Gildas was a 6th century British saint primarily known for his writing of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, the only partially historical work that has survived from early 6th century Britain. He would have been for part of his life a contemporary of Arthur, if an historical Arthur existed during the period traditionally allocated to him.
There are two extant Lives of Saint Gildas which barely agree on anything. This suggests to some that two entirely different figures of the period have been confused with one another.
Life of Saint Gildas by the Monk of Ruys
A Life of Saint Gildas was produced by an unknown monk of Ruys, possibly in the 9th century.
According to this account, Gildas was son of a god-fearing king named Caunus who ruled in Alclud in what is now Scotland. Caunus had five sons:
- 1.) Cuillum (Hueil), a great fighter, who succeeded to his father’s throne;
- 2.) Mailocus (Maeliog/Meilyg), who abandoned his father, and renounced his inheritance. He came to “Luyhes”, in the district of “Elmail” and there built a monastery in which he dwelt;
- 3.) Egreas, who also renounced his inheritance and who with his brother Alleccus and their sister Peteova, a virgin, built three oratories in a remote part of the country, near to one another, where they spent their lives;
- 4.) Alleccus, whose story has already been told;
- 5.) Gildas, who was educated by St. Illtyd, and surpassed all his fellow students in piety, even Samson and Paul. Samson was afterward Archbishop of the Bretons, while Paul presided as bishop over the Church of the Oxismi.
The island on which Illtyd had his school is small and very barren. Gildas urges that Illtyd pray that the island be enlarged and made more fertile. Illtyd so prays and his prayer is answered. The island is Llanilltud. Illtyd plants grain and his students protect the grain from birds.
Gildas later goes to Ireland for further education and training. Then, hearing that paganism and heresy are rife in the north of Britain, Gildas goes there and confutes the pagans and heretics, performing many miracles. Saint Brigid sends to Gildas asking for a token of his holiness and Gildas makes a bell and sends it to her.
King Ainmericus of Ireland asks Gildas to aid in restoring the Church in that country. Gildas goes to Ireland, heals a man stricken with palsy, and successfully restores the Irish church and builds many monasteries.
Gildas goes to Rome, where he heals a man afflicted with dropsy and destroys a dragon by prayer alone. Gildas heals a blind and dumb man in Ravenna and temporarily renders thieves who attack him unable to move.
Gildas settles at Ruys in Llydaw and now lives a solitary life until people begin to flock to him. From a deserted fort Gildas creates a monastery and he heals many people.
Gildas then builds a small oratory on the bank of the river Blavetum, causes a spring to gush forth, and miraculously brings forth glass from a rock. A mill which Gildas created still heals Christians. Gildas changes water into wine.
Ten years after leaving Britain, Gildas writes his “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae”.
Conomar, king of the region, has the custom of killing his wives when they become pregnant. Gildas refuses to have anything to do with Conomar. Conomar now demands that Werocus, King of Vannes, give him his daughter Trifina as his wife. Werocus at first refuses to do this, but when pressed, insists that he will do so only if Conomar will obtain Gildas to act as surety of his daughter’s life. Gildas, at last agrees. The marriage goes forth. But when the woman becomes pregnant, Conomar feels the urge to slay her, but fights against it for fear of Gildas. Trifina, seeing from Conomar’s attitude that he is ready to slay her, flees for her life. Conomar follows after, finds Trifina hiding under some leaves, and beheads her.
Hearing of this, Werocus comes to Gildas and blames him. Gildas thereupon seeks for Conomar in his fort, but Conomar, fearing Gildas, will not allow him entry. Gildas tosses a clod of dirt into the fort and the fort collapses. The Gildas comes to the corpse of Trefina, places her head on her body, restores her to life, and gives her back to her father Werocus. But Tefina does not wish to leave Gildas. So Gildas promises that after her child is born, she may become a nun. Trefina gives birth to a son whom she names Gildas and then becomes a nun. The son later becomes a saint, known as Trechmorus to distinguish him from his father.
Gildas miraculously removes a pool around which bandits used to linger. Gildas creates a river to mark the boundary between his monastery and the monastery of Mount Coetlann.
Gildas dies at Rhuys on January 29, and his body, according to his wishes, is placed on a boat and allowed to drift. Three months later, on May 11, men from Rhuys find the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact. They take the body back to Rhuys and bury it there.
Miracles, attributable to Gildas, occur after his death.
Life of Saint Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan
The Life of Saint Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan around 1130–1150.
Caradoc relates that Gildas is son of King Nau of Scotia who had twenty-four sons, all good fighters. Gildas is one of these. Gildas is a diligent student, and upon reaching manhood, goes to Gaul to further his studies.
After seven years, Gildas returns to Britain and becomes renowned as a preacher. In the days of King Trifinus, Gildas preaches every Lord's day in his church by the sea-shore, in the district of Pepidiauc. But one day, no words come forth. Wanting to know if this supernatural impediment comes from one of the people, he asks them to leave the church. They do so. But still Gildas cannot preach. Gildas then asks if anyone is hiding in the church. The voice of Nonnita answers him. She is hiding between the doorway and the walls. Gildas asks her to leave and calls the rest of the people back. Gildas can now preach. God afterward reveals to Gildas that Nonnita is pregnant with a child (St. David) who will have far more holy power than he does.
Gildas goes to Ireland where he converts many.
At that time King Arthur rules Britain, but Gildas’ twenty-three brothers are in rebellion against Arthur, especially Gildas' brother Hueil who would often raid Arthur’s kingdom. Arthur at last killed Hueil on the Isle of Man. Caradoc does not give details, but uses the word “murder”. Gildas, in Armagh in Ireland, hears of his brother Hueil’s death and mourns greatly, but still prays for Arthur’s soul. When Gildas returns to Britain, large numbers of the clergy and other folk gather together to reconcile Arthur and Gildas. Gildas, as always, is courteous to his enemy, and each kisses the other. King Arthur accepts the penance imposed by the bishops who are present.
Gildas brings a bell which he has made to the Pope in Rome. But it will not ring. On inquiry by the Pope, Gildas relates how Saint Cadoc had asked for that bell, but Gildas had refused it to him. The Pope suggest that the bell be given to Cadoc, which Gildas does on his return to Britain. Thereupon the bell will ring again.
Cadoc, the Abbot of Nancarban, asks Gildas to run his school for a year. During this time, Gildas copies a gospel, which is highly esteemed.
On the island of Echin Gildas lives alone for seven years. He founds an oratory. God provides a stream for him. But one day pirates from the Orkneys raid the island, take Gildas’ servants captive and take all Gildas’ possessions. Gildas then goes to Glastonia at the time when King Melvas is reigning in the Summer Country. Gildas is gladly received by the Abbot of Glastonia, and there he writes his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. It is explained that Glastonia means ‘Glassy City’.
King Melvas has abducted King Arthur’s wife Gwenhwyfar and hidden her in Glastonia, which is protected by river, reeds, and marsh. After searching for a year, Arthur discovers where she is, and besieges Glastonia with the armies of Cornubia and Dibneria (Cornwall and Devon). War is averted when the Abbot of Glastonia and Gildas advise King Melvas to return Gwenhywfar to Arthur. The two kings then give many domains to the Abbey. The kings reconcile, promising to obey the Abbot of Glastonia, and never violate that place or any of the adjoining districts.
(This is seen by many as a rationalized version of a tale in which Arthur's queen is abducted by the supernatural ruler of a fantasy glass island.)
Gildas ends his life as a hermit in a small hermitage near Glastonia. His body is buried in Glastonia.
Caradoc then explains that Glastonia was earlier known as Ynisgutrin by the British, ynys meaning ‘island’ and gutrin meaning ‘made of glass’. But after the coming of the English it was renamed Glastigberi from English glass and beri ‘city’.
Gildas in Other Welsh Texts
In the early Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, the sons of Caw, Gildas and 18 of his brothers are named as: 1.) Dirmyg, 2.) Iustig, 3.) Edmyg, 4.) Angawdd, 5.) Goftan, 6.) Celyn, 7.) Conyn, 8.) Mabsant, 9.) Gwyngad, 10.) Llwybyr, 11.) Coch, 12.) Meilyg, 13.) Cynwal, 14.) Ardwyad, 15.) Ergyriad, 16.) Neb, 17.) Gildas, 18.) Calcas, and 19.) Hueil.
In the Welsh romance Gereint son of Erbin, when Cadyrieth points out to Arthur that Gwenhwyfar his wife is alone save for a single maiden, watching the hunt, Arthur orders Cadyrieth to have Gildas son of Caw and all the clerics of the court go with Gwenhywfar to the court.
Some late Welsh texts attribute sons and a daughter to Gildas.
Gildas in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia
In Book 1, chapter 17, Geoffrey writes (as translated by Lewis Thorpe in his History of the Kings of Britain):
... and he Lud ordered it to be called Kaerlud, or Lud’s City, from his own name. As a result a great quarrel arose later on between him and his brother Nennius, who was annoyed that he should want to do away with the name of Troy in his own country. However, since Gildas the historian has dealt with this quarrel at sufficient length, I prefer to omit it, for I do not wish to appear to be spoiling by my homelier style what so distinguished a writer has set out with so much eloquence.
From Book II, chapter 17:
It was Dunvallo Molmutius who established among the Britons the so-called Molmutine Laws which are still famous today among the English. Included among the other things which Gildas of blessed memory wrote about him many years later was this: that it was he who decreed that the temples of the gods and the cities should be so privileged that anyone who escaped to them as a fugitive or when accused of some crime must be pardoned by his accuser when he came out.
And later in Book III, chapter 5:
If anyone wishes to know the full details of the highway code established by Belinus, he must read the Molmutine Laws which the historian Gildas translated from Welsh into Latin, and which King Alfred later rewrote in the English language.
It appears that Geoffrey or a source is of the opinion that the laws of King Alfred were taken from an ancient British law code translated into Latin by Gildas. Geoffrey or his source also claims that the Mercian laws, the laws of Mercia, were in fact mere English versions of the Marcian laws, supposedly written by the British Queen Marcia. Possibly there lies behind this the belief that English law was based on older British law, as probably it was in part, at least in some places.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in Book IV, 20, after giving a full account of how Britain became Christian under his King Lucius, states that a number of Christian holy men were sent to Britain from Rome:
Their names and deeds can be found in the book which Gildas wrote about the deeds of Aurelius Ambrosius. All this Gildas set out in a treatise which is so lucidly written that it seemed to me unnecessary that it should be described a second time in my more homely style.
In Book VI, 13, Geoffrey of Monmouth refers to an account of Gildas concerning St. Germanus and Lupus:
However, the religion of the true faith was restored to them by the preaching of these saintly men. This they made clear almost daily by frequent miracles, for through their agency God performed many wonders which Gildas has described with great literary skill in his treatise.
If these works ever existed, no trace of them has yet been found.
- Writings by Gildas:
- Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. See De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.
- ———, De Paenitentia. In Mommsen, Theodor. (1898). Chronica Minora saec.: IV.V.VI.VII (III), (Bd. 3) (pp. 89–90). Berlin.
- Retrieved from http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/bsb00000825/images/index.html?id=00000825&nativeno=89
- An English translation retrieved http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/gildas_05_intro.htm
- ———, Epstularum Gildae. In Mommsen, Theodor (1898). Chronica Minora saec.: IV.V.VI.VII (III), (Bd. 3) (pp. 86–88). Berlin.
- Retrieved from http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/bsb00000825/images/index.html?id=00000825&nativeno=86
- An English translation retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/gildas_04_letters.htm
- ———, Lorica.
- An English translation retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/gildas_07_intro.htm This is almost certainly not written by Gildas.
- Lives of Gildas:
- Caradoc of Llancarfan. “Vita Gildae”. In Mommsen, Theodor (1898). Chronica Minora saec.: IV.V.VI.VII (III), (Bd. 3) (pp. 107–10). Berlin.
- Retrieved from http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/bsb00000825/images/index.html?id=00000825&nativeno=107
- An English translation retrieved from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/1150-Caradoc-LifeofGildas.html
- Monk of Ruis. “Vita Gildae”. In Mommsen, Theodor (1898). Chronica Minora saec.: IV.V.VI.VII (III), (Bd. 3), (pp. 91–106). Berlin. S
- Retrieved from http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/bsb00000825/images/index.html?id=00000825&nativeno=91
- An English translation retrieved from http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gildas07.html , taken from Two Lives of Gildas by a monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Llancarfan; first published in the Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1899. Facsimile reprint by Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, 1990.
- Caradoc of Llancarfan. “Vita Gildae”. In Mommsen, Theodor (1898). Chronica Minora saec.: IV.V.VI.VII (III), (Bd. 3) (pp. 107–10). Berlin.