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De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’), is the only surviving complete work of the 5th to 6th century British writer Gildas, indeed almost the only surviving writing by anyone in this place and time. The work is partly intended to be historical, but is mainly a sermon directed against contemporary kings and clergy of south-western Britain, preaching national repentance.

The work is in three parts: the first provides a very sketchy and sometimes inaccurate history down to Gildas’ own day, the second part is a condemnation of the current British rulers, and the third part is a condemnation of the British clergy.

The WorkEdit

The HistoryEdit

Gildas begins by stating that his purpose to “relate the deeds of an indolent and slothful race” which leads into Biblical metaphors for his option of the Britons.

After a short geographic description of Britain, Gildas jumps to the Roman period. Gilas sees the Romans as bringers of peace and British rebellion as an offense against justice. Fortunately the brave Romans put down the rebellion of the cowardly Britons.

The light of Christianity comes to Britain, and then martyrdom under persecution. Gildas mentions St. Alban of Verulam along with Aaron and Julius, citizens of Carlisle.

Then follows the rebellion of Maximus which, according to Gildas, denuded the island of its soldiers. The Scots from the north-west and the Picts from the north begin raiding. The Britons beseech the Romans to help and a legion is dispatched which defeats the raiders. They build a turf wall across the north for protection. (In fact the Antonine turf wall as built between the years 140 and 142. The Romans might have repaired it at this time.)

Again the Britons plead for Roman help and again the Romans return to Britain and again the Romans are victorious against the barbarians. But the Romans say they will return no more, having better things to do than protect the “miserable natives”. The Romans, with funds from contributions, now build a stone wall across the island. (In fact this must be Hadrian’s wall, which was begun in the year 122. Gildas does not know what he is talking about.) The Romans then set up a fortification system of towers on the south coast and then leave forever.

Again the barbarians attack and again the Briton plead for help. But the Roman general Aëtius will not listen. The plundering continues. The Picts for the first time seat themselves on the island. (Gildas apparently imagines his previous Pictish raids to be from some homeland outside of Britain.)

The British Councillors and their superbus tyrannus then seek help from the Saxons, not knowing that a soothsayer among the Saxons has prophesied that the Saxons will rule the land to which they were sailing for three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, will plunder and despoil the isle. The Saxons are victorious against the raiders and more are hired. Eventually there are complaints about pay and provisions and the Saxons revolt. Gildas starts his Biblical metaphors again.

But one British general is triumphant. This is Ambrosius Aurelianus whom Gildas calls the “last of the Romans”. Gildas claims that the descendants of Ambrosius, though far decayed from his power, still successfully battle the Saxons.

Sometimes the Saxons win and sometimes the Britons win, until the battle of Mount Badonicus where the Saxons are decisively defeated, in the very year in which Gildas was born. At least that is what some interpret Gildas to say. But Gildas’ Latin is confusing here and Gildas may be making some other kind of relation between his birth and the battle of Mount Badonicus.

Gildas appears to speak of a period of relative peace of forty-four years and one month. For the governors of the lands, impressed by the unexpectedness of their salvation, governed wisely and well. But now a new generation has arisen who have shaken and subverted the laws of justice.

Condemnation of the KingsEdit

Then Gildas condemns five kings of his own day: Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Conan, Cuneglas, Vortipor, and Maelgwn Gwenydd. It is noted that all are in the southwest of the island, except perhaps Cuneglas. Gildas may simply not know much about the kings of the north of Britain. Gildas also makes no mention of any resurgence of paganism. Seemingly, despite their sins, these kings are conventionally Christian, not pagan or heretics.

Maelgwn Gwenydd appears to be the strongest and most powerful of these kings, but Gildas convicts him of cruelty and sodomy, and of becoming a monk and then turning his back on his vows.

Condemnation of the ClergyEdit

Here, unfortunately, Gildas names no names and gives no details but merely thunders in Biblical metaphors and parallels.

ReferencesEdit

Original Latin Only:Edit

Original Latin and English Translation:Edit

  • Vermaat, Robert (Ed. & trans.) (2005). The Text of Gildas: de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae: (Parts 1 and 2, chapters 1–37). From Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > History > Sources > Gildas.
  • Winterbottom, Michael (Ed. & trans.) (1978). The Ruin of Britain. In History from the Sources, Vol. 7. Chichester: Phillamore.

English Translation Only:Edit

Commentary:Edit

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