Gildas (Breton: Gweltaz; c. 500 – c. 570)[a][b] — also known as
Gildas the Wise or
Gildas Sapiens — was a 6th-century British monk
best known for his scathing religious polemic De Excidio et Conquestu
Britanniae, which recounts the history of the Britons before and
during the coming of the Saxons. He is one of the best-documented
figures of the Christian church in the
British Isles during the
sub-Roman period, and was renowned for his Biblical knowledge and
literary style. In his later life, he emigrated to
Brittany where he
founded a monastery known as St.
Gildas de Rhuys.
1.2 Llancarfan Life:
Gildas and King Arthur
2 De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
2.2 Further traditions
6 Further reading
7 External links
Differing versions of the Life of Saint
Gildas exist, but both agree
that he was born in what is now Scotland on the banks of the River
Clyde, and that he was the son of a royal family. These works were
written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and are regarded by
scholars as unhistorical. He is now thought to have his origins
further south. In his own work, he claims to have been born the
same year as the Battle of Mount Badon. He was educated at a monastic
Cor Tewdws under St. Illtud, where he chose to
forsake his royal heritage and embrace monasticism. He became a
renowned teacher, converting many to
Christianity and founding
numerous churches and monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland. He
is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Rome before emigrating to
Brittany, where he took on the life of a hermit. However, his life of
solitude was short-lived, and pupils soon sought him out and begged
him to teach them. He eventually founded a monastery for these
students at Rhuys, where he wrote De Excidio Britanniae, criticising
British rulers and exhorting them to put off their sins and embrace
true Christian faith. He is thought to have died at Rhuys, and was
There are two different historical versions of the life of Gildas, the
first written by an anonymous monk in the 9th century, and the other
written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the middle of the 12th century.
Some historians have attempted to explain the differences in the
versions by saying that there were two saints named Gildas, but the
more general opinion is that there was only one St.
Gildas and that
the discrepancies between the two versions can be accounted for by the
fact that they were written several centuries apart. The 9th
Rhuys Life is generally accepted as being more accurate.
The spring of St.
Gildas in Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, Morbihan
The First Life of St.
Gildas was written by an unnamed monk at the
Gildas founded in Rhuys,
Brittany in the 9th
century. According to this tradition,
Gildas is the son of Caunus,
Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic-speaking region of
northern Britain. He had four brothers; his brother Cuillum ascended
to the throne on the death of his father, but the rest became monks in
their own right.
Gildas was sent as a child to the College of
Theodosius (Cor Tewdws) in Glamorgan, under the care of St. Illtud,
and was a companion of St. Sampson and St. Paul of Léon. His master
Illtud loved him tenderly and taught him with special zeal. He was
supposed to be educated in liberal arts and divine scripture, but
elected to study only holy doctrine, and to forsake his noble birth in
favour of a religious life.
After completing his studies under St. Illtud,
Gildas went to Ireland
where he was ordained as a priest. He returned to his native lands in
northern Britain where he acted as a missionary, preaching to the
pagan people and converting many of them to Christianity. He was then
asked by Ainmericus, high king of Ireland (Ainmuire mac Sétnai,
566–569), to restore order to the church in Ireland, which had
altogether lost the Christian faith.
Gildas obeyed the king's summons
and travelled all over the island, converting the inhabitants,
building churches, and establishing monasteries. He then travelled to
Rome and Ravenna where he performed many miracles, including slaying a
dragon while in Rome. Intending to return to Britain, he instead
settled on the Isle of
Brittany where he led a solitary,
austere life. At around this time, he also preached to Nonnita, the
mother of Saint David, while she was pregnant with the saint.
He was eventually sought out by those who wished to study under him,
and was entreated to establish a monastery in Brittany. He built an
oratory on the bank of the River Blavetum (River Blavet), today known
Gildas de Rhuys. Fragments of letters that he wrote reveal that
he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere
than the Rule written by Saint David. 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 570, and his body was placed on
a boat and allowed to drift, according to his wishes. Three months
later, on 11 May, men from
Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the
Gildas still intact. They took the body back to
buried it there.
Gildas and King Arthur
The second "Life" of St.
Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan,
a friend of
Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons. However,
Llancarfan's work is most probably historically inaccurate, as his
hagiographies tend towards the fictitious, rather than the strictly
historical. Llancarfan's "Life" was written in the 12th century,
and includes many elements of what have come to be known as mythical
pseudo-histories, involving King Arthur, Guinevere, and Glastonbury
Abbey, leading to the general opinion that this "life" is less
historically accurate than the earlier version. For example, according
to the dates in the Annales Cambriae,
Gildas would have been a
contemporary of King Arthur: however, Gildas' work never mentions
Arthur by name, even though he gives a history of the Britons, and
states that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill,
in which Arthur is supposed to have vanquished the Saxons.
In the Llancarfan Life, St.
Gildas was the son of Nau, king of Scotia.
Nau had 24 sons, all victorious warriors.
Gildas studied literature as
a youth, before leaving his homeland for Gaul, where he studied for
seven years. When he returned, he brought back an extensive library
with him, and was sought after as a master teacher. He became the most
renowned teacher in all of the three kingdoms of Britain.
Gildas was a
subject of the mythical King Arthur, whom he loved and desired to
obey. However, his 23 brothers were always rising up against their
rightful king, and his eldest brother, Hueil, would submit to no
rightful high king, not even Arthur. Hueil would often swoop down from
Scotland to fight battles and carry off spoils, and during one of
these raids, Hueil was pursued and killed by King Arthur. When news of
his brother's murder reached
Gildas in Ireland, he was greatly
grieved, but was able to forgive Arthur, and pray for the salvation of
Gildas then travelled to Britain, where he met Arthur face
to face, and kissed him as he prayed for forgiveness, and Arthur
accepted penance for murdering Gildas' brother.
Gildas taught at the school of St. Cadoc, before retiring
to a secret island for seven years. Pirates from the Orkney Islands
came and sacked his island, carrying off goods and his friends as
slaves. In distress, he left the island, and came to Glastonbury, then
ruled by Melvas, King of the 'Summer Country' (Gwlad yr Haf,
Gildas intervened between
King Arthur and Melvas, who had
abducted and raped Arthur's wife
Guinevere and brought her to his
stronghold at Glastonbury. Arthur soon arrived to besiege him, but,
the peacemaking saint persuaded Melvas to release
Guinevere and the
two kings made peace. Then desiring to live a hermit's life, Gildas
built a hermitage devoted to the
Trinity on the banks of the river at
Glastonbury. He died, and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, in the
floor of St. Mary's Church.
The Llancarfan Life contains the earliest surviving appearance of the
Guinevere episode, common in later Arthurian literature.
Huail's enmity with Arthur was also apparently a popular subject in
medieval Britain: he is mentioned as an enemy of Arthur's in the Welsh
prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100. A strongly held
North Wales places the beheading of Gildas' brother Huail
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 in the north-east corner of Anglesey.
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
Main article: De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
Gildas is best known for his polemic De Excidio et Conquestu
Britanniae, which recounts the sub-Roman history of Britain, and which
is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a
The work is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his
contemporaries, both secular and religious. 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 Ambrosius
Aurelianus, 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, a feat attributed to
King Arthur in later texts,
Gildas is unclear as to who led the battle.
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.
The works of Gildas, including the Excidio, can be found in volume 69
of the Patrologia Latina.
De Excidio is usually dated to the 540s, but the historian Guy Halsall
inclines to an "early Gildas" c. 490. Cambridge historian Karen
George offers a date range of c. 510–530 AD.
Spring of St Gildas, Magoar, Brittany
Gildas' relics were venerated in the abbey which he founded in Rhuys,
until the 10th century, when they were removed to Berry. In the 18th
century, they were said to be moved to the cathedral at Vannes and
then hidden during the French Revolution. The various relics survived
the revolution and have all since been returned to
Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys where they are visible at various times of the
year at a dedicated "treasury" in the village. The body of Saint
Gildas (minus the pieces incorporated into various reliquaries) is
buried behind the altar in the church of Saint
Gildas de Rhuys.
The gold and silver covered relics of Saint
A reliquary head containing parts of the saints skull 
An arm reliquary containing bone pieces, topped with a blessing hand
A reliquary femur and knee 
The embroidered mitre supposedly worn by
Gildas is also kept with
Gildas is the patron saint of several churches and
monasteries in Brittany, and his feast day is celebrated on 29
Gildas is credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a
prayer for deliverance from evil, which contains 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.
Iolo Morganwg adds Saint Cenydd
to the list.
David Dumville suggests that
Gildas was the teacher of
Finnian of Moville, who in turn was the teacher of St.
^ The composition of De excidio has been dated to between 479 and 484
by Nick Higham, and between 515 and 530 by Thomas D. Sullivan.
This gives a birth date for
Gildas around the middle of the fifth
David Dumville places it later at c. 500.
^ The date of
Gildas death is taken from the Annales Cambriae, this is
regarded by François Kerlouégan "as, at best, traditional".
^ Higham. English Conquest:
Gildas and Britain in the fifth century.
p. i and p. 141
^ Sullivan. De excidio of Gildas: its authenticity and date. p. 171
^ a b Kerlouégan.
Gildas in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
^ Dumville. The chronology of De Excidio Britanniae pp. 61–84
^ Kerlouégan, "Gildas"; Williams, "Gildas"
^ a b Edmonds, Columba. "St. Gildas." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol.
6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 26 Jan. 2013
^ Williams, Hugh. "The Life of
Gildas by the Monk of Ruys". Two Lives
Gildas by a monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Llancarfan. Retrieved 18
Gildas the Wise", Catholic News Agency
^ Compare ship burial.
^ Williams, Hugh. "The Life of
Caradoc of Llancarfan ca.
1130–1150". Two Lives of
Gildas by a monk of Ruys and Caradoc of
Llancarfan. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
^ Thomas of Monmouth; Rubin, Miri (2014). The Life and Passion of
William of Norwich. New York: Penguin Classics. pp. xii.
^ Butler, Rev. Alban, "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other
Principal Saints", Vol. I, D. & J. Sadlier, & Company, 1864
^ Halsall, Guy (2013). Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the
Dark Ages. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 54.
^ George, Karen, Gildas's De excidio Britonum and the early British
church, Studies in Celtic History 26, Boydell Press, 2009, p. 125.
^ a b c d e http://pourmenadenn-e-ruiz.fr/tresor.php
Dumville, David N. (1984). "The Chronology of De Excido Britanniae,
Book 1". In Dumville, David; Lapidge, Michael. Gildas: New Approaches.
Martlesham: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-403-4.
Giles, John Allen, ed. (1841), The Works of
Gildas and Nennius,
London: James Bohn — English translation
Giles, John Allen, ed. (1847), History of the Ancient Britons, II
(Second ed.), Oxford: W. Baxter (published 1854) — in Latin
Higham, N. J. (1994). English Conquest:
Gildas and Britain in the
fifth century. Manchester: Manchester United Press.
Kerlouégan, François (2007). "
Gildas [St Gildas] (fl. 5th–6th
cent.)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University
Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/10718. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
(subscription or UK public library membership required)
Lloyd, John Edward (1911), A History of Wales from the Earliest Times
to the Edwardian Conquest, I (2nd ed.), London: Longmans, Green, and
Co (published 1912)
Miller, Molly. "Bede's use of Gildas." English Historical Review
(1975): 241–261. JSTOR
Sullivan, Thomas D. (1978). De excidio of Gildas: its authenticity and
date. New York: Brill. ISBN 90-04-05793-5.
Williams, Ann (1991). "
Gildas author fl. mid-sixth century". In
Williams, Ann; Smyth, Alfred P.; Kirby, D. P. A Biographical
Dictionary of Dark Age Britain. Seaby. ISBN 1-85264-047-2.
Luca Larpi, Prolegomena to a New Edition of
Gildas Sapiens «De
Excidio Britanniae», Firenze, Sismel – Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2012
(it:Società internazionale per lo studio del Medioevo latino)
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Saint Gildas.
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Gildas
Gildas 1 at Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England
Gildas at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Gildas at Internet Archive
Gildas at Open Library
The Life of
Gildas by A Monk of Rhuys.
The Life of
Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan.
Gildas and The History of the Britons commentary from The Cambridge
History of English and American Literature, Volume 1, 1907–21.
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gildas". Encyclopædia Britannica
(11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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