Gildas · King Arthur · The Arthurian Legend · The Arthurian Tradition · Uncategorized

The Arthurian Tradition: Gildas

You may have noticed that I haven’t written anything in a while. As anyone who follows me on Twitter will undoubtedly be aware (because I went on about it all the time), I handed in my Masters dissertation last month amid a wild whirligig of jubilation, relief and severe sleep-deprivation. Completing that piece of work whilst continuing to slog my guts out at my 9-5 job kept me fairly busy (huge understatement) as I’m sure you’ll understand. Once those two bound copies of 15,000 words of blood, sweat and tears were out of my laptop-clawed hands, I immediately adopted a Byron-esque attitude to living: I poured myself an incredibly stiff drink, gave a manically exuberant laugh, and hopped on a plane to Turkey.

Relaxing in Turkey

Whilst In Turkey I proceeded to drink a lot, eat even more and lounge on a beach glued to my Kindle (reading for pleasure… YESSS!!!) in a state of all-inclusive decadence. In the evening I danced the night away in dubious bars with gloriously debauched company (mostly my relations!). It was wildly fabulous and exhilarating. I returned from Turkey revitalised. And with a slight touch of food poisoning.

Exuberant on Mont St-Michel!

But you can’t keep a good medievalist down! One week later I jumped aboard a ferry to France with my beau. We progressed to Normandy for a family party and to celebrate six wonderful years of being together. More eating, drinking, reading for pleasure and dancing ensued. This time there was also some medieval sightseeing thrown in with a visit to Mont-St-Michel and le Chateau Guillaume le Conquerant (William the Conqueror to you and I) in Caen. I returned from France full of rich cuisine and French wine, and feeling my passion for the medieval being fired up with renewed zest (this was also assisted somewhat by the fact that I read a historical novel about the famous twelfth-century knight, William Marshal, whilst out there, and admittedly fell rather in love with him).

Fossil-hunting in Dorset

I was home for four days before heading off again, this time to a huge country manor in Dorset with friends for Canadian thanksgiving and scrambling around the Dorset coast looking for fossils. Yes, the life of a medievalist/web editor really IS that glamorous. And no, I am not Canadian, but my friend is. And now I find myself free once more to walk down the medieval blog path with you, my dear and patient reader!

Why am I telling you all this? To illustrate the fact that I literally have not had a moment to sit down and write for the past month, and even if I had, the thought of opening up my laptop to write anything made me feel a bit queasy, post-dissertation. But now, I’m ready to resume service as normal. I doubt you’ve been pining for your weekly dose of medieval frivolity à la Bex (although I secretly hope you have), but I’m still sorry anyway, and if I’m honest, I’ve missed my little medieval chats with you.

Anyway, enough about me! You don’t come here to read about me – you want to know about Arthur! Well, here we go then.

In the most recent instalment of the Arthurian Tradition I discussed Y Gododdin – the Welsh poem with roots in the sixth-century that memorialises a band of Scottish warriors, and offers a single tantalisingly brief reference to Arthur. In this month’s episode, I was originally going to look at Nennius, but I’ve decided to slip Gildas in here instead (I like to keep you all on your toes!). Although he doesn’t mention Arthur by name, this monk/historical commentator played a crucial albeit unwitting part in shaping the literary legend of Arthur…

The many lives of Gildas

Gildas was a sixth-century British cleric. There are two medieval Lives of Gildas and depending on which version you read, you get two rather different pictures of the monk’s life…



‘In the ninth century I am a travelling monk…’

The earlier account, written in the ninth century in Rhuys, Brittany, tells how Gildas son of Caw was born in the north of Britain. He moved to a monastic college to begin his education and then to Iren (probably Ireland) to continue his studies, before returning to north Britain to preach to those naughty heathens. St Brigid (d. 524) asked Gildas for a token so he made her a bell. As you do. After these high-jinks he then travelled around a bit before settling in Rhuys, where he built a monastery and lived out his days preaching and writing epistles about kings that he didn’t like very much. When he died his body was placed in a boat and set adrift according to his wishes. Just a floating corpse; not set aflame or anything. Imagine being the person to find a boat containing a decomposing monk… which someone actually did (the HORROR!!) – his boat washed up a few months later and was found by some men from Rhuys. They did the sensible thing and took his body back to Rhuys and buried it there. Gildas’ corpsified wandering days were over.

Did Gildas’ bell look like this??


‘…but in the twelfth century I am SUPERGILDAS!’

The other book, however, depicts Gildas as a sort of monk-cum-Arthurian action hero. It seems like the writer of the twelfth-century biography, Caradoc of Llancarfan, read the earlier book and said ‘Oh ho! I think we can do better than that!’ and essentially pimped the Life of Gildas. The twelfth-century version has Gildas educated in Gaul before settling near Glastonbury… all normal enough so far, if ever-so-slightly at odds with the ninth-century version of events… but then things get a little bit more exciting when Guinevere and Arthur arrive on the scene! That’s right, no floating corpses here!

According to Caradoc’s biography of Gildas, King Melwas abducted Queen Guinevere and Arthur then proceeded to throw a massive wobbly. He stormed over to Melwas’ stronghold in Glastonbury with his knights, ready to attack. It was all getting a bit intense… until Gildas stepped in and saved the day! He happened to be in the neighbourhood and persuaded Melwas to release Guinevere, before unbelievably managing to make the two kings kiss and make up. They probably all went for a beer and a good chortle about it all afterwards. As an interesting aside, this is the first recorded instance of the Guinevere abduction scene, a plot which becomes a recurring motif in subsequent redactions of the Arthurian stories. So a highly imaginative biography of a monk has helped to shape the legend of Arthur as we know it today. Who’d have thought! There is also something in this version about Gildas’ brothers rising up against Arthur, and one of them being killed, and Gildas being rather upset about this. Apparently the large stone in Ruthin town square (north Wales) is the chopping block that was used when Arthur decapitated Gildas’ brother. It’s still there, you can go and see it!

Caradoc’s twelfth-century account of Gildas’ was clearly influenced by the Anglo-Norman enthusiasm for Arthuriana, prompted by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum BritanniaeandVita Merlini (if they’d had Twitter in the twelfth century, Arthur would have been trending all over the place). However, there may actually be a grain of truth somewhere in there, because if the dates given by the Annales Cambriae for events in Arthur’s life are correct, then he and Gildas would have been contemporaries, both living in the first half of the sixth century. Arthur was said to have fallen in the Battle of Camlann in 537. So who knows, Gildas and Arthur may have crossed paths…

(Note: I realise I’m bandying about the names of a lot of texts around here that you may not be familiar with, but don’t worry, they’re all going to have their own instalment of The Arthurian Tradition dedicated to them, so all should become clear with time!)

So that’s Gildas. Now what about this text of his?

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. Cheery title, isn’t it? This Latin text comprises largely of Gildas venting his spleen about, in his unequivocal words, ‘the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.’* Don’t mince your words, Gildas. He gives a brief account of Britain’s history from the Romans to his present day, describing the Roman abandonment of Britain, how the Britons pleaded for military aid, were rejected and how everything subsequently went to pot (see my previous post on Y Gododdin for more on this period). Gildas is generous with his blame, laying it at the door of contemporary kings, clergy, and his fellow Britons more generally for the state of the country. His complaint is written in the form of an epistle in three parts. Because it’s pretty much the only text written by a near-contemporary of events, and because Gildas goes into as much scathing detail about the victims of his enmity as Heat magazine does about Jennifer Aniston’s love life, the De Excidio is one of the most important historical sources for that time, giving us more detail about sub-Roman Britain than practically any other written document.

The Romans leave Britain

According to Gildas the Romans tell the Britons that they ‘should valiantly protect their country, their property, wives and children, and, what is dearer than these, their liberty and lives.’ They then proceed to bugger off back to Rome. They come back a few times when the Britons plead for aid, but a funny thing happens – the Britons kill the Romans after they’ve helped out, each time. Ah, those crazy Britons! This happens a few times before the Romans get wise to it. The Romans say ‘sod this for a game of soldiers!’ and then ‘left the island, destitute as it was of wine and oil, and returned to Italy’ never to help the Britons again. (And here we really see the reason for the Romans leaving – it wasn’t that the Visigoths were sacking Rome, it was the fact that they missed the Mediterranean lifestyle and produce.)

The country goes to pot

Without the Romans there to keep them in line, the whole country goes batpoop crazy. The Britons are complete nutcases. Foreign powers notice this and realise Britain is an easy target without the might of Rome to defend it. They start invading, and even worse, the natives turn on each other to save their own skins: ‘The enemy…pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbrued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase.’

Gildas is particularly scathing of Vortigern, the British king and ‘proud tyrant’ who makes it into several redactions of the Arthurian legend (usually in terms of trying to build a tower and not having much luck until a young Merlin gives him some advice… but that’s for another blog post). Vortigern is said to have invited the Saxons to British shores in order to defend Britain from attacks by the Picts, but by doing so opened the floodgates onto a force that he couldn’t control, as the Anglo-Saxons eventually took over the whole show. Everyone is fighting with everyone else, and the land is in chaos. Gildas paints an ugly picture of Britain at this time:

‘Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds.’

Basically it’s all going to hell in a handbasket. Gildas fears God’s retribution upon such a bunch of useless sinners:

“If God’s peculiar people were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this, our age…?”

And it is this question that sets the scene for all subsequent retellings of the Arthurian tale. Cue deep-voiced film trailer voiceover: Britain – a country abandoned and torn apart by its own people, ravaged by invaders from beyond her shores. All seems lost… until a hero emerges, someone to unite the fragmented shards of the British spirit and save them all from the darkness… that man is… Ambrosius Aurelianus!

…Ambrosius WHO??

Your eyes do not deceive you. You read the above correctly. It is not Arthur.

According to Gildas the man of the hour was someone called Ambrosius.

Ambrosius Aurelianus gives the people hope

According to Gildas, Ambrosius was a Roman who led the British to victory against the invaders:

‘…the poor remnants of our nation…that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.’

Does he sound familiar? Perhaps a little like the King Arthur that we know so well, especially in terms of his ability to unite men under his banner and lead them to victory against insurmountable odds? Interesting. The personage of Ambrosius has since often been implicitly conflated with that of Arthur – a recent example is Clive Owen’s Romano-British Arthur character in the film King Arthur (2004). If we consider the reference from Y Gododdin that implies that Arthur is a superlative warrior, we can see the potential for similarity and how this blending of the two men might have occurred organically. There is also some confusion as to which of the two was responsible for the British victory against the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon – the battle at which the expansion of the invaders was halted… for a time, at least.

De Excidio heightens the sense of urgent need for the existence of such a hero, known by whatever name, by depicting the bleak times suffered by the Britons. Ambrosius is one of the only names mentioned by Gildas in a positive sense, suggesting that the monk felt he was of incredible importance.

A portrait of Britain

Personally, I find De Excidio incredibly moving. Gildas clearly loves his country, and mourns the state it is in. His descriptions of Britain are passionate and beautiful:

‘It is decked, like a man’s chosen bride, with divers jewels, with lucid fountains and abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands; with transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs, and offering a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks, whilst it is irrigated by abundant lakes, which pour forth cool torrents of refreshing water.’

His vision of Britain complements subsequent legends of Arthur: the king who is just as inherent a part of British cultural heritage as Stonehenge is a part of the landscape, the notion of that golden era, now lost, but perhaps attainable once again if we strive hard enough and follow the examples set by the likes of Ambrosius-Arthur.He has become a shining light in the dark times, a pseudo-legendary figure, and subsequently a legend for all ages.


* Full text of Gildas (English trans.) available from Project Gutenberg:

4 thoughts on “The Arthurian Tradition: Gildas

  1. Enjoying your posts on Arthurian traditions. So Gildas only mentions Ambrosius? Never Arthur? Interesting. I became interested in Arthur years ago, after seeing John Boorman’s Excalibur (still love that movie). Read a lot of Arthurian stuff after that (Goodrich, Mary Stewart, Mallory…). That was all 30 years ago. Now I’m interested in finding some GOOD scholarly books on historical evidence for a real Arthur. (Manuscripts, archaeological, whatever). There’s a lot out there, but not sure what is based on solid research and what is just conjecture. Would you have any suggestions? I know there is no definitive proof, but are there any books on evidence can be taken seriously? Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your comment, I’m really glad you’re enjoying the series! Your timing is uncanny, as I’m actually working on the next post as we speak – Nennius’ Historia Brittonum.

    There are lots of excellent and reputable Arthurian scholars out there who’ve done good work on the origins and evolution of the Arthurian story and all its related facets. A good place to start might be with something like ‘The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend,’
    edited by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, or WRJ Barron’s edited collection ‘The Arthur of the English.’ The bibliographies of both should provide you with ideas of what to read next to pursue your own personal research interests.

    It’s a difficult task, unravelling over a millenium of storytelling – layer upon layer has been added to what appears to be a very minimalist beginning indeed. I very much doubt we’ll ever really get to the bottom of it all, but personally that’s part of why I find Arthur and his legends so captivating! 🙂

  3. When I was doing my thesis, I was guided to several sources on Arthur’s historicity. Modern scholarship begins with Rachel Bromwich “Concepts of Arthur”, SC 9/10 (1976) and ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’ (1991), which she edited and contains an essay by Charles-Edwards. David Dumville is still prominent in the field, “sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (1977). Oliver Padel has also written a significant article, “The Nature of Arthur”, CMCS (1994)

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