Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Grumpy Gildas, Saint of Rhuys

By L.A. Smith

Saint Gildas (AD 500-570), otherwise known as Gildas the Wise, or, the Venerable Gildas, was a 6th century monk who is best known for writing De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain). This work is a history of Britain which begins with a brief account of the Roman occupation, but is mainly concerned with Britain after the Romans left in the 5th century, and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons from the Continent. It's one of the few near-contemporary accounts we have of this era, and as such, Gildas is an important figure, indeed.

Statue of Gildas nr. the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhys, France
Image from Wikipedia

It is, of course, difficult to know much that is certain about Gildas. Other than his literary works, we have two two surviving hagiographies about him. One was written in the 9th century by a monk at a monastery in Rhuys in Brittany. This was a monastery that Gildas himself founded. The second was written much later, in the 12th century, by the Welsh cleric, Caradoc of Llanfaran. The two differ quite a bit, so much so that some scholars suggest there might be two Gildas', but likely the differences between them are in account of the long time between the writing of the two. The earlier Life of St. Gilda from the 9th century is considered to be the most accurate, seeing as it is closest to Gildas' time.

The chapel of Gildas in Brittany - Gildas and a fellow monk,
Bieuzy, were said to have lived in the cave at the base of
this rock. Image by Rhian on Flikr

Interestingly enough, one of the things we don't know for certain is his name. This name, Gildas, is very unusual. In fact, there is only one other person of the times that we know of who has this name, a 5th century Roman Berber hailing from North Africa, who rebelled against the Western Roman Empire. His name was Gildo, which is virtually the same name once translations between languages are accounted for. Gildas is not a Latin name, and although some historians have postulated that the origin of the name is Pictish or Gaelic, there is no consensus on this. This leads some to speculate that the name itself is a pseudonym. Given that he writes in extremely unflattering terms of five British kings, it is understandable that he might use a false name, in fear of reprisals.

From that earlier hagiography we learn that Gildas was one of four sons of the king of the Alt Clut, a kingdom of British Celts in the north (now part of Scotland). His brother Cuillum became king after the death of their father, Caunus. The rest of the brothers became monks. As a child, Gildas studied under Illtud at Cor Twsdws, the great centre of learning in what is now Glamorgan, Wales. Many illustrious Saints studied there, including Saint David of Wales. There is, in fact, a connection between David and Gildas, as Gildas is said to be one of David's tutors when he was young.

It seems that Illtud was fond of Gildas, and thought him to be a good student. Gildas eventually decided to give up the privileges of his noble birth and become a monk. He went to Ireland where he was ordained as a priest, and then returned to northern Britain as a missionary, preaching the Gospel to his former countrymen. It seems, however, that the Irish church had fallen into disarray, and the High King of Ireland, Ainmericus, asked him to come back to get it back in order, so to speak. Gildas obliged, and spent some years travelling over the island, building churches, establishing monasteries, and in general re-establishing the faith, which was in danger of foundering.

He took a pilgrimage to Rome, where his hagiographer says he killed a dragon (as one does, I suppose), and then instead of returning to Britain, settled in Brittany instead, where he lived out the rest of his days. It was at this point that he preached the Gospel to Nonita, the mother of St. David, which she was pregnant with him. He lived an austere and solitary life for a time, but many wished to study under him, and so he eventually established a monastery in Rhuys, in what is now north-west France.

Approximately ten years after leaving Britain he wrote De Excidio. We can't be certain as to when it was written. Dates range from AD 490-AD 540. As to why he wrote it, well, let's hear his own words:
"...let him [the reader] think of me as a man that will speak out of a feeling of condolence with my country's losses and its miseries, and sharing in the joy of remedies. It is not so much my purpose to narrate the dangers of savage warfare incurred by brave soldiers, as to tell of the dangers caused by indolent men."

Those dangers, of course, are spiritual, rather than physical, although in Gildas' mind, the spiritual dangers will also be accompanied by physical ones. God's wrath against the faithless Christian leaders and people of Britain will bring not only spiritual damnation but physical consequences in the form of invasion and destruction.

Gildas is, above all, a teacher, a monk, and a servant of Christ. He muses in the opening section about his distress at hearing of the trials of his native land, and of the waywardness of its leaders, but is not sure if he is the one who should speak. After all, he acknowledges that there are surely some in Britain who would be better placed to speak the truth to power.  But he feels that, because there are so few, they are "bent down and pressed beneath so heavy a burden" and so "have not time allowed them to take breath." Nor, we infer, to fulfill their duties as priests of God and show the wayward leaders the error of their ways.

So Gildas, after a decade of wrestling with the question of whether to write or not, finally decides that he cannot keep silent any longer, and Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain is born. As a man of God, he felt it was his duty to point out the moral lesson he sees in the downfall of his native land. As we recall that he spent quite a few years in Ireland, strengthening the church there and turning it away from the moral degradation into which it had fallen, it is not surprising that Gildas feels this need to speak.

Britain in the time of Gildas - Wikipedia
Gildas starts his history with the Roman occupation, describing the coming of the Christian faith to Britain's shores along with the legions, and the terrible state of the island after the Romans left. They call for help from Rome but no help comes. The British leader, Vortigern, extends an offer to the Saxons (in Gildas' words, the "fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful to both God and man.") The offer was to come to Britain and fight as mercenaries on behalf of the British against the Picts and Scots from the north who were overrunning the cultivated and settled Roman British villas and cities in the south. But alas, the promised wages are not enough to keep them happy, and soon they turn on the Britons, ravaging the land and sending more soldiers over to conquer it for themselves.

The next section details the struggles between the Anglo-Saxons and the Roman-British population, as they try to repel the invaders. It is in this section that we get the intriguing mention of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a "man of unassuming character" (i.e. humble), who led the Britons in battle against the Saxons. Ambrosius, is of course, the figure that many associate with King Arthur.

After mentioning the victory of the Britons at Mount Badon, and a time of peace afterwards, Gildas gets into the next section, which is a thundering denunciation of five British kings: Constantine of Damnonia, Aurielus Conanus, Votipore of Demetia, Cuneglas of southern Gwynedd, and Magloclune of Anglesey.

It is not exactly clear who all these kings were, although most can be identified from other records of the time. Gildas writes of them in metaphorical language, echoing the prophetical language of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. He describes them as a lion, a lion's whelp, a dragon, a bear, and a leopard. It's also not clear why these five kings were mentioned, and other kings who reigned at the same time in other British kingdoms were not.

It is very clear, however, that Gildas is not impressed by these kings. He starts off the section on the kings with this introductory sentence:
Kings Britain has, but they are as her tyrants: she has judges, but they are ungodly men: engaged in frequent plunder and disturbance, but of harmless men: avenging and defending, yea for the benefit of criminals and robbers.
He accuses them of fornication, adultery, robbery, murder, and betrayal. He pleads with them to turn away from their evil deeds, but also warns them in no uncertain terms what will happen to them if they do not repent:
That dark flood of hell shall roll round thee with its deadly whirl and fierce waves; it shall always torture and never consume thee.
Hence, grumpy Gildas, as I have named him in this article. He is stringent and uncompromising in his role as a prophetic voice of doom to those who are in charge of both the church (he has some things to say to wayward church leaders, too) and the kingdoms of Britain. The polemical nature of the writing does get a little tiresome, to be sure, but one has to keep in mind his purpose: to show how immoral behaviour and leadership will lead to disaster, invasion, and death to those under that leadership. Agree or disagree with his premise, you have to admire his passion.

Maelgyn Gwynedd, one of the kings Gildas railed
against, from a 15thC Welsh translation of Geoffrey
of Monmouth's Historia Regum . Image from Wikipedia

Later historians such as Bede and Alcuin draw on Gildas' work when they write their own histories of England. His work was thus very influential for many years after he wrote it, and indeed, is still very important today. Gildas gave us a picture of what happened in England between the fall of Rome and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, one that we would not have had if he hadn't written his account.

Grumpy or not, we owe him a great debt.


L.A. Smith was born in Alberta, Canada, where she has lived all her life. She honed her writing skills with short stories and found publication for many of them in various online and print magazines. After many years of research and writing, The Traveller's Path was born, an adult historical fantasy series set in 7th century Northumbria. Wilding is the first book in the trilogy, and was published in May 2019. The second book, Bound, will be published in spring of 2020.

Besides writing, L.A. Smith loves reading, knitting, drinking tea, and walking her dog. Most days, not all at once.

You can connect with L.A. Smith on Facebook, Twitter @las_writer and at

Wilding can be purchased at all the online retailers, including, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo.

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