Saint Gildas (c. 494 or 516 – c. 570) was a prominent member of the Celtic Christian church in Britain, whose renowned learning and literary style earned him the designation Gildas Sapiens (Gildas the Wise). He was ordained in the Church, and in his works favored the monastic ideal. Fragments of letters he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was a little 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 Rhuys in Brittany, possibly in the 9th century, the second written by Caradog of Llancarfan, a friend and contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed in the middle of the 12th century. Caradog does not mention any connection with Brittany. Hence some scholars think that Gildas of Britain and Gildas of Rhuys were distinct personages. However on other details the two Lives complement each other.
The first Life written at Rhuys by an unnamed scribe says that Gildas was the son of Caunus (Caw), born in the district of Arecluta (Alt Clut or Strathclyde). He was entrusted into the care of Saint Hildutus (Illtud) along with Samson and Paul, to be educated. He later went to Iren (Ireland) to continue his studies. Having been ordained, he went to North Britain to preach to the unconverted. Saint Brigidda (Brigit, died 524) asked for a token and Gildas made a bell which he sent to her. Ainmericus, King of all Ireland (Ainmere, 566-569), asked Gildas to restore church order, which he did. He went to Rome and then Ravenna. He came to Brittany and settled on an island (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 Blavet). Ten years after leaving Britain, he wrote an epistolary book, in which he reproved five of the Brythonic 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.
Caradog of Llancarfan, influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons, and drawing on the Life of Cadog among other sources, paints a somewhat different picture including the statements that Gildas was educated in Gaul, retired to a hermitage dedicated to the Trinity (at Street) near Glastonbury and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Some scholars who have studied the texts suspect the latter to be a piece of Glastonbury propaganda.
Caradog tells a story of how Gildas intervened between King Arthur and a certain King Melwas of the 'Summer Country' 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. Caradog 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 Armagh in Ireland, at the time, and he was grieved by the news.
A strongly held tradition in north Wales places the beheading of Gildas' brother, Huail, at Ruthin, where what is believed to be the actual execution stone has been preserved in the town square. Another brother of Gildas, Celyn ap Caw was based at Garth Celyn on the north coast of Gwynedd together with the territory of land watching over the Copper Mountain on Anglesey.
Gildas is credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a prayer to be delivered 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 Iona.
De Excidio Britanniae
Gildas' surviving written work, De Excidio Britanniae or On the Ruin of Britain, is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious. 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.
In the second part, opening with the assertion "Britain has kings, yet they are tyrants; it has judges, yet they are undutiful", Gildas addresses the lives and actions of five contemporary rulers: Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus, Vortiporius of the Demetae (now called Dyfed), Cuneglasus apparently of 'the Bear's Home' (possibly 'the Bear's Stronghold' - Dinarth at Llandrillo-yn-Rhôs near Llandudno), and lastly Maglocunus or Maelgwn. Without exception, Gildas declares each of these rulers cruel, rapacious, and living a life of sin.
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.
The vision presented in this work of a land devastated by plundering raiders and the misrule of corrupt and venial officials has been readily accepted by scholars for centuries, because not only did it fit the accepted belief of invading, destructive barbarians who destroyed Roman civilization within the bounds of the former empire, but it also explained away the awkward question of why Britain was one of the few parts of the Roman Empire that did not acquire a Romance language, as had France and Spain. However, 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 the Hadrian's Wall -- albeit highly historically inaccurate -- he also omits details where they do not contribute to his message. Nonetheless, it remains an important work for not only Medieval but English history for being one of the few works written in Britain to survive from the sixth century.
In De Excidio Britanniae, Gildas mentions that the year of his birth was the same year that the Battle of Mons Badonicus took place in. The Annales Cambriae gives the year of his death as 570; however the Annals of Tigernach date his death to 569.
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, and particular his letters relating to the sack of Lindisfarne 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.