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Vita Sancti Gildae (Life of Saint Gildas)

statue of st. gildas

The Chronology of Vita Sancti Gildae

To understand the significance and influence of Vita Sancti Gildae, one must examine the evidence for the year of Gildas’ birth, the date of the Battle of Badon Hill (supposedly the same year as the birth of Gildas), and the date of the writing of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  François Kerlouégan claims that Gildas was born in the middle of the 5th Century AD.  David Dumville places the birth of Gildas c 500.  Nick Higham proposed a composition date for De Excidio between AD 479 and 484.  While Thomas D Sullivan places its composition between 515 and 530.  De Excidio is usually dated to the AD 540s, but the historian Guy Halsall inclines to an “early Gildas” c 490 (almost agreeing with Higham).  Cambridge historian Karen George offers a date range of AD 510–530, which agrees in general with Sullivan.  This does not even take into account the assumption of dates that are assigned to the entries in Annales Cambriae (which have no internal dating system other than consecutively numbered years with an arbitrary date attached to the ‘year one’ entry, thus counting forward from there).  By the Annales account, Gildas died c AD 570.  This death date is regarded by François Kerlouégan “as, at best, traditional”.  It appears obvious that we are dealing with at least two if not three Gildases.  Historically-speaking, three Gildases did exist.  The difficulty is disentangling them.

Three Gildases or One?

Our first Gildas shall be designated “Gildas I”.  He is Gilta(s) or Gildas who was born c AD 425 and died c 512 (writing possibly c 470).  This could be the Gildas to which François Kerlouégan refers, although this would put Badon occurring c 425.  Logically, our second Gildas would be called “Gildas II”.  He is Gildo or Gilda(s) who was born between AD 490 and 516, writing possibly between 540 and 560.  His death was in the AD 560s.  This is Dumville’s Gildas (the generally accepted Gildas), thus putting Badon around AD 490/493/516 (c 500).  Neither of these Gildases fit comfortably into the time-frames suggested by either Nick Higham or Thomas Sullivan for the writing of De Excidio.  Although, “Gildas I” seems closer to being Higham’s Gildas than “Gildas II” does for Sullivan’s (or Karen George’s) Gildas.  Finally, there is a “Gildas III”, known simply as Gildas, who was born AD 545/551 and died after 565 (this would put Badon at c AD 550).  With the existence of the above Gildases, especially Gildas II and Gildas III, this gives rise to two popularly argued-over dates for the Battle of Badon as c AD 500 and c 550.  The name Gildas, in Breton as Gweltaz, does appear to encompass a composite Gildas who is also known as Gildas the Wise (Gildas Sapiens).  He is presented as a 6th-Century AD British monk best known for his scathing religious polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  He is touted as one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the post-Roman period and was supposedly renowned for his Biblical knowledge and literary style.  In his later life, he was said to have emigrated to Brittany where he founded a monastery known as Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys.

Two Versions of Vita Sancti Gildae

Even though two versions of this Vita exist, they both agree that Gildas was born on the banks of the Clyde River in what is now Scotland and that he was the son of royalty.  Although François Kerlouégan believes that Gildas had his origins further south.  In his work, Gildas claims to have been born the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon.  He was educated at the monastic school Cor Tewdws in South Wales under Saint Illtud, where he chose to abandon his royal heritage and adopt monasticism.  Gildas became a renowned teacher, converting many to Christianity and founding churches and monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland.  He is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Rome before emigrating to Brittany, where he became a hermit.  It was soon that pupils sought after him.  They begged Gildas to teach them.  He eventually founded a monastery for these students at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Brittany, where he possibly wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  It is thought that he died at Rhuys and was buried there.  According to Columba Edmonds, the first version of Vita was written by an anonymous monk (at Rhuys) in the 9th Century AD.  The other was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the middle of the 12th Century.  Edmonds goes on to say that multiple historians have attempted to explain the differences in the versions by saying that there were at least two Saints named Gildas.  The “mainstream” opinion is that there was only one Saint Gildas and the discrepancies between the two versions can be accounted for by the fact that they were written several centuries apart.

Gildas’ First Vita

According to Hugh Williams, the First Vita Sancti Gildae was written in the 9th Century AD by an unnamed monk at the monastery which Gildas founded in Rhuys, Brittany.  In this tradition, Gildas is the son of King Caunus (Caw or Cawn) of Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd (Old North), the Brythonic-speaking region of northern Britain.  He had four brothers.  Cuillum, one of his brothers, took the throne on the death of his father.  The remainder of Gildas’ brothers became monks in their own right.  Gildas was sent as a child to the College of Theodosius (Cor Tewdws) in Glamorgan (Gulat Morcantia), under the care of Saint Illtud, and was a companion of Saint Sampson and Saint Paul of León.  His master, Saint Illtud, loved him with great caring and taught him with particular zeal.  It was intended that Gildas study liberal arts and the divine scripture, but he instead elected to concentrate only on the holy doctrine and to abandon his noble birth in favour of monastic life.  That would put this Gildas born either mid to late, or very late 5th Century AD (making him most likely our “Gildas II”).

Upon the completion of his studies with Illtud, Gildas travelled to Ireland where he was consecrated as a priest.  He returned to his native 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 High King Ainmericus of Ireland (Ainmuire mac Sétnai, reigning AD 566–569), to restore order to the church in Ireland, which had altogether lost the Christian faith.  This 6th-Century association with Ireland incorporates some of our Gildas III’s chronology.  This 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 supposedly performed many miracles.  Meaning to return to Britain, he settled on the Isle of Houat near Brittany where he led the life of a hermit.  Around this same time, he is said to have preached to Nonnita, the mother of Saint David (Dewi), while she was pregnant with the saint.  Because the possible range of dates for the birth of Saint Dewi is from AD 462 to 512, that particular event is probably from the life of the earliest Saint Gildas (our “Gildas I”).

Gildas was eventually sought by those who wished to study under him and was asked to establish a monastery in Brittany.  He built an oratory on the bank of the River Blavetum, today known as Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys.  As revealed by fragments of letters that he had written, Gildas composed a Rule for monastic life that was less severe than the Rule written by Saint David.  Gildas is said to have died at Rhuys on 29 January 570, and his body was placed on a boat and allowed to drift, according to his wishes.  A little over three months later, on 11 May, men from Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact.  The body was taken back to Rhuys, where it was buried.  Based on his “death date”, his feast day became 29 January.

The Second Vita Sancti Gildae

Hugh Williams says that the second Vita of Saint Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan, a friend of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons.  However, according to Thomas of Monmouth, Llancarfan’s work contains historical inaccuracies, as he tends toward the fictitious, rather than the historical.  Llancarfan’s Vita Sancti Gildae was written in the 12th Century AD (c 1130), and includes many elements of what are now known as semi-mythical pseudo-histories, involving King Arthur, Guinevere, and Glastonbury Abbey, leading to the opinion that this Vita is less historically accurate than the earlier version by a monk of Rhuys.  For example, according to the dates arbitrarily assigned to the entries in Annales Cambriae, this Gildas (our “Gildas II”) would have been a contemporary of a King Arthur: however, Gildas’ treatise never references Arthur by name, even though Gildas gives a history of the Britons.  Gildas declares that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon, in which Arthur supposedly vanquished the “Saxons”.  This particular “contemporary” Arthur was most likely the Warrior-Saint “Arthur” of Glywyssing: Arthfael/Arthmael/Artmagilus/Arzor, son of Hywel/Hoel(us) Mawr/(The Great) ap Budig/Budic(k) II.  He is seen as a Mid/Southern/South-eastern Welsh Warrior-Saint of the House of Finddu.  Arthfael would have been born AD 482/538/540 (c 520), flourished between 540 and 555, and died AD 552/570/600 (c 574).

In the Llancarfan Vita Sancti Gildae, Saint Gildas was the son of Nau (Naw), king of Scotia.  Nau had 24 sons, all victorious warriors.  As a youth, Gildas studied literature before leaving his homeland for Gaul.  There he studied for seven years.  When he returned, he brought back an extensive library with him and was sought as a master teacher.  This Gildas was a subject of a King Arthur, whom he loved and desired to obey.  However, his 23 brothers were always rebelling against their rightful king, and his eldest brother, Hueil, would submit to no rightful king, not even Arthur.  Hueil would often maraud down from (what is now) Scotland to fight battles and carry off spoils, and during one of these raids, Hueil was pursued and killed by King Arthur.  When Gildas heard the news of his brother’s murder, he was extraordinarily aggrieved.  Gildas did forgive Arthur and prayed for Arthur’s soul’s salvation. Gildas travelled to Britain, where he met Arthur face-to-face.  Arthur accepted penance for killing Gildas’ brother.  This Gildas appears to be a composite of “Gildas II” and “Gildas III” (not surprising, considering that this version of Vita Sancti Gildae was written in the 12th Century AD).  The contemporary “Arthur” to Gildas III is most likely Prince “Arthur” of Dalriada/Dál Riata: Artuir/Arturius mac Áedáin/Aiden mac Gabrain/Gabrán, a North Briton Prince of Dalriada/Dál Riata; born AD 559/560/570s (c 564), and died 590/596/603 (c AD 596).

Gildas taught at the school of Saint Cadoc, before retiring to a secret island for seven years.  Orkney Island pirates arrived and pillaged Gildas’ island.  They carried off items of worth, making his friends and associates into slaves.  In distress, he left the island, and came to Glastonbury, then ruled by King Melwas of the ‘Summer Country’ (Somerset).  Gildas intervened between Kings Arthur and Melwas (the latter had abducted and supposedly raped Arthur’s wife Guinevere, bringing her to his stronghold at Glastonbury).  Arthur soon arrived to besiege Melwas, but, Saint Gildas persuaded Melwas 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, beneath the floor of Saint Mary’s Church.  The earliest surviving occurrence of the “Abduction of Guinevere” episode appears in this Llancarfan Vita.  This abduction is common in later Arthurian literature.  Hueil’s antagonism with Arthur was also a popular subject in mediæval Britain.  He is mentioned as an enemy of Arthur’s in the Welsh prose Culhwch ac Olwen, written early to mid 11th Century AD.  A strongly held tradition in North Wales locates the beheading of Gildas’ brother Hueil at Ruthin.  What is believed to be the execution stone has been preserved in the town square there.

Conclusion

Even though Gildas appears to be a composite figure (of at least two “Gildases”) and his Vita (Life) has two written versions, there exists a basic common framework to his story: Gildas (in Breton as Gweltaz), also known as Gildas the Wise (Gildas Sapiens), was born in what is now Scotland on the banks of the Clyde River (in the district of Arecluta, which took its name from that “Clyde” Clut River), and that he was the son of a royal family.  In his work, Gildas claims to have been born the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon.  He was educated at the monastic school Cor Tewdws in South Wales under Saint Illtud, where he chose to abandon his royal heritage and adopt monasticism.  Gildas became a renowned teacher, converting many to Christianity and founding churches and monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland.  He is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Rome before emigrating to Brittany, where he became a hermit.  Pupils soon sought him out and begged him to teach them.  Eventually, he founded a monastery for students at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Brittany, where he possibly wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  He is said to be one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the post-Roman period and was reportedly renowned for his Biblical knowledge and literary style.  Gildas is thought to have died at Rhuys and was possibly buried there (or he died at Glastonbury, and was buried at the Abbey, beneath the floor of Saint Mary’s Church; or there are two Gildases).

With those basic events in mind, we should take into account the existence of three Gildases and their “entanglement” that contribute various pieces to the Saint to whom we eventually refer as Gildas.  Over time, some of these contributions became part of “Arthuriana”.  They include Gildas being a subject of a King Arthur; Gildas’ eldest brother, Hueil, being pursued and killed by King Arthur; Gildas travelling to Britain, where he met Arthur face to face; Arthur accepting penance for murdering Gildas’ brother; Gildas travelling to Glastonbury, then ruled by King Melwas of the ‘Summer Country’; the intervention of Gildas between King Arthur and King Melwas (the latter had abducted and supposedly raped Arthur’s wife Guinevere); Saint Gildas persuading Melwas to release Guinevere; and the two kings finally making peace.  In particular, the “Arthur” associated with Gildas II would have been the Warrior-Saint Arthfael of Glywyssing.  The contemporary “Arthur” to Gildas III is most likely Prince Artuir mac Áedáin of Dál Riata.  If further analysis and study can be made of the three Gildases and the possible disentanglement of their chronologies, then perhaps some of these pieces of “Arthuriana” can be understood more accurately as well.