Gildas: Wikis


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Saint Gildas
Statue of Saint Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).
Born c. 500, traditionally the valley of the river Clwyd in north Wales.
Died 570, Rhuys, Brittany
Venerated in Eastern Orthodox Church; Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion
Major shrine Glastonbury Abbey, now destroyed, or Rhuys Church, extant.
Feast 29 January
Attributes monk holding a Celtic bell or writing in a book
Patronage Welsh historians; bell founders

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 Isles during this period. His renowned learning and literary style earned him the designation Gildas Sapiens (Gildas the Wise). His work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which contains narratives of the post-Roman history of Britain, is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near-contemporary. He was ordained in the Church, and in his works favours 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 Rhuys 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 Llancarfan in Wales, 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 Pictland, born in the district of Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic-speaking region of northern Britain. 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 (Ireland) to continue his studies. Having been ordained, he returned to the Hen Ogledd 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 Rome and then Ravenna. He came to Brittany and settled on the island of Rhuys,[1] 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 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.[2] 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.

The spring of St. Gildas in Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, Morbihan

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 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.

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 Armagh 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.

Spring of St Gildas, Magoar, Brittany

Further traditions

A strongly held tradition in North Wales places the beheading of Gildas' brother Huail ap Caw at Ruthin, 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 Celyn on the north coast of Gwynedd together with the territory of land in the north-east corner of Anglesey.

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 Iona.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

Gildas' principal work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious. The only substantial source for post-Roman British history, it is of great value to the study of this period of history. 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. He describes the doings of the Romans and the Groans of the Britons, in which the Britons make one last request for military aid from the departed Roman military. He excoriates his fellow Britons for their sins, while at the same time lauding heroes such as Aurelius Ambrosius, whom he is the first to describe as a leader of the resistance to the Saxons. He mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, in later texts attributed to King Arthur, though he is unclear as to the identity of the leader.

Part two consists of a condemnation of five British kings, Constantine, Aurelius Conanus, Vortiporius, Cuneglas, and Maelgwn. As it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Part three is a similar attack on the clergy of the time.

See also


  1. ^ It is now joined to the mainland as a peninsula.
  2. ^ Compare ship burial.


External links

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

St. Gildas, or Gildas Sapiens (died c. 570), was a British churchman and writer. His sermon De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain) includes the only significant historical narrative written in Britain in the 5th or 6th centuries. The translations used here have been taken from Wikisource

De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain)

  • [Descriptio Britanniae] Campis late pansis collibusque amoeno situ locatis, praepollenti culturae aptis, montibus alternandis animalium pastibus maxime covenientibus, quorum diversorum colorum flores humanis gressibus pulsati non indecentem ceu picturam eisdem imprimebant, electa veluti sponsa monilibus diversis ornata, fontibus lucidis crebris undis niveas veluti glareas pellentibus, pernitidisque rivis leni murmure serpentibus ipsorumque in ripis accubantibus suavis soporis pignus praetendentibus, et lacubus frigidum aquae torrentem vivae exundantibus irrigua.
    • Translation: [Description of Britain] Its plains are spacious, its hills are pleasantly situated, adapted for superior tillage, and its mountains are admirably calculated for the alternate pasturage of cattle, where flowers of various colours, trodden by the feet of man, give it the appearance of a lovely picture. It is decked, like a man's chosen bride, with divers jewels, with lucid fountains and abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands; with transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs, and offering a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks, whilst it is irrigated by abundant lakes, which pour forth cool torrents of refreshing water.
    • Section 3
  • Et tacens vetustos immanium tyrannorum annos, qui in aliis longe positis regionibus vulgati sunt, it ut Porphyrius rabidus orientalis adversus ecclesiam canis dementiae suae ac vanitatis stilo hoc etiam adnecteret: "Britannia", inquiens, "fertilis provincia tyrannorum".
    • Translation: I shall also pass over the bygone times of our cruel tyrants, whose notoriety was spread over to far distant countries; so that Porphyry, that dog who in the east was always so fierce against the church, in his mad and vain style added this also, that "Britain is a land fertile in tyrants."
    • Section 4
    • Gildas's quotation is in fact from St. Jerome's Epistula 133.9.
  • Interea glaciali figore rigenti insulae et velut longiore terrarum secessu soli visibili non proximae verus ille non de firmamento solum temporali sed de summa etiam caelorum arce tempora cuncta excedente universo orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens, tempore, ut scimus, summo Tiberii Caesaris, quo absque ullo impedimento delatoribus militum eiusdem, radios suos primum indulget, id est sua praecepta, Christus.
    • Translation: Meanwhile these islands, stiff with cold and frost, and in a distant region of the world, remote from the visible sun, received the beams of light, that is, the holy precepts of Christ, the true Sun, showing to the whole world his splendour, not only from the temporal firmament, but from the height of heaven, which surpasses every thing temporal, at the latter part, as we know, of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, by whom his religion was propagated without impediment, and death threatened to those who interfered with its professors.
    • Section 8
  • Interea non cessant uncinata nudorum tela, quibus miserrimi cives de muris tracti solo allidebantur.
    • Translation: Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground.
    • Section 19
    • Gildas here describes post-Roman Britons on Hadrian's Wall defending it against the Scots and Picts below. This bizarre image, familiar to students of British history for generations, is belied by a more recent translation which runs, "Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground." (Michael Winterbottom (trans.) Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works (1978) p. 23).
  • Igitur rursum miserae mittentes epistolas reliquiae ad Agitium Romanae potestatis virum, hoc modo loquentes: "Agitio ter consuli gemitus Britannorum"; et post pauca querentes: "repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur".
    • Translation: Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—"To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons". And again a little further, thus:—"The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned".
    • Section 20
    • These "Groans of the Britons" were sent to the Roman military leader Flavius Aetius in Gaul, in response to the invasion of Britain by the Angles and Saxons.
  • Tum erumpens grex catulorum de cubili laeanae barbarae, tribus, ut lingua eius exprimitur, cyulis, nostra longis navibus.
    • Translation: A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in their ships of war.
    • Section 23


  • Gildas's On the Ruin of Britain is not an attempt at a reasoned account of his times: it is...a brilliant vitriolic diatribe on the wickedness of all things British and the virtue of all things Roman. It is a sermon, obscure, learned and immensely difficult to read, almost as though the writer's pen were choked with the fury of his words.
  • Considering the avowed purpose of his work, which is rather hortatory than historical, we are fortunate indeed to be given so much first-hand information by this embittered preacher.
  • Prae aliis itaque Britanniae scriptoribus, solus mihi Gildas...imitabilis esse videtur.
    • Translation: Of all the British writers he seems to me to be the only one worth copying.
    • Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Cambriae (The Description of Wales), First Preface (1194); translation from Gerald of Wales (trans. Lewis Thorpe) The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales (1978) p. 214.

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