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Saint Gildas (c. 500 – 570) was a 6th-century British cleric. He is one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Islesmarker during this period. His renowned learning and literary style earned him the designation Gildas Sapiens (Gildas the Wise). He was ordained in the Church, and in his works favoured the monastic ideal. Fragments of letters he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere than the Rule written by his contemporary, Saint David, and set suitable penances for its breach.


There are two Lives of Gildas: the earlier written by a monk of Rhuysmarker in Brittany, possibly in the 9th century, the second written by Caradoc of Llancarfan, a friend and contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed in the middle of the 12th century. Caradoc, presumably writing at Llancarfanmarker in Walesmarker, does not mention any connection with Brittany, and some scholars think that Gildas of Britain and Gildas of Rhuys were distinct personages. In other details, however, the two Lives complement each other.

Rhuys Life

The first Life, written at Rhuys by an unnamed scribe, says that Gildas was the son of Caunus (Caw) of Pryd or Britain, born in the district of Allt Clut in what is now north Wales. He was entrusted into the care of Saint Hildutus (Illtud)in the monastic college of Llan Illtud Fawr along with Samson of Dol and Paul Aurelian, to be educated. He later went to Iren (Irelandmarker) to continue his studies. Having been ordained, he went to the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic-speaking parts of southern Scotlandmarker and northern England, to preach to the unconverted. Saint Brigidda (Brigid of Kildare, died 524) asked for a token and Gildas made a bell which he sent to her. Ainmericus, High King of Ireland (Ainmuire mac Sétnai, 566-569), asked Gildas to restore church order, which he did. He went to Romemarker and then Ravennamarker. He came to Brittany and settled on the island of Rhuys, where he lived a solitary life. Later, he built a monastery there. He built an oratory on the bank of the River Blavetum (River Blavetmarker). Ten years after leaving Britain, he wrote an epistolary book, in which he reproved five of the British kings. He died at Rhuys on 29 January, and his body, according to his wishes, was placed on a boat and allowed to drift. Three months later, on 11 May, men from Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact. They took the body back to Rhuys and buried it there.

Llancarfan Life

Caradoc of Llancarfan, influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons, and drawing on the Life of Cadoc among other sources, paints a somewhat different picture. His Life includes statements that Gildas was educated in Gaul, retired to a hermitage dedicated to the Trinity at Streetmarker near Glastonburymarker, and was buried at Glastonbury Abbeymarker. Some scholars who have studied the texts suspect the latter to be a piece of Glastonbury propaganda.

Caradoc tells a story of how Gildas intervened between King Arthur and a certain King Melwas of the 'Summer Country' (Gwlad yr Haf, Somerset) who had abducted Guinevere and brought her to his stronghold at Glastonbury, where Arthur soon arrived to besiege him. However, the peacemaking saint persuaded Melwas to release Guinevere and the two kings made peace. This is the earliest surviving appearance of the abduction of Guinevere episode common in later literature. Caradoc also says that the brothers of Gildas rose up against Arthur, refusing to acknowledge him as their lord. Arthur pursued Huail ap Caw, the eldest brother, and killed him. Gildas was preaching in Armaghmarker in Ireland at the time, and he was grieved by the news. Huail's enmity with Arthur was apparently a popular subject: he is mentioned as an enemy of Arthur's in the Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100.

According to the dates in the Annales Cambriae, Gildas would have been a contemporary of King Arthur. However, his work never mentions Arthur by name.

Further traditions

A strongly held tradition in North Walesmarker places the beheading of Gildas' brother Huail ap Caw at Ruthinmarker, where what is believed to be the execution stone has been preserved in the town square. Another brother of Gildas, Celyn ap Caw, was based at Garth Celynmarker on the north coast of Gwyneddmarker together with the territory of land in the north-east corner of Angleseymarker.

Gildas is credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a prayer for deliverance from evil, which contains interesting specimens of Hiberno-Latin. A proverb is also attributed to Gildas mab y Gaw in the Englynion y Clyweid in Llanstephan MS. 27.

In Bonedd y Saint, Gildas is recorded as having three sons and a daughter. Gwynnog ap Gildas and Noethon ap Gildas are named in the earliest tracts, together with their sister Dolgar. Another son, Tydech, is named in a later document. The unreliable Iolo Morganwg adds Saint Cenydd to the list.

The scholar David Dumville suggests that Gildas was the teacher of Vennianus of Findbarr, who in turn was the teacher of St. Columba of Ionamarker.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

Gildas' surviving written work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae or On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious.

Part I

The first part consists of Gildas' explanation for his work and a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest under the principate to Gildas' time:

Concerning her obstinacy, subjection and rebellion, about her second subjection and harsh servitude; concerning religion, of persecution, the holy martyrs, many heresies, of tyrants, of two plundering races, concerning the defense and a further devastation, of a second vengeance and a third devastation, concerning hunger, of the letter to Agitius [usually identified with the patrician Aëtius], of victory, of crimes, of enemies suddenly announced, a memorable plague, a council, an enemy more savage than the first, the subversion of cities, concerning those whose survived, and concerning the final victory of our country that has been granted to our time by the will of God.

Part II

The second part consists of a condemnation of 5 British kings, and as it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Gildas swathes the condemnations in allegorical beasts from the Christian Apocalypse and the biblical Book of Daniel, likening the kings to the beasts described there: a lion, a leopard, a bear, and a dragon. The description is repeated in fewer words in the Book of Revelation:
And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. Revelation 13-2 (underlining added)

The condemnations

The kings excoriated by Gildas are:
  • "Constantine the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia".
  • "thou lion's whelp Aurelius Conanus".
  • "Vortipore ... who like to the spotted leopard ... tyrant of the Demetians".
  • "Cuneglasse ... thou bear".
  • "dragon of the island ... maglocune".

In the course of his condemnations, Gildas makes passing reference to the other beasts mentioned in the Apocalypse, such as the eagle, serpent, calf, and wolf. The ancient meaning of the allegories is a matter of debate and opinion to the present day. A dissection of the original biblical meaning of the allegories by the sometimes controversial 18th century writer Emanuel Swedenborg is given in the Explanation of his Apocalypse Revealed. A different perspective is given in James Ratton's The Apocalypse of St. John: A Commentary on the Greek Text.

The reason for Gildas' disaffection for these individuals is unknown. He was selective in his choice of kings, as he had no comments concerning the kings of the other British kingdoms that were thriving at the time, such as Rheged, Gododdin, Elmet, Pengwern/Powys, or the kingdoms of modern-day southern Englandmarker. That he chose only the kings associated with one king's pre-eminence (Maglocune, the "dragon") suggests a reason other than his claim of moral outrage over personal depravity. Neither outrage nor a doctrinal dispute would seem to justify beginning the condemnation of the five kings with a personal attack against Constantine's mother (the "unclean lioness").

The kings and kingdoms

Maelgwn (Maglocune), King of Gwyneddmarker, receives the most sweeping condemnation and is described almost as a high king over the other kings (the power-giving dragon of the Apocalypse). The Isle of Angleseymarker was the base of power of the kings of Gwynedd, so describing Maelgwn as the 'dragon of the island' is appropriate. His pre-eminence over other kings is confirmed indirectly in other sources. For example, Maelgwn was a generous contributor to the cause of Christianity throughout Walesmarker, implying a responsibility beyond the boundaries of his own kingdom. He made donations to support Saint Brynach in Dyfedmarker, Saint Cadoc in Gwynllwg, Saint Cybi in Angleseymarker, Saint Padarn in Ceredigion, and Saint Tydecho in Powysmarker.He is also associated with the foundation of Bangormarker.

The Damnonii of Gildas' Damnonia are among the people of Britainmarker described by Ptolemy, and Damnonia was the predecessor state to the Kingdom of Alt Clud. There is no record of a king named Constantine in the mid-6th century, but it is the name of later kings in the region. It is traditional to "edit" Gildas and substitute Dumnonia (in Cornwallmarker) for Damnonia (see Constantine of Dumnonia). However, Dumnonia also had no known King Constantine in this era, and no known connection to Maelgwn or Gwynedd, whereas Alt Clud had a longstanding relationship with both Gwynedd and its kings.

Cuneglasse is the Cynglas (modern Welsh: Cynlas) of the royal genealogies, the son of Owain Whitetooth son of Einion son of Cunedda. He is associated with the southern Gwynedd region of Penllyn, and he was the ancestor of a later King of Gwynedd, Caradog ap Meirion. One of his brothers was Saint Seiriol.

Aurelius Caninus cannot be connected to any particular region of Britain. If Caninus should be Cuna(g)nus in 6th century writings, the result in the later royal genealogies would be Cynan, a commonly occurring name. However, this is a speculation.

Vortiporius (Vortipore) was a king of Demetia (Dyfedmarker) who is well-attested in both Welsh and Irishmarker genealogies, the son of Aircol. His memorial stone was discovered in 1895, bearing a Christian cross and with inscriptions in both Latin and ogham. The Latin inscription reads Memoria Voteporigis protictoris. The ogham inscription consists of his name in Goidelic: Votecorigas.

Part III

The third part begins with the words, "Britain has priests, but they are fools; numerous ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are wily plunderers." Gildas continues his jeremiad against the clergy of his age, but does not explicitly mention any names in this section, and so does not cast any light on the history of the Christian church in this period.


Gildas's work is of great importance to historians, because although it is not intended primarily as history, it is almost the only surviving source written by a near-contemporary of British events in the fifth and sixth centuries. The usual date that has been given for the composition of the work is some time in the 540s, but it is now regarded as quite possibly earlier, in the first quarter of the sixth century, or even before that.

The student must remember that Gildas' intent in his writing is to preach to his contemporaries after the manner of an old testament prophet, not to write an account for posterity: while Gildas offers one of the first descriptions of Hadrian's Wallmarker — albeit historically highly inaccurate — he also omits details where they do not contribute to his message. Nonetheless, it remains an important work not only for Medieval history but also for British history in general, as it is one of the few works written in Britain to survive from the 6th century.

In De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas mentions that the year of his birth was the same year as the Battle of Mons Badonicus, which might have taken place in 482 AD. Gildas' rhetorical writing style indicates a classical Latin education that could hardly have been available to any Britons after the 5th century. The Annales Cambriae gives the year of his death as 570; however the Annals of Tigernach dates his death to 569.

Gildas's treatise was first published in 1525 by Polydore Vergil, but with many avowed alterations and omissions. In 1568 John Josseline, secretary to Archbishop Parker, issued a new edition of it more in conformity with manuscript authority; and in 1691 a still more carefully revised edition by Thomas Gale appeared at Oxford. It was frequently reprinted on the Continent during the 16th century, and once or twice since. The next English edition, described by August Potthast as editio pessima, was that published by the English Historical Society in 1838, and edited by the Rev. J. Stevenson. The text of Gildas founded on Gale's edition collated with two other MSS, with elaborate introductions, is included in the Monumenta Historica Britannica. Another edition is in Arthur West Haddan and William Stubbs, Councils and ecclesiastical documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 1869); the latest edition is that by Theodor Mommsen in Monumenta Germaniae Historica auct. antiq. xiii. (Chronica min. iii.), 1894.

Legacy in the Anglo-Saxon period

Following the conquest of Britain described in De excidio, Gildas continued to provide an important model for Anglo-Saxon writers both in Latin and in English. Bede's Historia ecclesiastica relies heavily on Gildas for its account of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, and draws out the implications of Gildas's thesis of loss of divine favour by the Britons to suggest that this favour has in turn passed to the now Christianised Anglo-Saxons.

In the later Old English period, Gildas's writing provides a major model for Alcuin's treatment of the Viking invasions, in particular his letters relating to the sack of Lindisfarnemarker in 793. The invocation of Gildas as a historical example serves to suggest the idea of moral and religious reform as a remedy for the invasions. Likewise, Wulfstan of York draws on Gildas to make a similar point in his sermons, particularly in the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos.

Other historical implications

Gildas's work is important for reasons beyond the historical information he provides. At the time when Gildas was writing there was an effective (and British) Christian church. Gildas uses Latin to address his points to the rulers he excoriates; and he regards Britons, at least to some degree, as Roman citizens, despite the collapse of central imperial authority. By 597, when St Augustine arrived in Kent, what is now England was populated by Anglo-Saxon pagans, and the new rulers did not think of themselves as Roman citizens. Dating Gildas's words more exactly would hence provide a little more certainty about the timeline of the transition from post-Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England; a certainty that would be the more valuable as precise dates and reliable facts are extremely scarce for this period.

See also



  • — English translation
  • — in Latin

External links

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