Saint Gildas

A Welsh cleric or monk who lived c. 500-570. He was born in Strathclyde, he fled the strife that raged in his neighbourhood and went to Wales, where he married. He became a monk only after his wife had died. Saint Gildas was a Romano-British historian working in the traditional Arthurian period, ca 560 AD. Brewer gives his dates as 493-570 and calls his work “utterly worthless as history, extremely dull, meagre, and obscure”.

He is known as the author of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written probably between AD 516 and 547, considered the earliest “Arthurian” text for the glimpse of post-Roman British history that it provides (Arthur is not mentioned, but Ambrosius and Vortigern appear, as do the battle of Badon). It is the only extant contemporary history of the Celts, and the only contemporary British version of events from the invasion of the Romans to his own time. Gildas longed for the golden days when Rome ruled Britain, and he lambastes contemporary British rulers (Cuneglas, Constantine of Devon, Aurelius CaninusMaelgwn of Gwynedd, and Vortipore of Dyfed) for their tyranny and lechery.

Gildas is called the “wisest of Britons” in the Annales Cambriae, and he was revered by the Irish and Welsh as a saint. He appears in Welsh legend as the son of Caw, one of 20 brothers, and one of Arthur’s warriors. His Life, written in the early twelfth century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, recounts how “Saint” Gildas’s many brothers resisted Arthur’s reign, but Gildas supported the king. When Gildas was in Ireland he learned that Arthur had killed his brother Hueil. Arthur received Gildas’s forgiveness and performed great penance for the slaying. Later, Gildas and the Abbott of Glastonbury convinced King Melwas of the Summer Region to release Guinevere, whom Melwas had kidnapped.

After Arthur’s death, Gildas apparently went to Brittany and set himself up as a teacher. One of his students was Taliesin. According to the Annales Cambriae, Gildas visited Ireland in 565 and died in 570. In Hughes’ The Misfortunes of Arthur, Gildas laments the state of Britain after Arthur’s death.

The Dream of Rhonabwy calls him Arthur’s counsellor. T.D. O’Sullivan opines that Gildas wrote De Excidio as quite a young man. Later legends makes him a cousin of Arthur, or related to Mordred by marriage, but Gildas makes no mention of this in his writings.