De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

Gildas (c500-c570) was a 6th Century British Cleric and is one of the best documented figures from the Christian church in the British Isles from that time.  He has sometimes been called Gildas Sapiens, ‘Gildas the Wise’.  His major work of note, ‘De Excidio at Conquestu Britanniae’ contains narratives of the post Roman history of Britain and has been classed by some as the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near contemporary.

There are two versions of Gildas life written as the ‘ Lives of Gildas’.  The first was written in the 9th Century by a monk of Rhuys in Brittany, France, while the second was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the 12th Century.

The first life of Gildas, written by the unnamed monk, says that Gildas was the son of Camus (Caw), born in a district of Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic speaking region of northern Britain.  Alt Clut was the Brittonic name of the area around the modern Dumbarton Rock.  While Hen Ogledd, is a Welsh term for Northern England and Southern Scotland.  Gildas was entrusted into the care of St. Hildutus (Illtud) in the monastic college of Llan Illtud Fawr (near modern day Cardiff) along with Samson of Dol and Paul Aurelian.

To continue with his studies Gildas went to Iren (most scholars believe this to be Ireland, although some have muted it as Cirencester).  St. Brigadda (Bridget of Kildare died 524) asked Gildas for a token, to which he created a bell and sent this to her.  Ainmericus, High King of Ireland (between 566-569) asked Gildas to restore church order which he did.  He then travelled to Rome and to Ravenna and later to Brittany where he eventually settled at Rhuys.  At times during his life at Rhuys he would live in solitude and also built a monastery and an oratory on the bank of the River Blayetum (River Blavet).

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Ten years after leaving Britain he wrote an epistolary book in which he reproved five of the British kings.  He died at Rhuys on 29th January and as per his wishes his body was laid in a boat on the river and allowed to drift down stream.  Three months after his body had been laid to rest in the river it was later found intact by workers from Rhuys. Gildas was then laid to rest and buried in Rhuys.

In contrast the Llancarfan story was written roughly 300 years later by Caradoc.  Caradoc was friends with Geoffery of Monmouth.  Geoffrey wrote Historia Regum Brtanniae which is popular with the legends of King Arthur. The Llancarfan life reads that Gildas was educated in Gaul and then latter retired to a heritage dedicated to the Trinity in Street, near Glastonbury.  He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, which is also entwined with the legends of Arthur.

Caradoc tells a story of how Gildas intervened between King Arthur and a certain King Melwas of the ‘Summer County’ (Gwalad yr Haf, Somerset) who had abducted Guinevere and brought her to his stronghold at Glastonbury.  Arthur then travelled to Glastonbury with an army and set to besiege the stronghold.  Gildas persuaded Melwas to surrender Guinevere and on her return Arthur lifted the siege.  Caradoc also writes how the brothers of Gildas rose up against Arthur and refused to accept him as their lord.  Arthur chased the eldest brother Huail ap Caw was killed by Arthur.  Gildas at the time was preaching in Armagh, Ireland and was said to be greatly grieved by the news.  The story of Arthur and Huail was popular at the time and also appeared in the 12th Century Welsh prose tale ‘Culhwch and Olwen’.

According to the dates in the Annales Cambriae Gildas would have been a contemporary of King Arthur.  Although the biggest part that makes me wonder regarding the Llancarfan story and how much truth is spin into the story is that Gildas does not mention Arthur in any of his works.  The Annales Cambriae also gives the date of his death as 570 although the Annals of Tigernach give the year as 569.

Gildas is thought to have lived as a hermit for many years on Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel.  It was during this time according to Welsh scholars he is said to have preached to Nonnita, the mother of St. David while she was pregnant with the future Saint.  He is also said to be responsible for many of the conversations in Ireland due to his many visits and missionary work he is said to have carried out.

A tradition in North Wales places the beheading of the before mentioned brother Huail at Ruthin.  In Ruthin town square there is a stone that is said to be the same stone used for the execution.   Another brother Celyn ap Caw is said to have been based in the north east corner of Anglesey.

Some state that Gildas is also believed to be the teacher of Finnan of Moville who was in turn the teacher of St. Columba of Iona.

Spring of St Gildas, Magoar, Brittany

Spring of St Gildas, Magoar, Brittany

Gildas’ greatest work ‘De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae;’ was a sermon in three different parts.  Although not written as a piece on history it is one of the only written sources from this period and therefore greatly significant when looking at the history of the period.  It was regularly believed that Gildas wrote his piece during the 540s but it is now regarded that quite possibly it was written earlier in the first quarter of the 6th Century and even possibly earlier than this.  One of the first descriptions of the Hadrians and Antonine Walls are both given in the work, although the history given for both is highly inaccurate.

In the work Gildas gives his date of birth as the same year as the Battle of Mons Badonicus which might of taken place in 482 AD.

The first part consists of an explanation for his work and a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest to the time of Gildas.  It includes a mention of Ambrosius  Aurelianus and the Brition’s victory against the Saxon at the Battle of Mons Badonixus.  The De Excidio is the earliest source that has Ambrosius Aurelianus as an important figure for the Britons who is credited with turning the tide against the Anglo-Saxons conquest of the island.

The second part is a condemnation of five different British kings and is the only contemporary source regarding them.  Gildas describes the Kings as the allegorical beasts from the Christian Apocalypse and the biblical Book of Daniel. The same animals (a lion, a leopard, a bear and a dragon) are later used in less detail in the Book of Revelation.

The Kings mentioned are;

  • Constantine; the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Dramnonia.’
  • ‘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 his condemnation Gildas also mentions the other beasts mentioned in the Apocalypse, such as the eagle, serpent, calf and wolf.  Gildas’ reasons for disaffection with the individuals is unknown.

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 to attack the clergy of the time in the third part but does not mention any names, so does not cast any light of the history of the Christian Church in Britain at the time.

Gildas’ work is important because it gives us an insight into the feelings and thoughts of the time .  Future writers such as Bebe, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth all take parts of their own writings from the De Excidio.  Also it shows that at the time of his writing that there was an effective Christian Church in Britain and in places as Roman citizens.  By the . time of St. Augustine’s arrival in Kent in 597, England was ruled by pagan Anglo-Saxons who did not see themselves as Romans.

To be able exactly Gildas’ work would assist with trying to pinpoint the transition from post Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England.  Although this can’t be done the work of Gildas is very important especially to people interested about post Roman Britain as not many pieces have survived from the period making it so much harder to pinpoint such events.

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