring in Hampshire, we need merely substitute the ruling title of the king at Amesbury for Ambrosius.

And if I'm right about the 'vir modestus' Amesbury king being a reference to Moderatus/Medraut/Medrawd (= the romance Mordred), who died fighting Arthur/Cerdic of Wessex/Ceredig son of Cunedda either at Cymenesora (Keynor?) or Portsmouth Harbour (British
Cammas), then it was the rulers of Stonehenge who had protected their kingdom from the English and the Gewissei for almost 40 years.

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