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Gildas

by Brian Edward Rise
Northern monk who lived in the first half of the sixth century. He is the author of De Excidio Britanniae ("On the Ruin of Britain"), usually dated to the 530-40's. For the most part it is a condemnation of British kings and church leaders of his own time. The prelude, however, is an outline of British "history" from the first century onward. His goal is not history but rather a list of the misdeeds of his own people that led to the invasion by the Saxons.

Arthur is not mentioned in this book. Rather, it deals with a set of events that would lead to Arthur's legendary rise as a temporary saviour-figure. Gildas claims the Saxons were invited in as mercenaries against the Picts by a ruling council and a superbus tyrannus ("leading ruler"), possibly a translation of the Briton title "high king." Bede and most later writers assume this personage to be Vortigern.

Gildas tells how the Saxons swarmed into Britain, made excessive demands and then, when the demands were not met, rose up and raided the country, ravaging as far as the western sea. The British counter attacked under Ambrosius Aurelianus and the Saxons withdrew to their recognized settlements. After a period of sporadic warfare, the British are victorious at he seige of Mount Badon aproximately in the year 500. Stability ensues but Gildas goes on to warn his contemporaries that they have forgotten their spectacular deliverance and are slipping into behaviour that does not bode well for the future.

He does not like to name people before his own time. Ambrosius is the only Briton named from the 5th century and no leader or king is named as the victor of Badon. Arthur's crediting with the victory is a later association and Gildas does not shed much light on the subject of Arthurian legend. Broad patterns are all he can be trusted for like the series of events that would have led to the arising of a hero like Arthur.

Gildas becomes a part of Welsh legend himself. In "Culhwch and Olwen," he is found at Arthur's court. Around 1130, Caradoc of Llancarfan composed a "life" of Gildas that claims he had a brother named Hueil that was executed by Arthur as a pirate and rebel. Arthur eventually seeks the pardon of the grief-stricken monk and the two are reconciled. Later, Caradoc claims, Gildas retired to the Glastonbury community. When King Melwas of Somerset abducts Guinevere, he takes her to Glastonbury. Gildas and the abbot negotiate her release after Arthur is unable to recover her. Gildas' connection to Glastonbury is also mentioned by William of Malmesbury and there is a passage in De Excidio hints that he knew of the place. The abduction tale may derive from an older story and the theme, though varying wildly, certainly is a recurrent one in romance.


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