The young Merlin with King Vortigern
Traditionally, the name Amesbury is derived from Ambrosius, and it is possible that the settlement was the stronghold of the sixth century resistance leader and his followers.
Vortigern was the weak 5th century British ruler who came to power when his future enemies Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther Pendragon were young men. He engaged the help of the Saxon mercenaries Hengist and Horsa in warding off brutal raids from northern tribes. Eventually he married Hengist’s daughter Rowena.
The two Saxons claimed, by trickery, more and more rewards in return for their actions, and rampaged across the land. Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, sickened by his father’s betrayal of his country, raised an army and temporarily held back to Saxons. But, wounded in battle, he was poisoned by his stepmother.
It is about this time that the Breton Melor appears on the scene. In the face of advancing Saxons in Britain and, later, of Norsemen in northern France, there was much interchange between southern Britain and what we now call Brittany.
Melor’s father Meliavus ruled Cornubia, part of Brittany. Rivodus, brother of Meliavus and jealous of his good fortune, killed Meliavus, and arranged for Melor’s left foot and right hand to be amputated so he could not succeed his father.
Melor received a silver hand and a bronze foot and, miraculously, learned how to use the hand as if it were his own.
Rivodus, hearing of this, had Melor beheaded. But the severed head continued to speak, and other miraculous events ensued.
The whole legend and cult can be identified with pre-Christian Celtic religious practices. It is possible that the Melor cult existed at Llanmeur around 900AD.
St Melor’s association with Amesbury begins when his relics were brought here at an unknown date, by preachers of foreign extraction. The relics were placed on the altar at Amesbury, and when the preachers tried to remove them found they had stuck fast.
The relics may have been here in 979AD when Aelfthryth founded her abbey in atonement for the murder of St Edward the Martyr in the previous year. One possibility is that Melor and Edward, both boy princes, provided the reason for dedicating the abbey church to St Melor. Alternatively, if the relics were still here, they may have inspired the construction of a worthy monument.
And last by no means least, there is the Arthurian legend. Arthur, a figure set in the 6th century, has been identified with Ambrosius Aurelianus as a leader against the Saxons. His legend is revived and embellished during the medieval period, with his Queen Guinevere withdrawing to and dying in an abbey identified as Amesbury in some sources.
Hengist called a peace conference on Salisbury Plain, supposedly at Stonehenge. When the British arrived, they were caught in a well-prepared ambush and slaughtered.
Vortigern escaped to Wales but, following revelations by the mystic Merlin, could no longer command the respect of his followers.
His place was taken by Ambrosius who pursued Vortigern until the fallen ruler was killed by lightning. Ambrosius then set about halting the Saxon advance but achieved only limited success.