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Post-Roman Britain

Introduction to Gildas

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999

The life and work of Gildas can be dated only with much uncertainty.

He was probably committing to parchment the views of his main work, De Excidio Brittaniae (translated from Latin as On the Ruin of Britain), when he was forty-three years old, around the middle of the sixth century (a date of approximately AD 540, or just before, is usually accepted).

In it he appears to admit that any detailed knowledge of fifth century British affairs had already been been lost. The events of a hundred or more years beforehand must therefore have been transmitted largely through dusty memory and whatever oral tradition remained, and inevitably they 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 - trying to piece together those half-remembered, poorly-detailed events of a hundred years beforehand. 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know two key dates from contemporary Europe, and isolated detail from other sources, chief among them a collection of historical documents which was assembled about AD 800.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 four hundred years, and for two hundred years all freeborn Britons had been Roman citizens; there was no more contrast between 'native' and 'Roman' than there is today between 'Yorkshireman' and 'Englishman'.

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 eighteenth century. The rents which sustained them were drawn from a vigorous agriculture and industry, whose output was distributed along an intricate road system.

Romano-Britons burying treasure
With discord building in the country between about 420-450, many Romano-Britons left in a hurry, burying their wealth in the hope that they could return in better times to collect it

But in the highland regions of the south-west, of Wales, and in the north, there was little comparable prosperity; poorer farmers supported no wealthy gentry.

Beyond the frontier, northern border kingdoms (Guotodin and Alt Clut) were still uneasy allies of Roman authority, and beyond the Clyde and Forth lived the hostile Picts, ready allies of the Scotti, 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 generations. By then Britain had already expelled what remained of it.

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.

Ruling Britain

A strong sovereign emerged in the 420s and survived for some thirty 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.

This 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, 'noble-stone, royal-jewel').

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 in the country.

Romans, Britons, and the 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 Angle-land).

Map of Britain AD 500-550
This map of Britain between around AD 500-550 shows the most probable route of migration for Angles of the Midlands, westwards from the East Anglian coast

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 of fighting, which ends 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 confrontation at Mons Badonicus, probably near modern Bath, 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. Although Britain was 'calm' and 'secure', freed from 'external wars', Roman civilisation was destroyed.

Industry and market agriculture perished as roads became unsafe; towns which lost their supplies became 'ruinous and unkempt'; country mansions which had not been 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 importantly, the rents and taxes which had paid for them could no longer be collected or paid. The warlords 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 from 570 onwards they permanently subdued most of what is now England.

Missionaries to spread the word

But Gildas did not write in vain. On the contrary, few works 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.

Sub-Roman cavalry commander

For all their campaigning against the invading Germanic groups in the fifth century, the victorious Britons still couldn't save their Romanised way of life - their world had simply changed too much, too quickly for it to survive

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 early monastic houses adopted a version of the Rule of Benedict of Nursia, and became the nucleus of the later Benedictine Order.

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 whom he denounced by name. In later years he said to have migrated to St Gildas de Rhuys, in Morbihan, 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 by Gildas. 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 which is ascribed to him deals with the same problems, and may well be his.

Medieval monasticism
Apart from a few examples, 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 of his writing, monasticism had become a mass movement

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 air.

All Gildas understood of the Roman past was that it was orderly; although 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, in the first century AD, Britain was the only western province in which the Roman newcomers met prolonged resistance. The conflict ended in permanent division between Romanised Britons and the free Britons of the far north.

Later, too, there was no fusion between German and Roman; Roman institutions and language disappeared; the Welsh and the English both perpetuate the languages which 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.



Text copyright © P L Kessler, adapted from various notes. An original feature for the History Files.