Today is the feast day of St Gildas — also known as Gildas the Wise or Gildas Sapiens — a 6th-century British monk best known for his scathing religious polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Saxons. He is one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the period after the Romans had left when Celts and Anglo-Saxons were battling for control of territory, and was renowned for his Biblical knowledge and literary style. In his later life, he emigrated to Brittany where he founded a monastery known as St. Gildas de Rhuys.
Differing versions of the life of Gildas exist, but they agree that he was born in what is now Scotland on the banks of the River Clyde, and that he was the son of a royal family. However, these works were written in the 9th and 12th centuries and are regarded by scholars as historically inaccurate. Gildas is now thought to have been born further south. In his own work, he claims to have been born the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon. He was educated at a monastic center, possibly Cor Tewdws under St. Illtud, where he chose to forsake his royal heritage and embrace monasticism. He became a renowned teacher, converting many to Christianity and founding numerous churches and monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland. He is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Rome before emigrating to Brittany, where he took on the life of a hermit. However, his life of solitude was short-lived, and pupils soon sought him out and begged him to teach them. He eventually founded a monastery for these students at Rhuys, where he wrote De Excidio Britanniae, criticising British rulers and exhorting them to put off their sins and embrace true Christian faith. He is thought to have died at Rhuys, and was buried there.
The first life of St. Gildas was written in the 9th century by an unnamed monk at the monastery which Gildas founded in Rhuys in Brittany. According to this account, Gildas was the son of Caunus, king of Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic-speaking region of northern Britain. He had four brothers; his brother Cuillum ascended to the throne on the death of his father, but the rest became monks. Gildas was sent as a child to the College of Theodosius (Cor Tewdws) in Glamorgan, under the care of St. Illtud, and was a companion of St. Sampson and St. Paul of Léon. His master St. Illtud loved him and taught him with special zeal. He was supposed to be educated in liberal arts and divine scripture, but elected to study only holy doctrine, and to forsake his noble birth in favor of a religious life.
After completing his studies under St. Illtud, Gildas went to Ireland where he was ordained as a priest. He returned to his native lands in 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 Ainmericus, high king of Ireland (Ainmuire mac Sétnai, 566–569), to restore order to the church in Ireland, which had altogether lost the Christian faith. Gildas obeyed the king’s summons and traveled all over the island, converting the inhabitants, building churches, and establishing monasteries. He then traveled to Rome and Ravenna where he performed many miracles, including slaying a dragon while in Rome. Intending to return to Britain, he instead settled on the Isle of Houat off Brittany where he led a solitary, austere life. At around this time, he also preached to Nonnita, the mother of Saint David, while she was pregnant with the saint.
He was eventually sought out by those who wished to study under him, and was entreated to establish a monastery in Brittany. He built an oratory on the bank of the River Blavetum (River Blavet), today known as St. Gildas de Rhuys. Fragments of letters that he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere than the Rule written by Saint David. Ten years after leaving Britain, he wrote an epistolary book in which he reproved five of the British kings. He died at Rhuys on 29th January 570, and his body was placed on a boat and allowed to drift, according to his wishes. Three months later, on 11th May, men from Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact. They took the body back to Rhuys and buried it there.
The second life of St. Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan, a friend of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons. Llancarfan’s work is most probably historically inaccurate, as his hagiographies tend towards the fictitious, rather than the strictly historical. Llancarfan’s life of Gildas was written in the 12th century, and includes many elements of what have come to be known as pseudo-histories, involving king Arthur, Guinevere, and Glastonbury Abbey, leading to the general opinion that this “life” is less historically accurate than the earlier version. For example, according to the dates in the Annales Cambriae, Gildas would have been a contemporary of king Arthur: however, Gildas’ own work never mentions Arthur by name, even though he gives a history of the Britons, and states that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, in which Arthur is supposed to have vanquished the Saxons.
In the Llancarfan life, St. Gildas was the son of Nau, king of Scotia. Nau had 24 sons, all victorious warriors. Gildas studied literature as a youth, before leaving his homeland for Gaul, where he studied for seven years. When he returned, he brought back an extensive library with him, and was sought after as a master teacher. He became the most renowned teacher in all of the three kingdoms of Britain. Gildas was a subject of king Arthur, whom he loved and desired to obey. However, his 23 brothers were always rising up against their rightful king, and his eldest brother, Hueil, would submit to no rightful high king, not even Arthur. Hueil would often swoop down from Scotland to fight battles and carry off spoils, and during one of these raids, Hueil was pursued and killed by king Arthur. When news of his brother’s death reached Gildas in Ireland, he was greatly grieved, but was able to forgive Arthur, and pray for the salvation of his soul. Gildas then travelled to Britain, where he met Arthur face to face, and kissed him as he prayed for forgiveness, and Arthur accepted penance for killing Gildas’ brother.
After this, Gildas taught at the school of St. Cadoc, before retiring to a secret island for seven years. Pirates from the Orkney Islands came and sacked his island, carrying off goods and his friends as slaves. In distress, he left the island, and went to Glastonbury, then ruled by Melvas, king of the ‘Summer Country’ (Gwlad yr Haf, Somerset). Gildas intervened between Arthur and Melvas, who had abducted and raped Arthur’s wife Guinevere and brought her to his stronghold at Glastonbury. Arthur soon arrived to besiege him, but, the peacemaking saint persuaded Melvas 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, in the floor of St. Mary’s Church.
Gildas is best known for his polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which recounts the post-Roman history of Britain, and is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near-contemporary. The work is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious. The first part consists of Gildas’ explanation for his work and a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest under the Principate to Gildas’ time. He describes the doings of the Romans and the Groans of the Britons, in which the Britons make one last request for military aid from the departed Roman military. He excoriates his fellow Britons for their sins, while at the same time lauding heroes such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he is the first to describe as a leader of the resistance to the Saxons. He mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, a feat attributed to King Arthur in later texts, though Gildas is unclear as to who led the battle. Part two consists of a condemnation of five British kings, Constantine, Aurelius Conanus, Vortiporius, Cuneglas, and Maelgwn. As it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Part three is a similar attack on the clergy of the time. De Excidio is usually dated to the 540s, but a handful of historians prefer earlier dates.
Gildas’ relics were venerated in the abbey which he founded in Rhuys, until the 10th century, when they were removed to Berry. In the 18th century, they were said to be moved to the cathedral at Vannes and then hidden during the French Revolution. The various relics survived the revolution and have all since been returned to Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys where they are visible at various times of the year at a dedicated “treasury” in the village. The body of Saint Gildas (minus the pieces incorporated into various reliquaries) is buried behind the altar in the church of Saint Gildas de Rhuys.
The gold and silver covered relics of Saint Gildas include:
A reliquary head containing parts of the saint’s skull
An arm reliquary containing bone pieces, topped with a blessing hand
A reliquary femur and knee
The embroidered miter supposedly worn by Gildas is also kept with these relics. Gildas is the patron saint of several churches and monasteries in Brittany.
Gildas is credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a prayer for deliverance from evil, which contains specimens of Hiberno-Latin.
I thought a humble Breton recipe might suit a Celtic saint who spent his final years in Brittany, and since there are no recipes from the 6th century, this one for Breton marriage soup is much more recent, but could actually be from any era. The mixture of milk, garlic, and onions, is actually being touted these days as something of a cure-all – befitting a saint also.
Breton Marriage Soup
1 tbsp butter
1 onion, peeled and thinly
1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 quart whole milk
stale bread, sliced thin
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and brown it. Add the sliced onions and sauté them until browned. Add the garlic and sauté until it is softened. Pour in the milk, and add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Pour the soup over thin slices of bread in deep bowls and serve.