The life and work of Gildas can be dated only with much
He was probably committing the views of his main work, 'On the Ruin of Britain',
to writing when he was forty three years old, around the middle of the sixth century (a date
of approximately 540, or just before, is usually accepted), where, he appears to admit,
any detailed knowledge of fifth century British affairs had been lost.
The happenings of a
hundred or more years beforehand had thus been transmitted mostly by rumour and oral
tradition and inevitably were taking on legendary accretions.
De Excidio is a
fierce denunciation of the rulers and churchmen of his day, prefaced by a brief
explanation of how these evils came to be. This preface is the only surviving narrative
history of fifth century Britain. But it was not written as history.
Just enough is known
to make his narrative intelligible: we know two key dates from contemporary Europe, and
isolated detail from other sources, chief among them a collection of historical documents
assembled about AD 800. known by the name of Nennius.
At the beginning of the fifth century Britain had been a Roman province for nearly 400
years, and for 200 years all freeborn Britons had been Roman citizens; there was no more
contrast between 'native' and 'Roman' than there is today between 'Yorkshireman' and
Background to Gildas' world
Society was dominated by a landed nobility, whose splendid country mansions, abundant
in the southern lowlands, were built and furnished on a scale not matched again until the
18th century. The rents that sustained them were drawn from a vigorous agriculture and
industry, whose output was distributed along an intricate road system.
But in the highland
regions of the southwest, of Wales and the North there was little comparable prosperity;
poorer farmers supported no wealthy gentry.
Beyond the frontier, northern border kingdoms (Goutodin and
Alt Clut) were still uneasy
allies of Roman authority, and beyond the Clyde and Forth lived the hostile barbarian Picts, ready allies of the Scots, the late Roman name for the
inhabitants of Ireland, who raided when they could, and had established a number of
colonies on the western coasts of Britain.
This sophisticated civilisation was destroyed
long before Gildas was born.
When he wrote, its realities were fast fading from men's
memories; to Gildas, Romans were again foreigners, their empire a thing of the past. The
Roman empire of the west was mortally wounded in 410, when the western Goths took Rome, though its ghost survived for two
The Goths obtained the right to settle in Roman territory under their own
laws and rulers, with the status of federate allies, in 418. They were the first, but
others soon followed, and when Gildas was young the western empire was divided between
four Germanic kingdoms, in France, Spain, Italy and North Africa.
Roman and German fused;
German kings inherited the centralised authoritarian rule of Rome, and preserved the
property and power of landlords.
The British differed. In 410 the emperor in Italy
instructed them to provide their own defence and government. At first they were
outstandingly successful, and kept their society undamaged for a generation.
A strong sovereign emerged in the 420s and survived for some 30 years. It is not known
whether the original copy, or the near-contemporary copies, of Gildas' own manuscript
named this superbus tyrannus. We presume that one of them did so because Bede,
who drew on this source (in 725 and 731), knew him as Vertigernus or Uuertigernus.
represents a British name Wortigernos; but note that it is a proper if bombastic personal
name (meaning literally "Over-Lord"; a partial analogy is seen in later English
royal personal names like Eadbald, "Happily-Courageous", or Athelstan,
It is neither the man's title, nor does superbus
tyrannus translate it. As Vortigern, he passed
into legend and the early history of Celtic Britain - the archetypal national
mistake-maker, if not betrayer.
Invasion from Ireland and beyond the Forth, which had harassed previous Roman
governments for centuries, was permanently ended; but to curb it he settled German foederati.
Romans, British and Irish called them Saxons, but in truth they were a mixture of Saxons,
Angles, Jutes and Frisians. In later years they became known collectively to themselves as
English (in early Engle-land).
In or about 441 the foederati rebelled. This
seems to have been put down within a few years, but the arrival in 450 of Hengist and
Horsa (not mentioned in the text) stirred things up again. Gildas condenses nearly twenty
years' fighting, which ended with the destruction of a large part of the nobility of
Britain, and the emigration of many of the survivors.
The migration, to northern and
central Gaul, is dated to 460, or a year or two before. At home, renewed resistance was
begun under the leadership of Ambrosius
Aurelianus and continued, traditionally under the leadership of Arthur, for over
thirty years until 'the final victory of our fatherland', after the decisive battle at
Badonicus, probably near modern Bath, in circa 496.
Gildas asserts that the victors maintained orderly government for a generation, but
that in recent years power had passed to regional warlords, whose mutual violence overrode
law and convention and corrupted the church. But the British had won the war. The English
were beaten, though not expelled, and were confined to partitioned reservations, chiefly
in the east.
Yet victory had come too late, at the cost of almost everything that the
victors had striven to protect. Though Britain was 'calm' and 'secure', freed from
'external wars', Roman civilisation was destroyed.
Industry and market agriculture
perished as roads became unsafe; towns that lost their supplies became 'ruinous and
unkempt'; country mansions not built for defence were abandoned to wind and rain. After
more than fifty years of war, peace could not revive a dead society.
The skills of the
builder, the potter, the tool-maker and other crafts were buried with old men who had
trained no apprentices; more important, the rents and taxes that had paid for them could
no longer be collected or paid. The war-lords could compel a self-sufficient agriculture
to maintain their men and horses, but not to rebuild the past.
They maintained their power
throughout Gildas' lifetime; but soon after his death the Anglo-Saxons rebelled again, and
between 570 and 615 permanently subdued most of what is now England.
Missionaries to spread the word
But Gildas did not write in vain. On the contrary, few books have had a more immediate
and far-reaching impact than his. He uttered what tens of thousands felt. His readers did
not reform political society. They opted out. They had a precedent.
Two hundred years
earlier, in the eastern Mediterranean lands, immense numbers had dropped out of a corrupt
society to seek solitary communion with God in the deserts; but their sheer numbers forced
them to form communities and early monasticism was born. Their western imitators had
hitherto aroused little response; apart from the clergy of some cathedrals and a few
high-powered seminaries, Latin monasticism was torpid by AD 500, and had inspired only a
few pioneers in the British Isles when Gildas wrote.
But within ten years monasticism had
become a mass movement, in South Wales, Ireland, and northern Gaul. Its extensive
literature reveres Gildas as its founding father, named more often than any other
individual. Most of this literature is a sickly stew of half-truths, distorted by the
ignorance and bias of medieval pietism.
But there is first hand evidence that reforming
monks were many and popular in South Wales, Ireland and Brittany before the mid-sixth
century plague, rapidly increasing in numbers thereafter; and that Gildas was respected.
In the seventh century the movement spread from Ireland through Northumbria to much of
England, and also to eastern France; in the eighth century, English and Irish missionaries
brought Christianity and monasticism to Germany. In time, many of these houses adopted a
version of the Rule of Benedict of Nursia, and became the nucleus of the later Benedictine
The Life of Gildas
A few notices outline Gildas' life. He was born a northerner, in the kingdom of the
Clyde (Alt Clut), but is
said to have been schooled in South Wales, where he clearly wrote, since it is only the
rulers of Wales and the South West that he denounced by name. In later years he said to
have migrated to St Gildas de Rhuys, in Morbihan, in southern Brittany.
The Welsh Annals enter his death at 570, and report
a visit to Ireland in 565. It is in these more mature years that the Letters
were written. There is contemporary evidence that some concerned Ireland,
and others intervene in the dispute between ascetic extremists and milder
monks which sharpened in the 560s. The 'Penitential' or Monastic Rule
ascribed to him deals with the same problems, and may well be his.
Gildas' reputation stood high among the early monks, but he is less
esteemed by later and modern writers. Historians who have quarried his early
chapters are understandably irritated that he did not provide a clear
narrative with names and dates; and the extraordinary Latin-bias of his main
invective seems tiresome, its purpose irrelevant to other ages. The
narrative is unclear because it was written from oral memory, which is
always defined by the direct limits of people within their own age -
anything outside of living memory takes on a slightly unreal, or legendary
All Gildas understood of the Roman past was that it was orderly; though he knew two
northern walls, he knew nothing of when or why they were built. Oral memory took him back
to the wars and a dateless Vortigern but no further.
But for all its obscurity his
narrative remains our chief guide to the history of Britain between the Romans and the
English. That period shaped the peculiarities of our future.
The mid-fourth century Roman
frontier is still the border between England and Scotland; but behind it, Britain was the
only western province where the newcomers met prolonged resistance. The conflict ended in
There was no fusion between German and Roman; Roman institutions and
language disappeared; the Welsh and the English both perpetuate the languages that their
ancestors had spoken in and before the Roman centuries. The present day consequences of
these divisions are better understood when their origin is known.