Gildas Badonicus, Gildas Sapiens, Gildas the Wise
Born: c. 500, Scotland
Died: 570, Brittany
This saint who lived in the sixth century, was a Romano-British monk, historian, and theologian. He is considered one of the early Celtic saints and is renowned for his writings and his role as a moral authority during a tumultuous period in British history.
Born around the year 500, Gildas is believed to have come from a noble family in the region of Strathclyde, which is now a part of modern-day Scotland. He was educated in monastic schools and later became a monk himself.
Gildas is best known for his work titled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, meaning “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain,” written around the mid-6th century. This work is a historical and theological account that provides insight into the social, political, and religious situation in Britain during that time.
De Excidio, written probably between AD 516 and 547, is 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 Caninus, Maelgwn of Gwynedd, and Vortipore of Dyfed) for their tyranny and lechery.
Gildas is called the “wisest of Britons” in the Annales Cambriae (“Annals of Wales”), and he was revered by the Irish and Welsh as a saint. He appears in Welsh legend as the son of Caw, one of twenty 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 Abbot 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.